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Bob Marley & The Wailers

Island 9256
Released: September 1975
Chart Peak: #151
Weeks Charted: 6

Bob MarleyWhen Bob Marley and the Wailers play reggae, they approach something akin to temporal release. One of their Jamaican hits ("Trench Town Rock") put it succinctly: "One good thing about music/When it hits you feel no pain."

In contrast to the polished "chart" reggae essayed by artists like Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker, the Wailers brew a more potent blend of herbal and melodic remedies -- aural impressions of ganga-befogged mental expanses, dotted with lucid oases of dancing souls, free at last. Marley naturally eschews strings and assorted orchestral goo; he hardly needs them. He prefers instead wah-wah and synthesizer, the spaced-out effects popularized in this country by Sly and Stevie Wonder.

By merging original compositions, tight instrumental reflexes and a distilled mix of church voices (exiled), the Wailers (like the Family Stone) can lay claim to musical completeness. (Other Jamaican stars, like "Toots" Hibbert and the Maytals, only sing and compose.) The group's three founding members all handle vocal as well as instrumental chores. Percussionist Bunny Livingstone sings with the gospel intensity of Eddie Kendricks, while lead guitarist Peter McIntosh rasps with the emotive force of David Ruffin.

But the main vocalist, and the band's chief creative focus, is Bob Marley (probably most familiar as the composer of "Stir It Up"). His brittle vocal tones, parched locutions and angular metrics propel the band with lazy force. In Marley's mouth, reggae almost sounds simple.

Marley's lyrics, generally sparse, encourage an equally languid instrumental spaciousness. The band's rhythmic pulse resides in the restrained interchange among Aston "Family Man" Barrett's loping bass, Carlie Barrett's splintered drums, and McIntosh's swat-chunk guitar. Wire Lindo's keyboard incursions, on organ, piano and synthesizer, further garnish this mainstream with bounding harmonic quips.

Most of Marley's compositions hover in an iridescent half-haze of mystery; his oblique allusions frequently draw on a recondite imagery, based in Rastafarian iconography. (Rastas live in the knowledge of human divinity, incarnate in the person of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.) The cumulative impact of aromatic lyrics and loping pace builds an aura of privileged spiritual access -- as if the listener were privy, however indirectly, to ecstatic vision in a kind of Jamaican Gnosticism.

Burnin' offers a rather more representative sampling of the Wailers' unique wares than Catch A Fire, their previous US LP. For one thing, the album sticks more closely to the ensemble's live sound, minus too many psyche-delicate embellishments. For another, it contains more individual high-points, although collectors will still want African Herbsman (Trojan TRLS 62), an English anthology of Jamaican Wailer singles.

Among the new material, "I Shot the Sheriff" stands out. Opened by bone-dry rim shots, the group enters vocally over whip-muffled guitar against staccato piano, ethereal. "I shot the sheriff/But I swear it was self-defense." Marley's skin-taut phrasing accents the song's metaphorical thrust, protesting an oppressive temporal order: "Every day the bucket a go a well/One day the bottom a go drop out." It is righteous threat reiterated by "Burnin' and Lootin'," although the ultimate aim remains life: "Give me the food and let me grow."

The album includes several other notable cuts, ranging from the elated stride of "Put It On" to Marley's variant of "We're A Winner" (the Impressions hit), a Rastafarian anthem called "Get Up, Stand Up ("Stand up for your rights"). Remakes of earlier Wailer hits like "Small Axe" and "Duppy Conqueror" also crop up; while neither quite approximates the weird halo surrounding the original singles, poorly recorded as in a pale dream, both contribute strongly.

On most of these songs Marley's singular vision of a gentle yet unsparing justice prevails, shaping the band's melodic and lyric attack. Typically, the Rasta's pride assaults Mammon's vanity: "If you are a big tree/We are the small ax/Sharpened to cut you down." Marley tries to let the mute wisdom within an oppressed people speak, by recollecting, in words and music, the travails of captivity. This complex message is crucially transmitted by a flicked wrist; as the man said, "One good thing about music/When it hits you feel no pain."

- Jim Miller, Rolling Stone, 1/17/74.

Bonus Reviews!

Reggae emanates from the troubled Shantry Town area of Kingston, Jamaica, where people live in cardboard houses in the shadow of the elegant resort hotels patronized by tourists on weekend junkets to the Islands. Perhaps as a result of the omnipresent pressure that seems to hover over Kingston, reggae does not blast or explode. Instead, it seethes hypnotically, revolving around the central instrument -- the bass guitar -- working into a quiet, often pretty, frenzy, like a tea kettle that wants to let off its steam but simmers just short of the boiling point. It is only the sparseness of the sound, the utter simplicity of the style, that sometimes causes people to dismiss it lightly. As Michael Thomas put it in Rolling Stone, it is "the throb of the Island, the dead-simple beat that's so easy nobody else can play it, only illiterate Jamaicans."

There is a definite cultural gap facing Bob Marley & Co. in their quest for general acceptance in the States. The Wailers are Rastafarians (briefly, as I understand it, Rastafarianism is a brotherhood based on the tenets of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican evangelist of the Thirties, who preached all black men are lost tribesmen of Africa and the goal of all exiled black brothers should be to return to their Mount Zion and join their African ancestors), and they have their own way of doing things, right down to their own dialect. Would-be interviewers who have gone to seem them in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles have found it difficult to understand any two consecutive words, and invariably walk away scratching their heads, wondering what they're going to make up for their interviews. Not so good for publicity.

But all language and cultural barriers melt away when you hear the Wailers wail. Although their records are a pale approximation of their concert performances, their new album, Burnin', is a giant step forward, in terms of accessibility, from their only other U.S. release, Catch a Fire. There are two instant classics in the newer package. The first, "Get Up, Stand Up," a rallying cry for the oppressed, is basically a 1970's civil-rights anthem. Part of the appeal of the song, and of reggae music in general, is that the social message it carries has a validity in the context of Jamaican society that it hasn't had here since the last protest songster went out and bought himself an electric guitar. The second gem, "Small Axe," is a perfect example of Marley's mixing Biblical wisdom with stoned Rastafarian morality. Both songs have melodies that will stick like glue both to your tongue and to your psyche, as do most of the Wailers' compositions.

It is doubtful, given the subtlety of their music and the intensity of their message, that the Wailers will become an overnight sensation here, at least not right away. After all, reggae sings out the heart and soul of an island and its people; it is not merely an innocent form of entertainment between cocktail parties for them, and it is impossible to expect most Americans, who ignore their ghettos so blatantly, to be attuned to the plight of artists living in the ghettos elsewhere. But the Wailers -- and reggae -- will catch on eventually. Questions of sociology aside, reggae is just about the best musical medicine for rock culture shock on the market today.

- Gary Kenton, Stereo Review, 3/74.

This LP is a significant venture into the folklore of the Jamaican people. The songs in reggae format kindle lights ablaze with images of shanty towns and the sadness of life for the destitute. It is the Jamaican version of the blues. Superb vocal and instrumental treatment. Bob Marley contributes six of the 10 tunes. Best cuts: "I Shot The Sheriff" (with a soul/choral blending), "Put It On," "One Foundation."

- Billboard, 1975.

Exactly who made up the Wailers on this recording remains a question. Some say it was the last American release on which Marley, Tosh, and Livingstone all appeared; others suggest that Livingstone had abandoned the group, in part because of Chris Blackwell's decision to give Marley name billing, and in part because of his own solo ambitions. The cover, on the other hand, would suggest that all three were involved; neither the album nor the CD list personnel. The growth on this recording is obvious compared with Catch a Fire. Their political agenda moves to the fore, with classics like "I Shot the Sheriff," "Get Up, Stand Up," and "Burnin' and Lootin'." In addition, Marley establishes clearly his individuality and power as the lead voice in the group -- previously, it was is guitar that was featured. The strongest of their early U.S. albums, the digital remix of the Tuff Gong CD is a sonic revelation. A

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Another extraordinary collection of songs with the Wailers, strongly featuring the vocal blend of Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingstone on such songs as "Get Up, Stand Up," "I Shot the Sheriff," and "Burnin' and Lootin.'" The last album to feature the original group. * * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Burnin' features the Wailers' classic harmonies on some of their best material; "Get Up, Stand Up," "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Burnin' and Lootin'" took the world by storm. * * * * *

- Lawrence Gabriel, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

With guitarist/vocalist Peter Tosh and percussionist/vocalist Bunny Livingstone in the lineup, Bob Marley's tight group of Rastafarian reggae warriors defined an entire genre with a socially conscious, uplifting session that ranges from gospel to roots to rebel rock. Backed by Chris Blackwell's flawless production, timeless tracks like "Get Up, Stand Up" helped make the genius Trenchtown prophet an international sensation. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

Righteous and seriously in the pocket, this is the last Wailers album with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Bob Marley's soulful cry is almost rivaled by the sticky organ riffs and fat-bottom beats, and their original version of "I Shot the Sheriff" is far creepier and more desperate than Eric Clapton's hit cover.

Burnin' was chosen as the 319th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

After making their North American debut in 1973 with Catch a Fire, the Wailers returned a few months later with Burnin'. Where as Catch a Fire strived, and sometimes strained, to establish the Jamaican group with a new audience by overdubbing in rock musicians, Burnin' presents the original Wailers -- Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny "Wailer" Livingstone -- without frills. The righteous fury of "I Shot the Sheriff," "Burnin' and Lootin'" and "Small Axe" is underscored by a mix that pushes Aston Barrett's melodic bass to the forefront while the guitars of Marley and Tosh alternately chop up and accent the groove. Livingstone balances Marley's cutting tone with high harmonies and hymnlike hopefulness on "Hallelujah Time" and "Put It On."

But this is also a transitional work. The big three were splintering, and strong bonus selections left off the original album, such as Livingstone's mystic vision "Reincarnated Souls" and Tosh's weary lament "No Sympathy," are included in the 2004 deluxe edition reissue and suggest what might've been. As affirmed by a bonus disc that documents a '73 concert, it would be Marley's band from then on. Though the Wailers' trademark high harmonies are decimated with Livingstone already gone, Marley's charisma fills the void. * * * *

- Greg Kot, Rolling Stone, 11/25/04.

Released six months after Catch a Fire, Burnin' was the last studio effort of the original Wailing Wailers -- so named, Marley once said, because "we start out cryin'." Burnin' had a lean, hard-hitting sound that hewed closer to homegrown Jamaican reggae than Catch a Fire did, and the album wasn't an immediate hit. Among the highlights of the recent deluxe reissue from Island is a previously unreleased thirteen-minute version of "Lively Up Yourself."

- Tom Moon, Rolling Stone, 3/10/05.

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