Easy Star All-Stars
Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2010, Volume 17, #2
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Mon February 1, 2010, 06:30 AM CST
Who would have guessed that, for the past 43 years, a great reggae album has been hiding inside The Beatlesí legendary outing Sergeant Pepperís Lonely Hearts Club Band? Itís likely that no one knew it, save for the Easy Star All-Stars.
Reggae covers of classic rock songs are nothing new. From the 1960s to the present day, Jamaican artists have been recording highly reworked versions of North American and British pop songs ó often without permission, and often with only passing reference to the rhythms and melodies of the original source. During his early tenure with Studio Oneís Coxonne Dodd, Bob Marley, for example, placed a truly bizarre spin upon Bob Dylanís Like a Rolling Stone.
Naturally, the reggae world has produced as many successful interpretations of familiar fare as it has disastrous ones. In this regard, the Easy Star All-Starsí output can be distinguished from the rest of the pack because of the groupís meticulous attention to detail. Eric Smith, Lem Oppenheimer, and Michael Goldwasser ó the principal players behind the Easy Star brand ó employ a process in which they choose an album from the annals of classic rock. They then dissect it, re-creating the musical charts and breaking down the various stages of the recording process. Like their previous efforts Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread ó which explored Pink Floydís Dark Side of the Moon and Radioheadís OK Computer, respectively ó Easy Starís Lonely Hearts Dub Band follows the melodies, keys, and chord changes of the original endeavor to a degree that could be considered obsessive. At times, on Easy Starís Lonely Hearts Dub Band, one can almost imagine George Martin in the studio twirling the knobs while John, Paul, George, and Ringo watch from an adjoining smoke-filled room.
The difference between Easy Starís Lonely Hearts Dub Band and the Easy Star All-Stars' previous projects is that the instrumentation employed by The Beatles on Sergeant Pepperís Lonely Hearts Club Band was not significantly altered. On Dub Side of the Moon, David Gilmourís guitar accompaniments were transposed into horn melodies, while the arrangements concocted for Radiodread communicated warmth and sensuality, both of which were missing from OK Computer. For the most part, the Easy Star All-Stars play the songs from Sergeant Pepperís Lonely Hearts Club Band in a rather straightforward fashion.
It is truly uncanny and perplexing to hear Easy Starís Lonely Hearts Dub Band from beginning to end because it simultaneously sounds just like and almost nothing like The Beatlesí original album. This is the Easy Star All-Starsí goal, of course. The collective wants not just to create novelty songs with a tropical beat, but also to immerse itself completely in the music. In doing so, The Beatlesí work undergoes an evolutionary change, one that effectively highlights the basic structure of the source material, while also producing a listening experience that is utterly new.
Not surprisingly, Easy Starís Lonely Hearts Dub Band is best heard in an uninterrupted fashion rather than in pieces. The Easy Star All-Stars left intact The Beatlesí groundbreaking transitions from one song to the next, though dub echoes and toasting are substituted for the crowd and animal sounds of the original album. This makes a thorough dissection of the merits of the individual tracks more difficult. Yet, in an outing filled with revelations, monumental moments abound.
First and foremost, one canít give enough credit to the musicians who brought this concept to life. It doesnít hurt that the Easy Star All-Stars features a veritable whoís who of reggae musicians, including members of Antibalas, Inner Circle, and Everlast. Of all the great artists who contributed to the project, special mention must be made of Ticklah (a.k.a. Victor Axelrod) and Michael Goldwasser, whose peerless organ and keyboard runs never fall short of thrilling.
The greatest challenge posed to any collective that tackles The Beatlesí material is to treat the vocals. Given its iconic nature, every one of The Beatlesí performances has been etched in stone within the publicís consciousness. Therefore, it must be a daunting ó if not completely thankless ó undertaking to try and approach these songs from a fresh perspective.
The thing that saves many of the tunes on Easy Starís Lonely Hearts Dub Band is the hodgepodge of roots-reggae singers who were called upon to perform on the set, even though they werenít necessarily familiar with the original versions. While The Beatlesí biggest hits were heard in Jamaica, the groupís more obscure selections ó such as Good Morning, Good Morning and Fixing a Hole ó never saw the light of day in the countryís singles-driven music scene. As a result, many of the vocalists who participated in this project were able to approach the compositions without any preconceived notions. This is something that would have been impossible for North American and European artists to accomplish. Consequently, they never succumb to the kinds of irony, parody, and pop-culture referencing that has doomed countless tribute outings. Indeed, there is such a sense of joy in every track on Easy Starís Lonely Hearts Dub Band that the material is essentially reborn.
Max Romeo gives Fixing a Hole a treatment that lies somewhere between the sub-genres of lovers-rock and rub-a-dub, while The Mighty Diamondsí harmonies on Getting Better are simply too uplifting to describe. Although his vocals are sometimes at odds with the psychedelia of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Frankie Paul clearly is having a lot of fun as he sings his slightly altered version of John Lennonís lyrics. Matisyahuís dub-meets-electronica rendition of George Harrisonís Within You, Without You perfectly bridges the gaps among the styles of world, reggae, and modern dance. Elsewhere, Black Uhuruís Michael Rose scats through A Day in the Life. Only Lucianoís nondescript and somewhat aimless cover of With a Little Help from My Friends falls flat.
In the end, albums like Easy Starís Lonely Hearts Dub Band tend not to be taken very seriously, which in this case is a shame. The outing is more than a novelty project. This fact is immediately evident by the care that everyone took to making Easy Starís Lonely Hearts Dub Band as good as it could possibly be.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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