On its surface, reggae can appear to be a simple artform. Rhythms and melodies are remarkebly similar among different artists and bands, with differentiators peaking through in the form of catchy bass lines, a B-3 Hammond, or perhaps a brass instrument or two. Yet, there are certain reggae artists who have shone brighter than others. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Toots Hibbert, and Lee “Scratch” Perry were recognizable voices within the genre, perfecting or redefining the music’s boundaries. However, none quite dug as deep to the roots of the reggae genre, and maxed out what it represented as a cultural more, spiritual connection, and social compass as Jimmy Cliff.
Never one to shy away from the injustices of the world, Cliff has routinely been the reggae artist to break away from the overabundant optimism that flows throughout the measures of the music and focus on everyday issues that create overcasts in our lives. Crime, murder, poverty, political corruption, hypocricies, war—these have all been pushed to the front by Cliff. The Harder They Come solidified his place as a social conscience, a guiding light for the right path while also addressing the grey zones we walk through every day. Now, 40 years after the release of that movie and groundbreaking, genre-defining soundtrack, Cliff has released Rebirth – an album that’s as vibrant and mindful as his most relevant work.
The songs on Rebirth touch on Cliff’s his usual topics. “World Upside Down” opens the album with an addressing of the injustices and chaos we see on a daily basis. Backing these topics with joyful melodies is a musical oxymoron of sorts, but it’s what Cliff does best. Sure there will be a bounce in your step, but listening to the words drops some important perspective from a man who has seen and lived through it all. Conscious songs such as that and “Children’s Bread” provide the politics, while others such as “Reggae Music” provide the break in the clouds, the half-glass-full optimism, that Cliff injects in each song. Times are tough, but they’ll get better.
On the production side, Cliff’s voice has not change one iota compared to the soul that resounded on “Many Rivers to Cross.” He sounds as youthful as ever, which is definitely most impressive for a 64-year-old with a 40+ year career. His wails on tracks such as “Bang,” and the lead single, “One More” show that Cliff has kept up with his craft, hitting every note up and down the octaves while maintaining the style of cantor/lecturer that has permeated throughout each of his last 29 albums.
The sound of his backing band, The Engine Room, is impressive as well, possessing that roots dancehall sound that existed on his albums from the 60’s and 70’s. A large thanks can be given to Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, who both produced the album and plays guitar throughout its entirety. Armstrong – a ska/reggae connoisseur – brings the classic Hellcat Records club vibe to Rebirth, a style that’s commonly found among other Hellcat bands such as The Slackers, Hepcat, and The Aggrolites. The drums echo, the organ is cranked up, and the upbeat guitar strums keep the mood light. It’s a classic M.O. that Cliff certainly influenced, and has come full-circle by allowing Armstrong to use it on his own work. His presence on the record is certainly felt throughout it, and from the first pop on the snare to final beat, it’s crystal clear that Cliff and Armstrong were meant to work together. Rebirth is a jovial creation that sets reality before us and shows us that there will be brighter times.
Jimmy Cliff // One More [mp3] from Rebirth