From the get-go, California’s The Expanders set out as architects of old school, truly roots reggae. Immediately, their mastery of the genre swept up fans and critics alike. The first volume of Old Time Something Come Back Again!! was an opportunity for the band to share their favorite classic reggae songs. For OTSCBA Vol. 2 (Easy Star Records, 2017), they harvested gems from an expansive collection and went from there. More than anything, their mad respect for the originators shines through. In an almost ironic sense, in a time when reggae is flooded with originals that are cliché and rehashed, The Expanders took covers and made them fresh.
And in doing so, The Expanders didn’t reinterpret these oldies, nor did they even try adding any fresh twists. All fourteen tracks sound impressively like their originals. Yet for the sole reason that The Expanders are their own singers and players, the songs are simultaneously immediately recognizable as this quintet.
Because this is a covers album, combing through the content of each song doesn’t really work here, although this collection includes many songs that- in great reggae fashion- remain timeless. Their political, spiritual, and social justice themes hold sufficient weight in 2017. On “Brutal” (originally by The Itals), lines like, “Mon, I say it’s brutal out there… I’d rather be down with my brothers and sisters,” and on “Freedom Train” (originally by The Gladiators), lines like, “I had a vision the other night/These words I heard… Freedom train is coming soon,” resonate decades later.
Burning Spear is represented here on two tracks, “Walla Walla” and “We Are Free”. He’s always been one of my favorite reggae artists. The Ethiopians, and Little Roy and Ian Rock are also represented in kind fashion. But I hadn’t experienced Carlton & The Shoes’ “Love Is All” before, and I must say, it might take the cake on the album. The keys sound straight oughtta Kingston. I’d also never heard of Kenty Spence & His Stars before either, so the album closer, “I Have a Party”, charmed and enthralled me with its laidback bassline, “Oohs”, and “I want to tell you, it put me in trouble, man,” intro.
The Expanders could easily have covered Marley, Tosh, The Maytals, and other super-famous historical icons, but instead they peeled into the deep cuts. One of my favorite songs, by Yabby You and The Prophets, is “Anti-Christ”, and The Expanders do such a great job with it.
This is the kind of reggae that’s so smooth and pretty-sounding that it could be played for just about any audience with accolades. The production is loose and on the quiet side- none of these songs were recorded to wreck your subwoofer or shatter your windows.
Common practice amongst musicians, for ages, was to learn the standards and replay them for new audiences. Eventually, an era of originals commenced. Having a band preserve some great old songs through Old Time Something Come Back Again!! Vol. 2 is really fun, magical, and inspiring. This is a wonderful album.