Tag Archives: afrobeat

Tortoise, and the national anthem of post-rock

Like the chopped-up, mutilated Stars and Stripes on the cover, the opening track of Tortoise‘s magnum opus Standards plays out like another screwed-around American institution. If “Seneca” makes you think back to Hendrix shredding “The Star Spangled Banner” out of his Stratocaster, you’re not alone. This is truly post-rock’s national anthem, and it rocks harder than the fifty years of popular music Standards mashes up, put together.

…And then it slithers. If the guttural first two minutes weren’t enough to shock you out of the hermetic world of TNT, what follows is a bracing and thrilling journey through breakbeat, jazz, blues, the space rock of Joe Meek, even the harpsichord-rooted world of baroque. Continue reading Tortoise, and the national anthem of post-rock

Vampire Weekend – Cousins

I’m going to pretend that the last few months haven’t happened – just assume that the extended hiatus of this blog is a figment of your imagination. Yes, I’m a slacker. I’m also a stupidly busy student/journalist/trouble-maker.

OK, poor excuses over, let’s crack on with the music. One of my favourite albums of last year was Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut – not only because it was a smart, concise album of intelligent and fun pop music, but also because it was pretty much the soundtrack to my first year at university. Having seen them open for Blur at the Hyde Park gig, during which they treated anyone who could muster a smile to a selection of new tracks, it was evident to me that their follow-up might be riskier and bit more grown-up, but would still provide maximum enjoyment.

On the evidence of the new single, “Cousins”, taken from the album Contra, fans of the band will have very little to be disappointed about. The song is snappy and catchy; it has frequent frenetic breakdowns; Ezra Koenig’s famous wit and skills of observation are still very much intact. More intriguingly, the song reminds me of early Police – there’s something about the punky tone of the guitar and the fluid bassline that had me hearkening back to the delights of “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “Message In A Bottle”.

“Cousins” displays a fondness for experimentation, too: the bells at the end certainly do little to link the band with the Afro-pop of their first record. It would appear that the band’s searching for innovative and fun sounds have taken them further afield than Africa, this time round, and this was probably crucial, lest they continue to be considered in thrall to a singular sound. Furthermore, the frantic twin-guitar interplay that fills every chunk of air in the song shows off some fascinating echoes of Arabic music.

The evidence so far suggests that Contra is going to be a bit of everything, musically: the opener, “Horchata”, is heavy on twinkly keys, tribal percussion and programmed beats; live favourite “White Sky” is like a supercharged Afro-pop hit of yesteryear, with call-and-response backing vocals recalling tropical adventures. Now, we have “Cousins” – a brave stab at poppy punk that sees the band unafraid to fill the space that so characterised their debut effort, with chaotic percussion and delightful fretwork. Hopefully, the album’s release will excite and amaze existing fans, while drawing in a new batch of pop music lovers. Because when you cut through all the global/world-music hype, Vampire Weekend excel at making truly special popular music.

Antibalas (I wish I was).

It’s taken me two years of searching and disappointment, but today I finally came into the ownership of Antibalas’s 2007 album, Security, an event that has also coincided with me finally discovering the meaning of the New York collective’s name: Antibalas is Spanish for “bulletproof”, which, in many ways, is pretty much anathema to how their music sounds. Here is a troupe of post-Fela-Kuti-styled musicians whose contributions to other records (Return To Cookie Mountain, Antidotes) never fail to get mentioned, but whose self-contained output has frequently passed under the radar. Who can forget the dissonant slabs of brass on Foals songs like “The French Open” and “Cassius”? Would TV On The Radio’s “Golden Age” be half the joyous celebration without the rousing brass arrangement? In short, Antibalas’ guest slots on other records have been universally crucial to the success of these records. So why hasn’t anyone really heard their music?

Thanks to Spotify, I can confirm that the band’s first three albums are really tremendous works, even if none of them are terribly original or groundbreaking. Of particular note is 2002’s Talkatif, which channels the spirit of Fela Kuti, Tony Allen and Parliament through… a well-tuned photocopier. All three albums are enormous fun, but I always get the sense I’m listening to a really competent tribute band as opposed to being witness to an exciting new stage in the development of Afro-beat.

Luckily, Security does much to address these concerns, thanks in part to the exciting production of Tortoise frontman John McEntire, who brings to the band a renewed sense of experimentation and a willingness to break out of genre conventions. Security couldn’t begin in much weirder circumstances: like the loping, demented love child of Foals, Tortoise and Stockhausen, the opener, “Beaten Metal”, is exactly that. Showers of alien, metallic percussion rain down on a snake-like bassline, competing all the while with torrents of dissonant brass textures. Keyboards and clavinets that sound tortured and angry flutter in and out of the tight, busy beat. The effect is at once disarming, otherworldly and actually quite good fun once you get past the initial scary-factor.

“The exciting production of Tortoise frontman John McEntire brings to the band a renewed sense of experimentation and a willingness to break out of genre conventions.”

After this somewhat chilling opening blow, Security settles into a familiar, yet subtly improved, formula, with the two lengthy jams, “Filibuster X” and “Sanctuary”, cleverly shoved in at the front to create an overall balance to the album, tempered as they are by the more concise second half. The first of these, “Filibuster X”, is the more frantic, with amusing call-and-response vocals and intentionally messy trills of organ and saxophone. “Sanctuary” is more sultry and leisurely in pace, with ample room for meandering solos and beautifully measured guitar work.

And then comes Security’s second secret weapon – a second half that is unexpected in its direction, and, if anything, even more rewarding. “Hilo” continues where “Sanctuary” left off in terms of tempo, but the two songs could not have more different moods. Where “Sanctuary” was resolved and, for want of a better word, happy, “Hilo” is far more humid and frustrated. Clavinets ping off each other in each channel; rich and lush synthesisers cast a slightly ominous sparkle; the vocals are more mournful and bleak. As a reference point, imagine the Gorillaz song, “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead”, re-imagined by In A Silent Way-era Miles Davis. The two songs share a sense of dread and paranoia, conveyed through a musical form that is typically spirited and rousing—it’s a bit like The Specials, maybe. The next song, “War Hero”, has been circulating through my iTunes library ever since the album was originally released, and the intervening two years have done nothing to change my opinion of it – it’s the truest idea of a collaboration between the older style of Antibalas with Tortoise circa-TNT. Drums real and artificial ricochet off the walls; keyboards and buzzing synths swap riffs and melodies; by the end, it sounds like bits of Abraxas are being implanted into a Brooklyn block party.

“Clavinets ping off each other in each channel; rich and lush synthesisers cast a slightly ominous sparkle; the vocals are more mournful and bleak.”

The final pair of songs are great summaries of the album as a whole. “I.C.E.” oscillates and shifts between Jaga Jazzist-style atmospherics and humid jazz; “Age” slows down to a crawl that is almost too sluggish: as a wash of reverb from the percussion threatens to drown out everything, excitable whooshing synths provide a modern counterpoint to the New Orleans funeral jazz stylings of the brass and guitar.

Ultimately, Security still isn’t quite the original and break-out piece of music I’d hoped it would be, but that’s not for want of trying. Musically, it never fails to excite, or at least evoke some kind of strong passion, but it still gets out of its comfort zone frustratingly rarely. That twenty-five minutes of it are still devoted to Talkatif-style jams do little to dispel the preconception that Antibalas are still thoroughly in awe of their progenitors. Nevertheless, when Security does do things a little differently, it succeeds so outrageously that you wonder why they don’t mess with the formula more often. Very often, you can see the influence of John McEntire struggling to do more than add some sonic bells and whistles, when what you really dream of – a full-blooded Tortoise-Antibalas hybrid – is only manifest on a few occasions. When it does so, it gets it spot on – the end of the album is right up there, on a par with TNT’s “Everglade”. I was left with a slightly false emotion of enjoyment – I loved every minute of it, without being challenged as often as I’d like. But have no doubts – it’s a lot of fun, and it’s certainly less of an imitation product than one might have feared given Antibalas’s previous output. Be sure to track it down. If you can.

Private revision rave

I seem to be starting every post nowadays with “Just a quick update to say…” so here comes another one.

My hands are somewhat tied, musically, at present, owing to an overload/guilt trip about actually getting down to some revision. Predictably, I’ve spent the entire year slavishly scribbling down notes without really understanding what was going on. Consequently, I should now have my face firmly held to the grindstone.

While I revise, I do however like to listen to music. Usually I favour stuff with a strong rhythmic element – LCD Soundsystem, Hercules & Love Affair, Prinzhorn Dance School, Portishead, Massive Attack – but I also find myself working more productively with instrumental post rock, which has the effect of letting me “leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime.” Albums like Explosions In The Sky’s Those Who Tell The Truth Will Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Will Live Forever and Tortoise’s landmark TNT are ideal for this purpose, as are most of M83’s albums.

When I’m not revising, I’ve also been exploring the depths of Spotify, and have had the following albums of frequent rotation:

The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

Konono No. 1 – Congotronics

Amadou & Mariam – Welcome To Mali

Antibalas – Talkatif

John Rutter – Gloria

Various – Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump

Antony & The Johnsons – The Crying Light

Beck – Sea Change

Doves – Kingdom Of Rust

Robert Wyatt – Comicopera

Hockey Night – Keep Guessin’

All of which I can heartily endorse. Certainly if you’re in the UK, you’ve no excuse not to get swallowed up by Spotify, because anyone can sign up.

Enjoy!