/ 5 May 2009

Power pop

Lloyd Gedye is enchanted by Dear Reader’s new album, Replace Why with Funny, and takes a listen to some great new international compilations

In 2006 a fresh-faced young pop band hit the local music scene with their debut album, The Younger, causing quite a few ripples.

This band went by the name Harris Tweed and were formed by lead singer Cheri MacNeil and Darryl Torr.

Fast-forward to 2009 and things look quite a bit different for MacNeil and Torr.

First off they now go by the moniker Dear Reader (they were forced to change their name by a toy company called Harris Tweed), lifted from the Charlotte Bronte novel Jane Eyre.

Second they have recently been signed by international label City Slang, the home of stars such as the Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Calexico and Menomena.

‘We were bummed at first about the name change but we’re OK with it now,” says MacNeil.

‘It’s obviously not an ideal situation, but it did come at a weirdly appropriate time,” she says. ‘We’re releasing a new album with a new sound, so maybe it’s the right time for a new identity.”

A new album with a new sound indeed, the album Replace Why with Funny (Just Music) sounds as if it comes from a completely different band.

Gone are the twee, unadventurous songs from The Younger, replaced with mature songs filled with great arrangements and awesome production.

Take the opening track, Great White Bear, with its opening mandolin riff and great propulsive drumming. The song is hook laden and has a subtle beauty.

The swinging Out Out Out has some great rock guitar and more attitude than the entire last album had.

The album was produced by Brent Knopf from indie rock outfit Menomena, whom the band hooked up with through the internet.

Torr and MacNeil were taken to a Menomena show by a friend while they were touring Europe.

‘The place was packed with people singing along to the strangest music I had ever heard,” says MacNeil. ‘After that I listened to their album every single day solidly for three months.”

‘So when we were looking for a producer I sent a myspace message to the Menomena guys, something along the lines of ‘I think you guys are geniuses and I love your music and is there any way you’d consider coming out to South Africa to produce our new record?’ and they replied! I was jumping around and screaming like a banshee!” she says.

Although Knopf may have brought his deft touch to the party, it is MacNeil who deserves the credit — she has written some of the finest songs to come out of South Africa in 2009.

That should mean that in 2010 Dear Reader will be walking off with a host of Sama gongs.

Charity starts at home
The Charity compilation is a double-edged sword. Because it is for a good cause bands often hand over exclusive tracks to the compilers, which is a big draw-card that will have collectors queuing for their copy. But quite often the tracks that sparked your interest in the first place are the only ones you end up listening to.

Two new charity compilations are breaking this mould. The first is from the War Child charity, an NGO that aims to raise money to assist children in areas of conflict and post-conflict. Titled War Child Heroes (EMI), the basic premise is that the album is full of cover versions. But the big selling point is that the creators of the originals got to select a contemporary artist to cover their song.

So you get Bob Dylan selecting Beck to cover Leopard-Skin Pill-box Hat, The Ramones asking the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to cover Sheena Is a Punk Rocker and Blondie selecting Franz Ferdinand to cover Call Me. Not all of the songs work, though. Duffy struggles through Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die and Lily Allen murders The Clash’s Straight to Hell. But there are enough classics here to warrant the purchase, particularly Hot Chip’s cover of Joy Division’s Transmission and TV on the Radio’s take on David Bowie’s Heroes.

The second compilation is titled Dark Was the Night (Just Music) and is released by the Red Hot organisation, which aims to fight Aids through popular culture. This double disc album features a whole host of exclusive tracks from the likes of Arcade Fire, Iron and Wine, Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer and Bon Iver. Compiled by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, this compilation was described as a ‘who’s who” of the indie-rock scene.

As you can imagine, 31 tracks across two CDs is a lot of music, but at least three-quarters of this great compilation is worth your listening time and your rands. There are some great covers included, such as My Brightest Diamond’s version of Feeling Good, made famous by the late, great Nina Simone.

Antony and Bryce Dessner offer up a cover of Bob Dylan’s I Was Young When I Left Home and Dave Sitek’s cover of The Troggs’s With a Girl like You is fantastic. Add to that Cat Power doing Amazing Grace and a host of other great songs and it spells essential listening.

The rest of the month’s best


Running with the Beast (Soul Candi)
Hailing from Amsterdam, zZz is a dynamic powerhouse duo, as some lucky South Africans would have witnessed at Oppikoppi a few years ago. That night I and a host of others sat open-mouthed, stunned by this electro-punk force of nature. Well they’re back, not in South Africa, but with their second full-length album, Running with the Beast. Their sound is still there, but it is way more polished and way more electronic. Before they sounded like a garage rock band with an electro edge, but their new album places them firmly among the likes of New Order, Depeche Mode, Suicide and Cabaret Voltaire. While Sign of Love sounds like an update on early Fall material, Grip sounds like Jim Morrison fronting Joy Division. But the real highlight is Amanda, which sounds like Ian Curtis singing a Roxy Music number. And while the artwork by Roel Wouters will have animal cruelty activists crying foul, it will certainly make an impression. — Lloyd Gedye

Amp Fiddler / Sly and Robbie

Inspiration Information (Kurse)
Reggae legends Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, better known as Sly and Robbie, team up with funkadelic soul crooner Amp Fiddler for a once-off collaboration. They play together as part of Inspiration Information, a project that brings together artists and producers with their musical heroes. These sessions are themed around spontaneity, improvisation and fusion. As a big fan of Sly and Robbie I found the CD a pleasant surprise. There’s a bit of the distinctive thumping of the drum and the strumming of the guitar that you would expect on one of their albums. The result is an aggregate sound that doesn’t alienate the core fans of the artists, yet is somehow appealing to fans of fusion. I have been humming along for days to Crazy Day and a remake of George Clinton’s Paint the White House Black, retitled Blackhouse (Paint the White House Black), which takes on a loaded meaning after the election of Barack Obama as United States president. On the song Serious the threesome experiment with ambience, something that comes naturally in the reggae sub-genre of dub, where reverb and echo are extensively used. Some of the tracks are distinctly Sly and Robbie while some are unidentifiable. That is the beauty of the album — its unpredictable sound. This CD is a must have for fans of the two genres. — Percy Zvomuya

Junior Boys

Begone Dull Care (EMI)
This Canadian group have been labelled too retro for the garage scene, too pop for the underground and, after listening to them, I understand why. This is electro pop like you have never heard it before. Begone Dull Care is their third album and quite in tune with the group’s previous albums. Their earlier releases include Birthday/Last Exit in 2003 and High Come Down in 2004. But I had not heard about Junior Boys until recently. Reluctantly, I eventually made time for the eight-track album, and boy was I blown away. For a laggard with a hard-to-please ear like mine, this was quite a refreshing experience. Formed in 1999, Junior Boys’s popularity seems to be finally on the rise, and they’re proving to be an emerging force in international popular culture. — Monako Dibetle

Arthur Russell

Love Is Overtaking Me (Just Music)
All those who argue against the trend to release music by deceased artists that was never released while they were alive should take a listen to this album. Arthur Russell may be best known for his work as a disco artist, but this album of intimate singer-songwriter material is a long-lost gem. Compiled by his lover, Tom Lee, Love Is Overtaking Me features 21 songs recorded between 1973 and 1990. These great songs offer an alternative picture of the world of Arthur Russell. A large number of the recordings come from sessions done with legendary producer John Hammond in the mid-1970s. These produced pearlers such as Maybe She, Nobody Wants a Lovely Heart, I Couldn’t Say it to Your Face and What’s it Like?. But the best song on offer is the great Time Away, which sounds like an early Lou Reed offering. This is absolutely essential. — Lloyd Gedye

The Stanley Clark Trio

Jazz in the Garden (Sheer)
The Stanley Clark Trio’s new album, Jazz in the Garden, works to answer a simple question. What happens when musicians with a strong history of electronica and fusion delve into straight-up jazz? The young Japanese pianist Hiromi Uehara and drummer Lenny White — a long-time Clark rhythm companion — complete a well-matched combination for this project. Paradigm Shift (Election Day 2008) is a monumental opening of the album — a Stanley Clark original composition designed to illustrate the paradigm shift represented by that historic day. Beyond the undoubtedly transformative improvisation and instrumental virtuosity, which you’ll find in good measure here, nothing tests a jazz album like its take on standards. Someday My Prince Will Come, once a Miles Davis feature, finds this trio pretty equal to the task. Clark and Hiromi sustain a delicate conversation between piano and bass to the ambient brushing of White’s drums. At the end of a satisfying listen, Jazz in the Garden is testament that these musicians’ fusion background is their strength and not cause to ignore them. — Percy Mabandu

Little teeth

Child Bearing Man (Absolutely Kosher)
A friend once said there are two types of experimental bands — those who strategise, practise and perfect the chaos, and those who are just having a wank. The very indie Little Teeth fall into the first group. Everything about their debut, Child Bearing Man, is unconventional, almost weird — from the vocals that sound like a perverted Joanna Newsome to the Sigur Ros-esque outbreaks into awkward screams and the non-traditional song structures. But that was the plan and that’s what makes it so interesting. A number of times I thought the CD had moved to the next track only to realise I was still on the same one. Each track is a musical treat, completely unpredictable and a fresh break from typical verse-chorus progressions. This San Francisco threesome has the childish vocal folksiness of Grampall Jukebox and the exciting songwriting of Sunset Rubdown, sans the singalongability. Listening to this album is like watching a Charlie Kauffman movie — not always enjoyable but never boring. — Ilham Rawoot