Two Bongs Don’t Make a Right
How long should a fan wait for the target of their admiration to recapture past glory? When is it OK for the committed to give up? Ambient dub pioneers The Orb have been hard-pressed to pioneer much of anything since the turn of the century. Still, The Orbserver in the Star House looked on paper like a weird and thrilling restatement of relevance for both them and reggae godhead Lee “Scratch” Perry. Instead, each drags the other down a deep, wet chasm of musical befuddlement.
Recorded in Berlin throughout this year, it suggests at first the same leftfield cred as 2011’s Jamie xx/Gil Scott-Heron project. We’re New Here had fresh-faced Jamie breathing new and different life into GSH’s words of comeback. The big problem with Perry meeting The Orb is both have had pretty regular release schedules of late, and most of that work has barely sniffed the magic of the music that first canonized them. These disparate artists come together here more like Metallica and Lou Reed on Lulu, with the same kind of “say what?” results.
On that monstrosity it’s hard to guess who’s doing the better hatchet job on whose reputation, but on The Orbserver in the Star House, the bigger culprit is clearly Perry: He’s not credited with any production, so all we can latch on to are his downright criminal vocals. Manic yet simplistic lyrics litter reggae’s hit parade, yet on songs like “Ball of Fire” and “Thirsty,” he lumbers past contemporaries like Dillinger to imply he really has cocaine runnin’ ’round his brain. Perry doesn’t come across as the same musician who once deserved Beastie Boys namechecks. He sounds old and burnt out—his soundbites are a toxic cocktail of Rastafarian pronouncements and elderly nattering.
The Orb don’t do much to help their own causes here, as Alex Paterson and cronies like Thomas Fehlmann haven’t been spellbinding or even consistent hit makers since they lived on Island Records in the 1990’s. The Orbserver in the Star House continues a presentment of dub experiments and spacey production that’s grown sloppier and more self-referencing as the years have passed. From the reggae-tingled sampledelica of “Man in the Moon” to the buzzing shuffle of “Congo,” most of the beats here range from static and inoffensive to messy and patently ignorable.
Amid the ruins of these careers, and especially in spite of Perry’s nonsense, there’s frustrating proof in the triptych of “Soulman,” the pseudo-turntablist “Hold Me Upsetter” and “Golden Clouds” (though it borrows liberally from their classic “Little Fluffy Clouds”) that The Orb can still string together the right echoes. But the real meat of The Orbserver in the Star House is summed up in its cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves”—a song Perry once helped make famous, a song that built the reggae foundations upon which The Orb rest, turned directionless, powerless, and pointless.