By BRUCE DENNILL
Jeremy Messersmith: Heart Murmurs 8
Various Artists: Acoustic 2014 7.5
John Wizards: John Wizards 6
Shane Filan: You And Me 4
Like his one-time producer, Dan Wilson, Jeremy Messersmith is singularly talented pop songwriter who has somehow managed to stay out of the mainstream limelight, whether he meant to or not. He has a relatively high voice that he can adapt to either propel a song forward (as in the chorus of Tourniquet) or to provide the brittle binding between the other instruments in an arrangement (thus making Steve – a stripped-down Ben Folds-ish number – the most romantic-sounding tune to ever have such a banal title). Messersmith’s take on relationships sets his songwriting apart from the standard homilies, with I Want To Be Your One Night Stand, Hitman (“I need a hitman for my heart”) and Someday, Someone both presenting new perspectives on love rather than adhering to traditional formulae. Heart Murmurs features no weak tracks – even those songs that are less memorable lyrically feature great production and arrangements and are catchy enough to hang around in your psyche.
A format that ostensibly undoes the majority of the hard work put in during studio sessions shouldn’t be as popular as it is. But as MTV proved with the Unplugged series many years ago, acoustic versions of songs are not lazy, less-layered alternatives to radio hits. Rather, they’re either revelations as to the core of the creative concept behind a composition or the opportunity to completely reimagine work that listeners may have begun to take for granted in its original form. This Acoustic 2014 collection is notable for two reasons. One, it provides 30 tracks meeting the above criteria from artists all representing one fairly small label (Just Music). And two, it features a high proportion of memorable re-arrangements of strong originals.
Opener Escape completely removes the ballsy brashness that usually defines the Kongos’ sound and expertly replaces it with a picked guitar, harmonies and gentle percussion combination that equals the original in impact. Matthew Mole and Nakhane Toure dream up faintly familiar – in the best way possible – versions of will.i.am’s Heartbreaker and The Cure’s Just Like Heaven respectively. For some artists, the acoustic formula is their core business. So the work of artists such as Yoav (We All Are Dancing), Fink (Warm Shadow), The Civil Wars (Poison & Wine), Foy Vance (Joy Of Nothing) and Eva Cassidy (Songbird) creates a natural spine for this collection, around which others with similarly melodic inclinations provide strong support. It’s not often that there are as few reasons to skip ahead or stop altogether during a two-hour set, but this compilation offers enough to keep its audience involved throughout.
John Wizards is an album, with track names and all the rest, but it doesn’t quite meet the modern definition of what that terms means. Rather, this eponymous collection plays like the Seventies idea of an album, where music that shared a creator or creators and a theme and could, with those two characteristics alone, go on for an hour or more as the artists involved worked their way through a particular point of inspiration. Cape Town outfit John Wizards hover around the edge of a couple of genres – a solid serving of world music mixed in with a non-mainstream version of the sort of kwassa-pop Vampire Weekend are country the market leaders in.
The non-stop nature of the collection, with everything mixed into one 44-minute ramble, makes it difficult to remember separate tracks, never mind those moments that might have been highlights during an earlier listen. First single Lusaka By Night is one of the more coherently structured pieces, and a mellow, melodic piece of music. Later, iYongwe delivers, unexpectedly, given where the band are from, kasi dance-pop (what the band call “Shangaan electro) that’s as catchy as anything released by Brenda Fassie – though it’s an instrumental, and thus lacks the vocal points some snappy lyrics might have provided. John Wizards – band and album – are an intriguing package; one worth keeping an eye on.
Shane Filan was to Westlife as Gary Barlow is to Take That and Ronan Keating was to Boyzone: the more responsible bloke with the frontman tendencies and the songwriting nous, relatively speaking. Filan even looks like Keating now that he’s as old as Westlife’s soccer mom fans were in the the boyband’s heyday. You And Me, however, is unlikely to be the stepping stone that takes Filan in the same successful – if less intense – direction as Barlow, who’s pilot Take That through any number of reinventions, or Keating, who took the opposite approach and walked away from all things Boyzone to meddle satisfyingly in film and write the occasional hit. The point is that both of those men took risks in order to move their careers forward, and Filan has not. He sings well and deserves credit for co-writing everey track on this collection rather than relying on hitmakers for hire or covering some bullet-proof standard.
But this is about as safe an album as it’s possible to make, and that makes listening to it about as challenging as making a cup of tea. The parts that stand out most would ideally also be most easily forgotten. Consider, for instance, lyrics like, “I caught you red-handed, knee deep in my heart” (Knee Deep In My Heart) and, “So glad the week is over, can’t wait to not be sober” (Everything’s Gonna Be Alright). Pop sensibilities? Yes, certainly. Longevity? Perhaps only with those listeners who were huge Westlife fans and continue to hope for more of the same.