Bob Marley & The Wailers – “Uprising” (1980 / 1983)

Reggae is one of those all-purpose genres to me.  Having some people over and want to have a good time?  Put on some reggae.  Want to sit around and chill and zone out?  Put on some reggae.  Reggae music is like the bird in the recurring Portlandia skit.  No matter what the question is, the answer is “put a bird on it”.  It goes with everything.

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After a record-breaking rainy winter, the Seattle area is about to break another weather related record, this time the most consecutive days without any measurable precipitation – something like 51 straight days.  I think well break the record next week.  Plus it’s been been super hot by our standards, and most folks (including us) here don’t have air conditioning.  So the other night when it got up to 84 degrees… inside our freaking house… Holly requested some reggae because it seemed to fit our sweaty moods.  But you know what?  We decided to crank the volume on Uprising, pour a couple of ice-filled cocktails, and go sit on the step right outside our sliding door to the backyard instead of sweltering in the living room.  And it was pretty perfect (but still hot).

I’m no expert on the Bob Marley catalog.  That being said, to my ears Uprising is a very spiritual album.  It’s there in the lyrics with songs like “Coming In From the Cold,” “Zion Train,” “Forever Loving Jah,” and “Redemption Song,” (♠) but it’s there in the music as well.  There’s a certain musical southern Christian spiritualism (and I’m talking something more raw and visceral, not more refined church music), but done with an island aesthetic and a Rastafarian sensibility.  Was some of that driven by Marley’s cancer diagnosis in 1977?  I don’t know… and cancer certainly didn’t seem to slow him down until 1980, the same year Uprising came out.  It’s hard to believe we lost him when he was only 36.

“Redemption Song” is the zenith of the Marley catalog, the kind of song that transcends race and geography and gender and [insert something here].  Certainly the African slave experience is a cornerstone of the song, and I’m not trying to minimize that influence or co-opt it; but the message quickly expands to encompass everyone.  Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds.  And that’s why it resonates so strongly across so many lines – the concept of feeling lost and forsaken and needing to find hope to help carry you through is a universal one.  Better advice and truer words have never been spoken, and Marley’s soulful delivery makes me tear up a little every time I hear it.

Exodus may be more highly regarded, but I’ll take Uprising every time.

(♠)  Of course there’s also “Pimper’s Paradise,” though the lyrics are hardly pro-pimp nor do they paint a pretty picture of the lives of women who have pimps.

Bob Marley And The Wailers – “In Dub, Vol. 1”

Up until I got back into vinyl maybe three years or so ago, pretty much my only exposure to reggae was Bob Marley, and specifically the Legend album, which I first bought on tape back in probably around 1991 or so just before a road trip from Seattle to Arizona to San Francisco and back home.  We didn’t have a ton of cassettes, so what we had got played over and over on the trip, and to this day I associate that album with driving.

Since getting the vinyl bug I’ve picked up the random reggae record here and there – Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse, Toots & The Maytals… but what I’ve gravitated towards is dub.  We’re fortunate to live out here in Seattle, which happens to be the home of one of the great indie radio stations, KEXP, and Saturdays from nine to Noon are given over to reggae and dub.  The usual host is Kid Hops (Hops, if you’re reading this, you rule!) and he is all about the smooth dub tracks, quite often on vinyl and all the cracks and hisses that come with it.  I love to put that show on and just groove.

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The other day I was up at Silver Platters and found this Bob Marley dub record, produced in 2012 (released digitally in 2010), and it piqued my interest.  When it comes to “remixes,” which is essentially what dub plates are, I’m sometimes conflicted – if I like the original song, or I’m very familiar with it, sometimes I have trouble getting into the remix, kind of like “why are you messing with this great song?”  But I won’t lie, when I don’t know the original material I often like the remix a lot, sometimes more than the original, and that’s generally the case with dub – since I don’t have a broad reggae background, I rarely if ever know the original source of the dub plate.  This Marley record, however, includes at least four tracks that I know pretty well.  So I was curious to see how I’d feel about the dub versions.

Turns out I like them.  Quite a bit, actually.  Right from the opening echoey beats on “Roots, Rock, Dub” the tone is set, both musically and vocally – because Marley’s voice doesn’t appear on this track, only those of the female backing singers, and even then only the chorus.  Marley isn’t left out of all the tracks, but after all, this is dub, so dropping the vocals or only using small snipits is pretty standard.  Marley kicks off the second song though, the first one I’m familiar with – “Is This Love Dub.”  The echo effect is turned way up here, and while there’s a lot more vocal content, it doesn’t necessarily follow the song in the way you’re used to hearing, and the female voices do get a lot of time up front, much more so than Bob does.  But I have to admit, I dig this track.

“Three Little Birds” is one of my favorite Marley songs, and it gets the dub treatment here as well.  It’s actually a stripped down version, with the guitar up front and echo primarily focused on the drum beats.  Bob’s vocals are dropped and we’re left with the female backing singers again, coming in and out at various times.  With a song like this, the dub version loses the beauty of the lyrical message (“Don’t worry… about a thing… cuz every little thing’s… gonna be alright…”), but that actually made me pay more attention to the music, which is also beautiful in its simplicity.

In Dub, Vol. 1 would have benefitted tremendously from some liner notes.  Basically we’re provided with no information about these dub mixes – when were they done, who did them, did Marley himself have any involvement?  All of this is left unanswered, which is unfortunate.  Mind you, there’s a very good possibility that no one actually knows.  Even the bobmarley.com website has scant info, noting “The versions vary widely in style and virtually no production information, or mixing credits make it hard to place when they may have been put to tape.”  So maybe these were just literally “tapes from the vault” with little to no production info.  I guess I should just be thankful they exist at all and that they were released.

“Waiting in Vain Dub” is my favorite on this collection, and I’m sure the fact that Marley’s vocals are sampled is part of the reason.  Plus it’s followed by “Jamming Version,” and “Jamming” has always been one of the coolest, funkiest jams in my book.  While I’ve seen some reviews online that say the quality of the tracks is uneven, it doesn’t sound that way to my ears.  Yes, the dub styles aren’t consistent across all the tracks, but that’s one of the things I like about it.  Overall it gets a thumbs up – In Dub, Vol. 1 is a great starting point for the very casual reggae fan who is curious as to what dub is all about.  There will be some basic familiarity with at least some of the songs which will give you a feel for what has been done to them.