Picks and Pans Review: If My Ancestors Could See Me Now
These albums present a pair of unexpected pleasures, one very old, one brand new. In the '60s and '70s, Toots Hibbert was one of the first reggae singers to gain acclaim outside Jamaica, with such hits as Pressure Drop and 54-46, That's My Number. Recently he traveled to Memphis to collaborate with an unlikely producer, Jim Dickinson (Big Star, the Replacements). The result is his best record in two decades. Toots in Memphis (Mango/Island) is a solid, smoking collection of R&B. That's R&B as in reggae and blues, a fusion Toots has tried before, but without ever catching lightning in a bottle as he does here. On a smoldering cover of Al Green's hit Love and Happiness, Toots's vocal approach is weary but still tough as a phys-ed teacher with a chip on his shoulder. At his most passionate and happy, as on I've Got Dreams to Remember, Toots sounds strikingly like Otis Redding. His man-in-torment rendering of Love Attack is probably the most effectively emotional delivery you'll hear on vinyl this year. His phrasing can be murky occasionally, but that can also serve to transform familiar material, like the Eddie Floyd-Steve Cropper roasting-chestnut Knock on Wood and Redding's Hard to Handle. With his former band, the Maytals, Toots once put out an album titled Reggae Got Soul, but he hasn't really proved that assertion until now. Ivan Neville, meanwhile, proves you can rock out with taste and dignity. This scion of New Orleans' first family of funk (father Aaron is in the Neville Brothers) has a voice that's a cross between Huey Lewis and Jack Bruce. His accomplished debut album is a collection of progressive and distinctive pop rock. Ivan is equally adept at the balladic (Falling Out of Love) and the rowdy (Out in the Streets), but his forte is songs like Sun or Money Talks, which are marked by their clarity, civility and intelligence. In this, the songs resemble the work of such admirable bands as XTC, the Bears and the now-defunct Rock & Hyde. Danny Kortchmar's lively, balanced production gives scope to Ivan's ambitions without dwarfing his songs in sonic bombast. Neville boasts good breeding, but on If My Ancestors Could See Me Now (PolyGram), he's charting different waters from the previous generation, and he's sailing.
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