Sunday, September 28, 2014

Beatenberg's hanging gardens are not Babylonian

Beatenberg is the name of a municipality in the Interlaken district of Switzerland. Beatenberg is also a South African pop group consisting of three young guys (two of whom studied music), who want to make glossy, commercially successful pop music of superior quality informed by their formal qualifications. They’ve succeeded, with a couple of hit singles and plenty of exposure from the music press and hyping bloggers.

The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg (2014) is the debut album of this fresh-faced young band.

The album smacks of “project” rather than heartfelt creative imperative. Beatenberg set out their stall in the dance pop market because radio friendly tunes will, duh, get radio airplay and will probably be downloaded by the kids who like sweet, cute and anodyne pop music, whether it hails from foreign shores or is homegrown.

My view is that I do not have to pay much attention to what is happening elsewhere in the world, as local acts can supply almost all of my needs in this respect. It is not completely true for the type of rock I like, which seems under represented in South Africa, but it true for the kind of pop made by December Streets, Beatenberg or ISO or whoever else. If I have to listen to that kind of pabulum I might as well listen to the South African version, which is hardly ever discernably South African anyway.

This is what the Beatenberg website tells us about the band:
Beatenberg is a fresh new face in pop music from South Africa. Or rather, three faces, handsome and young and intelligent. The faces are of Matthew Field, who also has a beautiful voice and plays the guitar, Ross Dorkin, who has beautiful hands that play the bass, and Robin Brink, who has a beautiful life-force and plays the drums like a nutcase.

Despite being in love with and schooled in 'serious music' like Beethoven, Debussy and John Coltrane, (Ross and Matthew studied music together at the University of Cape Town) Beatenberg is adamant that they are heard as 'pop music', which they believe is actually quite serious too.

Songwriter Matthew says: 'It's about emotions, images and fleeting senses of things: the mad stuff that everyone feels and almost understands.'

So, what we have here is a trio of young men with some serious musical chops and the background of theory, who, with arch irony aforethought, have chosen to make a lighthearted music that is calculated to entertain and amuse, though with some prevailing philosophical truths underneath the pop foppery of the music. That is how I translate the Beatenberg manifesto.

Perhaps inevitably, there is a chasm between mission statement and reality.

Beatenberg are not the first or the last of this breed that currently operates in South Africa. They, and their peers, purvey sugary confectionary and ask, why the hell not?

In a move away from the vague “international” generalisations of most local English rock and pop Beatenberg makes some pointed references to Cape Town places and scenes, perhaps to make the t Capetonian audience feel like they are part of the secret hidden life of a Beatenberg boy.  Other than that the band panders to those who want nothing more than simple pop heaven with words that superficially may sound serious and do not bear scrutiny for levels of poetic truth. But then, pop lyrics are not, and are not meant to be, poetry or hard truths.

The two hit tracks; “Chelsea Blakemore” and “Pluto” follow each other as respectively the third and fourth cuts on the album and do not really feel or sound as if they are the standout tracks on the album. They are much of a piece with the preceding and following tunes, which means, I guess, that the songwriting and craft applied to the performances are of such a high standard the differentiation is difficult. Or, from a different perspective, the tunes are not so individually great and awesome that each one is memorable. Like so many albums of this type, the songs start blending into one another if you don’t pay attention and it all sounds like versions of the same basic theme. The very tasteful arrangements have to carry the record.

There is quite a bit of mbaqanga influence guitar motifs and quite a few synth riffs that remind me of some terrible skinny tie, American pseudo New Wave pop records I once misguidedly bought albeit with more languor and less fizz.  I keep reading the phrase “chamber pop” and I have a feeling that Beatenberg make exactly that, a discreet, tasteful, soothing, carefully arranged pop that Is intended to be understood as having a superior quality for those reasons, as opposed to the cheery, cheesy, bubblegum pop that will one day appear in infinite variety on all time hits compilations.

Pop Is not meant to be intellectually engaging and not necessarily emotionally engaging either, unless it is because a song does bring back o very particular memory of a time and place. I am obviously already far too old to experience Beatenberg viscerally as falling on virgin ears. I’ve heard the individual parts of the amalgam often before and nothing here gives me any kind of rush of excitement. This debut album is pleasant and that is where it ends. It is not a work of undiluted brilliance. At about the halfway mark of the album the interest wanes.
The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg is not even the best debut of the past few years or of this year.  So far, this year, The Ballistics’ Calling for the Crazy gets my vote for the best debut of 2014. Of course I am biased in favour of the type of music I like and relate to, but, for example, Tailor’s debut album packs that emotional punch and punch in the gut recognition of a solid, strong set of songs. Maybe it’s down to the difference between Tailor’s assertiveness and Beatenberg’s diffidence.

This is my gripe against such a lot of this type of lightweight pop music, that there is little visceral inventiveness to it. The musicians and producer do their best to craft a gleaming, sleek pop sound, with quirky bits here and there to spice things up, to the extent that the craft is the main element and there is no sense at all of the accrual giddy fun of good pop. It just sounds too clinical. The music is polished to the nth degree and, like modern architecture, eventually simply fades into the background. Ii can see the Beatenberg boys playing in a hotel lobby somewhere to entertain guests with inoffensive, soothing melodies to promote ambient wellness. 
Of course this vision will not become true. In a couple of years’ time the Beatenberg boys will have moved on, individually or collectively, to other projects and Beatenberg will be just another minor stitch in the South African music tapestry. Clinical, passion free pop music does not have much of a shelf life.

A couple of days after I finished writing this piece, or so I thought, I heard “Rafael” on a car radio and before the DJ announced who the artist was, I thought it might a (rather inconsequential) Hot Water tune I’d not heard before, due to the mbaqanga guitar filigrees and the distinct vocal inflections of a young White male South African who sounds too uptight to really cut loose when he sings.  Part of my confusion must be due to my lack of repeated, close listening to Beatenberg but I’d be so bold to say that the confusion is justifiable given the absence of glorious hooks in Beatenberg’s music that would make it so distinctive as to be unmistakable, and so compelling that it would stick in the mind long afterward.  “Rafael” is absolutely not that song and The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg is not that album.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Ratrod Cats rattle their snake

The Ratrod Cats are a refreshingly retro rockabilly trio from Cape Town who definitely do not worship at the psychobilly altar. Their debut album, Come On Snake, Let’s Rattle (2013) is a showcase for an apparent love and respect for a genre that is one of the most enduring rock and roll offshoots from the Fifties, probably the  most exciting too. 

The term rockabilly is an obvious combination of rock and hillbilly, the fusion of the visceral power of early rock and roll and rollicking backwoods country, with the volume pushed to overload. The typical Fifties rockabilly act was powered by a simple, relentless backbeat, walking bass lines and a shrill skittering lead guitar with leads that are all over the place, the whole guaranteed to promote excitement and frenetic jiving. The Fifties rockabilly bands were the Pacific Northwest punk bands of their day. There were many of them that never made it big, yet released local records and were big in their hometown for a year or two.

Rockabilly, like the blues, never died out and just went underground for many years, apparently kept alive only by the Teddy Boys and neo-Teddy Boys in the UK. It is not coincidental that The Stray Cats made it big in Britain before they became popular in the USA. In the Eighties bands like The Cramps pioneered the punk meets rockabilly subgenre that became known as psychobilly and South Africa even had its own psychobilly band in The Psycho Reptiles. It seemed that psychobilly simply required a huge quaff, punk speed and bad attitude. Currently we have Martin Rocka who not only has the wrestler mask and the power rockabilly riffs but also specialises in quite offensive sexist humour that is probably meant to be cartoonish.

The Ratrod Cats have a quite traditional sound with the obvious advantages of modern technology and they are determined to update a genre that is often the subject of po-faced imitation rather than innovation. The Ratrods do not particularly innovate and there are many echoes of well-known songs and riffs in their self-written songs but, having said that, they also do not sound like a tribute band. On the whole this is a satisfying album though one wishes every now and then that the musicians were not so careful and would just go crazy for a few minutes. Perhaps they save that craziness for the gigs they play.

I am not sure whether the lyrics are sometimes deliberate throwbacks and knowing steals from the standards or are just lazy rhyming. When one seas song titles like “Rock Tonight” or “Rockabilly rebel” one wants to cringe but then there are the wonders of “I Ain’t Lying,” “Under Your Spell” and “Katalina” and the penny drops. These guys can write really good tunes. The only real let down is that vocalist KC Royal does not quite carry off the braggadocio or outright menace that the songs demand. A rockabilly singer must have some manic in him that is just eager to burst out in song.

Although some of the knowing rock and roll clichés are a tad forced and makes one wonder why the songwriters could not have been more original and inventive in their homage, the music is party music and swings quite nicely and is enjoyable to listen to. I would say that this is decent effort as a debut and would hope that The Ratrod Cats can sustain their career fro long enough to release another record with some improved songwriting and music that truly captures the feral intensity of the best rockabilly.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Going Ballistic

Calling for the Crazy (2014) is the swaggering, self-assured debut album of a young blues-rock band previously known as Ballistic Blues with a tough version of Buddy Guy’s “Mary Had A Little Lamb” (erroneously credited to Stevie Ray Vaughan) on the SA Bluesbreakers album,

According to a Rolling Stone article from February 2014 the band member found their way to deep blues through Jimi Hendrix and discovered Vaughan relatively recently. The article does not elaborate on their music collections and I would dearly love to know how they actually came to the blues and what blues albums they own and listen to.  If Joe Bonamassa features large, we’re talking epic fail, as an example of technique and “craft” triumphing over soul and guts and sheer emotional energy.

Anyhow, if the blues influence The Ballistics, it is an influence that permeates their music rather being the overt calling card.  The Pretty Blue Guns had the same thing going on over the length of two albums, and they are sorely missed.

This blues and hard rock mix is a significant strand of the fabric of the local pop tapestry at this time. A number of bands take their cue from the classic blues rockers of the Sixties and Seventies, the bands that exemplified hard rock as opposed to heavy metal, and latter-day purveyors from White Stripes to Black Keys to Rival Sons, and others. On the local scene, to cite a few examples, Taxi Violence and The Black Cat Bones play hard blues rock, Shadowclub just plays hard and tough, Crimson House Blues play weird-ass roots blues music, Mean Black Mamba plays primitive juke joint blues and Albert Frost and the Blues Brothers play pretty traditional blues when they don’t play superior AOR.  Gerald Clark brings soul to blues. Dan Patlansky sucks the soul out of blues.

Where does this leave The Ballistics?

It leaves them with a damn fine record of high energy rock with a blues core.

Opening cut “The Dust Song” kicks into high gear from the first note  and the pace is well-nigh relentless from there on. Not that the band plays punk rock fast, they simply channel intensity throughout. The arrangements are not very intricate yet each song has something interesting going on: a riff, a lead guitar part, a strong chorus, some interesting lyrics caught on the half volley.

“No Harm,” following the title track has a naggingly familiar guitar hook that sounds like something from the heydays of mid-Seventies hard rock, as does the brief lead break. This is not a bad thing at all and is yet more evidence of the band’s roots.

Something similar occurs with the rhythm guitar part of “She’s With Me” which sounds like Big Star or something. It is also the most poppy song so far, with a solid hook, great tune and splendid chorus.  This is the kind of song that should be the first single off the record.   

“Blueberry Pie,” on the other hand, sounds like Status Quo.

“A Night In You” is yet another mid-Seventies throwback with a big, big chorus and anthemic status. Followed immediately by “He Who Knocks” which is cut from similar fabric although not so much of an anthem.

Last cut, “Sugar,” is a boogie stomper that ends the set with as much swagger as with which the band entered.  The Ballistics know they’ve rocked the house fearlessly and unapologetically and carry the promise of doing it some more on another day in another place. Or  all the time on my iPod.

I am currently truly enamored with The Strypes from Ireland, a four piece of very young guys who are influenced by blues ant the UK pub rock scene of the mid- to late-Seventies. On the surface they seem to have much in common musically with The Ballistics. The two bands clearly look back to a similar era of rock history after heavy blues and glam rock and before punk and late period heavy metal, when hard rock, influenced by blues and informed by pop smarts, was the cutting edge of rock and roll when played by non-mainstream bands.

The South African music scene is very diverse, with room for almost every genre there is, and to my mind there is a great deal of dross and mediocrity there, and I am not talking about lack of technical proficiency, because often the proficiency is exactly what drives the mediocrity, but a pervading sense of pandering to some kind of standard MOR thing that is so calculatedly commercial that it reeks.

To play the kind of music The Ballistics play one must have a dedication to something else than mere commercial success and that things is love for the roots of the music and your own ability to transcend those roots and make something new out of the age old clay.  Tick that box. You also need to have fun with it. It seems to me that The Ballistics are having fun with it to the max.  That means I’m having fun with it and that is alright with me.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Gerald Clark pours Black Water

(I wrote this, or at least most of it except for the track by track analysis, way back, shortly after I bought album, but never got around to publishing it on my blog due to technical difficulties with accessing the blog. Hence the lack of contemporaneity.)

Gerald Clark, once the vocalist for Delta Blue and now a solo artist, is one of the treasures of South African music. He has a genuinely soulful voice, writes lyrics that sound old even when they are brand new and makes music that never fails to thrill.  His chosen field is blues and though he does not walk a lonely road along this path, he does not have many peers in this country.

He has released an Afrikaans album called Sweepslag en there is a virtual album as MP3 tracks on the Rhythm Records online store website. I’ve not bought any of these songs.

Late in 2011 I looked at Clark's website and contacted his manager to enquire whether Clark had released any CDs and was told that none was available but that I could have a copy of a DVD of a show recorded at a West Coast location earlier in 2011. I duly acquired the DVD called “Concert on the Coast.”

“Concert on the Coast” is a multi-disc package with the DVD of the live gig plus a CD with the audio recording.

In November 2012 I popped into The African Music Store and found Black Water, a proper studio album with a quite elegant cardboard sleeve with poster.

The two sets are companion pieces as they have a number of songs in common. Presumably Gerald Clark was road testing his songs before recording them in a studio setting.

At the live gig Clark is backed by Henry Steel, his old mucker from Delta Blue, bassist-to-the-stars Schalk Joubert, and drummer Tim Rankin. A solid, tight, tasteful combo that respects the blues and knows how to make simplicity powerful.

Clark plays a lot of acoustic guitar, one tune with a Telecaster and a handful of tunes on a Gibson 335, which allegedly was made in the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo and is wholly authentic old school, then.

The packaging contains no detail on authorship of the tunes. Clark performs a bunch of blues and R & B standards such as “Hallelujah, I love Her So”, “Stand By Me“, “Come On In My Kitchen”, “Stranger Blues” and “It's Alright”, as well as a bunch of his own compositions, including the anomaly that is “Elandsbaai”, the only Afrikaans song in the set and  the only non-blues.

The performances are energetic and powerful and swing easy. There is no grandstanding from any one and the musicians give the tunes room to move. I guess it is not authentic given that we are listening to a group of |South Africans and because Clark, to my mind, fits better as a soul singer, or a R & B artist in the vein of Ray Charles or Bobby 'Blue” Bland than as some Mississippi Delta bluesman.

The easy swagger of this live is a far cry from the rather stilted performances on the Delta Blue debut album, recorded live in Stellenbosch, where the musicians were not yet fully acclimatised to the blues and were   acting it out instead of feeling it. In the blues game you cannot beat time and experience as the vital ingredients for producing music that lives and breathes, and truly satisfies.

The Black Water album is a different proposition altogether. The album packaging contains no background information whatsoever and I do not know when or where it was recorded or who plays on it. Clark wrote all but three of the songs.

 The 2 opening cuts, “It Ain't You” and “Black Water” perhaps not so coincidentally are also the first 2 songs performed at the live gig. “Ain't going to Heaven” is a new version of one of the standout songs on Heaven, so far the last Delta Blue album.

For my money Delta Blue may be the most underrated band in South Africa. The run of 3 albums from Turn through Inbluestation to Heaven represent a pinnacle of blues and soul inflected rock from this country, and would fit proudly alongside similar music on record shelves all over the world. 

Well, whatever crack band Clark put together to back him on Black Water acquit themselves magnificently. This is an insanely great soul-blues album that not only nods the head to tradition but is also fiercely contemporary. Clark has one of the best voices in the country and writes the best lyrics in the blues and soul context, that sound as if they were written decades ago yet do not slavishly imitate the standards. Clark follows the folk blues tradition of taking well-worn phrases and concerns and making them his own in the fashion of, for example John Lee Hooker.

The band plays tough when required, bluesy, soulful and with finesse, like a countrysoulblues band with a unique approach to the music. Delta Blue did not much sound like anybody else, once they got past the debut album, and neither does Gerald Clark. Sometimes this kind of individualism is more of impedance in the quest for commercial acceptance and the hope of making a living in music. In Clark’s case the independence of thought and approach makes him a star, albeit not perhaps of mega proportions, but I can see him developing a following akin to the devoted following of one Van Morrison, another guy who has always followed his own path and refused to pander.

“I Ain’t You” is a mellow a dn soulful country blues roots type thing and “Black Water” is a swamp boogie with tasty bottelmeck slide guitar  and a driving electric guitar solo. With these two tunes Gerlad Clark sets out his stall. The vocals are going to be soulful and the music is going to be  tough, stripped to the bone. The opening cuts are followed by the over-amped shuffle blues of “Giving Up On Love” that sounds like something you’d hear at some juke joint back in the woods, played by guys who have labouring day jobs and little finesse when it comes to their music.

“Ain’t Going To Heaven” is done as an acoustic string band knees up. It is a brilliant song, both in the age-old, insant classic lyrics and the instantly memorable tunes.  “Breaking Down” is an acoustic soul tune about love lost badly and “Poor Man Blues” in driven by jazzy piano and swinging rhythm section, like ‘30s urban blues, by Big Bil Broonzy or Sonny Boy Williamnson I (without the harp)  on the Bluebird label. After this quiet, introspective interlude “Let Me Tell You” strides swageringly into view with a rumination on thte blues and with a vigorous, to-the–point  guitar solo that yet again illustrates how oftne less is more in the blues and how Calrk’s generally understated band supports him with easy authority.

“Stranger Blues” by name at least, is a venerable classic, and I know version by Elmore James and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Clark’s rake on the song seems to be influenced by the Terry and McGhee version, particularly because it is an acoustic treatment, though again minus blues harp.  Clark also does not quite sing the tune I  know. Never mind, it is good.

“House of the Rising Sun” is done as a sprightly, almost jolly, Cajun string band jig. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.   It is a diffident stroke of genius to reimagine one of the best known blues songs as a joyful noise in contrast  to the very tragic tale the lyrics tell.

“Feel So Good Can’t Keep From Crying” sounds like a medley of the well-known Junior Parker song and a gospel blues classic, best known to me in a version by The Blues Project, but it is not that.  Clark simply tells us that he feels very good though he can’t keep from crying. Hopefully he’s talking about tears of happiness. It is another up-tempo scoustic band tune followed by the  brief, solo bottleneck guitar blues of “Late Night Blues.”

The two final tracks are “Marry Me,” which is a straightforward energetic,  affecting  soul pop invitation to the love of Clark’s life and “As The Crow Flies” (a Tony Joe White tune), with which the band kicks out the jams one more time on a stomping blues rocker that ends the set in fine style.

There is a lot of mutton dressed as lamb on the South African blues and blues rock scene at the moment and often technical proficiency is hailed  as the mark of brilliance and excellence. Gerald Clark is probsbly as good as any mucician in the country and has been paying dues for a long time, from the very humble beginnings of the first Delta Blue album to the work of genius that is Inbluestation and now this gem of an album.  Clark does what the best creative musicians, or artists in general do, and that is to take the myriad influences that inform his musical education and to remake and remodel them into something new and different yet still can sound traditional and as old as the mountains