Love's Labours Lost

At the very least, it's time to retire the twice-recycled album title.

By the time UB40 -- the feel-good, British reggae group that manages to be both socially conscious and palatable to Lite-FM radio -- hit it big with 1983's melange of smooth reggae covers (Labour of Love), the band was five albums into its career. Prior to that, they had carved out a niche in England as mod multiculturalists -- descriptions of the eight-piece outfit invariably began with a passage detailing the band's multiracial make-up. They were popular in the club/dub scene, but there wasn't much crossover appeal.

All that changed with a slow-jam version of Neil Diamond's "Red Red Wine." The song -- with its mix of non-threatening, funky rapping and Jamaica, mon party appeal -- was a break-away hit; anyone who grew up in the eighties can still recite "Red red wine makes me feel so fine ... " in his sleep. The rest of the songs on the album were pretty good, too, or at the very least fun. UB40 seemed to have perfected the art of making what was once a raw, political music eminently safe and endlessly danceable. Coupled with a squeaky-clean image, the band was poised to become the first worldwide reggae sensation since Marley himself.

Alas, it wasn't to be. Subsequent albums did well, but nothing was as successful as that Neil Diamond cover. So in 1989, the band opted for a Labour of Love II. The sequel wasn't bad, although it didn't possess anywhere near the freshness or immediacy of the original Labour.

Fast-forward ten years, and you have Labour of Love III, which can only mean one thing: UB40 isn't moving units. This album follows form to a T: there's another Neil Diamond cover (a tepid "Holly Holy"), a decaffeinated Marley tune (a languid "Soul Rebel" so emotionless it could function as new-age mood music), plenty of vapid synth lines and a few moments of foot-tapping musicality. Labour III also perpetuates what is becoming an unfortunate UB40 tradition: each album of covers is less relevant, less fun and less worthwhile than its predecessor.

The album has its moments: "Good Ambition" is fun, with its rollicking organ lines and "Blood and Fire," punctuated by steel drums and a dub-lite mix, is excellent driving music. The horns are still there, Ali Campbell's voice is occasionally still beautiful, but overall Labour III sounds more than a little like a collection of beer commercial jingles.