[24 July 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The concept behind Police in Dub is nothing new. If anything, it’s amazing that it’s taken this long for something like it to happen. It seems that songs from most any band with a dedicated fanbase and deep enough catalog are now available in a variety of styles and flavors. You can get Nine Inch Nails rendered as lullabies, Pink Floyd remade into trance techno, and the Rolling Stones in bossa nova. Next to these, a dub tribute to the Police seems downright inevitable.
If they weren’t exactly the first, the Police were certainly the most popular band to make reggae rhythms an integral part of their sound. The accentuated downbeats and elastic, economical basslines, not to mention Sting’s high-pitched patois, added a new and at the time fairly novel twist to their charismatic post-punk pop tunes. Police guitarist Andy Summers has since insisted that the Police weren’t a “white reggae band”. Of course, when you call your second album “White Reggae” (Reggatta de Blanc), certain people are going to take you at your word. In any case, take the reggae out of “Can’t Stand Losing You” or “Message in a Bottle” and they’re still great pop songs, only a lot less fun.
But if the Police incorporated reggae, one thing they didn’t do much were dub versions. Staples of traditional reggae of the time, dubs were largely instrumental, tripped-out variants, usually substituting reverb effects, horns, or melodica for the vocal track. The potential for dub in the Police’s music was certainly not lost on members of Cologne, Germany, reggae outfit Okada. Starting in 2006, they analyzed the Police songbook, recruited a few vocalists, went to work, and DubXanne was born.
If Police in Dub is often less-than-convincing, and at times risibly misguided, it’s hard to say how much of that is simply down to the fact a German reggae band is behind it all. More often than not, projects like this are watered-down or tie-dyed to the point of sounding nearly generic. Ironically, it’s the strictly instrumental tracks on Police in Dub that most suffer that fate. Sure, most everything has been splashed with reverb and panning effects and snare drum bursts. But beneath the coating, DubXanne lacks flavor. Lame, New Age-leftover synthesizers and embarrassing synthesized voices dominate “Walking on the Moon”, making the original sound like King Tubby by comparison. Having horns play the chorus melody of “Can’t Stand Losing You” was a good idea, but making those horns tepid, synthesized ones was not. And don’t even ask about “Bring on the Night”, which has quite literally been turned into background music. About the only instrumental that really works is “Once Upon a Daydream”, which has been turned into a sort of midtempo trip-hop track.
At least the guest singers on the half-dozen vocal tracks lend some credibility. In the dub “version” tradition, all add their own lyrics. Foremost is ex-Beat and General Public member Ranking Roger, whose enthusiastic toasting is just what “This Bed’s Too Big Without You” needed. Big Youth, an actual veteran Jamaican DJ, weaves in and out of “So Lonely”, making it sound like the most authentic dub track here. Sometimes, though, the stabs at credibility backfire. Lauded dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah is perhaps a too-obvious fit for “Spirits in the Material World”. When he says, “Get metaphysical / For we are spiritual” over those synths, it’s almost too much to bear. Self-proclaimed “dubtress” Jazz’min Tutum’s sexy voice can’t save “Wrapped Around Your Finger” from becoming lounge music.
To DubXanne’s credit, Police in Dub is expertly-recorded and engineered. The drums pop right out of the speakers, and the low end is right where it should be. No, the real problem with the album is the same that plagues countless tribute records. It lacks a vision. DubXanne seem to have wanted to dub up the Police’s songs while retaining the originals’ central pop appeal. The arrangements adhere more or less to the originals’, and the guitar parts are played almost verbatim. Consequently, what could have been an intriguing set of dub excursions plays more like a straight covers album, with added synths and echo effects. Police in Dub‘s intentions are in the right place, and somewhere there’s a brilliant Police-in-dub album to be made, but this isn’t it.