Back in the good old days, before the great reggae wars, there was a golden age when everybody’s favourite British reggae band, the mighty UB40, in between producing fine albums of original music, issued a series of covers albums, collectively known as Labours Of Love. They sold more than 21 million of them and they gave the band some of their biggest hits, including, Cherry O Baby, Kingston Town, and Red Red Wine.
Since the band’s bifurcation we’ve had new albums from both sides of the great divide, but the new release from UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey is the first attempt to return to that tradition of covers with the band exploring the classic reggae sounds of the eighties. As Ali explained it to us in a recent interview these are the songs that he heard being played in Jamaica when the band were living and recording in the Caribbean and while some of them will be familiar to UK fans many will probably be unfamiliar.
It’s not rigidly conceptual, featuring as it does Stevie Wonder’s A Place In The Sun, (a Motown classic from 1966), and numbers from the late Seventies including Dennis Brown’s sublime How Could I Leave and Culture’s International Herb but it’s clear from the respectful way the material is handled that these are special to the band and the result is an album which, while not opening up any new or surprising territory, is still much more than an exercise in nostalgia.
Within a few days of release the album has already achieved the band’s highest chart position in 25 years, becoming their highest charting new album since their 1993 No.1 Promises And Lies and there’s plenty on show to please long term fans including Ali’s superbly soulful lead vocal, Astro’s singjay stylings (particularly on a fantastically complex version of Shinehead’s Strive) and the ten piece band on top form but there’s also a commitment to the material and to the roots of reggae that show how much this music means to Ali and his collaborators.
Highlights include a superbly fluid version of Beres Hammond’s She Loves Me Now, The Dramatics In The Rain, a deftly toetapping cover of J.C. Lodge’s “Telephone Love/Rumours and a delightfully pretty take on the Stylistics Ebony Eyes but for many people, me included, this is an album to play on repeat in the car, to let some of these classic tunes but strangely unfamiliar tunes make themselves into old friends.
UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey are headlining The Royal Albert Hall on March 19 as part of the Teenage Cancer Trust series of gigs. For ‘An Evening Celebrating The Very Best In British Reggae’ they will be joined by Hollie Cook, Three The Hard Way – Brinsley Forde MBE (Aswad), David Hinds (Steel Pulse), Dennis Bovell (Matumbi) – and special guest David Rodigan MBE.