A Splendid Time Is Not Guaranteed For All
The Easy Star All-Stars, to their credit, do not believe in half-measures. In 2003, they introduced themselves to the world with their reggae reimagining of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, appropriately rechristened Dub Side of the Moon. The results surpassed even the most open-minded fans’ best expectations. Not content to be a one-and-done novelty act and, no doubt, encouraged by the acclaim their first effort garnered, they returned in 2006. Having already tackled the quintessential ‘70s album, they turned heads, again, when they dropped Radiodread, their version of the near-universally worshipped ‘90s classic OK Computer. Incredibly, this release was even more impressive, expertly finding the ideal balance between respectful homage and brazen departure. Displaying an even greater sense of adventure than they demonstrated on Dub Side, the band went several steps further in reimagining Radiohead’s songs, occasionally even (blasphemy alert!) taking them in directions not attained on the original. It was—and remains—an instant and uncanny archetype, in part because it manages to sound so strikingly different while always feeling oddly familiar.
How could they possibly follow this up? Obviously by setting their sights on the most discussed, dissected, and influential album of all time. Simply stated, the chutzpah factor is officially off the charts with the release of Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band. The band is now three-for-three in the sense that, before listening to a single note, they deserve substantial credit for even going there. It is, therefore, more than a little disappointing to report that they have saved their sophomore slump for the third album. ESLHDB is not a failure so much as a mediocrity; it’s less a failure of execution than a failure of imagination. How, it seems fair to ask after their previous, almost impeccable track record, could this possibly be? Perhaps they (finally?) bit off more than they could collectively chew, or maybe they have run out of creative steam (temporarily?) this time out. The results would seem to suggest that the band was ultimately reluctant to tinker too much with an album that is so important to so many people. Of course, this timidity tends to obviate the refreshing audacity that made their previous efforts so rewarding.
Obviously, there is a subjective line separating inspiration from appropriation, and while the Easy Star All-Stars need not worry about clueless critics impugning their integrity, this one still feels dialed in. A healthy irreverence is what makes their concept work, and too much of the time, that is what ESLHDB lacks. Perhaps the clearest, and fairest, way to highlight what is missing here is to consider what worked so wonderfully before. It’s not difficult to recall the ingenious ways they mixed up Dub Side while remaining remarkably true to the letter and spirit of the original. For instance, the coughs and sputtered inhalations alongside the bubbling bong water that replace the cash register at the beginning of “Money”, or the free-form reggae rap substituting for David Gilmour’s immortal (and inimitable) guitar solo in “Time”. Or, later, on Radiodread, the melodica on “Subterranean Homesick Alien” or the brass replacing the guitars on “Paranoid Android”. Then there is the total reworking of “Let Down”, which remains a revelation: not just a left-field, upbeat redirection, but a thorough rethinking, obviously enhanced by Toots Hibbert’s irrepressible vocals. Nothing on ESLHDB is as arresting, or interesting, as the work they did on the first two albums. And that observation is not meant to imply that the random employment of oddball effects or disorienting tactics would necessarily invigorate the results. But by not putting their peculiar imprint on this material they constantly remind the listener of all the ways it fails by comparison with the original.
The opening song sets the tone in a way that is emblematic of the entire album: Junior Jazz sounds fine singing those oh-so familiar words, and the song is a perfectly adequate cover. Therein lies the rub (a dub): that it is merely adequate is at once the best and worst thing that can be said of this effort. The next two songs are pretty much pedestrian reggae remakes: neither offensive nor particularly memorable. Of course, one alternate perspective might propose that there were so many unusual and previously unheard-of sounds on Sgt. Pepper that the more straightforward arrangements represent a kind of ironic alternative. If so, mission accomplished, but that faint praise only underscores the perplexing lack of vision throughout.
Some of the songs are more successful. Max Romeo’s trippy take on “Fixing a Hole” recalls the oddball energy of the previous Easy Star albums: the extended dub outro hits the mark while leaving a mark. “She’s Leaving Home”, featuring Kristy Rock (who did such a stellar rendering of “Paranoid Android”), recalls Radiodread’s “Let Down” in the way it takes a somber song and turns it into a rocksteady romp. This strategy does tend to undermine the original song’s lyrical import, but at least the band is stretching out a bit. It seems a shame that Lee “Scratch” Perry was not spirited into the studio to tackle “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”—a song that screams out for his outlandish skills (indeed, he was spearheading his own primitive studio innovations at and around the same time George Martin and the boys began breaking the mold at Abbey Road).
The rest? More of the same, mostly. “Within You Without You” is another unremarkable rendition, although Matisyahu’s lugubrious vocals and subdued human beat-boxing are appropriate for the occasion. It is difficult to quibble with Sugar Minott’s ebullient reading of “When I’m Sixty-Four”, and it’s fair to suspect that some of this material might be conveyed more effectively in a live setting where it has room to breathe. Both “Lovely Rita” (featuring U-Roy) and “Good Morning, Good Morning” (featuring Steel Pulse) would seem to provide ample opportunity for interesting departures, but they are uninspired on arrival. Finally, the moment of truth: what will (can?) they do with “A Day in the Life”? Nothing special, alas. Certainly, it’s a neat moment when we hear the lines “dragged my fingers through my dreads” (in place of “dragged a comb across my head”) but … we need more.
Ultimately, this seems like an extraordinary opportunity missed. Not wasted, necessarily, but in a way, that’s worse, isn’t it? It’s better to shoot for the (dark side of the) moon and fall short than to play it too safe by half and end up with something second-rate. In the end, no matter how iconic its intentions, this release must be assessed for what it is: an underwhelming set of cover tunes that comes entirely too close to sounding like a novelty act—the very fate this band managed to avoid the first two times out.