Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 – #6

Bob Marley & the Wailers – Catch A Fire

I’ve struggled with this one, because I want to be respectful. I know nothing about reggae, beyond recognizing it when I hear it. And when I hear it, it all sort of sounds the same as every other time I’ve heard it. So, more than most genres, listening to a record like this is both educational and, one hopes of course, entertaining. I’m basically trying to teach my brain – with a critical assist from my ears – to hear things they’ve missed in the past during casual encounters. Consider it the aural equivalent of making love like Sting and Trudie instead of a quickie in a back alley.

My first exposure to reggae was in its influence on early Police records (two Sumner references in one post!), and in the ska bands I heard coming out of England on “90 Minutes with a Bullet” in the late ‘70s, though I knew it only as a word and not as a genre unto itself. I loved the Police (still do), did not like ska at all (that hasn’t changed much either, though the Essential Ska playlist on Spotify has some interesting possibilities), and never thought even once of trying to actually listen to some reggae so I could understand what the music press was talking about. I was far less adventurous in my early teens.

The sound is instantly recognizable on this record, with disjointed rhythms, heavy yet often subtle bass lines, and light fluttery keyboards. In the end, as a bit of a variety junky, it all just sounds too similar to itself to make much of a dent on my consciousness. Very little stands out to me. I love Marley’s vocal, and the interplay with the backing singers, on “Concrete Jungle”, which has an oppressive feeling despite the sunny sound. “High Tide or Low Tide” has a delicate rolling spirituality, and the Peter Tosh-penned “Stop That Train” has a quality that I can’t quite put my finger on, almost a gentle southern rock feel in parts. The closer, “No More Trouble”, has the feel of a spiritual again, with an insistent message.

Feeling contained by my limitations, I cued up the Reggae Classics playlist on Spotify, and it was a revelation. I think the problem is that for the average listener in this market, reggae means Marley, which means one sound and about 6 or 8 songs in rotation. (Imagine how you’d feel if your only notion of rock was, say, U2 and you’ll understand.) So unless we make the effort to change this, we aren’t exposed to the incredibly diverse range seen across different artists. For now, I like reggae just fine, but as more of a palate cleanser between other music, and not as a meal itself. But I’ll keep listening – Jimmy Cliff, especially, caught my attention – because I want to grow in my appreciation of different styles of music, and island rhythms offer warmth on a miserable autumn day.