Pop music in the 21st century has been flush with precise re-creations of '60s and '70s American R&B — think of Sharon Jones, Adele, Raphael Saadiq and the late Amy Winehouse. Meanwhile, I've been waiting for a similar revival of Jamaica's R&B: ska, rocksteady, roots-reggae. Jimmy Cliff's new record, Rebirth, is exactly that.
In the decades following the deaths of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, Cliff has been the last man standing out of reggae's first great international warriors. Frankly, he's made a lot of lukewarm crossover LPs over the years, but he finally decided to rewind his sound with the producer Tim Armstrong, singer for the punk band Rancid. Armstrong is a huge Jimmy Cliff fan, and he helps nail that old-school sound throughout this record — even in a cover of his own song, Rancid's "Ruby Soho."
Other good covers turn up here, too, notably The Clash's "Guns of Brixton," which mentions Ivanhoe Martin, the hardscrabble character Cliff played in the 1972 film The Harder They Come.
Cliff's originals are just as exciting, and they don't seem stuck in the past. "Children's Bread," for example, is a song about poor folks and thievery that would play quite well in an Occupy encampment.
As a pop-music critic of a certain age, I have to check myself when shouting out records that echo period sounds. Really, I'm as excited by Frank Ocean's next-generation R&B as the next guy. But good is good, killer is killer, and if anyone should be able to reanimate the vintage Jamaican music I hear bumping out of every other hipster coffee shop in town, Jimmy Cliff is the man.