Normally, I wouldn't dream of reviewing a reggae or a deeply soul-inflected CD. Those are not my languages, and a critic should never venture to pass judgment on that which he doth not really understand—it's not fair to anyone, most especially himself. Thus, I almost automatically took a pass on Tarrus Riley's Mecoustic but luckily decided to give it a listen just for the hell of it. Thank God I did 'cause this is a highly hybridized collection of songs that's pretty much in a class of its own. Riley's a Rastafarian and globally known as a practitioner of Bob Marley's root style, but this CD is a very welcome surprise grounded in reggae but walking everywhere it can beyond its own borders to embrace folk, R&B, soul, and a sort of emerging style that I can only at the moment label as 'narrative', wherein the influences are so inclusive that individualizing them is impossible as the story proceeds in a very naturalistic mode
Listening to the 15 cuts in Mecoustic, one detects Ladysmith Black Mombazo, Donny Hathaway, John Martyn, Terrell, Terence Trent Darby, 60s folk rock, Taj Mahal, the Neville Bros, yes even Nick Drake and a very wide swath of others. Riley is obviously a student of music qua music and locates materials and tools everywhere. Devil's Appetite is simple, melodious, gentle, and yet a shatteringly indictment of evil, a quietly gorgeous song with a message that breaks all barriers in order to burrow past the heart and into spirit. Both subtly powerful and hypnotic, it's a cut Bruce Cockburn will find himself gasping at and smiling over, yet this multi-layered lucidity is completely typical of Riley's craft, which deftly transcends norms with impressive ease.
I can't help but typify this CD as in line with number of releases that heralded new wrinkles in the old order: Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Stevie Wonder's trilogy (Fulfillingness First Finale, etc.), Tracy Chapman's debut, Roberta Flack's early catalogue, Phoebe Snow's oeuvre, and such. Mecoustic marries a definedly black music with all others in order to evolve art itself. At the same time, it's a stirring commentary on contemporary matters that reaches backwards to presently overlooked social narratives, as in Marcus Garvey, resurrecting a philosopher ungently ignored, the extension of W.E.B DuBois and Frederick Douglas, a guy as worthy of study as Martin Luther King Jr. While the horrors of capitalism continue unabated, alternatives posited at any point need re-examination, and Garvey was purposely deep sixed because his sentiments did not accord with the predators we see so clearly now. What I mean to say is: Marcus saw them well before we did, y'all, and that means something.
You'll find yourself exhilarated many times during the long run (almost 70 minutes!) of this disc. Without even trying, it'll find a firm place in your ears, mind, and spirit because that's precisely the triad from which Riley wrote it. Mecoustic is as impeccable as any disc I've run across this year, the guy's touch in composing and arranging as affecting as his singing, the result of an aesthetic so profound that it's difficult to address in words. Ever since hearing and seeing Joseph Shabalala and Ladysmith on CD and DVD, I've been an ardent fan, and Tarrus Riley shares a LOT with the gent from South Africa, brothers whose spirits cross oceans in order to embrace the planet.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2012, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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