An intriguing introduction to, or reminder of, this wonderful, under-exposed music.
Angus Taylor 2010
Mento, overshadowed by its more danceable Trinidadian neighbour calypso, has yet to enjoy the wider recognition of ska, rocksteady and reggae. This album of lyrically gloomy rock standards by Jamaica’s longest running mento group The Jolly Boys doesn't showcase the style in its purest form, but should help put it on the mainstream musical map.
Mento was the first-recorded Jamaican music, and a means of spreading news and bawdy tales (often featuring long-suffering male protagonists). Port Antonio’s Jolly Boys began in the 1950s playing to celebrity visitors such as JP Morgan and Errol Flynn, and have continued off and on ever since.
Produced by Jon Baker and Dale Virgo at Geejam studios in Portland (where the Boys are house band) the album marries mento arrangements (banjo, acoustic guitar and rhumba box) with digital beats to interpret songs from the rock canon. Years of playing for tourists mean this material isn’t as much of a stretch as one might assume.
The darker side of mento lyrics is reflected in stories of excess and urban woe from Lou Reed (Perfect Day), The Stranglers (Golden Brown) and Amy Winehouse (given a minor key makeover for Rehab). Yet, transplanted, they lack the humour-in-the-face-of-hardship associated with the style.
The second half of the album is a more comfortable fit with less self-consciously cynical works such as Sonny Curtis' I Fought the Law and Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire (which, sharing a horn motif with The Skatalites’ Occupation, is practically Jamaican anyway). But simple pop songs are simple pop songs and more modern compositions like New Order’s Blue Monday benefit greatly from Dan Neely and Egbert Watson’s banjo and Albert Minott’s rich, grizzled voice – akin to a pitched-down version of Culture's Joseph Hill.
Mento purists who draw the line after Stanley Beckford’s reggae-mento fusions might think this a blatant gimmick. And in many ways it is. For most listeners, however, Great Expectation will be an intriguing introduction to – or reminder of – this wonderful, under-exposed form of music, as well as lots of sing-along fun.
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