Jamaica to Toronto

Plus reviews of Black Heart Procession, Spencer Wiggins, and Daniel Johnston.

Various Artists

Jamaica to Toronto: Soul Funk & Reggae 1967–1974

(Light in the Attic)

Of all the places for Jamaican music to cross wires with its R&B contemporaries, Canada would probably rank as one of the most improbable. But the Yonge Street scene of the late '60s and early '70s cultivated a fascinating hybrid of soul music, which—singular as it was—comes across on Jamaica to Toronto as the great missing link between the two most invigorating musical movements of their time. The stylistic evolution hinted at on the chronologically askew mix is particularly interesting: The best songs from the late '60s— Eddie Spencer's Motownesque strings-and-chimes rave-up "If This Is Love (I'd Rather Be Lonely)"; the Sheiks' bass-baritone doo-wop throwback "Eternal Love"; a couple fantastic jerk-spice Stax tracks by Jo-Jo and the Fugitives—play like funk analogues to the Caribbean pop-soul of Eddy Grant's early hits with the Equals. And as the early '70s saw Mayfield, Hayes, Marley, and Cliff become chart busters, the Toronto reggae scene merged the parallel evolutions: Keyboardist Jackie Mittoo—the Booker T. Jones of reggae, who spent a good part of his post-Skatalites days in Toronto—helms a feedback-heavy freakout titled "Grand Funk" that seethes like War at their most blunted, and Bob and Wisdom balladeer like a two-man rock-steady Dramatics over "I Believe in Music," while the Cougars' "Right On" puts a skank-ready rhythm into the New Orleans style. NATE PATRIN

BLACK HEART PROCESSION

The Spell

(Touch and Go)

These San Diego–based indie-goth misery merchants peaked with 2002's Amore del Tropico, where they tricked out their minor-key slow jams with sensual Latin rhythms that kept the music from dipping into Donnie Darko doldrums. That spice is mostly missing from The Spell, the Black Heart Procession's fifth full-length since forming in the late '90s as an offshoot of Three Mile Pilot, an on-again/off-again SoCal group that also includes Zach Smith of Pinback. That's too bad: Singer Pall Jenkins has one of indie rock's most distinctive voices, one he's not afraid to push to the sort of melodramatic extremes less confident guys view as a compromise of their cool. And his bandmates surround his vocals here with detailed instrumental color—Jimmy LaValle (who also makes watery post-rock records as the Album Leaf) does a hell of a job on "reverb tank" in "The Waiter #5." But with every song stuck in a midtempo groove the Black Hearts are either unable or unwilling to shake, those strengths just get swallowed up by The Spell's stylized mush. MIKAEL WOOD

Black Heart Procession play Neumo's, 925 E. Pike St., 206-709-9467, www.neumos.com. $14 adv. 8 p.m. Fri., June 30.

Spencer Wiggins

The Goldwax Years

(Kent)

Given the small galaxy's worth of guttural funk unearthed over the last decade, soul seems to be losing the reissue arms race. While each month brings yet another comp of regional James Brown rip-offs, it's taken far too long to get the complete works of artists like Spencer Wiggins out on disc. That his stately plaint is no match for volcanic label mate James Carr, or that Goldwax wasn't Stax, by no means justifies the wait. Emotionally piercing and meticulously phrased, Wiggins' vocals sound perfectly natural no matter what curveballs producer Quinton Claunch lobs at him. "Once in a While (Is Better Than Never at All)" and "The Kind of Woman That's Got No Heart" are Memphis soul at its organic best, dancing with one foot in country and another in R&B. But the jaunty arrangement of "I'm a Poor Man's Son" rides a kooky xylophone line, "Lonely Man's" jittery strut suggests "Turn the Beat Around," of all things, and "What Do You Think About My Baby" paraphrases the jazz standard "Tenderly" before launching into an earnest romp. Ironically, it's some 1977 sides done with Claunch for Vivid Sound that seem most intent on preserving some stylistic golden mean. Spencer Wiggins may not have been a major figure, but he's most definitely about as major as minor figures get. And considering that this music is arguably more accessible than funk's percussive storm, it's about time it got out to the faithful—and up on Amazon as well. NATHANIEL FRIEDMAN

Daniel Johnston

Welcome to My World

(Eternal Yip Eye)

Daniel Johnston has cropped up at least once each decade since the '80s as an object of deep contemplation for those who consider him either a mentally disturbed genius of primitive lo-fi pop songcraft or a facile novelty act. Despite what may be said about the media-generated legend surrounding Johnston, the music on this greatest hits collection radiates a genuine, heartfelt quality that has helped it endure in an ironic and cynical age. Johnston plays and sings these spare, unpolished melodies on piano or organ like hymnals, their guilelessness belying an omnipresent pain. As he moans on "Peek-a-Boo," "I have to live these songs forever/Please hear my cry for help and save me from myself." But Johnston has his moments of uplift and even humor on "Speeding Motorcycle" and "Never Relaxed," and conveys a true passion throughout. Granted, it's a taste most will never acquire, but expect him to enjoy the occasional revival for the rest of your life. JUSTIN B. HAMPTON

 
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