The New York-based reggae collective Easy Star All-Stars have carved out a niche for themselves as talented interpreters of other people's songs. Their best-known releases have been re-workings of canonical rock albums such as Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon and Radiohead's OK Computer. As such, it's easy to mistake them for a novelty act, but they're better than that. Their take on OK Computer (entitled, inevitably, Radiodread) brought out another side in a set of songs which, in their original form, exuded pre-Millennial dread, anxiety, depression and stress. It re-imagined those songs as looser, more relaxed entities; not carefree exactly, but more at ease in their own skins (and, for that matter, with their own skins). It did this without ever sounding overly contrived or silly, which speaks volumes for the group's nous and technical ability. Personally, I'd take their loping version of 'Let Down' over the Oxford band's original. Sure, their take on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band wasn't quite as impressive or ambitious as their previous work; for the first time they were working with material which often sounded cheerful and straightforward, and they struggled to add their own imprint to it. Nevertheless, prior to the release of this album of original material, the All-Stars had an impressive track record.
Given all of the above, First Light is distinctly underwhelming. Perhaps because the band are better at interpreting other people's music than they are at writing their own tunes or perhaps for some other reason, it never catches fire. It's a pleasant, easy-going, positive album with a handful of memorable choruses, and its strongest moments are sure to go down well in the sunny, relaxed festival environment the band revel in, but you're unlikely to find yourself returning to it very often. Those strongest moments include the bright, sprawling 'Reggae Pension', all parping brass and sweet backing vocals; and the straightforward but confidently executed and amusingly silly 'One Likkle Draw' ('So give me one little draw from my chalice/It's all that I need before you take my herbs from me, Mr. Officer'). However, much of the other material is samey and formulaic, drifting past undemandingly and lazily. Oddly enough, given that it's been produced by a band who've always seemed hard-working and meticulous, First Light sometimes sounds like the result of a few too many draws from a chalice. Perhaps they want to get away from being known as 'the reggae covers band', but on this evidence I'd rather they got back to tackling rock masterpieces.