By Tim Hinson
Most of the world likes reggae, to some extent. The pulsing kick drum beat, sinuous basslines, and sing-along style vocals tend to get people moving. It’s popular in almost every demographic – does anyone not know a few words to “No Woman No Cry” or “Three Little Birds”? But how many people claim it to be one of their favorite genres? Not many. And for the rest of us, few can name more than a handful of artists, with Bob Marley and his progeny topping the list. That is slowly changing, thankfully. Bands like Slightly Stoopid, Rebelution, and Tribal Seeds are fusing roots style reggae with pop and dub influence, taking over airways and charts all over the world. And in the world of reggae music, no name is hotter right now than Scott Woodruff, though you may know him better as the vocalist and driving creative force of Stick Figure.
Scott began Stick Figure as a one-man operation back in the mid-2000s. A creative powerhouse, he wrote, recorded, and produced five full-length records in just over 6 years. Each was met with praise, but it wasn’t until 2012’s “Burial Ground” that he really latched onto his unique sound, taking #1 spot on both the iTunes and Billboard Reggae charts.
With “Set in Stone”, the Nov 2015 release from Scott “Stick Figure” Woodruff, he has fine-tuned the sound even further. This offering shows us a more refined, textural sound, with deeper lyrics and a moody atmosphere. It also features a number of collaborations with other well-known musicians in the scene, including guest appearances from Rebelution singer Eric Rachmany, Slightly Stoopid, and Collie Budz.
Starting with opener “Fire on the Horizon”, the first thing you notice is that Scott has really refined making layered music sound simple. Textural ambience alongside a comfortable simplicity, syncopated guitar chords meeting lush delays that go on forever, it’s an expansion of the musical ideology of his last release, and feels more complete as a result. Each Stick Figure release is a study in engineering and production technique, and features better quality than the prior release, but stops short of being too polished. That alone is a testament to his growing confidence in the engineering/producing field and is impressive by itself, though you’d have to listen to the whole discography to appreciate the personal growth.
Thematically, the album seems to track through the ups and downs of a relationship, though it’s unclear if that’s on purpose or not. Listening closely reveals some lyrical ideas – “Sound of the Sea” carries a relatable melancholy, and a plaintive longing. It’s haunting, and clearly my favorite cut off the album. “Choice is Yours” features Slightly Stoopid in an extended bridge, with heavy dub influence throughout the song, and presents the listener with a decision, to choose between being negative or positive. “Mind Block” is a lyrical freedom song, in a sense. It’s something of an acknowledgment of independence, a realization of individuality, and could be heard as a conversation between vocalist Scott and guest vocalist Eric. “Sentenced” is the tried-and-true “song from a jail cell” trope, but presented in an upbeat way that belies the subject matter. “Out the Door” is the love-or-leave anthem, simply written but crafted in such a way that the harmony will stick around in your head long after the listening. Again the heavy dub influence is evident here, with layered vocal harmonies and extensive reverb and delay on the guitars and drums. “Weary Eyes” is the musical reminder that everything will be okay, one way or the other. The vocal harmonies work well with the keys, complimentary arpeggios combined with a snappy snare sound.
No reggae album would be complete without a reference here and there to the famed green stuff. “Smokin’ Love”, featuring Collie Budz – a well-known contributor to dozens of artists looking for a reggae flavor – is a more traditional sounding reggae tune. Piano is used extensively in conjunction with a very genre-standard backbeat and guitar chording/rhythm patterns. It’s a love song of a sort, inviting someone to smoke out, and fairly standard fare. “Shadow” is another heavily dub-influenced sound, but on a record with so many great songs, it fails to stand out. In and of itself, it’s a fantastic song, but it’s the least of the cuts on this album. “One of Those Days” has a syncopated vocal style that lends itself to singing along, and improves the mood of the album, as our protagonist has met someone new. The lyrical concept is the idea of “playing it cool” with a new interest, and moves right into new relationship energy in the next track. “All My Love” is a full-on love song, evident right from the first verse. Depending on your view, it’s either a sweet or cloying, but it is without question the love song of the album. “Sunshine and Rain” is a lyrical reminder of staying positive, sort of a musical inspirational poster, delivered in a somewhat melancholy way. Similarly, “Smiles on Faces” is an upbeat, more pop message of positivity, and a nice note to end an album. That said, it’s much more of a pop song featuring a reggae interlude – performed by Kevin Bong (“KBong”), the band’s keyboard player for live performances – than a reggae tune.
The final word is that “Set in Stone” is a fantastic album, from beginning to end. It’s a steady improvement from the previous album, and arguably the finest example of this genre. There is often pressure for a reviewer to be critical, but albums like this make it very difficult with songs like “Sound of the Sea”, “Out the Door”, and “Weary Eyes” setting such a high standard. Seeing the evolution of Scott’s style in the last ten years makes me look forward to the next offering, wondering how he could possibly improve over the next ten. Whatever he does, expect it to be hotly anticipated, high quality, and expect to hear the name “Stick Figure” more in the coming years.