I admit to being something of a novice when it comes to truly deep knowledge of reggae and ska music. Once I get outside of the basic sphere of Bob Marley & The Wailers, Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, Toots & The Maytals, Delroy Wilson, U-roy and some others, my knowledge falls off dramatically. Then there are the English artists that emerged in the wake of the punk and new wave movements such as The English Beat, The Specials, The Selector, Linton Kwesi Johnson, etc. That said, I’ll add a heartfelt “mea culpa” ahead of time if I make any glaring errors here!
I first became aware of a group of artists from a label called Nighthawk Records just a couple of years ago when the good folks at Omnivore Recordings sent me a handy and quite wonderful sampler of the label’s work. There is an interesting back story there so you should click here to jump to my earlier review to read about its genesis. Recently, the label sent me a previously unreleased album by one of these artists, Ethiopian — aka Leonard Dillon — and from the first listen toThe Return Of Jack Sparrow I’m finding this music immediately welcoming.
If you aren’t familiar with Ethiopian, some information from Omnivore’s website may prove enlightening:
“Reggae legend, Leonard Dillon, known as the Ethiopian, was the founder of one of Jamaica’s premier ska, rocksteady, and early reggae sensations The Ethiopians, but got his start under the name Jack Sparrow. His early solo Jack Sparrow single efforts, some backed by The Wailers, didn’t yield any hits and prompted him to form a group, The Ethiopians, where he found his first success. So popular was their track “Train To Skaville,” that The Ethiopians were able to tour beyond Jamaica and they headed to the U.K. in 1968. “Train To Skaville” sold over 50,000 copies in Jamaica and made a slight appearance on the U.K. charts where it left a lasting impression. So much so, it was later covered by The Selector during the ska revival during the early ’80s.”
Even though The Return Of Jack Sparrow was recorded in the mid-80s, what I love about this is that the production aesthetics are not pinned to that time (a phenomenon which ruined my taste for “new” (if you will) reggae of the period. So this is a welcome treat. Also, many of the song arrangements have happy surprises of not only vocal harmony but fresh compositional leaps which keep the tunes from sounding same-y (an issue with some reggae artists, I must say)
Ethiopian’s vocal approach reminds me of what might have happened had Richie Havens made a record backed by The Wailers. No gated snare drum sounds here folks — just classic reggae vibes revolving around strong melodies and arrangements.
The black vinyl pressing on this two LP set is real nice, dark and well centered. The sound on some of the album is perhaps my only nit in that it has some tell-tale artifacts on some tracks, leaving a bit of fuzzy crunchiness around the vocals in particular. It is not awful so once you get used to the sound its not a problem, but do be aware of what to expect. The phenomenon seems to be less prominent on the second disc so perhaps my copy has a pressing anomaly, I’m not sure. Either way, this is not a huge deal breaker for me.
Ultimately, the joy of The Return Of Jack Sparrow is about the songs and there are many gems here such as the fun “Train To Skaville” (obviously a remake of the early hit) and the hopeful “I’m Gonna Take Over.” Its a shame this album wasn’t released back in the day (apparently the label ran out of money so it sat on the shelf after completion). I love how the slow slinky groove of “Flirty Flirty Guys” envelops the sweet melody and storytelling like a glove. A love song of lighthearted jealousy, this song could easily be turned into a Hank Williams-esque country classic, so strong is the simple structure of the tune.
And then you’ll hear things like “Lets Together Again” with its badass opening riff this side of The Grateful Dead’s version of “Hard To Handle.” The a-cappella version of “Heavenly Father” — just before the album-closing full band version of the song — is a stunner.
And so it goes on The Return Of Jack Sparrow by Ethiopian & His All Stars. If you love classic sounding reggae and rich ska grooves, this may be a good jam for you to check out. In my book, this one’s a keeper.