Marcia Griffiths - Sweet & Nice (Wild Flower, 1974)
On her second LP outing, Jamaican singer Marcia Griffiths crafts one of the most spellbinding Lovers Rock records ever made, with her voice moving mountains, hearts and souls alike.
Jamaica has always been an integral centre of musical development, perhaps more so than any other nation in regards to production, genres and sonics. Sound system culture was very much an important evolution in the country's musical identity, with DJs and promoters putting on parties as early as the 1940s, which initially played rhythm and blues from international acts but gradually moved towards playing local artists and productions made by those who owned the sound systems. Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae all originated from the island and its music makers, who blended a mix of jazz, r'n'b, Caribbean and Cuban sounds with African style drumming to craft intoxicating sounds that would spread with those who moved to Europe, America and beyond during the 20th century. One of the most significant genres to emerge from Jamaica at this time was Dub music, which during the late 60s developed into what is largely considered the world's first electronic music genre, with an emphasis on sparse guitar and deep beefy bass lines and drums creating a completely unique and groundbreaking style of music. All these genres would have an enormous impact worldwide, as each genre was exported to many scenes who took it all in and crafted incredible music in the process. Another genre that developed from Jamaican sounds but was given its name in London was Lover's Rock, which acted very much as a sub-genre to Reggae, which by the mid 70s had taken on a more political and spiritual angle, with Lover's Rock acting as a more emotive and sensual sound in both tone and lyricism. The genre would become an integral part of the global Reggae sound, with Lover's Rock providing enticement for the senses and tugging at the heart strings, its smooth easy going style picking up steam from its roots in the late 60s throughout the 70s and the 80s where its expansive nature only got more enticing. Many superb records were produced during the genre's life span, with particular albums of note to arrive from Jamaican and British artists, and it would provide an important creative space for female artists, whom many felt Reggae to be a highly masculine one where their music wouldn't be accepted or appreciated with the same level of respect. As a result, female artists were responsible for the vast majority of releases within the genre, with many enjoying fruitful careers which crafted some wonderful moments of love tinged serenity, providing soundtracks to many a party or moment of emotive engagement. To this day, it remains an integral part of the Reggae genre, one that nurtured the warmth and feeling within all of us, with many of its most important records standing strong in the contemporary musical landscape.
Out of the vast array of talent that has come from the Island of Jamaica, Marcia Griffiths must rank very much in the top echelons of the greats, simply in terms of her talents and her significant recording outputs. A native of Kingston, Griffiths started her career in 1964, where after performing on stage with Bryon Lee and the Dragonaires, she was offered recording contracts which would see her record a number of duets with Bob Marley, Bob Andy, Jeff Dixon and Tony Gregory, before releasing her debut solo single in 1968. A slew of releases would follow in the proceeding years, along with the commencement of a number of LPs, with Griffiths then forming the I Threes with fellow singers Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt, who provided backing vocals to Bob Marley and the Wailers until 1981. Griffiths established herself during her career as one of Jamaica's bona fide star singers, with her rich range and exquisite tone always carrying through on every release she was involved within, showing a dynamism that always carried listeners away to a very special place indeed. Not content in staying true to one singular movement of Reggae, her discography shows many diversions into Rocksteady, Ska and Roots Reggae, all of which showcased her voice to its greatest extent, floating and caressing us with its soft tones and enriching melodic tendencies. She was able to balance the quieter moments of inner reflection with moments that simply soared, providing listeners with all manner of contexts in which to enjoy her music, with Griffiths content to explore all facets of her sound. Griffiths very much captured the essence of every genre she touched upon, combining the politicised messages that Reggae began to push with the passions of Lovers Rock and the danceability of Rocksteady, all of which combined in differing ways over her releases. Over time, she would begin releasing significantly within the realms of Dancehall and dub, showcasing once more how she was willing to move with the times and release tunes moving in differing directions. Getting into her discography is quite a ride, as Griffiths released a plethora - and we mean a plethora - of tunes, with countless 7" and 12"s coming out over her distinguished career, with her outputs never seeming to wain year on year. Alongside that, she released a number of fantastic LP records that expand upon her sound and provided almost a composite feel for the sound she was pushing at that point in time. Some personal highlights from her LP releases include the wonderful soft Reggae tones of the 'Naturally' release, that landed in 1977;
the fantastic Rocksteady slow dance feel of the 'At Studio One' record, that arrived in 1980;
and the calypso inspired vibes that flow from the synth rich 'Carousel' release, that came in 1990. From the singles side of things, some favourites include the beauty and majesty that pours out of the 'You're Mine/Oh Baby', a duet with Tony Gregory, that arrived in 1965 and was Griffith's first appearance on vinyl; the uptempo Ska grooves that abound from the 'Fat Fish/Call To Me' record, a joint affair with the Soul Vendors, that arrived in 1967; the slow and steady tones of the 'Feel Like Jumping/Wiser Than Solomon' record, jointly released with Lester Sterling in 1968;
the tonally resonant 'Toil (Talk)' record, that arrived in 1969; the wondrous feel of the 'Sweet Bitter Love' record, that landed in 1973; the excellent blend of Reggae and Disco that occurs on the 'Harmony' record, that arrived in 1974; the sonically enriching 'Stepping Out Of Babylon', that arrived in 1977; the soaring and passionate sounds found on the 'Deep In My Heart' record, that landed in 1988; the Dancehall infused 'Fire Burning', that arrived in 1991; and finally, the equally infectious Dancehall single 'Closer To You', that arrived in 92. In all, Griffiths showcased across a wide variety of styles her supreme talents with a microphone, lending her voice to a slew of background instrumentals that she held together so very well. Always switching and dipping between the styles, never faltering on the delivery or feel of it all. If you wish to traverse back through a brilliant discography of a true icon, then hers is the one to get going through.
And now, we arrive at the subject of today's review, Griffiths' debut LP 'Sweet & Nice', which arrived on the Wild Flower imprint in 1974. Expertly navigating the realms of soul and funk through the spectrum of Reggae and lover's rock, Griffiths lends her voice to 10 cuts that cover a range of artists, including Curtis Mayfield, Neil Diamond, Ewan MacColl and others, with a deft application of her voice which just shows how well she is able to convey mood no matter what music she finds herself being backed by. With the musicality on display on a level like no other, its a beautiful saunter through the contemporary context at that time, a harmonious joining together of US sounds with Jamaican styles, and it works in every way imaginable, guided by Griffiths and her iconic voice. So, without further delay, lets dive into this absolute gem of a record....
Things kick off with 'Here I am Baby', originally performed by Al Green, which begins in the hazy midsts psychedelic soul. The wah wah guitar packs a punch over the thumping bass line and laid back funk drums, with the stage set impeccably for Griffiths to slide into the spotlight on top, her voice wrapping itself around the instrumentals with flair and conviction. She does a brilliant job of emulating Green's laid back yet forceful delivery, moving through the gears and using her voice very much so as a structured solo element, rising high during the verses and sauntering along during the verses, navigating the groove with such an effortless feel. The end of the second chorus sees a chiming soar resonate from the vocal harmonies, rising our hearts to the maximum level, contrasting very well indeed with the dense and intricate instrumentals, as Griffiths lets out one final rising note, and like that our engagement is at maximum level. Up next comes 'Everything I own', originally performed by Ken Boothe in a reggae/lovers rock style, but presented here in a uptempo Northern Soul style. There's no messing around as the incessant high hats set the tone, as ferocious guitar riffs and delicate piano keys add to the melodic ensemble, and before long Griffiths joins in once again with a perfectly tonal presence, guiding and directing the groove to switch between chords and notes. The feel of the track is one of the dance, getting people on their feet and getting into the flow, with the overall picture one of pure infectiousness, weaving and dipping itself around the heart and the mind. Griffiths' voice soars, it purrs, it caresses, it moves and grooves with the times, as we remain content in the knowledge that the track will continue onwards and upwards in our minds. Gorgeous. Up next comes 'Green Grasshopper', and the soul laden vibes keep following with this one. The driving bass line rides high on this one, as the guitar swings itself out on the right as the keys persist on the left hand side, as the drums craft the rhythm through the middle, and on top centre stage is Griffiths' voice, softly speaking to us through the speakers, calling out to us to picture the scene being painting. A picture of serenity, of calm and reassurance, inviting us to join in the feeling that is conveyed so expertly through the voices and the instruments, emphasised by the shimmering hats that came through around the 2 minute mark, and its the interplay between her voice and the male lead that add a personal touch into the mix. It provides that kind of narrative feel, painting a picture of those moments we think about with a lover, a friend or family, surrounded by love and affection, content to waste away the hours in the sun, the weight of the world drifting away in the rear view mirror. A beautiful track.
'Play Me' arrives next, and after all that wondrous soul and funk, its time for a bit of reggae to come into the mix. The guitar moves along at that iconic rhythm, as the drums mix it up a bit underneath to craft an intoxicating foundation, as lovingly played acoustic guitar moves around on the periphery. Griffiths' voice is on top top form here, rising higher and higher as proceedings move along, with the track dipped directly into the lovers rock template, as she sings longingly and lovingly about someone, her voice commanding centre stage as the grooves carry us away on a cloud of love and passion. Amazing stuff. 'Children At Play' arrives next, and the intro swings things back into the realms of soul and funk. The shimmering cymbals and crunchy fuzzy funk guitar set the tone, and like that we arrive into the first verse where Griffiths keeps her voice on the lower levels, but still finds the right places to rise above and craft a dynamism that we now associate with her vocal work. The instrumentals keep a low profile indeed, allowing all this space for Griffiths to sweep across the foundations, taking in all manner of tones and feels which wrap themselves around our hearts and minds with a breezy approach, casually taking in all that it can. The template of the sound remains so subtle but finds the time to reach out and caress us in the soft morning, a waking up song that soundtracks our activities and encourages us to step out and be the best self we can. Brilliant stuff. 'Sweet Bitter Love' arrives next, and the Reggae vibes return for this one, but its the combination of the soulful elements that make it a sure winner. The guitar remains as ever present, but its the solos that abound around the core foundations that elevate the track to new spaces and places, with oboe or clarinets cascading in the backdrop as Griffiths pours her heart and soul into the vocal delivery, powerfully hitting all the right moments with grace and absolute determination. Its an utter joy to get involved within, the audial soundscape one of such sweetness to the ears and one that unravels around us with conviction and meaning. Its all about the combination of the instrumentals with Griffiths' voice, as it always has been. Just stunning. 'Gypsy Man' arrives next, and this one starts off with some of the sweetest interplays yet. From the acoustic guitar work that defines the opening segment, we land right into a wonderfully put together hybrid reggae sound, with the guitar rhythm put towards the back end of the sound rather than front centre, with an excellent ensemble of percussive elements that add to the density of the rhythm, with additional keys added in for good measure. Griffiths navigates the sound impressively, her voice placed at the higher end to provide a contrast to the dense vocal work, with her full range on show once more, providing an excellent foil to the guitar solo that crops up around the 2 minute mark, which then flows into a backing vocal laden segment that really does the business. Griffiths returns for the final verse, and she returns to a more understated space, where the instrumentals and vocals melt into one beautifully conceived sequence. Glorious.
Up next comes 'There's No Me Without You', and this one begins off with some supreme vocal work. The intro then flows into the straight up Reggae influenced instrumental, with Griffiths and rising horns flairing up to provide space for the soul to infiltrate into proceedings, as Griffiths' voice just rises higher and higher, crafting a spellbinding feel to the track. The amount of heart and feel that resonate from the cut are beyond comprehension, a love song of epic proportions that conveys so much passion and meaning, with time for a spoken word piece to just add to the ongoing narrative. There's time for one final foray into Griffith's vocal line, and it reminds us of her talents once more. Beautiful. Up next comes 'The First Time I Saw Your Face', and this one begins with the rhythmic tones of the guitar and drums to get us going. The stripped back opening then blossoms with the arrival of Griffith's vocals and the backing vocals, which work so wonderfully together to craft a dynamism in the words being conveyed to us. Griffiths moves along with a saunter, a passionate delivery that moves and grooves along the rhythm, rising just above to add that extra level of energy and emotion, never faltering in its delivery or feeling. Its a love letter to our love for another, conveyed so impeccably by Griffiths' delivery, who brings everything she has to the table on this one. Sublime. To wrap things up on this glorious record, we have a cover of the classic 'I'd Rather Be Lonely'. The intro features the iconic guitar work that graced the original, with Griffiths arriving soon after along with the horn line and the backing vocals, in a final statement that could end any soul, funk or lover's rock record. Its a final curtain call on a record that warms the soul to its fullest extent, filled with moments of brilliance and interpretation, all bound together by Griffiths and her impeccable vocal abilities.
Over the course of ten cuts, Griffiths and the backing band reimagine many hits and classics of the time in their own unique way, which not only creates continual intrigue but does much to highlight how damn good Griffiths is as a singer. She is the glue, the element that holds and binds proceedings together, whilst also conveying the mood and the tone of each track, which she does brilliantly on every single cut. Its a covers record like no other, taking in aspects from the originals and masterfully rethinking how to repackage them in another context, and Griffiths in particular sings with as much passion and meaning as those who sang the originals. Its brilliant, its tender, its emotional, and if you embark on a listening session with this record, you're in for one wonderful ride.
Be With Records reissued this record last year, check it out here: https://www.bewithrecords.com/products/marcia-griffiths-sweet-and-nice-double-lp#product