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.

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