[23 March 2011]
Mento was the forerunner to reggae, a form of Jamaican music that incorporated the familiar upbeats, blended with (mostly) acoustic elements and lacking the philosophical Rastafarian trappings. The Jolly Boys has been Jamaica’s foremost mento band for decades. With a career stretching back to the 1950s, their music and personnel have undergone numerous transformations. Now fronted by the gravel-doused-in-honey vocals of Alber Minott, the band has released Great Expectation, its first album in years. A collection of cover tunes, this record is an absolute corker.
Make no mistake: this is no nostalgia trip, or pat on the back for a bunch of guys in their 70s trying to keep it real. This album is outstanding, focusing on Minott’s gritty voice and the fluent instrumentation of guitar, banjo and percussion, all in the service to a varied, consistently delightful set of songs.
The Boys establish their song-selection chops early, kicking off the set with a banjo-calypso version of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” (from Lust for Life) before segueing into “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed and “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse. “Rehab” is a song that seems to inspire other artists—I saw The Saw Doctors break into a version of it during a 2008 concert, grinning madly all the while—but this version, played at a slightly slower tempo than the original, carries a quiet angst lacking from the Winehouse version.
After that, the hits just keep coming. Iggy Pop gets a second look with “Nightclubbing”, as do The Doors (“Riders on the Storm”), Johnny Cash (“Ring of Fire”), and the Rolling Stones (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”). Like Bettye LaVette, Minott has the type of voice that could compellingly sing the phone book—or if not the phone book, then at least the Periodic Table of the Elements. Most importantly, though, the songs that appear here are not cover versions that just make you want to hear the originals again. They are thorough reinterpretations, with congas and bongos, banjo and maracas and something called a rhumba box, all harmonizing into a tasty sonic stew.
The performances manage to simultaneously channel a laid-back island vibe and an urgency courtesy of Minott’s gently anguished voice. Even a lame song like Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” sounds cool here. And that’s not easy.
There are missteps, sure, but they’re so minor, they are hardly worth mentioning. “Golden Brown” is pretty forgettable, as is “Hanging on the Telephone.” But why quibble? The hits far outstrip the misses, whether it’s a gently shuffling version of “I Fought the Law” or the traditional tunes “Dog War” and “Emmanuel Road”, which appear at the end of the album. At 15 tracks and 55+ minutes, the disc is a generous serving of music from an older generation to a younger one which has probably never heard of them.
Anyone with even a remote interest in reggae, island music, or “world music” in general, needs to give The Jolly Boys a listen.