Monday, 5 October 2020

UB40 - Sing Our Own Song (1985-2005)




Bagariddim (1985)


(stating guest vocalists and original source songs)/The King Step Mk. 1 (Feat. Pato Banton and If It Happens Again)/The Buzz Feeling (Feat. Gunslinger and Cherry Oh Baby)/Lyric Officer Mk. 2 (Feat. Dillinger and If It Happens Again)/Demonstrate (Feat. Admiral Jerry and As Always You Were Wrong Again)/Two In A One Mk.1 (Feat. Pablo & Gunslinger and The Pillow)/Hold Your Position Mk. 3 (Feat. Stones and If It Happens Again)/Hip Hop Lyrical Robot (Feat. Pato Banton and Your Eyes Were Open)/Style Mk. 4 (Feat. Pablo and If It Happens Again)/Fight Fe Come In Mk. 2 (Feat. James Bon & General CP and The Pillow)/V's Version (Feat. Sister V and Version Girl)/Don't Break My Heart/I Got You Babe (Feat. Chrissie Hynde)/Mi Spliff

This was one of UB40's heaviest and most authentic albums. However, it is in no way a typical UB40 album. They play contemporary (in 1985) dancehall/ragga "riddims" over some of their previous material, and invited several guest singers to "toast" (Jamaican reggae rap) the vocals. The results are certainly an acquired taste and would not appeal to those attracted by the group's many accessible covers of classic reggae songs and indeed their own, often commercially appealing material. It has never particularly appealed to me, because my own reggae tastes are from the earlier periods of ska, rock steady, early pop reggae, roots, rockers, dub and lovers rock. I can tolerate bits of dancehall and ragga but not too much, to be honest, therefore I can dip into this album for an occasional blast, but half an hour or more is a bit like too much stodgy food.

Now, that is not to say that there isn't a lot of atmosphere or indeed quality on here. The sound quality is big, bassy and resonant and, if you like the genre you will very much enjoy this. As I said earlier, it is very authentic stuff.

 

I am not the best person to advise on dancehall/ragga grooves, but both The King Step Mk. 1 featuring Pato Banton's lilting voice and Gunslinger's The Buzz Feeling have a certain loose, dubby infectiousness about them. I can certainly take small doses of this. However, the toasting on Lyric Office Mk. 2  just isn't for me. Demonstrate has a quirky appeal, but to be honest I prefer the toasting of the seventies DJs such as Prince Far I, U-Roy, I-Roy and Big Youth. Admiral Jerry's lyrics make me smile on occasions, but I don't want to listen to the track too many times. The backing is good though.

Pablo and Gunslinger's vocals on Two In A One Mk. 1 are amusing and provide a bit of light entertainment. One of my favourites is Hold Your Position Mk. 3 which has Stones sounding quite a lot like Prince Far I, in that gruff, throaty way. Even better is Hip Hop Lyrical Robert which is the most musically appealing. I really like the lighter skank of V's Version as well. Sister V's female vocal is a pleasant change from all the previous male vocalists too.

Strangely, at the end of this mix of dancehall/ragga toasting are included two commercial, poppy singles in the evocative, more typical UB40 of Don't Break My Heart and the laconic, slightly underwhelming cover of Sonny & Cher's I Got You Babe, which was a duet between Ali Campbell and The PretendersChrissie Hynde. These were originally released as an EP, and the EP has been tagged on after the album's original ten tracks, hence the slightly incongruous feel.

Just to reiterate the point I made at the beginning, this is a dancehall/ragga album and not what the uninitiated would expect from a UB40 album.


Rat In The Kitchen (1986)


All I Want To Do/You Could Meet Somebody/Tell It Like It Is/The Elevator/Watchdogs/Rat In Mi Kitchen/Looking Down At My Reflections/Don't Blame Me/Sing Our Own Song  

This was the album that saw UB40 move considerably away from the trademark sound that had dominated their first four studio albums. Although their output on this album was still immediately identifiable as UB40, largely due to Ali Campbell's unique voice, there was now a horn-based backing as opposed to Brian Travers' solo saxophone and the drumming was sounding more programmed. The reggae was less authentic sounding too, less skanking, less rootsy. There is still some appealing, poppy material on here, though, it has to be said. It is certainly not a bad album, but it is the point, for me, when UB40 became slightly less credible and more a band that very much followed contemporary trends. Their reggae had become a bit muffled by digital drums and keyboards, but then again, so had much chart reggae at the time. If you think I am being a bit harsh here, let me say that I still like the album.
                    
All I Want To Do is very brassy and although pleasant enough, is a little unremarkable. It is a bit pre-fabricated and lacking in reggae credibility. There is nothing wrong with it, to an extent, but they had done far better. You Could Meet Somebody is more catchy, with a nice refrain and some Augustus Pablo-inspired melodica backing. Tell It Like It Is continues this lively feel with a keyboard-driven riff similar to the one they used on their cover of Johnny Too Bad and the same style of toasting vocals from Astro. This is one of the better cuts on the album.

  

The Elevator is another good track, with a chugging, mysterious feel to it and Travers' saxophone back in the mix on its own at times, which is always a good thing. Watchdogs has a very late eighties reggae sound to it, but it has an atmospheric chorus to it, with a typical Campbell vocal. Rat In Mi Kitchen has an addictive intro and similar vocal. Its singalong refrain made for a perfect single. The toasting bit, followed by a dubby bass and killer trumpet solo is wonderful, the best bit of music on the album.

Looking Down On My Reflections has a vaguely jazzy air about it in its breezy horns and backing vocals. Fair play to the group for trying material that sounded nothing like that on their first three albums, for sure. UB40 were often accused of sounding the same, well, this actually sounded quite a lot different. Don't Blame Me was not a single, but sounds like one somehow, with its melodic jauntiness. Sing Our Own Song is a captivating and lengthy South African-themed song (Nelson Mandela had not been released from prison yet). It carries a solid message and features excellent backing vocals and rhythms. Yes, I prefer the earlier albums, but this is still worthy of revisiting.




UB40 (1988)


Dance With The Devil/Come Out To Play/Breakfast In Bed/You're Always Pulling Me Down/I Would Do For You/'Cause It Isn't True/Where Did I Go Wrong/Contaminated Minds/Matter Of Time/Music So Nice/Dance With The Devil (Reprise)     

This unimaginatively-titled album saw the change in UB40 from a radical, rootsy but catchy reggae band to more of a finely-crafted mainstream, brassy reggae-tinged keyboard-dominated pop outfit. There still remains a bit of an authentic atmosphere here and there, though, but it is very driven by the brass section as opposed to the skank. Strangely, the cover shows some medieval portraits, the significance of which is unclear.

The edgy, political motivations of 1986's Rat In The Kitchen had gone, though, exchanged for polished pop/reggae and love songs instead of more cynical protest numbers.
         
Dance With The Devil is a punchy, rhythmic opener featuring some excellent brass and a thumping beat. Surprisingly, it is an instrumental. No matter, really, it is an extremely good one. Come Out To Play is a typical piece of of late eighties UB40 fare - summery, laid-back but melodious, with a catchy hook and Ali Campbell's unique quietly nasal voice instantly recognisable. The rhythms now are more programmed, however, less authentic, as they had been on the first two albums in particular. Those albums were seven or eight years back in time by now, though.

Breakfast In Bed was a lovers rock style cover of a Dusty Springfield song (also done by lovers rock singer Lorna Bennett and roots vocalist Candy McKenzie), which here featured Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders on lead vocals and its gentle groove made it a big hit. Campbell adopts an unusually high-pitched vocal on his parts. You're Always Pulling Me Down reverted to the muscular, horn-driven beat of the opener. Once again, it is archetypal UB40 late eighties material.

I Would Do For You is the first dub-influenced number, despite its poppy, love song lyrics. It has a deep, rumbling bass and a horn sound reminiscent of the group's 1981-82 output. Cause It Isn't True is a lively number, as also is Where Did I Go Wrong. The latter has a really familiar keyboard riff that I can't put my finger on, infuriatingly. It's come to me now, it is The Days Of Pearly Spencer.

Contaminated Minds has a heavy, dubby beat and echoes of the Rat In The Kitchen album. It is one of the album's more rootsy cuts. A similarly solid approach is given to the infectious slow groove of Matter Of TimeMusic So Nice features a very late eighties digital beat but it is also a very hooky song. It is vaguely dancehall in its rhythm. The opening track is briefly reprised to end what is a regularly overlooked album, particularly by myself, who has to admit to rarely returning to it. That is a bit of a shame as it is perfectly ok. Sandwiched between Rat In The Kitchen and Labour Of Love II, though, it has been often forgotten.


Promises And Lies (1993)


C'est La Vie/Desert Sand/Promises And Lies/Bring Me Your Cup/Higher Ground/Reggae Music/Can't Help Falling In Love/Now And Then/Things Ain't Like They Used To Be/It's A Long Long Way/Sorry              

It was the nineties now. This was UB40 going full-on digital, nineties pop with a bit of reggae influence. Their socially-aware, authentic reggae grooves of ten-twelve years earlier had long gone. This was commercially-driven stuff and it remains the group's biggest-selling album, which is a bit of a shame in some ways, as it is nowhere near their most credible or crucial. It was here that UB40 gained a whole new generation of fans who were often not fully aware of the band's first couple of ground-breaking, vital albums. Those like me who had been around since the early days (I first saw them live in 1980) enjoyed the new material, but not in the same way. Time moves on, though, and I accepted that. It is certainly not a bad album at all.
                           
C'est La Vie is a thumping, bassy, but highly programmed opener with some typical Ali Campbell vocals and hooks swirling around throughout the track. Desert Sand is a laid-back slice of slightly jazzy, summery easy listening fare. Campbell's vocals intertwine well with the sumptuous backing, though. Perfect wine bar background music, I guess. Nothing wrong with that, but people such as myself were fully aware that UB40 could produce better material than this. I still like the song, it has to be said. Brian Travers' saxophone is superb on here too. Maybe I was just living in the past

Promises And Lies has that fast-beat semi-dancehall digital backing that UB40 would use a lot during the nineties. Bring Me Your Cup was a single and should have been a bigger hit than the number 24 it got to. I love it. It has a delicious guitar twiddle-diddle riff underpinning it, great saxophone and one of those great Campbell soulfully nasal vocals. I always enjoy the "sexy lady" toasting part at the end. The catchy Higher Ground was a much bigger hit, although I always preferred Bring Me Your Cup. An even bigger hit than both of them, of course, was the Elvis cover, Can't Help Falling In Love. It is done well, I have to say, but it is not the essence of UB40, for me. Campbell's voice sends shivers up the spine, however.

Reggae Music is a contemporarily-influenced attempt at merging ragga with the UB40 sound, with toaster Astro providing typical ragga vocals. It has an addictive chorus. Now And Then is a muscular, brassy but tuneful number. Things Ain't Like They Used To Be is a shuffling, brassy vaguely funky groover. It's A Long Long Way is given an infuriatingly programmed nineties backing, but its ragga vocals are authentic enough. It was a perfect mix of the often impenetrable sound of ragga with appealing pop/reggae. That contemporary vibe continues in the intro to the jaunty Sorry. There are hints of Sing Our Own Song from 1986 about it.

Listening to this again, it has been a pleasurable listen from beginning to end. The booming backing that would blight the group's next few albums was not present here. The sound is excellent.




Guns In The Ghetto (1997)


Always There/Hurry Come Up/I Love It When You Smile/I've Been Missing You/Oracabessa Moonshine/Guns in The Ghetto/Tell Me Is It True/Friendly Fire/I Really Can't Say/Lisa        

It had been four years since UB40's most successful album, 1993's Promises And Lies, but this offering didn't really register much at all. Most hints of politicised lyrics had disappeared and also the group seemed to have almost lost the knack for a hit tune, something that certainly was not the case on the previous album. It is all very polished, digitised pop reggae, with programmed drums replacing "proper" drums and the skanking is nowhere near as pronounced. Yes there is a reggae beat, but it is largely keyboard-driven. For me, this is where UB40 really started to hit a rut, reggae authenticism giving way to contemporary rhythmic beats. Furthermore, the sound suffers from the "loudness" prevalent at the time and I have to turn down the bass settings on my sub-woofer specifically for this album, otherwise it shakes the whole house.
                                                   
Always There is a pleasant enough opener, with some nice bass parts, Ali Campbell's vocals are as nasally sleepy as ever. Hurry Come Up is a shuffling groove, with a decidedly digital backing. Some nice brass near the end. I Love It When You Smile has a laid-back, gentle feeling, with some good saxophone in parts. Again, Ali Campbell's voice is getting more somnolent by the minute. I've Been Missing You comes and goes without really registering either one way or another.

Oracabessa Moonshine is a swoony, jazzy number with a nice atmosphere and melodic vocal about jacaranda trees and bathing in the sea. Very suitable for a hot summer's day. It is a bit Third World-ish. Guns in The Ghetto is the one track on the album that really makes you sit up  and say "yes! That's what I expect from UB40". Campbell's voice is as you would expect - sad and quietly expressive. It has more of a reggae groove, some subtle brass and a heartbreaking lyric about gun violence. It is probably the mark of a special band that, even at their most underwhelming, they can still come up with a classic.

Tell Me Is It True finds the group bravely diversifying somewhat with acoustic guitars and a jaunty jazzy vocal. Friendly Fire has a lively rhythm to it and lyrics that you might think were militarily inspired/political but actually is about a relationship going wrong. I Really Can't Say is a catchy enough tune. Lisa is another perfectly inoffensive track. Look, there isn't a bad track on this album, but apart from the title track, there just isn't one that sticks in the memory for long.


Cover Up (2001)


Rudie/Sparkle Of My Eyes/Really/The Day I Broke The law/Let Me Know/Cover Up/Walk On Me Land/Something More Than This/Everytime/I'm On The Up/Look At Me/Since I Met You Lady/Walked In The Rain/Write Off The Debt                         

This is a much longer UB40 album than people had been used to thus far. CDs were allowing for over an hour's worth of music and many groups were taking advantage of this. Sure it gave value for money but when most of the songs were in the same mould, as on this album, maybe forty minutes is preferable to an hour. Four years after the acceptable but musically unadventurous Guns In The Ghetto album, UB40 were back, with an album based round contemporary, digital ragga rhythms, with not an authentic rootsy one-drop drum beat within earshot. It leads to a somewhat characterless, amorphous sounding album  that is a long, long way from those crucial reggae sounds of twenty years earlier. Yes, the group are attempting to develop in line with current ragga sounds, as opposed to playing late seventies/early eighties roots stuff but while it is perfectly listenable, it just passes me by, aurally, I have to admit. That said, repeat listenings find me enjoying it more with each one.

Rudie is a quirky, appealing mix of ragga beats, guitar skanking and dubby bass, particularly near the end. Sparkle Of My Eyes is a gentle, laid-back romantic groove. As with so many UB40 tracks, it features an excellent dubby bit at the end. Really uses programmed drums, as do a lot of the tracks which is annoying, for me anyway. It has a nice ambience to it, though. The Day I Broke The Law features that manufactured beat again, but also a sad, mournful Ali Campbell vocal. It is one of the album's best offerings. Let Me Know ploughs the same relaxing furrow.

 

Cover Up features some nice brass. Walk On Me Land also has nice bass and horn parts and a dubby vibe to it. It has the album's best bass line. Something More Than This is a ragga-ish, faster paced offering, with appropriate toasting lyrics and some spacey, Groove Armada-esque keyboard sound effects. Everytime is quite a bouncy, keyboard-driven number.

I'm On The Up has a rolling, catchy dance-ish rhythm. Look At Me is a pleasant enough, but otherwise unremarkable number. Since I Met You Lady features dancehall vocalist Lady Saw and has a deep, bassy vibrancy to it and raises the album out of its sleepy torpor. Walked In The Rain is a bit more rootsy and while it is still bassily enjoyable, it just doesn't stick in the mind much. It also has an annoying crackling bit in the backing that makes you think something is wrong with your speakers. Write off The Debt is a politically-motivated Buju Banton-influenced rap to end on a different note.

This is certainly not a bad album, and the sound quality is improved from the previous "loudness"-affected album but the music on the album is far too homogenous on the whole. Not too much of it stays with you after the album has finished. On the other hand, though, the hour I have just spent listening to it was a fulfilling one. I listened to it again and it revealed hidden depths. So, it is a sort of half and half album. It would be more effective as a forty minute album, though.


Homegrown (2003)


So Destructive/I Knew You/Drop On By/Someone Like Me/Freestyler/Everything Is Better Now/Just Be Good (Bushman Dub)/Young Guns/Hand That Rocks The Cradle/Nothing Without You/Nothing Without You (Dub)/Swing Low Sweet Chariot            

After several unremarkable albums over a fair few years, UB40 released one here with a bit of political vitality about it, lyrically. Sonically, however, it was a victim of the "digital reggae" that was popular from the early/mid nineties through into the new millennium. The bass is big and booming, the drums programmed and all potential rootsiness sort of computerised out of it, which is a shame. It was contemporarily on the money, however, so fair enough.

There are a fair few dubby passages, though, that give a little bit of roots feel to some of the songs.

So Destructive starts with a few weird, spacey sound effects before a digitalised, ragga style beat kicks in and Ali Campbell's trademark voice arrives. It has a nice enough beat to it, but I have always preferred "real" reggae, but as this was recorded in 2003, I have to get used to the "faux" sound. I Knew You is a big, rumbling slow burner, with hints of the group's mid eighties Rat In The Kitchen output. Initially, it is just another bit of digital reggae, but I have to admit that after a few listens, it starts to work its way into my consciousness. There is a good dubby/brass interplay section in the middle too. Drop On By has more dub enhancing its backing - a slow, deep skank together with a haunting Campbell vocal. This is probably as good as anything the group had put out for years. It has a great dub bass bit at the end.

Someone Like Me ploughs the same furrow, but has a slightly poppier edge to it. Freestyler utilises dancehall/ragga toasting on the vocals. Most UB40 albums in recent years contain at least one track like this. It serves to change the feel from the previous tracks a bit. Everything Is Better Now is pretty typical UB40 fare, but again they concentrate on the dubby aspects of the beat, which is fine by me, as lover of dub. Once more, the bass bit at the end is excellent. Full of dubby atmosphere. The same applies to the impressive Just Be Good (Bushman Dub). Once more the dub aspects are to the forefront, even before the infectious ending.

Young Guns has a catchy feel to it, a great vocal from Campbell and an anti-gun message. "Young guns never grow old...". Indeed they don't. Hand That Rocks The Cradle is a very digital-ish number with politically-motivated lyrics about the state of the world. I have got used to the digital sound by now, actually, and I am quite enjoying it. Nothing Without You is almost electronica in its backing. The dub version of the same song is obviously going to be enjoyed by me. The group's cover of Swing Low Sweet Chariot is enjoyable but somewhat inessential and incongruous in the context of the album as a cohesive whole.

This was one of UB40's best albums from their latter era career, before their big split up, which saw two groups splintering off from each other. It is easily the match of Rat In The Kitchen or any of the mid-eighties offerings.


Who You Fighting For? (2005)


Who You Fighting For/After Tonight/Bling Bling/Plenty More/War Poem/Sins Of The Fathers/Good Situation/Gotta Tell Someone/Reasons/One Woman Man/I'll Be On My Way/Kiss And Say Goodbye/Things You Say You Love                       

After an impressive album in 2003's HomegrownUB40 delivered another solid album of relaxed songs - contemporary-sounding but with dubby influences. They are the usual mix of love songs and cynical observations on everyday life/political situations. This album has sort of slipped under the radar as the group moved inexorably towards their acrimonious split, which is a shame, as it is one of their best relatively recent releases. It is one of their liveliest, most uptempo albums. The great thing about this release is the move away from digitally-programmed rhythms to a more traditional reggae, utilising "real" drums and percussion. For me, this is always going to be a good thing.

The opener, Who You Fighting For is a lively, pounding thumper of a track, with that fore-mentioned "proper" percussion as opposed to the digital rhythms that had been used on the previous three albums. After Tonight continues the upbeat vibe, with another excellent number. UB40 hadn't sounded this ebullient in years. The 1980-style saxophone is back too, not before time. Bling Bling is also fast-paced, with toaster Astro on vocals. Plenty More is a bassy number with dubby strains that almost harks back to the glory days of those first two great albums all those years ago. The same could be said of War Poem which again features great bass and a typical vocal from Ali Campbell. There is definitely a bit of "regained mojo" to be detected in this material.

Sins Of The Fathers is a wonderful, evocative song, full of melody and one of those archetypal Campbell vocals where he just hits that sad, mournful-sounding sweet nasal spot. This was one of their best songs for quite a long time. There is a lovely bit of bass/drum interplay at the end. Good Situation has vague hints of The ParagonsThe Tide Is High about it. It is a delightful poppy skank  delivered in a Gregory Isaacs style. Again, I have to reiterate how lovely it is to hear original reggae being played, as opposed to digitally backed stuff. Check out that Dave & Ansel Collins style organ and the "one-drop" drum sound, plus those sharp cymbals. Echoes of the seventies "flying cymbals" sound. Another great track.

 

Gotta Tell Someone is also a most impressive, fetching number. Full of toe-tapping rhythm. Something so absent from so many earlier albums. Reasons is probably more upbeat than anything they had done for decades. It also features some Eastern-sounding vocals, like Sufi chanting, behind the frantic, shuffling beat. One Woman Man is a slow-burning, horn-driven love song. Brian Travers' saxophone sounds out loud and clear on here once more, as it did in 1980-81. I'll Be On My Way is an old Beatles rarity from 1964. Here, it is given a tuneful easy reggae makeover. Another cover is up next, this time The Manhattans' sweet soul classic from the mid-seventies, Kiss And Say Goodbye. It would have fitted quite nicely on a Labour Of Love covers album. It is played here as an effortless, melodic skank. Things You Say You Love is a sweet slice of relaxing, romantic reggae, with those horns as sensual as usual. It was also a cover of a rare rock steady1970 number from The Jamaicans. So, the album ends in a real Labour Of Love fashion, but let that not detract from the excellent original material that had been before.

This really was a very enjoyable album - a good mix of vibrant new material and some attractive covers. It is a hidden gem amongst UB40s large pile of recordings. Surprisingly good, in fact.

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