Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • International Herb [Virgin International, 1979] A-
  • Two Sevens Clash [Shanachie, 1987] A+
  • Culture at Work [Shanachie, 1987] A-
  • Cumbolo [Shanachie, 1989] A-
  • Good Things [RAS, 1989] B
  • Nuff Crisis! [Shanachie, 1989] B+
  • Three Sides to My Story [Shanachie, 1991] *
  • Culture in Culture [Heartbeat, 1991] Choice Cuts
  • Trod On [Heartbeat, 1993] Neither
  • Cultural Livity [RAS, 1998] Neither
  • Two Sevens Clash: The 30th Anniversary Edition [Shanachie, 2007]  

Consumer Guide Reviews:

International Herb [Virgin International, 1979]
The tunes are so cute and uncomplicated and the lyrics so basic that it's almost as if the Chi-Lites, say, had decided to sing about herb and dread instead of love and marriage. Only you never heard Eugene Record wail the way Joseph Hill does a few times on side two--probably because Record never wept about slavery in public. A-

Two Sevens Clash [Shanachie, 1987]
Previously U.S.-available only as an import if at all, this even more than early Spear is the wellspring of the roots apocalypse that detonated the lion's share of great late reggae. Imagine a man from the hills sitting on a bus in Kingston and possessed by a vision: 1977, the year of the beast, the two sevens come down in all their numerological fury. No wonder every catchphrase sounds like God's word: this is where the Black Starliner and calling Rastafari became the moon-June-spoon of a music industry. The melodies are indelible, the rhythms early Drumbar, the ululations Winston Rodney gone all childlike and lyrical, at least seven tracks absolute classics. One of the ten best reggae albums ever made, says Shanachie's Randall Grass, but he has to watch his credibility. Bob Marley aside, it's the best, and I've been putting Bob Marley aside for it since 1977. A+

Culture at Work [Shanachie, 1987]
No simple purist, Joseph Hill rings generic changes on the roots he defined a decade ago; only "Worried" is touched immutably by Jah. They are changes, though, and they do ring. He may rework conventions from "Money Girl" to "Dance Hall Style," but he's full of unexpected pleasures as both singer and lyricist--amused grunts, intuitive tropes. And if JA's finest studio rats aren't touched by Jah here, they must be touched by Joseph Hill. A-

Cumbolo [Shanachie, 1989]
A decade after it was revealed to Jah's chosen, this one takes a while to connect. It's less archetypal than Two Sevens Clash--more general in folk hymns like "Poor Jah People" and "Natty Never Get Weary," more specific in conversational complaints like "Pay Day" and "Innocent Blood" ("One year after slavery/The people were all suffering/From smallpox"). Once you have ears to hear, though, you got roots rockers paradise, all strictures sundered by studio musicians who angle into the formula more or less at will--chattering underneath "Poor Jah People," or adding the trombone glissando that sometimes hooks the chorus of "Natty Dread Naw Run" and sometimes doesn't. A-

Good Things [RAS, 1989]
After a 10-year layoff they have a right to simultaneous albums, but not simultaneous genre exercises. The overriding theme befits the layoff--they feel beset by all these kids who have strayed from the right path. "Cousin Rude Boy" and "Youthman Move" are fearful and imploring, so alienated that they're a tad less ordinary than you'd figure, while the title tune is positively avuncular--in one of the most unmillenarian sentiments ever uttered by a Rasta, it urges youth to enjoy electric lights and fax machines while they're still around. "Psalm of Bob Marley" has a great tune. B

Nuff Crisis! [Shanachie, 1989]
Even more generic because it's less obsessive, this tour of reggae cliches (titles include "Peace, Love and Harmony" and "Jah Rastafari") makes up for it--with folkloric tropes (titles also include "Frying Pan" and "Bang Belly Baby"), the Roots Radics, and an edge of intensity. "Crack in New York," about Manley's war on ganja, almost gloats. Inspirational Cackle: "Even professionals get spoiled by it too (hah!)." B+

Three Sides to My Story [Shanachie, 1991]
ital keybs, natural percussion ("Armageddon") *

Culture in Culture [Heartbeat, 1991]
"Peace and Love" Choice Cuts

Trod On [Heartbeat, 1993] Neither

Cultural Livity [RAS, 1998] Neither

Two Sevens Clash: The 30th Anniversary Edition [Shanachie, 2007]
Two Sevens Clash may have been the best reggae LP ever released--Bob Marley himself never constructed one so perfect beginning to end. Though much is made of its political content, it's really a Rastafarian gospel album. "The wicked must fall," Hill declares right off, and "Pirate Days" attributes Babylon's power to its lawlessness. But that song's most striking line, "The Arawak the Arawak the Arawak were here first," is an argument that black men don't belong in Jamaica--an argument for the promised return to Africa. In "Natty Dread Taking Over," "Fire 'pon dem" invokes not gunplay but the Book of Revelation, and celebrating the Black Starliner Garvey predicted would bring the faithful back to Africa, Hill avers: "I meekly wait and murmur not." Proof of deliverance is in the music. This was Jamaican drum titan Sly Dunbar's first major session, with Lloyd Parks on bass and Robbie Shakespeare on guitar, and the tunes are memorable and uplifting without exception. Yet even on the childish "Jah Pretty Face," the flinty, soursop edge of Hill's incantation sands off what's left of the sing-song after the harsh close trio harmonies have done their work. Its bonus cuts worthy archival remixes, this reissue is reordered to conform to the original Jamaican release, timed to coincide with Armagideon time--July 7 of 1977, the year the two sevens clashed. [Rolling Stone: 5]  

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