Spirit of Music
Move over Ames Brothers, Kim Sisters, and Staple Singers. Another musical family has hit its stride. In past years Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers have been as long on talent as the Carter family, but as short on memorable songs as the Cowsills. That's changed with Spirit of Music, a solid sibling effort full of eminently catchy pop, even if its impact is blunted by an underlying slick professionalism. After all, coming of age in the footlights, when the strongest impediment to success is living up to the family name, often makes for weak art, as Sean and Julian Lennon know all too well.
A strong sense of direction that leans an elbow into R&B rescues Spirit of Music from the watery mainstream that previously dogged the Melody Makers' music. Although powerful in concert, on disc the Marley family has suffered from cluttered arrangements that put lots of energy behind well, simply maintaining that level of energy. On this new release, producer Don Was unexpectedly steps forward to guide Ziggy and his kin into a pared-down sound that grabs hold of a sense of direction right at the start of Spirit's strongest cuts. The blues-harp wail that opens the record with "Keep the Faith" defines the territory ahead, throwing focus on the singer and the song rather than the usual busy beat. Ziggy carries off this minor anthem with great appeal, but rises to his finest moment on "We Are One," another tastefully subdued "big unity" composition. When the Zig exhorts us twice in a row to "Wake up!" in "We Are One," he evokes a pure Bob Marley moment.
The songs that follow hang in there, though the thinness of the rhetoric starts taking its toll on "Beautiful Day," in which a simplistic message points to a deeper meaning in the same way that a truism reveals truth: You can't disagree with the sentiments, but that doesn't make them interesting. Fortunately the engaging ease with which the songs deliver their messages helps get the music by, and the vocalists can hardly go wrong with rhythms supplied by legendary reggae musicians such as Earl "Chinna" Smith, Tyrone Downie, and Lenny Castro.
Still, while Spirit is musically strong, its own spirit is suspect. When Ziggy proclaims, "I will no longer live this life in the flesh" on "Gone Away," the inevitable response is disbelief. Whatever other attributes Spirit reveals, physical abasement isn't one of them, as Stephen Marley's rendition of his father Bob's "All Day All Night" demonstrates on the next cut. Dad could get away with singing, "I'm gone away to the place where there is no night or day," because the statement wasn't just felt, it was true. But in Stephen's case he's got to be referring to something like the Red Roof Inn after a particularly grinding stint on the road. Here's hoping that next time around the Marley clan consolidates its strengths and delivers a text that's as free of pretensions as the Brothers Gibb at their peak. -- Bob Tarte