It’s a hard trick pulling off a fresh reggae record. The genre was defined to pretty much its limits back in the 70s heyday when giants such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and Black Uhuru bestrode a global stage, the Brits in particular warming to the music ‘thanks’ to ties developed via the slave trade and then an open arms migration policy that started in 1948, when 8,000 journeyed from the Caribbean to the UK on the SS Empire Windrush to begin a new life.
Hollie Cook, though, is giving it a damn good try. She’s got the pedigree to help her along, too. Not only is she the daughter of the Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook (a band, lest we forget, who were champions of reggae), and her mother was a backing singer for Culture Club, she paid her dues via a stint in the seminal The Slits, the trailblazing all-woman reggae-punk alchemists. Since releasing her first solo album in 2011, produced by Brighton’s king of dub, Prince Fatty, which featured old-timers Dennis Bovell and The Pioneers, Cook has been steadily building up a following for what she calls ‘tropical pop’, but which is more specifically a wholehearted embrace of reggae, lovers rock, and rocksteady, the precursor to reggae, and then giving it a female spin via her gentle, soulful vocals that recall Janet Kay.
With dub maestro producer Youth at the helm and generally adding loads of electronic flourishes, drums from Prince Fatty, and Cook using a few Jah Wobble cast-offs that she rewrote, Vessel Of Love is a superb modern take on old school dub, reggae and rocksteady. The title track itself being, as Cook says, “An ode to treating your mind and body right to get through those tougher emotional moments in life”. That is a great summation of the power of reggae music, an uplifting yet ever-so-slightly melancholic-tinged ray of sunshine that always works best in the great outdoors, on a summer’s day.
Lead track ‘Angel Fire’ shows the overall destination for the album, via layered saxophones, trombone, organ, and that classic reggae rhythm backing of bass and drums, all filtered through heavy reverb, and Lee Scratch Perry-style sound effects. ‘Stay Alive’ brings it forward a little via a digi-dub foundation, counteracted by ‘Ghost Town’-style organ, a little bit of digi-dub, while the love song ‘Survive’ floats along a super gentle groove, topped with some modern synth sounds to give it a more contemporary feel. The melody-rich ‘Ghostly Fading’ leans towards the ska rhythms of old, as does ‘Freefalling’, a fusion of 60s Desmond Dekker and lovers rock, with Youth sticking his neck out a little with some strings towards the end and analogue synth modulation, but without laying it on too thick.
Youth really turns it on for the spacious and chilled dub effect laden ‘Lunar Addiction’, as Cook completely loses herself in love and “transcending clarity”, while ‘Together’ is that age-old rallying call for people to come together as one. Cliqued for sure, but a just-as-relevant gesture of hope and solidarity today as it was yesterday. The final track, ‘Far From Me’ is the least reggae track here, the almost cinematic Bond-esque mood allied to a semi-dub bassline, trip-hop scratches, cascading piano lines, guitar twang, strings and synths. It comes as a bit of surprise, but placed at the end it avoids sounding out of place, instead revealing itself to be a very classy composition that is perhaps a pointer for the future.
There’s a wholesome and relaxing vibrancy emanating from Vessel Of Love, a positive affirmation of resilience, living and loving, solidified via the tried and tested rhythms and beats of 60s and 70s reggae, the alluring voice of Cook, and the exquisitely spacious and intoxicating production of Youth. “I’m feeling low today/So I get myself high” sings Cook on the title track, with seagulls and waves acting as backdrop. It’s but one of many potent invitations to luxuriate in the warmth of this album.