(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Recording review - Ghetto Youths International Presents: Set Up Shop Volume 2

Another diverse sampler from reggae's first family

Carrying on the family business is a long-standing tradition and the entertainment industry is no different. But even talent and the support of famous parents are no guarantee for success. Now put yourself in Julian Lennon's shoes or imagine the Marley offspring, trying to make a mark with the burden of a mythic, almost saintly father. They've each had to carry that weight and face down the unmeetable expectations. But where Julian Lennon has never completely exorcised his father's ghost, the Marleys have overcome the overblown hype and dismissive critics to prove that they had more going on than just their celebrity genetics. Eldest son Ziggy probably faced the harshest criticism, but his younger brothers have each taken their turns, too. With perseverance, they've gone on to earn Grammys and chart success while finding their own voices. In recent years, brothers Stephen, Julian, and Damian Marley have focused their attention on their label, Ghetto Youths International, where they've collected a strong lineup of performers. In 2013, they dropped Set Up Shop as an introduction to the label. This past December, they followed up with Set Up Shop Volume 2. Both compilations feature the Marley brothers and Stephen's son Jo Mersa, along with several other GYI artists like Wayne Marshall, Christopher Ellis, and Black-Am-I.

Like its predecessor, Volume. 2 highlights the diversity of the talent on the label, from dancehall toasting and rocksteady to moody ska and dub grooves. The good news is that reggae fans of all types will find something to love here, but the grab-bag nature of this kind of release naturally means that there’s no clear thread of continuity running through these songs. While that keeps this from achieving “album of the year” status, Set Up Shop Volume 2 easily accomplishes the goal of generating interest in GYI’s artists. Whether it’s the sweet harmonies and poppy rocksteady of “In The Ghetto” from Black-Am-I or the fine dub production on Jo Mersa’s “Rock and Swing”, there are moments of sonic purity that hit their mark perfectly and leave me wanting more.

Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley grabs a lot of attention with several tracks, including the lead single, “Is It Worth It? (Gunman World)”, which wraps its morally ambiguous subject in a Two-Tone ska moodiness. While that one features Damian’s solid lyrical flow, I enjoyed the opening tune, “Hard Work” a bit more. The intro blend of a creaking door and a thoughtful splash of music reminded me of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, but the production was what really grabbed my ear, first for how it eased into the chank rhythm, and then more for the sparse groove and electronic touches. Damian’s rolling, staccato delivery tips its hat at toasting deejays but also has a taste of East Coast hip hop flow. The heavy beat and drop out breaks are ready-made for the club scene, helped along by an infectious chorus that’s easy to join in on, “I’m putting in the hard work.

The following track, “The Living Breed”, is also strong, but it’s the outlier of the collection, with its Mexican influenced pop DNA. The backing loop vamps with a Latin beat accompanied by an acoustic guitar, relying more on emcee accents to make the reggae connection than the rhythm. Still, it’s smooth how the conscious lyrics of the chorus perform a clean Aikido flip from “the last of a dying breed” to “the first of this living breed.” This one also benefits from the procession of distinctive vocalists -- including Illustr8’s American tones -- as they hand off the leads smoothly,

The only tune that doesn't click is Wayne Marshall’s “On the Corner”, which takes its inspiration and structure from one line of REM’s “Losing My Religion”. The music works, but Marshall’s cautionary tale has too much of a preachy tone and too little subtlety. Fortunately, his other contribution, "Nah Give Up", is much better.

But regardless of whether every song finds a home in listeners' ears, Set Up Shop Volume 2 shows off the Marleys' skills at production, arrangement, and talent scouting. It also highlights the different strengths and styles that Stephen, Julian, and Damian each bring to the table, all while reflecting on the impact that Bob Marley's music and message still have on modern reggae. They carry on their father's ethos and stand on his shoulders, but they're definitely "the living breed" of modern reggae.

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