As previously shown by Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable" duet with her father, Nat King Cole, and Hank Williams Jr.'s collaboration with his father on "There's a Tear in My Beer," being dead is no longer a barrier to a recording career. Two new albums of digital duets, featuring Bob Marley (dead of cancer in 1981) and Patsy Cline (dead in an airplane crash in 1963), suggest the thin line between paying homage and strip-mining an artist's legacy.
"Bob Marley: Chant Down Babylon" (Island Def Jam) seems the better idea. Though reggae's avatar is rightfully lionized today, and the music he championed is a worldwide phenomenon, Marley was greatly disappointed in his lifetime that the music did not reach black audiences in America. A major reason was that black radio never welcomed him.
To solve that problem--and to reach out to a hip-hop generation that may never have actually heard Marley's conscious music--Stephen Marley has used digital technology to unite his father with a dozen of today's most celebrated rap and R&B artists, including the Roots, Rakim, Busta Rhymes and Krayzie Bone and singers Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, who is something of a ringer: Bob Marley is a grandfather of her two young children with Rohan Marley.
Stephen Marley reached into the family archives for alternate vocals to a dozen of his father's recordings--the better known here include "Rebel Music," "Jammin' " and "No More Trouble." He then stripped away most of the original backing tracks and replaced them with updated hip-hop beats and loops, looking to make Marley's music more accessible, and perhaps more palatable, to today's audience.
The results are, at best, intriguing. Marley's voice still has the sweet lilt that often belied its social urgency, but on several occasions, it is slowed down to accommodate the new beats, most annoyingly for Krayzie Bone's sluggish duet on "Rebel Music." The fit is often uneasy, with "duet" partners coming in toward the end of a song with a rapped verse or chorus. And the younger Marley's production is simply not strong or distinctive.
There are some solid pairings that underscore the hardscrabble connections between Kingston's Trenchtown tenements and America's urban ghettos while reflecting Marley's challenge to "emancipate yourselves from mental slavery." Rakim, Chuck D of Public Enemy and Guru of Gang Starr bring their vocal authority to bear on "Concrete Jungle," "Survival" and "Johnny Was," respectively. Much more fluid are the jazzy R&B stylings of the Roots on "Burnin' and Lootin'," Badu's yearning "No More Trouble" and Hill on the sensually charged ballad "Turn Your Lights Down Low."
Elsewhere, Busta Rhymes and Spliff Star of Flipmode Squad show their Jamerican roots on "Rastaman Chant." But the Steven Tyler-Joe Perry contribution to "Roots, Rock, Reggae" is embarrassing, and MC Lyte's take on "Jammin' " is slight, though she does make the album's case succinctly, aiming the song at "those that claim but don't really know the game/ Bob Marley learn the man behind the name."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8153.)
Patsy Cline: 'Duets, Volume 1'
Cline's vocals have also been liberated from their original masters on "Duets," the first of three planned volumes teaming the trailblazing Virginia singer with current stars from the Nashville scene that she and producer Owen Bradley helped create.
Now, why anyone would want to have his schlocky contemporary arrangements compared with Bradley's classics is a mystery, but producer Michael Blakey puts himself in the hot seat--and deserves the burn. That's what you get when you rely on something called "forensic technology" to extract vocals from their original mono tracks, only to burden them with mundane, overly orchestrated settings.
Blakey plays it safe on this first volume by addressing only one of Cline's Top 40 hits, "Walkin' After Midnight," on which the singer is sluggishly accompanied by Michelle Wright 42 years after the original. She fares somewhat better with John Berry, who brings a honky-tonk spirit to "There He Goes," and Willie Nelson, who brings a stately grace to the gospel tune "Life's Railway to Heaven."
But fellow outlaw Waylon Jennings is dreadful on "Just Out of Reach," and Bob "Butterfly Kisses" Carlisle is just as bad on "That Wonderful Someone." Cline gets no help from Beth Nielsen Chapman on "If I Could Only Stay Asleep" or elsewhere from lesser singers Mila Mason and Crystal Gayle.
The album also includes extended versions of two minor songs, "Hungry for Love" and "How Can I Face Tomorrow," but most of the material is average at best. It all sounds clean and pristine, but you're left with one question: Why bother?
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8154.)