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Don Carlos

7 Days a Week

(RAS)

Itals

Modern Age

(RAS)

By Joshua Green

The specter of Ziggy Marley pimping for Cover Girl this summer pretty well summed up the sorry state of roots reggae today. Certainly the son of the world's most famous Rastafarian doesn't need to sell nail polish. But nothing--not even the Marley name--is sacred anymore.

The combination of waning commercial appeal and marginalization by the dancehall generation means most surviving roots artists will do just about anything to remain relevant. And while aging and displacement are eventualities for all musicians, reggae veterans are discovering that their new material faces its biggest competition in their own earlier work. Labels like Heartbeat, Island, and Blood and Fire are mining their vaults and releasing CD compendiums, box sets, and entire albums that were vinyl hits in the 60s and 70s. In recent years, the back catalogs of legendary studios like Treasure Isle and Studio One have been exhumed at the rate of several CDs per month. Money is as big a motivator as nostalgia--production costs are next to nothing, since the labels already own the rights. But the music for the most part sounds spectacular, especially next to what some of the same artists have produced lately.

Roots reggae went into a tailspin after Bob Marley's death in 1981, and in 1985, when Wayne Smith's hit "Under Me Sleng Teng" ushered in dancehall with a chintzy Casio sampler for a rhythm section, it changed the way the entire Jamaican music industry did business. Reggae went the way of modern rock in the late 80s and 90s--it took an interesting concept and beat it to death for the cash. Performers clung to Rasta signifiers like "one love" togetherness and the vocal endorsement of marijuana, but the message behind the music was increasingly diluted, and with the careless incorporation of synthesizers, so was the music itself. Roots reggae became the sound track for the Benetton age, its vague multiculturalism the sonic equivalent of the smiley face. Third World was the earliest and most visible of such bands, but others followed, and pandering to the summer-festival circuit became standard practice.

Two of the latest entrants into this dubious category are a couple of graying but genuine legends, Black Uhuru cofounder Don Carlos and the harmony group the Itals. Both Carlos and Itals front man Keith Porter are accomplished vocalists whose work in the 70s helped define black nationalism and push the boundaries of reggae. But indifferent handlers and cheerleading fanzines have allowed them to coast, and 7 Days a Week and Modern Age, respectively their latest albums, sound more like background music for a Royal Caribbean ad than anything they produced in their prime. The Itals' CD cover and lyrics sport the usual surfeit of icons and phrases meant to emphasize their spirituality, but the singing is as flat and uninspired as the warmed-over synthesizers that play at the same tempo throughout, and glitzy production strips any remaining soul from Porter's voice. The most egregious bit of shameless hucksterism is the song "Titanic," which draws an improbable comparison between the Second Coming and the sinking of the ocean liner that so many others have milked for greater significance this year.

Don Carlos, who would be overshadowed by Michael Rose for most of Black Uhuru's history, engages in a subtler but no less sad subversion of reggae's original ideals with his lifeless, synth-dominated 7 Days a Week. "Fight the Revolution" is a tired call to arms that contains so much Rasta name-dropping that Carlos sounds like he's reading the index of a Jamaican history book, while "Sunshine" is the sort of schlock you'd expect to find fueling the conga line at the Montego Bay Holiday Inn. Carlos's rote tunes feature more bleeps and bloops than Jan Hammer's last opus, and his lyrics hit rock bottom with lines like "Your love is like a warm summer breeze" (from "Baby You Know") and "A rolling stone gathers no moss" (from "Time").

Carlos and the Itals could be excused for merely trying to make it in this modern world if proof didn't exist that roots reggae is still plenty viable, both in pure form and in creative collaboration. Their label mates on RAS, fellow 70s vets Israel Vibration, have enjoyed unflagging commercial and critical success by sticking with roots ideology and real musicians. And Psychedelic Souls, a collection of psychedelic rock standards redone garage-dub style by Wailing Souls with members of the million-selling alt-ska band Sublime, is surprisingly good. Modern Age and 7 Days a Week are products of colossal artistic laziness encouraged by rampant greed. If you're a true reggae fan, your money would be better spent on Ziggy's nail polish.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Don Carlos uncredited photo; Itals uncredited photo; album covers.

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