American reggae stalwarts go marching on as their 2013 album is given a successful makeover.
Kings and Queens in DubLabel: Easy Star
US release date: 2015-04-07
UK release date: 2015-04-05
John Brown's Body is that rare thing: an American band who are steeped in reggae rather than regarding it as an exotic add-on. Formed in Boston in 1995, and having undergone many line-up changes since then, this album -- a full-blown dub remix of their acclaimed 2013 album -- is a solid demonstration of the confidence born of experience and mastery of the genre.
An array of producers from the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand have been drafted in to rework the tracks although a broad consistency to the sound, rather than radical differentiation, is the result. At the same time they do provide some variations in emphasis, with dub effects ranging from the cataclysmic (the walloping drums Ticklah brings out on "Land of Plenty Dub") to the subtle (an almost weightless, floating feel Michael Goldwasser aptly suggests on "Sweet Undertow Dub", through the submerged bass and fading in and out of the drums).
With three tracks, Dubfader is the most represented producer. "People in the Light Dub" shares with his other contributions an unhurried rhythm. It's full of classic dub elements of elastically echoed guitar, gunshot snare strokes and bright bursts of brass, with occasional fragments of Elliot Martin's poignant voice (evocative of Black Uhuru's Michael Rose) also dropped in. "Worldwide Dub" and "Seneca Dub" similarly conjure a mood of almost endless time and space, the latter's rimshots like pebbles clattering into a canyon.
One of the most outstanding tracks is Dennis Bovell's "Gallows Pole Dub". The UK reggae veteran (whose dubwise genius has previously touched artists as diverse as Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Pop Group), over a sprightly rhythm has the guitar and brass section swimming in a virtual isolation tank of echo. More time is given to Martin's soulful vocal than on many of the other tracks, his "Them never know John Brown begin the fight" line connecting the track with lyrical reggae tradition (especially Burning Spear's "Marcus Garvey"), just as the band's adept playing connects with the music's roots.
Even though the original music is reshaped, removed and reinserted by the various producers, what always remains evident is this high standard of musicianship. Whether it's the range of rhythms deployed via Tommy Benedetti's drums or the brassy collective flowering of Sam Dechenne (trumpet), Drew Sayers (saxes) and Scott Flynn (trombone), the pliant yet dependable bass of Nate Edgar or the dusting of Jon Petronzio's keyboards, these are musicians truly playing reggae rather than playing at it. So despite apparently being several cultural steps removed from its Jamaican birthplace (not least because of an acknowledged debt to British pioneers like Aswad and Steel Pulse, who themselves were trying to cultivate a music that both reflected their lives and honoured their influences), the music of John Brown's Body is ultimately music's victory, getting beneath the skin to reach the heart.
The main misgiving this album produces is that it sounds like such a perfect recreation of dub from the 1970s or early 1980s. The experimental, questing spirit of such giants as King Tubby that still makes their records so exciting is that they were seeking sounds that had never been heard before. "Kings and Queens in Dub", stirring as it is, does lack that sense of trying to push beyond the boundaries of an admittedly already large territory.