Recording information: Apt 8; Free Willy Studio; Studio 2000.
Photographers: Cleveland "Clevie" Browne; Donald Clive Davidson; Winston Blake; William Foster.
For almost 40 years now, session-and-production duos have played an important role on the reggae scene, usually in the form of bass/drums duos like Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare or Style Scott and Flabba Holt. Drummer Clevie Browne and keyboardist Steely Johnson changed up the instrumentation a bit and gradually became the most important such duo currently working, racking up lots of IOUs over the years from top-ranked reggae singers. They cash in some of those chits on this enormously enjoyable look back at great songs from the past (recorded shortly before Steely's untimely death in 2009). It would be easy to dismiss this collection as a cheap nostalgia exercise, but two factors get in the way of that stance: first, the loving and detailed attention that Steely and Clevie give to the production on each track; these performances were clearly not thrown together thoughtlessly or cheaply. Second, the quality of the performances themselves, which are provided by both A-list singers whose stars have never really faded (Cornell Campbell, Ken Boothe, Freddie McGregor) and a few who have become relatively obscure over the years but shouldn't have (Dennis Walks, Al Campbell). The songs come mostly from roots reggae's classic period, the mid-'70s, but the arrangements are burnished to a warm glow by modern technology, resulting in settings that combine the pleasures of the roots era with those of the early dancehall period. What really sets this album apart from similar collections is the quality of the vocal performances, which are almost uniformly fantastic: Cornell Campbell's voice is still feather-light and lovely, Leroy Sibbles (of the Heptones) still croons beautifully, and although Freddie McGregor's voice has roughened a little bit with age, it's as powerful as ever. The Chantells sound maybe just a little bit ragged on "Waiting in the Park," but not enough to be a problem. Every track here is a pleasure, and the bonus DVD with footage from the recording sessions is a nice touch. ~ Rick Anderson