By BRUCE DENNILL
Twenty One Pilots: Blurryface 6.5
Hokum: The Money Eaters 6
Ernie Smith: Closer 7.5
Eric Clapton: Forever Man 6
One of the big American chart success stories of the last few years, Twenty One Pilots – Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun – built a massive fanbase on a strategy of musically crossing many of the t’s and dotting many of the i’s. There is R&B, rap, rock and pop, often propelled by dancefloor-friendly beats, so even if not everything appeals to all, it’s only the most close-minded individual who can write off Blurryface entirely. Stressed Out introduces the character the album is named for – in this context a much mellower, more sensitive take on creations such as Eminem’s Slim Shady. Ride introduces some reggae touches to a mainstream pop tune before the atypical but hugely enjoyable Tear In My Heart channels Violent Femmes, Cake and Fun to deliver nonsense (“My taste in music is your face!”) and toe-tapping rhythms. Lane Boy throws in a Prodigy-esque instrumental thrash before The Judge begins with a ukulele and We Don’t Believe What’s On TV comes over all Mumford & Sons, yanking listeners in and out of comfort zones and showing that there’ something to appreciate in all these areas. The over-used auto-tune in Doubt is perhaps an exception, but what’s clear is that Joseph is an immensely adaptable songwriter with the skills to fit whatever changing expectations demand of him while not milking clichés to do so.
The opening track of The Money Eaters, Earworm, gives a good sense of Hokum’s musical intent. It has an insidious riff that’s hard to shake (an, er, earworm), but the lyrics – “Digging, burrowing in, singing in madness” describe another meaning for the phrase. It’s a great example of the alternative mindset employed by the outfit. They’re capable of bone-jarring heaviness that thrills as it threatens, with the intro to The Emerald being a particularly memorable moment. Frontman Scott Wareham has plenty of range in his voice, sometimes singing in a keening high register, but also able to drop to a commanding bass level, and to wail when the dynamics of the songs require it. These are not songs designed for comfortable playlisting, and there are tone and time signature changes aplenty, requiring some listener effort if all of the compositional facets are going to be appreciated. Touch Power recalls Incubus (perhaps the most mainstream reference for newcomers to Hokum’s sound). The title track – and many other songs here – have a sinister edge that makes them exhilarating, if not easy, to listen to, underlining the band’s commitment to encapsulating their own ideas with little concern for commercial clichés. In that sense, and in the formidable density of their sound, they might be compared to the likes of Tool, Deftones and perhaps Korn and could, with similar dedication, fill that niche for South African fans.
Guitarist and singer-songwriter Ernie Smith surrounds himself with a phalanx of similarly sophisticated musicians for Closer, ensuring a level of quality in his jazz-literate gospel-pop that is the equal of anyone working in the genre (including Bebe Winans, who is a featured vocalist on We Need One Another). There are instrumentals, too, including African Skies, in which it is impossible to shake thoughts of Jonathan Butler playing the same sort of thing on world stages. No Doubt’s groove and swing is equally evocative, this time of no less than Stevie Wonder, whose distinctive style would suit this track down to the ground. It’s possible to have sublime musicianship that doesn’t quite connect emotionally, but Smith, in his songwriting and performance, is able to bring together all the aspects that make a song great for everyone for a random radio listener in search of a good hook to an orchestra conductor with a profound appreciation of beautiful playing and layered arranging. There are also clear touches of Smith’s South African heritage – the feel of a guitar lick, a drum rhythm or a phrase here and there in vernacular – without that facet ever feeling forced. If This Is Love is accessible radio R&B, We Need One Another has the epic soundtrack feel of an Eighties ballad, and the title track is heartfelt, gently propulsive love song. Effortless class.
Fans have a range of compilations to pick from when it comes to the extensive oeuvre of guitarist, singer and songwriter Eric Clapton. Sleeve note writer Malcolm Dome offers here, though, a perspective that – though it’s obvious once it’s mentioned – some listeners may not have considered before. This is the observation that, though Clapton is the technical equal or superior of most or all of his contemporaries or competitors, he generally chooses to use his virtuosity to accentuate the structure of a song rather than complicate or overshadow it. This affection for weaving his formidable skills into arrangements is given as one of the main reasons behind Clapton’s passion for interpreting the work of others, thinking that seems reasonable given the number of cover versions in the 33 tracks presented here – 19 studio tracks and 14 live recordings. Listening with that viewpoint in mind, these hits, classics and cult favourites (only recordings from the early Eighties are included, but there’s plenty to go around) sometimes offer new interest, or at least a fresh appreciation of why you enjoyed them in the first place. Mind you, it’s still the tracks that immediately appealed on release – Pretending, Tears In Heaven, Change The World and It’s In The Way That You Use It from the studio collection and Sunshine Of Your Love, White Room, Cocaine, and Layla (Unplugged) – that lead the way here. Perhaps the next best options are a pair of tunes – Them Changes and Presence Of The Lord – recorded with Steve Winwood At Madison Square Garden in 2008. Forever Man is a great collection, but without added input from listeners who already have much of Clapton’s canon on file, it’s not essential.