Music Reviews: Love And Mercy, Or A Voyage To The Morning After

February 6, 2016

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

Ed Kowalczyk: The Flood And The Mercy                6

Big Daddy Weave: Love Come To Life                      7

George Ezra: Wanted On Voyage                              6

aKing: Morning After                                                 6.5

 

Singer-songwriter Ed Kowalczyk is not a major-key guy. Going back to his days as the frontman of influential alt-rockers Live, he’s displayed a preference for exploring the edges of whatever existential darkness he always seems about to vanish into. Consider lyrics such as “The one you fear, couldn’t make me disappear, now I’m rising from the ashes of that fire” (The One); “Seven gallows on seven hills with seven suns, seven hangmen sing the dirge and beat the drum” (Seven); “Standing in a daze at the edge of time, into the garden a child wanders, innocent one what did you find?” (Angels On A Razor) and “Little worm, no spine at all, just feeding on the crumbs that fall” (Parasite). These are not the musings of a man who’s delighted by springtime flowers and the twitter of birdsong. Kowalczyk’s music is not depressing, though, with two equally consistent facets of his work ensuring that wailing and gnashing of teeth are not the most appropriate responses to the songs here. Firstly, he’s a great writer of robust riffs and instrumental arrangements, and secondly, he has a voice to match and soar above those songs, as earnest as it is clear. There’s also a sense that Kowalczyk is not dwelling on hardships of some sort, but also looking beyond to something better. On this album, those sentiments are hinted at in Holy Water Tears and then laid bare in The Watchman’s Lament (“Gonna testify to the light and the love I’ve been given) and a stirring cover of Bob Marley’s Cornerstone.

 

This 2012 album was recently re-released in South Africa ahead of Big Daddy Weave’s re-entry into the market with new collection Beautiful Offerings. It’s easy to understand why BDW is one of the most prolific playlist fillers ever on Christian radio in the US, as their songs are all well-constructed, with strong hooks that audiences can sing out loud at live shows or in their cars. Like compatriots Mercy Me, perhaps the closest musical reference in the mainstream market, the band create strong pop-rock tunes focused around a clear central vocal, in this case that of Mike Weaver, who is also the chief songwriter. Opening trio Jesus Move, Magnificent God (an album highlight) and the title track are all convincing singles, with the next track, Stay, convincing as a country ballad. The same can be said of If You Died Tonight, though the explicit theme of that song – salvation – is not, perhaps, a mainstay of the genre. Main plug track Redeemed is not at all the best song on the album, but it has a strong testimony angle, so the band’s enthusiasm for it is reasonable enough. The edition of the collection is called the “Redeemed Edition” and includes five bonus tracks, including acoustic and live recordings of that song (pleasant, but not essential). There is little risk-taking involved anywhere on this project, but listeners seeking experimentation should be satisfied by the sincerity of the performances, especially on songs such as The Only Name (Yours Will Be). Love Come To Life is an excellent combination of polish and personality; a great platform for the message this overtly Christian band wants to convey.

 

There have been a number of blue-eyed soul singers in recent times, but George Ezra’s voice stands out even in that collective. The a capella first part of Did You Hear The Rain? cannot possibly be the work of  22-year-old from Hertford. It must be a recording of a veteran blues or gospel performer from New Orleans. And yet, there’s the English kid on the cover of the album and on stages around the world where fans sing his biggest hit, Budapest, and their other personal favourites word for word. Though his bass tones are more often heard in other genres, Ezra favours a folk-pop feel that doesn’t vary much throughout Wanted On Voyage. As a result, what is such a strong selling point for its novelty up front soon becomes a formula. Fortunately, Ezra’s songwriting is strong enough to ensure that everything can stand alone, but over the course of the collection – if listened to in a single sitting – it’s fairly easy to lose focus. Countering that are occasional details – the travel theme (Budapest and Barcelona) and the gorgeous, understated strings on Breakaway among them – that do make you sit up and listen. This album doesn’t deliver to the level of expectation created by its lead single, but Ezra’s youth and one-in-a-million voice mean that he can build more or less whatever he likes going forward.

 

Morning After doesn’t leap out of the stalls as its predecessors have done. aKing is too good a band for indifference to be on the table for too long, but the first couple of spins of this collection inspire as many questions as they do endoresments of the material. Once you start hearing the lyrics as opposed to the whole package, it’s possible to formulate a hypothesis. “A weakness for affection, no reason defend, cheap entertainment” (Prey To The Birds); “This is where I get off, I’ll be the first to admit, I might not know what I need” (Mother); “I’m only a fool, figuring it out as he goes” (Follow); “I’m always a guest on an overstayed welcome” (Way You Move); “I wanna know; why do we live to reap when we don’t sow?” (Man Unkind) and more: these are not songs that speak of the cocky swagger of rock stars, of the invincibility that comes with sustained success. The album title plays into this theme, suggesting the weariness felt when recovering from something energetic and stimulating and the emptiness that accompanies that sensation. None of this means that the album is a downer though: it simply asks listeners to think a little more than is generally required by rock bands. And when you approach it with that mindset, it pays dividends. The opening quartet of tracks is split into straight-ahead rock – Prey To The Birds and Mother – and the melodic guitar pop that aKing do so convincingly in Follow and Way You Move. Laudo Liebenberg’s still-mesmerising voice and some gorgeous strings add gravitas to One Hit Wonder, which has a jaunty groove for much of its running time. Parts of NYB hint at what the band could achieve if they turned up all the amps and headed into hard rock territory. Closer In Loving Memory declares: “There are repurcussions if you become your reputation”. Perhaps Morning After is aKing’s facing of some demons that might otherwise derail their future, or maybe this is just a group of songs written during a melancholic period. The tone of the next album will be interesting to note, either way.

 

CATEGORIES