By BRUCE DENNILL
Wonderboom: Rising Sun 7
Gracepoint Worship Music: Love Is Calling 6.5
Andra: A Sound Or Something More 7
Johnny Clegg: King Of Time 7
Enjoying a resurgence after a relatively quiet period, Johannesburg band Wonderboom return with a collection that feels like an old-fashioned rock album – a range of tempos, plus a couple of instrumentals, with singles scattered around the place. It has a less raw sound than many of the outfit’s previous offerings, though the studio polish doesn’t obscure the quartet’s chemistry. Singer Cito is in great voice, sounding consistently emotionally authentic, with guitarist Martin Schofield effectively – if not expansively (he’s capable of a lot more than he adds here when let off the leash) – creative and Wade Williams on bass and Jonathan Bell on drums providing an unshakeable foundation. Humans starts the album with a sonic sneer before Southern Light delivers probably the most radio-friendly structure of anything on the collection. Great Escape and In Place Of Something are grittily accessible, book-ending Hell, which is not nearly as forboding as its title and which has an interesting arrangement that may see it become a long-term fan favourite. The title track has a Nineties indie feel, while Ooh La La has an aggressive punk drive to it. Rising Sun has facets to attract fans of a wide range of genres, and the songs are growers, revealing new licks and energies with progressive listens. Worth investing in.
South Africa does not have the same culture of individual churches creating their own original worship canon, a la Hillsong in Australia or New Life (or one of the dozens of other options) in the US. That said, there have been isolated pockets of inspiration in this regard, and Johannesburg’s Gracepoint church, which counts some talented musicians among its members and adherents, now contributes a new set, Love Is Calling, that includes pop hooks and nods toward traditional South African sonic sensibilities. The church’s worship director Greg Jorden is the collection’s executive producer and is involved in the songwriting on every track, so it’s not surprising that his previous musical perspectives as a radio-friendly pop-rock singer-songwriter play a role here. Successful pop singer-songwriter Connell Cruise is also involved, making for worship music that is closer to the slick, complex contemporary gospel of someone like Israel Houghton than it to the still current but relatively traditional likes of Matt Redman. Out To The City has a danceable beat and a horn section bolstering its lyrical desire to share the gospel in the community the church serves. Somlandela – perhaps the EP’s best track, soulfully combines the words of a beautiful traditional Zulu song with a song called Love Is Calling, written by Jorden. The vocal performances are superb, and the tune sticks with you – this one is likely to travel well. You Are The Love suggests worship performed by The Fray, well-produced and emotive. Send Us Out repeats its mission (literally) statement for added effect before A Pure Heart puts Psalm 51 to a soothing, slow-building arrangement. Jesu Nay’inhliziyo Yami is similarly reflective, but probably more of a niche concern than any of the other tracks, requiring an extra step from listeners used, by this point in proceedings, to extra hooks. Light The Way closes a collection that is brilliantly produced and offers enough quality to attract those already fond of the styles showcased and those looking to expand their idea of what constitutes “church music”.
Pretoria-based Namibian singer-songwriter Andra Cilliers is an artist who thrills and intrigues rather than simply presenting a further option for listeners looking for guitar-driven rock. This has much to do with the fact that the petite, soft-spoken fedora-wearer transforms into a gravel-voiced Janis Joplin-shaped black hole of intensity onstage, and also because Cilliers’ songwriting is first about honesty and instinct than any thoughts of commercial editing and shaping. Opener Are You Free is powerful – musically and thematically – as the singer kicks off with a first line that says, “Now that everything’s acceptable, now that everyone gets to vote, tell me are you free?” and continues to question the sort of social media crusade that might make society look friendlier for outliers but which require ongoing investment if any real difference is to be made. Immediately following this is a switch in sonic tone as Drowning explores similarly difficult ideas about struggling to keep up with frenetic rat-race lives over a simple folky pick and strum pattern. My Dreams Forget To Join Me is similarly acoustic, with pleasing dynamics provided by by an accordion, a mandolin and Cilliers’ swelling vocal. Sticks gives a traditional country formula (swaying backing singers; a banjo adding a touch of colour) an Andra twist before The Bug Song allows for a fragment of indulgence as Cilliers muses about the psychology of insects – as you do… Then it’s back to the epic with the reverb-drenched What If, which conveys the ache suggested by its title in its arrangement. Walls brings in a gothic, industrial edge – Trent Reznor would approve – that somehow assimilates with what surrounds it despite its darker heart. Reaching, which follows, is gentle and mandolin-led, with room to be expanded into a possible singalong in a live context. Please Don’t Wake Me allows Cilliers to show off a little of her vastly underrated guitar chops; Fictional Funerals is breathily moody; I Will Play features a fabulous fiddle and Little One winds up the collection with a tender lullabye. Waxing and waning in terms of collective intensity, the songs on A Sound Or Something More further display Cilliers’complex musical personality and preference for craft over posturing.
The title of Johnny Clegg’s latest seven-track collection – album? EP? Either way, it’s long enough to qualify for the South African Music Awards – is especially poignant given that the singer-songwriter is, at the time of writing, wrapping up what he says will be his final world tour as he takes advantage of a remission phase of the cancer he’s been fighting. Jesse Clegg (Johnny’s son and a successful musician in his own right) having a credit as executive producer and guest artist adds yet more emotion to the project for long-time fans, as before, the two artists had kept their professional personae largely separate. Happily, this is far more than just an affecting tribute. The title track features a clutch of Clegg trademarks – the Zulu concertina and bass harmonies, horn section and a rhythm he can do his distinctive side to side dance to – alongside a huge hook that’s impossible to dislodge after a couple of listens. I’ve Been Looking, it says on the album sleeve, “features” Jesse Clegg (who wrote it), but it’s more of a duet with Johnny taking a supporting role. Nonetheless, it works well, with the two singers complementing each other and Denholm Harding’s production giving it an effective ballad feel. Colour Of My Skin sees Clegg the anthropologist emerge in the lyrics, beginning “I’m caught inside the colour of my skin; people see me from the outside; it doesn’t matter what I’ve done or where I’ve been; like a promise unfulfilled I’m waiting” before arguing for community and shared love, with backing vocals by Angelique Kidjo. Sail Away is another nailed-down single, pure pop with the unmistakable touches that mean it couldn’t be made by anyone else, while Witness, Wishing Well and OceanEarth further strengthen Clegg’s stances on matters political, social and environmental. King Of Time is a strong collection, embellishing an already remarkable legacy, and most listeners will be disappointed that there’s only 23 minutes of it to enjoy.