(Review by Steve Shafer)
Like his superb collaborations with Lee "Scratch" Perry before his death (Rainford and Heavy Rain, which I reviewed here and here), Adrian Sherwood's latest effort with Horace Andy yields another masterpiece. Midnight Rocker is easily one of the finest albums in Andy's catalogue and certainly one of the best new roots reggae records you'll hear this year.
At 71, Sleepy's seemingly ageless voice remains in top form--always wonderfully expressive, whether conveying empathy for those suffering or passing along Jah's unyielding judgment on the wicked. He's backed by an all-star band, including Gaudi, George Oban (Aswad), Skip McDonald (Sugar Hill Records house band, Tackhead, African Head Charge), Douglas Wimbish (Sugar Hill Records house band, Tackhead, Living Colour), Horseman (Prince Fatty, Mungo's Hi-Fi, Mad Professor), and more. And Sherwood's virtuoso production--his first for Andy(!)--bathes everything in crisp warmth and life, and leaves plenty of space for Andy to do his thing.
Midnight Rocker contains a mix of new tracks and re-worked versions of Andy classics, some surely chosen for their heightened relevance today. The album opens with a fantastic rendition of Andy's plaintive "This Must Be Hell" (first released as a Tapper Zukie-produced single in 1978), Things may have been bad in the late '70s, but they have nothing on our everyone's-always-at-each-other's-throats times. This more sparse take on "Materialist" (which was originally produced and released by Niney the Observer in 1977) still packs a punch: "Material comes first in this society/You can't afford a car or a house, no one knows you" (and the track also warns of giving into vanity and acquiring too much). Andy's 1976 reggae lullaby "Rock to Sleep" is beautifully and hauntingly updated with cellos. And even Sleepy's much-revisited, Studio One/Coxsone Dodd-produced single "Mr. Bassie" is given a great new spin with this tightened-up take. (If you compare all of these versions to their originals, you'll be pleased to find that Andy has much more control of his singing, and his voice is arguably stronger and more nimble than ever.)
Like the reworked classics, Andy's new cuts are like late-night, pirate broadcasts of hope and warning--a rebel counternarrative for these entropic times. "Easy Money" (penned by Jeb Loy Nichols and Sherwood) is a melodica-driven sequel of sorts to his 1975 Phil Pratt-produced single "Root of All Evil" (key lyric: "It make friends/It break friends/Judas betrayed Christ for it!") that is an oblique critique of our capitalist way of life: "Tell me why/Did I ever start/To make money money/You did me wrong/You been cheating me/My whole life long." The stately "Today is Right Here" (by Sherwood/Nichols/Oban) reminds one that life is tenuous and fleeting, so you need to enjoy/be in the right now ("See that old black bird flying/See that fox on the run/They don't think about tomorrow/'Cause it might never come"). Despite its topic, "Careful" (by Leigh Stephen Kenny/LSK and Sherwood) is a bright and jaunty track about the pernicious disinformation we're swimming in daily ("All that glitters is not gold/All that's written is not so/Pictures, scriptures always told through the eyes of victors, all I know"). With all the turmoil, dangers, and moral quandaries to navigate these days, Andy pleads to Jah--over a Lover's Rock cut (written by LSK/Gaudi/Roydel Johnson aka Congo Ashanti Roy)--to "Watch Over Them." We need all the protection we can get.
One of my favorite tracks on Midnight Rocker is the cover of Massive Attack's "Safe from Harm" from Blue Lines. For all of Andy's past work with Massive Attack, this song from their 1991 debut--inspired by Martin Scorsese's neo-noir nightmare Taxi Driver (it's about Travis Bickle expressing his compulsion to protect the teenage prostitute Iris)--was originally sung by Shara Nelson. Yet hearing Andy singing it in this urgent, slightly futuristic dubstep-reggae setting (that rumbling bassline is ominous!), you don't think of Jodie Foster, but rather whoever means the world to you and you'd be devastated to lose: "But if you hurt what's mine/I'll sure as hell retaliate/You can free the world, you can free my mind/Just as long as my baby's safe from harm tonight."
While Midnight Rocker immediately appealed to me from first play on the turntable, I've been listening to it on and off for weeks now--and still don't think the album has fully revealed itself to me yet.
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