Jimmy Cliff's 'Rebirth' Gives New Life To Vintage Reggae

Jul 17, 2012
Originally published on July 17, 2012 4:16 pm

Pop music in the 21st century has been flush with precise re-creations of '60s and '70s American R&B — think of Sharon Jones, Adele, Raphael Saadiq and the late Amy Winehouse. Meanwhile, I've been waiting for a similar revival of Jamaica's R&B: ska, rocksteady, roots-reggae. Jimmy Cliff's new record, Rebirth, is exactly that.

In the decades following the deaths of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, Cliff has been the last man standing out of reggae's first great international warriors. Frankly, he's made a lot of lukewarm crossover LPs over the years, but he finally decided to rewind his sound with the producer Tim Armstrong, singer for the punk band Rancid. Armstrong is a huge Jimmy Cliff fan, and he helps nail that old-school sound throughout this record — even in a cover of his own song, Rancid's "Ruby Soho."

Other good covers turn up here, too, notably The Clash's "Guns of Brixton," which mentions Ivanhoe Martin, the hardscrabble character Cliff played in the 1972 film The Harder They Come.

Cliff's originals are just as exciting, and they don't seem stuck in the past. "Children's Bread," for example, is a song about poor folks and thievery that would play quite well in an Occupy encampment.

As a pop-music critic of a certain age, I have to check myself when shouting out records that echo period sounds. Really, I'm as excited by Frank Ocean's next-generation R&B as the next guy. But good is good, killer is killer, and if anyone should be able to reanimate the vintage Jamaican music I hear bumping out of every other hipster coffee shop in town, Jimmy Cliff is the man.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Forty years ago, reggae music gained popularity in the United States with the film, "The Harder They Come," and its soundtrack. The singer, Jimmy Cliff, was the star of both. Today, at age 64, Cliff has a new album out called "Rebirth" that harkens back to his early days. Our critic Will Hermes has this review.

WILL HERMES, BYLINE: Twenty-first century pop music has been flush with precise recreations of '60s and '70s American R&B. Think of Sharon Jones, Adele, Raphael Saadiq and the late Amy Winehouse. Meanwhile, I've been waiting for a similar revival of Jamaica's R&B, ska, rock steady and roots reggae. Jimmy Cliff's new record is exactly that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HERMES: In the decades since Bob Marley and Peter Tosh died, Jimmy Cliff has been the last man standing of reggae's first great international warriors. Frankly, he's made a lot of lukewarm crossover LPs over the years, but he finally decided to rewind his sound with the producer Tim Armstrong, the singer from the punk band Rancid. He's a huge Jimmy Cliff fan and he helped nail that old school sound everywhere on this record, even on a cover of his own song, Rancid's "Ruby Soho."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUBY SOHO")

HERMES: There are other good covers here, too, notably the Clash's "Guns of Brixton," which mentions Ivanhoe Martin, the hardscrabble character Cliff played in the movie, "The Harder They Come."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUNS OF BRIXTON")

HERMES: Cliff's originals here are just as exciting and they don't seem stuck in the past, like "Children's Bread," a song about poor folks and thievery that I think would play quite well in an Occupy encampment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHILDREN'S BREAD")

HERMES: As a pop music fan of a certain age, I have to check myself when shouting out records that echo period sounds. Really, I'm as excited by Frank Ocean's next generation R&B as the next guy, but good is good, killer is killer and, if anyone should be able to reanimate the vintage Jamaican music I hear bumping out of every hipster coffee shop in town, Jimmy Cliff is the man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: The new album from Jimmy Cliff is called "Rebirth." Our reviewer, Will Hermes, is author of the book, "Love Goes to Buildings on Fire." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.