SOJA | Strength to Survive
album review by John Powell
A reggae band that needs no introduction, SOJA has been recording and touring for over a decade, gaining popularity not through selling out or doing what they’re told, but by being really, really sincere human beings, and their personalities have always somehow permeated their records.
With Get Wiser, SOJA showed that they weren’t making reggae music like anyone else. The instrumentation was at once rootsy and stapled together with some pop and rock influences, while Jacob’s lyrics were in many ways singer/songwriter, these hearthrobbing introspections on society, love, politics, and religion. Hell, he takes on every issue, and that’s what made their debut, and the following Born in Babylon, stick out among contemporary reggae records.
The thought behind Strength to Survive was to make a roots album, something Bob Marley would categorize as roots, and SOJA succeeded extremely well. They managed to reign in Jacob’s lengthy lyrics and cut to the chase, as they say. Jacob is an incredible songwriter. His lyrics unfortunately can outshine the rest of the band, which is the only unfair thing about Strength to Survive, although this record showcases Patrick O’Shea’s keys much more than the other records. He ties the album together with the right mix of roots counter rhythm and synth gurgles. He’s been the underdog that finally gets to bark.
Hellman Esorcia and Rafael Rodriguez’ horns also get more recognition, in roots fashion, of course. The horn lines breathe a new energy into SOJA songs, a stronger and funkier oomph.
“Mentality”, sets the pace. The horns are tight, playing the same riff as the guitar. The refrain “Forwards ever/backwards never” is amazing somehow. They really built a song you can sing along to. “The plane’s in the air/look down/animals are scarce,” Jacob sings in his recognizable pretty whine. “Fuck your system/I’m not with ‘em,” he concludes. Bam! SOJA.
The first three songs are a trifecta of reggae indulgence, exhaustingly catchy. You will play them over and over and over. The title track comes next. The horns here, cooing over Bobby Lee Jefferson’s round and thick bass, are delicious. “By the way,” Jacob sings, “if we don’t/you can kiss it goodbye/our sun, our moon, our earth, and our sky.”
“Everything Changes” has the best lyrics found in a reggae song in a handful of years- of course there are so many words that it takes up two whole pages in the CD’s booklet, but that’s half of SOJA’s charm. The guitar is full of flourish. Kenneth Brownell’s percussion sizzles. He does such a good job of putting the right amount into a song. Ryan Berty’s drum kicks when they fly into the final chorus is righteous, too. “What if/we were the ones broke down and torn/with our life at our back/and our wife in our arms,” Jacob sings, and it’s heartbreaking. But it’s the bridge that hits the right pressure points. “Maybe we need more cars and TVs/more cash and jewelry/or maybe we don’t know what we need.”
See? This is powerful music. It’s got a message, but isn’t preachy, and the band could easily have become pretty boy lovelorn love song rehashers, but even the love songs on this album (“Tell Me” for one), dive into Jacob’s past in a way his songs never had before.
Jacob gets away with a lot here. He rhymes “races” with “racist” and “changes” with “change this”, but he gets away with it when he strikes the right melody and because he’s not concerned with fitting a mold. In fact, I prefer these odd rhymes to his typical ones. He’s not too willing to break out of rhyming “you” with “too” and “feel” with “real”, but the prerogative is roots feel, and not lyrical Dylanism.
As great as the lyrics are, it’s more that the melodies are well thought out and executed wonderfully. Jacob breaks his lines in interesting places. “Tell Me” is a great example: “From the very first/time I saw you,” he starts, and then, “I start to think that/we’d be better off/if we were friends.”
What’s missing is Bobby Lee’s here-and-there verses or his own songs, which he had on the last two albums. His gruff rasta rap always changed the pace and gave us a break from Jacob, who, as mentioned, has a lot to say.
SOJA doesn’t need much more praise overall. They made it onto the Billboard charts with this album. You can’t get angry with them for hitting high numbers, though. They never sold out. They never did anything other than the way they thought was right, and it’s great to have a reggae band, singing about peace and universal love, infiltrating people’s iPods more than Nikki Minaj. It’s credit where credit is due. And if they were shooting for Marley Music, then they will find their way steady and low on the charts like Bob did, reaching more people through the music than the numbers.
Bottom line: High production value, great lyrics, and a tight band makes SOJA’s Strength to Survive above and beyond expectations.