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Published: 2004/04/27
by Benjy Eisen

True Love – Toots and the Maytals

Virgin 63881-27186-2

Toots Hibbert and Carlos Santana should really get together and do lunch sometime. I mean it man, they'd hit it off. They might even fall in love. Or at least become friends with privileges. After all, they'd just have so much to talk about! Both were legends in their respective genres, considered to be among the very best. Innovators. Songwriters with accolades. Musicians with gold stars next to their name and ribbons for their uniforms. Santana had "Black Magic Woman." Toots had "Pressure Drop." Both achieved international recognition early on. Both have long had unquestionable respect and admiration from their peers. But, previously, neither Santana nor Toots had the kind of ubiquitous success that their talent might otherwise suggest.

Oh, they both had some level of fame, sure, but the sort of mega-fame and uber-fortune that many of their peers enjoyed had somehow escaped them. That all changed a few years ago for Santana thanks to a business proposal from Clive Davis. Davis, then CEO of Arista Records, decided to put Santana back on the Billboard charts (and back in business) by engineering a hype-generator. The idea was that Santana would whore himself out to radio stars, ranging from bubblegum poppers to genuine rock royalty, and would then assemble an album of these all-star collaborations. Each guest on the album had a loyal audience, and few of those audiences bled into one another. The thinking was that fans of each special guest would buy the album. Matchbox 20 fans, Dave Matthews fans, and Lauren Hill fans would all want copies. While Supernatural lacked much of the soul and spirit of the classic Santana albums, it was by far his biggest hit — selling more than 10 million copies and winning eight Grammys, including Album of the Year. (The recording industry, at the time, as with now, was just extremely grateful for any album that sold well.) Santana made the switch from musical genius to commercial icon. His music was now played regularly in waiting rooms, on Top 40 radio, and at sporting events. Supernatural didn’t revive Santana’s career — it gave him an entirely new one.

One can't help but wonder if that success was the inspiration behind Toots and the Maytals' True Love. There are many fundamental differences between Supernatural and True Love, of course, but let us not forget that at the source of all music is intention. Truthfully, True Love is alright. It has its moments and, hell, its just fun to listen to. And the more you do, the more you find yourself drawn to its different corners. But the question that sadly overshadows the entire project is "What was the motivation?"

After all, what is True Love but a collection of Toots’ greatest hits, re-recorded with a shortlist of top-shelf support guests including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, and of course, Trey Anastasio. Unlike Supernatural, the songs on this disc were all previously recorded and released by Toots and the Maytals (except for Willie Nelson’s "Still is Still Moving to Me."). Their newer versions for the most part are not dramatically changed from their originals, except for the added character of each track’s respective guests. And while that adds up to small potatoes on some songs (including, sorry guys, Anastasio’s understated cameos), some of the other contributions are, if nothing else, good for kicks.

With hidden solos from artists whose solos are usually worth something, you sorta have to dig for the stink on True Love. Yet if you come to the album solely in search of these buried treasures you might be disappointed when you uncover them. The gold is real but the weight is light. Despite Eric Clapton’s billing as the featured guest on "Pressure Drop," if you listen closely to "Take a Trip" (featuring Bunny Wailer) you’ll hear a wah-wah solo that is undeniably Clapton’s. Likewise, pay attention to the foundation beneath Toots’ duet with Willie Nelson and you’ll hear none other than Trey Anastasio lending support. Of course, even an Anastasio scholar would be hard pressed to identify the handiwork as Anastasio’s upon first listen, and on his featured contribution – "Sweet and Dandy" – the payoff is also slight.

Other guests fare better. No Doubt assumes ownership over "Monkey Man," Bootsy Collins makes "Funky Kingston" the album's G-spot with help from The Roots, and Jeff Beck turns in True Love's best guitar-work on a remake of "54-46 Was My Number." Because the combinations are imaginative, the results are interesting. However the disc's most natural moments occur on the more natural collaborations, such as on the born-again classic "Never Grow Old," featuring Terry Hall, the Skatalites, and dub pioneer U-Roy.

The second half of the album, heavy on these native all-star collaborations, sounds most at ease, however it is the awkward first track – Willie Nelson's "Still is Still Moving to Me" – that takes top honors. Somehow a Nelson original, rearranged and reggaed-up, provides the perfect meeting ground for true-blue Americana and Jamaican rocksteady. It is not a very pretty collision but it is immensely enjoyable in a Larry David kind of way.

If love conquers all, True Love seems to overcome, though just barely. And more on the strength and endurance of the songs, classics from decades past and present, than on the muscle of the support cast. I’ve read other reviews of this album where the reviewers suggest going back and listening to the original versions instead, and I’d agree — if you only want to have one Toots album in your collection. May I suggest at least two.

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