REGGAE IS a music world unto itself, with stars, styles and trends that exist and evolve without interference or influence from mainstream rock or r&b. That's fairly easy to observe from reggae's major markets -- Jamaica, London and New York -- but local listeners can get a sense of what's going on these days without too much trouble, thanks to small, dedicated operations like Washington's RAS Records.
BLACK URURU --
"Brutal" (RAS 3015). Because new lead singer Junior Reid has neither the snarling delivery nor incandescent intensity of Michael Rose, this current incarnation of Black Uhuru lacks some of the old bite. But thanks in large part to the rhythm work of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, the group maintains its ability to work a groove, and that makes "Let Us Pray" and "Conviction or a Fine" as good as anything in the band's back catalogue and "Great Train Robbery" even better.
DENNIS BROWN --
"Hold Tight" (Live & Learn LP 021). Unlike his recent recordings with A & M, which traded roots-rock authenticity for a shot at the American market, this is mostly mainstream reggae; in fact, the closest Brown gets to r&b comes when "I've Got Your Number" quotes a bit of Michael Jackson's "The Girl is Mine." But though his singing is solid throughout, Brown never quite clicks with the rhythm section, which at times makes the music seem unnecessarily stiff.
"Fighting to Survive" (Mighty Brutes DM 86011). Erald "Englishman" Briscoe is a locally-based reggae singer and bass player who both understands how to set up a long, loping groove and how to work it with a vocal line. As a result, "Fighting to Survive" rolls along nicely, gathering fire when the singer launches into political topics, and cooling out as he addresses Jah. "Closer Oh Jah," a Rasta revision of "The Closer I Get to You," is, for novelty alone, the album's highlight, but the blandness of "You Let Me Down" suggests Briscoe should stay away from the breathy balladry of lover's rock.
BARRINGTON LEVY --
"Here I Come" (Time I TRLP 003). With a delivery sitting somewhere between the cool croon of lover's rock and the rhythmic roll of dub toasting, Barrington Levy seems on the verge of developing a uniquely English reggae style. Although the formulation isn't quite complete, there are some stunning moments here. Especially "The Vibes Is Right," where Levy manages to recall both Yellowman and Marvin Gaye.
FREDDIE McGREGOR --
"All in the Same Boat" (RAS 3014). Although the title refers to one-world politics, it could as easily be taken for a description of McGregor's eclectic musical approach. The title tune, for instance, is built atop a brutal skank, but bassist Glen Browne ups the ante by adding funk licks to the heavy reggae bottom; "Glad You're Here With Me," on the other hand, uses a standard reggae rhythm arrangement but takes its twist from McGregor's soulful delivery. In all, an almost irresistible fusion.
DUBBY BRODIE --
"Pop No Style" (Disc 99 International 9901-BR). As his name indicates, Dubby Brodie is a dub artist, and the bulk of this album is given over to remixes of the title tune. In lesser hands, that could be stultifying, but Brodie understands enough about bass lines to make both the song and its versions suitably hypnotic. A good thing, too, considering how tame his attempt at pop, a cover of Sly Stone's "Family Affair," turns out to be.