Recording information: A-Room Studio; Tuff gong Studios.
Editor: Chris Scott.
Photographer: William Richards .
Having been the reigning queen of socially conscious reggae since she debuted in 2008, Etana continues to evolve on her third official full-length, the 2013 release Better Tomorrow. Rather than use the usual reggae album construction style --totally new tracks combined with some new songs performed over familiar "riddims" -- this ambitious effort is almost entirely new, with the singer's backing band (honest to goodness, not a hired studio crew) free to explore the groove as long as it's fruitful. A great example is the key cut "Reggae," a love song ("You're just like reggae, you hit me like a drum/Reggae, play chords and I will strum") that travels from enraptured to blissful to fulfilled, all with the band responding, taking a firm groove and breaking it down to a loose, reverb-heavy dub. Then there's the mighty and organic "Queen," which interpolates Bob Marley's "Concrete Jungle" for the modern female, but it's the smooth songs that really shine, as easy, breezy numbers like "Beautiful Day" are anchored by the authentic slow strut of a live band. With a full-bodied chorus behind her, the powerful worship number "The Prayer" could be mistaken for mainland gospel if Jah weren't mentioned; then there's the closing title track, which winds and jumps with that live band feel and comes off as a reggae/pop/rock combination of Paul Simon during his Graceland era, Damian Marley on one of his more epic songs, and the Police right around Synchronicity. The genre-jumping and live playing deserve some focus because they're new, but Etana's gift for empowering songwriting that poetically advocates high self-esteem and makes the modern everyday struggle sound valiant is as strong as ever. Topping it all off with an intro that's one part Fugees and one part poetry slam is like the icing on the cake, and if Better Tomorrow doesn't give up the usual amount of hit singles for Etana, it is still her most accomplished and well-designed album to date. ~ David Jeffries