5052571058916_1_75This eponymous album from the relatively little-known British reggae band may at last succeed in connecting this vital music to a wider audience. Although Black Symbol’s self-released output in the early 1980s was supported by numerous local performances, and was enthusiastically received by their following in the West Midlands, it never reached much beyond this. The band actively promoted the upcoming bands of the area, in particular financing and releasing “Handsworth Explosion”, two volumes that helped to establish and publicise local acts, but public recognition of their own profile remained low. Here, courtesy of Reggae Archive Records, is a new release of material gleaned from single releases, unreleased tracks and dub versions of existing songs.

The tracks were all recorded at Outlaw Studios in Birmingham, reflecting the British reggae sound of the period and also the origins of key band members in Jamaica. The sound is powerful indeed, characterised by a deep slow bass that underpins these songs of religious and political redemption. The CD-format release opens with ‘Everything Has Its Time’, strong roots reggae at its finest, followed by its version, with a bass that’ll give your speakers something to think about. The mood continues with ‘None a Jah Jah Children’, again followed-through by its mightily serious version. The lengthy ‘How Long’ has echoes, both musically and lyrically, of the classic sounds of the roots tradition before resolving into an extended dub-leaning instrumental conclusion. The spiritual message of ‘In the Name of Jah’ is followed through by a separate and sparse dub while the pace quickens (just a little) for ‘Trouble Trouble’ and ‘Spiritual Reggae’. The words of ‘Solidarity’ seem strangely appropriate today: it could almost have been written for a general election campaign with references to austerity and prosperity. It would be an intriguing thought indeed to imagine a political party adopting this one as a campaign theme song.

There is some strong roots music in this release, and its contrast to the prevailing reggae mainstream of the time is interesting. It’s a million miles removed from the then-emergent dancehall sound and, although the songs get a little more upbeat as the album progresses, there is no lively-up yourself mood herein. The songs have warmth but are, at heart, serious. Thus it strangely reflects both its own time and our current times.

Black Symbol: Reggae Archive Records; released on CD (16 tracks), double-vinyl (12 tracks) and DDL, March 2015.

CapitalLettersWolverhamptonIt’s been a mighty long time since Capital Letters released their ode to ‘Smoking My Ganja’ in the reggae/punk heyday of late-70s Britain, but the Wolverhampton wanderers now return with a brand new album named after their home town. Comprising fourteen tracks it is almost certainly the only album ever to feature a song called ‘Wolverhampton’ and another called ‘Jamaica’. The album opens with ‘Jah Music’, setting the initial mood as one of gentle roots reggae along with relatively understated vocals, drawing to a mildly dub-influenced conclusion. The next track, ‘Wolf’, has a similar feel.

Thereafter, ‘Opportunity’ has a slightly harder edge, both lyrically and in its familiar rhythm. The more assertive lyrics continue with the powerful anti-war theme of ‘Dat Nah Stop’, its hard message set within a deceptively light and melodic rhythm and instrumentation. This contrast between placid musical style and serious lyrics is a feature of several of the tracks here and it is a particular strength. The spiritual roots sound of ‘Thanks and Praise’ is clear enough in its meaning, while ‘Tell Me What’s Wrong’ returns to the message of peace, delivered, like ‘Movie Star’, in a vocal style reminiscent of lovers’ rock or even that of a soul ballad.

Capital Letters have been through several personnel changes over the years. The band reformed in 2013 and this is their first album of new music for 30 years. Engineered by Noel Browne at his own studio, this is an intriguing mix indeed; unashamedly retro in some ways, but sounding vital and new all the same.

Capital Letters ‘Wolverhampton’ released on Sugar Shack Records, CD and DDL, March 23rd 2015; additional limited-edition vinyl release of selected tracks and their dub versions.

51hXQiuht8L__SL500_AA280_Well here’s something more than slightly different: an Italian rock-steady band offering their fifth album, a distinct ska interpretation of established rock/pop hit singles including Oasis’s ‘Roll with It’ and even ‘Toxic’, previously known, if at all, in its Britney Spears incarnation. There are 14 tracks here in total, and it’s the implausibility – audacity really – of the track selection that makes it all appealing in an odd sort of way. Any collection that manages to incorporate interpretations of Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’, the Smiths’s ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ and, perhaps most bizarre of all, the title track – Neil Young’s ‘Everybody Knows this is Nowhere’ – deserves at least some attention.

There is a long tradition of reggae covers of mainstream pop/chart records, and in decades past some of these were fairly dire both musically and in terms of production. The Easy Star All Stars raised the game with thoughtful reggae interpretations of whole classic albums, starting with Dark Side of the Moon, and emphasising high production values. But this Bluebeaters album is different from both. It is not meant to be some serious ska reconstruction of seminal rock or pop moments, it’s just some well-played goodtime ska music dealing with songs that most of us will recognise in some recess of the mind or in some past memory; it doesn’t pretend to be anything more. And ‘Roll with It’ does sound pretty good after all.

The Bluebeaters: ‘Everybody Knows’ released on Record Kicks, 13th April 2015

235f8673-eb6e-451d-99d8-11456b1c654aFrom Jamaican-raised and Montreal-born artist Face-T comes this brand new four-track EP, independently released by Face-T himself. Under the overall guidance of Quebec-based DJ Poirier, the four tracks on this intriguing release feature rhythms and production from Dreadsquad (Poland), Scorpio B (Montreal), Poirier (Quebec) and Glasgow’s very own Mungo’s Hi-Fi.

In Face-T’s words: “Self releasing this EP makes me feel a mix of pride and excitement, similar to fatherhood…I really wanted to take my time to work on it and have fun with the process. For instance, each song was recorded in a different spot -one was at Boogat’s house, another at Poirier’s… They’re also all quite different from each other, which gave me the opportunity to push my vocal range in ways which [I] hadn’t explored before”.

The tracks are pretty diverse and the care with which they have been put together by the performer and each of the collaborators is evident. ‘True Love (Serious Time Riddim)’, with sounds and production from Scottish sound system supremos Mungo’s Hi-Fi, is an excellent opener, combining an old-time easy-feeling lilting rhythm and some splendid DJing over the top, a fine release in its own right before we get any further with the set. ‘Ready For’, produced by Poirier, is a sharper and harder sound altogether, with its call-and-response and electronic beats looking across to dubstep instead of back to mainstream reggae. ‘Dem a Thief’ is a melodic and melancholy reggae song, rendered with feeling, with precise production from Scorpio B; it would have been good to hear more of the hint of dub at the end. The EP closes with ‘Wine (Come Time Riddim)’, produced by Dreadsquad in an upbeat dancehall style, a pleasing way to finish. It’s great to come across an unexpected release like this one, off the radar of the major labels, with four strikingly different tracks that are equally full of power, melody and rhythm.

Face-T ‘EP1’, launch and release March 2015

UB40’s mass appeal from the 1980s onwards, and their move into a more comfortable pop-reggae niche as the years went on, sometimes means that the strength of their early albums is overlooked. This is a mistake as there is power and authenticity in these early albums. These two ‘deluxe’ releases revisit ‘Present Arms’ (their second album, initially released in 1981) and ‘Labour of Love’ (their fourth album, released in 1983, which would bring them mass international success).

For this re-release, each album is issued as a 3-CD collection. ‘Present Arms’ is accompanied for the first time by ‘Present Arms in Dub’, originally issued a few months after the parent vocal album. The music within is well-known. Highlights on disc 1 include the striking sound of still-relevant ‘One in Ten’, ‘Don’t Let it Pass You By’, and the welcome addition of the 12” version of ‘Don’t Slow Down’, which curiously enough does slow down to take us into a great extended dub fadeout.  Disc 2 is ‘Present Arms in Dub’. This previously seemed a little disappointing in its interpretation of dub, but now sounds more impressive, perhaps through the improvement in sound quality or the simple passage of time. The dub of ‘One in Ten’, and the classic bass line of the closing track ‘Neon Haze’ (the dub of ‘Silent Witness’), are as good as ever. Disc 3 adds something different in the shape of live BBC radio sessions from 1981. These begin at a cracking pace with (again) ‘One in Ten’ but there are also performances of tracks from the their first album ‘Signing Off’ including ‘Food for Thought’ and ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’, the latter as part of a closing run-together of three tracks. The production of these songs is excellent. Whatever view you take of UB40’s latter-day output, or which current incarnation of the band you favour, there is some great reggae music here, sharp and politically informed, mirroring some of the urban anger of the Specials’ output of the time.

‘Labour of Love’ was even more of a commercial breakthrough for UB40, and, unusually for a reggae band, charted highly in the USA as well as the UK. It consisted wholly of covers, not only of classic reggae songs like ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ but also of less likely targets such as Neil Diamond’s ‘Red Red Wine’ (which had previously been performed in a reggae style by Tony Tribe). Disc 1 is the original album, featuring the long version of ‘Red Red Wine’ and a good account of Dandy Livingstone’s (aka Boy Friday’s) ‘Version Girl’ although it ultimately sounds a little thin in comparison with Livingstone’s rugged DJ-ing take on the song. Disc 2 features ‘singles and B sides’ and there is interesting music here, including strong dubs of ‘Sufferin’ and ‘Cherry Oh Baby’, a live version of ‘Food for Thought’ and a different version of ‘Johnny Too Bad’ from that on Disc 1. The third disc is composed of BBC live tracks from 1983 and 1984, including the sweet but neglected single ‘Love is All is Alright’.

There would of course be ‘Labour of Love’ volumes II and III in later years, and the commercial appeal of covers would be evident in single hits like ‘I Got You Babe’ and ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ but something of the spark of a creative band started to be lost with this immersion in crossover pop reggae. But that original sound is still there in these ‘deluxe’ releases. What would be even better? Maybe an album-set consisting wholly of 12” versions as originally released, ideally including ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ where unusually the instrumental dub precedes rather than follows the vocal track; or the lengthy dub takes on ‘I Think it’s Going to Rain Today’ or ‘Dream a Lie’, or the hard-to-get- hold-of 12” version of ‘King’. If that release ever happens you’ll hear about it here.

UB40 are touring in the UK in May and June 2015.

UB40 ‘Present Arms’ and ‘Labour of Love’, each available as 3-CD Deluxe Editions and also as 2-LP 180g vinyl, released 2nd March 2015.