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.