JIMMY CLIFF “Rebirth” (Universal Music )
The tiny island of Jamaica has produced a wealth of Reggae
musicians since the late 50s. Reggae and Ska are a mash up of indigenous
island folk music flavored by Jazz, American R & B and New Orleans Funk.
The music first took hold in the mid 60’s, just as Jamaica gained independence
from Great Britain. It is perhaps the most popular Third World music
in the universe.
The Holy Trinity of Reggae has always been: Bob Marley,
Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff. Sadly, Bob Marley succumbed to cancer in
1981 and Peter Tosh was murdered in 1987. That has left Jimmy Cliff to
carry the Reggae torch into the 21st century.
Cliff was barely in his teens when he began recording with
legendary Jamaican producer Leslie Kong. By 1969, his single “Vietnam”
hit the charts, prompting Bob Dylan to declare it the best protest song
he’d ever heard.
Cliff achieved international success starring in the film
“The Harder They Come” and providing seminal Reggae songs for the
soundtrack like the title tune and the epochal “Many Rivers To Cross.”
Forty years and more than 25 albums later, Cliff is still here.
He has just released his first new effort since 2004, aptly titled, “Rebirth.”
It is lovingly produced by Tim Armstrong (architect of 3rd wave Punk/Ska
stalwarts Rancid).
“Rebirth” gallops out of the gate with the opening track
“World Upside Down.” Crackling drums pound out a Rock Steady beat,
the melody is joyful and infectious, pulsating with life. Conversely, the
serious lyrics decry class division, inequity and poverty:
“Too much injustice, how can there be peace/ Religious hypocrisy,
political tyranity /What about the children?”
To paraphrase Rap philosopher Mystikal, several songs
on “Rebirth” require the listener to “Shake Ya Ass!” From the
easy skank of “One More,” wherein percolating horns collide with lyrics
that ignite social change to “Reel Rebel,” a skatter-shot plea for
personal sacrifice to the rev’ed up “Bang.” The latter weds a loping
melody, call & response vocals and strafing guitar riffs.
These songs free your body as they engage your heart and soul.
On an album rife with sparkling melodies, two tracks stand
out. “Reggae Music” offers a pocket history of Cliff’s musical journey
from the 60s to present day. The instrumentation feels jittery and
caffeinated blending spirited horn fills and a triple-time Rock Steady beat.
“Outsider” is a frenetic, soul-shaking workout that echoes
James Brown and Stax-Volt. The melody flits somewhere between the
Capitols’ “Cool Jerk” and Otis Redding’s incendiary “I Can’t Turn You Loose.”
Here, Cliff exclaims “Life without music I can’t survive.” We know the
“Rebirth” slows down a bit on the simmering “Cry No More”
and the sultry “Blessed Love.”
Cliff covers two punk classics on “Rebirth.” He adds a
tropical lilt to the Clash track, “Guns Of Brixton.” This cinematic tale of
rebellion is accented by blistering guitar and a soaring trombone solo.
“You can crush us, you can bruise us/ But you have to answer to
the Guns of Brixton.”
On Rancid’s “Ruby Soho,” Cliff strips away the punk menace
exposing a spirited song about romance gone bad.
“Rebirth” closes with “Ship Is Sailing.” The breezy melody
recalls Cliff’s classic, “Sitting In Limbo,” the lyrics offer up optimism
and hope for the future.
“Rebirth” is quintessential Reggae. Lyrics, that in turn are
spiritual, rebellious and motivational, coupled with effervescent melodies.
The result is music that empowers the mind and body.
As evidenced by Cliff’s recent Coachella sets, this sexagenarian shows
no signs of slowing down. “Rebirth” stands as testament.
Jimmy Cliff’s strongest album in decades.

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