They wanna be start’n somethin’ for sure -- but is it a dub record or a wedding dance?
Dub is one of those musical genres that spans a wide range of subjective interpretation. The common thread across its artists, however, is the easy groove - calm, syncopated, and jam-epic in scope. It flows and bobs effortlessly -- a sound which could be said to have the same calming effect as certain herbs with which it is often associated and more often paired. That same description could also be associated with a number of now classic records throughout the years like Radiohead’s OK Computer, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Beatles’ “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band”.
If you were at the sort of party where the aforementioned records were noodling down the playlist at a snail’s pace and someone suddenly put on Michael Jackson’s Thriller I dare say you’d be thrown out! Well, to be fair, you’d probably be incoherently and gently coaxed to find your way to the exit. Ok -- who am I kidding -- you might feel awkward for a moment when you notice that the dull-eyed masses who were head-nodding lazily through the previous records would stare at you and pause awkwardly before coughing into the haze something completely insincere like, “Hey... nice.”
I would never have anticipated including Michael Jackson’s Thriller within this checklist of legacy mellow jams.
The label Easy Star has made a run of projects which take a work from one of these already beloved artists and reinterpret it as dub and reggae. It’s a little like taking a chocolate cone and dipping it in more chocolate and then re-dipping it again in chocolate before serving it on an edible chocolate plate. You could argue that it’s overkill but you’d be wrong -- it’s just increasingly awesome. But I believe that run has ended now.
Michael Jackson may have become a divisive public figure for reasons unrelated to his music but the one thing that’s rarely disputed is his massive significance to the music industry. It’s an understatement to say that he is still revered -- remarkably so, in spite of everything. Even if you never felt the reverence for the man, you could acknowledge the impact of this record. So what is Easy Star doing exactly? Are they re-interpreting classic records that take an easy step across the hall of genres and appeal to their already open-minded demographic? Or are are they just taking any best-selling record and applying a formula. Prior to this release, I would have answered the former. Thriller doesn’t lend itself well to Thrillah.
The opening four bars of “Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'” introduce the record with a well-intentioned horn section stuck in a promising dub groove. But at the end of that phrase, something terrible happens and the chilled-out half-step becomes bar band disco. Somewhere early on a vocalist cries, “WHAT?!” and I found I couldn’t agree more. As always, the all-stars do a great job of performing the song. The instrumentation is tight, the arrangement is entertaining and the vocals are remarkably Jackson-like. but it all comes off like our heros setting aside their dub roots and just playing with some new ideas. They wanna be start’n somethin’ for sure -- but is it a dub record or a wedding dance?
At least some of this is sour grapes. I really like what the Easy Star All-Stars were doing and I wanted more of it. Far be it for me to say artists shouldn’t expand or try new things. In this case, however, it isn’t really about trying new things because they’re still doing the old thing. They’re doing the old thing with a different style of record that just doesn’t fit the old thing. Thrillah tries to be a pop record at first and as such, it’s weak.
“Baby Be Mine”, the second track, follows in the same way and it’s not until “The Girl Is Mine” that we start to see shades of the All-Stars we loved. “Thriller”, the track that will likely draw many people’s first mouse clicks, is closer still. Mikey General makes an ambitious effort to deliver Jackson’s originally urgent vocals but simply fails. I mean, cuz’ dit is Thrillaaaaa, it’s supposed to have an element of creep, conjuring images of kitsch menace even before its groundbreaking short film video. This rendition just meanders happily, the ghouls little more than awkward wall-flowers hanging out eagerly next to the wedding cake. Even the monologue at the end manages to out-cheese the in-out-cheesable Vincent Price.
“Beat It”, perhaps the single most important and accessible straight-ahead pop-rock song of its day, begins with an oddly cascading tom-tom and snare which leaves little hope until you hear the familiar riff, here played in the background very subtly by some horns. If there was a song on this record that I would have expected to break the dub speed limit, it’s this one. It’s doesn’t. But I will say that it’s still the highlight of the record and the vocals fall in and and out of echos and shimmers very well. The latter minutes of the track feature a very nice pedaled guitar solo that works really well to break out of the pace. This one at least, is of the quality level I’d have hoped for. Easy Star raised the bar for themselves on previous records and this one just about reaches it.
“Billie Jean” and “Human Nature” redeem the record after the false start. Suitably laid back, “Human Nature” in particular summons the gentle nature of the original. People who pick this up because they are fans of Jackson alone will appreciate this one. “P.Y.T.” goes over like it could be an early TLC demo.
“The Lady in my Life” is another strong one -- featuring a deep, fat bass line, distant harmonics and a solid, if somewhat over-sung vocal performance this time by Christopher Martin. It’s at this point that something remarkable happens. Two tracks, “Dub It” and “Close to Midnight”, end the record as it should have begun. Here, both songs get the flawless dub treatment they deserved. The vocals are suitably sparse and all wedding guests have left leaving only the post-party chill. I can’t help but wonder if these two tracks had led into the record if my perception of the entire experience might have changed.
Truthfully there’s little I could say to influence someone about this record. Apply the name Michael Jackson to any collection of re-interpretations and they’re going to instantly appeal for that reason alone. I certainly don’t fault the All-Stars for the intent but I can’t help but think that they may have alienated their original fans whether or not those fans would ever admit it. I don’t think you’ll find this on the playlist next to Dub Side of the Moon. I would not be surprised at all to find you grooving to this record -- the next time I see you in an elevator, a dentist's office, or on hold with tech support. There is definitely a market for this sort of thing.