Thursday, May 29, 2014

Black Uhuru: Chill Out

For a few years after the death of Bob Marley and before dancehall turned the music into an electronic shell of its former self, reggae had Black Uhuru as its biggest offering to the wider world.  A trio of great albums on Island Records from Sinsemilla in 1980, to 1981's Red (already featured here) and then 1982's Chill Out, today's selection, put the band, which was first formed in 1972, on the map.

With lead vocalist and chief songwriter Michael Rose providing memorable socially conscious lyrics and melodic ideas, and supported by backing vocalists Sandra "Puma" Jones and founder Duckie Simpson, the band was further strengthened by the amazing "Riddim Twins" of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, whose telekinetic synchronicity was mirrored by the production and arrangement skills, and the session band, The Revolutionaries, are also highly impressive.

The great 1982 Island Records release, Chill Out, by Black Uhuru featured the distinctive vocals and songwriting prowess of Michael Rose and harmonies from Puma Jones and Duckie Simpson, the latter writing two and co-writing a third of the album's nine tracks.
Chill Out is a strong album from start-to-finish with its title track, credited to Rose, Simpson, Dunbar and Shakespeare, featuring an off-kilter guitar line, distinctive percussion touches and the deep, smooth bass and steady drumming of the rhythm section keeping a groove going behind Rose's keening vocals.

"Darkness" by Rose is another standout, taking a different tack tempo-wise from the opener and highlighting Rose's strong sense of wordplay and unique vocalizing with Shakespeare's peerless bass playing shining through.  "Eye Market," has a cool backing vocal refrain by Jones and Simpson and some notable synth touches.  "Right Stuff" is another great tune, even if the vocoder element dates the song a bit."  "Mondays" is a bit simplistic lyrically, but Rose's vocals are so unique that it really doesn't matter and the band plays great.  "Fleety Foot" and "Wicked Act," complete a run of six consecutive Rose tracks, all quite strong.

"Moya (Queen of I Jungle)" by Simpson is probably the one track that might be of lesser interest, though Shakespeare hits single bass notes perfectly to make things move along.  But, Simpson followed that with a masterpiece, "Emotional Slaughter," a deep, emotive and moving song that features Rose's singing at its searching best and another great Shakespeare bass performance, while Dunbar keeps the acoustic and electronic drum patterning steady as she goes.

The Revolutionaries' three lead guitarists, rhythm guitar and two percussionists provide a wall of dense, but very enjoyable and diverse sounds along with the supremely confident playing of the rhythm section, who are slyly (get it?) referred to in the credits as "Sly Drumbar" and "Robbie Basspeare.

"Sly Drumbar" and "Robbie Basspeare," the sublime Riddim Twins rhythm section and producers, arrangers and co-mixers of Chill Out, a stellar album when Black Uhuru produced a trio of fine albums between 1980 and 1982.
As great as this album is, the companion dub album, The Dub Factor, proved to be as innovative and forward-thinking of any post-Marley recording and will be given due attention here some day.  This blogger well remembers being at a Bakersfield Red Lion Inn hotel on a weekend work trip and blasting The Dub Factor on a boombox (it was 1984, after all), perplexing and intriguing co-workers in the next room.

Black Uhuru rode fairly high in those days, but it all fell apart after their 1984 album Anthem was released, this record, ironically, winning the first Grammy award for top reggae album.  Rose left the group and Simpson and Jones and then Simpson alone kept the band going for quite a while, but it just never was the same.  After a long hiatus, Rose resumed a solo career, largely steeped in dancehall, but also never reached the heights of prime early 80s Black Uhuru.

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