Graded on a Curve:
Lee Scratch Perry,
Rainford

Of records, legendary Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry has released a ton; setting aside the singles and EPs, his non-compilation album total is hovering near 100, and for an artist outside the jazz realm, that’s a considerable achievement. Of course, the number of individuals who own a copy of every one of those full-lengths might fit comfortably into a four-door sedan, a possibility illuminating that Perry’s prolificacy doesn’t equate to his prime. But hey, in terms of comebacks (of which the man has already had a few) his latest is both listenable and notable for the input of Adrian Sherwood, who produced and released its nine tracks through his long-extant On-U Sound label. Rainford is in stores now.

When you make as many records as Lee Perry has, they can’t all be brilliant. Hell, the majority of them are unlikely to resonate with more than moderate levels of personal investment. I say unlikely because I’ll confess that haven’t listened to more than half of his output; Discogs lists 87 full-length albums and 97 comps, and I’ve a sneaking suspicion there are scads of releases that haven’t been logged, plus beaucoup stray singles and EPs (to say nothing of the dodgy gray-market stuff).

Succinctly, after hearing a fair portion of Perry’s later material I realized I should cease investigating those more recent progressions and just hang with the canonical stuff. If all this seems poised to besmirch the guy’s rep as a dub innovator-auteur, I will counter that fluctuating personal investment isn’t the same as lacking a recognizable stamp; if the majority of his post-’70s work is far from essential, I’ve never heard anything that faltered into anonymous hackery.

Lee Perry very much fits in with certain cineastes from the early days of auteurism. Specifically, like numerous directors who worked under studio contracts and would begin another film almost immediately after their last one was finished, Perry has created, if not incessantly, then at a clip that has insured a diminishment in his masterpiece percentage, a downward plummet to what some folks might consider journeyman levels had the man’s achievements not been integral to the growth and longevity of Jamaican music.

Anything but a journeyman record, Rainford is significantly impacted by the personal, with the album title Perry’s birth name and the closing track providing “The Autobiography of The Upsetter” (another nickname don’tcha know). But don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves. There’s also no shortage of crucial weirdness, as opener “Cricket on the Moon” takes it out there both musically (beginning sparsely with synthetic sounds mimicking the titular insect) and unsurprisingly for Perry, vocally.

Enlisting Sherwood as producer magnifies the probability that the contents will be rich with tradition while eschewing standard throwing back, and conversely that the striving for freshness avoids shallow trend-hopping. The saxophone-spiked “Run Evil Spirit” is relaxed, and through the intermittent swells of backing vocals attains sweetness and warmth, but the following cut “Let it Rain” conjures a sense of urgency and tension enhanced by bowed strings, the simultaneously rigid and fluid canned rhythms and of course those requisite dubby echoes.

“Let it Rain” has some pleasant backing voices too, but this aspect really shines during “House of Angels,” which along with its buoyant instrumental foundation provides a welcome offset to the lyrical thrust, which is basically Perry complaining about complainers. The next track “Makumba Rock” doesn’t have much of anything to say at all and that’s splendid (though there are vocals, some of them wordless), and in fact through a multifaceted sonic weave and an upbeat pace it becomes one of the record’s highlights.

It’s followed by “African Starship,” which slows things down but heightens the druggy haze. Plus, there is some cool languid trumpet. It shouldn’t be difficult to ascertain what “Kill Them Dreams Money Worshippers” is about, but like “House of Angels” it’s the bent nature of the instrumental lilt and the general eccentricity of Perry’s vocal approach that carries things over. From there, “Children of the Light” mingles those backing singers with some solid horns and a nice dose of melodica for a late standout.

If I’ve sorta downplayed the content of Perry’s words up to here, “The Autobiography of The Upsetter” caps off the record with an engaging blend of inspired form and meaningful content through an obviously abridged telling of Perry’s life story. It maintains the high standard set by “Children of the Light” and firmly puts the kibosh on any suspicions that it would be Sherwood doing the heavy lifting here.

Speaking of Sherwood, in terms of comebacks he’s compared Rainford to Johnny Cash’s recordings with Rick Rubin. I’m not really feeling that in terms of impact as there are traces of (likeable) coasting here. Regarding a resurgence of worthiness, I can’t say I agree either, as prior to American Recordings Cash’s career was in dire fucking straits. Perry’s made some skippable records and even a few that hover on the precipice of downright bad, but I’ve never gotten the sense his work has sunk as low as Cash’s long barren stretch.

But as detailed above, I haven’t been paying close attention to Perry’s trajectory over the last few decades. I have given my undivided focus to Rainford, and after numerous spins I’m quite glad I did.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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