Wednesday, June 17, 2009

KQED: Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band

One of the Ten Commandments of Rock states that certain albums from each era will become "great." These immutable classics are the ones that top list after list of all-time favorites, becoming immunized to the ravages of time or whims of fashion by a lazy drip-drip of critical praise. Albums like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dark Side of the Moon, OK Computer. But these particular untouchable masterpieces have something else in common other than slightly over-inflated reputations. All three have also been re-recorded in their entireties by an evolving group of fearless musical adventurers called the Easy Star All-Stars, based around the New York reggae record label Easy Star.

Dark Side of the Moon was the first in 2003, refracted through a prism of red, gold, and green light to become Dub Side of the Moon. The concept sounded like a bit of a joke at first (and the added samples of clicking lighters and bubbling bongs probably didn't help in this regard), but overall what resulted was the sound of a stoner favorite coming home to its ganja roots, as Pink Floyd's tunes settled seamlessly into their new dub, dancehall, and drum 'n' bass surroundings. Three years later came the even less obvious choice of Radiohead's OK Computer, and another triumph for music over snobbishness. With a deft lightness of touch, the Radiodread album celebrated the original's experimentalism, but also smoothed off the roughest edges of Thom Yorke's alienated paranoia with a new layer of emotional tenderness. Both albums work so well that a casual listener could almost be forgiven for wondering whose version came first.

And now the Easy Star All-Stars have taken on perhaps the holiest of rock's holy cows, a record so revered that critics are almost legally obliged to use adjectives like "seminal" and "revolutionary" before mentioning its hallowed name. Undaunted by such earthly considerations, Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band once again adds a welcome new perspective on an album most music fans think they know backward (perhaps literally if you've ever tried to find those hidden messages about Paul's unfortunate death). Listening to this new version, I realized how little I really knew the original. It was as if it had disappeared in my mind under the weight of its own reknown. Of course, it is also fitting that this famously experimental album should find new life in reggae and dub, a genre that has, over the years, relied so heavily on innovation and creativity in the studio.

As with the previous All-Star efforts, it's the album's most psychedelic moments that are given the extended dub treatment, with tracks like "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and, particularly, "Fixing A Hole (Extended Dub Mix)" responding well to the extra space and bass. But it's Sgt. Pepper's weakest links that are exploited to greatest effect: the stolid, dum-te-dum plunk of tracks such as "With A Little Help From My Friends" and "Good Morning, Good Morning" emerge fresh and alive after receiving healthy injections of dancehall bounce. Even "A Day In The Life" veers dangerously close to becoming a party tune, and is worth listening to if only to hear Menny More sing: "Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged my fingers through my dreads."

Best of all, the All-Stars remind us that Sgt. Pepper's is, first and foremost, a pop album -- which was also one of the main reasons it was so important when it was first released. Of course, whether you like this version or not is going to depend a lot on how dearly you hold the Beatles' original. But, personally, I believe it's always a joy to see someone -- anyone -- refuse to be intimidated by the gods.

The Easy Star All Stars play Slim's in San Francisco on June 20, 2009. 'Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band' is out now on Easy Star Records.

By Keith Laidlaw. Originally published at KQED.org.