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Jah Wobble - Profile

  by Adrian Janes

published: 19 / 6 / 2015

Jah Wobble - Profile


Adrian Janes examines 'Redux - Anthology 1978-2015', a sumptuous new six CD box set of ex-PiL bassist Jah Wobble’s fascinating musical voyages

This beautifully packaged 6 CD set charts Wobble’s expansive musical journey over nearly 40 years. Suffused throughout with his “dub sensibility”, this mindset is not only something that allowed him to bring a stern fluidity to his playing with first band PiL, but also a general quality of openness that has seen him at different times embrace reggae, funk and jazz, plus traditional Irish, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and African elements. The best tracks are often those where, rather than sticking to a single style, he boldly melds together a seemingly unlikely combination of these influences (e.g. the dub and Chinese blend of ‘Happy Tibetan Girl’). With the exception of a disc that draws upon his 1980s recordings, the set is organised thematically rather than chronologically, embracing Greatest Hits, World Roots, Jazz, Ambient and Spoken Word, and a disc of newly-recorded cover versions. This last, though instructive as to Wobble’s own roots (some reggae classics and several film and TV themes) and reasonably entertaining, doesn’t match those striking tracks which are his real achievement. Even now, the first PiL songs from the late 1970s (represented here by ‘Public Image’, ‘Poptones’ and ‘Careering’) blaze with astonishing emotion and imagination. Wobble’s bass on ‘Careering’ ripples like an endless succession of dark waves, while over this effects that mimic gunshots and passing car-horns intersperse continual harsh sheets of synth. Though reputedly inspired by the Northern Irish “Troubles”, its unspecific, fragmented lyrics (“Both sides of the river/There is bacteria,” “Spreading tales like coffin nails”) and the pain and horror in John Lydon’s singing (“Is this living?”) make it a terrifyingly apt soundtrack to many more times and places of conflict. Although ‘Greatest Hits’ is more a reference to the relative commerciality of the tracks on this CD than actual sales, ‘Visions Of You’ and ‘Becoming More Like God’ (included both in their original and newly re-recorded versions) attained the lower reaches of the Top 40 in the mid-1990s, a time when Wobble’s innate sense of how to initiate a groove chimed with the growth of dance culture. ‘Buddha of Compassion’ is a key track in the entire set, an ecstatic song of release, its ultimately blissful feeling heightened by Wobble’s vocodered vocals and alternately calm and pained Chinese voices, the music similarly blending a Western dance beat and Chinese violin. Though probably more aptly placed on the World Roots disc, its position here is explained as due to its “poppy catchy element”; symbolically it also shows the futility of categories and labels, especially when it comes to a musician this enthusiastically eclectic. The Eighties disc collects some of his earliest experiments and collaborations. Although Wobble’s own playing is never less than accomplished (a verdict that goes for the whole set), there is a certain sense here of him feeling his way into a post-PiL solo career. Tracks like the soulful disco of ‘Love Mystery’ (sung by Shara Nelson) or the polished funk of ‘Hold Onto Your Dreams’ (featuring U2’s Edge and Can’s Holger Czukay) are expertly performed, enough to be on a par with contemporary hitmakers like Shalamar and Scritti Politti: at the same time, they don’t do much to break the stylistic mould. More suggestive of the world beat direction Wobble was often later to go in is 1983’s ‘Invaders Of The Heart’ with its Middle Eastern feel. But he also never stints on his love for dub: ‘Despike’ (the version of ‘The Beast Inside’, a song about Wobble’s struggles with drink and drugs) accentuates and stretches the pedal steel of B.J. Cole to give a mellow sheen, while something as early as 1980’s ‘Sea-Side Special’ is at once one of the most distinctive and assured tracks, full of dub brass, crisp drumming and rumbling bass rolls. As he rightly observes in his booklet notes, this was an era when “Musicians began to think like technicians”, and there are plenty of drum machines, electronic handclaps and other typical elements of the ‘80s sound present. But the real interest lies in the clear evidence that, while learning to incorporate technology, the self-taught Wobble was constantly working towards a music that felt as natural and physical as his bass playing. These qualities merged with his delight in other musical styles, a love shared by some of the prominent names of the 1990s dance scene like Transglobal Underground. Fittingly ‘Soledad’, (the first track on the World Roots disc), with its Spanish guitar and slick, powerful drums, is expressively sung by Transglobal and sometime Invaders of the Heart vocalist Natacha Atlas. Apparently convinced - and, it seems, quite rightly - that there is no genre that can’t benefit from dub, ‘Reggae Parts the Sea’, ‘Appalachian Mountain Dub’ and ‘Kang Ding Love Song’ respectively include Indian, country-folk and Chinese characteristics, the last being an especially impassioned performance by Tibetan/Sichuanese singer Yinji Gu. (Wobble’s detailed notes are commendably careful to give credit to everyone he has worked with.) One other great track on this disc is ‘Heaven and Earth’, which at different points combines Chinese instrumentation, string synth and African drumming, in a complex but satisfying composition. The World Roots disc is in many ways the heart of this collection, not least because its influences flower (or are at least hinted at) on all of the others. On the Jazz disc, for example, ‘Market Rasen’ employs a marimba played with an African pattern along with trumpet and bagpipes. But for this listener, this disc is also the least pleasurable, despite the names involved such as Pharaoh Sanders and Bill Laswell.Much of it is either repetitious noodling or thoroughly competent but with nothing to separate it from much else in the genre, Wobble’s bass-playing perfectly good but disappointingly deferential. Ambient and Spoken Word is a much more intriguing collection, although Wobble’s intensely rhythmic approach often makes the music a more forceful presence than in Brian Eno’s original definition of the term (for example ‘Divine Mother’). And ‘Ruinlust’, its lyrics coolly spoken and sung by Julie Campbell (LoneLady) over crisp drums and fuzz bass, is simply ferociously funky. More purely ambient are the soaring, stretching bagpipes of Jean-Pierre Rasle on ‘Fly 8’. Wobble’s Buddhism, and a more general spirituality, is another link throughout the set, but most explicitly on this disc. ‘I Love Everybody’, with its vision of briefly transfigured Londoners (“A Cypriot minicab driver/Becomes Saint Francis of Assisi”…”For five minutes/I love everybody”) recalls William Blake, another Londoner who in the mundane could see beyond it. On ‘Gone in the Wind’ the Dubliners’ Ronnie Drew, like a biblical prophet, magnificently declaims a poem by German poet Friedrich Ruckert on worldly stature (“Babylon where is thy might?/It is gone in the wind”) over poignant keyboards. Wobble explains his prolific output as down to having an attitude similar to a painter, always having some work in progress rather than producing an album on a record company’s say-so. Apart from his notes for each of the 92 tracks - factually detailed, but also sprinkled with Buddhist philosophy and earthy humour - the booklet provides a complete discography. It’s not common for such sumptuous sets to be produced for a musician who’s still alive, yet given his relative lack of fame but considerable musical achievement it’s well merited, and well worth hearing.

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