As I've discussed in the past, the EP is back in a big way. Used to be that mini-albums were a method for bands to put out a few tracks outside the context of their usual big album statements, but it's now quite common for groups to eschew full albums in favor of releasing bite-size morsels that are easier for listeners to chew on. Instead of a band fighting for attention with a 12-song collection that takes an hour to listen to, a group can fire off four or five songs on an EP and more quickly entice the listener to go back in for repeat plays.
This week, I'm looking at the debut EP from Noble Sound System and at the first collection of solo music from that group's bassist, Marlin Ledin. They're both fairly modest in size, but they both are able to give a listener a good picture of who the artist is and what they do.
Noble Sound System is a reggae band from Wisconsin. That's a scary sentence. If it's authentic reggae you're looking for, there are probably better places to begin a search than in Wisconsin. So, fans of Peter Tosh or Bob Marley may not be totally on board with these guys. People who worship at the altar of Jimmy Cliff might look at Noble Sound System and feel as though they're lacking some kind of real-dealness that is hard to define yet easy to identify, especially when it's not present.
"Still Dancing" opens the group's self-titled EP, and it's a laid-back reggae song with some spacey analog-delay dub elements. The chorus is catchy, and there's a nice guitar solo, but the song never quite takes off.
"Foolish Fool" is brighter, but the song's lyrics are a condemnation of religious intolerance. "You're so high and mighty," sings (get ready for one of the best reggae-guy names ever) Noble Falconer, "but you're always fighting / say judgment come like lightning / but forgiveness is the nature of your God almighty / judge not, lest you take a look at the words and the phrases on the pages of your good book." It's a little messy, even if its heart is in the right place.
On the third track, "Tell It Like It Is," the band goes full-bore into "legalize it" reggae territory. "If you got a fresh crop / tell it like it is / we keep the herb stocked / tell it like it is," Falconer sings. "Good seeds sowing good marijuana / take your pain and replace it with laughter / herbal meditation is all that I need / the medication that come from the seed."
Nothing wrong with feeling strongly about endorsing the legalization of cannabis. It's just that it's cliched territory, and about as interesting to listen to as a PSA. You expect reggae bands to sing about weed, and when they do, it's usually a snooze, because it's well-trod ground. And, here, it seems like the band is doing the thing that they're expected to do, rather than finding their own way to do it.
The recording is crisp and hi-fi, and the band locks in well. But the EP as a whole feels less like a strong statement by a new band than an attempt to emulate other, more impactful artists.
Ledin's solo album is, for this reviewer's money, the more interesting and engaging of the two collections. (This may cause some tension in the rehearsal room - sorry, guys.) It's genuinely laid-back in the way that the NSS EP seems to aspire to be, and it contains many more surprises. Look at "The River," and how Ledin's low-key, funky James Taylor approach meets up with odd found-sound snippets that fly in and out of the mix and eerie, swooping strings that creak like something off of Jonny Greenwood's "There Will Be Blood" soundtrack. The slightly Beck-like "Fireflies in the Wind" uses water-drips as percussion, and adds tasteful, subtle female backing vocals that eventually, unexpectedly, take the lead in the bridge.
The Ledin EP, as it turns out, is warm and inviting and not as on-the-nose as the Noble Sound System EP is, if I have to pit them against each other. Wisconsin reggae is something you're either gonna be into or not, whereas the Ledin collection establishes him as a folk artist with a real ear for production and arrangement, and an identity that feels lived-in.
Artist: Noble Sound System / Marlin Ledin
Album: Self-titled EPs
Recorded at: The Weight Room, Washburn
Produced by: Ryan Rusch, Noble Sound System, Marlin Ledin
Personnel: Noble Falconer (guitar, vocals), Dane Hauser (drums), Marlin Ledin (bass, vocals in Noble Sound System, many instruments on solo EP), other guests
Upcoming show: Both acts perform at 2 p.m. Saturday at The Alvord Theater, Northland College, Ashland