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V/A - Studio One Kings / Studio One Roots Vol. 3

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Artist: V/A

Album: Studio One Kings / Studio One Roots Vol. 3

Label: Soul Jazz

Review date: Mar. 19, 2008

Sooner or later, you’ll hit the bottom of even the deepest barrel. Soul Jazz has been dipping into one of the most unplumbable for years – the Studio One vaults. Studio One was there at the dawn of reggae, and most of reggae’s early leading lights passed through its doors and sang over its rhythms. Studio One also pioneered the still-extent Jamaican practice of recycling rhythms, an example that the country’s music business has followed by re-recording Studio One’s grooves right up to the present day. But Soul Jazz has concentrated on the old stuff, drawing the line somewhere just past the dawn of dancehall, and turned out 29 thematically organized volumes; dubs, DJs, instrumentals, single artists like Jackie Mittoo and Sugar Minott … you get the idea. By the time compiler Mark Ainley put Studio One Kings and Studio One Roots Vol. 3 together, he’d dug down past the obvious stuff. But before you hit the bottom of the pot, sometimes you get the heartiest, tastiest stew, and some of the material offered here stands up to anything on Studio One Story or Studio One Rockers.

Studio One Roots Vol. 3 is the stronger and more immediate volume. It takes in myriad of styles – classic roots pleas, near-funk grooves, DJ rants, woozy proto-dancehall, dub, Nyabinghi drumming. They’re united by recurrent cultural themes – repatriation, righteous morality, religious devotion, foreswearing violent ways, hanging on for better times, the certainty of God’s wrath – and a heavy-lidded, sometimes heavy-hearted vibe derived from hand-drum rhythms that permeates even the perkiest numbers.

The selection mixes up highly recognizable names like Dillinger and Alton Ellis with utter unknowns like The Dynamic Four and Winston Flames. Flames’ “In a Armagideon” is a textbook study of late-’70s dub production, with echo and filters pulling different elements in and out of the mix before the whole thing disappears in a puff of smoke. The Four’s “Let’s Make Love” must not have looked like a terribly promising proposition when they presented at Studio One’s door; the were given a backing track that probably already sounded old when they sang over it. They sound like a group of country girls in town for the day, angling for a chance to get a first taste of what their parents and aunties and uncles have been telling them to stay away from. But in classic one-hit wonder fashion, they turn circumstances to their favor; the pairing of earnest young ardor in ragged harmony and a raw guitar chop is hard to turn down.

Studio One Kings lacks the diversity and intensity that spice up Roots Vol. 3, but it has some compensatory pleasures. The organizing concept seems a bit threadbare – male singers were hardly the exception in Studio One’s yard. The total absence of DJ-ing and near-dearth of dub mixing force you to dig into the songs themselves for something to savor, and some of them take a while to give up their secrets. But a few ringers – Horace Andy’s stern and soulful “Every Tongue Shall Tell,” Burning Spear’s voice from the wilderness cry “Them a Come” – rope you in.

The record’s sweetest surprises come more than halfway through. A 10-minute long Dylan cover may smack of too much of something that’s supposed to be good for you, but Freddie McGregor’s epic discomix version of “I Shall Be Released,” with its deeply yearning backing vocals and sparingly applied dub effects, is so good that 10:05 seems too short. It’s followed by Freddie McKay’s “Father Will Cut You Out,” which spares not the rod as it prods the listener towards living by the Golden Rule. Can’t say I’d like to live in a country where people try to get such sentiments on the radio on a regular basis, but it’s intriguing to know that such a place existed. Then The Ethiopian (a.k.a. Leonard Dillon, the surviving member of the Ethiopians) delivers “Locust,” in which he seems to sing “Them a locusts feeding a banana fish” over a backing track that’s edited together so sloppily that you could lose your keys in the gaps.

Who needs a rhyming dictionary when you can run the Bible and J.D. Salinger together in one line, or at least make it look like you are? Moments like that make life worth living, and this record worth hearing.

By Bill Meyer

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