Graded on a Curve: Horace Andy,
Midnight Rocker

With a career spanning back to the late 1960s and a creative breakthrough early in the decade following, vocalist and songwriter Horace Andy is one of reggae’s most respected figures, with his artistry persevering into the current moment largely in connection with UK trip hoppers Massive Attack. Well, Andy has a fresh album in the racks, and don’tcha know Midnight Rocker was realized with producer Adrian Sherwood? Released on the Prisoner’s label On-U Sound, the experience is fully up to snuff, it’s ten songs available now on vinyl, CD, and digital.

Having recently scored a major success in collaboration with the preeminent reggae survivor Lee “Scratch” Perry (two albums, Rainford and its dub companion Heavy Rain, both issued in 2019), Adrian Sherwood follows a similar path with Midnight Rocker, which has its own album of dub versions to come, hopefully released later this year.

Obviously, the vital component here isn’t Sherwood but Andy, who’s in fine voice throughout. To clarify, Sherwood’s presence is certainly felt across the album, adding value along the way, but his input serves the songs, or better said, Andy’s voice, rather than overtaking them, which is worthy of note given that dub techniques are already a significant part of the album’s scheme.

Midnight Rockers has a few fresh recordings of songs well-known from Andy’s repertoire, namely opener “This Must Be Hell” (from 1978’s Natty Dread a Weh She Want), side one’s finale “Materialist” (from a 1977 single), “Rock to Sleep” (from a 1976 single), and closer “Mr. Bassie” (from a 1972 single). While the impulse to re-cut established songs is largely considered a suspect maneuver inside the realms of rock and pop, there’s really no such danger in the reggae field, which (similar to the jazz scene) is simply versions galore.

And speaking of versions, a highlight of the new album is Andy’s tackling of the Massive Attack song “Safe From Harm,” the opening track from the group’s 1991 debut Blue Lines, sung on that album not by Andy but by Shara Nelson, who Midnight Rocker’s press notes mention recorded “Aiming at Your Heart” with Sherwood way back in 1983, the song released by On-U Sound as a 12-inch single.

Andy’s “Safe From Harm” is distinct from the Massive Attack original (yet recognizable) and it stands out in Midnight Rocker’s sequence without disrupting the flow. While on that subject, the songs written for the album (by contributors Sherwood, LSK, Jeb Loy Nichols, and George Oban), which totals around half the LP, hang just fine with “Safe From Harm” and those aforementioned re-recordings.

The new songs include the urgently paced “Try Love,” the melodica-kissed “Easy Money,” and the horn section-infused “Today Is Right Here” and “Careful,” with the former drenched in dub effects and the latter offering some increasingly bluesy harmonica. In the mold of prior Sherwood projects, the assembled musicians are top flight, including such regulars as Douglas Wimbish and George Oban on bass, Style Scott on drums, Skip McDonald and Crucial Tony on guitars, Doctor Pablo on melodica, and Alan Glen (formerly of Nine Below Zero) on harmonica.

The presence of cellist Ivan Hussey on two tracks, “Try Love” and most prominently, “Rock to Sleep,” effectively underscores the healthiness of the entire project, reinforcing Midnight Rocker as no auto-pilot comeback. But the elements that bond it all together are Sherwood’s guidance and Horace Andy’s vocalizing, which is sweet and rich on every track. Andy hasn’t lost a thing.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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