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V/A - Funky Nassau: The Compass Point Story 1980-1986

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Artist: V/A

Album: Funky Nassau: The Compass Point Story 1980-1986

Label: Strut

Review date: Mar. 5, 2008

Funky Nassau: The Compass Point Story 1980-1986 documents 13 cuts from Island Records’ back catalog, all recorded at Chris Blackwell’s Bahamanian Compass Point Studio. The songs all share some common elements, including chicken-scratch guitar, sharp snares and handclaps holding time, and cavernous bass lines providing depth. In short, the material here is informed by the tropes of the Caribbean, the geographical setting where these tracks were committed to tape. It’s little surprise. Island Records, originally founded in Jamaica, was integral to the development of reggae and its distribution worldwide; Compass Point, likewise, regularly employed uber-reggae producers Sly and Robbie to twist its knobs.

As a historiography of the studio’s output, this collection is a useful item if for no other reason than its ready presentation. Funky Nassau, like any compilation, does all the hard lifting for the lay and lazy among us. Here, Strut has assembled the familiar and the obscure; the Talking Heads’ signature “Born Under Punches” rubs elbows with Guy Cuevas’s “Obessession,” a lesser known, if no less exhilarating, worldly groove. But if Funky Nassau is supposed to be a relevant disk for contemporary listeners, it fails to fully follow through on its promise.

Given the current taste in hip-hop – to say nothing of the throwbak disco and house that launched a thousand laptops – it would be easy to assume that Funky Nassau should invite the younger, clubbier listeners of today. For the last several years, hip hop, like much of contemporary culture, has plumbed the 1980s for any treasure buried in the morass of history. Jeans have gotten tighter. Producers have dueled to out-Casio each other with samples pushing ever further into the synthetic. Gone are the poetic and political leanings of rappers from the ’90s; in their place are the prosy quips of coke hustlers and pithy slogans of Supersoakin’ pitchmen – a style sharing less in common with C.L. Smooth than Kurtis Blow. One would therefore expect to add Funky Nassau to this chest of ’80s cultural booty. Although there is little hip hop on this compilation, one cannot doubt that this collection is aimed at those hip hop listeners and genealogists burning to know who was slapping those bass guitars originally.

Some of the selections here, however, are already old hat for this audience. Grace Jones’s “My Jamaican Guy” and Tom Tom Club’s “Gangster of Love” – two classics, no doubt – were recycled for all of their value 10 years ago. LL Cool J’s “Doin’ It” owns the chiaroscuro of Jones’s nu-reggae original, and pre-plastic surgery Mariah Carey lifted the Tom Tom Club whole cloth for her consistently fascinating Old Dirty Bastard duet, “Fantasy.” Although other songs on Funky Nassau are not as easily recalled, the opening of the compilation dates it in an unexpected way. Rather than situate the album in the thick of the Reagan years, Funky Nassau registers as a piece of Clinton nostalgia. The beginning of the collection whiffs in alluding to the 1980s, to which every contemporary-as-retro stylist seemingly aspires, and connects only as boilerplate for Puff Daddy’s former Bad Boy production team.

Despite Funky Nassau’s questionable first step in ’80s exhumation, it includes real gems to be found and, naturally, appropriated. Larry Levan’s mix of Gwen Guthrie’s “Padlock” is pop unencumbered by self-consciousness – it’s blissful in a manner of which performers today seem incapable. In contrast, Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s “Sun is Shining,” cribbed from her Mambo Nassau sessions, employs a dub arrangement for her sultry delivery. The track anticipates the more somber genre of trip hop that was still years away. Of course, in its anticipation, “Sun is Shining” provides another instance of Funky Nassau establishing, perhaps inadvertently, a ’90s motif. But, regardless of its present currency, Funky Nassau refreshes our memory of a collection of fine tracks that, in the passage of time, have either been forgotten or incorporated into more recent work without acknowledgment. If this album does nothing more than inform listeners of these originals, it will have, at its most fundamental level, succeeded.

By Ben Yaster

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