The UB40 File

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Now this is what we want: most of UB40's debut album Signing Off, plus the 12" single that was included with initial copies of the set, coupled with their first three double A-sided singles. So far removed is the group's earliest work from their later sound that even the most culturally minded of reggae fans will want this record in their collection. UB40's later albums rarely equaled the strength of their singles, even as their later singles lost much of the bite and creativity of their predecessors. Thus, this set captures them at their most militant and experimental. The trio of singles -- "Food for Thought"/"King", "My Way of Thinking"/"I Think It's Going to Rain", and "The Earth Dies Screaming"/"Dream Is a Lie" -- reveal the inner workings of the group, as they play with styles, shifting back and forth from more Jamaica-fied sounds to almost breezy pop, winding into smokey jazz clubs, onto the dancefloor, and off into the dreamiest of milieus. On their full length, the band furthered their musical adventures with both vocal tracks and groove-filled instrumentals and dub. Thematically, the songs were even harder hitting than the singles, encompassing calls to class warfare to the defense of young Gary "Tyler", imprisoned for life in Louisiana. The horrors of the American south obviously haunted the band, and they return to its magnolia scented climes for "Strange Fruit", a terrifying expose of lynching. "Fruit" was one of the trio of songs on the aforementioned 12", along with the driving instrumental "Reefer Madness", and the epic "Madam Medusa", where the mythological Medusa stalks the roots-reggae groove across the 12+ minute track. If all you know of UB40 is their later hits or Labour of Love series, UB40 will come as a revelation, commercially accessible, but roaring with militant fire, awash in creativity and honed with their desire to bring reggae into a new musical world of their own invention. In all that they succeeded brilliantly.

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