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Published: 2013/04/20
by Brian Robbins

John Brown's Body
Kings And Queens

Easy Star Records

Now this was worth waiting five years for.

Hear ye, hear ye: John Brown’s Body’s new Kings And Queens is the band’s best album to date, hands down. There’s a vibe of comfort that reigns supreme – not in terms of lack of fire, as the album is loaded with it, but rather an overall gelling of the band’s formidable talents. (You thought 2008’s Amplify was as good as it gets in JBBworld? Think again.) Frontman Elliot Martin leads the band through a 12-song set of well-developed tunes (most hover around the 5-minute mark) lending not only his distinctive vocals and percussion talents, but acting as producer, as well. Oftentimes it’s hard for an artist/band member to have enough perspective to be able to effectively act as a producer; in Martin’s case, there’s no sign of that syndrome whatsoever. The music on Kings And Queens is a sweet homegrown hybrid of classic reggae spirit and inventive sonic explorations. And even at its trippiest, there’s nothing coming from these players that doesn’t feel organic.

Bassist Nate Edgar and drummer Tommy Benedetti (along with guest percussionist Brian “Bongo” Davis) own this album – dig into the back-to-back rhythm workouts of “Invitation” and “Plantation” and listen for yourself. Benedetti keeps a complicated, swirling groove going throughout the former while Edgar lays down big slabs of womp ; they just as easily flow into the droopy-lidded slow stroll of the latter with a classic, unhurried skanked-out heartbeat as Elliot Martin savors “sittin’ in the sun of the plantation” … ahhhh. When it comes to bass ‘n’ drum, the JBB crew prove that they can venture wayyyy out there while never losing their grip on the roots.

And then there are the John Brown’s Body horns: Drew Sayers (sax), Sam Dechenne (trumpet), and Scott Flynn (trombone). At times they provide punch and punctuation to Martin’s lyrics; other moments are spent splashing colors in the background of a given song’s sonic canvas. Their strength (think vintage Burning Spear vibe) lies in their sound as a trio, although special mention must be made of Sayers’ beautiful sax break on “Deep Summer”.

In the meantime, guitarist Mike Keenan (along with guest picker Nate Richardson – a John Brown’s alumnus) and keyboardist Jon Petronzio patrol the grounds between the rhythm machine and the horns. They are masters of serving the song and supporting the group sound: Petronzio fills chinks with vaporous bits of melody and thick layers of textured keys. And there are moments on Kings And Queens that you could present to any aspiring reggae guitarist and say, “There – right there – that’s all you need to know about rhythm.” (Listen to Keenan’s fretwork behind the outro vocals on “Old John Brown” as it grows from subtle murmurs to bluesy bellows of psychedelic goodness.)

Having weathered years of challenges (including the tragic loss of founding member Scott Palmer to cancer in 2006), John Brown’s Body comes across as confident and strong on Kings And Queens ; this is the sound of a group of reggae masters in a very good place.

*****

Brian Robbins sits in the sun of the plantation over at www.brian-robbins.com

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