Sharps & Flats

Reggae legend and Massive Attack collaborator Horace Andy returns to the rootsy style and socially conscious work of his early Studio One career.

Published March 2, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

You've probably heard Horace Andy, even if you've never heard of him. One of the most arresting, astonishing vocalists to emerge from Kingston's famed Studio One, Andy's been a reggae legend since the early '70s, when his single "Skylarking" was one of the biggest hits in Jamaican history. Still, while reggae aficionados revere him, most U.S. listeners know Andy mainly through his work with Massive Attack. It's his haunting vibrato -- snaky, warbling, both nasal and molasses soulful -- that gave flavor to Massive Attack classics like "One Love" and "Angel." He's so integral to Massive Attack's sound that many probably assume he's simply part of the band, a Bristol upstart instead of an established artist with an enormous body of work waiting to be discovered by a new generation.

Massive Attack has been doing their best to set the record straight. In 1996, the band's Melankolic label released "Skylarking," an indispensable anthology of Andy's career from the early '70s to the mid-'90s. Now, Melankolic presents Andy's first solo album in 10 years, "Living in the Flood," a record that has him returning to the rootsy style and socially conscious subjects of his early work. "Living in the Flood" includes passionate paeans to Jah, tales about the reality of life on the margins of the city and insouciant love songs -- the three themes that mark almost all of Andy's work. Tinged with blues and grounded in religion, "Living in the Flood" is nevertheless often deliriously upbeat, oceans away from Massive Attack's melancholy trip-pop noir.

Massive Attack tracks like "(Exchange)" on "Mezzanine" and the disturbing, ennui-soaked cover of "Light My Fire" on "Protection" have Andy sounding freakish, almost a musical eunuch whose stunted growth echoes the music's sense of entropy and frustration. His singing is gorgeous, but deeply macabre. As a soloist, though, the menace in his voice is replaced by warmth. He's at his sunniest on "Living in the Flood's unabashedly optimistic love songs "Right Time" and "Girl of My Dreams," both rousing declarations of affection. More flirtatious than seductive, the songs are infused with an almost doo-wop innocence. On "Girl of My Dreams," he sounds like a Jamaican Frankie Lymon, projecting a sugary, unthreatening romance. "Right Time," flanked by happy horns, sparkles with such triumphant exuberance that one could almost imagine it as a wedding celebration standard.

Despite a few trendy touches -- the vocoder effects on "Girl of My Dreams" and the skittering beats on "Doldrums," which Massive Attack's 3D contributed to -- "Living in the Flood" fits squarely within Andy's traditional reggae oeuvre. Though ex-Clash singer/guitarist Joe Strummer penned the end-of-days title track, it's among the most classic sounding on the record. The bass is fat and hollow, the music full of sly, insinuating curls and Andy is at his most messianically inflamed, suggesting that he transforms his collaborators more than they alter him.

One thing Andy does share with his recent partners is an embracing empathy toward those having difficulty keeping up with an out-of-control world. A lullaby to a friend on the verge of a breakdown, "After All," recalls Massive Attack's "Protection." "I know you're feeling small/And tired of it all," Andy sings softly. His voice is both a blanket and a crutch, offering solace with the implicit promise that things will get easier someday. A man who has seen his star rise and fall and rise again all over the world, he should know.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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