By BRUCE DENNILL
Various Artists: 12 Years A Slave 7
Abdullah Ibrahim: Mukashi – Once Upon A Time 7
Daughtry: Baptized 5
Plush: 2000 – 2014 6
Watching 12 Years A Slave is, thanks to some fine compiling work (kudos to John Legend, who performs a number of tracks as well as executive producing the whole project), far more grim than listening to its soundtrack. There’s a distinct, sustained commitment to authenticity in terms of reproducing the folk music of the American South and using it to inform a time and an ambiance that was filled with sadness but tinged with hope. Tim Fain uses traditional Mississipi/Appalachia sounds (driven by banjos and fiddles) in the instrumentals that link the songs, while the contemporary artists – Legend, Alabama Shakes, Alicia Keys, Laura Mvula and Chris Cornell (featuring Joy Williams) – perform pieces that share a sonic style with that music, cleverly tying the whole collection together. The link is made stronger by the contributions of Texan singer and guitarist Gary Clarke Jr, who sounds like a contemporary of Robert Johnson’s but is only in his early thirties. His (In The Evening) When The Sun Goes Down is an understated highlight. Mvula’s Little Girl Blue recalls Nina Simone, who might have seemed like an obvious choice to include, but whose absence makes this track stand out on its own merits. Cornell shows a great deal of restraint – the song he performs, Misery Chain, is a far more natural fit for ex-Civil Wars singer Williams and the cast performing Roll Jordan Roll tugs at the heartstrings, sounding particularly authentic as it’s sung by non-professionals (the actors) and evokes the likely sound of a group of slaves with a high degree of accuracy. The care with which this soundtrack has been constructed pays off, and it’s worth owning whether you’ve seen the film or not.
Abdullah Ibrahim‘s music is almost always associated with piano playing, and quite often rather austere tone. This collection manages to evoke both the possibilities of the fairytale phrase in its title and the exotic nature of the East of the Japanese translation of that same idiom. It’s hardly happy-go-lucky stuff, but there are marked differences to other recent material that draw the listener in – specifically the interplay of flute and cello, two instruments that produce haunting sounds, and perhaps combined best in the track Serenity, which is more dramatic than peaceful and would make a magnificent theme for a film with a similar tone. Mississipi is, fittingly, driven by the feel of music from the American South, particularly the New Orleans sound espoused by Dr John and the like, while Peace nods in the direction of Ibrahim’s Cape Town roots. Later, via an agreeably direct reference – jazz is often about understanding stories through a miasma of abstract expression – Ibrahim pays direct tribute to a major influence in Trace Elements/For Monk. The storytelling series Crystal Clear, Devotion and Endurance, collectively called Krotoa, which musically explores the story of a 17th century Khoi girl encountering the first Dutch settlers is, because that overarching idea is proclaimed in the sleeve notes (again, listeners are not expected to spend hours researching the vision behind the compositions), thought-provoking, asking its audience to imagine and then attempt to experience the emotional curve the girl must have completed. At 16 tracks, Mukashi is generous rather than indulgent and will likely cause neutrals who may have imagined Ibrahim to be coasting on the back of past triumphs to reconsider their views.
One of the major issues is with having an instantly recognisable voice is that there’s a temptation to couch that voice in a similar musical setting to that in which it first became a favourite for listeners. The obvious efforts on Daughtry’s part to expand their musical palette while still allowing the focus to remain on singer Chris Daughtry’s big rock vocals suggest that the band is aware that sticking to their established formula may not be the best possible option in the long run. But perhaps they could have pushed the boat out a little further with their choices. Two of the singles off the collection, Waiting For Superman and Long Live Rock & Roll, elicit thoughts of the work of Avicii and Mumford & Sons respectively – high-charting options both, but also so ubiquitous in their own spheres of influence that another act creating something similar doesn’t sound new. Also, and this is a nearly impossible thing to avoid without overhauling an entire songwriting approach – one that has brought Daughtry masses of success – Chris and his cohorts put the same kind of hooks into all their tunes. He’s great with the pure, towering treble notes, so those are included, and pop phrases like “I’m lost without you in my arms” (the title track); “Cause I don’t wanna fight no more”(Battleships); “The world we knew, it was so simple then” (The World We Knew) and “Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired?” are easy to remember and shout out at shows, so why muddy the waters? One answer? Because listeners find it easy to file this music under the heading, “Heard this before”. Fans will suggest that a reinvention is unnecessary. Neutrals will propose that no such thing has taken place anyway.
Plush were an occasionally morphing – duo to quartet – outfit centred around singer-songwriter Rory Eliot’s (the sole common component of all the band’s incarnations) acoustic guitar-led pop and rock. That they lasted 14 years has much to do with the consistency of their output, but can also be ascribed to the energy and general cheerfulness woven into the music and the way it’s performed. Arrangements are tight without being especially sophisticated or huge, extending the everyman appeal of the band, who were far closer in character to those standing in front of the stage at their shows than to the detached star personae many musicians strive for. Plush released four albums between 2004 and 2011, and the bulk of the material here has aged well, particularly Tainted, When Grace Grew Tall and Halo (a live version in included here). Eliot’s charisma remains evident in both studio and live recordings and across a range of themes (including Rage On, written after the death of friend and bandmate Chas Smit in 2005), and it may be that, with this collection drawing a close to the Plush era, fans of his and the band’s can hope for more in similar vein from Eliot as a solo artist.