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

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Recording review - Easy Star All-Stars, Easy Star's Thrillah (2012)

Inspired by the King of Pop, it's another classic reggae reinvention

As the house band for Easy Star records, the Easy Star All-Stars have made some great original music (review) and reinvented classic albums by Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and the Beatles. While reframing these great albums as reggae might seem like a gimmick, Michael Goldwasser and the All-Stars take the arrangements seriously and they have a knack for maintaining a respectful connection to the original.

I wasn't sure how to feel about their latest target, Michael Jackson's Thriller. I'm ambivalent about the King of Pop and it wasn't obvious that the reggae context would open up the songs. When I cued up Easy Star's Thrillah, it didn't seem like a big leap. Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' featured a good ska influenced intro that might have signaled a radical departure. Instead, it almost immediately transitioned into a funky, Afrobeat groove. The arrangement felt like a small step from the original's horn line and the vocals weren't too far from Jackson's smooth, high tenor. But that subtle shift was significant. Easy Star's horns had a richer role and masked the slightly slower tempo.

Thriller's more soulful tracks seem more straightforward. The reggae beat on Baby, Be Mine doesn't get too far from Jackson's pop soul original. Similarly, Human Nature adds a more interesting horn and synth line along with the reggae beat, but the dreamy pop soul feel remains. The more radical transformations come on the bigger, high energy tracks.

Beat It served as a big rocker on Michael Jackson's Thriller. He used the speedy beat and punchy vocals to pump up the tension and express frustration at the inevitability of violence. The All-Stars turn that on its head. The drag tempo opens space for dubby echoes and a brooding darkness. The trippy solo breathes organically in direct contrast to Eddie Van Halen's fluid flurry of notes. Easy Star's cover emphasizes the frustration in the lyrics, especially Michael Rose's expressive vocal. By contrast, Jackson's original seems too blithe.

My favorite track by far is the title track, Thriller. While the band opens with similar spooky sound effects, this reggae version is anchored by a smoothly reworked bassline. It's a largely stripped down down with lots of room to appreciate the dub spaces, the moody bass, and haunting melodica fills. Like Beat It, this version drops the tempo to get a more laid back, dream groove that creates the perfect tension the song calls for. Every note sounds completely natural rather than a reinvention. DJ Spragga Benz's vocal on the spoken section is no substitute for Vincent Price, but it fits the arrangement well enough. The slower pace and extended jams drags the song out by another minute and a half. If this isn't enough, Close to Midnight, one of the extra tracks provides a 7 minute dub jam that catches the vibe of the All Stars' Pink Floyd dubs.

Listening through Thrillah reminded me how many huge hits were crammed into Thriller. Without being much of a Michael Jackson fan, I still knew every track. Easy Star's reggae treatment didn't put the original on a pedestal, but showed what an inspiration it could be.

So far, the band has only shared Billie Jean with Luciano on vocals. But their album teaser gives a taste of their cover of Thriller.

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