The other day, on a single visit to The African Music Store, I was able to buy the four debut CD's by four diverse local acts from, loosely speaking, Cape Town, All of them are independent releases too. To me this is a positive indication of the robust state of health of the local music scene and the ambition of the musicians within it.
At least two of the albums have been reviewed in the South African edition of Rolling Stone and no doubt all four of them would be reviewed there in due course. Attention is being paid. And deserved.
The four acts are: December Streets, The Great Apes, The Bone Collectors and Lucy Kruger.
The Rolling Stone reviewer did not care much for This Is by December Streets because the songs are too samey at mid tempo with pop "ooh oohs" that grated on the reviewer's ears. My take on the album is that it fits in with the current trend of twee, jangly British pop typified by Two Door Cinema Club and Bombay Bicycle Club, influenced by the Eighties, with echoes of Teardrop Explodes and Haircut One Hundred. Even stranger: I hear reminders of local band Karoo, one of my favourite Nineties bands of the first wave of the South African Music Explosion that followed the regime change in 1994, and now that I think about it: also more recently local band, Cassette, particularly their debut album before they got too dark and serious.
This Is comes in
a fancy cardboard fold out sleeve, which by now seems to be the obviously preferable hip alternative to the plastic jewel case of most major releases. We are also given a booklet, tucked into an inner pocket of the sleeve, with lyrics on one side and some photographs and inspirational slogans on the other side. The impression is that someone has spent a bit of money on making the product look good on the shelves and to give the buyer a little visual distraction. All good and well though I have never been a fan of printed lyrics. The listener should be able to make up his or her own mind about what the singe is telling us, if the lyrics are not that clear in the first place.
That the album is distributed by Sheer Sound must be some kind of stamp of approval and expectation that the music will reach more than a cult audience.
The feel the band aims for seems to be a breathless adrenaline rush for each song, with choppy guitar, trumpet filigrees and driving drums. The nagging sense of a missing wow factor is a bother. The production values are high and the record sounds good; the problem is that it seems the kind of collection of songs one would have to listen to in tandem to make sense of them. Very few tracks stand out sufficiently to become memorable. The album picks up speed and finishes strongly with tunes like "Thief", "Got That Feeling" and "Wazungu" with a nod to other local act, Hot Water.
The Rolling Stone reviewer is right, though. Every damn song contains its fair share of Tristan Coetzee going "woah oh oh" as if he just cannot contain himself. In one song this exclamation would signify excitement. In so many it simply becomes an irksome, calculated mannerism.
December Streets is a thoroughly contemporary guitar pop band. I cannot distinguish them conceptually or sonically from their peers that have attracted favour on the radio or on MP3 playlists and for this reason they should be equally popular. On the other hand, if nothing much distinguishes them from the competition, what's the point? This Is does become quite likeable in a frothy pop kind of way. A good, solid debut album with merit. Now they need to find some genius move to get ahead of the pack.
Lucy Kruger's album, All Those Strings, is presented in the traditional plastic jewel case and on the face of it looks like your standard big label release, though it seems to be as independent as the rest. I always wonder where the money comes from to record and release an album like this, especially when one sees the names of the session musicians who are the cream of local talent, with Albert Frost, Schalk Joubert, Melissa van der Spuy, Kevin Gibson, and local star chanteuse Inge Beckmann on backing vocals on one track. Obviously the presence of these names puts the seal of approval on Kruger's appearance on the local scene.
Apparently Kruger studied drama at Rhodes University and has now settled, or returned to, Cape Town, to pursue whatever her muse might be and has become an instant next big thing on the local scene. Or maybe it is just a Twitter thing. The enigmatic, arty photographs on the inner sleeve reinforce the suspicion that the album is something of an art project. This record did not come about from a bunch of mates sitting around jamming until they come up with a tune or two and then recording the results in someone's bedroom. Perhaps Kruger was writing poetry and noodling away on an acoustic guitar in her dig in Graham's Town, between lectures, until she got some songs out of the experience and then played in the local equivalent of a coffee house.
Anyhow, the music on All Those Strings is also the most traditional adult pop / rock sounding of the four albums. The arrangements are tasteful, sweeping, dynamic and well produced; all of the adjectives one would apply to a project of the highest professional quality.
Vocally Kruger reminds me of Josie Field with the same kind of lisping affectation in the pronunciation of certain words, especially the sibilants. The refrain of "it's cdatchy phrases that sell" in opening track "Littel Puppet" is also so very Field. Kruger is not as expressive or as passionate as Field, though, and that lack of brio is the major drawback of this performance. Kruger sounds a tad too reserved and careful not to fuck up than totally committed. There is not actually an ice maiden thing going on, because the voice is too warm for that, but it is not a totally relaxed, exuberant performance either.
If Lucy Kruger is a drama student, this may be just a role she is trying out for now. The songs are not bad, with the kind of deep pondering one would cynically expect from this kind of young woman, and there are some decent tunes but for a pop record, even a high concept one, there is remarkably little about it that stands out on first listen or even on repeat. It is likeable yet not adorable. I would not say it is a vanity record but it sure sometimes plays like it. There are no really big tunes or quirks to the songs that are really driven by their arrangements. "Muse" is a highlight, and so is the catchy guitar hook in "Heaven" and the soaring melody and heartache of the refrain "crying out for more" on "Four White Walls."
The Bone Collectors is a collective operating on the new blues scene in Cape Town, where the emphasis seems to be on rootsy, old-timey, pre-electric sounds rather than the lead guitar histrionics that have been the tendency. The obvious antecedents are the jug bands and string bands of the 1930's, whether in the Mississippi Delta or in the Appalachian mountains. There seems to be an equal fascination with back country blues and hillbilly country. Murray Hunter of Sixgun Gospel plays harp on a couple of tracks, presumably because the main honcho of Bone Collectors, one Roland Hunter, is his brother.
Black Love suffers from the serious and unfortunate disconnect between the sprightly, energetic music on the one hand and Hunter's less than engaging histrionic vocal style on the other hand. He sounds weirdly like Hugh Laurie on some tracks but mostly reminds me of the guy who used to front the Honeymoon Suites. And the latter is not a good thing.
The tunes tend to have little variation from song to song and kind of sound like so many reworkings of the same basic thing. Hunter has a degree of skill with words but he has neither a blues voice nor a country voice. Worse: he does not have an interesting voice nor does he use it in interesting ways. The effect is that Hunter sounds a trifle studied and forced – a white guy from South African doing his utmost to emulate music he probably loves yet cannot get to grips with. This album is a disappointment to me. I like the type of music The Bone Collectors play and had high expectations of it. In a live situation the flaws would most likely not matter too much. In the pristine setting of high quality digital audio the flaws are exposed, exaggerated and bothersome. In fact the flaws are so irritating I cannot see myself giving this album much time on my CD player.
The Great Apes are hard rockers with influences that range from mid-Nineties grunge to Iggy & The Stooges, and basically loud and fast garage rock.
One should also make special mention of the packaging of their debut album. The CD is almost lost in a very elaborate fold out cardboard and paper sleeve with black and white geometric or Kabbalistic symbols. I can believe that each sleeve might have been hand made. There is even a paper covering sleeve that fits tightly over the main sleeve and there is a real danger that this paper sleeve will tear sooner or later if one keeps taking the CD out to play it. The band has seen fit to have no words anymore on the packaging. Either you know this is the Great Apes album or you have to prize open the barricade to check out the CD itself to find out which band this might be.
The band performs 8 songs in about 35 minutes, which makes this an excellent old school garage record. Loud, relentless high energy guitars, shouty vocals, lead breaks. What is not to love? Who knows what they are going on about and who cares. The sugar rush of this album is an undiluted pleasure. .
Of the four albums the Bone Collectors' release is the weakest and the greatest disappointment and the Great Apes' record the most viscerally exciting and the most joyous experience. December Streets and Lucy Kruger have both given us their respective takes on what constitutes contemporary pop music and although their efforts demonstrate care in the making and attention to detail, they appeal more to the head than the heart. The Great Apes make what I think of as silly smile music. It is almost a guilty pleasure to delight so much in unpretentious faster louder rock that makes you want to put the CD player on endless loop. Lucy Kruger, for one, just seems to damned serious about her music. She is not the first, and will not be the last, young woman with issues she wants to discuss aloud as songs.
All of these acts have a place in South African music and the diversity is a good thing. I hardly ever buy albums by "international" rock acts anymore because pretty much all currently popular genres and variations can be found locally. To my jaded, older musical ears, there is nothing so wonderful about the Bombay Bicycle Clubs of this world that compels me to buy that type of music when I can get basically the same style form a local act that is more deserving, or at least equally deserving, of support.
South African rock has come of age over the last 18 years and these four albums are proof positive of this proposition that our rock acts can match whatever the rest of the world has to offer.