Part of the problem with Black Uhuru's new release, "Chill Out," stems from the great expectations generated by last year's "Red." The improvisational harmonies, strong production values, political awareness and general uplift of that album would have been a hard act for anyone to follow.
While "Chill Out" is by no means a complete fall from grace, neither is it merely a matter of failure to follow through on a winning formula. On the evidence of this pallid collection, the reggae trio has temporarily lost its direction and some of its fire.
The title track is solid and steady enough, thanks mostly to the production team / rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Its dark, deliberate progression and eerily sparse guitar-fills harness a powerful apocalyptic warning worthy of Black Uhuru's earlier vision. But on such tracks as "Darkness," "Wicked Act" and "Emotional Slaughter," determination has given way to despair, and the transition lends the record a dour, sullen flavor. On "Red," singer Michael Rose handled rejection and oppression with a knowing shrug; here, he simply complains.
There are musical problems too. The ensemble vocal work of Rose, Duckie Simpson and Puma Jones has become stiffer, with more formal structure: Rose sings mostly in the foreground while Simpson and Jones answer in careful, planned backing harmonies. This belies the group's complex and continuous interchange onstage; on record, it nearly eliminates the elements of risk and spontaneity that give good reggae its freshness and excitement.
Finally, "Chill Out" lacks pacing and inflection. There's nothing as innocently fun and danceable as "Sponji Reggae" on this album; nothing as scary and real as "Youth of Eglington" or "Carbine," either. At least for now, Rose and company prefer safety and superficiality.
None of which is to say that Black Uhuru has lost its unique standing among the burgeoning ranks of reggae. They still evince a special style and harmonic sensitivity rarely encountered in the genre. But here's hoping that next time out, they pull out of their slump and rekindle their own sense of spontaneity, conviction and joy.
ON RECORD, ON STAGE
THE ALBUM -- Chill Out (Island IL 9752.)
THE SHOW -- Saturday at 8 at the Warner.