[20 January 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Horace Andy is one of a handful of reggae legends from the music’s epochal early days who is still part of this moral coil. Andy will turn 60 this year, and over his 40-year career he has recorded with most every major Jamaican producer, including Studio One founder Clement Dodd, Keith Hudson, Bunny Lee, and Winston “Niney” Holness. His repertoire includes simple love songs like “Girl I Love You” and more conscious compositions such as “Skylarking”, probably his best known hit. In their definitive Reggae - The Rough Guide, authors Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton say of Andy, “Few Jamaican singers have possessed such an original style, or been as influential”. It’s tough to argue with that.
In the late 1970s, Andy did a fair amount of recording in New York, but to American and European listeners, he’s best known for his work with moody electronic pioneers Massive Attack. As the only “guest” vocalist to appear on all of the Bristol outfit’s studio albums, Andy is as close to a lead singer as Massive Attack has. Plus, that one-of-a-kind delivery has meshed brilliantly with Massive’s dubby, hazy soundscapes. Indeed, a reworking of “Girl I Love You” is one of the highlights of the band’s 2010 Heligoland.
One of Andy’s calling cards is a soft, sincere, boyish tone. The other is that vibrato. Managing the unlikely feat of quivering gracefully, it’s like Andy’s own built-in Leslie speaker, or the aural equivalent of a flat stone skipping off the surface of a shimmering lake. Both those elements are in full effect on Serious Times, largely undiminished by time. Occasionally there’s a bit of a rasp to Andy’s croon, and the vibrato syllables seem to be drawn-out as ever, but at this point, listening to Andy is like listening to an old friend.
Andy could have spent the last 20 years coasting along on his reputation and work with Massive Attack alone, or taken advantage of his hipster cache by putting out downtempo or dubstep records of his own. But he’s always remained true to his reggae roots, and Serious Times is evidence of that. It’s 14 all-new tracks of straight-ahead roots reggae, plus one dub. And, while it’s far from groundbreaking and a bit too cleanly-produced, it’s as good a contemporary reggae album as you’ll hear.
Serious Times takes a while to hit its stride, starting off with a series of authentic yet nondescript tracks. But “Cool It Down”, with a heavier rhythm and genuinely catchy chorus, sets off a string of superior songs. “Trodding” features a humble reflection on Andy’s career, while the subject matter of songs like “Rastafari” and “Love” is self-explanatory. Not everyone his age could get away with so bold a come-on as “Give It Up”, but Andy pulls it off, with flirtatious horn bursts that underscore his vitality.
Though at times he sounds downright youthful, Andy is far from naïve. Serious Times’ best track is the ruminative “Your Friend”, a sharp attention-getter that also shows Andy can still turn a mean phrase. “A good friend is better than pocket money”, he asserts, “But pocket money will never deceive”. Like the best reggae, the track has a way of illustrating how sometimes the simplest truths are the most profound.
If there’s much room to quibble about Serious Times, it may involve the production, by German-born, Canary Islands-based veteran Andreas “Brotherman” Christophersen. Christophersen has worked with more dancehall-leaning artists like Capleton, Sizzla, and Luciano. Here, he uses a solid live band for an authentic roots feel, but the sound and mix are nonetheless bright and squeaky-clean. The subtle dub effects are a nice touch, but Christophersen’s jazzy guitar tone can come across as a bit too smooth. That said, though, a tasteful, respectful backing sure beats a misguided, trying-too-hard-to-be-hip one, and Andy’s delivery has atmosphere and rusticity to spare.
To fans who have grown up listening to Horace Andy front Massive Attack, Serious Times may initially seem like a disappointingly slight work. After all, Massive never employed female backing vocalists in the style of the I Threes. But after a few listens, you’ll really enjoy it as the sound of a true legend, doing what he was born to do.