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A Rare Jewel from Jamaica’s Melodians, Plus Hot Club of Cowtown, Steve Goodman, and the Rails

The rocksteady movement—which emerged in Jamaica after ska, and foreshadowed reggae—yielded a great deal of memorable music. Some of the best of it issued from the Melodians, a vocal group whose finest work was produced by the influential Leslie Kong.

The last of the trio’s original members died in 2018, and most Americans know the Melodians (if they know them at all) from “Rivers of Babylon,” whose presence in the film soundtrack of 1973’s The Harder They Come helped turn it into their biggest hit. If you’re an aficionado of Jamaican music, you might also be familiar with “Sweet Sensation” (which UB40 has covered) and “It’s My Delight,” both of which appeared in Kong’s essential The King Kong Compilation; perhaps you even have one of the Melodians’ anthology CDs that have popped up over the years.

What you almost certainly don’t have is the group’s extremely rare first long player, Rivers of Babylon, which was issued only in Jamaica in 1970 and has not been re-released anywhere in the 49 years since then. That changes this month with a U.K. reissue (available stateside as an import) that includes extensive biographical liner notes and 15 bonus tracks comprising the rest of the group’s work for Kong (who died in 1971).

Granted, nearly all of these performances are available on various other LPs; and, the title cut and the aforementioned “Sweet Sensation” aside, this is not the group’s best-known material, at least not in the States. (Stick with the anthologies if you want the hits.) But heard together on one disc, these upbeat performances make a compelling argument for the Melodians’ importance while underscoring the skillfulness of Kong’s production work. The vocals are soulful, the harmonies are sublime, and—befitting the group’s moniker—the music is consistently melodious.

BRIEFLY NOTED

Hot Club of Cowtown, Wild Kingdom. Hot Club of Cowtown, a group that blends Western swing and vintage jazz, have been around for 21 years but have not released an album of original material in a decade. Instead, the Austin, Texas–based trio—guitarist Whit Smith, vocalist and fiddler Elana James, and upright bassist Jake Erwin—have focused on recording covers of songs popularized by artists they’ve admired, including Bob Wills and Django Reinhardt.

This 11th album, however, reminds us that they can write as well as they sing and play: its 11 original numbers—four by Smith and seven by James—sound as classic as the three actual classics that share the program (“How High the Moon,” “Three Little Words,” and “Loch Lomond”). This is consistently charming music performed by consummate professionals.

Steve Goodman, Santa Ana Winds and Unfinished Business. Only weeks ago, the last two Steve Goodman albums released prior to his 1984 death appeared in expanded editions. Now come two more expanded editions, this time of the singer/songwriter’s two posthumously released LPs: Santa Ana Winds, his final studio effort; and Unfinished Business, a collection of demos and outtakes that first surfaced in 1987. Between them, the two discs include 17 bonus tracks, 14 of which were previously unavailable.

Portions of the original albums are a bit too MOR to fully convey the warmth and wit that make Goodman so special, but the bonus numbers, many of which are solo acoustic performances, are largely terrific. Goodman’s own “Colorado Christmas” and “You’re the Girl I Love” are among the many highlights in these programs, which also include a cover of Mike Smith’s classic “The Dutchman” and a rendition of “(Now and Then) There’s a Fool Such as I” that features mandolinist Jethro Burns and sounds nothing like the Elvis Presley hit.

The Rails, Cancel the Sun. After listening to this third album from the North London–based Rails—Kami Thompson and her husband James Walbourne—you won’t be surprised to learn that Kami is the daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson and that James is the Pretenders’ guitarist. Kami shares her mother’s considerable vocal strengths, and as for Walbourne, well, if you’ve listened to most anything the Pretenders have done since 2008, you know he can kick up a storm.

Well-produced by Stephen Street (the Smiths, the Cranberries), the album features folk elements and harmonies that on tracks like “Mosey Well” recall Richard and Linda; elsewhere, though, Cancel the Sun rocks too hard to be pigeonholed as folk or even folk rock. The material, all cowritten by the couple, is lyrically imaginative and musically catchy.

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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