[8 November 2007]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Toots and the Maytals are reggae music’s worst kept secret. Rocking their blend of soul, gospel and reggae music for over 40 years now, Toots and the Maytals have worked their way into the reggae conscious of every music fan around. And that even includes fellow musicians. Every legendary artist you can think of has sat in on a song or two with the reggae icons. From Eric Clapton to Keith Richards to Bonnie Raitt, when rock stars want to venture over into the world of Jamaican music, Toots has usually been the Rastafarian each of these rock legends has called.
And that doesn’t even include the acts that have covered some of Frederick Hibbert and his band’s work. Sublime produced a memorable version of “54-46 That’s My Number” on their breakthrough 40 Oz. To Freedom. The Clash couldn’t resist having a try at the classic “Pressure Drop”. And everybody’s new favorite “next big thing” Amy Winehouse threw her name into the hat by recording her own take on “Monkey Man”.
And while the name “Toots” may not hold as much weight as the word “Marley”, it definitely lands somewhere not too far behind. So when Mr. Hibbert and his band decide to release an album full of almost all brand new material in 2007, after having been around the world of reggae since 1966, people should pay attention—even more so when they release something worth paying attention to, such as their latest effort, Light Your Light.
On Light Your Light, the reggae icons prove once again that they belong on the short list of reggae favorites by blending 2007 slick production with 1966 roots of the music they have been so famously associated with. Light‘s blend of slow-moving grooves and southern soul should remind every reggae aficionado of how important Toots and his band has been to the history of the music.
Songs like “Celia” and “Image Get a Lick” blasts any listener onto a sun-filled beach without a cloud in the sky. The songs’ roots-reggae groove and upbeat flare are just as good as any modern-day watered down reggae-influenced pop song, if not better. As the Maytals spatter the background with call-back vocals repeating “Celia” on the former, Hibbert’s lazy vocal style makes it impossible to not dance. Then, the silky-smooth harmonies that softly lay on the latter’s chorus make the track so delicate it feels like it should melt in your mouth.
“Pain in My Heart” and “Don’t Bother Me” are two heartbroken songs that showcase Hibbert’s knack for lyrical prowess. While the music remains upbeat and sunny, Hibbert’s words make these two tracks stand out on an album filled with perfectly done roots-reggae. While “Pain in My Heart”‘s glorious horns paint the track yellow and green, lines such as “This pain in my heart won’t let me be” and “Pain in my heart, treating me cold” force a tad of gray into the mix, combining with the other two for such a brilliant color. “Don’t Bother Me”‘s moody vibe already makes the track stand out, but it’s the self-made harmonies spattered over the track that transports any listener straight to the best reggae music 1985 had to offer.
And that’s not even where Toots and the Maytals are at their best. While the band certainly holds its own throughout the entire disc, the reggae icons’ collaboration with Bonnie Raitt on “Premature” is a must-listen/have for any reggae fan. Raitt’s staggeringly soulful performance matches perfectly with the traditional reggae groove the Maytals produce. As Toots’ voice creeps in behind Raitt’s sultry crooning, carefully backing such a powerful tone, they create an undeniable vocal harmony that neither Toots, the Maytals, nor Raitt herself could have created on their own.
Only when Hibbert and his band decide to stray from their strengths does that album falter. While Raitt’s sit-in was spectacular, the same cannot be said for Derek Trucks’ awkward appearance on “Johnny Coolman”. On the album’s only non-reggae track, this combination of guitar-great and reggae-great simply doesn’t work, as both seem to be stupidly out of their element. And while that is bad enough, Hibbert and his band’s crack at the Ray Charles classic “I Got a Woman” isn’t much better. As it seems to be understood that every reggae album is going to sneak in a cover of something pre-1978, the band’s take on “I Got a Woman” is cheesy at best and embarrassing at worst.
But even the band’s slip-ups don’t tarnish the silver on what is a sparkling new record from one of reggae’s greats. So Light Your Light isn’t perfect. But that’s OK, because the ability to prove that you’ve still got it after all these years, as Toots and the Maytals do on Light means so much more than hit records and hit singles. Even if that brilliance still remains a secret.