A fine crossover collection throwing interesting silhouettes behind the King of Pop.
Angus Taylor 2012
The series of crossover covers albums by NYC's Easy Star Records have done valuable work taking reggae into the mainstream. Their latest, however, departs from the student digs of Dub Side of the Moon, Radiodread and Lonely Hearts Dub Band for an American artist who’s been a huge influence on Jamaican music.
For this reason, there is less of a "magic trick" involved in reworking Michael Jackson’s Thriller than, say, Pink Floyd or Radiohead. Jackson's songs have been repeatedly done over in reggae, so these retreads invite more critical comparison with previous versions – not to mention the near-insurmountable achievements of Jackson, Rod Temperton and Quincy Jones.
Many tracks are – naturally – slower than the originals. Yet after a token blast of Vin Gordon's classic Heavenless, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ – pairing JoWil and an underused Ruff Scott – acclimatises reggae newcomers with an Afrobeat-style pattern (referencing the use of Manu Dibango's Soul Makossa in the lyrics).
Mojo Morgan and Steel Pulse's duet on Jackson and Paul McCartney's The Girl Is Mine isn't as vocally assured as Mojo's own group Morgan Heritage's less-rootsy cut on their 2012 EP, The Return. But a beautifully ethereal, horn-drenched Human Nature (featuring talent-show-contestant turned Easy Star-signing Cas Haley) stands its ground against Tarrus Riley's groovier, poppier 2008 recording.
Curiously, it is Thriller’s biggest, most danceable hits that are slowed to the sparsest soundscapes. Luciano's Billie Jean seems to consciously avoid the direct route taken by Sly and Robbie's 80s outing, opting for a ponderous, cavernous feel. The same is true of Beat It, sung by Sly and Robbie’s ex-associate Michael Rose (and using a King Tubby inspired test-tone to replicate the intro’s doomy synths), and Mikey General’s title piece (with DJ Spragga Benz in Vincent Price role). Both get superior reworkings in dub at the album’s close.
Strange choices and idiosyncrasies aside, the bankable marriage of timeless compositions to reggae rhythms means that there are no dud tracks here. It’s not a visceral thriller like its inspiration, but a pleasant and mellow listen, throwing some interesting silhouettes behind the King of Pop.