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The Easy Star All-Stars | Easy Star's Thrillah

album review by John Powell

The Easy Star All-Stars| Easy Star's Thrillah

For the Easy Star All-Star’s fourth album covering a classic album of the past, (their other album, First Light, was originals), is in fact Easy Star’s Thrillah, a take on Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Thriller is undoubtedly one of the most famous albums of all time. Every song on the album is recognizable, and the majority got massive radio play. Easy Star timed this well, with Jackson’s death still on people’s minds, sparking resurgence of the man’s discography.

Easy Star’s Thrillah is supremely fun, start to finish. It’s also hard to compare to the group’s other albums: Dub Side of the Moon is a cult favorite, Radiodread was deep, dark, and delirious, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band had a much folkier and otherworldly feel than Thrillah. It may not be their best album, but it’s well-crafted, well-executed, and if nothing else, helps you appreciate the original.

Always taking risks, the All-Star’s start with “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”, which isn’t reggae, as is typically what the All-Stars do. It’s straight up Afrobeat. Calculated rhythms springboard the grooving bass line and funky horns. It’s a seven-minute party, absolutely pulling the true themes of the original and giving it to a female vocalist. It’s not what you’d expect, especially from the guys that brought you more dub-tastic takes on Pink Floyd, but hey, it works.

“Baby Be Mine” features The Green, the Hawaiian reggae group signed to Easy Star Records (the team that compiled the All-Stars in the first place). The Green are great additions to the record, giving the song an early 90s reggae platform. It’s at times difficult to contemporize 80s songwriters like Jackson, Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton, Steve Porcaro, and John Bettis- who lyrically stimulated audiences with deep themes for an 80s pop R&B album, but Easy Star Arranger Michael Goldwasser decides to embrace the 80s-ness, and in fact harkens to 70s reggae and Afrofunk, pulling on heritage of all the interconnected Afro-influenced music.

“Beat It” is slowed down, made more troubled, pulling away from rock steady reggae and settling in to a richer scope of reggae riddims. Black Uhuru’s Michael Rose takes lead vocals, and when he sings the chorus, it hits harder than Jackson ever pulled off. In fact, here, “Beat It” takes on a total life of its own.

Luciano sings on “Billie Jean”, which is the only song on the album that isn’t as good or better than the original. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, but “Billie Jean” musically and lyrically sounds super tough to re-imagine with a reggae bakcbone, and this version sounds more than anything like a cover, unlike “Beat It”. But the bass line is freaking wonderful, and you can’t go wrong with the catchy chorus.

The song “Thriller” itself is similarly a reggae take on the song, without feeling re-upped. Then again, like “Billie Jean”, it’s not the easiest song, lyrically, to make available to reggae. But it’s a fun enough version to play for fans at a Halloween party.

There are two highlights. The first is Cas Haley (another Easy Star signee) taking on “Human Nature”. The horns give the song new lift, and combined with Cas’ sincere voice, it’s emotive and heartfelt. Cas takes this song on as his own. It’s absolutely gorgeous, translating perfectly into a reggae groove, and the best vocal performance on the entire album.

The second highlight is “The Girl is Mine”, with Mojo Morgan and Steel Pulse guest starring. Mojo and David Hinds both have incredible voices, David even after all these years sounding fresh and driven. The song utilizes horns incredibly well, and simply simmers on the groove and vocals. The third song on the album, it’s the point where it feels the album has really taken off.

“Dub It” and “Close to Midnight” are excellent dub versions, and the rest of the album is good reggae music. Much like Thriller, Easy Star’s Thrillah is so fun and danceable that you might be missing the slick arrangements and songwriting for the overall feel. But the All-Stars are talented musicians mixed and produced super well. This album sounds excellent. Quality is not lost one bit on this take on a classic that many probably never thought had its place in the reggae world.

Bottom line: An overall wonderful interpretation of an album with its political and societal commentaries often lost in the danceable snap of Jackson’s masterpiece.


 

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