Review: At Long Last, Joe Strummer Gets the Nod He Decidedly Deserves

Joe Strummer | Assembly | (Dark Horse Records) 
Four out of Five Stars

Joe Strummer was one of those essential artists whose reputation far exceeded the widespread recognition he achieved in life. When he passed away from a congenital heart defect at age 50, he was known mainly for his roles he played in the Clash, Big Audio Dynamite, the 101ers and his solo band the Mescaleros, and yet despite having established an insurgent attitude and a musical palette that spanned punk, dub, funk, and rockabilly, his solo catalog always seemed to take second place to the iconic outfits with which he’s been forever identified. There’s a clear irony in that distinction, given that Strummer was an outspoken individual who continued to channel social and political causes fearlessly and tirelessly throughout his career.

It’s apt then that Strummer’s solo career should finally get the focus it deserves with Assembly, a long-overdue compilation that boasts both career highlights — three live unreleased Clash recordings are, on their own, well worth the price of admission — film score contributions, three tracks recorded with the Mescaleros, a moving take on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and, of special note to collectors, a heretofore unreleased version of “Junco Partner,” a song that dates back to Strummer’s initial efforts with the 101ers and rendered here as an earnest acoustic home recording.

Of course, rarities alone aren’t the reason for acquisition, and in truth, the 16 tracks assembled for Assembly offer only a small taste of Strummer’s true genius. Yet, the music that is included still manages to provide an expansive overview of a career that was in full flourish at the time of his passing. With liner notes written by Jakob Dylan, the listener is provided with an in-depth look at Strummer’s work in retrospect.

Strummer’s affection for reggae is the most consistent element throughout, and on songs such as “Get Down Moses,” “Mondo Bongo,” “Rudie Can’t Fail,” “At the Border, Guy,” and “Tony Adams,” he sounds like a Caribbean island expatriate who’s still managing to maintain his music bearings while digging at his Rastafarian roots. And yet while Assembly offers the impression that was his primary MO, a pair of reliable rockers in the form of opening track “Coma Girl,” “Forbidden City” and a sizzling live version of “I Fought the Law” performed with the Clash remind us that Strummer was first and foremost an unrepentant rocker.

It’s also interesting to note that the album is being released on Dark Horse Records, the label originally founded by George Harrison and recently rebooted by Harrison’s son Dhani. Given the legacy it established early on, this tribute to an iconic individual provides both entities with the excellent reintroduction both so decidedly deserve.

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