Groundation manages to square the circle. While holding on firmly to reggae roots, they skip the slavish devotion that snares many American reggae bands and update the sound in natural direction. Natural for both the players and the music. Lead singer and founder Harrison Stafford may be a professor of reggae (Sonoma State University), but Groundation doesn't intellectualize reggae. Instead, they tap the heart of the groove, following where it leads. Given the band's jazz roots, their horn decorations can drift to ska and soul, but the conscious lyrics keep the vibe on target.
Building an Ark is my introduction to Groundation. The opening title track defies expectation, beginning with a simple soulful feel like early Cat Stevens. Setting up a love song lyric, Stafford's reedy vocal is the only reggae touch. Groundation adeptly shifts the musical context a couple of time before the main groove of the song. A comforting organ accents a 2 Tone ska flavored soul progression. The horns add subtle emphasis until the Miles Davis style trumpet solo. These unexpected transitions show off the band's range and fusion aesthetic.
My favorite section of the album is a pair of tracks: The Dreamer and Who is Gonna. The first track sets up another moody 2 Tone skank, with a haunting organ riff and a simple chank.The chanting lyrics have a philosophical sense:
I believe in the day and the dawningThe song is hypnotically simple, but it's full of little details surrounded by enough space to appreciate them. The track is lush without being rococo. The ending fades down and back up again, but now we're in the following song. At first it's not clear why they even split the tracks, but Who is Gonna is more active, with more chord changes and passing vocal lines.
Yes I believe in this world still so
And with all of these years, I have learned through trials
To be in company with you is like a dream
Building an Ark is slickly polished, but the heart still shines through. The funk and soul adornment rounds out the sound.
Take a listen to the first single, Humility. The fill work references ska, but the reggae groove is solid. The parts all mesh into a smooth whole: bubbling chank, guitar fills, horn punches, mellow organ, warm melodic bass, and tight high hat/rim shot drumwork. It also shows off the vocal interplay between Stafford's thin vocals and the warm female voices from Kim Pommel and Kerry-Ann Morgan on the conscious lyrics:
No one sees that you're riding placesThe lazy sway of the beat and lush arrangements on Building an Ark offer both simplicity and the novelty of fractal layered details.
But every now and then you come to study their faces
When one looks into the system of man
We are ruled by the knife and we are fooled by the pen
Oh, lift up your eyes and see