Review Summary: "Hey, you rock so, you rock so, like you never did before"
1974 was the year of all years. At least for the Philadelphia Flyers, who managed to finally bring the reign of the Original Six to an end and win their first Stanley Cup. If you head a few thousand miles south and then take a turn to the right, you might end up in Kingston. And surprisingly down there things looked just as good for Bob Marley and his Wailers. A surprise mostly because his fellow bandmates Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer finally had had enough of being overshadowed by Marley's name in public and left to pursue solo careers. As a consequence The Wailers underwent a radical change with the I-Three as new backing vocalists and Al Anderson on lead guitar. Now with Marley as undisputed leader and sole song writer…everything went just fine. "Natty Dread"
was just another step on his way to become a legend, marked their most successful release up to that point and most importantly: It was a damn fine reggae record.
Maybe even his best after this radical break, outshining even an album like "Exodus"
. In a large part this is due to a relaxed and playful vibe present on those nine tracks that none of his later records could establish that much. Opener Lively Up Yourself
already provides an excellent example, serving as a smooth anthem for reggae itself and skanking, yet with a light religious undertone. It brings in a slightly bluesy vibe, cementing the importance of the rhythm section and especially the fabulous Aston Barrett for the music and introducing Anderson and his precise riffs in the best way possible. Those laid-back moments, free from all tensions and still not cheap on religious and political comments, give the record a great flow and never even dare to give the impression that the band had anything but fun while recording.
At times Marley still seems a little doubtful, almost insecure, about how to make his songs memorable. The title track for instance starts out just as good as the opener, supporting the bass line with the great I-Three and a strong brass section. It is the latter that weighs it down a little though, sounding to dry and forced, overshadowing the rest in its omnipresence. Yet, even in those moments of slight discomfort with Marley's decisions, just as the overtly long and monotonous Rebel Music
, the band manages to present it in an enjoyable, easily digestible way.
Tough it gets quite obvious that there is a lot more potential in this record. And of course the legendary No Woman No Cry
serves as the very best example of that. While the live version remained more popular and got far more praise over the years, the band did an excellent job in the studio nevertheless. Thanks to the dynamic rhythm section, the track easily merges the joyful feel of reggae with the melancholic message and the gospel-tinged keyboard. This lighter tone is even more obvious as Marley's vocals range from the bluesy feel especially in the chorus and faster, more energetic minutes with an almost rap-like performance.
In contrast to those brilliantly embedded childhood memories Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)
features a more militant sound, being reminiscent of tracks like Zimbabwe
. Yet, while those suffered slightly from their more aggressive sound, here Marley manages to successfully merge the more offensive tone with the bluesy and relaxed feeling that defines "Natty Dread"
. That way even his slightly enraged statement "A hungry mob is an angry mob"
is followed up by an anthemic praise of Jah and smooth verses, thanks to an extent to the soul-tinged background work of the I-Three.
But not just does he provide one of his very best political comments, no, he also manages to dive into a more romantic atmosphere with Bend Down Low
and still stay away from the cheesy and tedious feel Waiting In Vain
or Turn Your Lights Down Low
were weighed down by. Instead the song is heading for a humorous performance carried by the playful keyboard and the great drums. Even more so as the I-Three get more room and further establish their importance here (in contrast to some of the later albums). They aren't just background support anymore, but rather serve as a duet partner for Marley. That way Bend Down Low
might even be the most entertaining track here.
Though that statement is almost a bit ignorant, because "Natty Dread"
stands as one of, if not the, most cohesive and most entertaining record of the Wailers' post-74 phase. Hardly anything here is perfect or even really close to it, yet Marley doesn't disappoint once throughout those nine tracks. Even the filler material, easily distinguished as such, manages to entertain and showcase not only the talent of him and his bandmates, but also their ability to create a smooth and relaxing atmosphere. Maybe that's the crux of matter, the fact that not even the weightiest message distracts the laid-back nature of this LP. Thus it outshines the overtly political "Survival"
, the unconstrained sound of "Kaya"
and even his biggest success, "Exodus"
. So even without his companions Tosh and Wailer he has the ability to create brilliant reggae, maybe more precise than ever.
- No Woman No Cry
- Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)
- Bend Down Low