Desmond Dekker & the Aces

Shanty Town

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This minimal but coherent Desmond Dekker & the Aces compilation is drawn mostly from the early reggae age, and while hit-laced, it is less interested in chart position than in thematic coalescence. The quintet recorded a flood of fabulous music across the late '60s and right up to producer Leslie Kong's untimely death in 1971. Dekker was a prolific songwriter, with his compositions zinging the Zeitgeist of the day as well as tackling more personal matters. Counterintuitively, Shanty Town Original doesn't include the group's 1967 smash "007 (Shanty Town)," the song that flawless encapsulated the rude boy rule of the rocksteady age. But rallying the ranks and glorifying the bad boys would, in fact, have cut across the grain of this set, which instead takes a more serious look at life in the yards of Kingston's shanty neighborhoods. The album kicks off with the quintet's smash cover of Jimmy Cliff's "You Can Get It If You Really Want," which is bookended by Dekker's own take on conquering the world through sheer self-will, "Perseverance." But down in the ghetto there are many "Problems" to overcome, much "Trouble & Misery" (here the song is oddly retitled "Peace of Mind"), but as Jimmy Cliff notes, "That's the Way Life Goes," which the band also covered to perfection. It's always been a sufferer's world, even going back to biblical times, as the group's international chart-topper "Israelites" dramatically recalled. But even in the midst of such wretchedness, joy was to be had; love found; and children born, raised, and adored -- and few more so than Dekker's own constantly misbehaving young sister, the subject of the hits "Pickney Gal" and "It Mek." Music, too, was an integral part of shanty town life, highlighted by "Rudy Got Soul," the sole rocksteady number on this set, and the exultant "Music Like Dirt" (aka "Intensified Festival"), which won Dekker the prestigious Independence Song Festival Competition in 1968. With only 13 tracks, this is a sparse offering, but unlike most of the Dekker compilations on the market that mix and match hits and misses and present a mishmash of genres, Shanty Town offers up a short but sharp look at the artist in a cultural context, and it's all the stronger for that.

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