The modern ska/rocksteady album can be problematic. While many groups excel at the technical aspects of the music, the soul is unfortunately lost in this attempt to mimic the sounds of Jamaica circa 1971. This is detrimental as the magic from Jamaican music grows not from the emphasis on playing on the upbeat or bringing bass to the forefront, but from the emotion of the singer’s voice, the lagging tempo of the music, and the tone of the entire sound. Luckily, on his first solo album, A Poet’s Life, Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong realizes this and tries his best at capturing the essence of early rocksteady 45s. To his credit, he mostly succeeds.
Filled with mostly mid-tempo rocksteady songs, the album attempts to hone in on just what makes its genre seem so magical. In order to target the thick sounds of Alton Ellis and the Ethiopians, Armstrong holds fast to the standard Rocksteady formula and implements slight experiments in almost every song. “Hold On” uses uniquely thin-sounding drum to reference the dancehall. “Inner City Violence” doubles up Armstrong’s voice to create a menacing atmosphere. “Among the Dead” uses a quickly repeated refrain to create a rocking grove. These little nuances in each song are what makes the album, as without them, all that would be left was 10 tracks of Tim Armstrong trying to sound like his East Indian heroes. But, since titans like Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker created the rocksteady sound, it is impossible to sound better than them as they define the art form and therefore can’t be surpassed. Fully aware of this, Armstrong adds his personal touches to the timeless music and creates a rocksteady album unique in its little eccentricities and minute finishing.
Of course, this throwback to the golden age of Jamaican music isn’t solely due to Armstrong. The Aggrolites, who are known or their modern yet classic sounding Toots-influenced reggae, know when to let Armstrong’s voice carry the rhythm and when to let the rhythm carry the voice. Re-enforcing the vibe when the garbly voice gets too monotone, and allowing it room to expand when important lyrics are on the horizon, show that the Aggrolites sure do know their reggae. Selecting the finer attributes from the masters, the Aggrolites show that innovation is built on a solid framework of knowledge of the old. This is the most apparent on the closing track “Cold Blooded,” which with its haunting organ and floating rhythm could almost pass itself off as a Black Ark dub.
While the music is certainly heartfelt, and while there are little touches of innovation, the same problems that plagued so many of the original rocksteady albums are still present. Almost every song on the album is about love, which tends to get monotonous after a while. Yes, many rocksteady albums of the `70s contained solely love songs, but even then the type of love expressed seemed to show a wide variety of color. Armstrong hints at this color, but seems comfortable to bind himself to high and low contrast, just like his videos. But, this isn’t an end-all-or-be-all point. Simply, the album is a lover’s album, as Armstrong most likely intended, so don’t expect a whole lot of political commentary.
In an attempt to make a classic rocksteady album, Armstrong has surpassed his modern day peers by introducing unusual elements in each of the songs. But when referencing the legends of the art form so much, Armstrong runs the danger of becoming copy rather than an architect. So no, it’s not as good as Alton Ellis in his prime, but it almost is…and that’s more than the average bombastic-all-speed-and-horns ska band of 2007 can say.