September 19, 2020


By Kristi Kates | Feb. 4, 2017

UB40 – Unplugged – UMC
This is a somewhat strange endeavor for what’s often thought of as one of the most accessible of reggae acts, the band that reached its prime in the ‘80s and received heavy radio airplay for hits like “Red Red Wine.” The enthusiasm and warmth of the original outfit has mostly departed, to be replaced by diluted, elevator music versions of UB40’s tunes, with the occasional bongo being the only thing with any energy. Static pacing, dated production (see echo-laden hand claps) and few tempo changes only add to the sad deconstruction of such prior standouts as “One in Ten” and “I Got You Babe.”  *

Madness – Can’t Touch Us Now – Hip-O
By contrast, Camden Town (London) ska band Madness skips leaning on its audio laurels entirely and instead returns with what’s arguably its best album since its 1979 debut One Step Beyond. Starting with the instantly hooky title track with its Beatlesque piano riff, the album careens confidently through its track listing with standouts including “Mr. Apples” with its Electric Light Orchestra influences and the English/honky-tonk rhythms of “I Believe.” Frontman Suggs’ vocals sound like he hasn’t aged at all as the whole band takes obvious and accomplished steps directly into the present. ***1/2

Simple Minds – Acoustic – Caroline International
Other than the disappointment of its prior smash hit “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” which leans a bit too much toward ‘80s coffee shop cover band in this version (of course, it’s nearly impossible to recapture the boundless energy of the original), Simple Minds does respectable unplugged takes on a long list of songs from its back catalogue on this set, with frontman Jim Kerr’s vocals as pliant as ever. Highlights include a still-gleaming rendition of “Glittering Prize,” a chiming “Alive and Kicking” and an ambitious if not quite there cover of Richard Hawley’s “Long Black Train.” **1/2

The Pretenders – Alone – BMG
Teaming up with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach (the album was recorded in Auerbach’s and singer Chrissie Hynde’s shared hometown of Akron, Ohio), this first Pretenders effort since 2008 benefits from Auerbach’s refreshed view. His influence helps Hynde – now on her own as carrier of the Pretenders’ flag, with her other bandmates no longer present – enliven well-written rock numbers like “Never Be Together,” “I Hate Myself” and “Blue Eyed Sky.” Hynde’s vocals are deservedly center stage as the gritty, melodic tracks weave around her and Auerbach’s production. ***


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