New Music CDs Round-Up 12 | New music reviews, news & interviews
New Music CDs Round-Up 12
Top listening includes Manic Street Preachers, Seu Jorge and Underworld
This month's top releases are headed up by a brilliant covers album by Brazilian singer Seu Jorge, and the Manic Street Preachers and Richard Thompson on peak form. Elsewhere there is South African pianist Kyle Shepherd, Argentinian "eccentric mystic" Axel Krygier and dance music from Underworld and Superpitcher and "like a Humberside Randy Newman" Paul Heaton. Reviewers are Sue Steward, Joe Muggs, Russ Coffey, Peter Culshaw, Kieron Tyler, Marcus O'Dair, Bruce Dessau and Howard Male.
CD of the Month
Seu Jorge and Almaz Seu Jorge and Almaz (Now Again Records)
by Sue Steward
"Errare humanum est” is a surprising title, perhaps, for a song by an Afro-Brazilian singer raised in one of Rio’s most violent favelas. But it wasn't surprising when Seu Jorge emerged in a lead role in Fernando Meirelles’ shockingly brilliant favela thriller, City of God or as the Bowie-obsessed boat-hand in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, where he sang Ziggy covers to his samba-guitar. The next journey – to the recording studio – was inevitable. And now, as he launches his fourth album and is travelling around the US and awaiting a European tour (see below for details), his distinctively elegant, original singing and dancing will endear him to even more countries.
For this collection of 12 songs, Seu is working with a three-piece called Almaz, a group of like-minded experimenters, friends whose careers overlapped for years since the bassist Antonio Pinto provided songs for City of God, and guitarist Lucio Maia and drummer Pupillo (from Nacao Zumbi) performed with the singer for a Walter Salles film soundtrack. Such closeness makes the production feel like an Almaz project, but tying it all together is the ubiquitous Mario C, best-known for his Beastie Boys, Super Furry Animals and Tone Loc releases. To my ears, it sounds as if Seu and Almaz held the reigns and Mario C generously left his guiding ears at low volume. The result is magnificent.
“Errare humanum est” was a 1974 hit for one of Seu Jorge’s idols and fellow carioca (Rio resident), the samba-funk pioneer, Jorge Ben Jor. A comment on Rio’s social problems, it was ready for a 21st-century re-make. Ben Jor’s soulful bassy voice and the Andrews Sisters choruses were treated to recently invented electronic spaciness, but in Seu Jorge’s hands, there comes a whiff of samba-rock and a whole lot of Maia’s psychedelic-rock guitar whose minimalist blocks of chords lend an occasional Spaghetti Western feel.
That retro effect threads through the album, including many of what Seu Jorge calls "reinterpretations" not "covers". His sensual version of Kraftwerk’s “The Model” is a loose-limbed improvement on the original and sees the singer at his most seductive. Crooning at levels even Barry White didn't enter, and fitting the lyrics to a now lusciously jerky, Germanic beat softened by the Brazilian input, he also transforms the English lyrics by fitting them to his Portuguese intonations, as Maia interjects with pizzicato-like guitar phrases. Gorgeous.
The focus throughout swings tantalizingly between the voice and guitar. Fresh and excitingly unpredictable, Seu’s singing is calmly confident in spite of its sometimes unconventional pitching. But that perfectly suits the Brazilian tradition (listen to his earliest hits here, "Cristina” and the fabulous “Cirandar”), and the samba which is always there, somewhere, the default style in his genes. Occasionally, he also reveals flashes of wannabe rocker and his mild rap-like narratives place him back in the City of God. The times he slips way off key don't usually detract from the overall sound, but when he steps into Michael Jackson’s shoes for “Rock with You,” even the rich, chocolatey baritone can't save him - as a recent Miami performance on youtube reveals. But that’s a one-off, and anyway, Almaz’s backing serves as a perfect distraction - or cover-up.
In contrast, Jorge's version of Roy Ayers’ universally adored “Everybody loves the Sunshine,” is a hypnotic, contemporary reinvention. Slurring the words as if in a tipsy heat haze, and swooning over lines like '"just bees’n things in flow-ers", he's obviously enjoying himself. Ayers’ vibes are replaced now by shimmering guitar melodies and an occasional rock indulgence. And elsewhere on the album, Maia’s armoury of guitar pedals, tremolos and electronic effects outdo many of the Seventies twang-merchants who inspired him, and contribute to the modern psychedelic soundtrack as his guitar sprays cascades of lustrous notes into the mix. On “Pai Joao,” he can’t resist a Hendrix interlude.
All through, Seu Jorge shifts vocally around his country and its traditions, with chant-like singing on “Saudosa Bahia” (Yearning for Bahia) and references to the Afro-Brazilian religion of candomble, then looping back home to Jorge Ben Jor territory as he digs into their shared samba roots for the closing song, "Juizo final" (Final Judgment)with a pensiveness not heard elsewhere. A gem of an album, it already feels like a future classic.
- Find Seu Jorge and Almaz on Amazon
- See Seu Jorge and Almaz live at the Roundhouse, London, on 17 October
Listen to Seu Jorge and Almaz perform "Everybody Loves The Sunshine", below:
Manic Street Preachers Postcards From A Young Man (Sony)
by Bruce Dessau
The Manic Street Preachers have always felt like a band who have done their utmost to be perversely out-of-time. They exploded out of Blackwood in South Wales like an angry ball of energy after Baggy and before Britpop and promptly carved out their own niche, juxtaposing sweeping rock singalongs with post-situationist poetry about dead heroes and obscure, doomed film stars. Since the disappearance of Richey Edwards in 1995 they've been less interesting but much more successful, occupying a fascinating position inside yet outside the mainstream.
Postcards From A Young Man continues their habit for cultural name-dropping and walloping great riffs. Arty picture on the sleeve? Tick (an irritatingly handsome young Tim Roth). Pretentious quote? Tick (courtesy of Henry Moore). The music also holds few surprises, but it is exceedingly good. The emergence of younger arena-filling rock pretenders from Kasabian to Kings of Leon seems to have forced the Manics to step up to the plate and they do it with considerable aplomb.
Actually there is one horrifying surprise here. On their tenth album, Clash-worshipping vocalist James Dean Bradfield has come out of the closet and admitted that he is a fan of Queen. As the rousing title track fades out the influence is abundantly clear. The spirit of Fedddie Mercury's old stomper "Somebody To Love" looms large as the tight harmonies repeat the refrain "I will not give up and I will not give in."
By contrast the shadow of Jeff Lynne is relatively less controversial. There has always been a potentially naff orchestral melodic strand to the Manics and while it is more foregrounded here, with strings that can only be described as lush cropping up everywhere, somehow they pull it off, particularly on "Golden Platitudes", the most obvious, most immediate rabble-rousing number.
Bradfield has said that this is one of their unashamed pop-orientated recordings and he is not wrong. But don't think Kylie or Tinie Tempah, think of the kind of Eighties FM-friendly poodle cut pop you might hear on the soundtrack of Glee. When Richey Edwards was in the band they always aspired to the neo-operatic glam metal sturm-und-drang of Guns 'n' Roses. but fell miles short. I wonder how Edwards would feel to hear that erstwhile G 'n' R bassist Duff McKagen has taken time off from writing his column in Playboy to contribute to "A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun". Another guest, Ian McCulloch, does ethereal vocal honours on "Some Kind of Nothingness", showing Bradfield that high-decibel belting is not the only option.
Lyrically there are clear themes here. The 2009 album Journal for Plague Lovers used lyrics written by Edwards before his disappearance, On this album there is no doubt that the traumatic loss of Edwards still hangs heavy over the remaining trio of Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore. References to loss and the past pepper the album. On "Golden Platitudes" a bereft Bradfield asks "Where did the feeling go?", while as Nicky Wire sings on "The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever", "You can't rewrite your histories."
The Manics remain intriguing. I often wonder how many of their legions of denim-clad, head-shaking fans really take much notice of their literary references and allusions to communist philosophy. I suspect most of them just want to hear those sledgehammer power chords and choruses and wave their arms in the air. In which case Postcards From A Young Man will slip down particularly well. Personally I prefer the Manics when they tinker with their full-on formula. The stand-out track is the beautifully reflective "Hazelton Avenue", where after a distinctly Bowiesque guitar intro and a soppy melody worthy of Gary Barlow, the massed ranks of cellos evoke the wondrous chart-topping oeuvre of Roy Wood. The Manics truly are Welsh Wizzards.
Listen to "I'm Leaving You For Solitude", below:
Richard Thompson Dream Attic (Proper Records)
by Russ Coffey
So there’s nothing particularly new on Richard Thompson’s latest (he’s saved his experimentation for other recent projects such as Cabaret of Souls), but that certainly doesn’t stop it being one of his most satisfying recordings to date. In part this is down to the delivery. Unusually for a collection of new songs they’re also live, recorded across a series of gigs in America last February. And it works so well you wonder why he hasn’t tried it before – anything that can get you closer to the experience of being in a small folk club with Thompson is surely a good thing?
But it's not just the delivery, it's also the material. The style may be familiar but this is simply a high quality collection of songs; lyrics snarl and weep atop light, melodic and musically uplifting arrangements. In many places the record recalls the touch of the live version of his classic “Cooksferry Queen”, where the folk harmonies get a baroque twist from electrification, and are then driven by the sheer authority and experience of Thompson’s lived-in voice. In fact, spread over the 13 songs are of most of Thompson’s significant moods. He stomps in “Bad Again” and“Haul Me Up”, and laments in “Among the Gorse, Among the Grey" and “Burning Man”. “Here comes Geordie” is a stinging attak on vanity, and “The Money Shuffle” is one of the few successful popular songs about the banking crisis. The standout tracks are however about love. “Demons in her dancing shoes” reminds us what a battle love is, and the sublime “If Love Whispers your Name” is a reminder of why those battles are worthwhile.
Thompson’s own guitar-playing vacillates between picking out notes as fresh as dew and piling into his axe like thunder. And for those who are prepared to pay a little more, there’s a two-disc version of the album available included with the whole set played solo and unplugged.
Maybe it’s because Thompson’s commercial success has never matched his critical acclaim that he is so able to keep on top of his game. After a 40-year career you might expect him to have become complacent or to have run out of things to say. Apparently not.
- Find Dream Attic on Amazon
- Read theartsdesk review of Thompson's One Thousand Years of Popular Music concert
Watch a Richard Thompson documentary presented by John Peel, below:
Underworld Barking (Cooking Vinyl)
Superpitcher Kilimanjaro (Kompakt)
Skream Outside the Box (Tempa)
by Joe Muggs
The dance music album has always occupied a slightly uneasy place within modern music. In the years that rave culture was settling into the mainstream – say, 1992-97 – the concept was enough of a novelty in a genre based on 12” singles that those who could carry it off coherently cleaned up. Leftfield, Underworld, The Orb, Orbital, The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers all sold bucketloads to a bulk audience. Many, many more artists have caught up and became adept at the album form latterly, but the fragmentation of scenes and audiences mean that media and sales outlets alike have found it hard to work out how to place releases.
Those big acts are mainly still going, though; Underworld more sporadically than, say, the Prodigy or Chemical Brothers, but still going nonetheless. Barking, their sixth album since 1994, shows a band trying very hard to match former glories and fairly often succeeding. For the first time they have brought in collaborators, and essentially their choices have governed how well each track works; Karl Hyde's always-eccentric vocals and songwriting directly reflecting the quality of each track. Ultra-popular Iranian-American techno DJ/producer Dubfire brings a wistful subtlety to “Bird 1” and “Grace”, and hip Bristolian dubsteppers Appleblim and Al Tourettes make the irregular angles of “Hamburg Hotel” genuinely modern and emotionally enticing. But for each of these tracks there'll be a “Always Loved a Film”, where Ibiza mainstays Mark Knight and D Ramirez bring in crass, pounding, lowest-common-denominator trance riffs, and Hyde responds with braying 1980s pop styles, or “Scribble” with crassly "euphoric" melodies and sadly uninspired drum'n'bass beats from the usually fun High Contrast. Kudos to Underworld for reaching out to others for inspiration – but they could've picked a bit more discerningly; definitely an album to play pick'n'mix with.
An infinitely subtler and more focused parallel to Underworld's sound can be found on Kilimanjaro, the second album by Aksel Schaufler aka Superpitcher. Cologne's Kompakt label (founded by Wolfgang Voigt and Shaufler's occasional partner in SuperMayer, Michael Mayer) has long specialised in a deep and mournful subset of techno all its own, all class, poise and insidious melody – and Superpitcher, with his plaintive singing, takes this to extremes. This really is dance music to stare out of windows to, epitomised by the song “Friday Night” with its narrative of being unable to find pleasure or entertainment in the heart of city nightlife. The album is far from drab or depressing, though; like New Order, which it occasionally resembles, though it can seem arch at first there's a kitchen-sink loveliness to the simplicity and reality of the emotions expressed, and a wry sense of humour underpinning it all. It's a diffident record that requires living with to really appreciate, but it's very well worth the investment of time.
The Kompakt family are very much of the 21st century; however they still represent a continuity with the old forms of house, techno et al. There is a new generation, though, to whom the industry is hopefully looking for the new Underworlds and Orbitals – and they are making dubstep. 24-year-old Ollie Jones aka Skream is one third of Magnetic Man, whose major label album due in October is tipped to be the one that brings credible dance back to the centre of the mainstream following their recent top 10 single "I Need Air".
In the meantime, Skream's solo collection Outside The Box is making a fair heft of it: unlike so many specialist records, it provides new experiences at every turn without seeming like a grab-bag in the manner of, say, Underworld's effort. From the laser-zapping ambient intro “Perferated” [sic] through the sweet robot pop of “How Real”, to the huge electro ballad with La Roux “Finally”, there are shifts in mood, rhythm and tempo throughout, but a constant sonic signature and way with fiendishly earwormish melodies that somehow don't annoy which clearly show the strength of the young producer's personality. It's not perfect - it's too long, there are certainly lulls in the pace, and it's only for those who like pop melody - but it shows a mature understanding of, and faith in, the album form. Dubstep has taken a long while to emerge from its underground clubs and bring electronic dance into the daylight again, but it is now moving onwards and upwards in leaps and bounds. Outside the Box is another major move forward for it.
Donso Donso (Comet Records)
by Howard Male
It’s rare that the artwork of CD perfectly illustrates the content, but this French and Malian group have pulled it off. The sketch of an African fetish figure (right) pierced through its torso by a mass of nails, and then further attacked by the stencilled graphic of the band’s name, cleverly encapsulates their whole aesthetic. This is exactly the kind of primitive African image that provided Picasso with the fresh visual vocabulary that allowed him to bring a greater degree of uninhibited expression and abstraction to his art, which in turn paved the way for the development of much 20th-century art.
And so it is here with these 21st-century cubist expressionists, except it’s a sonic vocabulary they are firing off from, not a visual one. But unlike many such projects this one hits the mark. The meeting of, for want of a better expression, “the primitive” and the – for want of another better expression – “the post pop” has been pulled off with aplomb. In fact it recalls Mamani Keita and Marc Minelli’s French/Malian collaboration of 2001. But while Electric Bamako had some of its potential for edginess smoothed off by tasteful jazz arrangements, Donso are much more interested in making use of the rusty nails and acute angles of their source material and using contemporary keyboard buzzes, stabs and jarring loops to create even more tension.
Another clear influence is Mali’s Issa Bagayogo. Opener “Konya” begins wih a Djele N’goni riff that Issa would be proud of, but then in some ways actually improves on Issa’s innovative sound by not having an overly busy arrangement. Here, the producers are the two core members themselves, Pierre-Antoine Grison and Thomas Guillaume. So given that they had no one reining them in, their restraint is admirable. While on one level “Mongo” sounds and feels like a traditional Malian groove, bubbling along in the background is some funky keyboard which brings to mind “Superstition” and “Living in the City”-era Stevie Wonder. The two styles fuse so perfectly that the end result feels like it’s unlikely to date as quickly as so much of-the-moment dance music does. Donso have concentrated on texture and groove first, letting the songs themselves rise up out of this fertile base material of electronic elements alongside the humble kora and guitar.
Also worth a mention is vocalist Gédéon Papa Diarra who provides authentic-sounding Malian melodies which soar above the grooves, sounding like those God- and money-crazed evangelists on everyone's favourite "ethnic"/electronic album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. For although it’s hard to say for sure so early in an album's life, this does feel as rich and timeless as Byrne and Eno’s majestic effort, even if its scope isn’t so wide. The only difference is that Donso are hammering out a new music that's building on an existent tradition, whereas Byrne and Eno deliberately invented a fake ethnic music for their own and our pleasure. How fitting that both approaches ended up in more or less the same non-existent place. Only on a couple of tracks, such as the overly sprightly “Baara”, do the tightly sequenced, over-compressed keyboards become too dominant. But no record is perfect.
Paul Heaton Acid Country (Proper Records)
by Russ Coffey
There’s something comforting about Paul Heaton. About the way he sings in a voice with the consistency and honesty of fine porridge. About his faultless grasp of melody and the way his music has never fully left the northern club tradition. And, then, of course, is his facility with words, almost like a Humberside Randy Newman.
Lyrically, on this his third album since disbanding The Beautiful South, Heaton is on familiar turf scrutinising the suburbs and estates of Britain; the regional tensions, regrets, the foibles and above all the arguments. Mixing local and American musical styles, and often sounding pretty much like his old band, it’s still a slightly more low-key affair than the big hits he’s known for. But judging from his recent, bicycle pub tour – cycling almost a thousand miles to play 15 gigs in pubs – he’s less interested in stardom these days, and more in maintaining the integrity of his work.
In fact, it’s the earthiness that’s the real strength of the album. “Welcome to the South” and “Ladder’s Bottom Rung” proudly pipe Heaton’s credentials as a Northern socialist. “This House”, and the very funny “Even a Palm Tree” take him back to familiar domestic bickering. “Acid Country” speaks of England strangely through the musical language of bluegrass. And the real standout track is the desperately sad reflection on growing old “Young Man’s Game”, in which he rues no longer feeling someone “running through his blood”.
As is to be expected the music more serves the lyrics than the other way round. The tunes are certainly very enjoyable but offer a limited emotional dynamic. Still, Heaton’s voice alone is capable of prompting a tear or two, especially with his musings on drink problems, “Cold One in the Fridge”. In this wry narrative of abstinence Heaton, who has famously suffered from alcohol issues, claims “I’ll never cast an eye to that top shelf in the sky/ I’ll walk away and find my bed instead”.
Heaton’s first two solo excursions failed to ignite significant commercial interest. Possibly that was because they were departures from what the Beautiful South fan-base expected. It seems unlikely that Heaton is particularly interested in rekindling the kind of career he had with the band he disbanded due to “musical similarities”. But if you did like The Beautiful South it’s unlikely you won’t be delighted with Acid Country
Axel Krygier Pesebre (Crammed Discs)
by Peter Culshaw
“Sleeping and dying - this is quite common” are the only lyrics on the title track of Argentinian Axel Krygier’s new album Pesebre, which means “manger”, although the Baby Jesus plays the melodica, the sheep and cows sing carols, and Three Kings are dancing to assorted hybrid beats that seem to have emerged from a cloning lab – Latino-cumbia, surf-klezmer and Andean bluegrass. Krygier created the animated video of the title track (see below), in which his over-heated groovy mysticism has full run.
Names like Frank Zappa and Tom Zé are thrown around in relation to Krygier, which are only helpful in that he doesn’t fit in - wilfully - and that he may be too clever for his own good (or at least his sales). What rescues the album, recorded in Buenos Aires and Berlin, from just being another quirky bloke with an overactive brain, is the sheer musicality on offer on many tracks and an exhilarating sense of propulsion. There are some wonderful sound pictures, juxtaposing glockenspiels and accordions, slide guitars and sampled percussion, noises and voices that add to a sense of delirious, anarchic fun.
Watch Axel Krygier's Pesebre video:
Natacha Atlas Mounqaliba (World Village/Harmonia Mundi)
by Sue Steward
A quest for new musical experiences and new ways of exploring and exploiting her rich cultural background has always inspired Natacha Atlas. Her life as a singer is a process of continuous transformation. But this latest album follows more closely its predecessor, the 2008 best-seller Ana Hina, which pulled her somewhat away from the European, particularly London influences, and placed her more fully amongst the Cairo and Beirut styles established by those pan-Arab divas, Oum Kalhoum and Fairuz. As a consequence, her status as a part-Egyptian, part-Palestinian and part-English singer and dancer of raks sharqi (traditional Egyptian "belly-dancing") has become increasingly significant in the Arabic music diaspora.
Mounqaliba still reflects the twists and turns which led to Atlas’s unusual musical identity, and her songs’ eclectic richness reflects the background in Eighties London, with Nitin Sawnhey, Jah Wobble (she was part of his debut band, Invaders of the Heart), and her several years with the dub-fusion, Latin and Middle Eastern electronica outfit, Transglobal Underground. Recent influences have been pulled from her other home-town, Cairo, with the classic Egyptian orchestral sound Kalthoum made her own, and from the Lebanese composers, the Rahbani Brothers who wrote lasting hits for Fairuz. Atlas blends them with a Western chamber ensemble led by her co-producer, virtuoso violinist and similarly part-Egyptian husband, Sami Bishai, who previously worked with the Israeli singer, Jasmin Levy.
Such calculated cultural cross-currents explain the music’s richness. But there is also a terrible irony here: Fairuz, now 72 and still a sensational star, is currently banned by the Rahbani family (the Brothers are both dead) from singing their songs which gave succour to Lebanon all through the civil war and remain symbols of hope for the Arab world. The result has been uproar. Atlas’s closing song, “Nafourat el Anwar”, one of the most beautiful in the collection, featuring just piano, pizzicato violins and restrained strings, allows us to relish her voice, emerging like slow breath and gliding across rhythms, extending vibratos to heighten its emotional effect. Her sung references to Fairuz make it particularly poignant.
The components of Atlas’s music get ever more ambitious and the idea of merging the London string ensemble with the Cairo orchestra, and inserting Zoe Rahman’s jazz piano behind the voice, creates a rich, often emotional mix. “Batkillim” is a fantasy song, relying on the percussion and deeply melancholy sighs of a bowed cello (double-tracked?).
Scattered throughout the album are five "Interludes” including aural soundtracks from the streets of Cairo carrying the muezzin's prayers and the traffic; a thunderstorm rumblings behind a haunting solo harmonica, and short, incongruous speeches of great significance which warn of the state and future of the world and come from the Zeitgeist movement and the nonagenarian American philosopher, Jack Fresco. Situated amongst a mix of Sufi-like male choruses, undulating rhythms, swirling strings and Natacha Atlas’s heart-felt interpretations of Tagore poems, they are jarring surprises demaning you listen.
Don't think for one second that this is a doom-and-gloom album - as we are reminded by the riotously upbeat, belly-dancing, wedding song, “Taalet”, recorded in Istanbul and adorned with a full Turkish string section. It opens deceptively with sawing Nymanesque violins then turns the lights on for a night-club special. And surely takes Natacha Atlas back to her early days as a shy singer and gorgeous belly-dancer.
Rose Elinor Dougall Without Why (Scarlett Music)
by Kieron Tyler
Its self-referencing title taken from a 17th-century poem by Silesius (“The rose is without why”), Dougall’s long-playing debut is an almost perfect pop album, suffused with an attractive melancholy. Recasting British mid/late Eighties indie, Without Why hints at The Sundays (Dougall’s voice isn’t far from their Harriet Wheeler), The Smiths and even Felt at their most upbeat. Despite the nods back, Without Why is crisply modern and vital. No band then was this precise, this direct – Dougall’s music is straight to the point. The only sight missteps are some distracting Kate Nashish glottal stopisms. Opening with “Stop/Start/Synchro’s” harpsichord and rippling piano, Without Why instantly entrances: an upbeat, melodic, string-infused swoon with Dougall (ungrammatically or perhaps poetically) lamenting “I once, once beautiful to you”. Similarly affecting is the drifting ballad “Find Me Out: “I know you see the best in me, but darling there’s just not much left of it…I do not think I’m about the things you said I am”. Melody and mood intertwine seamlessly.
The source of the heartbreak is unknown, but Dougall has been moving at speed. At 24, she’s already packed in five years with the Phil Spector-inspired Pipettes. The polka-dotted trio’s sole album with Dougall, 2006’s We Are The Pipettes, didn’t offer any hints of Dougall’s solo ambitions. After leaving The Pipettes in 2008, four solo singles – all included on Without Why dribbled out, but didn’t make much impact except in Japan where the first three were compiled onto a single CD.
Über producer and Pipettes fan Mark Ronson was paying attention and has since featured Dougall both live and on his forthcoming album Record Collection (along with Simon LeBon and Ghostface Killah). No sign of Ronson though on Without Why, which is produced by Brighton-based former Tim Booth (James) collaborator Lee Baker – which, although Dougall is in the driving seat, might in part explain the ‘80s feel. With more than one path in front of her, let’s hope Dougall decides the Ronson one is a distraction and chooses to run with Without Why.
Watch video of "Find Me Out", below:
Kyle Shepherd A Portrait Of Home (fineART Music)
by Marcus O'Dair
In the internet age, it perhaps shouldn’t matter that Kyle Shepherd has as yet been unable to secure international distribution for his new album A Portrait Of Home. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Already existing within a genre – jazz – that’s very much a minority interest, the lack of overseas clout means that even those who would fall hopelessly for this second offering from the Cape Town pianist are unlikely to know even of its existence.All of which is, in its way, a minor tragedy. Shepherd, who was born as recently as 1987, proved himself a major new talent last year when his debut, fineART, was nominated for two SAMAs (South African Music Awards). This follow-up album, recorded live at Stellenbosch University last summer, represents another tangible step forward.
A Portrait Of Home sees Shepherd, together with Shane Cooper on double bass and drummer Jonno Sweetman, creating music of subtle yet tremendous power. Though the technique of all three is undeniable, this is no antiseptic chops-fest: it is music of genuine passion, meditative and stately but always emotionally engaged. It has groove at its very core, with hummable, stripped back melodies on top – and not just in the “head” sections that traditionally top and tail jazz arrangements.
Shepherd counts among his inspirations Keith Jarrett and Texan pianist Jason Moran, as well as compatriots Zim Ngqawana and the late Robbie Jansen. Yet the key influence, one he himself also acknowledges, is that of fellow Cape Town pianist Abdullah Ibrahim; closing tune Die Goema, sublime though it is, makes the debt particularly explicit. With Ibrahim his senior by more than fifty years and, on recent evidence, perhaps finally losing his edge, it’s tempting to posit Shepherd as a potential inheritor of that mighty crown.
Yet being dubbed the new Abdullah Ibrahim may for a South African pianist be as sure a kiss of death as it is for an American singer-songwriter to be crowned the new Bob Dylan. In truth, Shepherd is already showing less solemnity (and, as yet, less finesse) than the septuagenarian, as well as more contemporary palette of influences. As critic Gwen Ansell says, Shepherd represents the sound of contemporary Cape Town the way Robert Glasper does New York, through his work with the likes of Q-Tip and Mos Def.
Comparisons, then, be damned. If you’re a fan of Ibrahim, of contemporary jazz or of more traditional South African music, buy A Portrait Of Home direct from Kalahari, an online store that stocks many South African releases unavailable elsewhere on the web. And if, dear reader, you happen to be a distributor, pick up the phone immediately and offer the man a contract.
Watch Kyle Shepherd's band perform "Zimology", below:
For a Minor Reflection Höldum í ātt að Oreiðu (FOMR)
by Kieron Tyler
Post Sigur Rós, Iceland’s music has splintered many ways. Sure, there’s a reflective atmosphere that’s integral, but the fractured folk of Ólöf Arnalds, the glacial modern classicisms of her cousin Ólafur Arnalds and the disco/showtune hybrid of Hjaltalín are very different. At yet another pole are For a Minor Reflection, a Reykjavik-based quartet of 20-year-olds whose instrumental rock is about dynamics and interplay, as much as it’s about melody.
The jumping off point for their second album – Heading Towards Chaos in English – is a line between Scots’ post-rockers Mogwai and Austin’s Explosions in the Sky. Despite the lineage, For A Minor Reflection aren’t copyists. Their music – perhaps inevitably – conjures up images of stream, volcanoes, fjords and countless other Icelandic clichés. Arriving at this after trying on other styles, including blues rock, For a Minor Reflection soar weightlessly, even while pounding and thrashing with a metal-like power. Which might explain their chosen producer, the usually LA-based Scott Hackwith, former guitarist with hardcore staples TSOL. He’s also written for cultural highlights like the Adam Sandler film Airheads, and produced The Ramones along with venerable LA punkers Agent Orange and The Circle Jerks.
Höldum í ātt að Oreiðu is beautifully realised and recorded at Sigur Rós’ studio. There’re no hints of punk. The gentle rolling piano of “Fjara” is punctuated by tumbling strings that could have been contributed by the Balnescu Quartet. “Flóð” gradually builds from the same basis, repeating an arpeggio until attacking drums turn the performance into a churning high-pressure reiteration of the main theme. “Átta” almost instantly starts in this way, taking the Sonic Youth “Death Valley 69” model into orbit. What separates Höldum í ātt að Oreiðu from the straight-ahead is texture: as much informed modern classicism as post rock, For a Minor Reflection know when to take a breath.
Compilation of the Month
Various Oi! A Nova Musica Brasileira! (Mais Um Discos)
by Howard Male
The label "world music" has been a controversial one since the day it was first thought of, but nothing makes it seem more meaningless than this compilation of Brazilian contemporary music. To think of Brazilian music in a world music context means primarily either thinking about the up-tempo bombast of samba or the laid-back, breezy groove of the bossa nova. And so consequently that’s what the majority of target-marketed compilations give us: the world music fans gets what they expect to get, and the label “world music” retains what little meaning it had in the first place.
But of course just as no man is an island, no country is an island (in the metaphorical sense), and Brazil has always soaked up the rest of the world’s music. You’ve only got to listen to the psychedelic rock of the Tropicalia movement of the late 1960s to realise this. I first got a taste of just how innovative and exciting Brazilian music could be when I heard Suba’s São Paulo Confessions in the late Nineties. Yes, the dancing ghosts of samba and bossa nova presided over it, but there was a dubby cinematic edginess to the whole album which made it something very different and very exciting.
What this long preamble is leading up to is the fact that I had to wait more than a decade (apart from the occasional DJ Dolores or Tom Zé album) before hearing further evidence that Brazilian music has a diversity to it which most of us wouldn’t begin to suspect. I can’t understate what a musical adventure this two-CD compilation is, and what an excellent job compiler Mais Um Gringo has done organizing all the material. CD 1 opens with a carrnivalesque indie rock tune fronted by one of those gutsy girl vocalists so ubiquitous in our pop music, but more compelling and charming here because she’s singing in Portuguese. It's always possible to imagine lyrics sung in another language might be more intriguing than they probably are, but Portuguese is particularly appealing in that it can sound both sexy and gutsy.
And so the pattern is set. CD 1’s 20 spirited bursts of alternative pop are mainly of the fully functioning live band variety. Not every track is a winner – one cod reggae number is one too many in my book - but most hit some kind of target. The pensive minimalism of “Tulipa” sounds better each time I hear it, and it’s just fascinating in general to play spot-the-influence (there are clearly a few Blur fans in Brazil) and to take pleasure in a willful quirkiness that British pop music used to have. Take for example Alessandra Leão’s “Boa Hora”. No kit drum, just the loose thump of congas backing up a Johnny Marr-ish weave of jangly guitars and Leão’s endearingly flat vocals: only a Pernambuko band could pull off something so wayward yet catchy.
But if guitar pop, even Brazilian guitar pop, isn’t your thing, then move on to CD 2, which is worth the cost of admission alone. With American and British hip-hop stuck in constant recycle mode, you could be led to believe the genre had some kind of built-in obsolescence. But think again. The first eight tracks on CD 2 are thrillingly adventurous both sonically and rhythmically. Catarina Dee Jah is a more melodic, less brash MIA, and Os Ritmistas has managed to inject new life into samba by stripping it right down and letting a two-note synth bass line function as a hypnotic fulcrum around which all else – including some raw, dissonant sax - revolves.
Another bonus is that the artwork opens up into a map of Brazil surrounded by little biographies of all the musicians along with where they come from. So you may eventually deduce - as I have - that you have a leaning towards the music of Pernambuko, up in the North East. Despite this having been a year for great compilations, including several I’ve reviewed here for theartsdesk, this has now taken my Compilation of the Year slot, and I’d be very surprised if it was surpassed.
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