Every genre, it seems, has its historical revisionists, its “what if?“scenarios. What if Pete Best had remained the Beatles’ drummer? What if 2Pac had survived past age 25? What if Elvis had survived past age 42? What if they’ve both been living together on Mars? V2 Records has recently unleashed its own curiosity by asking the question, what if the roots of reggae had fused with some of modern music’s most popular styles from blues, to rock, or even rap? The answer: True Love from reggae innovators Toots and the Maytals. On their latest effort, they invited a formidable cast of celebrity guest musicians as well as many strong up-and-coming artists to add their own interpretation to their reggae classics. Each collaboration recognizes reggae’s influence on popular music today, while revealing what is possible in reggae’s future. Yet, as with all theoretical experiments, some things sound better in theory than in practice.
On the album’s highlights, the guest artist seems to meld seamlessly with the group’s natural breezy spontaneity and raw tropical soul. The first standout track is “True Love Is Hard to Find” as guest Bonnie Raitt makes this classic sizzle with her sultry blues siren vocals and weeping guitar, revealing the penetrating effects of the fusion between blues and reggae. On “Pressure Drop,” Eric Clapton contributes a subtle blues fuzz guitar riff that adds to the raw energy of the original without upstaging its simple catchiness. Several other guests follow his lead, recognizing their own reverence for Toots and the Maytals with their high fidelity interpretations. Ben Harper evokes chills with his gorgeous vocals and sparse folk guitar on “Love Gonna Walk Out on Me”, a track that recalls reggae’s roots in Jamaican folk music. Occasionally, the guest artist melds so seamlessly into the group that it is hard to notice they are there, as is the case on “Sweet and Dandy” featuring Trey Anastasio and “Careless Ethiopians” with Keith Richards. Other guests are not so subtle, but offer fascinating glimpses beyond the limits of what is normally thought possible with reggae as a structural foundation. On “Bam Bam”, rappers Shaggy and Rahzel tip their hats (or do-rags, as it were) to their own Jamaican forebears in an up-beat rap/reggae groove sure to heat up the dancefloor. The nonsense lyric drawn from reggae’s own idiosyncracies plays puckishly with the rap flow, creating a compelling tension between Toots and the young rappers. Another unforgettable fusion is the heavenly marriage of reggae and funk on “Funky Kingston”, featuring the great veteran of funk Bootsy Collins. When the dirty wah-wah guitar, fat bass-line, sexy vocals, and Collins’s own exhortations combine with the mysterious mind-altering affect of the reggae one-drop, a rare musical gem is formed.
On the other hand, even the best can’t win ‘em all. While the best tracks create an unforgettable fusion, the worst sound like the guest artist is drunk in a karaoke bar. The debut track on True Love, “Still Is Still Moving to Me” opens with Toots’s soulful, full-bodied vocals dripping with gospel and weightlessly floating on a breezy Jamaican accent. Then, out of the blue tumbles the grizzled Okey drawl of Willie Nelson, a man well versed in his craft but evidently not well traveled in the Caribbean. It takes someone with a bounce in their step to swing the reggae one-drop and to keep up with Toots’s subtle vocal melismas, and Nelson just isn’t that guy. Similar incongruities arise with No Doubt, a group that obviously owes a sizeable debt to reggae, but has apparently left their ska roots too far behind to know how to play the reggae field. The song “Monkey Man” is a bit ridiculous to begin with, and Gwen Stephani’s high pitched vibrato turns the track from a novel allegory to a veritable circus act. While the No Doubt crew is crashing the party, it sounds as if Toots has mistakenly stumbled into someone else’s romantic ballad on “Blame on Me”. As Rachel Yamagata attempts to bring her sophisticated jazz roots to the reggae idiom, Toots’s rude boy swagger grates a bit too hard against her silky smooth vocals. Evidently, you can take the rudie out of reggae, but you can’t take the reggae out of the rudie.
Aside from a few particular problem tracks, the album suffers from some overall aesthetic deficiencies. The first problem is the intrinsic inconsistency that arises when so many different artists and styles combine on one album, although the order of the tracks could have been more artfully arranged. The second problem is that the tracks are cluttered with extraneous frills and cheap trappings of modernity, such as carelessly placed synthesizer beeps and trills and multi-poly-too-many backing vocals and guitars. It is nice to see these classic tracks get the full pro-studio treatment, but less is often more in a genre that is as earthy and human-scaled as reggae. Which leads to the third problem, the album’s rampant over-production. Sound must be good and crisp, but not soulless and mechanical. Vocals often sound too clean, guitars too rehearsed, and the mix is shifted away from raw and rude spontaneity and toward strict studio science. Despite the occasional chemical explosion, however, the album is a solid work if not a glittering success. On True Love Toots Hibbert re-establishes himself as a living legend as well as a vibrant and versatile musician. The variety of synthesis achieved on the album is fascinating and worth a listen.