Dr. Alminatado is probably most recognizable for a song that isn’t even exactly his: “Man Next Door,” a track off of Massive Attack’s game changing Mezzanine album, interpolates long stretches of his song “Poison Flower” (“Theeere’s a man who lives next doooor…”). But it would be a shame to let Alimantado’s notoriety, as well as that of his breakthrough dub album Best Dressed Chicken in Town, end as a simple footnote to one of the best releases of the 1990s. There’s a lot to love about this strange, rickety record, and its obvious influence on the aforementioned Massive Attack should be understood as more than just a passing observation.
You can tell there’s something distinctly shambolic about this album just from the record sleeve alone: the good Doctor poses in the middle of a baking Kingston street as he accosts a fishmonger, his fly open, jacket flipped over one arm and ragged shoes sliding off as he walks. And the music contained therein gives off much the same ramshackle impression: hollowed out samples, thudding bass, a vocal delivery that can best be described as a low-pitched yowl, and a sonic menagerie of tropical flutes and whistles create the impression of a record developed from the contents of a toybox. It’s a diffuse set of tools mobbing together to create what is at first a very disorienting listen.
But in this way, Best Dressed Chicken in Town very much captures the spirit of an era in its creative ethos. Kingston in the 1970s was one of the most violent and turbulent places on the planet, politically and socially speaking (I recommend the exquisite novel A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James to learn more about this time period). Money was tight, resources were scarce and death was lurking around every corner. Best Dressed Chicken, then, is kind of a time capsule, a record cobbled together from spare parts to create something at once dismal and delightful that rarely heads in a predictable direction.
This is best exemplified on a pair of songs heard near the beginning of the album: “Gimmie My Gun” and “I Killed the Barber.” “Gimmie My Gun” is a lurching ode to self-defense which places carefree tropical instrumentation over a spiraling rhythm section and threatening vocals, and “I Killed the Barber” is nothing if not controlled chaos, a discordant whirlpool of rhythmless gunshot samples and ominous bass tones accompanying a story about (as you might have guessed) the murder of a local barber. There is something haunting about these tracks, a straightforward portrayal of a hostile environment as played from a haunted mansion on the Ivory Coast or told by a circus clown on Phenobarbital. Some of the tracks are straightforward good time reggae jams on chill dance workouts, but most of Best Dressed Chicken in Town is marked by this carnival atmosphere which underscores the cheapness of human life while also making kind of a weird, childish party out of it.
That’s not to say this album is a downright piece of outsider art or anything like that. In fact, one of the things that makes it so interesting is that there’s a very discernible thematic throughline between side A, which is druggy, brooding and ominous, and side B, which has a much livelier roots reggae feel to it. While “dirtier” sounding than something that one of his peers such as Peter Tosh might release, it’s no less coherent or cohesive, and its lackadaisically sinister engineering might actually paint a better aural picture of its contemporary Jamaica than most other reggae albums released in 1978.
Best Dressed Chicken in Town is as unwieldy an album as they come, a work of desperate strain that portrays a specific place at a specific time in wildly abstract terms. There’s a giddy darkness to this music that seems impossible to replicate through effort, like it’ll either just come right out of you or it was never there to begin with. This is vital work, and perhaps a great entry point for those who think of reggae as boring or formulaic.
Christopher M. Jones is a comic book writer, pop culture essayist, and recovering addict and alcoholic living in Austin, TX. He currently writes for Loser City as well as Comics Bulletin and has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators for his minicomic Written in the Bones (illustrated by Carey Pietsch). Write to him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.