It’s hard to argue that after Bob Marley there is a more well-known Jamaican musical figure than Jimmy Cliff. Other Jamaican performers have seen varying degrees of success outside of Jamaica but few, if any, have reached the cross-over success of Cliff. Thus, if the man never recorded another album again, his legacy would remain intact, solidified by “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” The Harder They Come, his array of collaborations and even, funny as it may sound, his rendition of “Hakuna Matata.”
Thus, it is with some surprise that the 64-year old singer offers Rebirth, a new collection of originals and covers recorded last year in Los Angeles. More surprising, though, is that Rebirth turns out to be an excellent offering that channels the heyday of ska and rocksteady and filters it through Cliff’s socio-conscious lyrics with pop sensibilities.
The lead single “One More” exemplifies this as a powerful reggae anthem that becomes particularly poignant the moment Cliff proclaims, “I have one more story to tell.” Clearly, Cliff is not done speaking his mind. A similar sentiment is expressed on the socially-minded “Children’s Bread” which hits a similar groove with its vintage-ska backbeat and the chorus which finds Cliff singing “they took the children’s bread and gave it to the dogs.” This legend has not become complacent.
Elsewhere Cliff gives a historical recount of reggae in a semi spoken-word sing-rap on the upbeat and lively “Reggae Music” that also showcases Cliff proclaiming the power it can still hold. On the covers, Cliff also continues to find success. His re-work of Joe Higgs’ “World Upside Down” opens the album powerfully and sets the anthemic tone of Rebirth. While “Ruby Soho” gives the punk-ska track from Bay-Area punk band Rancid the reggae treatment it always needed. Each songs finds Cliff not missing a beat with his voice still strong and vibrant making up for the notes he can no longer hit with a convincing fervor.
While the album contains a few duds – particularly the “Guns of Brixton” rework and the unnecessary alternate version of “One More” – Rebirth is a sturdy rootsy-reggae pop record that stands out in increasingly vacant and mediocre field of new reggae. Part of this success is due to the excellent backing band led by Tim Armstrong, most notably known for his work in the punk band Rancid. At first, the pairing may seem odd. However, an exploration into Armstrong’s label Hellcat Records, his work with seminal ska-punk group Operation Ivy and the deeper cuts of Rancid reveal Armstrong to be a student of Jamaican music. And as proven by the music, the collaboration yields excellent results. The music is never over-produced or overly instrumental, instead choosing to utilize only what is necessary. This allows Cliff to maintain the spotlight while avoiding any modern pop cliché trappings that wouldn’t suit him anyway.
Rebirth doesn’t explore any new ground that Cliff hasn’t already covered in his lengthy career but in a way, that is what makes the album so strong. It demonstrates the vigor that Cliff still maintains in the autumn of his career and in a way, reminds us of the power reggae music can hold not only as a form of music but as a vehicle for voicing social and political injustices. It just took a master like Cliff to remind us of it.