Music

Easy Star All-Stars: Easy Star's Thrillah

They wanna be start’n somethin’ for sure -- but is it a dub record or a wedding dance?


Easy Star All Stars

Easy Star's Thrillah

Label: Easy Star
UK Release Date: 2012-08-27
US Release Date: 2012-08-28
Amazon
iTunes

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.

4

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image