(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, May 16, 2011

CD review - Easy Star All-Stars, First Light (2011)

Easy Star All-Stars got their start as the in-house studio band for Easy Star records. They grew beyond that modest role with 2003's Dub Side of the Moon. With that album, along with Radiodread, and Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band, they tackled mashup reggae covers of full albums by Pink Floyd, Radiohead (OK Computer), and the Beatles. While they've released some original tunes before, First Light is their first full album of original material.

As a shifting musical collective, personnel change from release to release (or from tour to tour), but Easy Star's Michael Goldwasser maintains a clear vision of the band's direction. On First Light, Goldwasser wrote or contributed on several of the tracks. Despite the variable lineup, the players remain familiar enough from previous releases to provide a good sense of consistency. In particular, Ras I Ray's bass playing is the backbone of the All-Stars' sound.

Easy Star's cover albums were impressive because they delivered well above their novelty value. The idea of a reggae cover of Sgt. Pepper is intriguing, but the execution was strong enough to raise the momentary question of whether She's Leaving Home's original time signature was in 2 or 3: the chop chank seemed so natural.

On First Light, the band puts the gimmicks behind them to show how solid a reggae band they are and to demonstrate the range of reggae styles they can deliver. The album throws out chunks of rock steady, toasting, and reggae soul. Easy Star All-Stars manage to evoke reggae greats like Black Uhuru, Sugar Minott, and the I Threes. The songs vary from the serious social commentary of Universal Law to the humor of One Likkle Draw to the slower chank grind of Easy Now Star.

While Menny More does a fine job with vocals, especially on I Won't Stop, the songs featuring Kirsty Rock and Joanne Williams hit a particularly sweet spot. Rock's voice on First Light (Ramblin' Fever) captures a retro R&B soul pop sound. Smooth as silk, she floats over the top, adding a veneer to the perfect horn lines and subtle guitar chank. In contrast, a pair of Williams' tunes, Break of Dawn and In The Light, offer the same song performed in two radically different styles: reggae and R&B. On either track, her voice is as rich as sweet hot chocolate, but I prefer the reggae groove of Break of Dawn, with its I-Threes backing vocals, bubbling keyboard, and tight horn fills.

The full line up of the Easy Star All-Stars on First Light includes a dozen musicians, but the album includes another nine guest players plus a number of featured artists. Junior Jazz and Daddy Lion Chandell's track One Likkle Draw is the stand out feature artist track. It spins out a story of a simple herb grower asking for a last hit before having his crop confiscated, but leads to the officer concluding that he should give the herb a try. It's amusing, but the bouncy beat and vocal trade offs make it a joy to hear.

Maybe the Easy Star All-Stars thought they needed to prove their pure reggae pedigree. If so, they've more than made their point. First Light encompasses a set of tunes that exemplify the pure spiritual joy that reggae music can evoke. I'll offer a couple of beverage pairings: a highball glass of fine Jamaican rum or a sharp ginger flavored beer.

Backtracks: * Easy Star All-Stars show review

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