Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Dubwise

Remarkable reggae recordings emanate from Nashville duo

By Jonathan Marx

OCTOBER 4, 1999:  You can make all kinds of connections between reggae music and pretty much any other form of popular music: The Jamaican sound has its roots in American R&B and soul, which islanders picked up on their AM radios in the '50s and '60s. Strangely or not, country music has wielded its own influence, as evidenced by country cover tunes by Toots and the Maytalls, Cynthia Schloss, and plenty others over the years. And of course, the connection between punk and reggae is vital, firing the grooves of such seminal punk bands as The Clash, The Ruts, The Slits, and Bad Brains. Even today, there's a dialogue between reggae and electronica that has managed to enliven both genres considerably.

Phase Selector Sound understands all of this, and the duo's deep knowledge and appreciation of reggae music reverberate--both literally and figuratively--throughout its new CD, Disassemble Dub. The partnership of Joshua Elrod, a former Nashvillian living in New York, and Craig Allen, a Nashville graphic designer, Phase Selector Sound has created a stunning collection of dub reggae tracks that draws on the complex and multileveled history of the music while staying ever mindful of the technologically savvy present-day.

Dub reggae has always maintained a cultish popularity, appealing largely to record-collector types, punk fans, techno heads, and even avant-gardists. The music originates from the early days of reggae, when a 45 would contain a vocal track on the A-side and an instrumental, or dub, version on the B-side. These flipside tracks gave producers a chance to use studio trickery to stretch out and play with the tune, utilizing massive amounts of delay and reverb to make the drums sound elastic and boomy, while various musical and vocal motifs floated in and out of the mix.

By the early '70s dub music had earned a popularity all its own--perhaps because its expansive, mind-bending forays only heightened the ganja-perfumed haze that already enveloped the best reggae. Musicians and producers such as Augustus Pablo and Lee "Scratch" Perry emerged as artists in their own right, creating entire albums of dub reggae that in their exquisite minimalism and experimentation only heightened the mysticism inherent in reggae music's slow, syncopated grooves.

The 15 tracks on Disassemble Dub take plenty of cues from this golden age of dub. As the cogent and informative liner notes explain, rhythm is everything; the duo starts by laying down bass and drum tracks, which create a rock-solid foundation for the guitars, keyboards, electronic percussion, and various effects to be piled on later. Crazy stereo panning is also a huge component; as sounds zoom from one speaker to the other, it's one of those simple but effective tricks that allows a producer to mess with the listener's head in the most playful sort of way (and it makes Disassemble Dub a treat to listen to on headphones).

If much of the CD invokes such '70s dub masters as King Tubby--in the mournful, minor-key chords and melodies; the echoey chicken-scratch guitar; the faux horns on "Factory Preset"--there's also something decidedly modern about it. Working in the '90s, Allen and Elrod have access to digital instruments and recording machines that were unheard of a couple decades ago. Computer-generated noises and bleeps course throughout the record, surfacing most strikingly on "Sci Fi Dub." And yet the result is much the same as on those much older recordings: Using only the most affordable and accessible equipment (including a four-track cassette recorder, a 12-track digital recorder, Roland digital drums, and a personal computer), the duo has managed to layer tracks in such a way that the final result sounds spacious and warm.

In this regard, they've done a brilliant thing, for some modern reggae is hampered by the widespread availability of digital instrumentation; what once sounded sprightly and inventive now often sounds flat and formulaic. But on Disassemble Dub, Phase Selector Sound has taken a creative approach to the technology at its disposal: For one thing, though Elrod uses a Roland SPD-11 drum machine on all but one of these tracks, he plays it live, in real time, rather than creating programs or loops. Ironically, this choice was an economic one as much as a creative one: More sophisticated drum machines and samplers were prohibitively expensive.

But again, that's part of what has always made reggae music so interesting: Producers frequently got the most remarkable results by using their limited resources in the most creative manner. And on Disassemble Dub, Phase Selector Sound has made its homespun instrumentation splash and crackle in subtly unusual ways. In this regard, their music has something of a kinship with the best modern electronica, in particular the German group Pole, which shares a similar fascination with dub reggae.

Clearly, they've done something right: The New York-based label ROIR heard Phase Selector Sound's demos and was so taken with the duo's music, it decided to release Disassemble Dub. Formed 20 years ago as a cassette-only label, ROIR has since expanded into CDs, with a catalog that includes recordings by some of the giants of reggae: The Skatalites, Big Youth, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Black Uhuru, and Scientist (not to mention an interesting sampling of rock recordings by The Mekons, The Buzzcocks, John Cale, and others). In other words, these two Nashvillians are in fine company.

Ever since Afrikan Dreamland's heyday in the early '80s, there's always been a reggae or ska band knocking around Nashville--Freedom of Expression, Mystic Meditations, A.K.A. Rudie. These groups have provided an outlet for local fans who wanted to get out and enjoy the music they heard on their Bob Marley or Specials records in a club setting. Phase Selector Sound, I'd argue, have done something on an entirely different level: They've ingested the reggae music they loved and responded with a statement that's at once reverential, forward-thinking, and original.


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