An attentive reader will notice that I complain about the production at some point in any review I do for a contemporary reggae album. Simply put, somewhere in the 80s reggae lost its warm, dank riddims in exchange for crisper digital sounds. Much like R&B, analog recording was replaced with digital recording and live musicians were supplemented or replaced by machines. While you can’t argue that a 2013 reggae or R&B song doesn’t sound crisper and more polished than a 1970s reggae or R&B song, it often feels like some of the soul was left behind in the process. Maybe I’m just a luddite who can’t get with the new sounds, but I have always preferred the production from the 70s to the production of the past thirty years.
I’m not the only one. In 2007, a group of musicians from L.A. came together to form the Lions, with the idea of making reggae like they used to back in the day. Producer/guitarist Dan Ubick worked with Breakstra and Macy Gray, singers Deston Berry and Alex Desert were part of ska-revival band the Hepcats, and vocalist Black Shakespeare is the cousin of reggae legend Robbie Shakespeare. Add to that some fifteen or sixteen session musicians who have worked with everyone from Raphael Saadiq, Big Daddy Kane, the Black Eyed Peas and Alton Ellis and you have a formidable musical force.
Much like the Dap-Kings, the Lions make contemporary music using a retro template. Where the Dap-Kings are re-imagining Motown soul for the post-millenium, the Lions are revisiting 70s roots reggae. “We basically made the dusty reggae soul LP we have been wanting to hear for years,” they exclaim in their press release. “You can’t roll a spliff on an MP3” Malick Moore sings on lead single “This Generation.” “The Top is heavy and the bottom’s ground.” Moore’s falsetto is complemented by Black Shakespeare’s gruff toasting. The real stars here though, are the musicians. They capture the warm analogue sound that all the modern recording tricks in the world can’t beat. The drums rattle, the electric bass throbs, and the guitar and horns are used sparsely but effectively. The recording is crisp but not pristine: it sounds amazing, but allows for all the little imperfections that make the music more endearing. It beats the hell out of the Auto-Tuned, synthesized, and overly polished production that has become the default for pop music today.
The album is a mix of rocksteady, ska, roots reggae, dub, along with a healthy dose of American soul and R&B. Heptones singer Leroy Sibbles guests on a rocksteady cover of “Picture On the Wall,” and his voice still sounds good almost fifty years into his career. “New Girl” is a modern stab at lover’s rock. “Revelations” and “Roll It Round” are classic roots reggae, only with lyrics about the current financial and political situation. They even do a reggae cover of the Van Halen classic “Jamie’s Crying,” which is surprisingly good.
If there is one complaint to be made about “This Generation” it is that the album covers too much musical territory at once. It jumps from dub to ska to rocksteady to soul, sometimes in the space of a single song. The Lions are master musicians, and so good at all forms of music, but sometimes the mix of styles ends up being the lesser than the sum of its parts.
Even with the genre/era confusion, “This Generation” is a solid album. It sounds amazing and is one of the most joyful records I’ve heard all year. It makes the perfect escapist soundtrack for this long winter. Put it on and dream of sunny beaches and sweaty dancehalls.