Easy Star Records

Roots reggae from … New Zealand? Who knew? But it matters not where The Black Seeds call home – these lads can play.

Though they’re known as veteran skankers back home, The Black Seeds have hit these shores for the first time with a new release on the Easy Star label, Solid Ground. The foundation is authentic-vibe 70’s roots reggae with threads of funk and soul woven through – but make no mistake about it: these are no stuck-in-time-“I’m-wearin’-bellbottoms-so-I-must-be-cool” wannabes. The tunes may sound familiar and old-school, but there’s a passion and freshness at the same time.

Led by guitarist/vocalist Barnaby Weir (and no – no relation that I know of, you crazy Heads, you), The Black Seeds are an eight-piece band who know how to layer guitar, keys and horns atop a bedrock of bass and percussion while keeping things sounding raw at the same time. The cuts on Solid Ground are hopeful without being daisy-eyed; topical without sounding like calls-to-arms. (The fact of the matter is, New Zealand is no stranger to oppression: the native Maoris’ push for cultural and political recognition shares many similarities to the Rastafarians’ struggle in Jamaica.)

The Black Seeds manage to play beyond the normal boundaries of reggae without compromising the music’s heart. While “Rotten Apple” has all the thump of a vintage Parliament-Funkadelic jam (lacking only the Mothership), “Afrophone”’s punchy horns and get-on-the-good-foot rhythm recall James Brown and the J.B.s at their peak – and the Seeds manage to pull it all off while retaining their voice. They make the blend of sounds feel absolutely natural. This is not a reggae band dropping a novelty funk cover into the middle of a set; this is simply Black Seeds music.

And, of course, there’s a whole lot of good, solid reggae. The opener “Come To Me” launches with a cool retro-reverb guitar lick and settles into a laid-back skank over the top of a core-of-the-earth bass line. The percussion weaves and bobs with the horns while Weir shares some advice on positive vibes. (In fact, positive vibes are the fuel for this Mothership: songs like “Love Is A Radiation”, “Send A Message” and “Step At A Time” all offer thoughts on living a kinder existence without getting in your face.) Lay back and enjoy the slow spacey drift of the instrumental “The Bubble” or the classic-style mix of “Make A Move Dub” (think vintage Black Ark Lee “Scratch” Perry without the livestock samples) … ‘tis all head bobs and smiles.

Here’s where I’m at as of this point in 2009: Easy Star has two of the year’s best reggae releases to their credit – their in-house Lonely Hearts Dub Band project (by the Easy Star All-Stars) and The Black Seeds’ Solid Ground. The former will make you feel good; the latter will make you feel good … and make you feel.

‘Tain’t a bad way to end this decade, folks.


Brian Robbins also reviews Helen Henderson this week.