The Ponys 

Laced With Romance

Not too long ago, the Ponys passed through town and jumped on a (unpaid) slot opening the Brian Jonestown Massacre show. The Ponys subsequently laid to waste the existing bill-to the point where I couldn't watch BJM sleepwalk through their set any more. They had a few ragged (in a good way, mind you) singles out at the time-one on the locally bred BigNeck Records imprint. The long awaited debut on the usually raunchy In The Red Records label (they've been together for about 3 years now), Laced With Romance, cleans up their delicate sound even more so; it's full of swirling guitars, shards of your favorite new wave band, psychedelic rock leanings, well placed organ and other keyboard noises by newest member Ian, and frontman Jereds' tortured Tom Verlaine (Television, dummy) drawl. Basically, everything a great indie rock album should be, but rarely is. If they get lumped under that genre umbrella, they have risen to the top already with this debut LP. They are a tricky sound to pinpoint, though. Mind you, this is a band with fresh footprints in the Chicago garage/scumbag set...Jared was part of the Guilty Pleasures (wild debauchery...probably the best performance of the second Rust Belt Revolt), and they, more times than not, are playing with bands that like to smash beer bottles off their heads and pass out in their own pools of blood. The Ponys, however, completely abandon the garage bandwagon. The result is a fantastic album that both drunken dirtbags and people in nice sweaters can enjoy...together. Highly recommended.

--David Palumbo

Toots and the Maytals

True Love

You won’t hear any dispute from this corner that Bob Marley is the king of reggae music. But an unfortunate side effect of his worldwide deification is that too many folks act as if he not only created the form, but that its relevance died with him. Truth is, many of reggae’s formative artists continue to tour today, strong and sturdy roots trapped underground by the ignorant back hand of a mainstream music industry that has long since written them off.

All that may be about to change, as April 6th brought the release of "True Love" from pioneers Toots and the Maytals, with the help of a diverse score of some of modern music’s most accomplished artists, from Willie Nelson to the Roots, who pay tribute and help breathe new life into the career of one of reggae’s true living legends.

Frederick "Toots" Hibbert invented reggae - at least the term. The Maytals’ 1968 hit "Do the Reggay" gave a name to the new sound coming out of Kingston, the captivating fusion of the traditional Mento (calypso) and gospel grooves of Jamaica with the smooth American R&B and soul sounds that swept the nation upon the arrival of the transistor radio. The world first saw them in 1972 in Jamaica’s first feature film, the groundbreaking "The Harder They Come," and while they never scored a mainstream hit in the states, they’ve influenced countless artists who did, and many of them return the favor in a big way on "True Love."

This is not your average "hey, we got nothin’ else goin’, let’s just do the old tunes again" collection. After all, these guys know what fresh is all about - they hold the Guinness world record for fastest album release, after recording, mixing, mastering, pressing, and releasing "Live at the Hammersmith Palais" in less than 24 hours in 1980.

Clearly, the Maytals’ fire still burns, particularly in the smokin’ original rhythm section of bassist Jackie Jackson and drummer Paul Douglas, and the passion and urgency behind the band’s performance throughout makes it hard to believe that some of these songs are four decades old. "I released this album because people need to hear the real reggae from the beginning, way back," said the fifty-seven year-old Hibbert. "So I rearranged these songs for the youth of today could copy and see what it is to have a good reggae music, you know?"

Nelson sure knows. Like he needed any more clout, his "Still is Still Moving to Me" opens the album and is the only song on it that Hibbert didn’t write. From the beginning here and through the entire album, Hibbert sings with both the fervor of youth and the wisdom and sincerity of a seasoned veteran. I’m not sure Nelson ever had the former, but he’s never been short of the latter, and there’s a strange, unfamiliar unity between his playing and the rest of the band. His style fits into the one-drop reggae beat like a glove - perhaps he’s not so unorthodox as he’s been painted all these years - he’s just been playing to a reggae beat. We all know he loves to puff the crispy montego, and maybe those braids are just his "Texas dreads." Either way, here’s to hearing Shotgun Willie leading a reggae band more often.

Eric Clapton’s talkative wah-wah and an upbeat ska beat contrast the warning lyrics of "Pressure Drop," as if to say, "enjoy the breeze, but be ready for when it all hits the fan." For Hibbert, that was when he was jailed for cheeb possession (framed, he says), the story behind the classic "54-46 Was My Number," which many recognize from the Sublime cover. Jeff Beck spits some fire as Hibbert re-tells the tale he often doesn’t like to discuss, but here seems to enjoy, scatting along with Beck’s bluesy riffs.

No Doubt, who have achieved the rare combination of pop success and maintained legitimacy, lay bare their roots with an incendiary "Monkey Man." Gwen Stefani may have become a pop starlet, but the band has always kept it real in their music, as evidenced by their releasing the Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare produced straight reggae cut "Underneath it All" as a single last year (for which they pulled a Grammy).

Trey Anastasio brilliantly complements a kickin’ "Sweet and Dandy," showing why he’s the most versatile guitarist of our time. Say what you will about the many Phish lyrics he’s penned that deal in nonsense like "thick strawberry goo" and dancing pigs, the man can play anything with ease. Whereas players like Beck can’t stay in the background, Anastasio blends in with the band to the point that you think he’s one of the original Maytals.

And what better guest to bring onto "Funky Kingston" than Bootsy Collins? Along with the Roots’ Kamal Gray and ?uestlove (the combo referred to by Collins as "Toots, Roots, and Boots"), they bring the funk with authority. And "Reggae Got Soul," too, brought with the help of great harmonies from Ken Boothe and former strength of the I-Threes, Marcia Griffiths.

Other great performances are given by Bonnie Raitt, Bunny Wailer, Ben Harper, and Keith Richards, but there are some questionable moves. Hibbert once said, "dancehall today is not important. It’s not culture, it’s not reggae... Real reggae is roots, and the rest of what is coming out is branches... You have to have something with a gospel feel." Amen, Toots - roots and gospel are dominant forces in the Maytals’ sound. But what’s Shaggy doing on this record? What’s the appeal in his voice anyway? To me, he sounds like an adversary to Gumby, or maybe a relative of Uncle Joey Gladstone’s buddy Mr. Woodchuck (I know some of you Gen Xers out there are pretending that you don‘t know exactly what I‘m talking about, but seriously, "Bam Bam" sounded so much better without "Meesalovaman."

Ryan Adams’ voice is a little too soft for a mean tune like "Time Tough," and the corny unreggae ballad "Blame On Me" is a real lousy choice for the closing track, no matter how nicely Rachael Yamagata sings on it. But these songs are far outweighed by the strength of the rest of the album, and its ability to once again bring reggae to such a wide audience.

Toots still has his mojo workin’ - it’s always worked on these and many other titans of modern music, and it says here that it’s going to work on more people than reggae’s hit in a good while.

--Seamus Gallivan

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© 2004 The Beast