Written by Tio Esqueleto
Trojan Records has been at the forefront of all things reggae since 1967. Roots, dub, dance hall, you name it, it’s all been featured, helped along, and in many cases, born under their imprint. The Trojan library ranges from mainstream crossover artists like Bob Marley and the Wailers, Inner Circle, and Toots and The Maytals, to artists such as Desmond Dekker, David “Scotty” Scott, and Horace Andy, equally valid artists you may not know about depending on your dedication to the genre. Needless to say, it is vast.
Now in their 40th year, Trojan has enlisted the help of fellow enthusiasts from all walks of the musical spectrum for its Artist’s Choice Jukebox series, a celebrity mix-tape for all things Trojan reggae. With recent releases from Don Letts and DJ Spooky already available plus future releases from Lee “Scratch” Perry and Fatboy Slim on the horizon, this latest installment finds Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood as “THE CONTROLLER”.
Greenwood’s take is an interesting one. After six months of listening to nothing but reggae, he forgoes the obvious crossover artists (no Marley, no Toots, no Circle), and instead opts for the aforementioned lesser-known superstars of the Trojan roster. This album is for the learned, which isn’t to say that one can’t, in turn, learn from it. At just under 70 minutes, his choices run the full gamut of their catalogue, each with a detailed description of both artist that penned it, as well as the song’s origin and impact. He is thorough and informative without coming off as a know it all. His passion and enthusiasm for the project are quite evident in his selections and the words that accompany them.
The opening track, “Dread Are The Controller” by Linvall Thompson, has heavyweights Sly and Robby providing the rhythm, and is the obvious inspiration for this installment’s title. Next up is Derrick Harriott’s rendition of Van McCoy’s “Let Me Down Easy.” Here we have the most accessible track on the compilation. Full of soul and oozing with crossover potential, it does a magnificent job of setting up the next two tracks in Greenwood’s wish list. Marcia Aitken’s “I’m Still In Love With You” and the legendary Gregory Isaacs’ “Never Be Ungrateful” are shining examples of the skillful songwriting and musicianship that have been displayed in their most traditional forms up to this point in the collection. It is with this next track that we venture into the other defining (and altogether Johnny Greenwood) side of reggae: its production values.
What better way to usher in the notion of the producer as reggae superstar than with Lee “Scratch” Perry, the obvious star of this compilation. In his liner notes, Greenwood compares Perry’s work to that of The Beatles during their experimental phase. Perry’s ability was to make the studio an instrument in itself. Not unlike Beatles producer George Martin, he made the traditional acoustic instruments, voices, and microphones, upon playback, sound nothing like the initial recording.
It comes as no surprise he would be so prominently featured by the man largely responsible for bringing Kid A and Amnesiac into the world. One need only listen to Greenwood’s own quirky instrumentation, laden with effects and trickery both in the studio and on stage to hear the profound effect that Lee Perry (and those that followed) has had on his work.
Perry appears three times in this collection. Track 5 is an out there, echo-heavy, solo effort entitled “Bionic Rats.” Track 8, “Black Panta,” is with his outfit The Upsetters and features a classic opening sampled prominently in fellow dub enthusiasts The Orb’s “Outlands.” The final Perry cut (track 15) is “Dreader Locks” and features Junior Byles, who shows up earlier in the compilation with a fairly straightforward, but altogether eerie, cover of “Fever,” another major highlight on the album. With similar efforts from Lloyd’s Allstars, The Heptones, and Marcia Griffiths, the album maintains this theme of traditional roots reggae interspersed with spaced-out, production-heavy dub.
Now, one might question the variety on such a compilation. The common complaint that “it all sounds alike” could be used here. To that, Greenwood simply asks that you take a listen. It’s in the little nuances throughout, subtle changes in tempo, rhythm, and overall mood. As an avid listener of all forms of minimalist techno, long form disco, and a variety of motion picture soundtracks (the closest I get to classical), I couldn’t agree more. There is far more here than what is picked up on a first listening.
Mr. Greenwood starts his liner notes by stating that he is still discovering Jamaican artists that he feels should have been included here. He wraps up by saying that this is by no means a “best of;” it is merely a starting point. If you come across something you like, be it voice, style, or tempo to simply pursue and enjoy. With that, there are two tracks in particular that I will be investigating further – Delroy Wilson’s “This Life Makes Me Wonder,” and my personal favorite, The Jahlights “Right Road To Dubland.” Now, that’s what a good compilation is supposed to do.