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Jimmy Cliff - 'Rebirth'

A Comeback From Reggae's Coolest Character

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Jimmy Cliff - 'Rebirth'

Jimmy Cliff - 'Rebirth'

(c) UMe, 2012
I'll tell you a secret: I first noticed Rebirth in a Starbucks. There I was, ordering a half-gallon of iced coffee on a hot July day when I saw Jimmy Cliff's name on a slick-looking CD. I immediately assumed "Best Of..." until I saw that the album was titled Rebirth. How had I missed this? Isn't it my job to stay on top of this stuff? A few sips into my caffeine fix, I had the vague recollection of noticing that there'd be a new Jimmy Cliff CD released in early summer, but I'd apparently filed the information away as trivial, rather than crucial. My cheap excuse is that, well, Jimmy Cliff hasn't really wowed me in the past decade or three. I mean, I love his early work -- as far as reggae goes, he's second only to Bob Marley, as far as I'm concerned -- and he's always been a great stage performer, but as far as recorded music goes, he hasn't released much of anything with real sticking power any time recently. But I've officially flipped my Jimmy Cliff radar back on, folks, because Rebirth is the best new reggae album I've heard in entirely too long. Truly great stuff, this.

Full Review

Rebirth is not a revolutionary reggae album. It's not changing the genre substantially, the way a lot of Cliff's early work did. Rather, it's a contemporary re-imagining of all of the things that were so great about roots reggae: the chugging, skittering rhythms that evolved from ska and rocksteady, the powerful vocal stylings that borrow from early American R&B, and of course, the overt political and social justice messages that predominate the lyrics. Cliff was part of the reason that these things are identified with reggae in the first place, and here, they all get a rejuvenation.

After having a solid listen-through to the album (and noting the inclusion of a fantastically spirited ska rendition of Rancid's "Ruby Soho"), I read the liner notes, and was surprised to discover that the album was produced by Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong, who is best-known as a punk rocker, but whose years with Rancid's ska-punk predecessor Operation Ivy (not to mention his long list of production and studio credits) give him excellent bona fides for working with Jamaican music. As a producer, Armstrong really found the sweet spot here, balancing an ear for detail with a focus on the overall arc of the album, making for an easy, pleasant listening experience.

Let's talk highlights: the album's opener, "World Upside Down," with its impassioned pleas ("What about the love?" "What about the children?") delivered in Cliff's signature tenor, sounds like it could've been a lost B-side from 1971, other than the fact that it's clean, clean, clean. "One More" is the strong first single from the album, and two versions are offered. The album's two big covers, the aforementioned "Ruby Soho" and the Clash's "Guns of Brixton" are both inspired and worth a special listen. "Reggae Music" is the obligatory upbeat fun dance number (and earworm), and "Ship is Sailing" provides the album's strongest sing-along moments. "Afghanistan" is a solid anti-war ballad that references Cliff's classic hit song of the same theme, "Viet Nam."

Ultimately, though, it's an album that proves strongest in toto -- an exuberant hour of romping, old-school reggae music that leaves you feeling refreshed and perhaps even reborn. As far as second-act comebacks go, this is a glorious one.

'Rebirth' was released in July of 2012 on UMe Records. Total playing time is 53.6 minutes.

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