UB40: Only fools rush in

UB40 featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey | Unplugged | 7/10

Unplugged albums are a risky proposition: there’s nowhere to hide. Stripped of lavish arrangements, slick production, and layers of instrumentation, songs are laid bare, their every weakness exposed. And, without much in the way of musical distraction, the vocal performance is more important than ever.

But as founders of UB40, singer Ali Campbell, second vocalist Astro, and keyboardist Mickey Virtue know what they’re doing. Creating rhythms with little more than simple beats, keys, and acoustic guitar, the trio have little trouble reimaging – and often completely revitalising – some of the biggest songs of the last 30 years, songs so ubiquitous they’ve become the soundtrack of our lives.

 Freed of the original’s ‘80s production sensibilities, ‘Red Red Wine’ (complete with new Astro “toast”) now sounds more fresh and vital than you remember; a vibrant ‘Kingston Town’ benefits from the experience, and additional vocal textures, Campbell has gained since laying down the original;  ‘(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You’ now emphasises the harmonising while six-string flourishes and handclap effects add an unexpected flamenco flavour.

An effusive ‘One In Ten’ embraces its new calypso feel, ‘Rat In Mi Kitchen’ sounds more immediate without those familiar horn parts, with its handclap accompaniment and soulful Campbell vocal, ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ picks up a beautiful gospel groove, ‘Baby Come Back’ picks up a more vintage reggae vibe – in part thanks to Pato Banton’s laidback contribution, and ‘I Got You Babe’ (with Campbell’s 22-year-old daughter, Kaya, ably stepping in to take over from Chrissie Hynde) sounds bang up to date.

But it’s not just their own back catalogue that gets a makeover. Already well known for making classic songs their own, here the trio have also given ‘Purple Rain’ the UB40 treatment. Much sunnier than the original, their gutsy take replaces Prince’s funk and soul with that signature smooth, but rootsy sound – most apparent when the iconic guitar solo is performed on a trumpet. It’s risky – but, as with everything else on ‘Unplugged’, Ali, Astro, and Mickey pull off the transformation in style.

  • The brand-new ‘Unplugged’ album comes with a second CD (‘Greatest Hits’) featuring the original recordings of UB40’s biggest songs.

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