Dub for Dummies

It started with Music Club's Augustus Pablo, and though I wasn't quite enlightened enough to go all the way with the King Tubby, Select Cuts From Blood & Fire clinched it. Twenty years after my first try, I just spent a few weeks actively enjoying dub. Pass the pipe.

AT THE DRIVE-IN
Relationship of Command (Grand Royal)
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What ever are they emoting about? Doesn't much matter. In one song I especially like, wordy low-life vignettes (pimps, polyester, paramedics; defected, excommunicated, subverted) are revved by simultaneous guitar chime and guitar noise that gives way to a sweet refrain of "Dancing on the corpse's ashes," which is subsumed in turn by a raucous chorus with a wishing well in it. Passion in El Paso is what all this comes down to, and fleshed out with comparable sonics and shaped into associatively elongated songforms, that's enough. In a bad time for young guitar bands, including many barely forgettable ones lumped under the trade name "emo," these ambitious yowlers are reason for hope. For four consecutive CDs they've developed, developed, developed. Not only do they believe, they can back it up. A MINUS

BIG YOUTH
Natty Universal Dread 1973-1979
(Blood and Fire import)

Especially given the label's fondness for sonic byways, I admit that these three CDs of obscure-inna-Babylon Manley Buchanan filled me with gray-haired professional dread. Oh I-and-I of little faith. Youth remains an unimaginable original whatever his debt to U-Roy, whose (comparatively) suave presence on the two-part "Battle of the Giants" only highlights the younger toaster's innocence and joy. Rapping, chanting, preaching, sing-songing, ripping off War or Ike & Tina or the Last Poets, Youth never undercuts his race-conscious commitment to agape. Even invoking damnation's "Hotter Fire" he assumes no prophetic airs, and he details the poverty of "Riverton City" as if reciting a nursery rhyme—as if he's the little child who shall lead us. His mission is to render palatable a Rastafarianism he knows as the simple word of Jah. The rhythms are obviously essential. But only on the dubbier final disc do his revealed truths lose any charm. A MINUS

DAN BRYK
Lovers Leap (Scratchie)
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Four of the first five tracks on this fat Canadian's Fountains of Wayne-scouted, Smashing Pumpkins-financed U.S. debut are the gemlike acts of idiosyncratic genius pop nerds are forever discerning on the recordings of other pop nerds. After that, there's a Marcia Brady look-alike with Nicaraguan needlepoint on her bed, another girl whose breasts he felt once, and a bunch of the kind of craftsmanship nerds swear by and normal people forget before the next one's over. But the legendary computer programmer, the predatory piano player, the ex who doesn't mean a thing to him tonight, and all the chunky girls who slide their reassuring hands along his ample hips are four more proofs of just how exaggerated reports of song's demise remain. A MINUS

BUILT TO SPILL
Live (Warner Bros.)
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The holy purpose of Doug Martsch's songwriting is the riffs it feeds his guitar. Lyrics that poke into the tribulations and satisfactions of indie life may be worth excavating, may even convince us that for Martsch small-town life is an end in itself. In fact, however, he treasures low-overhead slackerdom for affording the physical time and spiritual space where musical epiphanies can flourish—for providing the raw material of its own transcendence. As much as Martsch's turbulent flow owes J Mascis, Neil Young is definitely the godfather—so that when Martsch launches a 20-minute "Cortez the Killer" you may forget what record you've got on until you realize how much louder Martsch's cannonading repetitions are. There's no folk rock in him—and, for that pomo touch, plenty of computer. A MINUS

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART AND THE MAGIC BAND
I'm Going to Do What I Want to Do
(Live at My Father's Place 1978) (Rhino Handmade)

Title protestations to the contrary, Don Van Vliet promos like a good touring artist should, supporting a near-great album that 22 years later has left the catalog (for the nonce) as nine de facto bonus tracks reprise his illustrious underground career. Live on this November night, his music was slacker and more forceful than on the studio Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). His anointed helpers weren't improvisers, not hardly. But they were a fairly magic band. B PLUS

AUGUSTUS PABLO
The Great Pablo (Music Club)
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There was always as much homemade ska charm as space-bass version esoterica in Horace Swaby's primitive dub, which used a toy instrument to evoke a mysterious East that was big in Japan even though it never ventured far beyond his mind's Nile. More than Ocho's The Melodica King or Mango's Classic Rockers, this early-'70s mix-and-match strikes the right balance of tuneful and tricky, as serene as a six-year-old dabbling in the sand with his right hand as he holds tight to his mother's skirt with the left. A MINUS

SELECT CUTS FROM BLOOD & FIRE
(Select Cuts import)
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Never a fan of reggae version sides or Mikey Dread 'tween-sets, left cold by the soundlabs of not just Björk but Linton Kwesi Johnson, unconverted to the gospel of Macro Dub Infection, and having expended too many hours on the title label's lovingly reconstituted arcana collections, I didn't trust my attraction to this master compilation. So to check for brain softening, I returned to Macro Dub Infection—and was soon cursing my own cowardice in never calling it out as the arid piece of Eurotheory it is. At its most abstract, this music is juicy. Only a full-time herbhead wants to be set adrift on disc upon disc of bass 'n' sample. But even herbheads get off on the occasional swatch of tune—like the five-note guitar phrase that tops the catchy bassline of Glen Brown's "Lego the Herb Man Dub," or the "Yabby Yabby You" chant with horn and piano variations on Yabby You's "Conquering Lion." Enough of those and all the mirrored reverb and seismic throb and voices warning and announcing and grunting and muttering and expostulating make the right kind of sense—or nonsense. A MINUS

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