February 1st, 2012
Title: The Ruler: 1972-1990
Artist: Gregory Isaacs
Label: VP Records / Roc-A-Fella
Formats: 2-CD + DVD set; LP
Release date: October 24, 2011
Title: Kings Bell
Label: 101 Distribution
Formats: CD; MP3
Release date: December 13, 2011
These two recent reggae releases point to different eras of reggae’s history as a genre: the classic reggae sound made iconic with the success of Bob Marley in the 1970s and the dancehall-influenced sound that began to take over in the 1990s.
The two-CD retrospective of Gregory Isaacs’s career, The Ruler, pays appropriate tribute to the man who many thought was going to be the “new” Bob Marley following Marley’s early demise. Isaacs, known as “Cool Ruler” or “Lonely Lover,” never achieved that level of fame, though he attained international success before his untimely death due to lung cancer in 1989. While the production values and instrumentation change drastically over the course of time, the constant on this compilation is Isaacs’s voice. Milo Miles, writing for the New York Times, once claimed Isaacs had “the most exquisite voice in reggae” and it is well-showcased here. Even in Isaacs’s early recordings, with wavering, occasionally out-of-tune instrumentals that make contemporary ears used to digital editing and Autotune cringe, his silky, clear baritone is a delight. This compilation hits all the high points, including “My Only Lover” (1972), his first international hit “Love is Overdue” (1974), his work with legendary producers Sly & Robbie in the late ’70s and early ‘80s, and “Night Nurse” (1982), arguably Isaacs’s most enduring hit. For Gregory Isaacs fans who may own most of the material already, there is a bonus DVD of Isaacs performing live in 1984. The liner notes, with an essay on Isaacs’s career and commentary on each track, round out the album. While devoted Isaacs fans might not get that much out of the material here, Bob Marley devotees or others who are just discovering “classic” reggae will be delighted, as well as anyone teaching classes on reggae or Jamaican music in general.
Following is the promotional video featuring Isaacs performing in Brixton (from the DVD):
St. Croix-based Midnite are one of those bands that are so prolific you wonder who, besides the artist, keeps up with their releases. Their most recent album of new material, Kings Bell, was their fifth release of 2011 and they’ve already released their first album of 2012. Despite the almost frenetic release schedule, Kings Bell is full of well-produced, weighty tracks that are, like much of their previous work, decidedly message-focused. Vocalist Vaughn Benjamin’s raspy voice almost oozes roots reggae vibes and his staccato, hammer-like delivery brings to mind Caribbean vocalists more familiar to U.S. audiences like Sizzla and Shaggy. While the kind of delivery and the earnestness and devotion to social commentary that runs through Midnite’s music makes some tracks feel pedantic and repetitive, when it works, it works beautifully. The most solid track on the album, “Mongst I&I,” encourages us to “keep good relations” because we’re all one under Jah while also discussing geopolitical problems. The track does all of this all with a relaxed reggae backbeat and a melody that allows the peculiar raspiness and hoarseness of Benjamin’s voice to shine.
Following is the official music video for “Mongst I&I”:
These albums by Gregory Isaacs and Midnite offer glimpses into different points of reggae history and while both, particularly Kings Bell, have weak spots, they are certainly worth owning if you’re a reggae fan.
Reviewed by David Lewis
Review Genre(s): Reggae