Friday, June 30, 2006

Pride and Shame

I first heard the reggae vocal trio The Mighty Diamonds on a dub record called Planet Mars Dub, which has some compelling cover art of stereo speakers flying like UFOs through the sky and visiting some red planet Rastafarians -- space travel via ganja rocketry, I guess. A consortium of producers known as The Icebreakers use the Diamonds' sweet harmonic cooing as a just another layer in the sonic palette, which turns out to be a strange and wonderful choice. Listen to "Dub With Garvey," at how they ignore the actual lyrical content and just let odd vocal fragments come echoing through the smokey haze.

And what gorgeous vocal fragments! So I was thrilled last week to find the first Mighty Diamonds LP, Right Time, from 1976. If you loved the soulful zealotry of the first Wailers album, you'll love these guys, all jacked up on Jah and reefer, sweetening every syllable with Motown. On the title track, "Right Time," Robbie Shakespeare's talking bass keeps murmuring subliminal profundity as a counterpoint to all the high harmonies. The blissed-out Biblical prophecies are skunkified by the bottom end; it's the riddim land that was Promised.

The Diamonds are wearing green fatigues and red berets on the back of the album, complete with the requisite army-issued spliff. The apocoalyptic religious stuff is interesting, yes, but the vocals really bloom when they focus on more worldly pursuits, namely girls. "Shame and Pride" gives lead singer Donald "Tabby" Shaw his moment to wax Delphonic about his school yard sweetheart, drawing out some extra honey in the falsetto. I imagine this courtship happening in some underfunded British-run primary school in Kingston where they wore white shirts and ties but no shoes.

Which reminds me of a little of the outfit worn in this photo. I love the leg warmers! I can never tell if I love Steele Pulse's "Roller Skates" because it's qualitatively good or because I allowed it into my life during an emotionally vulnerable time in high school. The synthesizers must have seemed like a good idea back then, but they weren't. And using one in place of a bass is nearly heretical. That said, the whole storyline of this song is so patently absurd we've already entered a funhouse world in which a rich guy smoking a cigar in a limo decides to pull over and steal a boom box from a Rasta man on roller skates. Even as allegory for oppression, this is just retarded, the kind of crap you'd come up with if you were really, really ... high. But I want to believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts here. Plus, you can have a lot of fun imagining the early 80s music video for this song as you listen. As you imagineer this thing, I would suggest similar production values to this .38 Special video for "Back Where You Belong."

Alas, I can't not mention "Steppin' Out" . There's some kind of J.C. Penney TV commercial flair to this song that really makes me question my own judgment. Open Sesame, here comes Rastaman! He sounds like he's wearing a Dr. Seuss hat and has gold teeth. What's funny is both of these songs are on the 1984 record called Earth Crisis, with the forbidding cover painting of a world gone mad with Reagan, the Pope and nukes. Merciful Fate could have used this album cover. Well, these guys were able to hold two opposing ideas in their heads at the same time, which is probably why they're still kicking it, hooking up with Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley and playing Bonnaroo.

By the way, let's not forget the hair. Splendid.

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