Easy Star All-Stars – Easy Star’s Thrillah – album review

Easy Star All-Stars – Easy Star’s Thrillah (Easy Star Records)
Available 28 August 2012

Ever wondered what Michael Jackson’s Thriller album would sound like in a dub/ska style? Wonder no more…

Covering an entire album in a reggae style could easily be a recipe for a novelty record, but The Easy Star All-Stars have a track record for making it work, with their versions of Dark Side Of The Moon (2003), OK Computer (2006) and Sgt Pepper (2009) all being well worth a listen.

This time, they’ve chosen to take on the biggest selling album of all time and for the most part, it works brilliantly. Unlike their previous inspirations, Michael Jackson‘s Thriller is already dance music, so lends itself to the reggae treatment with minimal reconstruction.

As it sticks to the original’s running order, the surprises are left to the arrangements, with the first (and best) being how producer/arranger Michael Goldwasser approaches the opening track, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. An intro full of ska-fuelled horns leads into not reggae, but slick funk that sounds more like Roy Ayers soundtracking a ’70s cop show. It feels like a statement of intent, that this isn’t a throwaway joke album, rather one that’s been given a lot of care, attention and thought, while still retaining the sense of fun that a covers album needs. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Songs like Baby Be Mine and Human Nature are more faithful to their original poppier roots, while Billie Jean’s synth-led electrodub takes the track off into unexplored territory. Surprisingly enough, it’s only on one of the bigger songs that the wheels come off. Beat It, despite the powerful vocal talents of Black Uhuru’s Michael Rose, is weak. Too light, just *too* poppy, it comes over more like a straight-up, bland remix than the smart reworkings that surround it.

Somewhat less surprisingly, it’s the dubbier efforts that work best. Human Nature and particularly the Steel Pulse-starring The Girl Is Mine manage to find the perfect balance between pop melodies and out-there production.

As with the original, the centrepiece is the title track and it doesn’t disappoint. Full of clanking, percussive dub effects and wolf howls, Thriller’s spectral horn stabs and otherworldly backing vocals are a perfect fit for Jackson’s horror show.

A couple of full-on dub versions close out the record, with Beat It making a much-improved reappearance as Dub It and Close To Midnight’s echo-laden retread of Thriller ending on a high note.

As great as all this is (and it is great, make no mistake) you’re left at the end reminded of just how brilliant a record Thriller really was, with not a single song being a misfire. The Easy Star All-Stars might not have quite pulled off the same feat, but they’ve came pretty close.

All words by Jules Boyle.

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