It’s been nearly two decades since British reggae group UB40 had a hit with “Red Red Wine”. Since that highpoint, the group has faded in and out of the charts with some great tracks, a few covers and a loyal fan base on both sides of the big pond. But the group wanted to go outside the box with this new album. Although they are the backing band for most of these songs, the octet wrote all of the material and began asking reggae legends to collaborate. “They could’ve just said, ‘Piss off’, and it wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest,” Robin Campbell says in the liner notes. Over three years though, Alton Ellis, Bob Andy, Gregory Isaacs, the Mighty Diamonds and Toots Hibbert among others all agreed to join the project. What you end up with is a UB40 album that sounds like UB40 but isn’t UB40 entirely.
Beginning with “You Could Meet Somebody” and featuring the Mighty Diamonds on lead vocals, the album gets off to a nice melodic and relaxing pace. Earl Falconer and Brian Travers take leading parts on keyboards and saxophone respectively. But the smooth delivery by the Mighty Diamonds is what makes the song move along for most of its five minutes. The backing arrangements are quite similar to the originals without having a stale and stilted sound to them. The percussion changes near its ending briefly and resembles a foul-up. But it isn’t. Just as nice is “You’re Always Pulling Me Down” with Freddie McGregor. McGregor’s soul performance is more Motown sounding than perhaps Kingston, but the harmonies are lovable, infectious and head bobbing.
Gregory Isaacs, aka the Cool Ruler, makes his mark on “Bring Me Your Cup”, moving between singing and speaking at times. Known for hits like “Night Nurse” and “Love Is Overdue”, the track misses the mark simply because it loses its steam in the middle, with McGregor almost too relaxed. He does some improvisation near the conclusion though, which is invigorating. “Silent Witness” is much better, with the Melodians’ singer Brent Dowe, hitting all the right marks as the arrangement balance his style in the vein of Jimmy Cliff and a certain Marley. Dowe can carry a tune in a hole-riddled bucket it would appear given this excellent selection. “Always There” has Honey Boy leading the way through a mid-tempo tune resembling a contemporary Sting with basic reggae. “I’m not being cruel, I’m just being kind”, he sings over the generally decent track.
The highlight of the album has to be the soulful and commanding vocal of Alton Ellis on “I Love It When You Smile”. The opening notes are enough for the listener to realize this is indeed special. The tune itself has more of an up-tempo flavor in it but gives Ellis room to shine from start to finish. Allowing itself to fade out gradually with an enjoyable groove embedded deep within. The fact it’s mixed by legends Sly & Robbie only adds to its luster. Jackie Robinson (no, not the Dodger great!) lends his voice on “Don’t Do the Crime” and is another stellar moment of the record. The lightest moments of the record come with “Watchdogs” featuring Max Romeo, an eighties sounding tune that is a bit too sleek while the delicate sound of Bob Andy on “Love Is All Is Alright” makes for an interesting rendition. The mix goes a bit awry near the ending, a touch of organic ambience a la Brian Eno.
Winston Groovy is quite adept during the serene and calming “Don’t Slow Down”, particularly with a heartfelt performance that also features some backing vocals by UB40, notably Astro. Another high point comes with the enjoyable “Higher Ground”, one of the band’s hits and standards. But Leroy Sibbles takes the song down a little different route, adding more of a soul tinge to it as Earl Falconer’s bass line keeps it all together. “The Pillow” has John Holt on top of his three decades plus game. The funky back beat and keys add a jazz punch to the proceedings. And despite the song’s rather bleak narrative, the arrangement is a cross between somber finishes on otherwise up-beat melodies. Ending with Toots Hibbert making up his own lyrics for “Hey Boy” for most of the song, the record is an homage not just to these legends, but how the backing band has certainly held its own over 20 years.
// Notes from the Road
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