By BRUCE DENNILL
For King & Country: Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong
The Sick Leaves: Travels With Charlie
Albert Frost: The Wake Up
The Afters: Live On Forever
Perhaps unfairly, there’s a perception that Christian pop and rock is almost always going to sound predictably similar to the other acts in that same genre. That’s not an unfair judgement, given that the music is built around the same source material and lyrical inspirations, with artists trying to express one of a reasonably narrow range of sentiments. It’s intriguing then, to discover a plainly believing band (brothers Luke and Joel Smallbone) that sound like a hugely successful mainstream pop band – in this case The Script – rather than any of their church-based colleagues (with the possible exception of the song Already Home, which does recall Jars Of Clay). For King & Country share with the Irish chart darlings an ability to write simple, hook-heavy melodies that they then dress up in hip hop-influenced beats, electronica and the occasional rap interlude. With those diverse elements at their disposal, they’ve come up with the anthemic likes of Fix My Eyes, To The Dreamers and Long Live and ballads such as Without You. All of these have the feel of live favourites – the former trio as air-punching throng thrillers and the latter as the song in which everyone waves around the lit screens of their smartphones. For King & Country is that sort of band – slick and accessible and able to combine good musicianship with widespread appeal – that ignore matters of cult credibility and the like (in this case, the way faith-driven music is supposed to sound) to deliver a well-rounded collection that may not inspire blind devotion but will remain worth listening to for years to come.
Eksteen Jacobsz (stage name The Sick Leaves) has always been a fiercely independent musician, releasing a string of left-of-mainstream but critically lauded albums defined by his towering guitar sound and reedy, treble-y Tom Petty wail. Travels With Charlie is his first album in five years, and the first one he’s recorded and produced himself. That’s worth noting, because although the overall sensibilities remain the same – there are still six- and seven-minute meanderings in his prog-alternative style – there is also greater accessibility overall. Opener Shoot The Messenger begins with a huge drums-and-guitar progression that Noel Gallagher would happily claim as his own before Six Inch Valley explores the emotional brutality of losing a father to cancer in a simultaneously tender and brawny rock song. (I’ve Got) All The Time In The World kicks off with another big riff, leading into a mid-tempo tune that will stick with listeners from the first spin. Sins Of The City takes an unexpected diversion, being driven by a strummed acoustic guitar rather than the dense distortion Jacobsz usually employs, which places the singer’s unusual accent front and centre, making the composition stand out further. A Silver Lining is perhaps the most recognisable song in terms of Jacobsz’s historical sound, a thrilling high-register vocal melody lifting the gut-pounding guitar arrangement. There’s a major dynamic shift from there to She Ain’t Here, driven by another acoustic guitar and, this time, harmonica for a poppier feel (despite it’s relatively sad lyrical theme). Then the energy lifts again for the swaggering (no other word fits as well) Jacqualine. This collection will not only withstand repeated listens – it requires them. There is density of both ideas and instrumentation here and the songs will come to mean more to listeners as those layers are explored and unpacked.
One of the challenges with being a musician best known for one particular talent is that listener expectation may either limit the artist to showcasing only that one skill or to risking presenting a fuller picture and potentially obscuring their original selling point. Albert Frost, known as a prodigiously talented guitarist, does well to strike an appealing balance throughout this album. There is – in intros, interludes and and the instrumental track Sunrise – plenty of fret-based virtuosity to appreciate. But both alone and via collaborations with pop-savvy co-writers including Robin Auld, Albert Meintjes and Hunter Kennedy, Frost has created tunes that, though some take a couple of spins to bed in, generally extend well beyond the more rambling blues-based material that the guitarist and singer-songwriter has occasionally put out in the past. Happily, Frost refuses some of pop’s more annoying restrictions, with many of the songs here around the six-minute mark. Modern Romance matches a filthy riff and bassline with a cynical take on the way contemporary relationships work. Leaving Town is great, a melodic throwback to the radio singles of Tim Parr at his peak. It’s followed by another radio-friendly number – the second half of the album is stronger in this regard – that could be just as easily interpreted by Frost’s long-time friend and colleague Arno Carstens, whose rapid-fire verbal delivery is emulated in the verses here. Towards the end, Home No More steps up the muscle with a riff and tune that’s sure to fill mosh pits at his live shows and. Final song Together adds a touch of world music with its undistorted, syncopated licks, rounding out a strong collection.
There’s a sense early on in this album that The Afters’ overall sound is at least as much – and possibly more – of a concern as the content or unique structure of any of their songs. The opening trio of Shadows, Battles and Sunrise share, apart from one-word titles, condensed power-pop production and a nearly identical structure, if not melody and theme. Time Of My Life is more open and bouncier, ushering in a more varied approach, including the unexpectedly minor-key Eighties industrial pop (think a particularly angsty Alphaville) of the title track. Lyrically, The Afters keep things simple, to a degree that will have more cynical listeners bemoaning the lack of power of clichés (“In the eyes of a believer, anything is possible” in Eyes Of A Believer, for instance). Survivors and Legends revert to the early formula before the clean, melodic, Plain White T’s-recalling When You’re With Me, the album’s best track, suggests that a little more variety in arrangements and mood would have gone a long way.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]Blogger.
It’s a term that’s almost spat out, like a condition you might catch if you discuss it for too long. As media platforms go, blogs are often classed somewhere between penis enlargement flyers pasted onto suburban dustbins and first-time press releases written by a greenstick intern at a local public relations firm (for the record, the former is better written).
This may be because the worst of them are little more than plagiarised scrapbooks, cobbled-together cut-and-pasting that collects six or seven dozen followers invited via the creator’s Facebook page. Flush with notoriety, these bloggers then venture into “writing” – because they have their own website now, you know – supplementing the cribbed material with insightful paragraphs exclusively beginning with the phrase, “I was invited to …” and ensuring that the name of the event, the brand of booze on offer and the PR contact on whose list they’ve found themselves are all repeated, tagged and complimented at least four or five times each.
That formula ensures smiley face emoticon responses and triple exclamation marks in enthusiastic follow-up emails from whoever is paid to punt the clients that were mentioned in conjunction with whatever clichéd superlatives that particular blogger specialises in. Someone gets praised: they enjoy the feeling, so they invite the blogger to the next event they’re holding, beginning a cycle of sycophancy that sees the blogger becoming more popular as their readers perceive them to be more important, with advertisers responding by spending money on their platforms. In a cynical, short-sighted way, that makes sense: a product is guaranteed an endorsement, therefore the endorser is guaranteed a reward.
And so a bunch of people enjoy a happy beginning, and perhaps even a happy middle. There won’t be a happy ending because readers are fickle and because there’s only so far you can stretch a dearth of any sort of useful knowledge. The reproduced press releases will be available on the sites of the companies that issued them in the first place and a new crowd with lovely fresh clichés will be attending events and turning the heads of marketing executives seeking more glorious hashtags. And when that new crop of bloggers fade into obscurity, readers, advertisers, clients and publicists will, if they have any sense, seek something that is, if nothing else, more permanent and, ideally, of value.
In this latter context there exist bloggers who write well and with insight, either for passion or for a living, and who exist in that particular digital space as a result of a number of practical concerns. It’s likely that their chosen niche either doesn’t exist in print or broadcast form or that, if it is there, they are not able to get or keep a job in that sector due to the available remunerations. Or, particularly in the case of writers with considerable experience, it may be the case that, due to a profound dissatisfaction with the state of either the quality of coverage of the topics they’re interested in or the commitment to carrying content about those topics on the part of larger and perhaps more traditional platforms, the only way they see to get the stories they feel are important published at an acceptable standard is to do it themselves.
Now of course there is, when considering these more worthwhile blogs, a range of quality and of perspective on the part of the writer or – and here it’s possible to consider that the term might be accurate – journalist responsible for the content. And it’s almost guaranteed that the subject matter, if not the way it is written about or the opinions voiced, will be replicated in many cases.
But that is, and has always been, the case when considering why to get news on a topic of interest from a particular source of any type. Newspapers and magazines have and continue to sell their own version of what matters, differentiated by the insight evident in the editorial, the quality with which news is reported or the astuteness with which a point of view is expressed.
It is self-evident that this range – and the potential for quality – is available online now, and from solo operators rather than corporates. And that compact scale can and should work in favour of marketers and advertisers looking to benefit from an association with a skilled blogger, one who is interested in research, balance, ethics and excellence. In this relationship, the integrity – which should be an attractive quality in a reporter, critic or prospective business partner – of the blogger can be monitored easily. The value of what they do – commercial, abstract or otherwise – can be more accurately calculated than is the case with a larger entity that has more facets. And real partnerships, based on shared vision rather than superficial intersections of commercial interest, can be built up because a single journalist or critic or whatever label most accurately applies can be held accountable in terms of the role they play.
It shouldn’t be a swear-word, or a synonym for “spirited amateur”. Very often, that person has done a better job covering whatever field they occupy than the associated mainstream professionals, and the readers who know this have long stopped investing in the products those professionals work on. If that is the case, but the blogger’s online platforms is still being dismissed for not fitting an old-fashioned formula that is provably ineffective, the wisdom of those making a call on where to invest going forward is suspect. Standards are crucial, but those standards are increasingly being met outside of bustling newsrooms, broadcast studios and other conglomerates, where a single hard-working individual is able to create something of equal or superior quality to the efforts of large teams, governed by boards and committees.
If a blogger, in creating a quality product, has done their research, but you, in forming an opinion about such platforms, haven’t done yours, you have no place sneering at their efforts. Pay attention. It’ll pay dividends.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]