By BRUCE DENNILL
Taylor Swift: 1989 8
Wouter Kellerman & Ricky Kej: Winds Of Samsara 6
Various artists: Wow Gospel 2015 5
Zzzz Lulla-Bye: Starry Little Light 6.5
She’s now 28 – the title of this album refers to the year in which she was born – but Taylor Swift still has the air of a precocious youngster. Her influence in the music industry suggests that this impression is by the singer-songwriter’s design but the net result is that “serious” music fans are still somehow surprised when confronted with the superior writing and cannily constructed packaging that makes Swift’s music so popular across so wide a range of listeners. As you work your way through 1989, it’s possible to discern a couple of chord progressions and vocal hooks Swift adapts slightly to recreate the same winning formula, but it’s churlish to extend that to a comment about the her having only one (extremely successful) trick. Blank Space and Style are two top examples of Swift’s craft – clean pop anthems that more or less define the current American chart sound, not surprisingly, given that they were co-written with mega-producer Max Martin. Those two singles are huge statements of intent in themselves, but Swift’s ambition extends far beyond just a couple of massive hits per release, as evidenced by her other songwriting partners, who include Ryan Tedder and Imogen Heap, significantly influential artists in their own right. Out Of The Woods has a slightly harder edge, while the ridiculously catchy Shake It Off couldn’t be poppier if it tried, while still being a brilliant piece of both writing and performance. Bad Blood slightly adjusts the sound to more or directly compete (in arrangement terms) with the likes of Rihanna and Beyonce, something it manages with an ease that should give any less established competitors pause. Wildest Dreams is a slower, almost balladic tune (This Love is the only real contender in that niche), and, preceding I Know Places and the closing Clean, it kicks off a run of quieter material, an interesting sequencing decision, as it leaves listeners feeling mellow and thoughtful rather than pumped up. Whatever the reasoning behind that decision, 1989 is – thoughout – a focused, well though-out project that pop fans can’t not love and cynics can’t deny the effectiveness of.
South African flautist Wouter Kellerman is so regularly recognised for his talent – he won a Grammy for this collection, and has been nominated again since – that he has moved beyond the niche usually occupied by artists who favour instrumental compositions almost exclusively, and those within the oft-derided “New Age” genre. Winds Of Samsara is an international collaboration with Indian composer and keyboardist Ricky Kej, and the influence of Kej’s culture is keenly felt in the arrangements and instruments utilised for many of the tunes here. The purity of Kellerman’s playing, as well as the musician’s gentle nature, are immediately evident on Crystal Moon, which is apparently the first piece of music he ever wrote. Much of the rest of the material is informed by the respect the musicians have for two of the paragons of their respective countries, explored in Mahatma and Madiba, respectively. The production throughout is gloriously refined, with the unhurried pacing of most of the pieces adding to the luxurious feel of the listening experience. Impressively, this was achieved with the recordings being completed in different studios across the world and then combined.
The term “gospel” doesn’t mean what it used to, signifying – for different groups of listeners – any music with a Christian theme, or the old spirituals they sing in Southern Baptist churches, or the arena-filling strains of Benjamin Dube and the like in South Africa. The Wow Gospel 2015 compilation initially leaps all over the place, muddying the waters further by including R&B, pop, hip-hop and soul (and all of that within the first five or six tracks of disc one!). That structural dissonance means it’s difficult to settle into this collection as a listener, though the flipside of the style-hopping is that there is, at least, only a small number of shared themes. These are handled with varying levels of skill and appeal. Erica Campbell’s You Are is lyrically superficial, adding nothing much at all to the existing canon, with Jamie Grace’s Beautiful Day suffering similar shortfalls, though it does have a catchier melody. There is steadier flow on the second disc, which comprises mostly the call-and-response style for which Kirk Franklin arguably remains the standard-bearer. Israel Houghton’s Come As You Are adds some world music elements to the mix, with Houghton’s higher range balanced by the voices of guests Donnie McClurkin and Marvin Sapp. Those two singers have their own entries on the tracklist, and McClurkin’s energetic offering We Are Victorious features Tye Tribbett, who in turn has another song on the compilation. As such, the range of artists involved is not as wide as the range of styles on the first disc, and the suggestion that this release represents a reasonable cross-section of the music available in the genres collected under its single banner seems a touch spurious.
The Hallmark card cover art for Starry Little Light belies the quality and maturity of the music. Singer-songwriters Sumari Schoeman and Alette-Johanni Winckler are responsible for just about everything, from the compositions to the instrumentals to the executive production. Their combined backing vocals are soon identified as one of the central tenets of their sound, similar to the style employed by the brothers Hanson. As mentioned, the music is sophisticated and beautifully made, with the major concession to the suggested purpose of the album – helping kids to get to sleep – seen in the mellow, stripped-down arrangements. Simplistic and clichéd ideas of what might appeal to children are largely abandoned, replaced by tunes that are superficially relaxing to listen to and also valuable beyond that for the edifying lyrical content delivered by Schoeman and Winckler in the songs they pen and in the material from other artists they choose to interpret. The opening quartet of songs is superb, with Thank You Jesus, God Of Wonders and the title track being top-notch additions to the South African worship canon and Jesus Culture’s beautiful Holy Spirit receives a cosy overhaul. There are other strong tracks as well, with Unconditionally and its powerful hook and a version of Great Are You, Lord featuring Heinz Winckler on lead vocals among them. Parents may initially buy this for their little ones, but it’ll likely get at least as much mileage out of adult listeners. Schoeman and Winckler have also released an Afrikaans album called Jesus Se Vrede – just as strong in terms of its production and performance levels.