Monday, May 23, 2011

Record Club: The Congos - Heart of the Congos (1977)

The Congos - Heart of the Congos (1977)


The Congos was the reggae vocal trio of Cedric Myton, Ryodel Johnson, and Watty Burnett, and Heart of the Congos was their debut album, recorded and produced by the legendary Lee "Scratch" Perry at his Black Ark studio. The album is justifiably considered a classic of the genre, built on the gorgeous multi-layered vocal harmonies of the singers and some of Perry's very best production work. Perry was known for an energetic, eclectic sound (especially on his albums with his studio band the Upsetters) but on Heart of the Congos he sympathetically tailors his production to the much more low-key and spiritual vibes of the Congos. The production is still rich and remarkably detailed — one need only listen to the albums the Congos later made without Perry to hear how much depth he brought to these songs — but it never overwhelms the group's lovely vocals.

The first track, "Fisherman," immediately establishes the signature sound of this disc. The music slowly churns and skates along, with drums occasionally rolling and cresting like waves, while Cedric Myton's pure, high falsetto (the most distinctive sound of the group) glides above the guitar. Perry augments the stripped-down groove with chiming bells and percussive accents, along with an occasional piercing sound effect, but the emphasis remains on the vocals. The contrast between Myton's falsetto and the more moderate tenor of Johnson is the essential sound of the Congos, with Burnett's husky baritone periodically joining in for an even more dramatic contrast. Burnett was brought into the Congos by Perry for this session, and when his deep tones unexpectedly enter for a verse towards the end of this first song, the effect is startling, a sudden drop from Myton's high, soaring tones to this rich low-register drone.

On the second track, "Congoman," Perry's production is even more basic: a simple and repetitive drum figure provides a constant percussive base for the harmonies that the vocalists weave through and around this foundation. The music has hints of African chanting and tribal rhythms in both the vocals and the drums, and the effect is haunting and melancholy, suggesting dense jungles and mysterious darkness. The opening seconds of the song provide a perfect example of Perry's production genius: that simple beat kicks in immediately, and it will scarcely change over the course of the track's 6+ minutes, but a mere 20 seconds in the beat suddenly drops out and the vocals, sounding eerie and distant, introduce the song's lyrical and melodic theme before a dubby wash ushers the beat back in. Such little touches, like this slight variation from the song's solid foundation, are the mark of Perry's clever, detail-oriented production style.

There's a lot of variety on this album, even while it sticks close to the general territory of soulful, spiritual reggae with tastefully subtle production. "Children Crying" backs Johnson's lead vocals with a rich stew of backing vocals, a steady groove, and an odd moaning echo that sounds like a cow's cry. "The Wrong Thing" rides in on a wave of tinkling cymbals, with Myton vocalizing a few playful, wordless beeps right at the start. "Solid Foundation" (the final song on the original album, though the reissues have added at least 2 bonus tracks) is perhaps the best showcase for Myton's falsetto, with his clean high tones answered and overlapped with a chorus of backing vocals. The vocal interplay is very complex: the lead and the backing vocals engage in call-and-response sessions that bleed together until they're layered rather than answering one another.

Although I've picked out a few highlights so far, I could easily keep praising each song individually. The first two songs provide one of the best possible one-two opening salvos, but even more remarkable is that the album doesn't taper off after that. Heart of the Congos is the rare album where every song is a carefully polished gem in itself — the bouncy, deceptively cheery "La La Bam-Bam" (with its lyrics about Biblical betrayals) is probably the only song here that I don't absolutely adore, and even that's a pretty solid song.

Rather than continue to gush, though, one issue I'd like to raise is the album's lyrical content. The lyrics are almost exclusively spiritual and religious, expressions of the musicians' Christian-derived Rastafari faith. One aspect of the album that has often intrigued me is the fire-and-brimstone exultation of eternal punishment for the unfaithful, as expressed especially on the back-to-back songs "Can't Come In" and "Sodom and Gomorrow." Both songs are rooted in exclusionary religious fervor; there's a sense running through both songs that the faithful should celebrate the consignment of the unfaithful to eternal fire. It's the kind of regressive religious idea that has always troubled me, in any context, and it especially produces a lot of cognitive dissonance when it's coupled to an absolutely beautiful song like "Can't Come In," a song that despite its lyrical content I find strangely moving simply for the quality of the voices alone. I'm not saying this is a big problem or anything, by any means. I love this album, and the lyrics are the least significant component of this music in my opinion. It's just something I've often thought of regarding this album, and I wonder if anyone else had any thoughts about some of the lyrical themes.

Heart of the Congos is, to my taste, one of the greatest of all reggae albums. Lee Perry produced a handful of other classic front-to-back albums (by artists like Max Romeo, Junior Byles, the Heptones and Junior Murvin) but as good as those are, I'd argue that this recording's mix of subdued but distinctive production with the unparalleled voices of the Congos constitutes a peak of the genre. The album was not heralded in its time, unfortunately. Perry was in the midst of a dispute with Island Records that prevented a wide release, and the lackluster limited release the album did receive prompted the Congos to break with Perry for subsequent albums. It's a shame, because on their own the Congos never managed to make another statement as sparkling and powerful as this one, and it took many years for Heart of the Congos to be recognized as the masterpiece it is.

I hope some people love this album as much as I do, and I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts. I know some people have a negative perception of reggae, so if there's anyone like that here, did Heart of the Congos change your mind or merely confirm your distaste for the genre? Was anyone inspired to check out more reggae based on this? Or are there some other reggae fans here who probably already know and love this disc? Anyone is welcome to join the discussion, I look forward to hearing from you all!

48 comments:

Troy Olson said...

(Just wanted to post my comments on the album before I head off for work -- I'll join back into the conversation later today and read your post as well, Ed.)


At first I was a bit surprised that Ed chose a reggae album, as his musical tastes (or at least the ones he's made apparent through his blog posts) make it apparent he is a big proponent of experimental/noise/post-"whatever" music. One listen in and I thought that this was good music, but it didn't stand out far beyond everything I assume reggae music is, with all of the standard themes and rhythms that go with it. No doubt I preferred it over having to hear "No Woman No Cry" ever again on the classic rock station, but nothing important stood out to me.

However, after several listens, a few things hit me. First, this doesn't seem at all like something that's as old as I am. Listen to most anything from 1977 and the age of it is apparent. So either reggae music has a more timeless feel to it (I am clueless as to the similarity or differences over the years of the genre), or, as I'm willing to posture, modern music has come around to the point where the style on display here is much more prevalent. All of the arrangements, vocal layering, noises as "instruments", distortion effects, etc. are things that are now farily commonplace in modern music (I can't imagine Animal Collective wasn't directly influenced by this album, as their style is simply too similar to not have been). So, that right there answered both of my previous questions (why did Ed pick this and why is it an album of any importance).

At the same time, the subsequent listens made me actually enjoy the album significantly more. I doubt I'll go out and start a collection of reggae albums, but I can surely see the album making it into my personal listening rotation. I mentioned earlier that I initially thought the songs had a sameness to them, but by my fourth listen it was obvious that each song actually offered something new. I guess there's a similarity with all reggae songs by nature of how the genre is defined, so once you are listening to more than just the dubstyle/reggae backbeat that defines the genre, the uniqueness of each of the songs becomes much more apparent (and again, I go back to Marley here -- someone who I tired of due to the fact that all of his songs, or at least his most popular ones, had a sameness to them).

I'll give thoughts on specific tracks later on after some other's have replied (and after I read Ed's post).

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for listening and commenting, Troy. Your initial reaction is one I was expecting. I feel like a lot of people have a negative impression of reggae, and your mention of Marley is a big reason why. Not that Marley is bad, by any means, but the compilation Legend is so ubiquitous, so overplayed, that he gets a bad rap, and by extension so does all of reggae since he's by far the most famous reggae artist to most people. Marley was far more eclectic and varied than his handful of big songs would suggest, but so few people dig any deeper past those tunes.

I don't think reggae is any more constrictive or inherently limiting than any other genre: it has some basic sounds and stylistic elements that carry across multiple songs, and if you listen at a macro level it may seem like it's all the same. But the same goes for most genres, whether it's reggae or hip-hop or hardcore punk or metal or techno. Those who aren't familiar with those genres often accuse them of sameness. If you listen more deeply you start to notice the ways in which the genre conventions are stretched and elaborated across different songs and different artists. Heart of the Congos is a particularly good example, I think, since each song has a pretty distinct sound even though the album as a whole hangs together so well that it might initially seem like the songs all cover pretty similar territory. But there are significant stylistic differences between the pseudo-African chanting of "Congoman," the rocksteady rhythms of "Children Crying," and the more soul-influenced crooning of "Open Up the Gate" and "Solid Foundation." Perry's production is a big part of that eclecticism: his style was always very varied, and even here, tempered as it is by the need to serve as a foundation to the vocals, there's a great deal of subtle variation from track to track.

To answer your question, I picked this album for a few reasons, firstly because I flat out love it, but also because I thought it was something accessible that a lot of people wouldn't necessarily have heard already. I didn't want to assault you all with some out-there avant-garde music as the first pick. This is by no means an obscure choice, but it's a classic in a genre that a lot of people don't really listen to. It was my real introduction to reggae (other than those Marley hits, of course) and I hoped it might serve the same purpose for a few more people. Anyway, I'm glad the album seems to have grown on you. Your comments on its timelessness are especially interesting to me, since for me it's very much tied to its era, but also transcends it. It's very much a part of the general sound of the late 70s/early 80s Jamaican music scene, but it also, as you say, doesn't sound like it's become outdated. The Animal Collective comparison is a good one: I'm sure they've absorbed a lot of reggae and Caribbean music along with their other influences.

Jamie said...

I've listened to more reggae then I realized when I saw this idea first posted (it's a terrific idea btw an online music club I mean, I'd love to more formally take part in the future) as I started thinking of this Congo's disc (which I did have) and all the other stuff from the era I like.

Ed does open this discussion with not only how I first became aware of this disc but also why I think it's so great— the involvement of Lee 'Scratch' Perry. I, like most rock fans, became aware of him via the Clash connection (they covered 'Police and Thieves' which he liked so he produced their glorious 'Complete Control' single) then eventually started seeking much of his Black Ark stuff.

This disc to me has always been unique because of the vocal harmonies, which are somewhat unique to the genre (from what I've heard anyway). It's like the Beach Boys turned up and made an authentic reggae album, it seems like a natural collision of styles (both essentially laid back summery genres) but it just didn't happen all the time. That's what I initially hear, then yes, the lyrical content. I've always sidestepped the religious content, which now that Ed points out its prevalence over most, if not all of the tracks, I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's my personal feelings about said religion, or what I value or see reggae to be about: revolutionary music to a society or an individual, in this case the religious transcendence just being one avenue for a higher plane. In any event, Ed pointing out that it's a religious message without the 'us vs. them' proposition that I see as so accepting (I also see it as devaluing said faith as well strangely).

Now I typically reach for dub more when I dig into this genre—specifically Mikey Dread— but then I consider 'World War III' to be my favorite album in this vital, worthwhile genre. Regardless, great pick Ed!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Jamie. You're very welcome to participate in the record club, which has an open membership. I should have mentioned this already, but anyone who wants to be included in the emails I send out about the club, send me an email to let me know. The initial members will have priority in picking albums for the first bunch of albums, but down the line anyone who wants to can select an album. And obviously anyone can join the discussions.

The Perry/Clash connection was definitely a big "in" to reggae, at least for punk fans. That connection led directly to Junior Murvin's Police and Thieves, which is another of Perry's great productions. And from there one can follow Perry to his other big albums (stuff like Heart of the Congos, Max Romeo & the Upsetters' War Ina Babylon, the Upsetters' Super Ape). I've always loved the Clash, but oddly enough I don't think it was them who led me to reggae. I don't remember what made me check out Heart of the Congos for the first time, but it was pretty much love at first listen once I did.

Love the Beach Boys comparison, I've always thought the same thing. The vocal harmonies here are definitely something special in reggae - not unprecedented, but definitely one of the better examples of a reggae group crafting such complex, layered vocals.

Like you, I love a lot of the trippy dub stuff. Mikey Dread is cool, I dig his African Anthem. I listen to Perry's Upsetters albums a lot, especially Blackboard Jungle Dub. Also love King Tubby's Dub From the Roots and The Roots of Dub, which have a more laidback, stripped-down feel than the out-there dub of Perry.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Once my morning class is over, I'll be back to comment, Ed.

Jamie said...

Yeah for me it was all the English Rude boys or reggae guys that exposed me to this stuff (besides the obvious Marley hits collection in middle school, and the 'I Shot the Sheriff' Clapton cover I now loath more or less), which is probably why I like the bass drenched dub sound more. Dread's records are so avant-garde, as is much of the stuff like that, and probably most of all it's not really reliant on being 'Jamaican'. The records of Jah Wobble (PiL and post-PiL), The Specials, early UB40, and the Bad Brains all made pretty unbelievably authentic dub music (oh, and obviously the Clash too, as all the stuff on 'Super Black Market Clash' is great).

For more Jamaican stuff I like early Bob Marley (something like his song 'Mr. Brown' is a favorite), King Tubby & The Aggrovators (with Bunny Lee) made great records, and I like some Black Uhuru that I've heard. The Upsetters you name are terrific too from what I've heard.

I also like the early ska stuff, but that's pretty different then The Congo's I think. I like Delroy Wilson, and Desmond Dekker.

_ _ _
I'll have to email you to get on the email list, but I'm having trouble as it automatically opens a mac email which I don't use.

Jake said...

I was both thrilled and apprehensive when you picked this album, Ed, as reggae is really the one major area of music I've never been able to outright enjoy. I admire the hell out of it, especially more outspoken artists like Marcus Garvey and Burning Spear, but even then I've never gotten through a full album at once.

Initially, I had the same problem with this album. It's not that it's bad or that any of the reggae I've heard is bad, just that I find it so lulling that I lose track of time. That has its upside, of course, but it took three listens before I could even distinguish when a song ended or what was going on within a track. And this despite how varied the album can be. Eventually, though, things started to fall into place.

What stands out to me after repeated goes is, first and foremost, the production. I actually downloaded another copy because I wasn't sure if maybe you'd tweaked the MP3s for sound, because it was so crisp despite all the space in the record that I couldn't imagine even a remaster making a '70s album sound that good.

The layering of the album is incredible. Like Troy said, you can practically hear Animal Collective going through the grooves with a fine-toothed comb. But there's also genuine talent here: Myton's falsetto is beautiful, if so dreamy I can't listen to the album while I'm driving.

I don't like the lyrics, though. For all the wonderful interplay between the singers, what they're actually saying is reductive and kind of offensive. I've had run-ins with Rastafarian ideas before, chiefly when I stumbled across Bad Brains' disgusting homophobia. "Can't Come In" and "Sodom and Gomorrow" sound as transporting as the rest of the album, but that's kind of why I find them so distasteful; it's the perverse joy of imagining others condemned that's such a twisted part of religion.

Overall, though, I thought the album was well-made and I might even keep it in my library for a bit. As Troy said, I'm not building a collection off it, but once I really broke through with the album I enjoyed it a lot.

Carson said...

Ed, thanks for this unexpected pick and a wonderful post! I really expected something more experimental from you, but the fact that you went for a classic reggae album is a testament to the expansiveness of your musical taste. And I'm sure that further on down the line we'll get some pretty challenging stuff.

Not that this wasn't challenging, of course. You know, my response was very similar to Troy's. Reggae, for me, has always been a tiring and redundant mode rather than a real musical genre with variation and nuance. As such, my expectations going in were somewhat low, but I wanted to be open to the music. The first listen-through kind of confirmed my beliefs in the genre, sounding rather like an undifferentiated rhythmic drone.

Also, the vague Rastafarian spiritual themes of the genre have always been grating to me. It has always seemed like a genre averse to really being analytical, probing, or openly intellectual. Such is the nature of a kind of music that is more about expressing unapologetically positive vibes all the time. At its worst, the genre just reminds me of stoners who are more interested in losing themselves in an endless jam than really diving emotionally into music.

That said, "Heart of the Congos" has marked somewhat of a transition for me in terms of my relationship to reggae. I know I've probably sounded bitter and a bit unwelcoming towards the genre, but the nature of this conversational exercise has forced me to try to see the merit in it. I can't say I disagree with much of what you say here in your write-up. The sound of this album is lovely and unusually mysterious despite its joyfulness. I like what you say about how it suggests "dense jungles and mysterious darkness". Having just seen Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, that analogy is desirable to me. There's a real core of mysticism to this album that presents itself the more you give yourself over to the long sprawl of pulsating rhythm.

I'll definitely get more into specifics as the conversation continues, but I just wanted to initially get these thoughts circulating. I'm sure this album will grow on me even more throughout the discussion.

Ed Howard said...

Kevin, looking forward to your thoughts.

Jamie, if you're having trouble emailing me, just post your email address here and I'll add you to the list. Good to find another PiL fan here. I think their second album is probably the best, most authentic realization of the dub style outside of Jamaica, and they take it to some very adventurous and unique places as well. It's a masterpiece.

Jake, I'm glad you gave the album a shot despite your conflicted feelings. I totally agree with you about the lyrics of "Can't Come In" and "Sodom and Gomorrow," which to me represent all of the worst sentiments of religion, the worst tendencies of religion to be exclusionary and condemnatory. Elsewhere, the lyrics are vaguely spiritual/religious and espouse a general peace/love vibe, but those two songs have something much nastier at their core. Despite that, I find them pretty amazing as songs, especially "Can't Come In," which is just gorgeous. There's real cognitive dissonance whenever I listen to those songs, but I can't help finding them compelling, like the album as a whole.

Incidentally, I didn't touch the sound on the album when I uploaded it. The remaster of this is wonderful, but a good deal of credit has to go to Perry's production. The guy is a genius, with such control of space and density that it's pretty overwhelming at times. On this album, he holds back a great deal from the chaos and splatter of the wildest Upsetters tracks, leaving plenty of space for all the vocal interplay. For those who dig the sound of this album but are more ambivalent about the lyrics, Perry's mostly instrumental dub work with the Upsetters would be a good place to start. This isn't the first time I've been compelled to mention Blackboard Jungle Dub, and I'm sure it won't be the last. It's right up there as another of my reggae favorites.

Ed Howard said...

Carson, thanks for the comment. As I mentioned in response to Troy earlier, I purposefully didn't want to start off the club with a more experimental pick lest I turn off too many people. I have pretty eclectic taste, though, I like a little bit of everything, to the point where I don't think there's any genre I'd shrug off entirely.

But from the responses so far, it looks like the Congos have turned out to be a curveball of a different sort than if I'd chosen Kevin Drumm or Merzbow. As I suspected, a lot of people have the same idea of reggae as you do, that it's all very samey and has a distasteful hippie/stoner vibe. I'm glad this album and this discussion has made you take another look at the genre. I'm a big reggae fan; it IS a joyful music, and I can see why some see it as simpleminded or averse to intellectual analysis, but there's a lot of emotion and feeling behind the best reggae, a lot of passion and energy, and that's what I value above all in music and art. There's "intellectual" reggae too, though you could be forgiven for not being exposed to it since the popular stuff tends to be in a much lighter vein. But there's a definite tradition of social commentary and political awareness in reggae, akin to the American folk movement of the 60s in many ways, and some of that stuff (Burning Spear, Junior Murvin and Dr. Alimantado jump to mind) can be great as well, in very different ways from the more spiritually inclined Congos. There's a reason reggae was so important to the punks, and that political/social consciousness was a big part of the appeal.

Marilyn said...

Ed - This is certainly an album that held a lot of strange and wonderful colors for me, so different from the Marleys, Peter Tosh, and other better-know reggae performers. As you point out, the layering is complex, sometimes witty, and certainly unexpected. The vocals have a certain R&B quality to them for me, and the album as a whole stands with the continuum of African and African-inspired music. I think it's important to remember that the music arises and is part of the Rastafarian religion - criticizing the lyrics is kind of like criticizing any spiritual that sees its way as the one way. I particularly look at "Fisherman" as a bit of a slam at Christianity. The fishers of men weren't wanted for their religion but the fish they could bring to feed many a hungry African. There is an anger at the white world, and I don't think it's a coincidence that this is the first song of the album. I see a real difference between Jamaican and Ethiopian reggae, the anger level is higher in the former.

Also, it's hard for me to separate this music from dance. I went to a reggae club in Chicago all during my 20s (the club still stands) and found that the "samey" sound others are complaining about to be part and parcel of the ritualistic elements of reggae, and the dance that creates a hypnotic, spiritual experience. There is a part of reggae dance that is called "going wild," and your partner will ask if you will do it because it is very sexual. It is, to me, something of a fertility rite, and a very powerful thing to engage in.

I think all of the reggae bands bring their own personality to the music, and I think the Congos have the most unique style of reggae I have heard to date. Thanks for turning me on to this.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Jake mentioned that he lost track of time while listening to this album, and that he couldn't really distinguish which song was which... And that is precisely why I loved it so much. I am a huge fan of albums that blend tracks together to make the album more of a single entity rather than a collection of singles.

The first two tracks may be one of the best one-two punched I've heard in a long time.

I was reeeeealy surprised by how much I liked this album. More specific and articulate thoughts to come (work is interfering at the moment).

Ed Howard said...

I'm so glad you dug this, Marilyn! You're right on about the R&B feel to the vocals, there are a lot of reggae vocalists who bring soul and R&B influences into the music, with the Congos, Keith Hudson and Dennis Brown being among the best at integrating those styles. I think you're also right that some aspects of this music have to be simply accepted as integral to the genre and the context in which it was made. That's certainly true of the religious lyrics - I don't always like them, and they bother me at least somewhat on the specific songs I've mentioned, but I recognize that the Rastafari faith is an important aspect of so much reggae. I love the feeling behind much religious music even if I don't share the religious feelings of the artists, and for the most part Heart of the Congos does fall into that category for me; it's only on a couple of songs that the specific ideas expressed in the lyrics grate on me.

Your comments on reggae as dance music are much appreciated. As someone who doesn't dance at all, I find that a lot of modern techno music, for example, tends to go over my head, since listening to it outside of the dancefloor tends to lose a lot of the context and social importance of the music. I don't really feel that disconnect with reggae, but the comments on this post so far suggest that some people do have those problems with a lot of reggae. There's a definite social component to it that I certainly don't have any experience with.

Ed Howard said...

Nice, Kevin, I'm so happy this album is prompting such positive responses. Totally agreed about the special greatness of the opening two tracks, which just work so well together. As I commented in my review, the album is interesting to me because it all flows so well together from track to track even though there's actually a lot of variety in the individual songs. It's pretty much perfectly sequenced, I think.

Marilyn said...

Ed - Ha! I remember that the club, a block from Wrigley Field, frequently had lots of young white men in it who sat and got drunk on Guinness, as the Wild Hare was the only place in the area that served it. Only Jamaicans and Ethiopians ever asked me to dance. I used to joke that all the white boys (mostly Catholic) were afraid of their hips.

Over the bandstand hung a picutre of Haile Selassie, so there was no mistake about the relation of the music to the religion, to Jah.

Ed Howard said...

Hahah well, as a Catholic white boy who's afraid of his hips and likes Guinness, I guess you've got me pegged! I love a lot of music that's great for dancing but I've never been any good at it, and really have only ever indulged when I've been drunk enough to be unafraid to spaz out.

Sounds like a rad bar, though.

Marilyn said...

Oh, Ed, sorry... But I have to say I was kind of cute back then, and couldn't figure out why guys from my own culture never wanted to dance with me.

Ed Howard said...

No need to apologize, I'm laughing here. It's no mystery that shy guys are especially afraid to dance with the cute girls.

Jamie said...

Marilyn, I'm happy you mention the dancing aspect of this stuff. It's what makes the repetition both important and coded in it's subculture.

Again, one of my entries into this stuff was the Clash, and I believe in that long essay he wrote in defense of the Clash, Lester Bangs traveled with them to Jamaica (complete with studio time at Black Ark) and there is this long recount of going to a show and smoking joints with this throbbing bass going for hours. It's described in such a fantastic way, and since it's from an outsiders eye it makes explains what would otherwise seem obvious. It's a great way to understand the culture IMHO.

I like the dance aspect of it, which is why I like the ska or dub elements the most.

_ _ _ _
Add me away Ed: james_r_uhler@yahoo.com

thanks

Carson said...

I like what Marilyn points out about the dancing component. Certainly, this is an album that would be a whole lot more powerful and expressive, to me at least, in a live setting with a very enthusiastic crowd. Sitting at my computer with headphones on in the routinely critical mode I usually settle into in the confines of my home doesn't necessarily bode well with the freedom of movement this music obviously encourages. Even lacking that social component though, I think that some of the production ideas, especially in the percussion where Perry throws in a lot of subtle additions to the primary beat, have a way of necessitating bodily motion. As a result, even on a couch I couldn't help but bob my head a bit.

Ed, what you mention about all genres carrying with them a degree of sameness is something I agree with conceptually, but even then reggae strikes me as a particularly repetitive form of music. It almost always utilizes the guitar strokes on the upbeats, which is the fundamental staple of the music and the force that urges the dancing. Of course, this is a very conscious aesthetic choice and a reflection of the propulsive spirit in the lyrics, the ideas of one love and eternal happiness. So I think that because reggae has a tendency to be even more superficially similar than other genres, it often gets that bad rap, that inherent anti-Marleyism.

Furthermore, I am in agreement about some of the lyrics, which is one feature I didn't really focus on while listening to the album. I am very opposed to that exclusivity that is present in some of the religious sentiments, but it's the general expressions of positivity and spirituality that I am able to respond to.

Also, count me as another supporter of this album's one-two punch. "Fisherman", with its infectious melody and Myton's distinctive howl, is easily the best tune on this album, and "Congoman" has a trance-like quality due to all the sustained vocal notes in a low register.

Jamie said...

yeah the Wild Hare is still there... wednesday night $3.50 guiness pints.

Marilyn said...

You sure, Jamie. I heard it was closing May 15 for good.

Ed Howard said...

Jamie, that Lester Bangs essay sounds great, I'll have to seek it out. I've added you to the email list now, BTW.

Carson, you're probably right that reggae is an especially codified genre, at least in comparison to most Western genres. (Though no more codified, I'd say, than examples like hardcore punk or black metal, which is why I cited genres like that earlier.) A lot of non-Western music, especially music with a strong social function, is pretty codified in general, with very strong rules governing particular sounds and styles. Roots reggae like Marley, the Congos, etc. is like that — but not so much dub, which is much more exploratory and avant-garde in its attention to sound and noise.

Jamie said...

Actually upon looking to my Bangs readers I'm mistaken, actually the article is another trip to Jamaica he took (along with a few other Rock writers of the era) to 'announce' Bob Marley to American readers. The article is called Innocents in Babylon: A Search for Jamaica Featuring Bob Marley and a Cast of Thousands

it can be found in the 'Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader'. Or here:

http://books.google.com/books?id=jEeovH2wN9kC&pg=PA259&lpg=PA259&dq=Innocents+in+Babylon:+A+Search+for+Jamaica+Featuring+Bob+Marley+and+a+Cast+of+Thousands&source=bl&ots=Ib9dh6hdQ-&sig=sHxAj1wRu05jrQSmZ8H4y4g_vzk&hl=en&ei=u-HaTe6_FcXEgQf9uZRY&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBoQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Innocents%20in%20Babylon%3A%20A%20Search%20for%20Jamaica%20Featuring%20Bob%20Marley%20and%20a%20Cast%20of%20Thousands&f=false

Troy Olson said...

I apologize for the "all over the place" nature of my comments here, but I'm just writing off the top of my head without taking the time to check/double-check if I'm repeating myself or others...(It's also at this point that I wish blogger allowed for threaded comments).

Back to Ed's initial reply to my comment -- I'm glad you pointed out the poor critique that I alluded to (and as other's have as well) that "it all sounds the same". It's the same line that my wife uses when she's tired of listening to my music and I try (in vain) to explain the nuances of my musical tastes. I think we all know that every musical genre has a "sameness" to it that if you are only listening half-heartedly can make it all blend together, and that only by listening in depth you can determine if there is any resonance to it. It appears that many others went in with similar thoughts and came out with a new appreciation here, so I think you can chalk up a success in opening our eyes to something new here, Ed. Nice job. I'm curious if someone can do a similar thing with other genres that are less in the mainstream as we continue along here.

So it appears that Perry is the mastermind here moreso than the Congos...this actually leads to a possibly interesting discussion on other albums where the producer gets the majority of the credit for making an album great (honestly, I'm in a hurry and nothing pops immediately into my head as an example, but I know enough to know this to be true).

As to other comments that have picqued my interest...

Jamie -- glad you mentioned the Beach Boys comp in your comment -- that fits so perfectly that I'm sad I didn't catch that on my own.

Jake and Carson both seem to have initially similar views to mine, and along with Marilyn they all point out some interesting comments on the Rastafarian themes. My take on it as I listened, and again, perhaps this is my bias of how I perceive reggae music to be, but the theme of the lyrics seem like part and parcel of all songs of the genre (and genres tied to more spiritual tenets are all going to suffer a bit from this). It's actually something I almost ignored as I listened, treating the lyrics as window dressing to the musical aspects of the songs, instead just being swept away in the general aura and sound that the songs provided and not having the lyrics sink in too much. Perhaps that means I gave them short shrift and should listen a bit deeper...

Ed/Marilyn -- your point about reggae and dance music probably hits at why I've had trouble getting into both genres, as I quite simply never got into that scene (blame my upbringing :P). I've slowly gotten in to some dance music over the past few years, but at my age I'm guessing taking part in all of that has passed me by entirely :)

Finally, I'll chime in with my support of the opening duo of songs being a perfect 12-minutes of seamless audio. "Fisherman" would be the one song on the album I can't get out of my head, but I also love "Children Crying" and "Solid Foundation" for the creative sound structures they provide (which can be said of almost all the songs, really, but those two capture it best for me after the first track).

Jake said...

Thanks for the link on that, Jamie. I've read Bangs' amazing piece with The Clash (it's one of the few hero pieces that will actually make you love and respect an icon more after reading it) but I haven't checked out the Jamaica article.

Kevin: I enjoy my share of dreamy music, and I didn't mean to position that as a criticism. It's just hard to tackle the album in specifics when the whole thing runs together. I had to search the lyrics online because I was at the point I really didn't process any of them as it was sung, only the sounds and vibes. And that's when I got the uneasy feeling over some of the more beautiful songs (it reminds me of the gag on Arrested Development about "Afternoon Delight" as characters, more than once, end up singing it because it's so catchy, only to realize what they're actually singing to their own family members).

Ed Howard said...

Troy, I don't want to give *all* the credit to Perry - the Congos themselves have those amazing voices - but he's certainly the mastermind of the album's unique sound. I've listened to a few of the albums the Congos made without him, and they're just nowhere near as good. There are some decent moments on Congo Ashanti, but even when the vocal performances are great, I do miss Perry's distinctive sound. That richness and warmth is missed when a lesser producer is at the helm.

Drew said...

Ed, thanks again for creating the club and hosting this discussion, the comments posted so far have made for some great reading.

My interest was definitely piqued when I saw that you had selected this album. I have an odd relationship with reggae, in that I got into the genre heavily for a short time a handful of years back, and became very attached to a handful of recordings, but for whatever reason my interest became sidetracked and I never got to delve in and explore around different artists like I wanted to. Yet, I hold those few select recordings I became acquainted with very close (among them stuff from Aswad, King Tubby, Tosh, some early Marey) and they all get regular play from me throughout the year.

So that is to say that the impetus to familiarize myself with something new in the genre after so long was more than welcome and remarkably refreshing, and I think I can say unequivocally that I love this album by this point. It seems that most of my broad points of enthusiasm have been broached by now: the absolutely fresh production, Myton's haunting falsetto (I've never heard anything like this in reggae before), and also just a uniquely appealing sense of darkness and mystery which I have also not really come across in my limited exposure to the genre. This album conjures up some particularly powerful and cryptic imagery for me, and that's definitely part of where I find its dark allure to stem from.

And I have no problem being the umpteenth person to chime in with expressed admiration for the stunning combo of the first two opening tracks. I have to say though, my absolute favorite might be track 12, Nicodemus. I just love how after around 3 minutes in the instrumentals completely take over and begin building up and back down, while the harmonies pop in underneath at super low volume to chant the chorus, it is such a striking passage that opens up for me into this very magical and ritualistic sensation.

Sure, it may not always be music that conveniently accommodates an intellectualist approach, but it teems with genuine mood and feeling and humanness, and I get a ton of pleasure losing myself in such an album. I'll definitely be incorporating this into regular rotation from here on out, it's gotten really excited about reggae music again.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for listening and commenting, Drew. Myton's definitely a unique voice, and I like what you say about the album's darkness. It's very moody and emotionally complex despite the generally propulsive feel of the music. I'm glad you mentioned "Nicodemus," too, a bonus track that wasn't on the original album but is on pretty much the same level as the rest of the tracks here. Of the 2 bonus tracks, I prefer "At the Feast" but they're both quite nice.

I'm so happy this album has been received so positively, and I'm surprised there are no real dissenting voices so far. I hope if there are some out there they're not discouraged from chiming in by the lovefest so far.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Ed:

I really like the format of this so far. I am such a neophyte when it comes to actually talking about the music that I am loving just sitting back and reading others' insights. On top of that, this is a genre I have ZERO experience with (unlike the others here, I was never a Marley fan), so was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed the album so much.

I think I misunderstood Jake's comment about the "dreaminess" as a criticism (which he addressed in his last comment) because that's the element of the album I love the most, so I was curious why someone would not like that aspect of the album (thanks for clarifying, Jake).

I've always been a "music trumps lyrics" kind of guy, so I didn't even really care about the lyrics of the album the first 10-12 times I listened to this. I simply enjoyed the melodies and harmonies and the way their album so cooly and seemingly transitions from one song to another. I find that the records I want to continually listen to are those where I can get more into the rhythms and mood of the music rather than the lyrics. I have to be quite honest, I had no idea those two songs you mentioned, Ed, were even remotely religious (except for the obvious title of "Sodom and Gomorrow").

The standout track for me is "Congoman) which is the one I keep coming back to. However, one criticism I have the album is that I have hard time thinking that I'll be coming back to it now that this is over. I may be wrong since I have found myself humming "Fisherman" almost every morning since listening to this album for this project, but considering how music is SO subjective, I just don't know how often this will find its way into my rotation.

That's my problem as much as it is the little problems I may find in the album, but it's there nonetheless. As far as the comments of others here, I am thrilled that this conversation seems to be focused and to the point. I am glad others are listing other artists that remind them of The Congos (or just other great voices/reggae artists) because as I've mentioned already, I have no familiarity with this genre; so, all of the names listed in the comments from people like Marilyn, Jamie, Drew, and Carson are all new to me, and I'll make sure I try and give them a listen.

I know this has been a rambling comment, but I think that this is going to be a lot of fun down the road because it will introduce people to new sounds and stretch their mind and ear like this choice (despite it being less esoteric) did for me. I also want to point out that this comment will not punctuate my feelings about the album. I like what you said when you introduced this whole project in that music grows on people, and it's better to let it marinate for a long period of time (which, if I remember, is why you gave us a month to listen to it). I've always been a music fan who listens to albums (sometimes just one album, hence my lack of knowledge when you all drop names of bands/musicians) for 3-4 month stretches before really forming a solid opinion on it.

All that to say, I might be back with some more comments. Who knows, I may even find myself listening to the album more than I anticipate now that this is over...and that's cool because I'm guessing that's what this whole thing is about.

Kudos, Ed. Sorry for the rambling comment, hehe. I usually have to write in generalities when talking about music.

Carson said...

"I simply enjoyed the melodies and harmonies and the way their album so cooly and seemingly transitions from one song to another."

Thanks for making this comment, Kevin, because it actually reminds me of something I wanted to say on the topic. It's funny that you point out how coolly and seamlessly the songs transition from one to the other, because I think this is a purely psychological effect rather than something actually occurring in the mix of the album, the idea of a lot of the songs kind of gelling together. It turns out there is actually not one song on this album that has a solid cut sonically. Every song fades out, as if the music, and the party, is still continuing on. Then the next song just starts. There aren't any creative techniques (musical segues, studio chatter, etc.) employed to actually sew together the seams of each track, something that I hear more and more in modern day records. So I suppose what I'm saying is that the idea that this music feels like it flows seamlessly together is merely a confirmation of the repetitiveness of the music in general. No?

Ed Howard said...

Kevin, like you I'm a "music trumps lyrics" guy. Bad or silly lyrics can ruin a song for me, and great ones can elevate it, but for the most part I don't pay a lot of attention to what's being said. The sound is what matters most to me. So while the lyrics to a couple of songs here do nag at me, I obviously haven't let that keep me from loving this album a great deal.

One thing I'm curious about: why do you think you won't be returning to the album since you do seem to like it?

Carson, I don't think that's quite right. There's more to the flow of an album than literally stitching songs together so that they are connected. That's a fairly modern conceit in the era of the concept album, but albums still had and have "flow" — talk about an abstract, subjective concept! — even when the songs are totally discrete. I think the sense of flow on Heart of the Congos is down to careful, deliberate sequencing rather than any repetitiveness in the music. Sequencing is not often talked about — and the digital era is constantly threatening to change the nature of the album-as-self-contained-statement — but it's an important art in itself. The flow of this album, from the dark, chant-driven first two songs to the gradually increasing light and soulfulness of the subsequent tracks, is built from the ways in which the songs work together.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Good point, Carson, about the psychological effect there (and, looking at those typos in the line you quoted, for making me realize the dangers of writing a comment while watching TV, hehe).

So I suppose what I'm saying is that the idea that this music feels like it flows seamlessly together is merely a confirmation of the repetitiveness of the music in general. No?

Hmmm. I suppose we can say that as long as we're not using "repetitive" as a negative term. The repetitiveness of the music -- if its part of a motif instead of laziness -- is what makes it endearing to me if not wholly enduring. Like I said, I don't know if I'll revisit this album a ton in the future, but I know that I'm grateful for the experience of thinking that Reggae is something other than what my limited and narrow view of it was. I don't think it's any more repetitive than other bands who are repetitive in their need to "reinvent" or keep listeners on their toes. You can be experimental but be repetitive in that experimentation the same time (for me, lately, Radiohead as struck me as a band that's kind of repetitive but by no means is it "bad").

I like the effect the album has, though, because even if it is repetitive (not derivative, which sounds more negative, but repetitive), it still succeeded in never once making me want to fast forward a track or turn it off midway. Now, one thing I didn't try doing was listening to the album in the car. My commute to work is only about 20 minutes, so I try to stay away from music that I always want to hear within the context of the entire album. I wonder if I would be as enamored with the album in short chunks; I only ever listened to the album as a whole, so that seemless experience was integral to me enjoying the album.

Whether it's The Congos actually doing that on the album or not, I don't know, but I do know that the effect the album created for me worked brilliantly as something that I could drift in and out of and still enjoy. When I was playing the album non-stop at first, I would often leave the room for a few minutes and then come back and just jump right back into the mood and grooves of the album.

I don't think there's anything wrong with that, and I know that may suggest The Congos music as being "simplistic," but really, simple and effective is often the hardest thing to do in music.

I'm reminded of Scorsese's quote about The Thin Red Line when he said something to the extent that the multiple narrators that sound the same and the actors that look the same is kind of the point of the movie; it's a movie where you can come in and out of it at any time and not be lost...it's a timeless film (in the narrative sense). Scorsese, I assume, felt that Malick intentionally made the film that way. There is no beginning and ending per se; it's a film that you can enter into communion and contemplation with at any time.

It's a rather loose analogy, I know, but I felt that way about this album, and I usually find myself liking that type of music the best...music where you can come in and out of at any time and never miss a beat. I didn't get frustrated with the fact that I didn't know track titles or song lyrics. However, if I ever wanted to experience the album outside of that type of setting (say by putting some titles on a playlist) , I would be hard-pressed to find anything outside of the first two tracks that I would want to listen to isolated. I think I prefer the album as a whole.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Part 2:

So, yes, Carson, that was a very roundabout way of saying that I am probably, psychologically, making the album have that effect because of the way I prefer to listen to the album as a whole (and a lot of the time, after a few intent listens, as background music). I don't know if it's anything in particular the musicians are doing, but they have created an album that lends itself to that effect. This mentality will make more sense with my pick next month.

I don't know if we're actually that far apart, Carson. I do agree with you that even though I'm not really big on lyrics, the lyrics of the reggae genre have always struck me as kind of ho-hum, too. Anyone else completely disagree with this notion?

Kevin J. Olson said...

Ed:

I may have answered your question in my response to Carson. I'll try to think of a better way to articulate it if that doesn't make sense. We're talking personal tastes here, and old habits are hard to break. I am enthusiastic about new music when people introduce me to it, but I'm usually someone who is so stuck in my ways that it's hard to keep the album at the top of the playlist when I return to the stuff I really like.

I am not much an eclectic when it comes to music outside of "giving things a shot." My tastes usually, over long period of times, stay the same. New music (meaning new styles of music) are usually diversions for me when I get a little bored with what I usually listen to. I recharge with new kinds of music, and then I'm ready to return to the music I love with a more enriched palette.

Ed Howard said...

Kevin, that makes sense, and yes, your answer to Carson did answer my question. I have very different listening habits, I think. You mentioned listening to an album intently for 3-4 months, and that's something I almost never do. I listen a lot more broadly and, as a result, probably much less deeply to any given album. Over time, I can get pretty well acquainted with the albums that I return to again and again, but it's pretty rare that I have that intense period of listening to one piece of music to the exclusion of all others. I also find that even the albums I love best eventually pale a bit if I listen too often: I like to return to my favorites every once in a while rather than gorging on them.

But everyone's different, which is why I like hearing about other people's listening habits, too. Music is such a personal thing, and everyone interacts with it in different ways.

Jamie said...

is this club going to move in a logical way (i.e. picks piggy backing off one another in strange ways)? Or is it just a free for all?

I know Kevin has the next pick, I can't wait, any clues what it will be? If this is a spoiler that isn't wanted disregard these questions.

Ed Howard said...

Jamie, there will be no logic to the picks, other than whatever the selector wants to recommend and discuss.

Kevin has the next pick, and Carson the one after that, other than that we're trying not to book it too far in advance. Kevin will be announcing his pick soon, it's no secret but I'll let him be the one to announce it first.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Testing

Marilyn said...

I actually enjoy listening to lyrics but have found myself getting out of the habit as more and more artists have sacrificed them to the instruments and sloppy articulation. One of the things I found a little frustrating with "Heart of the Congos" is that I had to look up the lyrics. The vocals were not articulated well enough for me to understand them in their entirety. That's one of the reasons, I think, why Bob Marley became the stand-out reggae artist of his time - you could understand every word he sang and his words gave meaning to music that could have just settled for being danceable/listenable. He set reggae up as a spiritual/political force, and it would not have happened without clearly understandable lyrics.

I find I get a lot more out of songs with words if I can actually understand them as sung. Liz Phair's "Exit to Guyville" hit me like a ton of bricks because she articulated my experience while creating some very compelling music. I might feel more connected to rap, which is supposed to be about the lyrics, if I could actually understand the poetry over the thumping rhythm.

That said, I listen to a lot of world music sung in languages I don't understand. In fact, I'm thinking of choosing an album by Goran Bregovic as my music club selection because I listen to his stuff constantly. So I'm a contradiction. Yes.

Carson said...

Ok, now that Blogger has fixed itself...

"I suppose we can say that as long as we're not using "repetitive" as a negative term."

Yes, this is what I was implying. I mean to say only that I think it's interesting how it can seem like the album musically segues itself when it really just fades away and then restarts. To me, this is proof of a degree of repetition and, yes, cohesion. Ed, I am very aware of the concept of flow and I didn't intend to suggest that "The Heart of the Congos" doesn't have flow, only that its particular flow is more rhythmic than emotional for me.

Kevin, it's funny that you mention both Radiohead and The Thin Red Line in the context of this discussion, because I have focused a lot on both recently. And while I couldn't imagine just popping in and out of Malick's film and reaching the same level of emotional attachment, I do see what you're saying on a theoretical basis about The Congos' album. This is a record that I could walk in and out of the room to and still digest the moods and emotions. It's very inviting in that sense.

Radiohead, on the other hand, is something I need to fully invest myself in. I don't see anything less than careful artistic evolution in their career; certainly there is no repetitiveness to me. The King of Limbs is an absolutely remarkable album as far as I'm concerned, and its particularly brand of moodiness is far more nuanced and diverse than The Congos', which is, once again, not necessarily a bad thing. I think it's merely a byproduct of the The Congos' deliberately lulling and propulsive style.

On the subject of listening habits, I myself am like Kevin. I need to listen over and over to one album before I can really form an opinion on it, and I often do this at the expense of giving any attention to other albums.

Jamie said...

While the artists or albums I adore I do listen to repeatedly (sometimes it's habit as much as anything else) it isn't for the same end result as Kevin and Carson opine about. Rather, after one note, one second, or one song I decide certain things and my mind doesn't need to hear it over and over again to make up my mind. Instead these repeated listens provide an almost 'catalog' of emotions that I recall. Depending on setting, mood, or state the same song can evoke so many different things. The hardest part (or greatest desire) becomes recalling that initial rush you feel when a hear something that you feel is truly special.

Ed Howard said...

Marilyn, though I said I'm a music-over-lyrics guy, there are definitely artists where the lyrics mean a great deal to me and speak to me. In general, though, I don't mind if the lyrics are indecipherable or nothing special, as long as the sound - in terms of the music and the singing - is interesting. It's usually the music that moves me far more than anything a singer is saying. Hip-hop is a good example: I listen to a lot of rap and seldom have any trouble deciphering the lyrics, but there are times when I wish they weren't so clear. What I really love about hip-hop is the production and the ways in which good rappers use their voices as instruments: what matters is the phrasing and the rhythm of the vocals rather than what's being said.

Carson, looking back I think it seemed like I was being condescending in talking about flow and sequencing, and I'm sorry about that, since it certainly wasn't intended. I just meant to say that even though the album doesn't have any musical segues, as you pointed out, it does still flow really well, and at least to my ears, not only because of the genre similarities between the songs. But I think we actually agree more than disagree on this.

It goes without saying, but thanks for the great conversation so far, everyone!

jamie said...

Ed, I agree about lyrics. To me, pop music (essentially all we've discussed thus far) is really about the lyrics, even when genre looks to obscure what's being said (by music or vocal delivery), in say hardcore, metal or hip-hop generally the music is seeking to reenforce what's being said.

Pop music is overly lyrical so it seems to me that obviously you'd want the lyrics to be special or meaningful. If they aren't overly distinguishable then that's when I seek them out, or repeatedly listen. Sometimes misreadings of lyrics can be interesting to-- I recall loving the New Order song 'Subculture', and misinterpreting what is was saying leading me to a complete misunderstanding of song. When I did piece together I realized both thoughts were valid and quite interesting... sometimes we put ourselves onto the art we like too.

Michaël Parent said...

Wow! I know my comment may repeat some arguments already discussed here but I'll try to be fresh and interesting with my own point of view on the assigned Record. Also pardon my English but it's not my mother tongue so sometimes it may be imprecise...
First, my reggae collection starts with Bob Marley's Legends and stops there. I'm not a grand connoisseur of the genre or the albums that defined it. But, as a drummer and a percussionnist, my tastes in music are as vast as the genres are. To discover something new was a real pleasure to me.
I never thought I could enjoy the whole album like that, but the unity of the songs and the positive homogeneity of the album are its major qualities in the first 3 to 4 listens. In my opinion, a great album is defined by this "unity" that blends the songs together while each of their own keeping its own originality. This is what kept me on listening to it.
Secondly, the fresh sound of the production made in 1977 but sounding really contemporary and actual. Here, my lack of knowledge of the genre may limit my arguments, but still, the record has this undated feeling compared to a Bob Marley record where the time may have marked the period it was made.
Thirdly, as stated before, as a drummer/percussionist, I love to discover new sounds or different approaches to music and the percussions of The Congos deserves praise. Their subtle presence rhythm the songs without overlaying on the singing. When I listen to a record and my hands start to follow the times of the song and that creates an urge to try those techniques behind my drums I can consider the album as an interesting piece of music.
I'd like to thank Ed for choosing this album that openned me a new horizon in music because my own tastes wouldn't guide me toward this record. Great discussion!

Carson said...

Some quick thoughts after a recent listen:

I actually find "La La Bam Bam" to be one of the stronger tracks on the album. I simply love its sunny chord progression and dig the way the snare hits only come on every other 4th beat. That sense of stalling and then continuing is extended to the bass line, which frequently isn't landing on the root note but grooving in a higher register and sometimes cutting out entirely. In fact, I love the style of bass playing on this record in general.

The incessant delay effect on the drums and sometimes the vocals as well is something very distinctive about this album too. It's everywhere, and it is a testament to Perry's knack for sonic playfulness.

ilya said...

The production on this album is absolutely magical. It completes the arc began on "Party Time" by Heptones and "Police And Thieves" by Junior Murvin (though the real start may be the "River" single by Zap Pow). I am not aware of any albums released after this one that still have that sound and after Perry burned down his studio in a fit of madness he never rose to the same level. Though the burning down of the studio could have been the effect rather than the cause of this loss of magic, who knows (it may well be more prosaic - money/contract issues)?

Anyway, the characteristic sound for me is in the cymbals which have a subtle faze effect applied to them creating a sound like flowing water. This is underscored by a strong but not overwhelming bass that pushes the songs along. This album to me is the perfect unity of dub technique and reggae songcraft. I initially got into reggae through dub, like many people, especially dance music fans of my generation. However, after several years I found that dub took away a lot of the best parts of the music and started appreciating the original songs more. Though it it absolutely wrong to draw any distinction between dub and reggae. They are the same music. Dub cannot exist on its own - without source material. This is the mistake of "illbient" and related genres of the 90's - trying to build dub from the ground up rather than finding the hidden spirit in existing music and teasing it out. On this album all the effects are already incorporated into the songs. Though dub versions exist of some of these songs they do not feel much different unless you are offended by the lyrics which are mostly excised leaving only hiccups (Perry's mad genius touch).

Although all reggae is dance music in a sense I have a hard time seeing this album in a dancehall. This kind of deep roots sound may seem like the mainstream of reggae but I have a feeling this is an artifact of reissue policy and critical coverage rather than its actual prevalence on Jamaican radio waves or dancehalls.

My favorite song has long been "Open Up The Gates". The melody is very unusual to me with great harmonies. I feel like I discover new things about the album every time I listen. I was pleasantly surprised to find cows mooing on one of the tracks. It is a very coherent album, it's hard to separate the tracks. My one criticism is that the reissue makes it overlong with all the bonus material. Ten tracks is the perfect (and very common) length for a reggae album to digest in one sitting.

I never did hear anything else from The Congos though I am not surprised it's nowhere near as good with Lee Perry. I am intrigued however by an EP they put out on the legendary 99 Records.

Ed Howard said...

Some belated catching up with comments...

Michaël, glad you enjoyed the album! Reggae has always been a very interesting influence on Western drummers and percussionists; it's a very distinctive approach to rhythm and there have been a lot of rock drummers who have been tempted to incorporate it. The later music of the great German band Can (one of the ultimate rhythm/drumming bands ever) was heavily indebted to reggae's pulse.

Carson, interesting thoughts about "La Bam Bam." I've come around on that song over the years - I used to hate it and skip over it routinely when listening to the album, and now I enjoy it much more - but it's still my least favorite track here. I'll have to take your word on the music theory elements you pick out there, since I'm horribly uninformed on that stuff, but I will say that one of the things that made me think of the track much more positively was noticing how much was going on in the production beneath its deceptively simple, happy surface. It's a more complex song that it seems, in several ways, and maybe eventually I'll come around to it even more.

Ilya, I love your point about the interconnection between "dub" and "reggae," as of course you can hear so many of the distinctive dub elements in this music and in most of Perry's other productions as well. I agree, the style of dub is so intimately linked to the style of the source music that they can't be neatly separated at all. Oh, and I agree with you about the reissue's length, since the second bonus disc is really extraneous, but I do like the 2 tracks tagged onto the end of the album on the 1st disc - "At the Feast" and "Nicodemus" are 2 great songs that fit perfectly with the rest of the album.