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Easy Star All-Stars | First Light

Album review by John Powell

Easy Star All-Stars  | First Light

Having made their name by reinterpreting classic rock albums such as Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread, The Easy Star All-Stars never had a chance to be recognized for their original ideas. This isn’t to say remaking Radiohead into reggae wasn’t an interesting feat that this hodgepodge of musicians made look easy, but with First Light members of the group put their originals on the table to be considered. What came out of the process was 13 very rootsy reggae tunes that flow like a compilation. The reason First Light feels like a compilation is that in many ways it is- with multiple vocalists and different approaches to songwriting.

“Don’t Stop the Music”, a superb first track, is fronted by Menny More, a singer that can pull off everything from melodic crooning to singjay bebop. He’s got a very Jamaican roots style and a lot of energy. The song is rich with fat bass, great horns provided by Buford O’Sullivan on trombone and Jenny Hill on sax, and it has clear, simple lyrics. I mean, the title says it all.

The change-up in sound happens by the second track, “Break of Dawn”, sung by Joanne Williams. It’s more horn-driven and 70s funk groovy. Similarly, “First Light” is soulfully sung by Kristy Rock. A much slower, building song with keyboard flourishes by Elenna Canlas (the group’s biggest asset), “First Light” is full of hope. “You hold me up/when I see your smile/like a blinding light/it only stays for a while,” she sings over Shelton Garner Jr.’s slick guitar patter.

While “One Likkle Draw” is hardly new frontier for a reggae group, it stands out on the album because it’s political and conscious lyrics driven by rock steady riddims produces a very Steel Pulse vibe. Featuring The Meditations and Lion Chandell on vocals, the song is a dialogue between a ganja farmer and the cop that shows up at his door. “I won’t tell your captain,” the farmer says, “if you come back later you’ll see your commissioner/ he’s my preferred costumer.” Then the cop replies, “The truth is that I never tried it…I always thought it’d lead to badness…give me one likkle draw.” Again, while fighting for marijuana legalization isn’t new territory, there can’t be enough songs about it, especially songs of this quality.

Another key track is “Reggae Pension”, which comes off as a nod to the fact that the All- Stars began touring and recording after their first album- an experiment- turned out to be a success. Thus, the group is very thankful to the music that’s gotten them this far. “I may not make all the ends meet,” Shelton sings, “but I just can’t miss the show.” The bridge, “It’s not about the currency/(the petty dollar)” is catchy as heck. This song will get played over and over, so be warned.

If there’s one flaw with this album it’s that the lyrics don’t break new ground. At times there are slick rhymes and images, but “Follow the road/toward the light/I search for signs” (“I Won’t Stop”) and “I’m putting all my faith in you/to carry on and see this through” (“Unbelievable”) don’t stand up against some of the genre’s other contemporary songwriters.

Granted, if anything falters in lyrics it’s made up in vocals. Cas Haley’s guest appearance on “Unbelievable” is worthy of a nod. The emotion is there in droves. On “Paid My Dues” Menny has enough guttural grit to make you grin. Not to mention the women of the All-Stars, who all deserve a nod from Aretha or, dare I say, Janis. You’d be surprised that Kristy Rock is a white Vermont woman.

If you’re in the mood for great sounding reggae that makes you feel good inside, First Light is a strong performance and never gets boring, what with all the vocalists and spectrum of rock steady, ska, funk, blues, and soul.

Bottom Line: Your typical reggae album but with great production, energy, and a few surprises.


 

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