Reggae may become the contemporary equivalent of the soul music of the '60s.
Toots Hibbert (frequently dubbed Jamaica's Otis Redding) and the Maytals make the strongest case for such a theory. Their latest album, "Just Like That" (Mango MLPS 9590), is a lively work that begins with an ecumenical bound ("Let's Get It Together") and ends with a snappy bounce ("Journeyman"). "Chatty Chatty," "Dilly Dally" and "Gee Wiz" are tunes so joyful that they could accompany a game of leapfrog. Overall, Hibbert sings so smoothly he would prompt even Smokey Robinson to croon with envy; sometimes, though, he only seems like a jollier version of Lee Dorsey. Despite the excellence of their new release, it's apparent that the Maytals' tough, hungry days are far behind them -- they no longer will need to take the risks that made "Monkey Man" and "Funky Kingston" such challenging works.
Jamaica's other superstars, Bob Marley and the Wailers, who will appear at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House on Sept. 25, have released their new excursion into political consciousness, "Uprising" (Island ILPS 9596). The only problem is that Marley sounds like he's too tired to even lift a finger, much less lead a revolutionary uprising. As for the band, instead of a class struggle, they seem to be struggling just to stay awake. Despite its title, "Work" promotes a laid-back sensibility, the mellow life style of any faceless funk band, and "Zion Train" chugs down too familiar a track, murdering the locomotive metaphor that Junior Parker so poetically preserved on his "Mystery Train." In short, "Uprising" is the Wailers' dispirited attempt to recapture the compassionate fire and brimstone of their best albums, "Catch a Fire" and "Burnin'."
Like a young Bob Marley, Michael Rose, the lead singer of the vocal trio Black Uhuru, offers uncompromising roots reggae on "Sinsemilla" (Mango MLPS 9593), the group's American debut. Along with Derrick Simpson and Puma Jones (an American black woman who came to Jamaica via South Carolina and Harlem), Rose coolly invokes wails aimed for the heart of Africa. With percussionist Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare laying down the sparse background, the three voices are free to embrace as lovers or to assault each other with swirling chants. "Push Push," sounding like a parody of Donna Summer's "Bad Girls," may seem too trite, but "Vampire" evokes a real political nightmare, a world where bloodsuckers ceaselessly drain the lives of the working class.
In a lighter vein, Mango has also released two more essential collections of loony ska (the offbeat shuffle rhythm with accentuated bass that had evolved into reggae by 1968) -- "More Intensified! Original Ska 1963-67" (MLPS 9597) and "Club Ska '67" (MLPS 9598). Although many of the cuts on "Club Ska" are not pure ska, both anthologies can provide the background for some way-out dancing.
Sustaining the ska tradition, the English Beat (in England, they're known simply as the Beat) go beyond mimicry of ska disciples like Madness and the Specials towards the sophisticated originality of rock bands like Essential Logic and Gang of Four. English Beat is to the ska revivalists as Camembert is to Cheez-Whiz.
Their American debut, "I Just Can't Stop It" (Sire SRK 6091), is one album that literally lives up to its title -- the band doesn't even pause for a coffee break. It is such a whirling creation, chasing its own tail with a dizzying delight, that by the third song the average dancer will require a chiropractor.
The Beat gets its authenticity from the muscial punctuation of Saxa, a 50-year-old veteran saxophonist from Jamaica who has played with everybody from Prince Buster to Desmond Dekker. But what holds the band together is David Steel's brutal bass, which seems to growl at the other group members, and Everett Martin's drumming, which easily makes the transition from the breakneck page of punk to the lazy rhythms of reggae.
"Mirror in the Bathroom," "Twist & Crawl" and "Hands Off . . . She's Mine" are already hits in England; the bands's first smash last year was a cover of Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown," a truly bewildering transformation of the Motown classic into a bubblegum rap. On "Two Swords," the Beat moves with the lightning dexterity of Errol Flynn, while on "Ranking Full Stop," their stop-and-go rhythms suggest a cobra about to strike.
Twisting and turning with a fanatical devotion to perpetual motion, the English Beat is the perfect party band for those fond of whiplash. They open for the Pretenders at Lisner Auditorium this Friday.