Are we heading for a roots-reggae renaissance?
The Lions are a large, Los Angeles-based reggae collective comprised of musicians from various other bands, with Dan Ubick on guitar and numerous singers sharing vocal duties, including Malik Moore and Black Shakespeare (cousin of Robbie Shakespeare, so there's some lineage for you). The outfit has been releasing records since 2007, including 2008's Jungle Struttin, and have received generally favorable reviews from fans and critics. Their newest release, This Generation, finds the band staying true to their roots-reggae origins, but eschewing dub this time while also throwing in a curveball or two for the kids (Van Halen covers, anyone?).
The album starts with one of the weaker tracks here, "Bird on a Wire", which is not the Leonard Cohen song of the same title (in case you were wondering), but a rather bland way to open the proceedings. Happily, things take an immediate turn for the better with title track "This Generation", which features the twinned vocals of Moore and Shakespeare. From there, the album hops from strength to strength, with the steady rhythms, vocal harmonies and occasional horn embellishments of such tunes as "Picture on the Wall" and "New Girl", which feature vocal contributions from Leroy Sibbles and James King respectively. Both these men possess smooth, easygoing voices, which combine with the moderate tempos and laid-back vibe to create a pleasant, sunny-day quality to the songs.
Better than these, though, are the tunes sung by Black Shakespeare. Clearly he is the strongest vocalist in the band's arsenal, and his songs are the best here. "Revelations" spills from the speakers propelled by his urgent, rhythmic chant-singing, while "More/Higher Ways" are a pair of songs joined at the hip, utilizing the same chord progressions but different melodies. At five minutes, it's the longest track here, and could easily be twice as long. Maybe a concert album will treat us to a 15-minute jam.
Immediately following this, the best track on the record is an apparently straight-faced cover of Van Halen's "Jamie’s Crying". It's a crappy song at the best of times, and not much improved here. There is novelty value, to be sure, in hearing David Lee Roth's smirky wail transformed into a Jamaican accent, but the joke gets old fast. Note to band: next time, could you maybe pick one of the band's (admittedly very few) good songs. "Everybody Wants Some" gets my vote.
Fortunately, the album ends strongly, with a trio of solid tunes to send the listener on his/her way. "Padre Ichiro" is a down-tempo number featuring vocals from Moore and a tale of woe involving an unresponsive girlfriend and a marijuana habit; somehow Moore invests the story with an air of genuine sorrow. "Roll It Round" continues the laid-back vibe but invests a little urgency into the proceedings -- we are talking about rolling one, after all. Shakespeare handles the vocal duties here and on album closer "Let's Go Out Tonight", and his rapid-fire-but-languid delivery works well in both cases.
There are a number of good American reggae bands out there nowadays, exploring new frontiers with the music while staying true to its roots -- SOJA, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad (whose album In These Times is a killer), Rebelution, and more. The Lions should be added to this growing list. It's tough to say whether we're heading for a roots-reggae renaissance, but albums like This Generation provide at least the possibility that one is on its way.