Music Reviews: Brave And Broke Down, Or We Can Do Anything In A Casino

April 30, 2021

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Herman Bergman: Mahai – Guitar Compositions

Bethel Music: You Make Me Brave

Kongos: 1929 – Part One

Stuart Reece: Broke Down Beat Down

Violent Femmes: We Can Do Anything

Arctic Monkeys: Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino



Johannesburg guitarist and composer Herman Bergman has, in Mahai – Guitar Compositions, created a musical travelogue. His sleeve notes explain the inspiration and genesis of each piece, giving each instrumental composition context and helping listeners to consider the style and atmospherics used in each case with more insight than simply appreciating the melodies would have allowed. Happily – and interestingly – while the classical guitar interpretations of each location Bergman has put together here are beautiful, fully-formed encapsulations of time and place, it’s likely that each listener will experience their own feelings of nostalgia and connections to different memories as they listen, as different tempos and dynamics inspire unique feelings. The album is magnificently recorded and produced, with a list of contributors that includes master drummer and percussionist David Klassen and luthier and guitarist Werner Bessinger. Bessinger is only one of the craftsmen who contributes to another aspect of the album – it’s been recorded, as far as possible, with only South African-made instruments and recording equipment. As such, the album is an outstanding advert for local creativity and engineering. Given the relatively small dynamic range – this is all picked classical guitar, not percussive strumming or layered loops – it’s likely that choosing individual favourites will come down to mood or an individual’s connection with the source of the piece’s inspiration. The title track, Obrigado Ernesto, the gentle Jupiter Island and the windswept Grand Teton are first-time stand-outs. A fantastic collection for lovers of instrumental music in general and classical guitar playing in particular.


This live recording does little to counter the suspicion that the sheer volume of Bethel Music’s output may undermine the effectiveness of the messages they want to communicate via their songs, simply based on the principle of dilution in a large volume of solution making something weaker. Arguably, although the live recording/concert setting on You Make Me Brave is a more sensible context for expanded versions of songs, the regular stretching of tunes to over six minutes has the same effect: if a listener is connected to the lyrics and the heart of worship the performances are trying to encourage, fine, but otherwise, it’s easy to get distracted. As is also generally the case, though, Bethel include several gems in the tracklisting for this collection and – as is the case in any church where the concert-versus-connection with God debate is ongoing, there is room here for both. The Kristene DiMarco-led version of It Is Well is both soothing and powerful, while Kari Jobe guests on vocals for a formidable take (over 11 minutes) on her own modern classic, Forever. There are a number of spontaneous (improvised) pieces, with Wonder being an impressive example of the understanding between band members and vocalists, both practically and in terms of the emotional tone involved, and We Dance is lyrical and meditative.


Like so many albums that don’t peddle in straight pop, 1929 – Part One seems to have different personae depending on when you’re listening to it or what sort of mood you’re in at the time. On a first spin, the collection sounds more heavily reliant on electronic sounds than previous albums, and relatively subdued in terms of mood. Commit a little, though, and the unique energy Kongos are able to generate with their unusual melange of guitars, accordions, synths and off-kilter rhythms soon emerges. The first peak is I Am Not Me, which has an anthemic chorus rather in opposition to the uncertainty suggested by the title. Inversely, the following track has a rather more assertive title – Stand Up – but is relatively melancholic, with the accordion line giving the song an almost Brel-esque feel. Wild Hearts and Real Life are the quiet soul of the album, recalling Kings Of Leon and The Lumineers respectively and both gently considering the consequences of ill-advised decisions. Real Life ends abruptly, which is a little disconcerting, though it feels as that production decision was made to force more if a focus on the lyrics than on the melody. Everything Must Go continues a lyrical tone that’s pretty bleak – “If time is money, but money’s an abyss; what’s the point of lying, why are we so treacherous?” – against a droning, industrial guitar line. That and the other sonic experimentation effectively differentiate 1929 – Part One from previous Kongos releases, taking care of the inevitable “Will their ideas get stale?” concerns from cynical observers. But the songs are not only well-written and often catchy, they are also brave and insistent, postulating perspectives that many bands might not want to contemplate, and doing so eloquently.


The title of Broke Down Beat Down is at odds with its general sound, which is mostly poppy and cheerful – indeed, opener My Sweet Lady recalls nothing more than the chirpy radio-friendliness of Meghan Trainor’s?? All About The Bass. Coming Home is equally accessible, using the increasingly ubiquitous formula of ukulele and doubled vocals (or close harmonies) to give the song an extra folk-pop jangle. Away Away has a slightly retro sound – almost like a Def Lepard ballad with a couple of Afro-pop touches. Silver Rocket Cadillac is a return to ticking all the pop boxes – which must not be viewed as something uncool or undesirable in some way: writing like this is a skill with Stuart Reece appears to have refined to an impressive degree. The title track is, despite the negative connotations of the title, still chipper, a Jack Johnson anthem for a younger generation – something to dance and sing along to even if you are broke. Burn is considerably more introspective, but its loping rhythm and pleasing melody mean that, even if it’s the least jovial track here, it still installs itself as an earworm after a single listen. Closer Falling For You is essentially a bonus track, having been released as a single some two years before the rest of the collection. Strong songwriting that should overcome the cynicism of even the most dedicated “alternative>mainstream” apologist.


The Violent Femmes have never changed anything in the way they write and perform music, and why should they? Their scruffy folk-punk arrangements and singer-songwriter Gordan Gano’s sometimes nasal, sometimes sneery vocals make their sound unmistakeable – and influential – so switching tack would surely undo the good work of a couple of decades. We Can Do Anything opener Memory is  chugging, shuffling reminder of the cheerful, idiosyncratic nature of Gano’s songs, which often instil a desire to pogo mindlessly, even as you try to work out the meaning of his lyrics. The sort-of title track I Could Be Anything is a kind of kids’ polka that relates a minor (and dryly cynical) epic about and knights, while Issues has a groove that immediately slides under your skin as Gano again makes an aspect of every relationship – the sharing of problems – both funny and easy to relate to. What You Really Mean is more considered and conventional; a Sixties pop ballad without references to Cadillacs or hairstyles. Foothills has a soft centre, with Gano grappling with for reasons to be in love. Big Car continues the worryingly durable trend of writing odes to automotive, with the guitars involved sounding de-tuned to the point of being rattly – a strategy that, counter-intuitively, works beautifully. “I hate to hear your voice, in person or on the phone,” begins Untrue Love, which is both sad and amusing. There is less than half an hour of music in these ten tracks, but this is an excellent album and a confirmation of the wisdom of not fixing what ain’t broke. Listen to it in a sitting. Twice.


It shouldn’t, perhaps, be surprising – look at that album title, for instance – that Arctic Monkeys frontman and songwriter Alex Ryder is not shy to use a dozen words where one will do. Star Treatment, which begins this collection, is more a long stream of consciousness meander put to music than a song, and an interesting choice to start the album with, particularly allowing for listeners with short attention spans (the song is nearly six minutes long). One Point Perspective is more focused, with Burt Bacharach-ish to more oblique musings. That the album continues in a similarly louche vein, with laid-back lounge rhythms dominant for long periods, to the extent that it feels reasonable to suggest that a dose of I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor-style energy wouldn’t go amiss. Four Out Of Five has one of the more sardonic lyrics here, raising a wry smile, but for the bulk of Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, it feels a little like the band is simply being indulgent – enjoying themselves, perhaps, and placing commendably little stock in mainstream market demands, but hardly making investment in what they’re doing either rewarding or even especially enjoyable. Listen closely and you may appreciate the wit in a line here and there, but once you know the punchlines, the same-y melodies hardly make it worth any extra investment – of your time or your attention.

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