Although Ziggy (David) Marley will never replace his late father as the international icon of reggae music, the resemblance in their voices and the junior Marley’s firm dedication to his heritage make it easy to hear more than a talented young man finding his way as a pop warrior in the conscious world. The instant identification with greatness that Ziggy enjoys enabled the group (which includes three other Marley progeny) to easily step into the commercial vacuum left by the elder Marley’s death.
Joined vocally in the Melody Makers by his younger brother Stephen and elder sisters Cedella and Sharon Marley Prendergast, Ziggy was all of 16 when he made the Grammy- nominated Play the Game Right, an album that is firmly in the Wailers’ tradition, complete with horns. Attractive and surprisingly accomplished for such young musicians, it includes a song (“Children Playing in the Streets”) the elder Marley had written for them.
The maturing group expanded its stylistic ambitions on the wonderful Hey World!. Coming into its own, the Melody Makers bend delightfully light reggae grooves to new stylistic ends. “Give a Little Love” is a soulful party track; “Lord We a Come” has an amazing gospelly African folk feel; Ziggy’s vocals in “Police Brutality” add funky grunts for emphasis.
Symbolically and literally, the Melody Makers represent reggae’s new generation. Conscious Party bears this out, from its aura of optimism (in songs like “Tomorrow People,” “New Love” and “We Propose”) to its thoroughly modern sound. Produced by Talking Heads Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, and featuring a superb crew of international backup musicians, the record is smart and professional.If the kids’ songwriting doesn’t compare with their Dad’s, it’s at least competent and promising. The LP isn’t at all rootsy, but it’s fresh, appealing and sincere: reggae for the Benetton generation.
Released several months after Conscious Party (the group’s first album for a new label), the Time Has Come compilation (hardly a best-of, but that’s the record biz for you) selects five numbers from each of the band’s two EMI albums, adding a pair of 1984 tracks.
Ziggy’s talents really blossomed on One Bright Day, which he co-produced with Frantz, Weymouth and Glenn Rosenstein. Downplaying Rasta culture, the freedom- minded album uses the band’s catchiest songs to promote the power and universality of music. With explicit lyrics and stylistic demonstrations, the Melody Makers express their solidarity with the South African struggle as well as black culture in America and elsewhere. Although reggae purists have all but disavowed the group, “Black My Story (Not History),” “One Bright Day” and “Look Who’s Dancing” are nearly magical in their delightful blending of slick dance pop and roots rock.
The ’90s took the group further from the stylistic essence of reggae, with no single idiom emerging to replace it. Jahmekya, which notably grants an increased role to Stephen Marley (he sings lead on two songs and wrote or co-wrote six; his distinctive reedy voice gives the album its most intriguing sonic ingredient) and employs an all- Jamaican backing band, includes the straight-up syncopation of Bob Marley’s “Rainbow Country” and the powerful African commentary of “Namibia.” Otherwise, the group tries on hip- hop beats, rock beats, disco beats and techno beats in a vain and uninspired costume play that leaves the band overdressed with nowhere to go. The Melody Makers’ desire to keep growing — and the freedom to be whatever they want to be — is commendable, but change for its own sake is no substitute for decisive action.
Evidently through with random experimentation, the band followed that mess with Joy and Blues, a comfortable and cohesive album of nothing but reggae riddims, embellished with typical Melody Makers creativity, from one end to the other. Rather than dick around, Ziggy drinks deep of rich musical streams and gets down to business as usual. Whether it’s the familiarity of the sound, the concentration of energy or the band’s congenital fluency in their father’s tongue, the album is a solid winner. Amid lyrics that venture no new insights on equally predictable topics, the romantic disillusionment of Bob Marley’s “There She Goes” provides a different perspective. Stephen again provides a contrasting voice, singing his own “Rebel in Disguise” and Richie Havens’ “African Herbsman” with a creaky, comical intonation that sounds faintly like Marc Bolan.
Ziggy’s picture alone is on the cover of Free Like We Want 2 B, but it’s Stephen who’s moving on up in the Melody Makers’ universe. As the band handsomely stretches the elastic boundaries of reggae (only tearing through once, in the acoustic reverie of “Beautiful Mother Nature”), Ziggy comes across with the uplifting “Power to Move Ya,” “Live It Up” and the funky “Today” (which sounds disconcertingly like the Police), but his themes are routine, his topical lyrics tired. (“G7” hits a new tedium point in socio-economic theory.) Meanwhile, Stephen steps out of his brother’s happyface shadow with a sound and ideas of his own, rubbing salt in old political scars with the enervated resentment of “Bygones.” Elsewhere, his “Tipsy Dazy,” “Keep On” and the powerhouse fraternal collaborations of “Water and Oil” and “Hand to Mouth” add mightily to the band’s most affecting and memorable collection.