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I thought the same thing you did before I heard Easy Star All-Stars, the Brooklyn-based reggae/dub collective who rose to prominence via a series of acclaimed cover albums of decidedly non-reggae music: This will sustain itself for a song—maybe two—before revealing itself as the gimmick that it is.
Their first album, 2003’s Dub Side of the Moon, took on Pink Floyd’s classic Dark Side of the Moon and immediately, gimmick became belief. Familiarity only goes so far, but founders Michael G and Ticklah (the latter a NYC mainstay who has performed with Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and many others) re-interpreted the prog rock album into their own distinct, dubby sound. In retrospect, it made perfect sense: Stoner music reimagined as stoner music, and went on to become one of the best-selling reggae albums of the decade.
In 2006, the group returned with Radiodread, a song-for-song cover of Radiohead’s OK Computer, and I again mentally prepared for aural blasphemy. The album, featuring reggae veterans Horace Andy, Toots & the Maytals and Sugar Minott, substituted Jamaican patois for Thom Yorke’s idiosyncratic phrasings, but kept the original's melodies intact for a startling and inventive take on an album tattooed on my brain. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood himself called it “truly astounding” and I'll co-sign that.
After one original album and a cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the group return with Thrillah, a reworking of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Go big or go home, I suppose. In taking on the project, Michael G said, “Writing the arrangements for this album was a cool challenge. I didn’t have to try to make non-dance music into dance music as on our previous albums because the original Thriller is so danceable already, but I needed to find ways to make each song groove in a different way from the original version.”
While purists will scream “Heresy!” yet again, the album continues the group’s streak as one of the most innovative cover groups out. Yeah, that might sound paradoxical, but it takes balls to take on the best-selling album of all time and find a unique angle. On “Billie Jean,” horn blasts and warbled, reverb-laden synths replace MJ’s synth stabs, though the All-Stars wisely ensure that the late 1970s/early ‘80s vibe remains via areppegiated synths that would make Giorgio Moroder proud.
Easy Star All-Stars know about your preconceptions. Anyone who takes on a full MJ album—especially one permanently branded in the brains of millions—is either stupid or brilliant, right? But they achieve the ultimate goal of any good cover band: keep what works about the original, while imprinting the track with your own stamp.