John Clarke Rootsy Reggae / Visions of John Clarke

[Wackie's; 2006]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: roots reggae, dub
Others: Peter Tosh, Jezzreel, Sugar Minott

This two-fer is a rare breed of international pop reissues: it's really, really alright. John Clarke is no major figure in the annals of Jamaican music, although you might (like AllMusic) easily confuse him with contemporaneous reggae singer Johnny Clarke, who is. And these albums aren't especially collectible, experimental, or even memorable – in fact, there's really only one LP's worth of quality material between the two records. But when most Americans' reggae consumption remains limited to Bob Marley's Legend, or shelves worth of seminal Peter Tosh and Congos full-lengths and Trojan and Soul Jazz compilations in the best cases, it's refreshing to hear a couple of studio albums from a minor figure that aren't bursting with hit after hit.

Clarke's music has been so long forgotten, in fact, that there's little readily available biographical information. When he released Visions of John Clarke for the Bullwackies label in 1979, he had already released a slew of successful singles since leaving Jamaica for the U.S. in 1973. Visions is much more than a collection of potential hit A-sides, however: it's a potent mix of roots reggae pop forms and murky psychedelia, often sounding like Sugar Minott's band dabbling in guttural Amon Duul II tribalism and ominous northeastern Brazilian acid folk. The musicians don't fuse styles as seamlessly as they might – the truly transcendent stuff only happens during instrumental outros, causing it to feel cut off from the proper songs – but Visions is still a solid choice for listeners who dig dub's warped textures and like to hear something substantial in the way of hooks and melodies.

A number of record companies, including Studio One, wanted the distribution rights to Visions, and New York's Makossa eventually won them. Feeling that the album was a bit hastily slapped together, the label allowed Clarke and notable Jamaican sessions players like Lloyd Barnes, Clive Hunt, and Prince Douglas to re-record many of the songs and lay down some new tracks as well; Rootsy Reggae resulted. Clarke's songs sound punchier, polished, and more soulful the second time around, approximating Peter Tosh's Legalize It's re-reading of early '70s Stevie Wonder's maximalism, but the thicket of added guitars, organs, and synths borders on suffocating. Rootsy Reggae's pure pop smarts are undeniable, but it's ultimately too taut, too refined. It's a testament to Clarke's songwriting, though, that his tunes are multi-faceted enough to encourage multiple studio interpretations. Regardless of their production, these are strong tunes – not timeless or essential, but capable of beaming in spite of both hasty decisions and overcalculations.

1. Big Leg Mary
2. You're Just the One
3. John Brown
4. Boss I
5. Creator
6. Recession
7. Pollution
8. Wasn't It You
9. You Like to Borrow
10. Babylon Spanking
11. Abortion
12. Bum Bang Festival
13. Good Collie Weed
14. You Like to Borrow
15. You're Just the One
16. Tell Me the Truth
17. We Need Some Solution
18. Wasn't It You
19. Babylon Spanking
20. John Brown
21. Shack up with You
22. Come Back Darling

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