Black Hotels dish up sombre beauty

Honey Badger: The Black Hotels (Sovereign Entertainment)

There are very few wasted moments on a Black Hotels album. Every word means something necessary to the song and every note carries its own silence in which to hear the music. The Black Hotels tell stories, sometimes baldly, sometimes elliptically, but always with a strange, sombre sadness that is inexplicably close to joy.

Key to their burgeoning appeal is that the band members write songs that appear to be primarily for themselves, or at least a small, localised audience of friends. There’s no way the incidental listener can understand what a song like It Has Begun is really about. “Dennis was a big machine caught inside his chemistry”? “Tell them now about your plan to marry Anne in India”? Who are these people? It doesn’t ­matter.

As with the Stones’ verse: “I went down to the Chelsea drugstore/To get your prescription filled/I was standing in line with Mr Jimi/And man, did he look pretty ill”, we don’t really need to know who Mr Jimi is. With enough thought, you can read an entire culture off that simple verse and without much thought you can feel that culture.Black Hotels songs work the same magic.

Paradoxically, the intensely personal proves to be the perfect way to express the allusive universal. It’s a trick that all the great songwriting bands have. “Rain clouds on a Sunday/drinking wine in a movie/you put your hands next to mine/When we leave you say you would like to come again” (Rain Clouds). Simple, beautiful, almost Proustian in its reductive elegance.
But does the music match the words? Impeccably.

There’s a rollicking doggedness about the songs and a studied cadence to John Boyd’s vocals. When allied with the sparkling, almost dilettante keyboards of Matthew Fink, and the lilting, Mo Tucker-like voice of Lisa Campbell, you get a sound that gets your heart singing at the same time as it imbues you with a melancholy at one remove.

It’s the fashion, or style if we want to be generous, for young South African bands of a certain ilk to haphazardly reference the 1980s, that lost pseudo-decade of monied exuberance, scattershot styles and tinkly keyboards. But what they’re doing is pastiche, a sort of Reader’s Digest condensed version that loses all the subtlety and complexity of the decade.

The Black Hotels reference the 1980s obliquely, with a keyboard phrase here and a New Order-like beat there.

The band is not doing homage; it is using a musical device to create a song entirely of the moment.

They also achieve that rare trick of writing songs that conjure a global emotional aesthetic, but are still incredibly redolent of Johannesburg.

Honey Badger
is the band’s third offering, after the EP Beautiful Mornings and Films for the Next Century. All three are superb. No critic’s pat one-liner is going to sum up this band, but perhaps their own words hint at the relationship their art has with their fans: “They beamed a song into space and nobody noticed/in 400 years we will know if it burst through the light/and how will we know if it ever got there/it’s all in your hands.”

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.


Where is the deputy president?

David Mabuza is hard at work — it’s just not taking place in the public eye. The rumblings and discussion in the ANC are about factions in the ruling party, succession and ousting him

Zuma turns on judiciary as trial nears

Former president says pre-trial correspondence is part of another plot

SANDF inquiry clears soldiers of the death of Collins Khosa

The board of inquiry also found that it was Khosa and his brother-in-law Thabiso Muvhango who caused the altercation with the defence force members

Lockdown relief scheme payouts to employees tops R14-billion

Now employers and employees can apply to the Unemployment Insurance Fund for relief scheme payments

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday