A reggae Unplugged album? Yes, really. Birmingham legends of the genre UB40 have made collection of their much-loved hits from throughout the years in a stripped-back style and while it words in part, a lot of it seems to wreck classics…
Vocally, the styling is very similar to the recordings from the accompanying Greatest Hits album. By the nature of the reinventions however, the lyrics and melodies stand out a lot more. The words in classics like Red Red Wine and Kingston Town are often fairly well disguised with instruments and singing tone, but with a lot less going on around the voice it is a lot simpler to hear.
The ability to understand vocals brings out the more emotional undertones in some of the tracks and the full meaning beneath the feel-good, bouncy instruments of the tracks. Red Red Wine (originally by Neil Diamond) holds the lyrics “Red red wine, can’t get you off my mind” which could relate to alcoholism or using alcohol as a coping method and when stripped back to basics the meaning is restored. Others like Rat In Mi Kitchen cannot be made any more rational or emotional though – it’s still got the zany lyrics the band have been known for which can never be taken away by an Unplugged reworking of the songs.
On the flipside though, when a lot of artists do Unplugged editions, they retain energy and feel of the original tracks when re-exploring. UB40 however have not succeeded with this at all. The “stripped back” nature of the recordings is too different from the original songs that gained them a lot of traction through the years and it seems to remove from a lot of the pieces what the fans loved about the originals: fun. A prime example of this is Baby Come Back with Pato Benton where there is a build-up to open it that seems to be taken from a far more energetic track which leads to an anticlimax when the music actually comes in.
The instrumentation throughout is solid though – minimalistic yet well-performed. On some tracks, steel pans are the shining feature as they play around the guitars and piano and in others it’s the retained reggae rhythm that remains in a few tracks past the best attempts to strip the tracks back.
Overall, a nice idea but it does sound very empty for a large portion of the release. A few of the classics have come out well, but the sadly the vast majority of the tracks have lost their energy. On the upside though, the record does come with the Greatest Hits CD which is a fantastic collection so still worth a buy, if for no other reason than that!