I am a big fan of Adrian Sherwood's passion for luring the greatest luminaries in Jamaican music history into late-career collaborations, as it is hard to imagine a better deal than working with On-U Sound's murderers' row of killer musicians and having a contemporary dub visionary at the console. Midnight Rocker (released in April) was the first fruit of Sherwood's union with Horace Andy and (unsurprisingly) focuses primarily on Andy's legendary voice while putting a new spin on a few of the Jamaican tenor's signature jams (along with a nod to his more recent work with Massive Attack). Given the caliber of everyone involved, Rocker is a predictably likable album and an impressive return for Andy, but a big part of the fun with classic Jamaican music is the inevitable wave of dubs and variations that follow, so I connected much more deeply with the newly released companion album, Midnight Scorchers. Wisely, Andy's voice remains a central focus, so it is easy to recognize the hooks and melodies from the previous album in their new context, yet Sherwood allows himself to go a bit wild in the studio for a "sound system" take on the material. To my ears, the same songs are the strongest on both albums, but the weaker songs from Rocker benefit significantly from the more adventurous arrangements and production on Scorchers.
Midnight Rocker borrows its title from the opening line of Massive Attack's "Safe From Harm," which was the lead song on their 1991 debut Blue Lines. Notably, that album was the beginning of Andy's recurring involvement with that project, but "Safe From Harm" is a curious song to revisit, as Andy did not sing on the original and it has a darker, more dramatic tone than the rest of Midnight Rocker. Given how wildly successful that album was, I imagine its inclusion here was a savvy choice, but its killer bass and tambourine groove plays far more to Sherwood's strengths than the lyrics and tone do to Andy's. The album's other trips down memory lane are a handful of contemporized resurrections from Andy's own sprawling discography such as "This Must Be Hell, "Materialist," and "Mr. Bassie." Of that lot, "Mr. Bassie" fares the best, as it boasts a strong melodic hook and wades into increasingly dubby territory as it unfolds.
The strongest songs tend to be entirely new ones, however, and there is a great run in the middle of the album that elevates Rocker into something more satisfying than just a well-meaning nostalgia trip. That said, "Watch Over Them" still sounds like a breezy, newly unearthed classic from the early '80s due to its upbeat groove and prominent synth hook. My favorite pieces are "Today is Right Here" and "Try Love," as they strike the most perfect and organic blend of the two artists' formidable talents. In "Today is Right Here," a great vocal hook is matched with a stark bass-driven groove, smoky horns, and cool percussion flourishes executed with an admirable lightness of touch. Elsewhere, "Try Love" boasts one hell of a sinuous, disco-damaged groove that Sherwood manipulates brilliantly. I am tempted to say Midnight Rocker could have been a superior album if Sherwood had simply gone with a stripped-down palette of bass, drums, percussion, and Andy's voice, but I do dig some of the cello, brass, and guitar parts, so that would not be entirely fair (when they work, they work quite well). Fans more amenable to rampant harmonicas will probably enjoy Midnight Rocker more than I do, yet this uneven collection features enough flashes of greatness to be a worthy addition to the discography of everyone involved (including the late Style Scott, who somehow made it onto this album despite shedding his mortal coil in 2014).
By my count, Midnight Scorchers reprises eight songs from Rocker (with new and different titles), but also throws some welcome new elements into the mix along with a pair of new pieces and a completely different sequence. For me, the most crucial development is the involvement of cult dancehall hero Daddy Freddy on three songs, as his playful and chaotic presence almost always makes a song instantly feel like a killer party. On "Dirty Money Business," Sherwood keeps Andy's central vocal hook from "Easy Money," but devotes the verses to Freddy's fiery motor-mouthed toasting ("Mr. Andy buy a house with a satellite dish!") for a livelier and more entertaining twist. I also enjoyed the more prominent percussion and the unexpected splashes of spacy synth and Spanish guitar. It is a very "everything but the kitchen sink" piece, but the execution is absolutely stellar. Daddy Freddy's other big showcase lands on the new version of "Mr. Bassie," as "More Bassy" benefits greatly from having a feral-sounding man roaring about the urgent need to turn up the bass. Daddy Freddy also turns up on the new "Safe From Harm," but even he is not enough to save that song from its dour chorus, though I do prefer the new version due to its spacier tone and unexpectedly Egyptian-sounding harmonica hook.
Happily, Scorchers also features three more highlights despite Daddy Freddy being sidelined for the remainder. Unsurprisingly, two of those are new versions of highlights from Rocker. On the opening "Come After Midnight," Sherwood rekindles the smoldering groove of "Try Love," but does so with more aggressive dub interventions as well as some funkier wah-wah touches. Elsewhere, "Away With The Gun And Knife" is a version of "Watch Over Them" with enhanced dubbiness, some cool brass solos, and a more pleasantly laidback feel. Sadly, I don't believe "Today is Right Here" made the leap to Midnight Scorchers in any form (it must have been perfect already), but the consolation prize is that it was replaced by an absolutely smoking cover of "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City" that is a strong candidate for the best goddamn song on the entire album. While Andy's presence is mostly reduced to the chorus hook, the rhythm section absolutely slays and cellist Ivan Hussey trades solos with the brass section while Sherwood's production ensures that everything is as sensuous and smoky as possible. I could take or leave the other new song ("Dub Guidance"), as it feels like a harmonica-crazy deep cut from a classic '70s dub album, but the new versions of other songs from Midnight Rocker tend to show some welcome innovations and improvements (such as the jabbering Mad Professor-style electronics and party horns on "Hell and Back"). Coupled with the more generous helping of highlights, that is enough to elevate Midnight Scorchers from "it is nice to see Horace Andy releasing new music" to "damn–this is a legitimately good and contemporarily relevant album."