Here we are, knee deep in another album carved as much in legend as it is in critical acclaim: Lee Perry's first album to consist of him singing on every track, released by Perry's own label after it was rejected by Island Records, one of the last to be recorded in Perry's backyard studio before he walked into the room, covered the walls with marker, and, according to him, burned it to the ground. (His family and friends claim that's probably untrue, but c'mon: who do you want to believe on this one? It's too good a story.) Twinned with Return of the Super Ape, another Perry release under the Upsetters moniker, Roast Fish Collie Weed & Corn Bread is now considered to be some of the strongest work of Perry's career, not to mention serving as a sort of climax to his 70's sound. The years following these two albums weren't especially kind to Perry, and while that knowledge shouldn't impact the Corn Bread experience, they do.
It's all but universally agreed now that Perry wasn't much of a singer on Roast Fish, and no amount of backward looks will dispute that. He's got a thin sounding voice that's often out of tune with the music, some of the songs divert into mumbling, and over the course of the ten tracks that make up the album, he can sound so distant that it requires a bit of effort to pay attention to his vocal presence at all. Thankfully, what's behind that voice, impossible to ignore, is a striking, smart production of a thoroughly dubbed masterpiece. On top of songs like these, any singer would have struggled.
Although purists probably find Roast Fish to be a distracted definition of what had become known as "dub" at the time, it's not accurate to refer to the album as reggae. There's too many effects on the album--the sounds of a baby wailing used as a punctuation to the drum and bass "riddim" sound, a too-infrequent echo manipulation of Perry's voice, an imposing, Spector-ish "Wall of Sound" quality that pushes the tightly wound snare drum as far as the listener's eyeballs--for it to be placed with any sort of legitimacy alongside what early 70's reggae artists had produced. Like King Tubby, Perry had moved on from that sound by '78, and while dub would really only be truly accepted as more then another reggae subgenre when the mid-80's work of Adrian Sherwood and On-U gave it more widespread attention, it's undeniable how much of that sound was already intact and available on Roast Fish. This wasn't a feeble grasp towards a new style. It was the new sound--no future innovation required. The only thing it needed was lyrics.
Perry filled the album with all the standards he knew were expected of him: social protest with "Big Neck Police", exhortations to smoke weed on the baldly titled "Free Up the Weed"--and they're great, sure. But he wasn't content with just that: "Throw Some Water In" is the Jamaican version of Radioheads "Fitter/Happier", with Perry telling the listener to learn to swim if they can't afford the gym, "Yu Squeeze My Panhandle" is an uncomfortable trip through Perry's attempts to convince some shithead radio dj to give his records a shot, and then, becuse you can't ignore what happened after the album dropped, the unsettling "Evil Tongues", where Perry dives headfirst into paranoiac rantings about hypocrites and liars--which isn't too dissimilar to the loathing he expressed at the time for some of the people he was working with. Due to the timing of the whole thing, with Roast Fish coming on top of what is probably the lowest emotional point of Perry's career, "Evil Tongues" can overpower the album's general theme. Don't let that happen. Sure, 1979 was going to be rough for the guy, but Roast Fish Collie Weed & Corn Bread isn't an album about that. It's a collection of pure artistry, from a guy who was working at the absolute peak of his powers. And while Lee's peak may not necessarily include being much of a vocalist, he more than makes up for it with his mastery over the sound that he, along with King Tubby, brought forth.