As the story goes, Los Angeles-based singer Claude Fontaine had never listened to reggae when she stumbled into a London record shop and was flooded with inspiration from the sounds of '60s rocksteady that the staff was spinning. Caught up in a storm of what felt like an instant personal connection with the music, Fontaine spun her fixation into an obsession and turned that into the driving force behind her self-titled album, penning songs in the style of classic Jamaican music. These are no half-cooked stylistic dalliances or nonspecific nods to a reggae influence. Fontaine took her muse all the way, enlisting players like former Steel Pulse bassist Ronnie McQueen, onetime Astrud Gilberto drummer Airto Moreira, and Tony Chin, a reggae guitarist who worked on classic tracks with Dennis Brown, King Tubby, and Althea & Donna. Solid rocksteady rhythms laid down by these and other storied players and decidedly vintage production make the songs hard to place in time. The hazy fidelity of "Hot Tears" would sound at home on a collection of Studio One sides from the early '60s, complete with wonky organ, reverb-coated melodica lines, and a muted horn section. Throughout the album's first half, Fontaine's cooing vocals about bad love and longing sound like a yé-yé singer sitting in with one of Jamaica's hottest session bands circa 1963. The quality is particularly dreamy in the same way as reenvisioned love letters to reggae like Brenda Ray's obscure classic Walatta. The album splits into two distinct halves, with the first five songs looking to dub, rocksteady, and other Jamaican styles and the other five sending up bossa nova, mellow Tropicalia, and more Brazilian fare. Lesser songs could reduce the entire album to little more than a meticulous exercise in genre appropriation, but Fontaine's tunes match the quality of the concept. The album is full of lush and melancholic tracks like "Pretending He Was You" or the bittersweet lilt of "Our Last Goodbye." Moored in a thick otherworldliness, Claude Fontaine's debut is a warm and enjoyable collection. The songs, while intentionally mimicking the sounds of other times and cultures, come off as sincere expressions of fascination and excitement rather than dull exploitations. Fontaine may have begun the road to this album a wide-eyed tourist, but she has ended up in a world of her own making somewhere between a dream and a memory.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas