Thursday, 30 April 2015

-Music Videos on my Mind- Mbongwana Star’s (feat. Konono No.1) “Malukayi”

Listening to Mbongwana Star’s excellent track Malukayi reminds one that perhaps in the future a popular culture sea change will not be the preserve of America or Europe. Cultural trends and changes are happening in the most unlikely of places, and some it is getting a nominal but important degree of attention in primary media markets like Britain. As the economies, educational prosperity and aspirations improve elsewhere and stagnate everywhere else, perhaps there’s reason to think things like pop music in the next thirty years will sound unlike anything we can possibly conceive at present.
The above statement is absolute suspicion, but Malukayi is actually a song that was played on alternative UK radio. That means station programmers deemed it somewhat relevant and accessible enough for inclusion. It’s a small step but perhaps it’s also a significant move. Then again, it may be nothing more than a welcome hipster blip.
Hailing from Congo’s capital city Kinshasa, Mbongwana Star has created a song utilising traditional Congolese chanting and distorted mbria instrumentation, but warping it enough to prove truly leftfield and new-wave, especially in its post-punk guitar work. The track was produced by Parisian sound engineer Doctor L, which makes this proper original fusion music.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

-Music Videos on my Mind- Desaparecidos’ “City on the Hill”

It seems that worthwhile American rock bands have a habit of exploding out the gates with powerhouse records, gaining appropriate appraisal but perhaps not enough actual instant sales, members going off and participating in other outfits, only to then reunite years later to revel in their delayed fandom by recording new material. At the Drive-In did it, American Football are kind of doing it, and now Desaparecidos have definitely done it.
The aptly named Desaparecidos (Spanish for ‘disappeared ones’) are releasing their first album since 2002, and City on the Hill preserves the punk-rock spirit of the early noughties everyone loved about them. The music video strictly pokes fun at the state of US news media during the ‘80s, but my judicious British eyes clocked the inclusion of footage from BBC News at Six circa early 1990: a careless oversight, no doubt.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

-Music Videos on my Mind- Public Service Broadcast’s “Go!”

The fact that Public Service Broadcast’s album The Race for Space almost cracked the UK Top Ten last month speaks volumes about Britain’s appetite for experimental alternative music.
A concept piece that channels the story of the American and Soviet space race from 1957-1972, each track relives a major cosmic event, utilising actual voice recordings of communications between astronauts, politicians and space centre personnel, embellishing it with the band’s own musical talents.
Classic British electronic music collective The Orb were doing stuff like this on their seminal 1991 album The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, and actually doing it in a way cooler and less earnest manner than PSB. However, The Orb’s music primarily appealed to those raving in bucolic fields while tripping on acid, whereas a tune like Go! will comfortably play to enthusiastic school kids visiting science museums.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

-Music Videos on my Mind- Oscar’s “Daffodil Days”

With a song that’s got a pansy title like Daffodil Days, and armed with a poncy degree in Fine Arts from Central St. Martin's in London, there is every reason to roll one’s eyes at 23-year-old Oscar Scheller.
And then there’s this throwback music video that plays like some 1980s anti-Thatcherite polemic, in which young actors playing underclass British kids put guns to their heads, have epileptic seizures, watch their emaciated junkie mum shag, and then ineptly dance around like misfits. It’s all done with a stylish artistic sheen, which means that Scheller has called in a few favours from his elite art school alumni, who no doubt learnt all they know about UK privation from watching Ken Loach films they borrowed from the university’s well resourced media library.
Being signed to Wichita Recordings, it means that Scheller has a label backing him in ways that’ll get the kid noticed. (It probably also explains why this music video was shot using professional cameras and not on some mate’s mobile phone.) It also positions Scheller as an indie pop artist who may work for a more commercial audience seeking alternative music that remains accessibly melody-driven.
We need more white guys with guitars in Britain, but they’ve got to venture down un-treaded ground rather than plainly dishing up half-decent songs that sound too familiar. If Scheller was a black artist doing this song then that will at least prove different (black female will be even better), but as it is Daffodil Days is too routine to be anything more than middling.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Hiplife Music is Breaking Out Thanks to Ata Kak’s “Obaa Sima”

The digital revolution has been fantastic at providing a platform for niche interests to snowball into global events.
Take for instance Brian Shimkovitz’s little known blog The Hiplife Complex. Hiplife began ten years ago as a forum for Shimkovitz to feature recordings he had accumulated while travelling in Africa. His most beguiling find was perhaps an old cassette called Obaa Sima by a Ghanaian rapper named Ata Kak. Ata Kak’s music registered with Shimkovitz because it was unlike anything he’d heard before, yet distinctly shared structural styles of US rap music of the ‘90s. Ata Kak’s music is a fusion of traditional Ghanaian highlife sounds meshed with North American go-go influences, in turn, becoming what is now referred to as hiplife.
Shimkovitz’s bedroom project took on a new life once he returned home to New York City and realised that The Hiplife Complex was ready to become something even greater. The blog had enough avid followers demanding high quality reissues of the low bitrate cassette recordings Shimkovitz was uploading. Thus Shimkovitz began Awesome Tapes From Africa, a label that has evolved from its blogging origins into a proper distributor of high quality world music.
After a global effort, Shimkovitz strangely enough tracked Ata Kak down in Toronto, his home for the last twenty-five years. His real name being Yaw Atta-Owusu, Ata Kak had been playing in highlife bands in Germany before relocating to Canada.
Shimkovitz’s labour of love paid off duly as Ata Kak, surprised by the cult following his record courted, agreed to provide the DAT mixes so that the newly appointed mastering engineer, Jessica Thompson, could upgrade battered old recordings without compromising Obaa Sima’s rough and raw edges that aficionados desperately wanted preserved.
Hiplife has, in a way, gone seriously global in 2015 as tracks from Obaa Sima are even being played on some commercial British radio stations. What started as an esoteric music culture has, for a moment, gone international. It seems fairly obvious why that is because so many of Ata Kak’s tracks could easily find their place in the DJ set of a warehouse club in Chicago or played at a hipster underground event in London. Ata Kak’s music is swinging worldwide because it’s enormously cool yet also atypical. In short, it’s just great music.
A thoroughly well written and detailed article on Brian Shimkovitz’s pursuit of Ata Kak can be found at FACT, as well a detailed account of Jessica Thompson’s meticulous re-mastering of Obaa Sima.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

-Music Videos on my Mind- Jamie xx’s “Gosh”

The late great British artist Derek Jarman’s last film was Blue; a conceptual piece released four months before his death in 1993 from complications caused by AIDS. He was pretty much blind by that stage and produced a feature constructed of an entirely blue coloured screen where the voices of his favourite performers narrated Jarman’s intimate thoughts and visions. It’s a powerful piece.
Jamie xx’s music video for Gosh reminds one of Jarman’s Blue for obvious reasons. In tact is Jamie xx’s signature sampled grime MC’ing and swooshing sawtooth basslines, but there’s ponderous momentum to the track that evolves into something unexpectedly beautiful, where synthesisers lift the piece to heavenly heights. Jamie xx’s adoration of early house music frames the structure of his output, building scant loops layered on top of each other because back then computers had massively limited processing and memory capabilities, thus making tracks like Gosh feel both a throwback and contemporary postmodern wonder. The intensely blue backdrop further focuses one’s attention to the many sonic flourishes on offer.
British rave culture, personally speaking, has always demanded thought and intelligence on the part of the listener. That means the truly great stuff requires multiple hearings to properly appreciate its dynamic brilliance. Gosh is no different.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Noel Gallagher Has Much to Answer for Britain Being Crap Right Now

Noel Gallagher and his former band Oasis were one of Britain’s most successful music properties; however, one has every right to think of them as the turning point in UK alternative culture becoming less sacrosanct.
You see, Oasis were an indie guitar band that became massive principally because they were in the right place at the right time, striking gold because alternative music had already become mainstream by that point. It had reached a moment where even those that didn’t like such music were buying into it because it was the soundtrack to a ‘90s backdrop of football, larger and glamour girls. When a particular music scene reaches such a watermark then it can only give way to cheap imitations and less credible acts.
Oasis’ music never really stood for anything. The songs were catchy and radio-friendly enough to entertain, but they didn’t exhaust brain matter on the part of the listener to deconstruct subversive meanings. That wasn’t the case with earlier alternative working-class British acts from the north like The Smiths or Stone Roses, whose lyrics were drenched in double entendres and psychotropic ennui. Oasis made music for the masses and generated a lot of money doing it.
Oasis disbanded in 2009 after much infighting. Yet Noel Gallagher’s current stint as the front man of High Flying Birds has seen the singer remain one of the last successful British guitar acts. As much as one celebrates Noel’s working-class credentials, and his rightful bemoaning that “there’s too many posh people in the arts,” it’s harder to take him seriously as a relatable individual knowing he has a cool £30 million in the bank and insists on sending his kids to private schools because he doesn’t want them, “speaking like Ali G.”
But let’s get back to how Gallagher ruined British alternative music culture by turning it into a pleasing fondue set. The benignity of early noughties pop music, coupled with the advent of reality television singing contests, has now given way to a chart where the vanilla sounds of Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and Paloma Faith accounted for more than a third (34.5%) of UK music sales last year.
The British Phonographic Industry proudly declared this week that: "The UK has a rich and diverse cultural heritage and we can be proud of the cross-genre music royalty that we have produced down through the decades to this very day.”
That seems great but the current state of British mainstream music is horrendously homogenised and elitist, ruled by a cohort of privileged singers whose parents have bankrolled their careers, accompanied by lacklustre state educated X-Factor pop stars who’ll defer to industry overlords if it guarantees their record contract gets renewed.
Noel Gallagher, master contrarian that he is, is a bloke that wants―to use that famous English idiom―have his cake and eat it. He criticises the lack of meritocracy in modern music but has himself become part of the establishment.
Oasis can be argued to be the beginning of the end of what was a popular British alternative spirit, but that doesn’t mean Gallagher’s sentiments are entirely out of place. He told the NME last year that: “My bass player summed it up [best], we’re constantly saying, 'Where is the next band coming from?' and he rightly says, 'Never mind the band, where are the people?’”
This seems to be at the core of what is wrong with British culture right now. Our education system insists on propagating conformity through an uninspiring curriculum, while our government extols the need to invest in exportable art that makes money globally through giving people what they expect. Such policies all but guarantee crippling UK cultural progression, not enhancing it.
As much as our love-hate interpersonal relationship with Noel Gallagher sustains, the man shares much of the current woe many grumpy Britons have towards this country’s methods of prioritising music culture. In only the amusingly crass way a former working-class Brit like Gallagher can, he says it best by arguing: “I don't understand it […] when radio stations start focus groups. They literally go outside their building and ask people walking by, 'If I played you this song, what would you think?' and all that. Don't ask the man on the street! He's a cunt! That's why he's the man on the street, not the man in the expensive restaurant eating fucking mini sausages at four in the afternoon!"
Choice words. Noel Gallagher has become the unmistakable voice of UK class warfare as he looks down on those that got him there.