Music for the mediocre masses

If music weren’t important, none of this would matter. A Travis album wouldn’t be something to tie yourself up into knots over, pondering such vital questions as, what do we want from our pop stars? Attitude, glamour, volatile druggies whom we watch from afar, fascinated, appalled, enraptured? No thanks. Or the Travis model — regular boys, like the friends you call on a Friday night in the almost certain knowledge that they’ll have nothing better to do than join you in nursing a couple of pints at the local? No, that doesn’t satisfy either.

The advantage of Travis’s plainness is that you know what to expect from them. Those who loved the sorrow-tinged yet breezy tunes on The Man Who will be just as satisfied by The Invisible Band (Sony). Listening to this third album is like coming home after travelling the world to find your slippers by the bed and your favourite mug waiting for you in the cupboard. Everything in its place and as you remember. They’ll never disappoint because they’ll never make great claims for themselves. Last year they told Q magazine that they were the “luckiest, best band in the world”, the seeming arrogance of one adjective tempered by the amazed gratitude of the other. This year they told the same magazine that they’re a “fantastic band for ordinary people”.

There’s nothing defensive in that claim (which is partly why Travis are likeable where the Stereophonics just infuriate). Travis’s role in pop is to create anthems for, if not the underdog, then the “normal” people whose lives aren’t exciting but are basically OK: decent job, decent car, decent relationship, decent house and a head full of dreams that will never be fulfilled. The Invisible Band could be music’s secular equivalent of the medieval morality play Everyman: a pocketful of advice for Joseph and Joanne Public ladled out in explicit terms.

Take the second verse of Side: “We all try hard to live our lives in harmony / For fear of falling swiftly overboard / But life is both a major and a minor key / Just open up the chord.” Or the coda to Pipe Dreams: “Whether you win or you lose isn’t gonna change a single thing.” Or the instruction in Last Train: “Search within yourself for feelings, everybody’s got them.” You’ll notice that frontman Fran Healy isn’t among the world’s great lyricists: he relies too heavily on emotional clichés, couching vapid morals in a language conversational and bland. They are worse read than heard; his voice has its horrible Cliff Richard moments (Follow the Light), but also shimmery Thom Yorke moments (Last Train) that make the words almost forgivable.

Although bassist Dougie Payne and guitarist Andy Dunlop have started writing songs, their efforts are confined to the b-side of the single Sing. This is Healy’s album. In many ways it’s the work of a man approaching 30, pondering his place in the world. A vague malaise courses through The Invisible Band, as captured in Dear Diary: “What is wrong with me? ‘Cause I’m fine between the lines.” The cover — Travis dwarfed by a centuries-old tree — and the line in Pipe Dreams, “Just a link in a chain, just a puppet on a string”, the very title of the album imply that we’re all insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But the point of pop music is to deny that, to make us feel wickedly alive with nothing more than a chord and a few coruscating words.

I don’t get that listening to Travis. I hear a strong album by a classic rock band who will grow to be the next U2, and it does nothing for me. Here are delicate melodies of a sorrowful bent, classic structures and the tiniest hints that producer Nigel Godrich also worked with Radiohead on Kid A. You glimpse his presence in The Cage‘s electronic sheen, the swirling fade-out to Safe and the way Follow the Light swallows itself up at the end like light disappearing into the centre of a television. But the songs don’t grow with repeated playing or resonate differently when I listen to them through headphones. They are what they are: Sing and Flowers in the Window are jaunty, Side is nauseating.

And so The Invisible Band raises the question: what do you want from an album? Something that you know millions of others also own, that you’ll hear blasting from every car window? Songs that comfort you with the knowledge that you’re not alone, with a chorus like “the grass is always greener on the other side, the neighbour’s got a new car that you wanna drive” (the horrid Side again), obviously designed to be belted out at rock festivals? Or something that challenges and unsettles, that holds secrets in its heart; an album that avoids all the easy paths to making people feel jolly and in doing so leaves its listeners euphoric? I know what I want, and Travis, for all their proficiency, don’t have even a teaspoon of it.

Beeskraal: Huis Toe (Woema)

Imagine boeremusiek meets David Kramer and Valiant Swart. Throw in rock beats and guitars, and you have an idea of what this band is all about. With names like Jazz-Bees van Rensburg and Agterkwart Nell, the members certainly don’t hide their Afrikaner roots. Once you look past the boererock gimmick, though, it’s pretty plain sailing — no earth-shattering tunes though. — Riaan Wolmarans

Caffeine Substitute: For Medicinal Purposes Only (Swirl)

A welcome full-length contribution from this experienced Durban five-piece outfit, who have been going strong since 1996, even after a few line-up changes. Meghan McRae’s vocals drift languidly over mostly acoustic, relaxed rock and there are creative (rather emotional) lyrics to admire. — Riaan Wolmarans

Cutting Jade: So There We Were (Cutting Jade)

A self-released debut full-length album from this Gauteng act. Included are the singles that have been doing well especially on campus radio stations since the band started out, as well as new tracks. She Says is the first single off this album (also included on the 5fm Showcase 3: Unearthed CD). It’s a smooth and simple collection of pop-rock with funky bits, even if it’s not the most creative album of the year. — Riaan Wolmarans

Danny K: Danny K (Gallo)

This is a well-produced debut collection of 14 R&B tracks that was nominated for a South African Music Award. The first single, Hurt so Bad, received considerable airplay and has led to a deal with Universal Records in the United Kingdom; the second, the funky You Don’t Know My Name, also did well. It’s solidly built R&B all the way through, with the added thrills of ragga and rap. There is also a kwaito mix with Speedy and Loyiso of TKZee Family. — Riaan Wolmarans

Desert Rose: Sands of Time (Saville McLowe)

A seriously beautiful album, one of the most refreshingly different to be released in South Africa in a while. Constructed using San musical instruments — such as bows and rainsticks — and samples, it’s a soul-soothing mix of tribal rhythms, Gregorian, Native American and Tibetan chanting, with vocalist, writer and composer Lynne Holmes’s voice sounding quite a bit like Levannah from QZoo. It’s Enigma, Mike Oldfield and all their ilk rolled into one. — Riaan Wolmarans

Ishmael: Roba Letheka (CCP)

Undoubtedly one of the year’s biggest kwaito albums, Ishamel’s Roba Letheka is an overdue commercial reward for an artist whose talent has been celebrated for the better part of the decade during which he has graced the music scene, first with Prophets of Da City and Skeem and then as a solo artist. The album is his first with 999 records after leaving the Ghetto Ruff stable. It sold 31 000 a few weeks after its release, more copies than his three previous solos combined. — Thebe Mabanga

Ismail GTX Xaba: My Life After the 9th of Feb (Gallo)

This is a project overshadowed by sadness. The album was released after the death in April this year of its composer and performer, Xaba. He offers a rare combination of the grand piano and Zulu lyrics. There is a story behind each of his compositions. The title track links Xaba’s birthday to the date of Nelson Mandela’s release. His titles suggest a heavy liberation movement connection. — Thebe Mabanga

Leek and the Bouncing Uptones: Roll the Dice ... (20 Deck Records)

This country has no shortage of punk-rock and ska bands. Over the years many have come and gone, most sounding depressingly similar. Leek and the Bouncing Uptones have been holding their own since forming as Leek in 1994, being more recognisable than many of their peers with the addition of trumpet and trombone to the usual punk madness. Sometimes the music is fresh and experimental, but at other times it’s just plain old punk. — Riaan Wolmarans

S’bu: Angazi Kanjani (Gallo)

Here is an artist who has had his chance to make an impact on the kwaito scene but has not quite pulled it off. Even after being recruited to the TKZee family and working with the prolific Thapelo Khomo and Robby Malinga on Angazi Kanjani he remains trapped in the mould of the man we were introduced to with Amalawyer a few years ago. — Thebe Mabanga

Thebe: Chizboy (Sony)

One of kwaito’s original exponents Thebe remains ever loved but not really bought. With his latest release he has grown to accept that he “records for the love of music and not to watch the sales”. Thebe is an example of the problem that has afflicted kwaito for the past decade. Fans are reluctant to buy an album they believe has only one hit and radio stations fail to look beyond an album’s first hit single. Perhaps the time is right for artists to look beyond radio to market their work. — Thebe Mabanga

Watershed: In the Meantime (EMI)

Craig Hinds (vocals, guitar, harmonica and piano) and Paul McIver (guitar and backing vocals) — the heart of Watershed — have established themselves as the current kings of radio-friendly pop in South Africa, with tracks such as Shine on Me, Angel, In the Meantime and Indigo Girl (all included on the album) doing exceptionally well on many stations. — Riaan Wolmarans

Kaydo: Kaydo (Gallo)

Any group that attempts to break into the music business with a heavy R&B slant is brave indeed. Kaydo’s self-titled debut offers nothing extraordinarily new but has elements of promise in offerings like Mama Ndiyalila. Splicing it with ragga lyrics certainly gives them an edge. They have done enough to get another crack at an album. — Thebe Mabanga

Lamonte: Bayazibuza (Gallo)

This album is a reminder of how a project conceived without purpose and executed with average talent can turn out flat and uninspiring. The narrow thematic scope in its lyrics is something you have heard in kwaito songs before. If this is the last we hear of Jabu Qhineba and Solly Moloi, I would be neither surprised nor disappointed. — Thebe Mabanga

Solomon Linda: The Story of Solomon Linda (Gallo)

This poignant item comes with a plea. Buy it and you’ll be redressing some of the exploitation that befell Solomon Linda, composer of the classic pop tune Mbube that became the theme song of Pete Seeger. Here are six versions of Mbube, three of them dubbed The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The original was stark and beautiful, but later recordings seem a bit dull. This short recording includes those by Mango Groove, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Mahotella Queens. Proceeds will go to a Linda family fund. — Matthew Krouse

Various: Contemporary and African Jazz Collection (Gallo)

This anthology of 16 tracks tends in the direction of jazz with one foot in pop. There is nothing here that moves beyond the outer boundaries of tonality (even Philip Tabane’s atmospheric piece Nkupi feels at home). That said, it is largely a pleasant collection, ranging from the insistent grooves of Dennis Mpale’s most commercial outing, Do Like Miles, to the meditative musings of Mike Makhalemele and on to the warblings of Linda Kekana. The compilation closes with one of its strongest tracks, an innovative number by Unofficial Language that is as solid as its title — The Rock. — Shaun de Waal

Various: FY2K Level 3 (Gallo)

DJ Speedy’s back in the mix with the third in his series of FY2K albums. This time it’s a pretty chilled affair, easy on the air but not too laid-back to dance to. It’s also nice to hear excellent but lesser known tracks from experts like DJ Dan alongside stock tunes such as Mauro Picotto’s Proximus and Fragma’s You Are Alive (the most commercial track on the album). — Riaan Wolmarans

Various: Oppikoppi Tuned (Oppikoppi)

This album is a good way to see what the Oppikoppi music festival is all about: 12 tracks by 12 different artists representing almost as many styles of music, all typical of the variety offered by the festival itself. Hip-hop crew Max Normal, rockers Not My Dog, grunge masters Saron Gas, dance gurus Krushed & Sorted, the evergreen David Kramer and more — relive your wildest festival moments. — Riaan Wolmarans

Various: Showcase 3: Unearthed (Sony)

Radio station 5fm does get criticised every now and then for not playlisting this or that local artist’s new track, but it does manage to redeem itself with projects like the Showcase CDs for unsigned acts. Newcomers such as the cool Flowerheads from Cape Town and the funky Superjuice jostle for attention with better-known outfits such as punk brats Tweak, Cutting Jade, Zen Arcade and Fruit Fly Navigators. — Riaan Wolmarans

Wessel: So Fine (Sheer Sound)

Wessel van Rensburg has dropped his surname, teamed up with a five-star line-up (including Bruce Cassidy, Ernie Smith, McCoy Mrubata) and released this album of delicate fusion. Some of it sounds like television theme music, but there are gems. Pictures in My Side Mirror has a pristine flute solo by Kevin Davidson and The Emperor’s Clothes has some sincere rap by Sifiso Sudan. — Matthew Krouse

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