Those of you who have seen Shane Meadows’ excellent This is England will remember the brilliant opening sequence in which Toots and The Maytals’ classic 54-46 Was My Number accompanies the shocking visuals of ’80s Thatcherite unrest. It’s an exhilarating opening and Meadows lets the song play through in its entirety, reminding you just how bloody good Toots Hibbert and his cohorts are. This year Toots, who was one of the first artists to coin the term “reggae”, celebrates 45 years of recording with this new album.
In the past four and a half decades Toots’ voice has not diminished in the slightest. He still has an undeniable, joyous quality in his vocals and Light Your Light is a celebratory album in tone featuring guests and tributes to his past. It could have been so much better than the end product, which is a watered down version of reggae designed to appeal to the masses and over-produced to within an inch of its life.
It’s not all bad. Tracks like the opener – Johnny Coolman and Celia are great, but the album loses it way on several occasions with attempts at crossing genres. I’m not a musical snob and mixing styles is normally quite exciting but it would have been great if we’d just stuck with the reggae – instead we get a little bit of everything which dilutes the potency of the source material. Particularly out of place is Don’t Bother Me – a Santana/Ricky Martineqsue track that sticks out like a sore thumb.
Given Toots’ stature as an artist I’d have expected a higher calibre of guests as well. They should be banging down his door in order to perform with him, but instead we end up with Bonnie Raitt performing a forgettable country and western crossover.
There’s also a little too much attempts at gospel music. Reggae has always contained a heavily spiritual element, but some of this made me feel like I was in church rather than Kingston Town.
But back to the plus points… which are the album’s covers: Ray Charles‘ I’ve Got A Woman gets a pleasing reggae makeover rewriting the famous lyrics to “I gotta woman in Kingston Town…”. We also get a good cover of Otis Redding‘s Pain in My Heart. But the reworking of the ska classic Guns of Navarone feels a little overdone. It’s heart is in its right place though since it’s intended as a tribute to Coxone Dodd, the late founder of Jamaica’s legendary Studio One records.
I was quite excited about listening to this, but the album is trying too hard to get some crossover appeal, giving us a generic sound which no longer stands out from the crowd. I miss the low-fi approach of his early classics. A back to basics album would have better suited such an anniversary.