By BRUCE DENNILL
Grassy Spark: Portal 7
Chris Chameleon: Firmament 6
Andre Swiegers: All I Really Want 7
Stone Jets: Memory 7
Continuing the contemporary local legacy of Jeremy Loops (who is featured on the song Living In A Paradise) and Beatenberg, Grassy Spark mix up ska, reggae and folk-pop to provide catchy, energetic melodies that are guaranteed to bring crowds to life in a live context. A seven-piece – an unusually large line-up in pop circles, Grassy Spark fill all the gaps in their arrangements with something, be it one of their trio of guitars, drums, keys or a horn section of trumpet, trombone and tenor sax. This full sound makes songs of a similar tempo on the album difficult to differentiate early on, though the specific hooks do become clearer the more you listen. Guest Khaos Cotterell adds a Shaggy-esque line to Feel It that allows the song to wander a little into R&B territory. Throughout, Kevin Kok’s expressive bass is a standout driver of each tune – especially notable when there is so much on the sonic palette. It’s easy to see why this band are causing a buzz – their tunes are constantly upbeat in both pace and tone, making it party music with a great deal more depth than the simple repeated rhythms of house or other alternatives.
As one of the most versatile musicians in South Africa, it’s almost surprising when Chris Chameleon makes more traditionally straightforward songwriting choices on any collection. Album opener High is just that – an acoustic guitar-driven pop tune – but immediately following that, Chameleon goes off at fresh angles, adding an industrial grind for Know and his celebrated top range vocals to Hurt. This sort of range culminates in the collection’s first single, Can’t Stop Me Loving You, sequenced halfway through the album. The vocals couldn’t be anyone other than Chameleon, but the catchiness and easy swing of the rhythm make it accessible to listeners wary of his more experimental moments. The title track is a gentle country duet featuring Daniella Deysel’s smooth voice, with Don’t You Worry featuring a similar collaboration, echoing the pair’s work together on their Posduif album. Victim Eyes nods in the direction of Boo’s inventiveness, featuring a Tarzan wail in the intro, among other curiosities. Theo Crous’ production allows for both muscle and sensitivity and there is great attention to detail throughout. Firmament is not of the standard of Chameleon’s best work, but it’s a satisfying package worth playing from beginning to end.
Pretoria-based singer-songwriter Andre Sweigers is remarkably consistent, regularly (and independently) releasing albums of great quality. Decades of experience mean that his lyrical and melodic formulae hit far more often than they miss, and an ability to write, sing and play in the style of enduring Seventies and Eighties artists helps his music find its target immediately. Opener Going Down feels like a Chris Rea comeback single, before the title track adds a lilting country rhythm to a lyrical treatise unpacking Swiegers’ ideal life. Though his English songs sound completely authentic, there is something extra in the offing when Swiegers sings in his native Afrikaans; perhaps an added comfort with the idiom that gives the lyrics a greater depth. Blommekind is an atmospheric folk ballad, before Twee Feilbare Mense, the shortest song on the album, proves itself the collection’s best song, feeling like an instant classic in the style of Laurika Rauch or Anton Goosen. Swiegers has a nice line in gentle disillusionment, evident in both Jetset Babe and Ex-Lover. Such lyrical themes don’t make for particularly finger-snapping listening, but with both the familiar and well-expressed feelings he puts across and the elegant musical backing (by a band that includes Denny Lalouette on bass and Swiegers’ sons Emile and Jean on guitars and drums respectively) that carries the words, there is much to like and invest in here. This is music that’s easy to listen to at any time, but which invites warm familiarity.
Stone Jets, though considerably younger than their forebears, share the sonic pedigree of wonderful South African folk-rockers like Bright Blue, Hot Water and Beatenberg. Songwriters Given Nkanyane and Manfred Klose are responsible for the core of the sound through Nkanyane’s sublime vocals and Klose’s exuberant guitar work. Perhaps the standout aspect of their output is the feeling of joy the music evokes. Interestingly, it’s not that the themes of the songs are necessarily upbeat, but rather that the sound that comes through the speakers acts as a tonic; making you feel … better. I Can’t Live Without You kicks things off with a high falsetto and builds into something that’s too subtle to be termed an “anthem” but which has all those hooks, singability and popular appeal. How Can You continues in that vein, showcasing a production sensibility that prizes clarity over clutter. Tired Of Missing you sounds more optimistic than its title suggests, as does This Time (“This time I’m leaving”, just one of the lyrics that confirms that you can sing with a smile on your face and sadness in your heart. Given these patterns, the title track is perhaps the least typical, a simple strummed melody that highlights how unnecessary embellishment is if basic song structure is strong. This being an EP rather than a full album is the only disappointment – there will be more from this band, count on it, but what’s on show here will leave listeners impatient for more.