Little Axe

If You Want Loyalty Buy a Dog

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Guitarist and singer Skip McDonald has long been an anomaly in the On-U Sound stable, and that's saying something, given that On-U Sound has been the musical home to such magnificent oddities as African Head Charge, New Age Steppers, and Little Annie. What sets McDonald's work apart is the fact that it's equally deeply rooted in dubwise reggae as it is in Delta blues. If You Want Loyalty Buy a Dog finds him distilling his sound: assisted by legendary reggae studio bands Dub Syndicate and Roots Radics (whose backing tracks are a mish-mash of previously recorded material, reworked and rearranged for the album), McDonald moans and croons bluesy lyrics and plays aching slide guitar; the sound is dark and rich but strangely spare, with little of the dubbed-up craziness that usually characterizes the production style of On-U Sound producer Adrian Sherwood. The result is an album that is beautiful, gently funky, and deeply, deeply sad -- against all odds, McDonald has taken musical elements that have little in common with the blues and used them to draw out the blues' deepest essence. Tracks like "Call It What You Like" and "Keep on Drinking" are simultaneously brilliant reggae and heartbreaking blues, and "Grace" is a baffling and aurally stunning deconstruction of the gospel standard "Amazing Grace" -- is it ironic or sincere? Impossible to tell. "Down and Dirty" is the kind of eerie, open-textured dub that used to be the nearly exclusive province of the late Augustus Pablo, only here the harmonica takes the place of the melodica. There is not a single weak track on this album. It's an unusually moving and haunting document from one of the unsung heroes of American (and, oddly enough, Jamaican) roots music.

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