Release Date: Jul 17, 2012
Record label: Sunpower Records
Before Bob Marley, there was Jimmy Cliff – the singer whose 1970 single "Vietnam" was allegedly called "the greatest protest song ever written" by Bob Dylan, who inspired Paul Simon to fly to Jamaica and hire Cliff's backing band to cut "Mother and Child Reunion," and who starred in The Harder They Come, the 1972 film that broke reggae globally and whose Cliff-centered soundtrack initially defined the genre. Then Marley grabbed the spotlight, and Cliff became a crossover ambassador, touring the globe on lukewarm LPs that rarely captured his early magic. But Rebirth does that and more – it's the strongest case for the vitality of West Indian roots music that anyone has made in decades.
Reggae music legend Jimmy Cliff turned 64 on the first of April this year. In 2010, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, making him only the second reggae artist to ever achieve such status (the other, of course, is Bob Marley). In 1972, the singer starred in The Harder They Come, a movie that introduced him to the American mainstream as his Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin proved to be a mesmerizing character for audiences everywhere.
If the reggae legend's 2004 effort Black Magic was like Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett's Duets albums --late-era, star-filled, and somewhat flat -- Rebirth is Jimmy Cliff's American Recordings (Johnny Cash) or Praise & Blame (Tom Jones), where a veteran artist goes raw and relights the fire with the help of a kindred spirit/knowing producer. For Cash and Jones, it was Rick Rubin and Ethan Johns respectively, while here it’s a bit of a surprise with Rancid frontman and Clash devotee Tim Armstrong delivering something well above the expected punky reggae party. "Guns of Brixton" is a natural, and Cliff's take on Rancid's "Ruby Soho" is a ska recreation to behold, but when the sometimes poptacular reggae singer dons a wild, Lee "Scratch" Perry persona for the carnival song "Bang" ("I came into this life, I came in with a bang/I'm living my life, I live it with a bang"), deep reggae fan Armstrong knows what to do, surrounding his man Upsetter-style with a whirling dervish of ska while adding a searing guitar solo as well.
"If you have current songs you can't be an oldies singer," insisted the late, prolific Jamaican singer Sugar Minott. "Oldies are people who've stopped singing and gone on to do other jobs and every now and then, people dig them up and say, 'Let's go do an oldies show.' And when they finish that night they go back to their jobs. But we don't have no other jobs.
The title of Jimmy Cliff’s latest offering, Rebirth, would appear to be a bit of a misnomer on first impression. In a career that continues to span over four decades, the reggae superstar has sold in excess of 25 million records and was recently canonized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so it’s not exactly as if he’s had to claw his way back from oblivion. That said, the record does have a rejuvenated feel to it, even as its 13 tracks tackle the same rustic, feel-good reggae vibes Cliff has long made his trademark.
Jimmy Cliff is not a likely candidate for the American Recordings-style, late-career comeback. Since his 1970s heyday—most notably with the game-changing soundtrack of The Harder They Come—the singer has maintained his status as one of reggae’s most dependable artists. But there’s been a slick sheen and bloodless professionalism with much of his recent output.