Imagine your band’s been on the road for the better part of twenty years. You can sell out pretty much any midsize venue you feel like playing. Recordings of your concerts – both the ones made by fans, and your own, which you give away for free – are shared and prized by collectors around the world. Why on earth would you make a studio album – let alone one that sounds ok on phone earbuds, but which sounds AMAZING on a good stereo system?
Because you play so many shows that you’re bound to sell out whatever you manufacture? Because people who are stoned enough will buy pretty much anything? Or maybe just because the band is in a good place right now and you want to document this particular period in its history? Maybe all of the above. Veteram roots reggae band John Brown’s Body are playing Brooklyn Bowl tonight around 9 and as of this afternoon, it isn’t sold out yet – get to the venue by 8 and you should be fine. And you can pick up their new album Kings & Queens, just out from the folks at Easy Star Records, if you want a souvenir that sounds as good as the concert.
John Brown’s Body has been making solidly decent album since the early 90s. They used to have more of a dub vibe, with wah-wah on the keys of all things, and more orthodox, “praise Jah” type lyrics. These days, they’re louder and more driving, Mike Keenan’s guitar pushing the music with Nate Edgar’s bass and Tommy Benedettt’s drums, Jon Petronzio’s keys adding a dubwise edge, their killer horn section usually lighting the way melodywise.
The opening track on the new album has the hook in the bass – it’s irresistible, just like the horn charts. Although trumpeter Sam Dechenne, saxophonist Drew Sayers and trombonist Scott Flynn – who write all their own arrangements – look back to vintage 1960s Motown and soul, the brass on John Brown’s Body albums and this one especially is good enough to recommend to gypsy music fans. They follow with a big anthemic sway on the second track, Invitation (which sounds like “invocation” – it’s that kind of thing).
The Burning Spear influence is all over this record. Track three, Plantation, reminds of Man in the Hills, a snowstorm of keyboard EFX kicking off a brief bass-and-drum interlude before the song picks up again.Shine Bright has the gleaming horns and stutter pulse of late 80s Spear mixed with jazzy 70s Stylistics-style ballad chords. And just as Jah Spear did for one of his heros, Marcus Garvey, JBB finally send a shout out to the guy whose name they took – and reference Old Marcus Garvey along the way.
Empty Hands has a noir Ghost Town/Satta Massaganna arrangement to match its “Mr. Officer leave me alone” lyric with a little hip-hop vibe as it winds out. Fall on Deep sounds like a Marley love ballad from the Kaya days. Dust Bowl might be the best track here, with its big, intense, swirly minor-key ambience and ominous global warming-era lyrics. By contrast, The Battle reverts to the band’s more anxious, stripped-down spiritually-minded sound from the Kevin Kinsella days back in the 90s, frontman Elliot Martin letting his vocals linger (and is that autotune or just some weird flange effect on the harmonies?!?).
As far as horns go, the arrangements on the dub-influenced Starver are gorgeously dark and bluesy; on Deep Summer, arguably the album’s best track, they’re warm, enveloping and absolutely beautiful. The album closes with Searchlight, which is not a reggae song – it’s a big mid 80s style new wave pop anthem with a sequencer, like ZZ Top used to use. It also offers a nod to P-Funk, sonically if not rhythmically. It sounds suspiciously like it was written to close a show on a, um, high note, a big singalong where everybody in the choom gang who hasn’t reached total absorption yet gets an excuse to raise their lighter to their lips one final time.