Is this reggae or is it rock? I dunno. It’s certainly not “Rasta music” – the lyrical focus sees to that and the rock sensibility is far too strong anyway. But it’s also not merely rock done with a reggae beat in the manner of say, The Clash or Blondie of old – the role of the roots rhythms in the overall sound is too profound, too complete, too subtly integrated. Hey, these rhythms are contained within the music’s very DNA! So let’s just admit that Always Anyway can lay claim to being either rock or reggae, and that in any case the excellence of the music transcends whatever label you assign.
The album has a full-bodied, emphatic sound, with the high production values we might expect of a major label, although in fact it’s self-produced. The tunes grew on me quickly, some of them reminding me of REM, and the vocals are just fine – I won’t even complain about the tendency of the lead vocalist to let his voice break at carefully chosen points – it’s an affectation intended to convey emotion, I guess, and if it’s good enough for The Jayhawks and for every blessed female pop singer in the northern hemisphere, it should be good enough for these guys too.
I really like the lyrics; they’re concrete enough to be meaningful yet ambiguous enough to be interesting. Take this for example: “I can’t slow down, so don’t ask me to choose/If you give up hope, then we both lose/What I lack in grace, I will make up in truth…” The melodies are as strong as the words; the arrangements combine muscle with creative good taste.
Everything about Always Anyway strikes me as being highly ambitious, but given the impressive results, the musical ambition was clearly justified. The packaging is well done too, with moody artwork, complete lyrics, and a modest little message from the band that’s the opposite of the pretentious braggadocio of many reggae artists – further evidence that this may not be reggae. But it’s not pure rock. It’s pure good music, that’s what it is.