Version Girl by… Rhoda who?
Well, think back to the heady days of 2 Tone Records, Coventry, UK. On the cusp of the 1970s into ’80s, this label hosted the Specials, the Selecter, the (English) Beat, and more. Their revisioning of ska arguably led to the proliferation of ska-punk bands in the US, led off by No Doubt. The 2-Tone movement was as much a political beast as a musical one, preaching a message of integration, with many of the (already multi-racial) bands including children of the 1950s wave of immigration, from the West Indies and into the UK. Racism was more savage then, or perhaps just more nuanced, with the movement alerting the youth of the nation into a better understanding and acceptance.
Anyway, Rhoda Dakar was a member of the Bodysnatchers, an all-female band, who had some brief success before evolving into the Belle Stars, who had a number of hits, including their version of old N’Awlins staple “Iko Iko.” Dakar was not a Belle Star herself, but she moved on to being a guest singer with the Specials, for their second album, touring with them, later becoming a member of the Special AKA, the band they evolved into. Primarily a singer, she has since made a number of solo recordings and popped up in collaborations with a number of acts, notably Madness and the Dub Pistols. Now she has released Version Girl, her first solo album since 2015’s Rhoda Dakar Sings the Bodysnatchers.
There are a lot of songs Dakar could have chosen to cover, both originals from the Jamaican homegrown traditions, and the very many reggae and ska infused covers that have been recorded over the years. Deliberately deflecting that path, these are songs that, by and large, have not been touched by or adapted into any rocksteady beat, and the selection consists of songs, she says, “that had no previous definitive Reggae, Ska or Rocksteady versions, that we could find anyway.” She goes on to say, “I think it also continues to demonstrate the amazing adaptability of these Jamaican genres.”
That’s something that certainly cannot be disputed, especially on the evidence presented on Version Girl. So we get a parade of her personal favorites, together with a song or two fondly remembered from her childhood. You might think the presence of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” to be one such, but it goes further’ Dakar’s father was actually a contemporary of Armstrong, when they were both playing jazz in the clubs of Paris, between the world wars.
In truth, “Version Girl,” the opener and title track, fails her introductory criterion, being an early Dandy Livingstone song from 1970, under the alias of Boy Friday. But, as you listen, it becomes apparent that this is by way of introduction, a play even on song title as much as the album concept. Think of it as a scene setter, her spoken word, in a dub heavy background, adapted from both original and the later UB40 cover, describing how “from 1980, back in the day, good old ska, we did it our way. Now I’m back to do it again…”
Which leads straight into her version of the Kinks by way of the Pretenders’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” Chrissie Hynde being Dakar’s favorite singer. This lively skank carries a whole different vibe from either of the better-known versions; a hugely infectious groove, the classic organ riffing, and clashing drums combine to make for a rousing start. “Everyday Is Like Sunday” is more restrained, with punchy yet mellow horns cooking up a gentle storm. A brave choice of song, given Morrissey’s less than subtle observations around race and similar, it is a celebration more of the song than the songwriter. The fact that the credits reference the later version by, again, the Pretenders maybe carries also some credence as to where she heard it first. The clipped guitar is glorious, her vocal a demerara-dipped delight.
I confess I find “What a Wonderful World” hard to love, but Dakar has actually managed quite a feat. She has brought forth some undiscovered subtleties–well, one or two, mainly in the bubbly bassline–lost in the schmaltzy original. Still can’t bring myself to love the song, but let’s call that my problem. I hoped “Hanging’ Round” might have been the Stranglers song, but no such luck, it’s actually the Lou Reed song. And what a transformation, rendering this weakest song from Transformer into a decent and respectable lover’s rock ballad, if taken at quite a lick. Her vocals are well warmed up by now, and it is possibly the early highlight thus far. The lyrics remain as trite as ever, mind.
That high point is maintained by an extraordinary rendition of the much-covered “Song To The Siren,” which bypasses the vocal histrionic of many such iterations, instead playing more to the undoubted strength of the melody. Gorgeous, the band playing a blinder, producer Lenny Bignell playing guitar and keyboards in front the stellar rhythm section of Andi McClean and Marley Drummond on bass and drums, respectively. On a roll now, the version of “The Man Who Sold The World” is just terrific. Again, no frills, just bringing out the strength of composition, confidently and competently. Nathan Austin Campbell is the backing vocalist on these last two, and the harmonica, playing the guitar riff for “Man,” is masterful, courtesy Joff Watkins.
Ready for some country reggae? Dakar cites Elvis Costello as her introduction to country music, what with his having produced the Special AKA album. Odd to hear within the loping beat, “Walking After Midnight” almost shouldn’t work. But once the trumpet and trombone solos have seduced you, it will seem essentially normal. The tinkling piano, as it closes, also can’t fail but raise a smile. Showing she has no fear, Dakar tackles “Comme Un Arbre,” some sentimental Gallic fare from the ’70s. Her revision gives wings unappreciated, revealing the song to have unsuspected charm. I am reminded, strangely, of Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s tribute album to Nina Simone.
Another lurch sideways has her tackle the Rolling Stones, albeit via Marianne Faithfull, with a (sorry) faithful take on “As Tears Go By.” She sticks broadly to that arrangement, strings and all, with the nailed-on skank working surprisingly well. Oddly, I feel this is the one that will garnish most attention. The “Love Hurts” that follows feels just a bit too easy a target. Sure, it translates, but sounds too derivative. Frustratingly, that too is the feeling that lingers around her version of the Nick Lowe, via Elvis Costello, standard “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love And Understanding.” I mean, it is fine, but smacks of a lesser effort, compared to the run of songs that fill the middle of this record.
All in all, I think Version Girl is a worthwhile undertaking, largely achieving Dakar’s aims and objective. If it flags a little around the edges, certainly the core carries enough strong and imaginative interpretations that will last.
Version Girl tracklisting:
1. Version Girl (Boy Friday cover)
2. Stop Your Sobbing (Kinks cover)
3. Everyday Is Like Sunday (Morrissey cover)
4. What A Wonderful World (Louis Armstrong cover)
5. Hangin’ ‘Round (Lou Reed cover)
6. Song To The Siren (Tim Buckley cover)
7. Walking After Midnight (Patsy Cline cover)
8. The Man Who Sold The World (David Bowie cover)
9. Comme Un Arbre (Maxime Le Forestier cover)
10. As Tears Go By (Rolling Stones cover)
11. Love Hurts (Everly Brothers cover)
12. (What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding (Brinsley Schwarz cover)