Johnny Osbourne

First Choice

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It had been quite a few years since Johnny Osbourne released a new album, so expectations were high for this set. To add to the excitement, this was the star's first time out with producer Lloyd "Bullwackie" Barnes, an obvious match that for whatever reason had passed them by in the past. "Greetings," Osbourne calls out on the album-opener "Babylon," welcoming all with a powerful cultural number that's backed with a bubbly roots riddim aimed straight at the dancehalls. "Show Us the Way" is even more powerful, pushing deep into dread territory and showcasing the singer's most soulful side. "Heaven and Earth" sharply shifts gears, pointing the way towards a sharper, digitized sound, which adds further edge to Osbourne's potent sufferer's lyrics. "Gunman," the album closer, is a strong update of Gregory Isaacs' hit "Mind Yu Dis Rudeboy," while "Different Strokes" is a delightful cover of Syl Johnson's 1967 R&B hit. However, in the cultural stakes, the best of this excellent batch is "Three Gunman." A nursery rhyme for modern times, the number is built around "Three Blind Mice," and boasts extraordinary lyrics, simultaneously amusing yet striking at the heart of crime. That's Osbourne's pen at its best, "Love You to the Max" finds him at his lyrical low point, almost cringingly so, but you'll forgive all when you hear the heartfelt way Osbourne delivers the lame lyrics. Happily, the rest of First Choice is given over to much stronger numbers themed around love and romance, including a few covers along the way. The powerful "True Love" is a winner, even if the lyrics, again, are not quite up to snuff. His pleading "I Don't Want to Be Lonely," the emotive "Come Back Baby," the bouncy title track, and the more delicate "Stealing Love" are also stand-outs. Back in the '80s, Barnes' riddims overshadowed virtually all his singers, and many of his DJs. But even he couldn't ignore ragga forever, and his more digitized riddims are far more understated that his rocker-styled ones. There's a lovely, airy quality to many of the backings here; the rhythms are insistent, but never overwhelming. Brass heightens a number of the tracks, glowing synth melodies splash across others, and even the most minimalistic are enriched with lavish atmospheres. In all, a splendid set that finds Osbourne in top form, and the crew as potent as ever.

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