Lee "Scratch" Perry

Born in the Sky

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It's no secret that Lee "Scratch" Perry is a bit -- well, a lot -- off-center. This is, after all, a man who burned down his own studio. But before his train departed the rails completely, he produced some of the finest and most sonically adventurous music to come out of Jamaica. This compilation gathers some of his sides, mostly his productions of other people, between 1969-1975, some previously unreleased, that illustrate the breadth of his work. While the emphasis is on vocals (he was, after all, a jobbing producer, taking the jobs that came along) there's also plenty of edgy material, like his work with toaster Prince Jazzbo on "Good Things," which vanishes into an instrumental -- in mid-sentence -- or his experiments with his house band, the Upsetters. It's among the many pleasures here, like Susan Cadogan's 1975 "Do It Baby," with its proto-disco rhythms and lush female backing vocals, or the Upsetters' "Ungrateful Skank," with its dub aura -- something that pervades a number of the pieces here, but then Perry was one of the pioneers of the genre, dropping sounds in and out, adding echo and sound effects to bring space to the music. Naturally, there's a lot of bass on here -- this was Jamaica, where the bass was the backbone, after all -- but what's surprising is how clean Perry could make a song, even with primitive equipment. Good remastering helps, of course, but without a strong original tape, that hardly matters. His own two performances are exemplary in the way he shapes the sound, framing a voice with percussion, letting the other instruments filling the gaps, but still allowing space for a song to breathe. Not an easy balance, but one he seemed to be able to find consistently. Although he worked primarily with electric instruments, he could even make something as rough as an acoustic rehearsal of the Silvertones' "Feel All Right" come across as a little gem. A tribute to someone with remarkable ears and board technique.

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