Album of the Week: Brenda Ray’s Walatta (2006)

Brenda Ray did it right. Flexing the melodica on the cover a la Augustus Pablo, the British musician gives a clear tribute to a hero who helped pave the way for Jamaican music’s international takeover in the late 20th century.

According to her Bandcamp, Ray “became ‘hooked to the dub’ via Roger Eagle. In between sets at Erics Club (Liverpool), he played the rarest cuts on the planet – dub plates to rockabilly out takes.” Beginning her career in the late 70s, she recorded with friends in a home-made Liverpool studio, releasing dub and pop records under the monikers Naffi and Naffi Sandwich.

Perhaps more fine-tuned than earlier releases, Walatta was recorded between 1993-2005 and acts almost as a greatest hits compilation of that era. Assisted by Roy Cousins (producer for King Tubby and others), for whom she was helping to remaster old reggae/dub tapes, she dubbed vocals, synths, koto and other instruments over some of his classic riddims. The legendary Prince Far I guests on “Sweet Sweet Wine”, though I’m not sure how exactly, since he died in 1983. Scientist, a gargantuan name in dub, appears on “Swirling Hearts”, which is indeed swirling in dubbed-out ecstasy. Anthony Doyley of the reggae band Knowledge assists on “Lend a Helping Hand”, where Brenda Ray harmonizes wonderfully with his voice. Given the personnel involved, there’s no real question as to the authenticity of the project.

Towards the back-half you get a solid cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” (Midnight Cowboy) and the aptly titled “Vision-Dreamin”, which closes the album in a swoosh of drumless magic.

Listen to Walatta here.

Album of the Week: Alton Ellis Sings Rock and Soul (1967)

“Mr. Rocksteady”. “Godfather of Rocksteady”. If you Google Alton Ellis, these are the sobriquets you will see again and again. The rocksteady subgenre of reggae lit a fire in the heart of a million lovers, and the late Ellis is certainly one to thank for this. Recording at producer Coxsone Dodd’s legendary Studio One in Kingston in the 1960s, Ellis was at the forefront of the rocksteady movement, and his first album Sings Rock and Soul is all killer, no filler.

A mix of Jamaican originals and (as the title implies) rock covers, “I’m Still in Love With You” is the album’s most recognizable classic, having been later covered by Marcia Aitken and (much later) Sean Paul. This riddim also served as the backing track for Althea & Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking” and Trinity’s “Three Piece Suit”. Ellis sings the track with confidence and ease. The Beegees ballad “Massachusettes” is given a chill spin, and “Baby Now That I Found You” might be impossible to not sing along to. Later, “Opression” finds Ellis rocking a killer falsetto.

These are all winners, but Ellis’s take on Procol Harum’s signature song “Whiter Shade of Pale” is my favorite track here. The song’s nautical lyrics are well-suited to a Jamaican interpretation, and the organ as filtered through the relatively lo-fi Studio One production sounds so damn good. The track also fades out unexpectedly, which fits the surreal vibe of the song overall. Gold star goes to whoever decided on this cover.

In a late interview, Ellis had this to say on Coxsone Dodd: “He reminds me a lot of Moses. He was doing so much good things but at the end of his days he blasphemed against God… The sin that he committed was getting so carried away with the money aspect of it all. At the end he was completely blinded and mesmerized by the amount of money he was earning and he became a very hard and greedy person.” Jamaican singers were often exploited by producers in this era (as you can see dramatized in the classic movie The Harder They Come), and Ellis was no exception. But Ellis’s success lasted beyond his early years, as he moved to England and found success among a number of Jamaican expats living there. He passed away of cancer in London in 2008. While I haven’t heard other albums by Alton Ellis, this debut is an outstanding collection of rocksteady classics and recommended to anyone with an interest in the genre.

Listen to Sings Rock and Soul here.

Album of the Week: John Holt – 1000 Volts of Holt (1973)

Detail from Trojan Records

John Holt was one of the great songwriters in Reggae, and you are probably familiar with his work whether you’ve heard his name or not. As a teen in 1967 he wrote “The Tide Is High” for his vocal group The Paragons, which was more famously covered by Blondie 13 years later (“I’m gonna be your nuuuumber oooone…”). Destined to be covered, the young Holt went solo in 1970 and recorded many cover songs himself.

“The best selling single artist Trojan album of all time” according to the monumental label (whose compilation albums include a mind-blowing collection of some of the best rocksteady, dub and dancehall reggae ever), 1000 Volts of Holt is comprised of all cover songs. Lushly orchestrated in Jamiaca, Holt tackles such diverse artists as The Ronettes (“You Baby”) Kris Kristofferson (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”, a hit in the UK), Jobim (“Girl From Ipanema”) and Roberta Flack (“Killing Me Softly”). Its most genius moment comes halfway through “I’d Love You to Want Me”, when Holt switches up the rhythm mid-chorus to sing the chorus of The Beatles’ “Let It Be”. I live for reggae brilliance like this.

Holt followed up 1000 Volts with 2000, 3000, and yes, 4000 Volts of Holt. Gems are scattered throughout (notably 2000 Volts‘ “I Will” [Beatles], which was sampled heavily on Jay-Z’s “Encore”), but 1000 Volts is the best selection and a very accessible collection for Reggae neophytes and fans alike. If you dislike heavily orchestrated music, these albums might be too saccharine for your taste, but I would recommend them to anyone else. Holt continued a productive music career for many years and passed away in 2014.

Listen to 1000 Volts of Holt on Spotify. Or, if you’re feeling really crazy, check out the super deluxe 4000 Volts of Holt.