I didn’t have much use for Ziggy Marley when he was riding high (ahem) on the charts 20 years ago, with the hacky sack anthem “Tomorrow People,” and nothing I’ve heard from him since then has changed my mind — until now, that is: for his new children’s album, Family Time, Marley has pulled out all the stops, assembling an Ocean’s Eleven-style dream team including some major names both within kids’ entertainment (Elizabeth Mitchell, Jamie Lee Curtis, the dreaded Laurie Berkner) and without (Jack Johnson, Toots Hibbert, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon). The result is a wonderfully easy listen that’s a lot more cohesive than you might think, given the succession of cameos — and if you, like me, have never given Marley much thought, it proves unexpectedly entertaining as well.
The record strikes a sunny, bucolic vibe right off the bat — the title track, which opens the album, begins with the words “Lift up your hearts with a smile / Life up your feet with a dance / Lift up your spirits with a song” — and holds it steady throughout the first 11 songs. (The last two tracks, brief spoken word snippets narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis, aren’t awful, but neither do they seem terribly necessary.) Taken together, the songs form something like a set of training wheels for young would-be reggae fans — not only simply by virtue of Marley’s presence (and those of family members Judah, Rita, and Cedella), but through some savvy choices of material to cover (“Hold ‘Em Low,” “This Train”) or reinterpret (“Wings of an Eagle” spins “If I Had the Wings of a Dove”; “ABC” does the same for “Bend Down Low”), mixed in with some thoroughly enjoyable originals. The guests generally tend to fade sensibly into the framework of whichever songs they appear on, too, with the possible exception of Willie Nelson, who sounds like he thought his bus pass was taking him to a different studio. (Best guest appearance: Paul Simon proving he hasn’t lost his affinity for reggae phrasing on “Walk Tall,” where he trades lines seamlessly with Marley.)
Ultimately, the album is a rather slight affair, but then, you get the feeling that’s exactly what Marley was aiming for — an amiable, uncomplicated good time for children of all ages. Call it an unqualified success, then, and prepare for Family Time to last a good, long while in your household.