By Matthew Allen
If you ask British fans of Liam Bailey to describe his sound, they’d likely mention the soul-baring acoustic compositions found on his 2010 debut EP, 2am Rough Tracks. If you ask American fans of Liam Bailey to describe his sound, they’d probably refer to his tight reggae tracks like “When Will They Learn.” One thing both groups of fans would have in common, however, is that they’d be surprised to hear the sound of his major label debut, Definitely Now, out today (and currently streaming on Jay Z’s website). This album is a sonic boom of propulsive guitar riffs and heavy blues. However, if you listen closely enough, you’ll find the best of both his reggae and folk influences underneath the surface of the music he calls “Duppy Rock.”
As Bailey sees it, the album’s first seven tracks “literally smack [the listener] in the face with this rock vibe—heavy blues.” Meanwhile, his reggae inflections lend an intriguing ingredient to songs like “On My Mind” and the bruising, Hendrix-esque “Villian.” However, what’s so surprising is that several of the musicians behind Definitely Now and Bailey’s early, reggae releases are one and the same, hailing from Brooklyn’s Truth & Soul Records, which has worked with Amy Winehouse (whose Lioness Records put out Bailey’s early EPs, helping to launch his career), Adele, Aloe Blacc, Lee Fields and many more.
“I’ve known Truth & Soul since 2007. We have a strong musical connection,” Bailey said. “The reason Definitely Now sounds different is that we put more effort into the production; there’s more musicians on there. ‘When Will They Learn’ was just bass, Hammond organ and drums. This time you have drums, guitar, organ, bass and there’s more to it, but I think the aesthetic is still there.” While the inspiration of British rock heavyweights like the Who, Cream and Oasis are evident on the new album, equally prevalent are the voices and sounds of Bailey’s Jamaican roots. “I lean toward Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Alton Ellis—obviously Bob Marley, but I think some of the other reggae singers are overlooked.”
After Definitely Now’s first half bombards you with reggae-tinged blues, six of the album’s final seven songs marshal the acoustic folk sound that Bailey’s early followers are more accustomed to. The only difference now is that that sound is far more lush and focused, as on the spiritual “Battle Hymn of Central London” and the lovelorn “Crazy Situation.” Bailey purposely split the album as such (much like how the Isley Brothers used to separate their funk tracks with ballads). “It’s a digital version of side A and side B,” Bailey said. “I’m doing what they know me for as well, but then introducing them to another aspect of my character and my creativity.”
Helping Bailey marbleize his new sound with his old sound is famed producer Salaam Remi, known for his award-winning work with Amy Winehouse, the Fugees, Alicia Keys and countless others. “We’ve gotten to the point where he’s more like a brother,” Bailey said of Remi. “Working in the studio with him is very cool because he’s very calm and encouraging. It’s a learning experience working with him.”
Time will tell how fans will react to Definitely Now. It’s not quite reggae, not quite blues, not quite soul, but each plays a part in what makes this record so powerful. Bailey, for one, likes the fact that it’s so hard to put a label on his music. “I’ve always seen myself as indefinable,” Bailey said. “But during the process of producing this record, I’ve realized that’s actually a good thing, especially in today’s world. People like the fact that you can drop something completely different on them.”