The fear and loathing with which America responded to reggae star Bob Marley hardly reflected the way the rest of the world regarded him. Still, he often confided to friends his perpetual dream of being "No. 1 in Babylon." Had American airwaves loosened up enough, his 1980 release "Uprising" might have made the dream possible, but "Chances Are," the new posthumous release, is clearly not the vehicle Marley would have suggested.
The tracks for "Chances Are," all previously unreleased, were recorded from 1968 through 1972. Like all posthumous releases in which the artist had no decision-making influence, it is essentially a reworking of studio out-takes, packaged to play on the listener's fond memories and forgiving ears.
Executive producer Danny Sims, the shadow of Marley's estate at his back, has loaded the back cover of this dubious project with undying gratitude to almost everyone involved in the recordings. And it's true that his effort is kind compared to what was done with the work of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and a few others unfortunate enough to die with a couple of leftovers still in the can.
The main injustice here is that these eight cuts indicate Marley's own good judgment in leaving them out of his other recordings. Throughout the album, it's evident that the feel wasn't right, the elements weren't all in place. These are the leavings, the dregs of a fine body of work, and Sims would have us believe that they're enough, simply because Marley's death has enlarged them.
"Reggae on Broadway," "Soul Rebel," "(I'm) Hurting Inside" are more soul than reggae, with almost nothing of the spiritual energy that enhances Marley's other work. There's a continual loping that reveals players and singers to be in separate grooves, or in no groove at all, and this is why songs remain unreleased in the first place.
Sims has been accused of adding tracks to the unfinished tapes, but what on earth he could have added, I don't know. Harmonies are not well-textured, attacks and releases have all the clean symmetry of pebbles on glass, and the backup singers, who I assume from the back cover include Rita Marley and Johnny Nash, sound like the Four Tops in a testy mood, rather than the highly professional accompanists they are.
The record also contains an alarming amount of technical garbage. On several tracks, metallic dissonances lurch crazily out of the mix like Metro buses at rush hour; surface clutter muffles and dims the music like distant thunder. And the upbeat lopes along indifferently.
The lyrics are no great shakes, either. I doubt if Marley ever wanted to be remembered for "Reggae on Broadway" or Jimmy Norman and Al Pyfrom's "Stay With Me," though they might have been fine tunes, worked out properly and at Marley's chosen pace. "Strike while the iron is hot" is a nice romantic sentiment, but it pales against Marley's more ideological lyrics. "Chances Are" was undoubtedly chosen as the title track in the spirit of wistful irony that often enshrouds these posthumous exercises.
"Chances are / I'm going to leave you / Sorry for / The victim now," sings Marley in a scratchy tenor, and I presume we're supposed to respond, "How portentous! How perceptive!" But Marley generally preferred to take the spotlight off his own charisma and put it where his soul was, as he did on "Redemption Song."
This is not a terrible album, and if one is totally unacquainted with Marley, it probably won't do any harm as an introduction. But it strikes me as depressing how often we raid people's closets and rifle their belongings with burning self-interest after they die, looking for some clue to their art -- a letter, a lyric sheet, an unused song -- when the victims spent a lifetime freely offering the whole solution.
THE ALBUM -- Bob Marley, "Chances Are," Cotillion SD 5228