Friday, January 14, 2011

January 14: The Ethiopians, "Come On Now"

Artist: The Ethiopians
Song: "Come On Now"
Album: Engine '54: Let's Ska And Rock Steady
Year: 1968

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Though throughout the course of history countless genres have somehow morphed into new sounds, it is a very rare occasion that this transitional process is actually captured on tape.  In most cases, these changes occur during rehearsals as a band emerges, and while the end product is always clear, how the band found their way to that sound is often a bit of a mystery.  Furthermore, in a number of instances where a sort of "middle ground" can be heard, it often leans too far to one sound or the other, leaving only traces of the old or new.  However, as the roots of reggae began to turn into what would eventually be termed as "ska," there were a handful of groups that made brilliant songs that perfectly walk the line between the two sounds.  Understandably, nearly all of this took place in Jamaica in the mid and late 1960's, and while groups like The Skatalites are perhaps best known for their contributions during this time, one cannot overstate the importance of their fellow countrymen, The Ethiopians.  Though the group primarily consisted of only two musicians, the amount of sound they were able to produce is nothing short of stunning, and many of their melodies have become standards as the decades have passed.  While their first single, "Train To Skaville," is as much of a classic as one will find, the amazing sound and perfectly balanced ground between the old and new sounds can be experienced on The Ethiopians' extraordinary 1968 single, "Come On Now."

As the song begins, "Come On Now" shows a clear mastery of the old, reggae and rock steady sounds, as the bright horns and smooth tempo are as good as either of those styles ever sounded.  The way in which the drums echo across the track also brings an exceptional amount of mood to the song, and "Come On Now" appears as laid back as any other song in recorded history.  However, after the opening musical segment, it becomes clear that there is something else at play on this song, as the tempo slowly speeds up, and there is a great deal of emphasis being placed on the downbeat. The way in which the guitars emphasize the bounce of the drums is where one can easily hear how the song is no longer a roots-style reggae tune, and there is little question that "Come On Now" is one of the earliest instances of a "true" ska sound.  Yet it is not only the historical significance that makes the musical composition so fantastic, as the manner in which the horns seems to almost become a second vocal track, often sounding as if they are imitating the "real" vocal track is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the song.  Along with this, the melody which the entire band deploys is without question one fo the most catchy and unforgettable sounds ever recorded, and even after the first listening, the descending musical pattern sticks in your head.  This ability to compose such memorable pieces, as well as craft them into something entirely new is what quickly cemented The Ethiopians legacy as true innovators of sound.

However, while one cannot overlook the significance of the music on "Come On Now," the fact of the matter is, The Ethiopians were a vocal group above all else, and that fact is as easy to hear here as anywhere else in their catalog.  The combination of Leonard Dillon and Stephen Taylor proves to be one fo the finest vocal pairings in history, and there is clearly no limit to their talents in terms of the musical scale or the amount of emotion which they can convey.  On "Come On Now," there is another, almost strange influence that one can detect, as in the level of soul, as well as the way in which their voices move across the track, the sounds of Motown can clearly be heard.  This is no surprise, as if one strips the two sounds to their core, they have a great deal in common, yet there are few traces within the reggae/ska sounds where one can hear such vocals.  Though it is a bit of a contrast to the vocals they had previously recorded, it is perhaps the fusion of these styles that also helped to push the genre forward, and one would eb hard pressed to find a more beautiful vocal track anywhere in the history of reggae or ska.  As has always been the case in the so-called "island sounds," the level of honestly and simplicity in the lyrics has been one of its key aspects, and on "Come On Now," this is no different, as the song sings of taking advantage of the moment, and perhaps realizing that there is always time to change.  This almost blissful way in which this message is delivered places the song into a category all its own, as in its entirely, one would be hard pressed to find a song with a wider appeal.

While it is often a side-note to the sources of rock and blues, one simply cannot overlook the massive amount of influence that has come as a result of the sounds of "island music."  Though many others have tried to copy the sound over the decades, it is the early performers of reggae, rock steady, and ska that defined an entirely different way of approaching music, and their sounds have rarely been matched.  Though both reggae and ska are fantastic on their own, the transition from one to the other is one of the few "documented" cases of a new style forming.  Though a handful of bands played important roles in this movement, few were more important than The Ethiopians, and there is a level of authenticity and joy in their music that is far beyond that of their peers.  The way in which the music echos the vocals, as well as the more clear concentration on the downbeat is what would become the blueprint for the ska sound, and there are virtually no other places one can hear it so clearly before their 1968 single, "Come On Now."  In fact, one can make the case that in both ska and reggae, the group played a vital role, as one can see nearly everything before their recordings as rock steady.  Regardless of the terminology one uses, it is impossible to argue against the changes that one can hear in their music, and it is much the reason that The Ethiopians and their 1968 song, "Come On Now," remain such highly regarded classics more than forty years after their first release.

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