When it comes to Jamaican music in the 1970s, "versioning"
typically refers to groundbreaking work by dub producers such as
Lee "Scratch" Perry, King Tubby, Scientist, and Keith
Hudson in recycling rhythm tracks, whether borrowing from earlier
rock steady, ska, or reggae numbers or spinning out reverb-heavy,
mixing-desk virtuosic instrumental versions of new recordings. Blood
and Fire is a UK-based reissue label that with some notable exceptions
(Horace Andy, Gregory Isaacs, and the sublime vocal duo The Congos)
leans toward the hazier (in Keith Hudson's immortal phrase, "studio
kinda cloudy"), dubbier, producer-auteur end of the spectrum
that was Jamaican music in this period.
Darker than Blue proposes a different
kind of versioning. Nearly all of its tracks are covers of American
soul songs by, among others, Curtis Mayfield, War, Bill Withers,
Mandrill, Kool and the Gang, and . . . Randy Newman? (The Tamlins
do an a-OK version of his song "Baltimore," a track that
had recently been recorded and popularized by Nina Simone.) These
covers tend toward the straightforward and unironic. There's not
a lot of signifying. There is nothing as oddball as The Upsetters'
"Kimble" (based on The Fugitive) or their string of Sergio
Leone-inspired instrumentals. Nor is Darker than Blue structured
like Van Dyke Park's Discover America (covers of Trinidadian songs
about American pop culture) or Haruomi Hosono's Bon Voyage Co. (a
Japanese artist surveying Western Orientalist kitsch). Rather than
playing up the culture clash, compilers Steve Barrow and Mark Ainley
have instead brought together songs whose versioning is consonant.
It's striking how smoothly these pieces translate (smoother than
the other way around, i.e. from reggae to American soul), and if
you're not familiar with the original songs, it's unlikely that
you'd identify these as cover versions.
The compilation takes its title from
Lloyd Charmers' 1975 cover of Curtis Mayfield's "We People
Who Are Darker than Blue." Mayfield's first version appears
on his 1970 solo debut, a go-for-broke effort that catapulted him
beyond the shadow -- glorious shadow that it was -- of his former
group, The Impressions. Mayfield's original version is a pocket
symphony whose arrangement moves from a shimmering string section
anchored by Tortoise's dream drum sound through a series of increasingly
Hollywood musical twists and turns, veering from Mayfield's sanctified,
spoken benediction atop a percussion breakdown into a Live and Let
Die-style (very much so, avant la lettre) brass arrangement and
finally a harp breakdown -- redefining the "blues harp"?
-- that invokes Alice Coltrane. Not only that, but "We People
Who Are Darker than Blue" immediately segues -- a segue that
is shorter than some of the pauses contained within the song proper
-- into the extraordinarily rousing "Move on Up."