Twenty years ago, John Brown’s Body redefined music by playing reggae that sounded something like what was coming out of Jamaica circa 1977 and something like what was coming out of the U.K. circa 1987, and something like the kind of neo-folk that began permeating the U.S. in the early millennium. Since then, the band has seen its unfair share of line-up changes, but frontman Elliot Martin and drummer Tommy Benedetti have never once let that stop them. In fact, while they could have made this The Elliot and Tommy show, they have understood the importance of cohesiveness. Thus, whoever is playing with them has always been JBB- meaning that at this point the band is more of a family of musicians. Needless to say, JBB has (mind you inadvertently) continued to reshape reggae. And at this point, no one album can truly be compared to its predecessors. Invariably, different musicians make different music.
So here come Fireflies (Easy Star Records, 2016), a tight, 10-track album the likes of which JBB has never previously produced. While 2013’s Kings and Queens (Easy Star Records) was expansive and rich, Fireflies is much more fun. Simultaneously, Elliot appears to have a heavier political agenda than ever before. In fact, the album begins with “Who Paid Them Off?”, a somewhat surprising introduction. “Corrupted fools/ Threatening Aggressor/ Better you keep flying/ It’s a war/ confess your dishonesty,” Elliot roars in the first verse. Fireflies is replete with disjointed lyrics such as these, a parallel to the singer’s impression of the state of the country.
Fireflies is also the first record since 2005’s Pressure Points (Easy Star Records) where Elliot shares the mic. Longtime JBB collaborator Jay Spaker sings three songs himself and shares duties with Elliot on two. Jay has been in the band since before the Kings and Queens tour, but Fireflies marks his inauguration into the records. Jay’s songs might be ridiculously catchy, (try out “Pure Fire” if you don’t believe me), but they lack the lyrical ingenuity Elliot has honored in himself since Amplify (Easy Star, 2008). Still, Elliot has learned to relax from Jay, and Jay has learned how to intensify from Elliot. Both deliver tasty songs that sound little like the rest of the band’s catalogue. I’m truly curious if this is a momentary departure, or just the natural progression of twenty years playing JAH music.
Indeed, these songs come off effortlessly, while at the same time they follow more traditional song structures, (Martin notoriously strays from the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge way of doing things). This may be Jay’s influence. His songs are the club-thumpers, the audience shakers, and while they’ve been performed live for many years now, producer Craig “Dubfadder” Welsch expertly accents the band’s capabilities.
On the band front, this record marks Sam Dechenne’s stance as resounding horn leader (trumpet). While Fireflies includes past collaborators Drew Sayers (sax), Scott Flynn (trombone), Alex Asher (trombone), Nate Edgar (bass), and Mike Keenan (guitar), newcomers Mikey Vitale and TJ Schaper work nicely with Sam, while keyboardist Jon Petronzio and bassist Dan Africano have established an electrifying connection elevated by Welsch, who is notorious for making new school sound old school.
A prime example? “Hard Man Fe Dead”. It pops and attends to classic rub-a-dub vibes. Also, the title track is an underdog I hope they play live often. “Fireflies/ they bring light to see/They a gather round magnificently/ Where they going?” Elliot cogitates, adding, “Love of my heart, never know what have you got.” Lyrics like this don’t come around reggae too often! Conversely, Spaker’s “Like A Queen” is a bit more fundamental, if not sincere and scorching. “You bring the fire of a million suns, girl,” he growls; “And the light of a million rays.” These songs might be some of the best reggae to come out this year.
My one critique is that the album sounds a little short. While each song is long, Kings And Queens felt like a story, whereas Fireflies feels like a bunch of songs grouped together. That being said, this band has reached a new decade and a new era. They’re still innovators and they’re still making future roots a real thing. Fireflies is as good as anything else they’ve attempted. Maybe even better.