There were a couple of really scary years for reggae music fans, when the digital age all but retired even the genre's most gifted musicians. This sad transition also stripped from the music many of the qualities that made it so appealing to non-Jamaican audiences in the first place. How could you not miss the chug-a-lug shuffle of the old Hammond B3? Or that swinging three-piece horn section that kicks the tune into overdrive, the moment those soaring harmonies reach their own lazy climax? Just as some folks were ready to pronounce the genre dead, John Brown's Body appeared, an American reggae band (from Ithaca, New York) that seems both willing and obviously talented enough to take reggae music to the international level.
What makes John Brown's Body great is not just that it harks back to the '70s, when the Wailers, Abyssinians, and Israel Vibration ruled the charts, but that it does so without ever sounding derivative of those bands. The reason lies in the talent of singer-songwriter Ken Kinsella. "Land Far Away," from their 2000 release This Day, and '99's "Among Them" carry spiritual/biblical themes common in roots reggae music. But tracks such as "Can You Let Her Go" reflect an air of freshness and a lighthearted playfulness seldom experienced in the dancehall these days. Last year's release, Spirits All Around Us, the group's third for Shanachi Records, reveals a band maturing together -- a phenomenon nearly extinct in reggae music today.