Album Review: Easy Star All-Stars – Thrillah
It’s almost thirty years since the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller – now the best-selling album of all time. It’s hard to forget the saddening procession of Jackson’s life after the success of the videos and (seven!) singles from Thriller propelled him into mega-stardom, through circus sideshow, disgrace and eventually to an untimely end, the possibility of artistic redemption tantalisingly beyond his reach.
However, taken on its own, much of MJ’s material is the absolute peak of pop, and Thriller has now been given the Easy Star treatment – reproduced in full by one of the most interesting reggae acts of recent years (though certainly not the most original). Easy Star All-Stars are a favourite among ipod DJs for their chilled out, danceable renditions of material as disparate as the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Radiohead.
The opening track, ‘Wanna Be Starting Something’, has a real floor-filler feel to it, the excellent bassline just the first of many from this album; it dove-tails beautifully with second song ‘Baby Be Mine’. There isn’t a song on the Easy Star record which is shorter than the original, but about half of the versions are structurally very close to the originals.
‘The Girl Is Mine’ suffers through not having two such characterful and distinct voices as the original, where Paul McCartney dueted with Jackson. In their own ways, the big three songs from this album don’t quite match up either: ‘Thriller’ is inextricable from the powerful imagery of the ground-breaking video, ‘Beat It’ was a genuine rock song, with the inimitable Eddie Van Halen; ‘Bille Jean’ too was filled with tension and unease, while also being very personal to Jackson.
Here, ‘Thriller’ doesn’t have the edge of the original – the tension simply doesn’t translate in to reggae music; ‘Beat It’ doesn’t quite match up to the frantic pace of MJ’s version, but has deliberately been taken back to a lazy, traditional reggae groove. ‘Bille Jean’ is one of the least danceable songs on the album – but also one of the most unique sounding – synth-drenched, with a really insistent bassline (the only one I noticed that wasn’t played on a bass guitar).
The tracks which work best are not the more danceable tracks from the original album, but some of the softer songs: ‘Human Nature’ especially, plus ‘Pretty Young Thing’ and ‘The Lady In My Life’, which all have the sunny, carefree melodies and relaxed chord changes so typical of the type of reggae that I think should be played through speakers on every lamp post on British streets just to cheer us all up a bit.
I am also a fan of the two “remixes” which appear on the end of the album Dub It and Close to Midnight – instrumental versions of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Thriller’ which really groove – and which are given a nice space to develop their own Easy Star identity when freed from the tight, pop structures of the original songs. What makes these songs is that they don’t seem to be actual remixes, but alternate takes by a band who can really groove.
Thrillah doesn’t match up to Jackson’s version from an objective point of view, as it simply can’t match the variety of the original – but then what album is better than Thriller? Very few – and Easy Star have made something that sounds both fresh and timeless.
I think it was brave to take on such well-known material, and such an enigma as MJ – but Easy Star have done an excellent job. It’s always a bit difficult to rate a record which isn’t original material – but purely based on the thick, bassy upbeat sounds wafting out of my stereo and through my open window into the summer afternoon, I have to give Thrillah a huge thumbs-up.
Release Date 27/08/2012 (Easy Star)