I Grade

If you haven’t redeemed those Christmas gift certs to your favorite record shop yet, boys and girls, I have just the thing to hold the here-comes-another-Jack-London-winter blues at bay. (And if you have cashed ‘em in, then shake those piggy banks … this is good medicine.)

The matter at hand is Joyful Noise, a walloping 16-artist/20-track reggae compilation offered up by the good folks at I Grade Records out of St. Croix. The concept is an interesting one: roots artists hailing from the Virgin Islands, Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, and Ethiopia are rotated through four distinct chapters – Harvest Riddim, Discipline Riddim, Flying High Riddim, and Grasslands Riddim. We’ll talk about the flavor differences and a taste test in a moment; what you really need to know is this is an absolute guaranteed handful of sunshine that fits in your pocket, kids. Take it anywhere, throw it in the player, and there you go: instant good vibes. (One of the beauties of Joyful Noise is, even though it’s a compilation, it really works as an album – the songs flow and complement each other perfectly.)

I can tell you right here and now that there are no low points on this album (and with this much music an occasional off-moment might be expected); the differences among the riddims are a matter of style rather than a measure of enjoyability. In the end, it’s all good stuff.

The sweet, laid-back vibe of the Harvest Riddim is represented right off the bat by Jamaican rootsman Duane Stephenson’s “Hard Times.” A perfect lead-off track, “Hard Times” features Stephenson’s old-school-style testifying backed by just-right dashes of female vocals. (I’ll avoid beat-to-death clichés, but yes: this song can’t help but conjure up some classic memories.) Stephenson returns later on in the collection with the Grassland Riddim-flavored “I’m Fine”. (My personal Grassland favorite: “Modern Pharaoh” by Pressure.) Dig the horn work on this particular riddim set – dub-like layers and whisps dance with the percussion and bass, providing an easy, almost-jazzy drift.

The slightly edgier feel of the Discipline Riddim may accentuate the power of the lyrics, but it remains just that: powerful, but never threatening. (These songs bear messages of hope rather than pointless anger.) Lend an ear to NiyoRah’s “Gone Crazy” or “Red Hot” by Jahdan Blakkamoore, with its question to the world:

How is it there where you are?
Is it safe to walk the streets?
Is it free from war?

You have to love the threads of deep-soul trombone woven through the Flying High Riddim-based tunes. Blakkamore makes a second appearance in this round of styles with “Flying High,” while the Ethiopian brother duo The Nazarenes lay down warm, thick spiritual vibes in “Everlasting.” Doesn’t matter where you seek your personal inspiration – this kind of balm works with all.

In the end, Joyful Noise is simply a great roots reggae album, one that both the seasoned dread-headed fan and the novice can enjoy. 16” of snow in the forecast, you say? Followed by a week of sub-zero temps? It’ll be what it’ll be, boys and girls; in the meantime, make some Joyful Noise.