Duane Stephenson: Black Gold

Duane Stephenson

DUANE STEPHENSON

BLACK GOLD

[VP RECORDS]

Duane Stephenson’s debut album, August Town, was a highlight of the reggae calendar when it appeared in late 2007. Celebrating its arrival, Echoes described his songs as “beautifully crafted affairs, combining real depth of meaning with poetic lyricism.” Three years later and little has changed except the former To-Isis singer sounds in even better voice these days, whether singing of love – as he does on Deception, Woman, More and Rescue Me [shared with Gramps Morgan], or delivering the reality hymns he’s now famous for after hits like August Town and True Reflections [which he wrote for Jah Cure.]

Dean Fraser’s still there too, overseeing the production and vocal arrangements in addition to playing the sweetest of horn phrases, just as he does on Tarrus Riley’s best work. Dean’s mastery has underpinned so many good albums to come out of Jamaica over the past thirty-five years we’re in danger of taking him for granted. It’s people like him who keep the traditional reggae vibes alive, and his nurturing of a talented singer/songwriter like Duane was always going to pay dividends.

This is an album that exudes quality from every groove, but then Duane is far from being an ordinary ghetto troubadour. On songs like Nah Play, Fire In Me and Sufferers’ Heights – dedicated to the community where he’s from – his words cover a range of conscious subject matter, from world affairs [as heard on the title track], to more local concerns. If there’s a common thread, it’s that all tell stories infused with warmth and humanity. Some, like Cycle Goes On, plead for divine intervention, whilst others convey a moral tale. “If you want to hear the truth, just pretend you’re dead,” he warns on Truth Is before invoking holy retribution on rapists and drug dealers on Soon As We Rise. Ras Shiloh joins him on the latter and it’s an inspired pairing, with the Brooklyn man delivering the lines, “You wrap up your head and say you are Rasta but we know you are only an impostor, ‘cause Rasta preach love and affection, teach Marcus Garvey correction…” He and Duane’s words are informed by love and compassion not anger, and nor do they retreat into Rasta doggerel. That said, it’s the two covers, Stay At Home and Members Only that stay in the memory longest. This could be due to familiarity, or because he’s yet to add snappy hooks and choruses to that otherwise impressive armoury of skills. Either way, Black Gold is a contender for Reggae Album Of The Year, and warmly recommended to lovers of more traditional Jamaican music.

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About johnmasouri
John Masouri is a long-time author and music journalist specialising in reggae and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. The author of Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers, published by Omnibus Press in 2008, he is currently working on a biography of reggae singer Peter Tosh, due to appear next year. In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Reggae Vibes (France), Riddim (Germany) and Echoes - formerly Black Echoes - which is renowned as Britain's No. 1 black music monthly. His work has also appeared in Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and the NME, as well as magazines in the US, Caribbean and Japan.

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