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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Commentary - On the banality of evil: Google vs. indie artists

Like most of us, I'm in thrall to Google. It's hard to track all the strands of how I'm tethered to them: my email server, my blog platform, cloud storage..the list goes on and on. They make it so easy because all of this stuff is more or less free. Actually, it's paid for by choosing to accept that they'll own all my metadata and connect the dots to know everything about me, from what my likely politics and income are to what kind of porn I'm interested in. It's kind of disturbing if you think about it for too long, but we're a captive audience with limited alternatives.

Google has so many balls in play, it's hard to keep track of them -- they are legion, after all -- but a particularly ugly one just caught my attention. I was listening to ZoĆ« Keating on the February 5th episode of Studio 360, where she talked about her negotiations with Google over changes to their music services agreement. This has been percolating for months, but Keating's recent blog post has generated another round of attention. In a nutshell, Google is consolidating their contracts with artists to optimize their free YouTube and premium Google Play/Music Key services. Simplification is not a bad thing, but the devil is in the details...and these details stink.

What it comes down to is that Google is a jealous god. They are demanding that artists provide their entire catalog of work to Google and that no third party outlet should have earlier access to that material. In exchange, they're offering relatively crappy royalty rates and the privilege of not kicking them off Google's content services. This is especially problematic for independent artists like Keating or Jill Sobule, who have organically developed their fan base and make their music available via their own websites or third parties like Bandcamp. This would effectively mean that they couldn't release directly to their fans before making it available to Big G.

It's easy enough to see the business motivation here. It's harder to justify paying for a premium music service if you can get new music somewhere else first. It also makes sense to have the same rules for all of their content delivery services. It's all very convenient. Still, it's hard to see why Google absolutely has to have exclusivity. It seems like it would be sufficient for them to assert that music available on YouTube should also be available on Music Key. Allowing artists to control their own material isn't all that different from letting me decide whether to write an article for a blog post or for a media site. Google could continue monetizing the content that they have access to and the synergy of services they offer will make participating that much more attractive. If Google could settle for that, they wouldn't come across as bullies, crushing indie artists for legal expedience.

On the other hand, if they hold their ground and either screw or blackball indie artists, it's hard to see them as anything but evil. A bland, pedestrian evil, but still just as distasteful.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Recording review - Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones (2015)

A long time coming, but real and in-the-moment 


It's not that hard to see why Kate Pierson has finally made her first solo album. While her voice has always been a central part of the B-52s, their party atmosphere doesn't easily accommodate more serious feelings or deeper expression. The real surprise is that, despite numerous guest appearances with artists like Iggy Pop or REM, it's taken her nearly 40 years to get to this point. Fortunately, Guitars and Microphones is a confident step forward, facing hard situations, regret, and loss with strength, depth, and resilience. But fans shouldn't expect this to be a downer; these songs are anchored in a contemporary aesthetic that buoys the mood.

Pop icon Sia Furler bears some credit for this; she helped inspire Pierson to make the album, she contributed several songs, and she acted as the executive producer. Pierson’s new wave foundation has been infused with a lot more electro-pop beats and production and that seems to reflect Sia's influence. It’s not too much of a stretch, though, because Pierson's distinctive voice neatly slides into this polished setting, with some of these tracks, like “Bottoms Up” or “Time Wave Zero”,  rivaling Katy Perry and other diva youngsters for bouncy, danceable fun. More importantly, her trademark spunk and personal experience give the material weight and demonstrate that she hasn't surrendered her character or sold out for a desperate shot at relevance.

Guitars and Microphones leads with that sass on “Throw Down the Roses”, where Pierson pumps up the infectious groove with poised attitude, refusing to be a mere follower. Girl Power is nothing new, but she sells it with the perfect amount of poisonous sneer and tight lyrical turns, "I don't ever do rocker boys like you/ I'm an artist, too/ I'm a show stopper." A couple of songs later, though, the autobiographical feel of the title track trades some of that pride for a more ambivalent mood. Pierson free associates memories of sweet youth and loss, with the raw edges of her voice conveying her mixed emotions over a synth-driven new wave melody that recalls Dale Bozzio and Missing Persons. The music is smooth, but those occasional crumbling notes in her voice imbue the piece with an essential realness.

That depth continues on “Wolves”, one of the most impressive songs on the album that moves even further away from her B-52s past. The lush production matches the poetic lyrics about love and freedom. There’s a touch of Disney musical magic in the epic beauty of the tune, with Pierson's aching sincerity adding the right poignant note on lines like “We all love to play/ We play at love then run away.” This and the somber “Pulls You Under” represent a much more nuanced character than we've heard in the past.

Where those songs are fairly direct, Guitars and Microphones also features a number of more oblique tunes. “Bring Your Arms”, for example, is full of cool imagery (“And we are running with a light bulb”) that never gelled until she provided the back story in an interview. But even without the context, the dreamy intensity and urgency make their own kind of compelling sense. It’s worth remembering that plenty of B-52s songs were built on flimsy lyrical conceits that just sounded right, like “Rock Lobster”.

The only sour note on the album has been with the first single, “Mister Sister”, which stirred up a controversy with some members of the trans community. Pierson has made it clear that her intention was to continue the same kind of supportive attitude that her band has often expressed for alternative lifestyles and anyone who feels like an outsider. Unfortunately, not everyone has received it in that spirit. While I am certainly not qualified to tell anyone how they should feel about the tune, I can empathize with Pierson’s surprise at the backlash. The song itself serves as the cleanest bridge between her quirky B-52s roots and her desire to show more emotional depth on this solo project. With or without it, she's definitely achieved that goal on Guitars and Microphones.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

What's cool - Pussy Riot, "I Can't Breathe"

Power games

Vladimir Putin probably isn't the only one wishing that protest artists Pussy Power would just shut up and go away. The group has just released a new video that will likely have the right wing American rant-o-sphere joining him in decrying the group. What brings together these ideological opposites? Their spiritual brotherhood in hating dissent and feigning outrage. Not content with speaking out against Putin's dictatorship, Pussy Riot uses their latest video, "I Can't Breathe", to draw a direct connection between the leader's state sponsored terrorism against his political opposition and the recent American cases of police overreaction and lethal violence against people of color.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, who spent 21 month in prison for Pussy Riot's church protest in 2012, partnered with Russian bands Jack Wood and Scofferlane to create the song and video. As the two women are buried in shallow graves while wearing Russian riot police uniforms, the lyrics refer to Eric Garner, who was choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo last year. After the opening lines that describe Garner as a martyr, they go on to say "If it's unfair my friend/ Make up your mind./ It's getting dark in New York City." At the end of the song, famed punk icon Richard Hell reads the transcript of Garner's last words on the police video of the incident, inflecting them with frustration and, finally, panic.

Unlike most of Pussy Riot's guerrilla protests, "I Can't Breathe" is actually a very polished and moving piece. While their raw anger and direct confrontations of the past have made their point, this video will probably reach a larger audience and make a deeper impression. The music is stark and powerful and Sasha Klokova's vocals are haunting. The simplicity reminds me of Sinead O'Connor's "Black Boys on Mopeds", which dealt with a similar topic. The video imagery is not all that subtle, nor is their accompanying press statement, but none of that detracts from the song. They draw a clear link between Russia's actions in the Ukraine, Putin's riot police assaulting protesters and the police violence and protests here.

Plenty of people here will say it's an unfair comparison that's disrespectful of police officers just trying to do their job, But just as anyone ambivalent about Russian imperialism would be leery speaking up too loudly, it shouldn't be surprising that people of color, especially young men, have trouble thinking of the police as public servants. It's too much to expect this song to effect a real change on its own, but it can certainly help keep up the pressure.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Recording review - Treasure Fleet, The Sun Machine (2015)

Better the first time I heard it


Treasure Fleet's The Sun Machine sees them trying on their grandparent's paisley and, like many retro acts, earnestly pretending that it’s a natural fit. That said, there’s nothing wrong with their idealized immersion in the past. Heck, on any given weekend, the Society for Creative Anachronism exults in chivalry and sword fights without worrying themselves about the Plague, so this is just some more harmless fun. Like the knights of the SCA and their armor, Isaac Thotz and his band have studied the old masters of forging psychedelic grooves. The Sun Machine has plenty of moments that are a treat to settle into, but the fundamental problem is that many of those parts are overwhelmingly derivative or, to be charitable, they are unsubtle homages. Assembling chain mail requires skill and the band demonstrates their own musical talent, but it’s more artisinal than artful. They could have redeemed this with a bit of irony or acknowledgment of their sources. Better yet, they could have added more of their own creative character. Instead, the record devolves into a pastiche of classic rock and psychedelia.

The core idea is quite interesting. The Sun Machine has a grander scope than just an album, as it serves as the score to a short film also written by Thotz. Fittingly, this evokes Pink Floyd’s soundtrack work like More, rather than a concept album. But without context of the movie, it’s hard to draw any kind of coherent story from these songs. The lyrics ramble from stoned bicycling to seeking mental balance in a free form association. Still, that's hardly a detriment for this kind of music where clarity is rarely expected.

The first track, “The View  From Mt Olympus”, blends bits of “Roundabout” by Yes with The Who’s Tommy (especially “Sparks”) along with some Moody Blues. It’s packed with a host of retro touchstones, with the trippy vibe accentuated by mutated guitar distortion, draped in washes of echo and wah, all compressed into a little more than three minutes. What’s not to love? Treasure Fleet still had me, even as they seemed to be trying to win a bar bet on how many allusions they could cram in.

Unfortunately, they lost me two songs later with “Max Consumption”. The cool motorik beat and obsessive drive remind me of Brian Eno’s “Third Uncle”. It's a phenomenally catchy song, but as much as I enjoy the music, the lack of original lyrical content kills it. Aside from the opening verses, the bulk of the song is a warped medley of unrelated tunes, from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and Queens of the Stone Age’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer" to Harry Nilsson’s “Lime in the Coconut”, all shoehorned into the same relatively tuneless chant. The Kinks, Simon and Garfunkel, the Dead Boys, and a line from “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground join the party as well. It's surprising that they left out “Mother’s Little Helper” and “White Rabbit” to round out the loose theme of food and drugs. There's a long history of appropriating pieces of other songs, from jazz musicians quoting pop melodies during their solos to hip hop sampling. A reference can become a building block to extend the piece, a recognition of a similar theme, or a way to comment on the material. It can even be a little in-joke for those paying attention. In this case, though, the borrowed lyrics don’t mesh or build on the original words and it feels like Treasure Fleet is either lazy or have little regard for their audience. They even lifted the title from The Kinks' "Maximum Consumption". It's frustrating because, without the distraction of the purloined lines, they could have expanded their own words into a great piece. Instead, this cheap imitation sabotages a good song and makes it impossible to listen to the rest of the album’s musical allusions without a jaded ear.

That hurts because there’s plenty of good material on The Sun Machine and Treasure Fleet even came up with some of it on their own. Honestly, if I weren't already so familiar with their sources, I could have easily added another star to my score. Other listeners might not be so picky. But I’d still recommend bands like The Men, The Electric Mess, or even Acid Baby Jesus, if you want to hear a good blend of retro and neo psych jams.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

What's cool - GZA, "The Mexican"

Updated and appreciated, a classic made over: restated

First of all, a shout out to my oldest friend Vince, who recently gifted me with the Fantagraphics Hip Hop Family Tree. It's been great to learn more about the street side of the culture and how familiar artists fit into the narrative, as well as names I hadn't come across before. Even though "The Mexican" by Babe Ruth (1972) shows up as #17 on the "Breaks and Beats" discography in the back of Volume 1, I had never heard this unlikely influential track. It's fitting that this British prog band did their own version of sampling by incorporating Ennio Morricone's "For a Few Dollars More" into the song, but that's not really how they became so relevant to the budding hip hop scene. For that, you can thank DJs like Jellybean Benitez who keyed into the Latin beat and turned it into a freestyle/disco club hit and B-Boy favorite. Benitez went on to remix/record his cover of the song in 1984 to top the dance charts.

Now Wu-Tang Clan's GZA has taken the tune on and expanded it with his own lyrics. The original version laid out the bare bones story of Chico Fernandez, who signs on with Santa Anna's army and presumably dies in the siege of the Alamo. GZA digs deeper, painting Fernandez as an outlaw player, gunfighter and hustler. It should come as no surprise that GZA's flow maintains the edge that fans expect with taut imagery, relentless rhythm, and a compelling rhyme scheme.

Jose "Choco" Reynoso's arrangement also updates the piece. It sounds like he's pulled in elements from both the original and Jellybean's cover, but he adds his own twists, starting with layering Janita Haan's first sung line into the classical introduction as a foretaste just before it rushes into the beat and GZA's rap. Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) steps in with a guitar solo that provides the real musical treat. The first time around, he plays with some spaghetti Western riffs, but the second pass rips into some wicked glitched out jams before taking it home.

GZA continues working on his next release, Dark Matter, but this gem is apparently just a side gift to fans to keep us patient. Thank you, Sir. May we have another?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Recording review - Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Ska Me Forever (2015)

One step back and one step beyond


Music reviews shouldn't start with a history lesson, and ska fans are already familiar with the twists and turns of how Jamaica’s interpretation of R&B evolved through the Two-Tone revival, leading to third wave’s pop punk approach. A review would come in handy in this case, though, because Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra works their way through the whole rainbow of chank beat experience on Ska Me Forever. They adroitly leap from DYI, rough punk jams to tightly arranged horn masterpieces, replete with retro pop cool. That perspective grows out of the band’s own extensive back story, starting in back 1988. While they've been a mainstay of the Japanese scene for most of that time and they've build a strong fanbase in Europe, their biggest exposure in the US has been their 2013 Coachella appearance. Ska Me Forever aims to expand on that toehold.

The Japanese have demonstrated plenty of talent for taking on jazz, classic rock, metal, and garage rock, but I wasn't quite sure how they’d do with ska. It turns out that Skapara, as their fans call them, brings a deep love for the genre, especially its older forms, but they retain a playfulness that is rooted in modern third wave ska. Except for the smattering of Japanese language across these tracks, it would be easy to imagine Ska Me Forever as the product of a SoCal band that still respected the roots. I especially enjoy how they reach beyond the obvious, such as with the opening track, “Peddlers”, which leaps from a surf guitar riff into a hyperactive Eastern European vamp, or with their jaunty cover of the mariachi standard, “Cielito Lindo”. In both of these songs, Skapara takes the natural rhythms that already favor a chop beat and they bring in other ska elements to add their own twist, like the percussive hiccup vocalization.

“Peddlers” is also a great start because it builds up a frantic energy that sets up the next track, “One Way Punk”, to propel the album forward. That fun tune blends “Blitzkreig Bop” with “I Fought the Law” and shows off sneering English vocals. Like so much of the Ramones’ work, it can’t decide whether it’s a love song or an outsider declaration of freedom. The “Hawaii 5-0” tagline wraps it up with a bit of light irony.

My favorite track on the album, though, is “Damned”, which features the DJ Fantastic Plastic Machine (Tomoyuki Tanaka). The band lays down a jazzy, spy music groove, with FPM contributing a busy mechanical percussion against the chank beat and some great glitchy breaks. The guitar fills are full of greasy twang, anchored by a bassy sax. The organ solo is phenomenal, but the tune never loses sight of the nightclub dancefloor, eventually accelerating into a full-blown “oonce” beat accented with a Latin horn line. As if that wasn’t enough, FPM added another layer of surprise, punctuating the song with a vocal sample (“Ai!”) that I thought was lifted from the intro of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”. Instead, it turned out to be the start of a non-sequitur phrase, “I want more discos,” delivered in a Bart Simpson voice. This chopped and mutated cubist soundscape finally collapses, but it’s a false ending that slides right back into the original jazzy progression to take it home.

“Damned” is an extreme example, but Ska Me Forever sticks its fingers in everybody’s pies, and each time pulls out a ska plum. Even at their strangest -- Skapara’s cover of “Tennessee Waltz” is a Jimmy Smith inspired soul-gospel revival, but with jaw harp in the background -- they never lose the joy and movement that ska embodies. The bulk of the album stays on more familiar ground, with tracks like "Senkou" and "Wake Up!" capturing the party attitude of bands like Reel Big Fish and Skankin' Pickle. Ska Me Forever succeeds on several levels: it's a great introduction to the band, it shows off ska's evolution and connections to popular music, and, with songs like "Damned", it offers some ideas for taking ska into future without losing the core character.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Concert review - The Green, with Through the Roots

4 February 2015 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO, Ft. Collins CO)

There's no better way to fight the February chill than soaking in the warm sounds of the islands. Hawaiian band The Green brought their pop-flavored reggae to the Aggie as part of their Chocolate & Roses tour. While the venue wasn't packed, the enthusiastic audience was clearly familiar with the band's songs. Their opening act, San Diego's Through the Roots, was a good pairing. Neither band is locked into a slavish interpretation of reggae, but both were able to draw on the power of the one-drop to share their positive messages.

012 Through the Roots Through the Roots made a strong impression with their first song. The electronic intro swirled around a vocal clip of Bob Marley talking about richness, creating an electro-dub vibe before the band dropped into "Dancing in the Rain". The synth element proved to be a big part of their sound, with keyboard driven bass lines, thickly reverbed drums, and lots of toys to warp the guitar tone. Even when bass player Budda Foster switched to bass guitar, it was so heavily processed, that it sounded more produced than his keyboard riffs.

010 Through the Roots
The band moved even further away from the purist reggae ideal on their next tune, which relied on heavier rock guitar. Throughout the set, lead guitarist Scott Curtis rarely slipped into the standard repetitious fill that's ubiquitous in reggae. Instead, he approached the songs from a modern rock perspective. This led to some very interesting interludes, where the whole band fell together on a common melodic theme to break up the flow of laid-back, mid-tempo beats.

018 Through the Roots
Lead singer and rhythm guitarist Evan Hawkins added the third key element to the band's "Cali-reggae" sound, with a strong R&B vocal style that complemented the positive lyrics. He showed off a good range, but most of the time, his casual stage presence didn't generate as much energy as his shout outs on behalf of The Green. This made their set less about any player's personality and more about the group's tight musicianship. Those coordinated riffs to shake things up were just the start. Through the Roots had clearly polished their arrangements and thought a lot about their song transitions. While they didn't overshadow The Green, they served as a tasty appetizer for the main course.

035 The Green
The soulful pop spine of The Green's last release, Hawai'i 13 (2013, review here), combined with the chill set from Through the Roots, had me expecting a fairly relaxed performance, but The Green set me straight right away. A dramatic soundtrack built up the anticipation as they took the stage and they quickly jumped right into the steady groove of "Good One". Where the album version is a soothing philosophical reaction to over-indulgence ("It must have been a good time, baby, whoa"), this take was more immersed in the party mood that preceded the hangover. Charismatic lead singer Caleb Keolanui worked the crowd and radiated a loose exuberance that sold the song.

047 The Green
By the time they had played four or five tunes, the whole front line on stage had taken their turns at lead vocals, That versatility kept the audience engaged, While the singers weren't interchangeable -- guitarist JP Kennedy had a rawer raspy tone with rich, warm character and each tune pulled in the right persona to serve the song -- the handoffs distributed people's attention from one end of the stage to another. Also, when they pooled together on harmonies, it was easy to hear their Hawaiian roots in the sweet mix.

092 The Green
None of that should eclipse the backline rhythm section. BW Watanabe's keyboard bass lines filled out the bottom end and felt organic enough that I never missed a bass guitar in the mix. While he covered backing vocals and assorted keyboard comping above and beyond the bass, he seemed happy to lurk in the background, which didn't do full justice to his contribution. It was a treat watching him cover the fat low end, but still nail the sharp synth stabs or add the understated textures that filled out the sound. Drummer Jordon Espinoza by contrast played large, proving himself a master of fills. This drove the looser live feel, but never compromised the fundamental groove of the music.

074 The Green
As The Green smoothly flowed through their setlist, it was clear that they had worked out the dynamic progression for maximal impact. Songs found their own climaxes, but they never neglected the tenor of the whole performance. Drop out breaks accentuated the higher intensity moments and lazy grooves led to bigger builds. In particular, it would have been easy for them to lose momentum when they explored a moodier groove, like during "Never", but they maintained a taut focus that served to set up the the big beat funky chank of "Rootsie Roots".

118 The Green
Given that the tour was named after the band's most soulful number, "Chocolate & Roses", the crowd was primed to hear that gem of pop perfection, and it seemed like The Green was ready to deliver it late in their set. Easing into the jazzy soul vamp, Keolanui dedicated the groove to the ladies in the audience and they responded enthusiastically. As the intro stretched out, he riffed on Minnie Riperton's "Lovin' You", "Loving you is easy, cause you're beautiful", but it was all a feint. They wouldn't pull out the tune until their encore, but they made up for it then by bringing a representative woman on stage to serve as a focal point. She danced with poise and graciously received literal chocolate and roses as Keolanui's serenaded her. The arrangement incorporated some bigger dynamic swings that upped the emotional ante, but they avoided any sense of irony and pastiche, preserving the purity of the tune.

054 The Green
Hawaii may be geographically far from Jamaica, but The Green made the island connection work with a high energy, positively conscious performance.

More photos on my Flickr.

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.