Being a reggae band has got to be tough. There’s only so much ingenuity one can inject while adhering to the genre’s well-worn rhythmic constraints. And in most cases, it’s probably all been done before. The basic formula is simple: Lay down a rumbling, staccato bass line, insert guitar and/or organ hits on the offbeat. Repeat. Still, reggae’s rudimentary foundation can often provide an effective template for fanciful musical flourishes and, with its droning grooves, the elementary ether for heady, lyrical mysticism. With their debut disc, Weapon, Plattsburgh’s Slow Natives take a valiant stab at combining the style’s seemingly disparate elements. Unfortunately, they’re often weighed down by the very conventions they aim to challenge.
The album gets off to a promising start with the laid-back instrumental intro, “Havana.” Shawn Paul’s slinky guitar lead seductively wraps around Jamse Ward’s sinewy bass line, creating a sexy and at times sinister groove. The pair provides a solid foundation throughout the disc.
The following tune, “I’m Sorry,” is a bouncy little number with nice vocal harmonies and bright guitar work. It’s a telling glimpse into the band’s nascent potential. But it’s about the only one.
The next song, “Resist,” is where the band begins to run into trouble, and from here on the listener is given precious little respite. Laced with half-baked head-shop profundity, the tune proves a limp attempt at addressing the trials and struggles of, um, trials and struggles. On track after track, the band offers little more insight than the average bumper sticker on a Toyota Prius. A reggae band with an inspirational/political axe to grind? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Worse still are the vocal performances from Ward, who eschews pesky technique formalities such as breath support and pitch for spiritless pop-singer tomfoolery. You’ve gotta learn to walk before you can run. Likewise, you have to learn how to carry a tune before you can employ “soulful” ornamentations and reasonably expect to pull them off. Ward rarely accomplishes either feat and, more often than not, delivers wince-inducing performances that should have been left on the cutting-room floor. I suppose he could be commended for resisting the modern temptation of digitally fixing the problem. But would an extra take or two really be too much to ask? Maybe next time.
Slow Natives cross the sixth great lake this Saturday for an opening slot with Latin-flavored rockers deSol at Higher Ground’s Showcase Lounge.