Sounding quite like nothing you have heard before, The Excelsiors come correct with their debut album, Control This. The latest project from Shane ‘Sureshot’ Hunt, known for his Sharpshooters group, and for his highly-regarded Soundbwoy Reggae Breaks series wherein he has liberally dropped science, sharing his in-depth knowledge of ska, rock-steady, reggae and dancehall for the instruction of the hip-hop massive, The Excelsiors is the logical extension of Shane’s passion for classic Jamaican music (and more) of the ‘60s through ‘80s.
At a time when seemingly everything is made using the same software packages, Control This is a defiantly old-school, analogue record,dispensing with the uniform polish and sheen of contemporary production methods and instead showcasing an array of ‘real’ instruments and a variety of styles and moods. In the mix are not just bass, drums and guitars and some real antique keyboard sounds but percussion including steel pans, organ, horns, backing vocals, and even strings! All new music, cut live to tape and then seamlessly pieced together across an album of (mostly) cover versions, a living link with the music that was the inspiration for the project. Sounding like something that would be very expensive to produce in this day and age, the finished result nevertheless retains a rawness and gusto that virtually leaps out of the speakers.
Nor is this simply a reggae album –in fact, here we have Sureshot bringing together a whole array of cultural influences, in a lively mash-up style. Vocals come from northern soul/disco legend The Mighty Pope and Omega Rae of Blackalicious, coming from opposite ends of about four decades of black music styles. Mrs. Magic is the Grover Washington Jr. jazz-funk staplegiven a gender re-assignment, and an earthy reggae treatment: Esther Philips, Roberta Flack and even Amy Winehouse have previously recorded vocal versions atop this killer rhythm, this is how it might’ve sounded if Toots and The Maytals had done it at the time it came out, raucous and intense.
Carole King’s It’s Too Late has been covered notably by Dennis Brown in reggae and the Isley Brothers in soul. It’s given a reggae groove but its strings and deep backing vocals bring to mind classic ‘70s soul. It takes a particularly fertile imagination (and an extensive record collection) to think of versioning Debbie Deb’s freestyle classic Look Out Weekend as a sprawling, organic Afrobeat tune… Shane Hunt is clearly the man with that imagination! Check the fierce horns here.
Similarly, Barrington Levy’s Here I Come, the digital-dancehall tune to end them all, is here re-imagined as a hugely infectious ‘live’ jam …try listening to this without breaking into a grin, it’s so ‘wrong’ and yet so right! Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s People Make The World Go Round has been covered countless times since its original Stylistics version, and seems to have more resonance than most of the classic Philly era with contemporary listeners. The Excelsiors’ version might not even be the first version to use steel pans, but it definitely is the first to combine such instrumentation with a vaguely psychedelelic, eastern drone. Essential version!
The version of Gene Rondo’s A Land Far Away acknowledges its debt to the greatest of all reggae anthems, the Abyssinians’ Satta Massagana … while This Is Sunshine Music is a funky-soul version of This Is Reggae Music by the under-rated Zap-Pow. The optimism and yearning of the former is tempered with dark psychedelic elements making it stand out dramatically from other versions. The great era of conscious roots reggae is brought back to life with a bang with these unexpected covers. The script is flipped with a cover of The Beat’s Mirror In The Bathroom, a classic from the two-tone era, given a digital rhythm.
Two-tone marked the definitive arrival of a new multicultural generation as a distinctively British creative force… a splash still rippling to this day, with projects like The Excelsiors. As well as Shane’s version of a traditional spiritual, named here Soon I Will Be Done, he also shows his own songwriting prowess with a couple of originals, In The Name Of The Father and Cold As Steel, demonstrating influences from gutbucket funk to island music.
This is an accomplished work, essentially the creative inspiration of one man, with some very talented musicians on board, and with its phenomenal ‘live’ sound definitely marks this producer out as an artist to watch in his own right.