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 – “Legend” (1984)

I have a sort of rule when it comes to my music buying – if I already have an album on one format I won’t buy it on another format just for the sake of having both.  I do this mostly to protect my wallet from my irrational desires to buy vinyl copies of every album that I love.  It’s my way of trying to draw the line between being a music fan and a vinyl collector (or, as my friend Limpa from the awesome Swedish Punk Fanzine site would say, “Collector Scum” (a label which he applies to himself as well!)).  I know I have an obsessive streak, and it would be very easy for me to go down the vinyl rabbit hole, smiling and throwing money around like crazy as I descended into madness.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course (“They’re more like guidelines…”).  If I have something on vinyl and I really want to have it on my iPod, I’ll buy a used CD copy for $5 so I can burn it.  I’ve even gone the other way a few times, most recently when in Reykjavik last year and I spotted a vinyl copy of Legend’s insanely great debut Fearless.  I justified this to myself by rationalizing that in fact I didn’t actually have it on CD… I just had it ripped to my iPod from a friend’s copy of the CD (thanks Tito!).  So sure, why not drop $50 on a nice used copy, right?  Right…?

Hi.  My name is Jeff.  And I am a vinyl addict.

I mention all this because while at Easy Street the other day for Record Store Day, after I picked up an armload of RSD releases I took a few minutes to browse the used sections, and that’s where I came across this super clean, original US pressing of Bob Marley’s Legend (coincidence that the name of this album is also the name of the band mentioned earlier…?  Enquiring minds want to know…).  I suspect that I am fairly typical among American music fans in that my first real exposure to reggae came via Bob Marley and this album (♠).

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Legend truly anchored into my consciousness during a spring break driving excursion I took with my friend John sometime around 1991 or so.  We drove my dad’s Isuzu Trooper from Seattle to Sedona, AZ, over to San Francisco, then back to Seattle over the course of about a week.  The first day took us from Seattle to Nephi, UT, which Google Earth tells me is about 1,000 miles.  What Google Earth doesn’t tell you is that most of that is through vast swaths of nothingness.  John and I were cranking through cassettes one after another, and we finally landed on Legend somewhere around Idaho, and it was somehow just a completely perfect meeting of music and mood and scenery.  I’ve been in love with the album ever since.  Unfortunately the cassette player crapped out right after we left San Francisco, leaving us to drive the last 12+ hours with no music at all, not even the radio, which truly sucked.

So when I saw this copy of Legend for good price, I figured “why not.”  And this morning I put it on the turntable.  Something seemed different though – right on the first track, “Is This Love”… it felt a bit richer, a bit more dub-like.  I chalked that up to me actually focusing a lot on the music and maybe hearing some nuances that I normally miss.  Until the second song “No Woman, No Cry” came on.  This was most definitely NOT the same version as the one on my CD!  After a bit of online research I learned that while the original US release shared the same track list as other versions (excluding “special” editions), in fact the versions of some of the songs were different, and very noticeably so.  It’s like listening to a completely different album.

I’m not going to do a detailed breakdown as to how these versions are different – Wikipedia actually does a pretty good job of that HERE.  That being said, if you’ve never heard this version before, it may be of interest.  I find the remixed tracks much “poppier” than those I’m more familiar with from the later versions of Legend, and I don’t want to get into which is better, as both are enjoyable in their own ways.  So if you’ve always had this on CD or later editions of the vinyl, keep your eyes out for an original US release if you want to get a different spin on this all-time classic.

(♠)  OK, in my case my very, very first exposure was probably the Eddie Grant single “Electric Avenue,” but that was just one song.

Bob Marley and the Wailers – “Rebel Music”

I wasn’t aware when I bought it that Rebel Music was a compilation that came out after Bob Marley’s death.  Though I’m not sure it would have made any difference – the only song on this record that I’d heard before was “Get Up, Stand Up,” and it’s a nice clean copy.  Plus inside the gatefold are a number of pictures and a fair amount of text about Marley, so no reason to pass it up just because it was a comp.

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This is exactly what even the most casual Bob Marley fan would expect – a collection of 10 excellent, very Bob Marley-esque sounding songs.  Lots of female backing singers, smooth and steady riddims, and Marley’s voice flowing through it all like water, sometimes slow, sometimes like a raging current.  The live recording “War/No More Trouble” is the high point to my ears, originally having appeared on the Babylon By Bus album and thought to have been recorded at a show in Paris, France in 1978.  The version of “Get Up, Stand Up” on Rebel Music appears to be a different live version than the one that appeared on the much more famous Legend compilation released in 1984.

Look, you just can’t go wrong with a Bob Marley record.  You know it, I know it.  So if you find one for the right price, buy it!

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.