Electronica to world music via rock and blues

Mail & Guardian reviewers list a CDs that are bound to appeal to music lovers across a wide range of genres

Baaba Maal
Television (Sheer Sound)
Back with his first studio album in eight years, Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal has outdone himself, creating a crossover African pop album that will have fans around the world grinning from ear to ear. Teaming up with singer Sabina Sciubba and keyboardist Didi Gutman from New York dance outfit Brazilian Girls, Maal has created a truly African album that floats on top of a Brian Eno-esque electronic soundscape, creating a missing link between West African pop and trip-hop.

Recorded over three years in London and Dakar, Television is produced by Compass Point Studio’s star, Barry Reynolds, who also features on guitar. The subtle blend of electronic dance rhythms and traditional West African percussion instruments such as the talking drum, djembe and sabar create a moody backdrop for Maal’s musings on war and violence in Africa, the role of women in Senegalese society and the continent’s place in a globalised world.

Traditionalists might find this album’s Western influences over the top, but for my money it is one of the finest albums to come out of Africa in 2009. As Maal says: ‘I have been travelling with Western musicians, so this is me, Baaba Maal, and my vision of the future and my vision of the world.” — Lloyd Gedye

Bronnt Industries Kapital
Hard for Justice (Kurse)
This is one of the best electronica albums I’ve heard in ages. It’s a blend of smart percussion, modern classical and subtle synthesiser to form what Bristol-based producer Guy Bartell terms ‘clockworktronica”. The melodies are strong and the strings on the track, European Male, are simply glorious. It makes sense that Bronnt did the soundtrack to the rescreening of the 1922 silent movie, Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages, as I thought about how well this album would fit as a soundtrack came to mind a few times.

The atmospherics can be haunting and a bit freaky at times — a good representation of the influence of Italian horror movie soundtracks on Bartell. There are only eight tracks on Hard for Justice, but each is differentiable and brings something different to the table — be it a string solo, up-tempo danceability or tear-jerking poignancy. This album has fended off the temptation to be all things to all people and has settled for a well-decided focus on pure electronic marvellousness. — Ilham Rawoot

Ramon Galvan
Outer Tumbolia (Jaunted Haunted Press)
It has been a while since the South African music scene has heard from Ramon Galvan, the former vocalist and keyboard player from the avant-rock band Blackmilk. It is great news then that he has a debut solo album out on Righard Kapp’s Jaunted Haunted Press — and it’s amazing. Outer Tumbolia is an album filled with delicate off-kilter emotional outpourings that at first listen can come across as emotionally draining. But I found that with every further listen my heart warmed just a little more to his songs of loss and longing.

Although Galvan’s vocals remind me of Antony Hegarty, without all the grandiose pomp, the music consistently reminded me of John Cale’s work. Luminarc, which features Kapp on guitar loops, is a gem of a song, and The Rupture, which features Galvan on kalimba, music box and melodica, is an album highlight too. But Galvan saves the best for last — an incendiary collaboration with Benguela drummer Ross Campbell on its dramatic closer, No Rest, where Galvan croons along to the kalimba while Pierre du Plessis delivers waves of feedback and Campbell offers up some jazzy percussion. Get this immediately and catch Galvan on a national tour with Kapp and Benguela soon. — Lloyd Gedye

Melody Gardot
My One and Only Thrill (Universal)
Melody Gardot’s latest album makes no bold promises. That’s a trap though, because this is a strong album. Singer-songwriter Gardot never misses a beat. Her phrasing is so disciplined that she sings with equal buoyancy on ballads as she does on bouncier tunes. She delivers a treat like something out of a Gypsy’s anthology of choruses. But Gardot is the sophisticated type, accompanied by an assortment of capable musicians. Master percussionist Paulino da Costa makes an appearance alongside trumpeter Patrick Hughes on a few numbers, which should thrill any cynic. Gardot subjects some of her songs to bossa nova sensibilities.

An obvious one is Les Etoiles, a thigh-slapping, toe-tapping treat, on which she strums an acoustic guitar as she tongue-dances her Espaniole to some lush alto saxophone solos by Gary Foster. As if to say: ‘I can also do this”, she scats a crazy Nova groove on If the Stars were Mine — a powerful number which she re-explores in an orchestral setting for the bonus track. The title track is a slouching ballad that finds her on vocals and piano.

Though the orchestra is summoned here too, there’s that great brush drumming to suit the quintessential smoky blue-lit ambience of the perfect jazz ballad. But for her rhythmic palette her compositions have unfairly short solos. Perhaps restraint is the lesson here, for both the musicians and the listener, making this a keeper of an album. — Percy Mabandu

Isochronous (Independent)
Kidofdoom’s multi-instrumentalist Richard Brokensha has been dividing his time between the blissed-out synth rock of the doomers and the prog-rock-leaning Isochronous for a while now. Those who have made the effort to catch this band live will know that this is no mere side project — Isochronous are a fully fledged rock monster.

Now with a self-titled debut album in store, Isochronous are set to reach for the stars — the question is: is South Africa ready for these youngsters? Franco Schoeman is one of the best bassists playing live in South Africa and his contribution to songs such as Treasure Box and Beauty Queen are quite magnificent. Alex Parker on keyboards and Marko Benini on drums are no slouches either and with guitar virtuoso Brokensha at the helm, Isochronous offer up a slick contemporary sound that incorporates jazz, funk, synth-pop and prog-rock.

Highlights include the spacey, electro-tinged jam Monition and the aforementioned Beauty Queen, a funky space-rock epic of note. Without a doubt this band is going places and, although their debut album is not going to set the world alight, it is the sound of a band trying to find its feet in a local music scene where this kind of creativity just results in confusion. Here’s to hoping they stick it out, because there is enough promise here to get this critic salivating for album number two. — Lloyd Gedye

Dave Matthews Band
Big Whisky and the Groogrux King (Just Music)
The Dave Matthews Band’s latest offering is one for the fans. As can be expected from this outfit, tracks are layered with thick instrumental work — the rack of musicians who contribute to the album are testament to that. Banjos twang behind saxophones, guitar riffs drift from deep blues to hard rock, and piano keys, organs and sets of orchestrated strings ring out in the distance.

It can be a loud album though, and its complexity may not make it easily accessible to unfamiliar listeners. The single Funny the Way it Is is not great, filled with obvious observations no doubt meant to be profound, but tracks such as Why I Am, Dive In, Alligator Pie, Time Bomb, Baby Blue and You and Me make up for it. It gets infinitely better on sustained listening. And with 15 tracks in total it’s value for money. — Lynley Donnelly

Leonard Cohen
Live in London (Sony)
Although Cohen’s misfortune (his former manager helped herself to his million-dollar retirement fund) may have been behind his 2008 tour, the resultant album, Live in London, is a real treat for the fans. ‘It’s been a long time since I stood on a stage in London,” says Cohen, addressing the audience before his rendition of Ain’t No Cure for Love. ‘It was about 14 or 15 years ago.

I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream.” The audience is practically eating out of his hand at this point, which continues throughout the concert. In fact, the to and fro between Cohen and his fans is one of the factors that makes this live album truly great. The song selection is top-notch and Cohen’s band breathes new fire into classic songs, such as Suzanne, Bird on the Wire, Tower of Song and I’m Your Man. It’s the definitive live document of the world’s greatest singing poet — and this from a man well into his 70s. Genius! — Lloyd Gedye

No Hassle (Kurse)
Richard Dorfmeister and Rupert Huber have once again managed to produce a chilled out, trip-hop album to rival their competitors. As the title
describes the down-tempo album is laid back and relaxed. From beginning to end the casual and tranquil vibe of the album does indeed make you feel worry free. The sultry and soulful sound being some of the most creative and experimental the Viennese duo has created thus far. As is typical of Tosca, they have stayed true to their experimental style.

The album is laden with live instruments, samples as well as analogue and digital sounds. What sets this album apart from the previous four is that there is no main vocalist rather a number of samples and repetitive vocals on various tracks. With tracks like My First, Elektra Bregenz and Rosa, listeners are no doubt going to be left wanting more. — Kirsten Koma

Entertainment (Kurse)
This album made me think of the Ball’s chutney advertising campaign — if something’s good, don’t change it. All the good old, unadulterated electro-pop indulgence that got me hooked on Fischerspooner seven years ago are still very confidently in place. The melodic synthesizer and androgynous vocals are still there, as are the shameless hooks. There is a bit more of a techno slant, but the beats are still quite traditional.

This album is the most radio-friendly of all three, and the production is a lot cleaner, and even polished, which does take away from the dirty edge that I associate with electroclash. The Best Revenge and We are Electric are the most accessible tracks on the album, while Danse en France has the most interesting beats, but is lacking in a grabbing melody. Entertainment may not receive the critical acclaim as the first two albums, #1 and Odyssey, but that’s because the sound has not really evolved into anything extraordinary for it’s time, and the sounds is certainly not new. But it’s catchy and warm. I like Fischerspooner for their cheesy goodness, and this album is certainly reminiscent of a good gorgonzola. — Ilham Rawoot

Ben Harper and Relentless 7
White lies for Dark Times (Sheer Sound)
Lets make this clear, this is not Ben Harper. This is Ben Harper and Relentless 7, a new endeavor formed with long standing friend guitarist Jason Mozersky. The album, White lies for Dark Times, has strains of Harper’s roots, and that chilled, often melancholy sound he is known for, in tracks like Skin Thin. But on the whole this is an entirely new project.

While the ensemble clearly benefits from Harper’s reputation and musicianship, the sound is distinctly its own. It is full on rock with bluesy intelligent vocals. Harper fans may not like it, but then again they might. Songs like Number With no Name and Up to You certainly deserve attention. It should at least be listened to on its own terms. —Lynley Donnelly

Motown 50
Various Artists (Universal)

How can you go wrong? The fifty greatest songs recorded on the Motown label, as voted for by the fans. Between 1961 and 1972, the Detroit based label was part of the golden age of soul and pop music, with a whopping 31 number one hits and over 100 top ten hits. It birthed stars like Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.

So spread over three discs you get the best on offer from the Jackson’s 5’s I Want You Back to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On; from The Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love to The Temptations’ My Girl. But that’s not all. Amongst all the hits are a whole host of songs that may be less familiar, yet just as deserving of your attention. The reggae tinged Master Blaster (Jammin’) by Stevie Wonder, the funk monsters War and Twenty-Five Miles by Edwin Star, the swinging Needle In A Haystack by the Velvelettes and Thelma Houston’s disco classic Don’t Leave Me This Way. This compilation is just a party waiting to happen. — Lloyd Gedye

Damian Lazarus
Smoke The Monster Out (Kurse)
This is one of those albums where you play it in the car for the first time, get out and go do the shopping, and when you get back in you think you are losing your mind because you can’t remember changing the CD, only to figure out that it’s still the same disc. Smoke The Monster Out is confusing. Pretty Bjork-ish vocals, angry hissing and the cameo on Come and Play by Nick Cave are blended together with little inhibition, and just when they are becoming enjoyable, are rudely interrupted by disappointingly traditional house beats.

It seems such a pity, when the brilliant production could have been put to much better use with more experimental beats and less intrusive, more interesting bass. The jazzy trumpet on Bloop Bleep and Cheeky Loop sample vocals make it the best track on this album, which seems to improve with the ascending track order. The melodies, samples and charming vocals are the saving grace on this album, but it is a bit all over the place. It is okay at everything without being great at one thing. And the house beats are just a total let down. — Ilham Rawoot

Kitty, Daisy & Lewis
Kitty, Daisy & Lewis (Sheer)
The second album from the Durham siblings is part cheesy cheerful throw back to another era, part magical musicianship and part anachronistic defiance of all things pop, that couldn’t help but become popular. Recorded on antique sound equipment in their backroom in London, the two sisters, Kitty and Daisy, and brother Lewis have created a swinging fifties inspired album filled with harmonicas, ukuleles, banjos, accordions, guitars, piano you name it — all of which they play themselves.

The siblings apparently earned their stripes at live gigs where they built up an ardent following. The music is mostly covers of little know fifties classics and a couple of their original numbers, but it really is all their own – and a swinging tribute to original rock ‘n roll — the kind that people forget is descended from rhythm ‘n blues and country. —Lynley Donnelly

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