With their 12th record John Brown's Body become the poster children for commitment.
One of the many ways to achieve success as a band can be boiled down to one fundamental reality: don’t break up. As your peers succumb to too-much-too-soon-syndrome -- or, for that matter, as they become fed up with the dreaded not-enough-for-too-long-syndrome -- just stick it out the best you can. Endure the lineup changes. Continue to grow. Put your head down and just do it.
John Brown’s Body have been doing this for more than 20 years now. They’ve won awards. They have a dozen studio records to their name. They’ve been on and off different record labels. They persevered through the loss of former bassist Scott Palmer, who died after a battle with cancer, and then the departure of songwriter/singer/guitarist/heart of the band Kevin Kinsella, who bailed as a result of perceived creative differences, among other things.
So, yeah. They’s seen a bunch. They’ve been through a lot.
And that’s probably why their 12th LP Fireflies feels like more of a victory than some might initially believe. With their blend of forward-thinking reggae that, remarkably, still remains respectful to the genre’s past, John Brown’s Body seem like they can finally begin to enjoy the fruits of their many labors through the years. The record is a mere 10 tracks, and only one of those eclipses the five-minute mark. It’s still happy music for happy people, but it’s also a testament to the versatility the Ithaca-based act has accrued over the course of their travels.
The differences between “Hard Man Fe Dead” and “Like a Queen”, for instance, run deeper than a mere change in tempo. The former, which features a guest spot from Karim Israel, is bright and anxious before a pause leads to the bottom dropping out for only a handful of seconds. It’s a fun rhythmic trick that appears a handful of times within the fabric of the song, and it adds a sense of variety to the production. Conversely, the latter is perhaps the most straightforward track the set offers and it’s led forth by singer Elliot Martin’s gruff, Rastafari intonations that sound weathered in all the best ways. Aging in reggae can be a curious thing, but here, as is the case elsewhere throughout Fireflies, the maturity translates to even more authenticity.
Speaking of authenticity, that’s the name of the game on the set’s most roots-leaning track, “Badman”. Drummer (and founding member) Tommy Benedetti’s cross-stick groove pays as much respect to the past as the blistering horns suggest a very promising future. Better yet are the vocal harmonies that prop up the end of each line in the introductory verse. Then, for good measure, check the tiny stutter that bridges the first chorus through to the rest of the song. It’s a delicious subtlety that reminds listeners these guys are on a higher level than most.
Heading to a milder tempo serves them just as well. Opener “Who Paid Them Off?” is an update on Inner Circle bliss, keyboards and drum effects painting a background influenced by the genre’s mid-‘90s heyday. It’s a good greeting for a cruise that’s destined for the more accessible areas of Jamaica, Martin’s vocals embodying a texture that proves to be both hungry and welcome. Once the song starts, it never really stops moving, all the way up to the final 30-second fadeout.
“Mystery” then ends up being a lot of fun with its lazy feel and downtrodden horns. Plus, there’s no denying the quirky guitar line that floats in and out at the end of each hook. “High Grade” was made for the beginning of a humid evening somewhere on the southern-most tip of Florida, its moody vibe accentuated by the occasional lack of strings and keys. And then the title track is a musically jovial portrait of the beauty those nighttime creatures (metaphorical or not) can bring. Martin’s willingness to stretch his vocal range only adds to the swaggering soul the song embodies.
Actually, the singer’s decision to reach for those notes is indicative of both why Fireflies works and where John Brown’s Body is as a unit. They’re still hungry, still fighting, still creating, still … well, still existing. And in a world where far too many acts call it quits due to the wear and tear decades can have on lives both personal and professional, it’s a consequential accomplishment to even get to album 12, let alone have it be one as exciting as this.
Crazy the feats one can conquer with some commitment and a handful of reggae vibes, don’t you think?