Nobody Listens to…BLK JKS

To my knowledge, African prog-rock groups are few and far between.  This isn’t to say that this isn’t a genre that deserves more recognition or investigation, but simply that it’s one that doesn’t get much play.  BLK JKS may be working to change that.

BLK JKS

My introduction to BLK JKS was one of simple circumstance.  Not only was I the beneficiary of the it’s-a-small-world fact that the group had recorded their first full-length album in the town where I was attending university, but also the group had come to that same southern Indiana city for a set at its annual world music festival.  By the time BLK JKS’ Saturday night showcase set rolled around, I had already developed a fascination with the group and purchased their CD.  For music geeks like me festival lineup pages are enough to get excited about.

BLK JKS (pronounced “black jacks”) are a quartet from Johannesburg, South Africa that play a swirling blend of progressive rock,afrobeat, jazz, soul, reggae, and post-rock.  Formed in 2000, the group grew their sound and following in South Africa for the better part of a decade before journeying to the U.S. to record their debut with the Bloomington, Indiana-based independent record label Secretly Canadian.  Recorded in such a way as to really translate the fury of BLK JKS’ live show, and with cameos by the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, 2009’s After Robots is still BLK JKS’ only full release.  Given the album’s singularity (and relative short tracklist), After Robots is all the more impressive for its wide scope and the wild abandon with which each track progresses.

Musically, BLK JKS are quite hard to define.  The songs on After Robots generally would fall within the heading of “progressive rock”, but there is a distinct afrobeat flavor to much of the arrangements, and both rhythmically and melodically the songs often touch on jazz or reggae themes.  One constant tends to be the band’s proclivity towards abrupt dynamic changes; at moment a song may be loudly sweeping with washy cymbals and distorted guitars only to break down immediately into an acoustic near-silence.  Rhythmically this same idea is echoed, as time signatures and tempos are liable to jump forward or back or sway just as frequently as the volume swells.  These traits identify this as incredibly difficult music, and leave the listener suitably impressed with both the band members’ talents, but also their arranging and composition of some of the more avant garde soundscapes that are laid around more straight-ahead melodies and songs.  In many ways comparisons to The Mars Volta are apt, though BLK JKS expectedly replaces that bands’ vague Latin-American influence with a thoroughly African one.  Additionally, The Mars Volta’s trademark quasi-falsetto screams are replaced by BLK JKS lead singer and guitarist Lindani Buthelezi’s ominous narrations.  While all four members of the quartet fuel the music in their own ways, it is often Buthelezi’s guitar work or drummer Tshepang Ramoba’s well-placed accents that lead BLK JKS on musical odysseys through space and time.  The group’s music is an exercise in anticipation: expectations are constantly subverted, and every time the listener has an idea of what will happen next the music takes a sudden turn in the opposite direction.

After Robots leads off with “Molalatladi”, one of the more afrobeat-tinged tracks on the album. Over a jumping drumbeat and staccato stabs from the horn sections, gang vocals in both English and Setswana chant a circular melody that keeps the song rotating on its head.  Following “Molalatladi” is the intense syncopation of “Banna Ba Modimo”.  Within the blender of odd time signatures that follows are lyrics that may sum up the group perfectly: “It’s the ominous and the disquiet” (the line where Buthelezi orders the listener to “Defenestrate the trash” is a close second).  Even at the points where the song becomes easy to follow, “Banna Ba Modimo” is lurching over the bar line and into different times and feels.  These tracks only lay the footwork for the rest of the album, which stretches from the ambient (“Standby”) to the acoustic (“Tselane”) by way of the scorching lead single “Lakeside” and the horror-reggae of “Skeleton”.  Each progressive track makes the high points sound louder and bigger and the quiet sections smaller and more intimate.  With a careful application of special effects and sounds to the undeniable musical prowess that the group boasts, After Robots becomes a true experience in listening.

BLK JKS

When I saw BLK JKS live in the fall of 2009, they had just released After Robots and were just beginning to cross into American music scenes.  Their tent was completely packed when I arrived partway through the set, and the whole room was filled with delay-overdriven noise.  While special effects add a great deal to BLK JKS recorded sound, when the group plays live everything is put through delay pedals, linking every instrument and every note in one echoing wall of sound.  The group doesn’t seem to be hiding behind their effects, as lives clips do exist of the band playing crisply clean, but the application of heavy amounts of special effects serves to unify the band’s sound.  Whether this is or ever was BLK JKS’ intention, their live sound condenses everything into one level out of which bits and pieces of guitar, drums, bass, and vocals occasionally poke out to accent the heavy grooves underneath the psychedelic prog-rock the group lays out.

BLK JKS did release a five-song EP in 2010, led off by the title track “Zol!”.  Recorded and released to accompany the South Africa-hosted 2010 World Cup, the EP features a more dance-influenced sound and straighter rhythms.  With this exception however, BLK JKS have largely returned to their live roots.  The group is actually somewhat difficult to track online, as the groups twitter handle @BLKJKS and page through the record label Secretly Canadian both link to blkjks.com…which appears to be a single page with a paragraph of Chinese characters.  Nobody is listening to BLK JKS right now, and while their apparent online shortcomings don’t help, the group definitely deserves a listen.  The group has been criticized as not living up to favorable comparisons to other groups, but I believe that BLK JKS’ relative singularity as a quartet of young Africans playing heavy experimental rock music makes them an interesting and worthwhile endeavor regardless of their similarities to other groups.  BLK JKS should be judged by what they are as opposed to what they are not, and I can say that the group are a talented young band with a wild sound that couldn’t be classified as anything else I have ever heard.

Nobody Listens to…Los Cafres

As the weather starts to take a turn for the sunny and warm (it’ll be this way for probably two weeks before it’s just brutal heat every day), afternoons become perfect for lying around lazily while listening to reggae music.  As such, I’d like to offer up a great addition to summer sunshine listening: Los Cafres.

Los Cafres

Los Cafres feature as a leading exponent of Argentine reggae, and are notable as much for their longevity and persistence as their music.  Originally formed in 1987, Los Cafres actually broke up and scattered to the winds in the early 90s due to a lack of attention.  Finding gigs to be scarce and having trouble getting a record produced, the band had planned to call it quits.  In 1992, however, the group’s constituent members returned to Buenos Aires (some from as far away as Canada), and picked up where they had left off.  From 1992 to the present day the group has toured and recorded tirelessly, releasing ten studio albums and playing everywhere from tiny clubs and pubs to the football (soccer) stadium at Luna Park.  With their Argentine answer to Jamaican roots reggae, the group have been producing a high-quality Spanish-language tropical sound now for more than twenty years.  And it seems unlikely the group has any plans to stop.

Los Cafres’ sound rests on an easygoing foundation of softly-played drums, bass guitar, and guitar skanking.  There is rarely anything fancy about this rhythm section, but with this style of music and songwriting, consistency is more important than flash.  Melodically the group is led by the smooth crooning of Guillermo Bonetto, whose voice never seems stretched or tense, but always pulls his lyrics along like a blanket covering the listener in his mellow lyrics and melodies.  Punctuating Los Cafres’ music are their horns, comprised of Manuel Castaño and Guillermo “Willy” Rangone.  It is the horns, and to a lesser extent keyboards, that really sets Los Cafres apart from any other paint-by-numbers roots reggae group.  When such inventive and well-placed arrangements are laid over a solid reggae base and easily approachable vocals the result is a highly listenable and enjoyable sound that is every bit as applicable for dancing as rocking in a hammock.  This is quite possibly as laid-back as music can get.

The majority of Los Cafres’ lyrical content could be classified as romantic, with love songs such as “Si el Amor se Cae” and “Dulce Muñequita” ranking among the bands’ greatest successes.  Having said that, thematically the band has spanned a wide range, from the historical (“Pirata Colón”) to the machismo-laden (“Objeto Sexual”) to the educational (“Dreadlocks” no es una moda).  Despite the broad spectrum of the groups’ lyrical content, it’s interesting to note that there is little change over time; though over the years a political song here or a deep roots rasta song there have appeared, for roughly two decades Los Cafres have been singing soft reggae love songs to their fans.  The group’s look has certainly shifted, with the members having shaved their dreadlocks, but 2011’s El Paso Gigante is marked by the same style that Los Cafres have called their own since their debut Frecuencia Cafre in 1994.

Los Cafres

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Los Cafres is their relative obscurity outside of South America.  By any standards, Los Cafres are a very talented reggae band, and were signed to Kingston (Jamaica)-based Tuff Gong Records until 2007, but are virtually unknown to most of the world.  This is the true rationale behind my selection of this group for this piece, as though clearly somebody listens to Los Cafres, but nobody I know is.  While this is certainly puzzling, I hope that my writing this contributes to the exchange of music, so that people in North America may start listening to the Argentine reggae band that covers Michael Jackson.

Los Cafres are still very much an active group, having released their latest album last year, and can be found through their official website and on twitter @loscafres.  Nobody is listening to Los Cafres right now, but their relaxed brand of roots reggae should put them on anyone’s Summertime playlist, and the shocking disparity between their success at home and lack thereof internationally is something that should be corrected in a world made so small by globalization and the internet.  Los Cafres are not Bob Marley, but to expect as much would be to miss the point.  These are just a group of Argentines who love reggae (and beautiful women) and have been singing about it for twenty years.

Nobody Listens to…Emmeline

This week’s episode is staying local.  I have a hard time thinking of a more worthy artist for me to shine a spotlight on than one Emmeline Miles, Dallas-area singer-songwriter and the hippest boss I’ve ever had.  As a result, the only musician to date whose debut album features yours truly playing percussion is the subject in this week’s nobody-listens-to-this post.

NOTE: Emmeline really needs to upload more videos to youtube.  In the meantime, higher-quality versions of the songs I write about below can be found at her facebook and on her personal website (links below).

Emmeline

Emmeline is unique among the bands and artists I’ve thus far written about in that I knew the person before I’d heard her music.  I met Emmeline at a Starbucks coffee in Dallas in May of 2009.  I was interviewing for a job as a camp counselor at a School of Rock-style summer camp, and the diminutive Emmeline Miles was playing the role of camp director.  While Camp Jam was full of adventures and misadventures, it is truly the less interesting side of this story.  By the end of the camp I’d gone to see Emmeline perform and been drawn in by her piano-driven brand of pop.

Emmeline was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, but really began her career as a performer in southern California while attending Scripps College.  Since her return to the Dallas-Fort Worth “Metroplex” Emmeline has perhaps been the epitome of a local act.  Writing music, teaching lessons, recording two EPs, and gigging heavily the young singer-songwriter has made friends into fans (and vice-versa) through her wide-eyed gratitude for their continued attendance at her shows.  Also, she’s a pretty talented pianist and songwriter with a voice that makes audiences set their coffee down and wonder why they hadn’t been paying attention before.

After months of passing around homemade sampler CDs, Emmeline released her first official studio work in late 2010’s Early Morning Hours.  The seven-song EP showcases the artist’s work and range mightily: from song to song the mood and genre shift widely from dark to light and jazz to folk.  Running across all of this are Emmeline’s unmistakable voice and diction.  The artist herself frequently laments the propensity of modern pop songwriters to avoid any words that are more that two syllables, and consequently has made a concerted effort towards the contrary.  The main characters in the EP-opening “The Story” are named Miranda and Sebastian (possible Shakespearean references and three-plus syllable names).  Early Morning Hours then reaches from the broken-hearted ballad “Give a Damn” to the self-esteem boosters of “I Could be Good” and “A Hundred Years”.  At the center of it all is the fan favorite “Not That Girl”, a “dirty jazz” number with a piano ostinato that matches the tune’s lyrics in slinkiness.  Each track on Early Morning Hours has its own attitude, both musically and lyrically.  This characteristic of Emmeline’s music is really a great part of what makes her stand out, as to wedge the singer into a genre may be an exercise in futility.  Emmeline’s songs are undoubtedly pop songs, but they are also without exception much more complicated than standard fare seems to be.  Whether it’s a jazz lick in this verse or a hemiola turnaround in that chorus, the songs on Early Morning Hours are poppy tunes more closely related to Tori Amos than Miley Cyrus.

Emmeline’s follow-up to Early Morning Hours is Someone to Be, released almost exactly a year after the debut.  The album is more thematic from the start, taking up the banner of encouraging young people to overcome any obstacles in their paths.  Tracks such as “Someone to Be”, “All the Reasons Why”, and “Fly” all have a can-do feel to them, and the singer takes on the role of a close friend reminding the listener that they are special and loved.  This isn’t to say that there’s not emotional range to the new EP though, as tracks like the Blondie-influenced “Apathetic” and the ominously rolling “Bad Day” allow Emmeline to get a bit angry.  The songwriting is once again surprisingly complex, and the vocals are once again impressive, but the star of Someone to Be is Emmeline’s piano.  On “Fly” a furious piano solo takes over the end of the tune, and throughout the record the piano lines seem more at the forefront than in the songs of Early Morning Hours.  This may be a conscious move, or it may just be that this sophomore release was mixed differently.  In either case, the effect is that Someone to Be feels more in-your-face than Early Morning Hours; Emmeline’s debut wanted the listener’s attention and winked and smiled to draw him or her in, while the new release kicks down the door and demands attention.

Emmeline Live

Emmeline’s live show is also something to note.  A brilliant trick of her music is that it would fit backed by a twelve-piece big band just as well as it plays with just the singer and a Yamaha keyboard.  In her usual Dallas haunts of small bars and coffeeshops, this is the typical Emmeline live show: a keyboard, a microphone, and a tiny little brunette girl who powers both.  While this de facto acoustic setup tends to limit the venues Emmeline can fill, it also keeps an element of intimacy to her performances.  The Emmeline that has performed on stage at the Dallas House of Blues and had a standing weekly gig at Lakewood Bar & Grill until it closed is the same artist who plays sitting on the floor in her apartment.

Emmeline has a wide array of sites and pages to visit, but she is most accessible through her official website, her facebook page, and on her twitter handle @emmemusic.  Emmeline continues to play locally in the DFW area, as well as nationwide, and hosts an open mic night in Dallas at the Crown & Harp Pub on Greenville Ave.  Nobody is listening to Emmeline right now, but her arresting musical talent and her commitment to quality songwriting make her a worthwhile listen, and the artist will stop at no length to endear her fanbase to her.  At the end of the day, “pop” is a genre that shouldn’t be written off as simply bad music, and Emmeline is one of a number of artists who offer hope in that regard.

Everyone Should Give a Listen to…More Beautiful than Silence

As promised, another piece where I opine about some music or other that I think deserves more recognition.

This piece will be shorter than my usual Thursday weekly posts, but I want to justify my slacking on this week’s piece (it’s about Australian plunderphonics group the Avalanches!).  Additionally, I am wearing this particular EP out and can’t hold off on writing about it any longer.

K’naan has a new EP.

More Beautiful than Silence

While my appreciation for K’naan’s music is well-documented, I am beginning to fear that I may be on the verge of going overboard with my feelings for the Somali-born rapper’s EP released earlier this year.  More Beautiful than Silence is a five-song EP that will serve to tide K’naan’s fans over until the release of his newest full-length this coming May, and based upon impressions of the this newest release expectations for Country, God, or the Girl will be high.  As they should be.

More Beautiful than Silence opens with “Is Anybody Out There?”, a piano-driven rap/sung duet with pop singer Nelly Furtado of “Promiscuous” fame.  The two collaborators on the track share Canada as an adopted home, and while a somewhat unexpected duo the two blend together well.  With slick production and a sound that feels inches away at the verse and miles wide during the chorus, “Is Anybody Out There?” is a strong track with a powerful message of hope for “anyone who’s felt invisible”.  Boasting the added benefits of a popstar wearing hipster glasses and a really moving music video, the lead single from More Beautiful than Silence starts the EP off on a high note.

Next up is “Nothing To Lose”, a more straight-ahead rap tune featuring Nas.  Between hard-edged verses by Nas and K’naan about the trials and tribulations of urban life in the 1990s is a surprisingly upbeat chorus that assures the listener that the bleak street life K’naan (along with countless millions of other young people) grew up in can be overcome.  The music of the song features blasting horns and a persistent vibraphone, and the genius slogan “rep that blue and white” can be heard shouted over a chorus (the Somalian Flag).  This track is also accompanied by a full-fledged music video featuring both rappers discussing the plight of today’s urban youth while the song’s chorus is mixed low beneath it, and was the subject of a recent remix contest from indaba music.  Also of note is that will.i.am has released a remix of the song.  The original remains the best.

Third and fourth on the EP are the title track and a just-add-water instant anthem entitled “Better”, respectively.  “More Beautiful than Silence” is my least favorite song on the EP, but remains a solid track notable for K’naan’s impressive falsetto and an instrumental track that appears to feature the sound of water dripping.  “Better” meanwhile seeks to out-“Wavin’ Flag” anything else K’naan has done.  With syncopated synthesizers, a beat that inspires the listener to jump triumphantly, reverse-cymbal swooshes, and K’naan’s trademark inspirational lyrics the song seems primed to at least be set to highlights of a highlight reel. Stay tuned.

Closing out the EP is the epic “Coming to America”.  As a distinctly African-sounding vocal ensemble invokes (parodies?) “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” sirens blare and K’naan unleashes an aggressive and often tongue-in-cheek retelling of his story from his violent upbringing in Somalia to run-ins with the police in Toronto.  The sense of humor on this song makes it stand out among K’naan tunes, but the social consciousness remains, as the line “Thanks for lettin’ me marry ya/the green card sure looks fine” is followed in short order by “Even in America the hoods need a ticket out”.  On More Beautiful Than Silence as a whole K’naan has really stepped up his profile as a rapper (and honestly as a singer, for that matter), and it’s on “Coming to America” that this really shines.  The Somali-Canadian poet’s flow shifts gears and meters while rising and falling with the emotion of the personal stories he recounts.  “Coming to America” works incredibly well as a song because it fits with popular hip-hop lyrical boasting while being true.  

I am closing in on listening to these five songs a hundred times, and am yet to be sick of any of them.  Instead, I watch with excitement as K’naan makes the rounds of talk shows and late night television and track the artist on twitter.  As I implied earlier, if the new heights in production, singing voice, and aggressive rapping that are demonstrated on More Beautiful than Silence are an indicator of what to expect on the upcoming full LP, fans of the rapper have cause to celebrate.  More Beautiful than Silence seems to be serving as a preview of a future release, but for now it stands alone as an excellent five-song EP from Somalian-Canadian rapper K’naan, who, despite the terrible cliche of ending an essay with a quote, may be “only getting better”.

Nobody Listens to…the Avalanches

I know, I know, I know. I let you all down.  My weekly post hasn’t come up until now, barely squeaking in to the Thursday deadline.  For those of you concerned about my lack of a “Nobody Listens to…” post today (and I’m sure there’s at least…one(?) of you), I’m glad to say all is well and I’m still writing about music that my friends haven’t ever heard of.  Just to make it up to my dedicated readers, you’ll get a full post tonight and a short one tomorrow afternoon.  You’ve earned it.

Having gotten that out of the way, this week I’m bringing you the Avalanches

the Avalanches

I don’t know exactly how or when the Avalanches came into my life.  I know my friend Michelle mentioned how great their song “Frontier Psychiatrist” was to me in the Spring of 2010, and that shortly thereafter that track was all over WIUX student radio in Bloomington.  In a way that oddly suits the group’s music, my experience with the Avalanches has since that general moment been lurking in the background like bits and pieces of other peoples’ conversations.

And that may be one of the best ways to describe the Avalanches’ sound.  Formed originally as a noise punk outfit in the late 1990s, the Melbourne, Australia-based trio of Robbie Chater, Tony Diblasi, and Darren Seltmann has been the core of a musical collective that has taken on a complex electronic sample-based process for creating music since late 1998.  After spending nearly two years compiling and sequencing over three thousand samples (both musical and otherwise), the Avalanches’ debut albumSince I Left Youwas released to critical acclaim in the band’s native Australia and the U.K. in 2001. Since I Left Youhas been billed as an exhaustive work of “plunderphonics”, a genre of music characterized by the composition of music entirely from disparate samples.  Featuring a multitude of clips from musical pieces, analog drum machines, and television and film, the album appears to tell a story through sentences in which each word is pulled from a different source.  While unbelievably labor-intense, this approach creates a listening experience that fits as easily in the background of a social gathering as in the immediate fore of the listener’s focus.

As the songs on Since I Left Youare composed entirely of samples, ordinary or mundane musical and generic audio ideas are used in entirely novel ways.  Record scratches punctuate “thoughts” articulated by the disjointed vocal samples that come together in a sentence-like form.  Vocal and speech samples become musical instruments (much in line with the philosophies of Wu-tang Clan leader and producer the RZA), and instruments sing out as though they are harmonizing with vocal parts that don’t exist.  Especially when listened to in stereo, Since I Left Youconstantly unveils deeper layers of bells and whistles (often literally).  Tracks oscillate from the sublimely repetitive and abstract, such as “Summer Crane” (special recognition belongs to the guitar solo constructed out of individual samples of jazz chords), to the direct and thematic, such as “Frontier Psychiatrist” (which spawned this brilliant music video).  Recurring throughout are soulful vocal lines, which play dramatically over string lines that give the effect of an eerily soulless disco ballad.  The title track is perhaps the best example of this, with the refrain of “Since I left you/I found the world so new” intoned repeatedly over bouncing light soul strings, jazz flute, and glockenspiel (a breakdown of every sample in this song was formerly found at consequenceofsound.net, but it appears to be offline at the moment).  To suggest that the band members of the Avalanches themselves didn’t make any music of their own for the record misses the point entirely, as this level of precision and arrangement betrays a definite sense of musical composition and dedication to an instrument.  Though that instrument in question is generally the turntable or the sampler, the members of the Avalanches undoubtedly created a highly unique and creative work withSince I Left You.

the Avalanches

All of this is also not to say that the Avalanches aren’t musicians and performers in the more traditional sense as well.  Since the worldwide release of Since I Left You, the Avalanches have sold out venues worldwide, performing live with samplers and electronic instruments (a theremin!) alongside electric bass, drums, and analog keyboards.  The three founders of the group (Chater, Seltmann, and Diblasi) also frequently gave appearances as DJs for live performances as well.

Eleven years after the release of Since I Left You, clamor for a follow-up album remains among fans of the group.  Sources close to the band indicate a sophomore work has been in production since 2005, and in early 2012 two American musicians confirmed their participation as guest vocalists.  The Avalanches’ official website is currently “taking a break”, but the group can still be found on twitter at the handle @TheAvalanches, as well as through most other social media outlets.  Nobody seems to be listening to the Avalanches right now, but the innovative way in which the group has produced electronic music is fascinating to observe and listen to, and an incoming second album that has been highly anticipated within the group’s cult following should make the Avalanches a group to keep one’s proverbial eye on.