Argentinian singer-songwriter Juana Molina is a former TV comedy actress, who has been steadily building her musical reputation. Following support slots with David Byrne and Jose Gonzales, she is currently promoting her fourth album, Son, which has received plaudits from publications as diverse as Uncut and Mixmag.
Barring the occasional wry aside, Juana’s stage presence betrays little of her comedic past. She cuts a slightly care-worn, slightly ungainly figure on stage, darting between her array of instruments: guitar, keyboards, and various effects pedals.
Her songs are delicate, gossamer-thin creations, delivered in a style which is part Beth Orton, part Astrud Gilberto. However, their gentle folksiness is undercut by a wide and sometimes startling range of electronic loops, which are sampled as she plays, and repeated back in accumulating layers of sound. Imogen Heap used the same tricks at The Social earlier this year, but Juana aims for a more eerie, unsettling effect.
The electronics verge on the ambient, but are saved from blandness by their weirdly dissonant qualities. Sometimes, the layers build up to an intensity which verges on the danceable. At other times, they fade away to near silence.
The sparse but rapt crowd lapped it all up, demanding two encores, and post-concert CD sales were suitably brisk.
Completed just before Ali Farka Touré’s death in March of this year, the posthumously released Savane forms the final part of a trilogy of recent Malian albums to be recorded in situ on the banks of the River Niger, using World Circuit’s mobile studio at the Hotel Mandé in Bamako. Sonically speaking, it sits somewhere in the middle of its two companions: the lush arrangements of Boulevard De L’independence from Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra, and the set of stripped-down improvisational duets between Touré and Diabaté which made up the Grammy Award-winning In the Heart of the Moon.
What all three albums share is a distinct sense of place. With Savane in particular, the slightly echoing acoustics of the recording location are quite wonderfully represented, evoking images of a cool, capacious interior space, whose bare, solid walls shade it from the light and heat outside. (Then again, it’s easy to project.)
As such, Savane feels very much like a daytime album, best suited for afternoons and early evenings. There’s nothing of the night here, be it celebratory or carnal—these are mature, thoughtful, clear-headed pieces from a recognized master in his late sixties, whom you sense is comfortable with the authority which both his musical track record and his status in Malian society have bestowed upon him. (For the last two years of his life, Touré served as the mayor of his hometown of Niafunké.)
This sense of authority is carried through to the album’s lyrical content, which touches upon such socially responsible topics as the need for road building in order to integrate Mali’s disparate, multi-lingual population, and for the sale of powered pumps instead of instruments of war. Indeed, the translated lyrics of “Machengoidi” begin with a direct challenge to Touré’s fellow countrymen: “What is your contribution to the development of this country? Who has worked? What has he done?”
It’s not all finger-wagging polemic, though. Many of the songs have their roots in folklore, several concern themselves with the spiritual or the supernatural—and one number, the swirling, violin-led “Hanana,” is an arrangement of a song traditionally performed in celebration of a forthcoming male circumcision.
Nevertheless, it is inevitable that for listeners outside Mali—and indeed for most Malians themselves, as Savane is sung in at least four different local languages—the album is bound to fall short of Toure’s introductory statement in the sleeve notes: “It’s not so much the music that’s important, as what you’re saying. But the music has to be good for people to listen to the words.” Happily, the music on display here more than compensates for this loss.
Whereas Touré and Diabaté’s In the Heart of the Moon suffered from a tendency towards aimless, under-baked free-form noodling (Ali picks a riff and strums it for six minutes; Toumani tinkles away over the top; stop, pick a new riff and repeat), Savane benefits from a more considered, structured approach. Sure, there’s plenty of space here for some thrilling improvisational flourishes, such as the arresting interplay of lone guitar and dual ngoni that dominates the title track—but these passages never become overlong or stale.
Indeed, it is this clear mission to innovate—to take traditional song forms, genres, and instrumentations, and to twist them into diversely satisfying new shapes, both rhythmically and texturally—which gives Savane some of its most special qualities. In particular, it is wonderful to hear fresh new mileage being squeezed out of a seemingly played-out genre such as the blues—something which has been happening increasingly over recent years, thanks to the likes of Tinariwen, Boubacar Traoré, and the whole “desert blues” phenomenon.
If Savane has one unifying musical characteristic, it lies in the way that tracks anchor themselves around a central melodic phrase, each repetition ending and briefly pausing on a “base” note, thus locking the mood of each piece into a perpetual state of “coming home.” The overall effect is an intensely reassuring one.
This sense of melodic reassurance is further enhanced by an all-pervading air of calm concentration, engaged collaboration, and a steady, unfussed industry—all of which makes this an exceptionally effective album for de-stressing, and for the soothing of troubled souls. (Trust me on this, for I know of what I speak.)
However, to recommend this album merely as some sort of aural palliative would be to do it a massive disservice. For over and above this, Savane stands out both as Ali Farka Touré’s masterpiece, and as one of contemporary African music’s finest achievements to date. As such, one could not ask for a more fitting memorial to his talent and influence.
Over his last two albums, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has dealt with some fairly harrowing autobiographical themes: teenage drug addiction, and his relationship with an abusive stepfather. Now, with his tenth release, Darnielle adopts the equally harrowing voice of an abandoned, heartbroken lover, teetering on the brink of madness. The result is quite possibly the bleakest “break-up” album ever made.
Over a series of understated, deceptively gentle, largely acoustic arrangements, Darnielle’s high, cracked voice relates a series of scenes which see his protagonist lurching from bad to worse, in a kind of numbed-out, post-traumatic daze. In “Wild Sage”, he stumbles along the roadside, before falling over and lying there, bloodied and immobile. At other times, he simply wanders around his home, displaced and desperate, not knowing what to do next. By the album’s closing track, “In Corolla”, his despair has reached its ultimate, tragic conclusion.
Although these twelve songs certainly exert a grim fascination, it is difficult to imagine anyone actually playing this album for pleasure. In particular, if you’re looking for music to help you through your own break-up, then you are strongly urged to stay away.
Bela B ft. Charlotte Roche – 1,2,3…
Now, you really do need to understand a bit of German in order to extract maximum value from this, as it could easily be dismissed as a booze-addled bar-room stomp from a past-it old rocker (Bela B fronted Berlin’s merry punky-popsters Die Ärzte back in the 1980s, before turning to an acting career). However, once you figure out what’s going on (and the video does help enormously), then this reveals itself as a tidily constructed comic mini-drama, in which Bela rebuffs the drunken advances of some random creepy dude, before making similarly creepy moves on a Hot Chick who turns out to Creepy Dude’s main squeeze. Uh-oh, threesome alert! What’s a guy to do! Notable also for the ace chat-up line: “Hi, my name is Bela, I like Nelson Mandela.” Oh come on, you’ve got to admire the man’s front. (And guess what: in the nudey Swinger’s Club video, you can literally do just that!) (8)
David Guetta vs. The Egg – Love Don’t Let Me Go Walking Away
Apparently, The Egg took some persuading to let this DJ mash-up go out under their name – as well they might, as this bears no residual traces of their original mid-tempo guitar-based chugger. Instead, French producer David Guetta has grafted the vocals from his recent dance hit “Love Don’t Let Me Go” over the Tocadisco remix of The Egg’s “Walking Away”, twisting the latter’s central riff in a variety of ways, and augmenting its sturdy electrohouse sound with some of the trappings of French filter-disco. Happily, the riff is a chunky, seductive killer: an instantly recognisable “OH MY GOD IT’S THIS ONE!” affair, whose already lengthy shelf-life is hence usefully expanded by a few more weeks. (6)
Alesha – Lipstick
Nearly three years after Mis-teeq’s last hit, Alesha Dixon returns with a self-penned solo début, which maps out very different territory to her former band’s tolerable if unremarkable soul-pop. Fatally—because I can’t think of one instance where this has ever worked—she has pitched herself to a younger demographic than before, attempting to unite warring factions in playgrounds across the land by means of a latter-day anthem to Girl Power. Playing to none of whatever strengths she might once have had as a soul-based singer, Alesha yowls her “message” over a stridently clomping rock-based backing, which takes “Let’s Get This Party Started” era Pink as its starting point. Alesha’s other mistake is to start the track at full throttle – after which there is nowhere else to go, other than repeatedly bashing you round the head with a nagging shrillness that swiftly grates. Having dutifully played this track at least half a dozen times over the past few days, I find myself bitterly resenting every second that I have spent enduring this wretched, wretched piece of work. (1)
Da Buzz – Without Breaking
In which a late 80s Stock Aitken Waterman Hi-NRG vocal rides atop the sort of burbling chugalug “wally disco” rhythm that might have graced something by Kelly Marie or Liquid Gold in 1980, the sum total also sounding rather like a typical Scandiwegian Eurovision entry from the early 2000s. It could almost have worked, but Da Buzz bring nothing new to the party, and the song suffers from a tediously flattened melody line, which stands still in all the places where it should soar. The musical equivalent of a “shit, why did I do that” hit of stale amyl nitrate, from the dregs of that funny little bottle that has been lurking at the back of the refrigerator since the night when… yes, well. (4)
The Spinto Band – Oh Mandy
At the very real risk of repeating what everyone else has to say about this (because I think we might safely hazard a reasonable guess), there’s just no getting away from the fact that “Oh Mandy” has “Arcade Fire” written all over it – albeit an Arcade Fire stripped of its grandeur and depth, and replaced with a winsome, plaintive, floppy-fringed indie-boy feyness. Consequently, the only emotion that such reductive mimesis can provoke is the strong urge to exhume Funeral from the bottom of the CD pile and give it another listen. Because it’s been a few months. So, you know, cheers for the reminder. (4)
Debojit – Jeena (My Heart Goes Duma Duma)
This 30-year old crooner from Assam won an Indian TV talent show last year, and “Jeena” – the title track from his debut album – is an endearingly easy-going, old-fashioned soft-shoe-shuffle of a love song, with melodic and harmonic touches that evoke something of the spirit of 1960s MOR. Somehow, it just about manages to stay on the right side of corny – unlike the cheesy little reciprocal hand movements which Debojit and his lady friend demonstrate during the chorus, which involve a mixture of breast-tapping, baby-waving and sign language. (7)
Laura Lynn – Jij Bent De Mooiste
The “Schlager queen of Flanders” doesn’t quite scale the dizzy heights of last year’s sublime “Je hebt me 1000 maal belogen,” this being more of a straightforwardly traditional, four-square, oompah-at-the-beer-fest belter: all blaring brass and sturdy unison, and unapologetically old-fashioned in a late 1960s/early 1970s Eurovision kind of way. I had no idea that people were still making Schlager records like this, and a large part of me is immensely cheered by the discovery. (6)
Kasabian – Empire
Much as it pains my kneejerk if-the-NME-likes-it-it-must-be-shit sensibilities to admit this, Kasabian—much like their close contemporaries Razorlight—are beginning to show signs that they could develop into quite a decent little band. The neatest trick on display here is the tempo shift into the schaffel-glam-stomp of the chorus, with its nods to “Rock And Roll Part 2” and its insistent chant-along refrain. (“We’re all wasting away!”) They could still do with a decent lyricist—but, you know, small steps. (6)
Sistem – Never
Sistem are the Romanian Stomp-esque percussion troupe who backed Luminita Angel at Eurovision 2005 (a.k.a. The Night Of The Big Drums, as all who witnessed it will testify). This suffers by comparison, being let down by a weedy, under-par vocal and a disappointing lack of variety in the banging and crashing department (although this is partially redeemed by a rather nice marimba break). It also suffers by comparison with Mihai Traistariu’s mighty “Tornero,” which has set a benchmark against which all Eurovision-related Romanian dance music must be judged. (5)
Marisa Monte – Pra Ser Sincero
Frustratingly enough, my favourite song on this week’s Singles Jukebox is also the song about which I can find the least to say. Marisa Monte belongs to the same culturally well-connected Brazilian popular music tradition as Caetano Veloso, and “Pra ser sincero” is a fine example of that tradition: graceful, sophisticated, elegantly restrained music for grown-ups, which shimmers like fireflies at dusk, and soothes like an ice-cool Caipirinha after a hot shower. (7)
Adem – Launch Yourself
Sporting remixes by Four Tet and Hot Chip, you know what you’re in for straight away: laidback, sun-drenched folktronica, which combines delicate intricacy (Adem does some lovely things with toy bells and musical boxes, if that’s what they are) and shambling dourness (those slightly ragged multi-tracked vocals, which anchor the track’s sonic flights of fantasy in glum everyday reality). (6)
Shanadoo – King Kong
Cultural cross-pollination ahoy! Double the sugar rush, double the fun! Girlie J-Pop meets boshing Eurodance, as specifically engineered for the German and Austrian market by Swiss producer David Brandes. However, it’s the Eurodance that wins out: swamping the winsome Japanese four-piece with all the usual tricks: orchestral synth stabs used as counterpoint, one-fingered rinky-dink melodies in the bridge between chorus and verse, and a general relentless giddiness which eclipses even the 2001 original by fellow Brandes protégés E-Rotic. (6)