Amplify – John Brown’s Body
Easy Star Records
The goal of every writer, thinker, and homo sapien should be objectivity: to not only see things as they are, but to see them from every possible perspective. There is a danger in this, and the literary world was reminded of that danger recently when David Foster Wallace, a true genius, hung himself in his California home. In his many essays and especially in his magnum tome, Infinite Jest, Wallace demonstrated a talent for intellectual examination that lead directly towards a distillation of things into their true selves. Wallace could strip a lobster of everything non-lobster to such an extent the reader felt nothing but pure lobsterness. Being a non-genius, and only kinda smart, it has been a struggle for me to evaluate John Brown’s Body’s latest album, Amplify. The question I have not been able to answer is this: Do I dislike the album because I don’t like reggae or because it isn’t a very good album?
I want to write this line: “If you like reggae, you will like Amplify,” but I am plagued with doubt about its veracity. Adding to my dilemma is the fact that the band has endured so much tragedy in the past few yearsdeath, cancer, semi-dissolutionit seems downright mean to not write a gushingly positive review. The creative force, lead singer, and one of two original members is Elliott Martin. Having dealt with all of the band’s problems and throat surgery, Martin’s lyrics are powerful, especially on “Ghost Notes,” but that power is diluted by the same reggae sounds, beats, and melodies we’ve all heard a thousand times before. About half the songs have interesting intros featuring horns and/or studio effects, but time and time again, we return to the sound Martin loves: UK reggae from the ’70s and early ’80s.
I can write without hesitation that a John Brown’s Body show would have this ass shaking. I can also note the new lineup is stuffed with talented musicians who have a unified vision. Amplify makes it evident Martin holds a blistering gift, though I continue to wonder if that gift and the music would benefit from releasing the shackles of reggae. Or am I shackled by my perspective and unable to hear this music because of my own pathetic bias? I suppose you’ll have to decide for yourself.