The Wunderbar Review Section
Contact - The Wunderbar, 2 High Street, Midsomer Norton, Nr Bath, BA3 2LE. Tel: 01761 410904 www.wunderbar.co.uk
Earth Scorchers - Various Artists (PATCD06) July 2007
Local based reggae label Pop-A-Top Records, who have a spiritual home here at the Wunderbar, have just notched up another quality release to their ever growing roster. 'Earth Scorchers' is a sizzling 14 track CD compilation focusing on authentic ska as showcased by the much praised Shocks Of Mighty Sound System. Featuring exclusive tracks by The Swindon Ska Trek, The Spearmint Rhino Horns and Sandra Bell among others, the album has already been enjoying airplay by Steve Lamacq, not just on one of his shows, but featured over the course of several weeks! Now on their sixth release, Pop-A-Top Records have nurtured an unmistakable identity to their reggae sound, thanks largely to in-house producer Erin Bardwell. Highlights include 'The Fluke' by Herbie & The Collective, a saxophone led instrumental that could've come straight out of a 60's Jamaican record hop as well as the breathtaking high-pitched vocal delivery on the soulful 'Nuclear Dream' by Nevil Banton. Nevil has of course been a familiar face here at the Wunderbar in recent years, fronting the More Specials alongside Johnny Rench and more recently 'toasting' with the Pop-A-Top All Stars. 'Earth Scorchers' is a neatly packaged must-have for any discerning fan of authentic ska and rocksteady.
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The Erin Bardwell Collective - Volume 2 (PATCD05) Jan 2007
Now then, during 2006, local reggae label Pop-A-Top Records continued to expand their chain of excellence in December with their fifth release 'The Erin Bardwell Collective Vol. 2', showcasing, as Erin himself describes in the sleeve notes, 'New Sounds In Reggae Time'. Wunderbar regulars enjoyed a rare guest appearance by Erin Bardwell at the venue recently when the acclaimed Swindon based musician treated revellers to a memorable DJ set which rounded off the 'Pop-A-Top Allstars' evening in November.
Throughout Erin's new album, painstaking efforts have gone into creating the authentic 'old' sound synonymous with ska and rocksteady music from the 1960's. The crude recording techniques employed at the time may have been the staple diet of Jamaica's recording studios during the Sixties, but the passing of time and the lure of nostalgia have added an etheral 'magic' to recordings from that classic, bygone era. Listen to any old vinyl record from forty years ago or more, and the 'top end' of the EQ will almost certainly sound distorted through years of use. Erin has even taken great lengths to replicate this 'flaw' of ageing vinyl to convincing effect as the album's opening track 'Stole Your Mind' clearly boasts.
'Volume 2' isn't just a courtesy nod to retro-production chic though. Indeed, the thirteen track CD has some cracking good songs on it too. 'Swindon Train' is my personal favourite, a swooping, slow tempo instrumental, and a worthy contender for any of the timeless genre-defining instrumentals penned by the likes of The Upsetters or Harry J & The Allstars. Instrumentals aside, Erin Bardwell's latest offering also boasts some well considered lyrics too, most notably 'We Are One', a stark observation of worldwide political corruption at the hands of drugs trafficking.
Since the Pop-A-Top label was launched in 2003, co-founders Erin Bardwell and Johnny Rench have stuck to their principals and maintained a reassuringly high standard throughout the imprint's ever-growing back catalogue. I'm sure they already have more treats in store for 2007. In the meantime though, 'The Erin Bardwell Collective Vol. 2' is available direct from the label's website. File under 'Excellent'.
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You're The One b/w Good Lovin' by Johnny Rench & The Pop-A-Top Allstars (PAT004)
The whole idea of the single may be in decline, but it's good to know that some musicians, even our own local acts, are helping to keep the spirit of vinyl alive. Pop-A-Top Records, based partly in Midsomer Norton and partly in Swindon, have begun resurrecting the spirit of vinyl with a recent release by multi-talented reggae maestro Johnny Rench. Hot on the heels of last year's 'Man Cool Rides Again' album, Johnny has come up trumps again with his follow-up 'You're The One' which has been pressed exclusively as a seven inch single.
Johnny and The Pop-A-Top Allstars have gone to painstaking lengths to re-create the original lo-fidelity recording techniques associated with those original ska and rocksteady records made in Jamaica during the mid 1960's. The result is a truly irresistible 'rocksteady' style tune centred around a thumping trumpet hookline and a stunningly simple heart-warming vocal melody. This is great stuff!
Reggae has it's roots in the American rhythm and blues records of the 1950's
that would be imported into Jamaica to play at record-hops, sort of early day
sound-systems. Outdoor dances took place where revellers would travel from the
outskirts of Kingston and beyond to witness 'the selector' (or DJ) playing all
the popular hits. Jamaica soon began producing it's own music by taking these
blues rhythms and adding a stabbing back-beat to the second note of each bar,
giving reggae it's characteristic sound. The hi-energy up-tempo nature of 'Ska'
as it was first known, was soon thwarted by an unusually hot summer in 1966 that
led to the music being slowed down due to the intolerable heat. This led to a
slower version of the music known as 'Rocksteady'. Many of Jamaica's pioneering
artists from the 1960's, names such as Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster and Derrick
Morgan remain highly respected today, and reggae music in general has been a
huge influence on everyone from Stevie Wonder to the Rolling Stones and beyond.
Midsomer Norton's very own Johnny Rench has done extremely well with keeping the earthy feel of his new single totally accurate to those fledgling days of the great reggae era. The fact that it's on seven inch vinyl, complete with an instrumental version on the flip-side, only adds to the sheer authenticity of this lovely little release, and watching it revolve on your turntable, rather than simply sliding away into a CD tray, only adds to the music's irresistible charm. 'You're The One' is just the first in a string of seven inch singles that Johnny plans to release during 2006, and they will all, no doubt be a worthy addition to anyone's budding vinyl collection. Being strictly limited edition too, it's all the more reason to grab a copy while you can.
With new technology changing the way we listen to music in this hi-tech digital age, it's great to know some record labels and bands who are prepared to take the risk, are still seeing the values of old listening formats in a new 'retro' cool kind of way. Hey! maybe I won't put that old Walkman in the loft just yet after all. C-30, C-60, C-90 Go!
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MAN COOL RIDES AGAIN - Various Artists (PATCD02)
Back in the halcyon days of the late seventies and early eighties a revolution occurred in the way bands chased that distant dream of releasing their music in a recorded format. 'Making it' had originally meant being snapped up by Atlantic or RAK and then, a fortnight later, flicking through the guitar shaped swimming pool brochure whilst snorting coke from the belly button of your private air hostess as the Lear jet circled above your island. With the upheaval of the DIY punk era came many less refined more home made releases and the down to earth quality, the local origin of the bands produced a wonderful, devolved music scene. The West Country saw many fine releases on small local labels, a few spring instantly to mind including Avon Calling, The X-Ray compilation series and just about anything on Radarscope Records but notably The Pop Group.
So fast forward if you will to the noughties and what has been the result of the great technical revolution? Well not everyone is writing music on a qwerty keyboard and streaming it via mp3 (whatever the hell that means) some musicians out there are still prepared to invoke the spirit of yesteryear and form their own labels, bring together a wide array of talent from the West ( and sometimes a little further afield ) and do it themselves. For a splendid example of this look no farther than Pop-A-Top records whose first release 'The Erin Bardwell Collective - Volume One' showcased a stunning array of musical talent folded into a sumptuous reggae mix.
Pop-A-Top's second release is now available and is the brainchild of Johnny Rench, who was ably assisted by Erin Bardwell himself and Nevil Banton of the More Specials in producing a fine album of new ideas and reworkings of some of their earlier compositions. Going under the titular device of 'Man Cool Rides Again' what we have here is a digital version of the old EP format. More than a single, a little less than an album weighing in at a big fat seven tunes you won't get better value for a fiver this side of Poundstretchers January sale.
We kick off with a smooth slice of up tempo reggae. 'Man Cool Man' features the silky vocals of Nevil Banton over a gorgeous organ led foot tapper. Imagine Gregory Isaacs but sexier and you're close to the vocal stylings of young Mr Banton. Next up and the Erin Bardwell Collective ease the tempo back a fraction with three minutes of lazy sunny afternoon skanking. Rich, spacious bass lines overlaid with off beat guitar chops and subtle organ are joined here by the super slick trombone of John Brookes. I swear I could see the palms waving, smell the surf and hear the cries of ragamuffin boys playing cricket in a dusty back street. Beautiful.
A change of feel for track 3 - 'Your Mama Don't Know' which has a lovely question / answer vocal style between Johnny and the chorus line. Again the trombone flows sinuous throughout the piece which is altogether more hooky and sing along. What gives the song such a wonderful authentic old sound must surely Pete Fitzsimmons double bass work. Taking nothing away from the rest of the album and being totally subjective what follows is the high point of the collection. Daring to be a little different always floats my boat, and while 'High Noon' maintains the rich reggae sound of all on offer here it combines a little humour with a kind of spaghetti western meets Jamaican gunslinger crossover type thing. Hard to describe - but when you buy the album you'll see what I mean. The track bullies off with a rattle snake hiss of percussion then plods beautifully through a desert of cowboy sound effects and bandit threats all led by a wandering harmonica ably blown by Steve Taylor.
'Yes I' takes us back to the straight reggae again led by Nevil and his viagara vocal chords but with a real surprise solo taken on the flute. Mmmm, intriguing musical juxtaposition. The only petty criticism I can find so far is this track disappears into the fade just when I wanted and expected it to sail on into a much more distant sunset. Maybe it's the viagara but I felt it was a little premature. Now the penultimate tune here is 'Too Bad' and is a big fat hunk of reggae pie. Mid tempo, lovely melody, layers and layers of brass poured over a bass line that needs a police escort with 'Wide Load' signs hanging off it's big podgy arse. Lovely. Proceedings are rounded off with a reworking of 'Man Cool Man' featuring the prodigious brass work of The Spearmint Rhino Horns. That's more of John Brooks on the bone and the incomparable Colin Berry on trumpet. 'What?' I hear you cry, 'The same track just remixed and shoved on to fill out space.' Well in response all I can say is shut up and listen to these guys play. OK so the track is a good 10 minutes too short which does make it feel a bit like a filler but again - SHUT UP and listen to them blow those horns.
In conclusion Pop-A-Top's second release is a wonderful authentic sounding reggae album, slickly produced and very well played, at £5 you get VFM and you support the local music scene. The album will be on sale soon at the Wunder Bar. Any enquiries phone Pop-A-Top records on 07980 744 784.
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"Were They Any Good Then?"
Pop-A-Top Records CD launch party Saturday 3rd September 2005
For many years now the man known variously as Little Johnny Casswell, Welton John, Johnny Reggae and Stop Thief has been on a mission. His avowed intent has been to travel the country bringing the message of the off beat and skank to a grateful nation. It hasn't been easy, but as the years have rolled past him his missionary zeal has kept the flame alive and he has found receptive audiences from the hop fields of darkest Kent to the Georgian tranquillity of Bath. One ever present thorn in his musical side has been the seemingly intractable resolve of the people from his adopted home of Midsomer Norton. Nearly a decade ago he first launched a salvo of reggae at the Wunder Bar audience under the banner of Norton Dreadstock, and on many occasions since has tried to woo us. While his manifold diverse musical ventures have always found favour the damn reggae just wouldn't stick. Well, last Saturday he finally proved the validity of the old adage involving trying and trying again.
The night was conceived as a vehicle to promote the splendid albums available on the Pop-A-Top record label. What to do? Well you could play people an album and wave the sleeve notes at them but to really let 'em know what its all about John and the boys decided to mix up a heady Caribbean cocktail of DJ sets and live musicians. To that end they played us a wonderful collection of authentic reggae tunes with a lovely old feel about them. This provoked a thoroughly chilled mood in the bar, but as the crowds grew and the people started to sway to the sounds of Jamaica the boys took it up a gear.
They slipped on some of their own especially recorded backing tracks and treated us to some smooth vocal harmonies from Johnny and Neville, a stab of keyboard wizardry and trombones and percussion and even a flawless flautist. It was simply beautiful. The whole bar was dancing the pina coladas were flowing and the crowd were quite literally baying for more like a half starved reggae loving bloodhound with poppers in his water bowl. It really was blistering stuff.
Now the reggae dragon has finally been slain, and as Johnny calls time on his career as tribute artiste with the More Specials, I hope we can look forward to many more wonderful steamy nights skanking away the wee hours. Here's to the next one guys!
Contact - The Wunderbar, 2 High Street, Midsomer Norton, Nr Bath, BA3 2LE. Tel: 01761 410904
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