Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Toots and the Maytals [extended]

  • Funky Kingston [Island, 1975] A-
  • Reggae Got Soul [Island, 1976] B+
  • Pass the Pipe [Mango, 1979] B+
  • Just Like That [Mango, 1980] B
  • Toots Live [Mango, 1980] B+
  • Reggae Greats: Toots and the Maytals [Mango, 1984] A-
  • Toots in Memphis [Mango, 1988] B+
  • Time Tough: The Anthology [Island, 1996] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Funky Kingston [Island, 1975]
The quick way to explain the Maytals is to say that in reggae they're the Beatles to the Wailers' Rolling Stones. But how do I explain Toots himself? Well, he's the nearest thing to Otis Redding left on the planet: he transforms "do re mi fa sol la ti do" into joyful noise. I wish he had real politics--any Jamaican who can only pray to God about this time tough hasn't ever been compelled to explore all his options--and lately his arrangements have been looser than I'd like, but this is a gift. A-

Reggae Got Soul [Island, 1976]
In Toots the physical voice is all but equivalent to the artistic "voice," the way that term is applied to poets sometimes, and all its warmth, humor, and vivacity come through here. But what has made Toots doubly impressive is the amazing hit songs his voice was attached to. For starters: "Sweet and Dandy," "5446 Was My Number," "Monkey Man," and "African Doctor." None of these has been released on an American Maytals album, and nothing on this album, not even "Rasta Man" or "True Love Is Hard to Find," equals any of them. B+

Pass the Pipe [Mango, 1979]
This isn't as well-crafted song for song as Reggae Got Soul, but because it doesn't assume that "soul" equals U.S. success it's a lot less confused, and I like it more. The music's momentum is unimpeded by bad faith, and the three compositions that do stand out--especially "Famine," as amazing a juxtaposition of horror and good cheer as Jimmy Cliff's "Viet Nam"--sound like great ones. B+

Just Like That [Mango, 1980]
"Turn It Over" is an instrumental. So's "Turn It Up." "Chatty Chatty" is a charming throwaway. So's "Dilly Dally." Let's Get It Together" is a message number. So's "Israel Children." "Journeyman" is about just who you'd hope, for better and worse. B

Toots Live [Mango, 1980]
Toots's spirit and improvisatory verve merit a concert LP, and for a while I thought this one might double as a best-of--I was even ready to hold my fire on the inevitable remake of "Funky Kingston" when offered the first U.S.-album version of his magnificent "5446 Was My Number." But the exigencies of crowd control induce Toots to work that bittersweet ex-con's victory cry as a shoutalong, and when something similar happens to the climactic "Time Tough" I give up. Toots's ability to exult in suffering (cf. the unfortunately omitted "Famine") may be a miracle, but loaves and fishes it ain't. So why should a multitude join in? B+

Reggae Greats: Toots and the Maytals [Mango, 1984]
Jumping all over the place chronologically and indulging his recent crooning ventures, this still isn't the ideal Toots Hibbert record. But it'll do. Leading off with "54-46 That's My Number," as unbowed and compassionate a prison song as any in the Afro-American tradition, it includes the two Harder They Come standards as well as a remake of the primeval "Bam Bam" that proves he doesn't have to croon if he doesn't want to. Because he's never cultivated a deep reggae pocket, tumbling naturally into a rocksteady groove even with Sly & Robbie, the programming doesn't jar as it skips from 1969 to 1976 to 1980. And 1983's "Spiritual Healing" proves he can croon if he really wants to. A-

Toots: Toots in Memphis [Mango, 1988]
From Sam or Dave or Wilson Pickett these oldies would be the latest nostalgia move, but Otis's greatest student has always been shy of the soul songbook: for him, a new batch of reggae is the past he can't escape and Stax-Hi the chance of a lifetime. Like all aging soul men, he can no longer flush out the gravel at will, but the vocalese is incorrigibly exuberant, the material ranges within the concept, and Sly & Robbie synthesize the unimaginable groove you'd expect. B+

Time Tough: The Anthology [Island, 1996]
This rocksteady diehard's 1968 "Do the Reggay" named a groove he was too constitutionally uptempo ever to get into; this unspoiled journeyman's soul affinities endeared him to hippie diehards and failed to touch young African Americans, who by the mid-'70s figured the soul that was passe when it came from the South must be pure shuck-and-jive if it came from the islands. So eager to please that only 1988's patently nostalgic Toots in Memphis ever showed the courage of his conceptions, he was also too songful ever to come up dry. I can think of things I miss, such as the heartily discomfiting "Famine." But this is the testament of Otis Redding's love child. His eagerness is a natural force. And his pleasures abide. A-

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