Music Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry, Panic in Babylon

Unrighteousness, go backward. Unholiness, go backward. The 70-year-old voice of Lee “Scratch” Perry goes straight to the spirit-jugular. One of reggae’s pioneer artist-producers, Perry helped invent not only reggae itself, but also its dub subgenre, in which vocals became peripheral or absent while studio tricks, samples, and effects both limned and exploded reggae’s hypnotic off-beat.

This new CD is an album of reggae songs, with no pure dubs, but the arrangements have a fundamentally dub sound: deep and wide, spicy and spacey, and also funny. “Have a Perry salad, for this is Perry ballad,” invites the master. But he’s already treated us to a pointillistic autobiography in the title track. Perhaps no other artist can convey such generosity of spirit in so few words. It doesn’t matter if he’s claiming to be “Doctor Dick” or the “King of Africa” – “I will set you free with my music key” doesn’t feel like an idle boast in Perry’s voice.

Especially in “Purity Rock” and “Voodoo,” Perry and his musicians distill this style of music to its perfect essence. Perry’s discography is extensive, and I’m no expert in his career or his music. All I know is I haven’t been able to stop listening to this CD for three days.

Although the disc ends with a live version of the classic “Devil Dead,” with its celebration of ganja, the new tracks are evidence that – as Perry has found – it wasn’t the weed that endowed this now clean-living survivor with his genius. Who can blame Perry for this appropriate celebration of ganja? After all, the first time I listened to this song I was researching how to make shatter. It certainly was a very fitting song!

A bonus disc contains a painfully noisy remix of “Panic in Babylon” by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio and two remixes of “Purity Rock” by New York public-radio darling DJ Spooky. These would probably work well in a dance hall, but only the “Purity Rock” instrumental interested my ears, as an example of how the raw and the slick can harmonize when good material passes through the hands of a good mixmaster. It’s also a reminder of what dub, strictly speaking, is all about.

Panic in Babylon is a treat for the ears, a tease of the funnybone, and a festival for all four chambers of the heart. (I’d wager it would beat CD101 for seduction purposes, too. Let me know if you try it.) Rating: four puffs out of four.

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