Gone Are the Days
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2007, Volume 14, #3
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Bob Marley once was asked for his opinion regarding the many white musicians who were incorporating reggae rhythms into their work. "Itís not hard for them to play the notes," he responded, "but whatís really hard for them to get is the feel. Thatís whatís missing."
Although several non-Jamaican outfits ó most notably UB40 and The Police ó were able to stage lucrative careers by following this approach, their level of success likely was bolstered by the fact that they chose to appropriate an artistic framework rather invest themselves in a Rastafarian lifestyle. It is true that reggae gained fans around the globe, and in recent years, interest in the genre has been reignited by performers such as Gwen Stefani, the Black-Eyed Peas, and Sean Paul. At the same time, though, the philosophies that lie at the heart of reggaeís Rastafarian core have failed to entrench themselves outside its Caribbean base. The non-native artists who have tried to adopt these philosophies and principles as their own frequently have found themselves struggling to overcome an array of musical and cultural barriers.
This is exactly the issue that Joseph Israel faces on his latest endeavor Gone Are the Days, though it also must be said that thereís a lot to admire about the outing. A wonderful singer, Israel does an admirable job throughout the set of capturing the essence of reggaeís cadences as well as its phrasing, and he never sounds like he is deploying the kind of fake Jamaican accent that made UB40ís early work so cringe-inducing.
To craft Gone Are the Days, Israel settled into the Caribbean islandís legendary Tuff Gong studios. Consequently, he had some of the best musical arrangers and musicians in the business at his disposal. In fact, the production of the effort makes it sound like a long, lost album from the 1970s. There is one problem, however. Although, with only a few missteps, Israel has learned how to create reggae music that feels authentic, it also is impossible to shake the notion that all he is doing is imitating what already has been proven to work. He never really offers anything of himself to the creative process.
There is an almost academic quality to the arrangements and the playing, and although Gone Are the Days features some very tight sections with beautiful singing and instrumentation, there is nothing new on the set into which reggae fans can sink their teeth. Making matters worse, Israelís lyrics are so full of heavy-handed moral philosophizing that they reduce his songs to nothing more than diatribes. Itís not that what he sings about is objectionable; itís just that, like the arrangements of the tunes, the lyrics are derivative. Consequently, the listener is unable to obtain any sense of Israelís own musical or lyrical ideas. His compositions often sound awkward and clichť ridden, which is a pity because a lot of time and effort obviously have gone into the creation of this work. Israel, himself, comes off as sincere and dedicated to his chosen musical path, and one gets the sense that with some perseverance, he can give birth to the good album that lies within his reach.
In order to get a perspective on what Israel is up against, however, itís perhaps useful to remember that jazz and blues once were the exclusive provinces of black musicians. It took years for these styles to blend with, hold influence over, and be influenced by popular culture before they became part of the musical mainstreamís landscape. Now, these two styles have developed a broader language as well as a set of approaches that has made them fair game for any artist who wants to play with either idiom. In this sense, Israel is on the cutting edge of interpreting a regional musical style in a larger cultural context. He would do well to look at artists like Bill Laswell and Matisyahu, both of whom successfully have incorporated reggae styles into their own overall vision without diluting their output. Israel needs to learn to trust his own muse, to construct songs that reflect his own experience and interpretation of the Rastafarian lifestyle, and to develop the confidence not to fall back on stock phrases and approaches. When this happens and when he learns to construct melodies that reflect his own musical ideas, Israel will be a force with which to be reckoned.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box