Archive for January, 2008

Shuffleathon 2007. Part 5

31 January 2008

Bhundu Boys – Hupenyu Hwangu

More music from Zimbabwe. This brings to mind evenings listening to the radio programmes of John Peel and Andy Kershaw in the 1980s. Bhundu Boys were one of the first wave of “world music” (an awful phrase, I know, but I am not sure what else to use) to go overground and become genuinely popular and successful in the west.  Theirs is a sad story. After getting together in 1983 and then being discovered in 1985, they came over to the UK in 1986 and toured constantly, building up a hugely enthusiastic audience and actually supporting Madonna at Wembley Stadium for three nights. Their first album Shabhini was a big seller. A second album “Tsvimbodzemoto” was released after which  they signed to Warner Brothers International and then things started to fall apart. Biggie Tembo left the band after internal disagreements, a new member was recruited and the band continued playing and recording but the bands popularity waned during the 1990s. Three members of the band died of AIDS related illnesses and Biggie Tembo hanged himself in a psychiatric hospital in 1995. The band collapsed completely in 2000 when one member was jailed on a charge of aggravated assault. Two members remain in the UK and continue to play music under other names. It really is a tragic story after what promised to be an incredible success story for a group of local lads from Harare.

Putting all that to one side, if you can, try listening to “The Shed Sessions” and not grinning. This is a 2002 compilation of all the music which they recorded in Zimbabawe including their first two albums. This is joyous music, catchy vocal lines over twinkling skipping silver guitars which seem to float out of the speakers with a huge smile on their face. If house music had never happened, I swear that this would be the music that people in the early years of ecstacy would have been listening to.  Brilliant musicianship and songwriting as well. There is no question that when they were playing together in those days they were loving it, the fantastic uplifting music, the camaraderie, the fact that these intricate bouncing sounds looked like they might be taking them from a township in the middle of Africa to the other side of the world and fame and fortune. It is some of the happiest music I know.

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Current listening: Dorothy Masuka “Hapo Zamani”

30 January 2008

1950s South Africa. In a township somewhere people are sipping redbush tea on a bright green lawn in front of a single storey whitewashed house with a red rusted corrugated iron roof and this track by “Auntie Dorothy” is playing in the background.

Dorothy Masuka was born in Bulawayo Zimbabwe in 1935, the fourth of seven children, and moved to South Africa with her family when she was 12. She had always been a talented singer and became interested in American jazz such as Louis Jordan and then the South African music scene when Dolly Rathebe became popular. She left school at 16 against her familys wishes to join Philemon Mogotse’s African Ink Spots as a singer. She returned to school only briefly before leaving again permanently for the world of music. By the age of 20 she had toured South Africa with the African Jazz and Variety revue, including many singers and musicians whom she had admired as a child. She was a magazine pin-up girl and gossip magazine fixture, the Britney of her day, and she became one of the most famous township singers in 1950s South Africa, alongside her friend Miriam Makeba. Most of her most famous jazz inflected marabi tunes were written by her,  with her signature tune being “Hamba Notsokolo”. 

In 1961 she had to leave South Africa and Zimbabwe due to the fact that the political nature of some of her songs was attracting the unwelcome attention of the authorities. After returning to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe in 1965 she had to leave again, facing the prospect of arrest. She did not return to her adopted hometown Johannesburg and music until 1992, and spent many years of her exile as an air hostess on Zambian Airways, as well as working in Malawi and Tanzania and spending time in London .  Now hers is an autobiography I would love to read. A compilation of songs from throughout her career “The Definitive Collection” was released in 2002. A fuller biography can be found here.

This swinging tune is another one which sends me to another time and another place.  Been listening to it lots this week and it’s lovely.

Current listening: Britney Spears “Piece Of Me”

30 January 2008

As usual, I am late to the party. But there are only so many parties you can attend at any one time. Thankyou Andrew for dragging me into this one by the scruff of my neck only for me to realise that it is the best party ever.

Britney has always had her moments.  I have always had her down as a great singles artist. I thought her first single “Baby One More Time” was a work of genius. A genuinely wonderful pop record which stood head and shoulders above those being released by her contemporaries. She then continued to release some great singles – You Drive Me Crazy, Stronger, Oops .. I Did It Again. Listen to “The Ghost Of Myself” by Pet Shop Boys and try and tell me that it isn’t their take on an early era Max Martin Britney track. I liked both “I’m A Slave For You” and “Toxic” when they came out. They were both brave moves, very left of field and not typical pop princess fodder – she was clearly stretching her wings as she went from Disney teenager to successful sexually aware young woman. Some of the album tracks which I heard from her first four albums were not as interesting or consistent and in particular some of the ballads so saccharine as to be indigestible.

That has all changed with “Blackout” which is both brilliant and consistent, despite using different songwriters across the various tracks. It reminds me of Stuart Price’s productions for Madonna and Seal in that it sounds ultra modern but with a clear debt to the past. It sounds very now but you can see where all the components of that now have come from. It is shiny, powerful music. It’s great pop music and it’s great dance music.

“Piece Of Me” is probably the best use of bad publicity to make brilliant  music since George Michael’s “Outside”. On both those records I think the great selling point as well as the fantastic sound of both tracks is the fact that, hey, these people have a sense of humour.  When I hear her on this track I hear a angry strong and scared young woman who is wondering what the fuck has happened.

The vocals (“I’m Mrs lifestyles of the rich and famous, I’m Mrs Oh my god that Britney’s shameless, I’m Mrs extra extra, this Just In, I’m Mrs she’s too big now she’s too thin …. genius”) are backed by a scrunching synth beat which connects directly with  the internal organs while listening to it. It’s a song which is funny and sad and makes you think that there is much more to this woman than the press would have us believe.

If Michael Jackson had made “Blackout” I am sure that the world would be worshipping him as a god as it did in 1983.  Of course he hasn’t.

I am very glad that Britney made it instead.

Current listening: Bryan Ferry “Windswept (instrumental)”

25 January 2008

 

It’s hard to believe that over twenty years have passed since Bryan Ferry released his first solo album of the nineteen eighties “Boys and Girls”. Musically it followed on from the last Roxy Music album “Avalon” which is generally thought of as a masterpiece. It is certainly one of my all time favourites. Suitable one word descriptions might be “lush” or “languid”.  It’s a bit like immersing yourself in a bath of honey whilst angels serenade you from above.  It’s also a travelogue of sorts – like a lot of music of the early and mid eighties it takes you to exotic foreign places which as a comprehensive school teenager in the grey English provinces you can never imagine visiting. 

 

There are numerous examples of this – all associations the product of my mind alone of course – David Bowie on “Low” and “Heroes” (Berlin, Russia, Japan, China and  the Far East) Grace Jones on her Compass Point albums “Warm Leatherette”,  “Nightclubbing”, and “Living My Life” (the Bahamas and New York) , Japan on “Gentlemen Take Polaroids”, “Tin Drum”, their associated singles and David Sylvian’s solo work (the Far East, China, India, Spain, the south of France), Duran Duran (who arguably borrowed from all of the abovementioned artists as well as Roxy Music) on some of their instrumentals such as “Tel Aviv” “Faith In This Colour” and “Tiger Tiger” as well as “Save A Prayer” and much of their first three albums (the Far East again, the Indian Ocean again, the Caribbean – partly down to the associated videos as well I know).  A lot of this music is important to me and is still listened to twenty years down the line and I think that this is because these associations have always provided a means of escape.  These days they also comprise nostalgia for my teenage dreams of heady foreign climes.  It is all very eighties and aspirational – sort of music to go with a luxurious lifestyle but there’s no harm in a little dreaming as far as I am concerned. Having now visited some of these real places, I realise that the locales conjured up by these pieces of music are very much figments of my imagination but are no less real to me. 

Listening to this Bryan Ferry track this morning, in my head I was watching the sun go down from a boat harboured off Martinique on a tropical July evening, a storm having passed over a few hours previously leaving the air clean and clear skies before the onset of night. 

It’s a dreamy throbbing track with some saxophone and guitar noodling over the top and it couldn’t really date from any other time or have been created by any other musician. The quality of musicianship is impeccable and it has top calibre players like David Sanborn and David Gilmour on it. Classy classy classy all the way. It’s quite refreshing to listen to without Ferry’s trademark vocals. A perfect White Island moment.

Shuffleathon 2007. Part 4

18 January 2008

Alemayehu Eshete – Eskegizew Bertchi

Mentioned in my Earworms of the week here  (Entry for Friday October 19). This what I said:

“Alemayehu Eshete is an Ethiopian singer who sings in Amharic and has been going since the 1960s. This is a really funky track which I think dates from the 1970s and has an insistent nagging beat. I also love this because it sounds like he is singing the whole thing backwards.”

I am not sure that I can expand on that. It is utterly beguiling and utterly bonkers at the same time.  And you can dance to it. What more could anyone want ?

Current listening: P J Harvey “White Chalk”

17 January 2008

Haunting. Otherworldly but very natural sounding (if that is not a contradiction in terms) and very English.  Like some ghostly apparation rising out of the chalk downs of Dorset.  Walking in the hills near Cwms the other week I passed an old stone cottage, long unoccupied and fallen into rack and ruin, grey beams protruding from the structure, parts of walls fallen away and bits of roof missing. Brambles had moved into the building and an elder sprouted from its side but you could still see a rusting black range and a broken wooden chair in what would have been the living area, and a cistern exposed at the top of the walls of what would have been the outside privy. Ghosts of past lives and the generations of families which had lived there. It was a cold and windy day and there was little sun. I did actually have this music playing inside my head as I passed by, through the old garden and orchard and it was the perfect film for this soundtrack.

The best record cover of 2007 bar none.  Presentation and packaging perfectly aligned with the music inside.

The more I listen to this album the more I think it is the best work she has produced. It is a near perfect record, consistent in tone and mood but varied enough and powerful enough to sustain interest. It is also beautifully short at just over 30 minutes. Not a moment too long. Which is to be commended. I wish more musicians were as concise.

Shuffleathon 2007. Part 3

16 January 2008

Iron and Wine – Woman King

I didn’t quite get Iron and Wine when I first listened to them. All the signs were good – the reference points referred to in reviews and extracts of songs I had heard all pointed in the right direction namely mellow Americana, a relation of sorts to Will Oldham, downbeat back porch beauty – so I duly went out and bought “The Creek Drank The Cradle” and listened to it and not a lot seemed to be happening. Maybe it was the wrong time of year (I tend to associate different types or pieces of music and even artists with particular seasons and find it hard to relate to some of them outside of that particular time of the year. Yeah, I know. I am mad.) , I don’t know. Then a while later I heard his early demo sessions in full and his version of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” and this and I was won over. I think the most succinct description of Sam Beam’s music is “understated”. But it’s very beautiful. This track actually seems to be the point at which he stopped being quite so introspective and spare and introduced a musical arrangement behind the song – something which he continued to do with last years album “The Shepherd’s Dog” (which is consistently excellent and thoroughly recommended). This track sort of thrums and throbs and gets into your bones, with a fairly chunky acoustic backing which nonetheless does not intrude on the trademark half whispered half sung vocals. I think those vocals are a significant part of Beam’s appeal as they seem to be sung directly into the ear of the listener rather than at an audience. It’s very one to one music. I like him and I like this track very much.

Anger Management: Number plates

9 January 2008

Apologies if this offends the sensibilities of anybody reading this. I am heading into Grumpy old Man territory. Actually have probably already moved in permanently if the truth be known. Why do people feel the need to buy personalised number plates ? What logical purpose do they serve ? And can anyone come up with a good reason why anyone would buy one other than for other people to notice. And what exactly is the message which they are tring to convey to those other people ? And is that really a message to be proud of ? Is it just an extremely sad indication of the worrying nature of people’s priorities these days ? Maybe there is something which I am missing. 

Watch: Atonement

4 January 2008

I went to see Atonement last night and it was very good indeed. Yes, 6 months after everybody else I know. It had an excellent and perfectly believable storyline, plenty of surprises (even if I did guess the end result before it finished), great acting and exquisite cinematography(which was almost of a Peter Greenaway/ Sacha Vierney intensity). Some of the scenes of Dunkirk were incredible. Don’t know whether I was feeling particularly emotionally vulnerable last night but I was completely choked by the end of it.  Something I am particularly susceptible to with films about the Second World War (or the First for that matter).

Current listening: Sandra Bernhard “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”

3 January 2008

It’s been that time of year when you want to frug in the kitchen while you are cooking. And most of the time it’s been to that bad Christmas music which I never tire of. But there have been a few evenings when the red wine has kicked in and I have suddenly had an urge for a  bit of disco. Probably a side effect from too much listening to The Weather Girls “Dear Santa (Bring Me A Man This Christmas)” (Martha Wash and the late Izora Armstead, I salute you) and Holiday Express’ “Disco Santa”.

I always forget about this absolute gem of a cover version from 1991. It’s obviously a fantastic song and Sylvester’s 1978 original is a classic but this manages to bring it up to date (albeit 17 years ago – ahem) and make something “new” of it. Ms Bernhard also adds some new lyrics and phrases the song differently from Sylvester. The “Frisco Disco” 12″ version is the real deal.

It manages to condense all that is wonderful about the anticipation preceding a night out. The endless possibilities, the prospect of listening to and dancing to music that will take you on a completely new journey, your senses heightened by your drug or drink of choice, everyone looks beautiful and the whole night stretches out in front of you. 

“It’s your first night out, you aren’t sure what you’re about, but tonight, something’s going down,         Castro Street on a Saturday night, it was outta sight, MacArthur Park melting in the background ….” 

It’s been playing in the kitchen a lot the past week. It really reminds me of my early nineties nightclub days, drinking too much with Michael, and listening to this before we went out.

The album it is taken from, “Excuses For Bad Behaviour Part One” is also surprisingly good musically with some top tunes on it including a lesbionic version of “Fifty Ways To Lose Your Lover” a take on “Sympathy For The Devil” and a mash up / medley of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and “Close Your Eyes” from Jesus Christ Superstar. Her self penned tracks are also pretty good particularly “Phone Sex” and “Innocence”.

 I know she’s a gobby American bird but she done good. A New York Times review said “Bernhard is petty and bilious as ever”.