Jimmy Cliff is reggae’s second-most-famous singer, tied with about 20 other people who aren’t Bob Marley, but his stature is mostly based on music he made 40 years ago. Tim Armstrong, who mixed punk and reggae in Rancid, attempts to relaunch Cliff by connecting legacies and influences. So Cliff covers “Ruby Soho,” a Rancid song, and The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton,” which refers to Cliff’s role in The Harder They Come.
Produced by Rancid member and Hellcat Records owner Tim Armstrong, Jimmy Cliff’s Sacred Fire EP is a wonderful jumble of time and place that ends much too soon. To realize this mini-dream, Armstrong recorded the legendary singer on vintage equipment, and all parties agreed on a songbook that’s pop, although pop influenced by Cliff’s era of reggae. As such, you get the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” skanking as if Coxsone Dodd were at the controls, Rancid’s “Ruby Soho” done with some Jackie Mittoo-esque organ, and Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” sounding like classic Black Ark material, recorded when the studio was fresh and clean and long before Lee Perry burned it to the ground.
Bob Marley will forever remain the ubiquitous face of reggae, but Jimmy Cliff came before to inspire generations of musicians and introduce the world to the genre he and fellow Jamaicans called simply “makin’ music.” On his latest release, Sacred Fire, Cliff turns around to give a reverent nod to songs he originally influenced — looping the sequence of influence full circle. He also covers some early Bob Dylan and unveils a new song of his own. Produced by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and recorded on vintage equipment, the five-song EP is a buildup to a full-length anticipated next year.
To the outside observer, the news of Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong working with reggae legend Jimmy Cliff might be cause for alarm. But if you've dug into the work that Armstrong has done outside the Rancid fold—particularly his 2007 solo effort, A Poet’s Life—you'd know that Cliff is in very good hands. For one, Armstrong is obviously a huge Cliff fan, and with that fandom comes a desire to want to do right by his peer.
Reggae royalty Jimmy Cliff has kept a low profile in recent years, so this five-song EP is noteworthy. He's teamed with producer Tim Armstrong of Rancid, a band that has long felt right at home mixing punk, ska, and reggae. It's therefore not surprising Cliff largely hews toward the bubbly, upbeat skank of reggae's old school, when he was a youngster recording for Jamaican producer Leslie Kong.