- by Charly Richardson Release Date:2013-07-08 Label: Strut
London-based collective Soothsayers have been busy of late. In 2012 alone, they released We're Not Leaving EP; a Ralph McTell cover, 'Streets of London' (as seen on the excellent Olympics-sponsored London Calling compilation, and the superb full-length album Human Nature. Now, refusing to rest on their laurels, they are back with Nothing Can Stop Us, a bold project with sweet-voiced reggae legend Cornell Campbell, this time signed to Strut as part of their Inspiration Information studio collaboration series.
This Brixton-Kingston partnership started in early 2011 when trumpeter Robin Hopcraft (who leads Soothsayers alongside saxophonist Idris Rahman) happened upon legendary producer Bunny Lee in a car park in Kingston, Jamaica. Armed with a rhythm track for what would soon become 'I'll Never Leave', Hopcraft explained that he was looking to find a singer to voice the track. Before he could suggest Cornell Campbell, Lee had done so himself. A few days later the track was finished and a dub version was released within a few months. This was just the start of a great relationship which culminates in this release.
Nothing Can Stop Us utilises the glorious Jamaican tradition of 'versioning', with Campbell giving new melodies and lyrics to a number of Soothsayers rhythm tracks from Human Nature. 'Streets of London' becomes 'Good Direction'. A dub interlude is extended into 'With You My Heart Belongs', with Campbell's sweet chorus beautifully supported by three-part harmonies from Soothsayers.
At the age of 67, no one could expect Campbell's falsetto to soar as majestically as it used too. There's definitely more grain to his voice, but this sits nicely with the Soothsayer's heavy roots-reggae grooves, and his pipes hold up to the challenge with more than a bit of style. His voice only really struggles in the North African-flavoured 'Jah Jah Me No Born Yah', a tune he originally recorded in the 70s.
Lyrically, Campbell manages to be sombre and uplifting simultaneously. Familiar Rasta themes of unity, freedom and sufferation are voiced in 'Ode to Joy (Babylon Can't Control I)', 'We Want to Be Free', and 'It's Not for Me'. 'Conqueror' is a defiant response to old age: "To conquer age is victory/ I'm a conqueror/ I'll make you see". 'I'll Never Leave' has a slightly meandering and clichéd verse, but the majestic chorus makes up for this.
Although tracks like 'We Want to Be Free' demonstrate the band's love of afro-dub, the majority of Nothing Can Stop Us is hard-grooving roots-reggae expertly played by the Soothsayers. Bass and drums are locked; guitars and keys restrained and tasteful with perfectly crafted horn-lines gliding on top. Most of the album is mixed with a dub aesthetic. Delays and reverbs are applied liberally, but the finished product still feels crisp and solid.
The hands-down highlight of the album, however, has got to be 'There's a Fire'. After nine heavy tracks comes this gorgeous slice of lovers rock which uses a brand new rhythm track. Campbell's tender, perfectly-pitched vocals are nicely complemented by a dash of Wailers-style rock guitar-licks, warm horn harmonies and a laid-back trumpet solo.
Unlike many collaborative albums, Nothing Can Stop Us doesn't feel forced. Both parties are doing what they do best, and both come out with their heads held high. In terms of songwriting, it doesn't quite live up to the sharp political and humanitarian focus of last year's Human Nature. This is possibly because Campbell's Rasta-themes aren't quite as accessible, but it could be argued that the nature of 'versioning' means that songs are less organic and cohesive.
Still, this is a brave and welcome project, no doubt a blessing and profile-raiser for both Soothsayers and Cornell Campbell. Both have shown that world-class reggae is still being made in 2013. And the fact that they are taking the project outside of the studio and on tour with a full live band is even more impressive. Watch out for the album launch on July 24 at Cottons in London. It's bound to be a real treat.