Trip To The Moon: The 13th Floor Interview

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First Published on www.13thfloor.co.nz

A Traveller’s Tale, Trip To The Moon’s sixth studio album, is the essence of over 3 year’s solid work claims Trevor Reekie.  Reekie along with multi-instrumentalist Tom Ludvigson has been recording their own unique version of trip-hop jazz and fusion since before the turn of the decade.  A few day’s before its release Tim Gruar talked to Reekie over the phone from Auckland about the album’s long gestation period.

“It’s always a long time coming, these albums.  Or put another way –  36 months of Sundays lost to this project – to conceptualize, compose, re-contextualize, arrange and record.”

“Like previous works”, he notes, “this new work mainly comes out of regular Sunday sessions when Tom and I get together to create riffs and samples.”   During that time the pair noodled away at Ludvigson’s Rockynook Studios creating beds and themes using synthesizers, pads and software like Abelton Live.  “We basically record everything we do, so we were just jamming away and we ended up with a huge body of work to cull through.  We eventually halved that for the album.

Tom creates all this music from an array of digital toys and stuff and I then create loops and overlays from those.”  From there the duo made the cuts, and ended up with a core selection of backing tracks all “in the key of ‘G’.  That was the driving theme.”

If the names sound just a little familiar, then you’ll know Swedish born Tom Ludvigson from his days in the popular Auckland jazz combo Bluespeak, or the Inner City Jazz Workshop; the Jack Morris Big Band, Big Sideways; the fabulously underrated Low Profile/Elephunk or even Rick Bryant’s 80’s sensations the Jive Bombers.  He also surfaces regularly at festival in Auckland and Wellington over the years and he created the music for the TV documentary on Robin Morrison called Blues For Robin.  Ludvigson gets around. A multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, band leader, performer, record producer, musical director for stage performances, session player and teacher.  He does it all.

Of course, listeners to Radio New Zealand will know Trevor Reekie’s name and voice from the Access All Areas and Hidden Treasures shows or perhaps his time in 80’s electro-pop group Car Crash Set and his record labels, Pagan and Antenna.  Check the back of your vinyl collection and you’ll see his name as producer on discs like the Mockers, Dance Macabre and Marginal Era.

The group’s title is a reference to A Trip to the Moon, a 1902 French silent film directed by Georges Méliès and was started up in the early 2000’s as a collaborative outlet for Reekie and Ludvigson, away from their day jobs.  Over the years the group has morphed somewhat, settling on the current lineup, which has been a longtime constant now.  That includes guitarist Nigel Gavin (Nairobi Trio, Gitbox Rebellion, Jews Brothers) and Jim Langabeer (a saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist who’s toured and recorded with Sammy Davis Jnr, The Bee Gees, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Alan Broadbent and Mavis Rivers) and Greg Johnson, who Reekie has produced in the past – all long time collaborators and friends.

Reekie’s background is mainly rock orientated but he also has a large appreciation of jazz and world music.  “I wanted to collect up all the jazz that Tom is so well versed in and digitally merge it into our overall sound, like a sort of journey.  Which is what it became.  One of the most obvious examples of this is on the opening track Santa Monica Stroll, which, with Greg Johnson’s signature trumpet layered over the tune almost feels like something Miles Davis would have produced around the time of his Tutu album.  “He’d be very flattered by that.”

“Actually Greg lives in LA now, so we sent him the tune and this what we got back.  It does have that kind of nostalgic, warm vibe about it.”  Another noteworthy piece is the closer Soudade.  “It’s a Brazilian Portuguese word.  It means a sort of deep emotional state of nostalgia, a sort of profound longing for someone or something that’s long gone.   I think this song has that slow drift into time, or memory, like the inability to let go of a particular emotion.”  Reekie knew instinctively that this album would begin and end with these tracks and in between there would be different types of moments.  He knew exactly how it would sequence.  This would not be just a random collection of songs.

It was intentional to bring in a number of ethnic instruments to build on the world traveller theme.  For instance, Nigel Gavin adds glissentar (an eleven string, fretless, acoustic/electric guitar) and the delicate sounds of a fretless 7 string oud (a pear shaped lute).

Themes vary from Middle Eastern influences to stardust sprinkles, evoking some kind of travel, whether it is real or imagined.  Some came from other projects or were influenced by other work.  “Indira’s Pearl, for example,” says Reekie, “came from a rejected piece Tom had composed for a documentary some friends were making in India.  We could have built it up like some sort of (Bollywood) dance theme but I chose to keep it very minimalist.  There was a time we would have coloured it all in but not now.  Simple is good.”

You arrange your own itinerary when Trip to the Moon hits the road on a limited 3-night adventure this month.  Buy the CD at the door and get in for free.

Friday August 19th – Lot23 – 23 Minnie St, Eden Terrace

21 August – The Wine Cellar, Auckland

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Steve Abel & Reb Fountain – Meow August 18, 2016

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First Published On www.13thfloor.co.nz

Like his Auckland gig at the Wine Cellar, Steve Abel’s appearance at Meow was short and very sweet.  He starts, as any good host should, by thanking the opener Reb Fountain for her own very sweet 10 cent mixture of deprecating banter and whiskey soaked, forlorn cowgirl tunes culminating in surprisingly upbeat singalong version of desperate times Hope and Hopeful

He noted that once upon a time it was Reb and Marlon Williams that had the support slots, in tiny fonts on his gig posters.  Pretty soon that had reversed and it was Marlon on the larger letters but the time had come for Reb to be the headliner, he reckoned.  Reb’s a bit of a national treasure these days and even with terminal bronchitis she’s the real deal.  Apparently there’s a new ep out soon but for all those who wanted to buy a CD at the merch stand check out her Facebook page.

Flanked by Reb Fountain, who returned as a backing singer and guitarist/pianist Jonathan Pearce, Steve Abel plays through a mix of his new album, Luck/Hope and a selection of older tunes from his previous releases Flax Happy and Little Death.  Through my little viewfinder I can help being reminded of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis but his manner is far more gentle.  His slightly gravelling, bourbon tonsils carry the conviction needed to pull of these simple songs of truth and love.

There’s a lovely story that Steve tells to the room: The last time I was here in Wellington, there was about 7 people.  One was appalled at the low turnout so they started organising house parties.  It’s his gig in Carterton we’re playing tomorrow.  So thanks!”

The new song mix well with the old material, especially the title track and Not Going Anywhere, which, on the album feature none other than Jolie Holland.  The album originally came together in 2009 but wasn’t completed until new, yet all the material seems timeless.   None could be more true than the single Best Thing.  Steve tells the audience that this song is at least 20 year’s old.  He’d sung it t a birthday, at weddings and to his mother on the day she passed away.  A very versatile song indeed.  Although it’s Reb instead of Joilie on the vocals it still gives you goose bumps.

The audience, a few more than just 7, appreciated it to pulling them back for a couple of well-earned encores finishing with the stunning and lilting Hospice for Destitute Lovers, perhaps his most poignant song and still the best example of his ability to write wonderful deeply contemplative lyrics.  “This is not an ode to Mozard drunkards, beggars or buggers, wolf-man martyrs or Jesus/ Here’s to lovers, lovers, destitute…”

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Lisa Hannigan – At Swim

First published on www.13thfloor.co.nz

Irish multi-instrumentalist singer Lisa Hannigan initially found her feet playing with Damien Rice.  That was back a bit when she was but knee high to a grass hopper.  Now older and wiser (she’s 35), with two confident solo albums (the double-platinum, Mercury-nominated debut Sea Sew and Irish #1 Passenger) under her belt her sound is mature and confident way beyond her years.

With producer Aaron Dessner (The National) at the knobs her third effort is exceptional, and explicitly beguiling.  It’s a bewitching slice of gothic folk poetry that has a distinctive European film noir atmosphere to it and I love it.

Having no clue who she was before the moment the simply constructed Fall seeped out of my headphones, I was utterly distracted.  Hannigan’s voice is not especially unique but her slightly smoky Gaelic lilt is incredibly seductive as it transverse deliciously simple chords and strings.  It hints those we’ve encountered previously, such as Karin Bergquist (Over The Rhine), kd lang or the Unthank Sisters.

The first single is Prayer For The Dying inspired by the death of a friend’s parent passing of a friend’s parent after an extended is beautifully haunting, almost as if Kristin Hersh, in her Your Ghost-era had gifted the song.  It’s like an old Patsy Cline lament mixed with Throwing Muses and some Over The Rhine front room swagger.  The reverberating, shimmering chorus (“Your heart, my heart”) sends tingles down the spine.

In contrast, Snow is more upbeat but still simple, mainly guitars and piano.  Between the lyrics, the mood and beat you can imagine a winter’s train ride through a large, vast open plain, with only memories to comfort (“Song like treasure” … “heading from city to sea, we watch the cities go by”).  Its hook-laden, stealthily creeping up on you.

Given all this, Hannigan sounds like she’s at the top of her game.  But after playing in support of Passenger for nearly two years, she hit the wall, enduring writer’s block.  Plus a new relationship meant that she was dividing her time between Dublin and London.  Adrift and lost, she threw herself into distraction instead.  She voiced a mermaid in the Oscar-nominated animation Song Of The Sea, undertook some soundtrack work for the Fargo TV show and contributed to the Oscar-winning score for the film Gravity.  And, to add further procrastinations started up the popular Soundings podcasts which put Hannigan in the interviewer/host’s seat interviewing guests such as Harry Shearer, Sharon Horgan and David Arnold.

It was only an email from Dessner, scouting for work, that got her back into the studio.  Hannigan was missing the collaboration spirit of her earlier Dublin days.  Initially, they exchanged ideas by email and iPhone but the full album only came together when both finally met up in Denmark.

Later, the full recording took place in a church in Hudson, New York, during a furious seven-day stint.  The echoes you hear on songs like We The Drowned and the homely a capella of Anahorish are from the resonance of the wooden rafters and stone walls.   In some ways it has the same magical dust as Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions, minus the menacing undertow.

The resulting album, inevitably, is about homesickness, isolation, death and consolation but move profoundly, it’s above the love we receive during these times.

Throughout you can’t escape the metaphors of a career and a soul lost-at-sea.  Only the slight tango of Tender refuses to show any vulnerabilities in the cold water of a strong current.

But despite all these morbid references this is not a morose album.  It’s surprisingly uplifting.  Songs like closer Barton, with its Sunday morning organ rally gives you a sense that Hannigan has struck her claim on a distant island, standing strong like Anna in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, out on the causeway, defying the buffering waves (“I’ll be on my own a while smiling like a crocodile”, you can see for miles….”).

So by the end it’s clear that Hannigan is strong enough to swim any straits.  She’s not only treading water again but can easily reach the shore and moreover, she’s beginning to enjoy the dip.  This is, I think her strongest work.  It’s confident, it shows vulnerability and it show cases a wonderful natural voice, whilst referencing all the alt-country music I love.  A great effort.

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A Road Tour of American Song Titles – from Mendocino to Memphis

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 First published on http://www.13thfloor.co.nz 

The 13th Floor’s Tim Gruar talks to Karl du Fresne about his new book:

“I received my first lesson in American geography from Perry Como when I was about 8 or 9 years old,” writes Karl du Fresne, in the introduction to his book A Road Tour of American Song Titles – from Mendocino to Memphis.  Over three unique road trips, accompanied by his wife Jolanta, du Fresne navigated the American heartland in search of the towns that featured in iconic songs like Wichita Linemen (Glen Campbell), El Paso(Marty Robbins) and Okie From Muskogee.  Along the way he explores the rich musical connections of cities such as New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, San Jose, Las Vegas and Detroit and describes detours to some of-tracks locations like the gospel church in the Louisiana Delta where Jerry Lee Lewis first performed; or the location of the Tallahatchie bridge, made famous by Bobbie Gentry in Ode to Billie Joe or the Mississippi graveyard where Robert Johnson is argued to be lying under a pecan tree.  Whilst a personal journey of indulgence, du Fresne couldn’t help embellishing his new travel book with musical history and trivia.

As one often does when testing the levels on the equipment at the start of an interview I make small talk while I fiddle with the equalizer on my smart phone recorder.  “You’ve got a voice for radio.”  “I’ve got a face for it, too.  Actually that’s my brother Justin, who’s the radio announcer.  Although, I’m gaining on him.”   Quite true, writer Karl du Fresne will be well known to Dominion Post and Listener readers as the former editor of the former and a contributing freelance writer on the latter.  He’s also penned The New Zealand Wine-Lover’s Companion, The Right to Know: News Media Freedom in New Zealand and a history of the Dominion and Evening Post (2007).  He’s still at it, too, writing a number of regular columns for various national papers.  du Fresne was one of the original ‘grumpy old men’, offering opinion pieces on issues of the day.  He still proffers these from time to time but with the plethora of experts gobbling up column inches these days he reckons he’s just “one voice amongst many.”  Mind you, he adds, print and online journalism is his day job.  “This book’s been a bit of a self-indulgence – an opportunity to travel and explore the imaginary places of my youth as well.”

Ok, so road trips to the soul of American music, or any music, are not original.  Most famously, U2 featured the experience their movie Rattle and Hum; Jack Kerouac (On The Road) wrote his classic account of the Beat movement against a backdrop of jazz, poetry and drugs; Billy Connoly has made a TV show; Chuck Klosterman (Killing Yourself To Live) took a ‘semi-true’ discovery adventure to the work places of Buddy Holly, Kurt Cobain and many others; or London based Kiwi Garth Cartwright’s Greyhound bus odyssey into the American blues heartland More Miles Than Money.  du Fresne’s book is more like Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America – an irreverent collection of wanderings and musings, held together by a lose plan and a good eye for obscure details.  None of which du Fresne has ever read, he says.  “Which is a good thing because I got to approach it as a blank canvas.”  We both agree that given the format and approach, this would make a great documentary series, NZ On Air Are you listening?  It’s a slightly rambling fact filled trip with a few good meals and a coupla excellent craft beers to wash them down.

When’s the Kiwi version of this book coming out, I ask?  “Funny you ask.  I’ve had various exchanges with Max Cryer about this very thing.  I’d written a piece for the Listener about my book and he got in touch.  There’s indications he may be doing this.  There are classics like the Mutton Bird’sDominion Rd.; Otaki By the Falls; I’ve Been Every Where, Man (John Hore Grenell’s version), Taumaranui by the May Trunk Line; and so on.  Of, course with a New Zealand book it doesn’t have those romantic mythological associations that America has.”  So that was the appeal for du Fresne.  So with the exception of Dwight Yokam’sStreets of Bakersfield (1988), which only made it because it was on the way to the next location, most of these songs come from the era of Rock’n’Roll – the 1950’s and 60’s.  “Well that was my era.   I heard it once that the songs you hear in your youth are what you’ll grow up with thinking are the greatest songs – ever.  I think that’s pretty true.  I think the 50’s was the best era of music.  But someone growing up in the post-punk 80’s would say the same thing of Flying Nun, or disco.  It’s what you heard at that time of your life.  Everything’s very vivid at that time of your life.”  du Fresne grew up in Hawke’s Bay, ears glued to the radio.  He’d tune in to the Lever Brothers Hit Parade and the Sunday request session on Station 2ZC.  At a tender young age he first heard Perry Como’s “excruciatingly bad puns” on the song Delaware(1959):

‘Oh, what did Delaware boy what did Delaware?
What did Delaware boy, what did Delaware?
She wore a brand New Jersey, she wore a brand New Jersey
She wore a brand New Jersey, that’s what she did wear ‘

“It was a pretty awful song, typical of the kind of song at the time.  Cheesy and cheerful.  But it got me thinking about somewhere outside my own gate.  It kind of melted into the memory.”  A few years back that Como song inspired du Fresne to think about the other great American place-name songs – Jackson, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Do You know the Way to San Jose’, 24 Hours to Tulsa, Bowling Green – and what those places were really like.  I had pictures in my head.  I wanted to hold up those imagined post cards and see if they were true.” It was that desire that eventually became the three trips that he lays out in his ” travel book about music and a musical book about travel”.

Each chapter is devoted to a specific hit song and the town that inspired it.  Songs like Fat’s Domino’s Walking to New Orleans (1960) or Glenn Cambell’s Galveston, home of the song’s writer Jimmy Webb.  du Fresne describes the town, as he does for many on the trip from a dashboard point of view.  They roll in to town in a rented Winnebago past the 1900 Galveston Hurricane memorial and the 5.2-metre-high sea wall which protects the city from future disasters.

Galveston never fully recovered from the natural disasters of the early 20th century and was further hurt by the port built at Houston that took away much of its freight business.  It’s the kind of insight that paints a backdrop to the song and explains it’s mood and atmosphere perfectly, du Fresne explains.  “It takes on a different life when you know more about the town.”

On Marty Robbin’s El Paso, which he also visits, describing the contrast between a sleepy boarder town and the former Mexican murder capital, Ciudad Juárezjust across the tracks, there’s talk of a cantina – Rosa’s.  du Fresne actually ate there.  His photo shows an archetypical run down shack, exactly as you’d picture it in the song.  But, he notes, behind the façade it’s classier.  Good food, too.  “Mexican, is delicious, very healthy.  I loved it.  Not grungy like those old CC’s adverts on the telly.”  Apparently writer Marty Robbins was on a bus passing through the town when he was writing the song.  He was struggling for a place to position his main character when he saw the cantina out of the window and hit upon the concept.  “An Rosa’s was put down in history:

‘Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl
Night-time would find me in Rosa’s cantina
Music would play and Felina would whirl’ “

Interestingly, du Fresne points out, that not many great songs came out of places like Pennsylvania, Minnesota or Indiana.  It all seems to have originated from the South in the 50’s.  The discovery of black music by white people.  “Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas – they are incredibly musical states. You can’t go there and not be aware of how important music is.”

du Fresne went through New Orleans not long after the recovery from Katrina got started.  His observations in his three days tell you much about a city that’s trying to rebuild itself – much like many parts of America.  Given the racial issue in today’s new coming out of the states he visited I have to ask if it was noticeable to him as a traveler.

“Yes, and no he replies.  You expect plenty of crazies and extremes in America because that’ what you see on TV.  But on the whole everyone was so helpful, gentle and kind.  I didn’t see any racial riots or issues like that.  On the other side though there are big suburbs in Louisiana with grand old ladies (houses) on one side, in leafy streets, and ghettos and shacks downtown.  Who lives there is pretty clear, so the problems are there.”

Given that many of the towns he visited were in the ‘armpit of America’, as a glamorous lady on his plane described it as, and way off the tourist track did he find any places that delivered something considerably different to his expectations?

“Yes. One of the songs was Everly Brothers’Bowling Green, a bit of a flop for them, I think.  It’s in Kentucky.  I had this really idyllic picture in my mind of that town…many, like you say were like the set of The Dukes of Hazard, with a green square in the middle, white courthouse, malt shop, band rotunda in the middle…we saw plenty of those town … I went with high hopes but found that it really wasn’t anything like what I’d imagined.”  In fact, he noted that this was a town dying fast.  “Everything was pleasant in its decay”.

On the other hand, Mendocino, (North California) as recorded in the song by Sir Douglas Quintet (1969) was “like a movie set: The Northern California coast is very rugged, wild seas and sheer cliffs, as well as forested mountains behind.  And there’s a tiny town (Mendocino) clinging to the cliffs. It was a hippy retreat in the early 1960s.”  The song’s composer Doug Sahm was there at the time and was inspired by the location.  to wrote the song, got to know the place.”

Of course not all the song titles were inspired by actual people place or events.  Jackson, made famous by Johnny Cash(1967) and later Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood (1967), was simply a good name for the feeling, apparently.  As was the 24 Hours From Tulsa, which could have been 24 hours from any town, really.  But it didn’t stop du Fresne having a peek anyway.

Finally, I have to as if they, as a pair of Kiwi travellers off the main trail caused any stirs.  “We got to the information office in Saginaw, Michigan (from the song by Lefty Frizzell -1964).  The lady behind counter was floored – we were probably the first people she’d seen there for months, if not years.  Apparently, none there and she was astonished that someone from the other side of the globe was standing in front of her.”  Ah, travel – and music – broadens the mind.  “You should try it sometime.”  I might just do that.  Although I think it’ll be with Grunge and Hard-core as my guiding map.  “You’re welcome to that.  Give me rock’n’roll any day!”

Tim Gruar

  • A Road Trip of American Songs is published by Bateman on 15 July 2016, RRP $39.99.

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Quantic Presenta Flowering Inferno – 1000 Watts (Caroline)

First published on 13thfloor.co.nz

‘Quantic’ is the recording nom de plume UK born globe trotter Will Holland, whose signature sound is rooted squarely in the golden age of the Big Band era.

His previous release, The Western Transient, traversed Coltrane’s smooth jazz with elements from the 1950’s Be Bop band leaders and fair smatterings of Salsa and Mambo.

This time, for his third album, he’s mining early dub, ska and reggae with the intention of creating a live ‘sound system feel.”  True that.  But somehow the vibe just doesn’t wash.  Maybe we’re all a little jaded from the countless mining of Jamaican studio archives.  Or maybe it’s just not possible to say something new without it all sounding like some cheap revivalist show.

For Holland the intention was certainly genuine.  He rounds up a keen and trustworthy list of contributors – U-Roy, long-time collaborator Alice Russell, reggae singers Hollie Cook and Christopher Ellis; the late, great keyboard maestro Ikey Owens (Run The Jewels, The Mars Volta, Jack White); and legendary Jamaican drummer Santa Davis {Bob Marley, The Aggravators).

Recorded directly to tape, the model was to make an ‘authentic’ record but somehow it just seems to lack the flame to really burn.  Spring Tank Fire shows promise with a heavy dub base and groove, skanking horns and vintage dancehall ‘riddims’.  Although I seem to have heard this somewhere else.  The Upsetters or Augustus Pablo perhaps?  It’s a pretty repetitive tune, wallpaper for a gunja café in downtown Amsterdam.

There’s a bit more inspiration in A Life Worth Living featuring UK soul mistress Alice Russell and old skool veteran Jamaican MC Ewart Beckford (aka U-Roy) who provide some sweet vocals over a pretty pedestrian track.

Homeward Bound and Ikey’s Vibe just seem to bleed into each other, providing yet more paste for the wallpaper.  On the latter you get just a taste of the late, great Owen’s ecclesiastical keyboard style as it’s merged into the gumbo of the dub on the tune.  But like a sip at a Food Show it’s not enough to really satiate.  Sadly, the Grammy award winner passed away in 2014 whilst touring with Jack White under somewhat mysterious circumstances.  A shame indeed.

Hollie Cook is another reggae singer who puts in an appearance, on the ska influenced Shuffle Them Shoes. This time it’s a pretty good number, catchy and definitely danceable, ruined, alas, by Cook’s voice which is just too squeaky high for it.  She struggles to convincingly sell it and it all feels like a high school band performance.  A bit of a wasted opportunity.  As is Dusk. another slice of monotony, and Night Shade, which is just plain boring.

Christopher Ellis should have been the perfect Jimmy Cliff moment at the end of the disc, on All I Do Is Think About You.  Sure it’s a sweet love song, but about as unconvincing a Billy Ocean mega hit, all schmaltz and mush.  Best avoided, except maybe at weddings.

Chambacú is probably the only outstanding moment, something of a killer cumbia cover brought home by Colombian Nidia Góngora, who’s worked with Quantic in the past, on more folk-oriented projects in the past.  This time, it’s a real party tune and good to dance to.

The Quantic team have a crack at ska, Skatalites style.  But again, sorry.  Having seen the real thing, Striding on The Grand is just a limp hop, and Macondo is more of the bland.  Sure the funk’s in the horn section and the nifty beeps and bobs show us the ‘arkology’ tools but you have to ask: so what?  In fact if I was to sum this all up, I’d it’s a good effort at authentic without the credibility of being real.  Or put another way, Flowering Inferno will be great to put on at your next dinner party.  But if you want to show off your hi-fi system then reach for one of those Studio One or Trojan complications – on vinyl, of course.

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Kongos – Egomaniac

Kongos are a family affair.  Brothers, in fact – the four sons of South African Sixties rocker John Kongos, who’s best known for his 1971 top 10 hit single, He’s Gonna Step On You Again.  Yes, the very song that was remade in the 90’s by Manc tripsters Happy Mondays (re-labelled Step On).

The brothers were born in Johannesburg but came of age in Phoenix, Arizona and it was there that they became the musicians you hear on this their third release.  Given their background it’s no surprise that their music is a mix of pan-African instrumental styles, laced liberally with a fair amount of air-pumping rock’n’roll.  If you didn’t know what I’ve just told you, then you’d be convinced that this was one of those bands that comes out of the cultural melting pot of NY’s East Village.  None the less, its music that feels both cosmopolitan and disorienting.  It reminds me a little of what Johnny Clegg was doing back in the 80’s using Soweto sounds over pop beats.  Johnny Kongos’ wheezing accordion adds a little traditional South African jive and flourish to these tracks.  There’s a close connection to songs like Paul Simon’s Boy In a Bubble in there.  No surprise given Graceland’s inspirational legacy, Jesse’s guitar traces intricate bluesy West African curlicues, Daniel pounds like the Burundi drummers and Dylan’s ghostly slide guitar hints at Ben Harper’s take on Americana and blues. That’s especially clear on the opener, and first dingle Take It From Me, which has this mesmerizing chanting chorus led by a four-note drum punch.  On this as with all the tracks there’s a commercial tinge that you can’t quite put your finger on but it’s pleasant ant familiar.

By comparison The World Would Run Better, the second tune, is almost a direct reference to Simon’s Call Me Al, with its complicated lyrical burbling held afloat by this funky ethnic beat and pumping accordion undercurrent, and in this case another quirky statement “Argentina is too far south, they should move it closer to my house.”

One could argue that they get weirder, and more interesting, when they’re not trying to make another bit chart hit.  Lyrics like “I want money that’s already spent” are way too wise for their young age.  That’s on On Where I Belong, as: “I want to influence an age group/ Maybe 15 to 22… I wander all my life or disobey a cosmic ray”.  Ok, I’m not sure what that all means, but c’mon!   How cool are these lines?   In another place “I’m tired of using my mind.  Just wanna be wired to the grid”, or “I wanna get f*cked up and then hit Undo” and similar references to the digital surrender of free will to internet domination.   It all works well over hook-laden grooves and infectious melodies.

There’s plenty many more clever, and entertaining, moments on this album.  What I really love about this album is the sheer brilliance of writing, which has the smarts of the best indie releases and the commercial polish of a big main stable release.  That’s a rare thing today in this environment of 5 minute twitter bait pop stars and plastic social mediocrity.

These guys deserve a fan base as big as Game of Thrones and as smart and dedicated.  I tip my goblet to them.

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Lawrence Arabia – Absolute Truth (Flying Nun)

 

Good ol’ James Milne.  We’re so happy to have you back.  It’s been nearly 4 years since your last release, The Sparrow, a sublime and truly satisfying album.  With clever, twisted songs like Early Kneecaps and Travelling Shoes creating deliciously determined earworms it seemed almost inconceivable that you could repeat, lest top, that effort.  Ah, but I suspect by all accounts, you have. 

Collaborating again with the Black Seeds’ Mikey Fabulous and secreted away during the early hours at very unglamorous Hutt Valley plastics factory recording this instant and catchy cache’ of sparkling pop melodies you’ve brought us treasure that both delights and entertains us.

On the latest single, Another Century, you open with irony: “It’s impolite to say it’s best summer ever, even in the presence of farmers who are living through disaster…this weather is a splendid thing.”  It makes both a reference to recent headlines and to the overused script-lines of nearly every Disney Beach film I’ve be subjected to in the past 20 years and captures that sentiment, too.  Still it’s a beautiful and irresistibly twee love song.  I assume ‘another century’ refers to the longevity of a relationship?  Peppered though out the cheesy doo-woops just add even more colour, keeping the whole beach-love theme afloat.

I Waste My Time has a similar groove to the White Stripes Hardest Button To Button, except that instead the grungy treatment you’ve chosen a saccharine sweet layering over yet more deliciously ironic lyrics.  It’s a bitter sweet song, barely masking a desperate man trying to win back his beloved, in despite of the obvious futility of it all: “Cro-Magnon Man has nothing on me….I want you to respect me…I wanted to impress you, Darling.”  You know that will never work but please die trying.

Brain Gym is another very clever song: “When I was young and arrogant, you told me to shut my mouth and get on with it…I was an empty soldier, now I’m older, I’ve got shoulders.”  I adore the gushy couplets offset by the funky undertow on this one.  Yet another earworm moment.  How many can we stand?

And I can tell you’ve been hanging around the Finns of late because there’s more than just a little bit of McCartney and Lennon on O Heathcote in its narrative folky approach.  I half expected the chorus to break out into “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”.  In a parallel universe I’m sure George Martin would have included it on the White Album sessions.

Everywhere I look, Mr Arabia, there are delights, like the most exquisite box of chocolates, with not a ginger to be had.  For instance, The Palest Of Them All is the most perfect of pop songs.  I was instantly transported back to a gig at Wellington’s Happy when I saw you open for Liam Finn.  Your candy-apple lullabies contrasted beautifully with Mr Finn’s more cynical works.  If we could take this number back it would work stunningly well on the stage.  You must perform it live but be prepared for an audience of smiling and swaying punters drifting into a blissful coma as the music swells and gushes.

Mr Milne, this is quite simply your more wonderful work to date but I have to ask about your closer, What Became of That Angry Young Man?  Was that you that “fell asleep beside the recycling…awaiting for the night to take you?”  This is your only truly serious moment, book ended by some classic rock guitar work in the bridge and rounded off like a song from a musical you’ve yet to complete.  It’s the only time you move away from the twee, but it still works a treat.  Well done – that man!

First appeared on www.13thfloor.co.nz

 

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