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Music Review: The Definitive Collection of Federal Records (1964-1982)

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This two-disc compilation covers the output of Federal Records from the mid-sixties through the early eighties. The label was founded by Kenneth Khouri in the early sixties. Khouri got his start in the 1950s cutting singles of mento records, and was on the front lines as ska exploded and then evolved into rocksteady, eventually settling into reggae.

The songs are arranged chronologically. Disc one starts out with the bright, raw sound of ska, including the Maytals’ “My Daily Food” and Eric “Monty” Morris’s “In the Garden.” They are upbeat, energetic, and infectious, but they pale in comparison to the more sophisticated rocksteady songs. One of the first rocksteady songs recorded is included, Hopeton Lewis’s “Take It Easy.” One listen to that track and you’ll understand why a generation of Jamaicans abandoned the energetic but simple pulse of ska for the cooler, smoother rocksteady groove. Hopeton Lewis’s “Sounds and Pressure” is also on the disc, along with tracks by the Paragons and the Gaylettes.

One of the hallmarks of the Federal label was reggae remakes of pop tunes. There is a range of covers on this compilation, from Englebert Humperdink’s “Talking Love,” to the Monkees’ “Its Nice To Be With You” to Dusty Springfield’s “Son of A Preacher Man.” Some of these covers, like the Gaylettes’ version of “Preacher Man,” are brilliant, but there are examples of pop songs that would have been better left alone. Gilbert O’Sullivan’s weepy “Alone Again Naturally” was anything but a natural fit for a reggae remake, as The Now Generations muzak version attests.

As the music changed from rocksteady to reggae, Federal’s output acquired a pop, cosmopolitan sheen. Disc two, which spans 1973-1982, is far from sufferah music. The polished production strips the songs of any danger, edge, or dread. This is reggae for dinner parties with polite society, music for red wine rather than spliffs. It’s still enjoyable, but is a marked contrast from other reggae producers of the era. This is definitely not the Black Ark.

High points include Ken Boothe and B.B. Seaton’s soul scorcher “(It’s the Way) Nature Planned It,” Delroy Wilson’s “I’m Still Waiting,” and Bob Andy’s “Fire Burning.” Other notable artists include Ernie Smith, Johnny Nash, and Marcia Griffiths. The album comes with excellent liner notes written by reggae historian Steve Barrow, and lots of photos from the era. All in all it’s a nice overview of a very fertile 18-year period of Jamaican musical history, and a good documentation of the Federal label’s contribution to that history.

 

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