jueves, 11 de junio de 2015


Devon Russell was an interesting reggae artist with some mystery to him. He has been loosely active musically over some decades, but wasn't very prolific. He recorded since the late 1960s, first as lead singer in the rocksteady era in the group the Tartans, which included also Cedric Myton (of Congos' fame) and Prince Lincoln Thompson. After this he embarked on his solo career, recording among other things for Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark in the 1970s: reputedly 11 songs that were never released. In the early 1980s he recorded his debut album at Studio One, which had a nice, rootsy feel. He further cooperated occasionally musically with other artists like the Congos, Big Youth, Dr. Alimantado, and - after he relocated to England - Roy Cousins and Zion Train. He died in 1997.

The quality of Russell's solo material at Studio One and elsewhere is evident, as is the strength of his aching, soulful voice. His voice is actually quite unique, but if I must compare, he can vocally be described as a rougher-edged Freddie McGregor with a touch of Sugar Minott. Besides strong originals, Russell did quite some cover tracks of Jamaican roots classics as well as a well-received tribute album ("Darker Than Blue") by him, which covered Curtis Mayfield songs. Russell also sings with a fine falsetto voice at times, then indeed resembling Mayfield's. As part of his somewhat loose and meandering career he also recorded as lead singer with roots harmony quartet Cultural Roots (active since the later 1970s), which many reggae fans may know for the classic album "Hell A Go Pop" (1984).

Russell and Cultural Roots teamed up in the early 1990s. This was in a later stage in their careers, but also in reggae music. In 1990 this album was released, on the Dutch (Maastricht-based) RUNNetherlands label. It was recorded partly at Ariwa records in London, with Mad Professor as engineer.

The year 1990 means: "post-Sleng Teng": i.e. after increased digital influence on reggae: increased drum machines and other programming, pioneered by King Tubby and further elaborated at King Jammy's studio in Waterhouse, Kingston. Not every roots reggae fan digs this digital phase/subgenre too much, and perhaps it is an acquired taste. When Michael/Mykal Rose was interviewed for the 1992 book 'Reggae Island : Jamaican music in the digital age', he said - in response to then digital changes and increased computer programming in music - :"nothing is better than acoustic (or: live band) - sound". I agree, though I also think it overall depends on the musical and rhythmic quality of songs. And on production/arranging. In essence good music of course comes from a good combination of (whatever - even digital) sounds.

This album, "Money, Sex, and Violence", has instrumentally this audibly digital sound, with also programmed drums. This is courtesy of the later famous Firehouse Crew at King Jammy, who were in 1990 early in their career. They started in the late 1980s. In that stage they were still innovative (and experimenting?) with drum machines/programming. The rhythmic structure is still mostly reggae (or early dancehall), but as said with clearly a digital, partly programmed sound. This sound - in vogue in much 1990s reggae - is often okay, and at times quite groovy, but also underwhelming, I find. It sounds to my taste also a bit too sterile, when compared to more "organic" roots. On the plus side it has a mellow feel, on the minus side it has a "too" mellow feel, somewhat like British lovers rock from that time. The latter only instrumentally, not regarding lyrics on this album: these mostly deal with Rastafari-inspired "reality" lyrics (as the album title suggests).

This digital sound can be compared to e.g. the Itals' "Modern Age" album, Ijahman Levi's album from the early 1990s (Ijahman's "Two Double Sex 701" has a very similar sound), or Gregory Isaacs' later work (post-"Rumours", let's say). These largely digital riddims on "Money, Sex, and Violence" are at times a bit unimaginative and generic, and the production could be here and there better. Maybe a louder drum - and bass - in the mix would have added a welcome "edge" to some songs.

Yet the strength of the songs shines through, as does Russell's good singing voice. Combined with this understated 1990s digital reggae sound, it actually creates a kind of original, nice "mellow rootsy" feel.

Russell mostly sings lead here, though not on the (more or less) remake of Cultural Roots' song "Hell A Go Pop" (here called "Revolution Song"), which is okay. The title track "Money, Sex, and Violence" is good and super catchy, while also among the stronger songs are the emotive "Solid As A Rock", the catchy "Mandella Song" (very topical then, as this album was released the same year, 1990, as Mandela's release from prison), and "Roots Man Blues".

Some other songs are good and groovy as well, such as "Jamming Up The Cell Block", and "Blame It On Rasta". Some songs employ a slow dancehall riddim, some to good effect (such as on "Hoot Nanny" or "Bom Dance"), some to weaker effect, in my opinion, such as on the mediocre "Red Bum Ball". The dub of this last song also seems rather unnecessary to me. Also the song "Outlaw" is I think too weak and simple to make much of an impact. The lovers rock-like (one drop-riddimed) tune "It's Not The End" is on the other hand nice enough.

The harmony and backing vocals (by the Cultural Roots) are further good and certainly add vocal quality, though I think they could have been "mixed in" better on some songs.

Most songs thus balance somewhere between nice and good, making this album definitely worth checking out. The production and mixing could have been better on some songs: at times it fails to outweigh the inevitable "stale" effect of a digitalized reggae sound, at times too generic. This effect is probably stronger for listeners accustomed to - or expecting - the 1970s and early-1980s organic, live band roots reggae sound of Devon Russell and Cultural Roots. This album has a different (1990s?) and more digital feel, and sounds maybe a bit too underwhelming. It might just mean that the members of the Firehouse Crew - having then just started - were still "growing" in their artistry. This is however compensated by mostly good and engaging, catchy songs, and good vocals.

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