Album Review: Rhoda Dakar – Version Girl (Sunday Best Records)


Rhoda Dakar’s first album in five years, Version Girl, is a 12-song amalgamation of reggae, ska, and lovers’ rock covers. The album moves energetically from David Bowie, Tim Buckley, The Pretenders, Louis Armstrong, and The Rolling Stones. The first and eponymous track ‘Version Girl’ is the only original, and begins with a sample of Dandy Livingstone’s 1970 song ‘Version Girl’. Livingstone’s song inspired the album, and, with it, Dakar introduces her vision for the album: ‘took an old song and did it our way, now I’m back to do it again with songs I’ve loved from way back when’.

In the late 70s and early 80s Dakar was lead singer of the Bodysnatchers – an all-female ska band that was part of the two-tone movement, alongside bands such as Madness and The Specials. These bands blended genres like ska and reggae with punk to both speak back to the original genres and to create a new hybridized style. In also providing vocals for The Specials, Dakar is often credited as one of the fundamental female voices in the largely male-dominated genre. Version Girl certainly confirms this legacy as Dakar covers an eclectic range of infamous songs by predominantly male artists. 

Her cover of The Pretenders’ ‘Stop Your Sobbing’ – from their self-titled first album – effortlessly transforms the original into a “reggae skinhead” track to add a new cheekiness and energy. With this version, Dakar’s belief that the album “demonstrates the amazing adaptability of these Jamaican genres” blasts through thanks to the high tempo and upbeat rhythm created by the drums. 

Mid-way through the album Dakar covers Tim Buckley’s 1970 ‘Song to Siren’ to create a moving rocksteady rendition of Buckley’s folk song which loses none of its poignancy. ‘What a Wonderful World’ effortlessly provides a new version of Louis Armstrong’s classic which, considering the time-honoured status of the original, is no mean feat. Towards the end of the album is a reggae cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘As Tears Go By’ 1964 single. Dakar’s version captures the poignancy of the original and of Esther Phillips’ similarly haunting soul adaption but it also, with the reggae take, adds some welcome lightness. As such, Mick Jagger’s lyrics that sing ‘it is the ending of the day / I sit and watch the children play’ take on a new hopefulness and joy. 

With this album Dakar becomes the ‘Version Girl’ of Livingstone’s song: she transforms these songs that had no reggae, ska and lovers rock covers and adds her own vitality. A good cover reminds us of its original – whether through its similarity or its difference – but also has the ability to create something that is, even if only in part, new. Version Girl creates a welcome and nuanced set of covers which feel effortless; each song builds on, or shifts the meaning of, the originals they are inspired by and ultimately has the effect of providing new sounds and meanings. 

Version Girl is out now via Sunday Best Records