various artists,
Back to the Island:
Reggae from Martha's Vineyard

(Rounder, 2001)

Those who have read my reviews here in Rambles probably know what a generally unabashed Rounder Records partisan I am. It is a general truism that Rounder is one of the companies whose catalogue I'd love to have complete (Dorian and Harmonia Mundi are but two of the myriad others so coveted), but there are almost always exceptions to every general rule. Back to the Island serves as an exception in this instance.

I'm sure that it seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, these folks like and/or love reggae, some are musicians of some considerable achievement in their own right, and after all, the "homage" concept album is as hot as it gets, right? Actually, my beef with the disc is more nearly one of it as a whole artifact, and less a gripe with a number of its parts. As such, perhaps my taking of mild offense rests with Peter Simon, the album's producer. Then too, I must freely acknowledge that I am not drawn to reggae because of its "rock steady" aspects, but rather in spite of them. I like the music in its edgiest, angriest, most political, most emotionally invested iterations, and though I fully admit that a certain leavening of mellow will make the journey an easier one, there is just a bit too much homogenization of the final project to satisfy this listener.

The good news is that some of the folk who bring the vibe from Jamaica survive the production, and a couple of the cuts stand on their own merit, most notably Winston Grennon's set opener "Island Vibration." Generally, though, the production comes off as pallid, leaching most of the songs of any passion they might have otherwise shown, and while that's not an impediment for a tune like Entrain's "One Earth" or even Toots Hibbert's essaying of the title cut "Back to the Island," tunes with edge and bite like "Proud to be a Woman" and "Roll, Nyabinghi Drummer" are sabotaged by laconic tempos and flat deliveries.

Another positive is that completists will want to scoop up the disc to capture the Jonathan Edwards tune "Lovers Like You and Me," and even I'm not so much the curmudgeon that I can't at least credit Carly Simon with a valiant try at "Is This Love?" Ultimately, though, the album rises and falls on the package put together by producer Simon, and while I don't doubt that his intent was to salute the music and its practitioners, Back to the Island has not convinced me that it has done right by the music of Marley, Tosh and their heirs.

[ by Gilbert Head ]
Rambles: 8 December 2001

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