John Brown's Body, Pressure Points
(Easy Star Records, CD)
The historical John Brown was an abolitionist who employed guerrilla war tactics in the hopes of ending slavery. Eventually executed by hanging, he was immortalized in a Union marching song called "John Brown's Body." More than a hundred years later, a Boston-based roots-reggae octet appropriated the moniker.
The band John Brown's Body has been active for nearly a decade. Their particular blend of easy-skankin' riddims and spiritually conscious lyrics have found favor with both party-happy college kids and conscientious reggae fans.
JBB's latest disc, Pressure Points, is a total-immersion listening experience. Impeccably performed and recorded, the disc's airtight arrangements and subtle production flourishes come together in a progressive reggae juggernaut.
The musical fire of opener "Bread" is barely contained. The tune's bass line shudders and bounces as vocalist Elliot Martin sermonizes on the subject of spiritual nourishment. "This could be the first calling for the end of days / This could be the last trumpet," he sings. A grim theme for such a sprightly sounding number, but it's in keeping with Rasta tradition.
"New Blood" kicks off with a slamming backbeat and a mesmerizing guitar figure. Built on an uptempo foundation, the song's shimmering melodies intertwine seamlessly. Vocalist Martin spits staccato wordplay without sacrificing an ounce of tonality. "Are you the new blood they're pouring into a corpse or a drop of rain falling in the Biblical flood?" he asks over the tune's relentless pulse. Hey, nobody said anything about a quiz.
The rock-steady beat and dense horn lines of "Full Control" recall both Peter Tosh and Fela Kuti. Cascading sheets of wah-wah guitar are met by a fidgety bass line. "What We Gonna Do?" also makes good use of the brass, while "Picking Up" relies on a muscular start-stop riff to deliver its musical message.
Things slow down a bit with "Not Enough," a haunting minor-key tune about resilience in the face of adversity. A musical "dark night of the soul," the tune boasts a particularly sinister guitar solo. The album's title track is a downtempo number about seeing through the fog of delusion. Full of cryptic imagery, it closes the record on a decidedly somber note.
John Brown's Body make some of the finest reggae music this side of Jamaica. While Pressure Points may be too modern for purists, it definitely left a mark on me. Hear the band live on Friday, March 31, at the Higher Ground Ballroom.