Most reggae fans, if they didn’t know the band, would never guess that Taj Weekes & Adowa aren’t one of the golden-age bands of the 70s, contemporaries of Bob Marley, Burning Spear and the rest. Those familiar with studio recording from across the ages would notice the cleaner production quality, as opposed to what was coming out of cramped, dingy Jamdown analog rooms throughout that time (and what that stuff sounds like as overcompressed mp3s from the web). Weekes has an individualistic sound, setting his aphoristic, socially conscious lyrics to slinky, artfully orchestrated organic grooves with low-key guitar multitracks, flowing organ, incisive piano, and a tight, fat rhythm section. What sets Weekes apart is that he doesn’t just vamp out on a couple of chords – his melodies are anthemic and shapeshifting, as equally informed by psychedelic rock and the 60s as by Bob Marley. His expressive voice sails up to the rafters on occasion when he wants to really drive a point home or match the music. Weekes and the band are playing the album release show for their new one Love Herb & Reggae at the Knitting Factory on Feb 12 at around 10 for $12 in advance. Popular 90s artist Mighty Mystic opens at around 8.
The album – streaming at Storyamp – kicks off with Let Your Voice, as in “let your voice be as loud as your silence.” In an age where so much of what’s left of reggae is ditsy good-vibes hippie bs, this allusive revolutionary anthem is a caustic blast of Caribbean heat. Weekes follows that with the similarly catchy, subtly dub-tinged Life in the Red. It’s an unselfconsciously poetic look at breaking free…but for a price. “Traded my desk for convenience of life…caught dead fighting fire with a feather,’ he warns.
The sad rocksteady ballad Full Sight is another example of how Weekes’ songwriting looks back to far more sophisticated era in reggae, both musically and lyrically. Giant Beast is a vengeful anti-tyranny anthem with a mighty intro – “One day her name no longer spoken, one day her ruins to my right,” Weekes nonchalantly intones. The album has a couple of version of the single Here I Stand, a brave choice of song in the world where Boom Bye Bye still tends to be the norm rather than the exception.
“You don’t need no wings to fly,” is the mantra of the soaring, sunny title track. Bullet for a Gun casts Weekes’ antiviolence message into a elegant soul-jazz influenced ballad with some hints of vintage dub. Mediocrity is an especially defiant number: “I won’t wallow in self-pity and I won’t make peace with mediocrity …I shun the comfort of compromise,” Weekes insists. More songwriters ought to make that promise.
Rebels to the Street adds gospel vocals to what could be a vintage Brixton Riots-era Aswad song. The Laws, the most Marley-esque track here, revisits age-old logic for legalizing the herb – what are we watiing for, in New York it’s impossible to walk down the street or ride the train without at least catching a whiff of the wisdom weed. The album winds up with Was It You, a love song with some sweet melodica that reminds of Augustus Pablo; the acoustic Rebel, which attests to how oppression creates “criminals;” and St. Lucia on My Mind, a fond shout-out to Weekes’ home turf in the islands. It’s hard to think of another roots reggae album this purist and smart and original released in the last few years.