This is the first release of new material from UB40 for three years (see preview, reggaemusic.org.uk 3rd July 2013) and in essence it combines their typical sound with some standards from the country music tradition. The opening track, Midnight Rider, starts as it means to go on and, despite the departure of Ali Campbell, it could only be UB40. I’m Pretty Sure that’s Just What’s Killing Me introduces – as on many of the other tracks – the characteristic circular musical structure of country music, along with its somewhat miserable lyrical tales of inevitable sad refuge in drink, together with the steel guitar phrases you might expect. With an unobtrusive reggae rhythm beneath it all it sets the pattern. With the title track we move further into country music territory in this cover of a George Jones release, the steel guitar more prominent and the lyrics no doubt reflective of UB40’s turbulent recent history. From these first tracks the formula is more or less set for the rest of the album and you will like it or not accordingly.
If You Ever Have Forever in Mind has a slightly dubbed-up instrumental rhythm behind it and it would have been good to hear more in this vein. He’ll Have to Go is of course a classic country song and here it gets the same reggae/steel guitar treatment, the arrangement, including sax solo, thoughtfully put together. The reggae bass line and percussion of their take on Willie Nelson’s Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain gets more interesting while the words of On the Other Hand almost caricature the lyrical concerns of country music. How Can Poor Men Stand Such Times and Live, the depression era-song popularised by Ry Cooder, gets a good (though incongruously jolly) workout here with its explicit referencing of banking bonuses and health care…what do you think Gideon? Maybe worth a listen while tackling that gourmet burger?
Overall, the combination of country steel guitar and smooth-grade production reggae instrumentation becomes engaging after a while and there is no faulting the production. The change in vocal duties from earlier-era UB40 remains noticeable, a surprising reminder of how closely their sound over the years was rooted in their distinctive vocals. The album as a whole is relatively undemanding listening and a harder dubbed-up edge to some of the (meticulously produced) instrumental rhythms would have been welcome, maybe as an additional release to the vocal tracks (as they have in the past), but that’s probably not the intended focus or audience anymore.
UB40: Getting Over the Storm; released 2nd September 2013, Universal