Martha Velez

Escape from Babylon

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So right on so many levels, yet in the end, so very, very, wrong, Escape From Babylon is one of the oddest albums to come out of the reggae era. The album was Bob Marley's first outside production assignment, and he was ably assisted by Lee Perry and Craig Leon, while the recording sessions were split between Harry J's studio in Kingston and Plaza Sound in New York. The backing band is the Wailers' own, the Barrett Brothers (Earl "Chinna" Smith et al.), with Zap Pow horns and the I-Threes providing harmonies. Of the album's eight tracks, three are Marley's own, a fourth is a Marley/Tosh classic, and a fifth is co-written by the Wailers and Velez. All in all, this should be one hell of a reggae album, with fabulous versions of such masterpieces as "Stand Alone" (retitled "There You Are"), "Bend Down Low," "Hurting Inside" (aka "Happiness"), and "Get up, Stand Up." The music is wonderful, with laid-back, softly percolating rhythms; superb musicianship; and a warm, almost gentle production. And then Velez starts to sing, and it all falls to bits. Not only was Velez not Jamaican, she wasn't even a reggae singer; in fact she was a white American rocker. And as was typical of the time, her voice was unexceptional -- pleasantly generic with just a hint of grittiness. She was also a one-trick pony. She was put into a Kingston studio with one of Jamaica's leading lights, given a clutch of reggae classics, accompanied by one of the best reggae bands around, and she let loose with a mediocre rock performance, totally oblivious to the music being created around her. It's a telling moment. Jamaica had thrived on taking American sounds and making them their own. Velez was the first to show that it would inevitably always be a one-way street.

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