Review: Bob Marley… With Strings Attached…

Bob Marley & the Chineke! Orchestra
Bob Marley & the Chineke! Orchestra

Videos by American Songwriter

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

It’s got to be a challenge for the marketing suits at UMe to keep devising innovative ways to re-sell Bob Marley’s durable and timeless catalog. After all, the albums have already been remastered and expanded, there is a definitive box set plus other compilations, the outtakes and vault live concerts are available and the music has been remixed and twisted into every imaginable structure. What could possibly be left? 

“How about bringing in classical instrumentation to enhance those tracks?” suggested the famed cellist with the Chineke! Orchestra. It probably took record company management and the Marley family that controls his legacy about five minutes to realize this was a viable new source of hawking the reggae icon’s catalog… again. Cha-ching! 

Thankfully, getting the European Chineke! Orchestra involved was a clever move. The aggregation, formed in 2015 and comprised of ethnically diverse musicians, is the first of its kind to only include artists of color in a classical configuration. Most of their catalog also features new music composed by others of color, which in itself places the outfit in a powerful and unique position. 

Infusing orchestration to pop, or in this case pop-reggae, is nothing new. In the recent past, the concept has been applied to artists like Elvis, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, and Yes, among others. Those results can be generously described as erratically effective.

This is much better.

The producers wisely use Marley’s original recordings with the Wailers, then layer on the strings. Predictably, this works better on some of the ten tracks than others. Kicking off with “Exodus,” the scoring previewing the song’s riff is apparent even before Marley sings. As it progresses, the strings float in and around, underlining some moments, augmenting others, and occasionally injecting additional drama to a tune that already had plenty.

No one stayed up late choosing the tunes. Between “Stir It Up,” “One Love/People Get Ready,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Is This Love,” and “Get Up, Stand Up,” there aren’t many surprises here. A few less obvious selections such as “Top Rankin’” and “Turn Your Lights Down Low” also appear. Generally, the Chineke! Orchestra avoids the overblown, sugary, slick sound other ensembles have employed in similar projects. They also lay back, letting Marley’s voice and band take the spotlight on “Satisfy My Soul” where the strings are barely present.

There are highlights too. The cello that opens Marley’s “Redemption Song” is a wonderfully evocative overture and the alternately throbbing and flowing strings that follow help focus the listener on the lyrics. Since the initial recording was so sparse, the enhancements bring another viewpoint to the already mesmerizing performance. The strings also interact and mesh well with the horns and the I-Threes vocals on “Top Rankin’.”

Exactly who this is meant for is difficult to ascertain though. Existing fans probably won’t appreciate anyone messing with Marley’s classics and it’s unlikely that those who, for whatever reason, weren’t interested in his music before, will suddenly change their minds hearing these rejiggered versions.

Regardless, even if the “cash grab” notion can’t be ignored, the Chineke! Orchestra’s playing and innovative arrangements of these Marley gems are worth hearing… at least once. Your mileage may vary.     

Photo Credit: The Marley Family/Island Records/UMe

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