By BRUCE DENNILL
Ed Sheeran: Divide
Jesus Culture: Let It Echo
The Liberation Project: Songs That Made Us Free
Various Artists: Le Club – Alternative Anthems
Rend Collective: Campfire II – Simplicity
Various Artists: Ultimate Hymns For Today
Ed Sheeran’s ubiquity is curious in an age of processed pop and conveyor belt R&B hits, and much of that appeal has to do with his ability to state, very clearly, details of his life (past and present). More often than not, that frankness turns up something with which listeners can identify, and the singer-songwriter’s natural musicality fills in the gaps. The powerful double-punch of singles – and hits – Shape of You and Castle On The Hill, released at the same time to promote Divide, had the effect of sending this collection roaring up the sales charts, with the former song being a slick pop-R&B crossover and the latter a fantastic distillation of all the earnest passion that is Sheeran’s performance trademark. In that light, the opener, Eraser, falls short somewhat, its melody less persuasive than those plug tracks. But it does give insight into Sheeran’s mindset and a situation in which he is both enjoying his career and struggling with the inevitable industry pressures, a perhaps less-considered facet of an artist who always seems cheerful and engaging. Broadly speaking, Sheeran does sensitive folk-rock or hip hop-tinted rap-pop, all of it accessible, which gives him the wide popularity he enjoys – there’s something for both young Bieber-focused fans and those who like old-fashioned storytellers. That said, there are limited themes (lyrical and musical) that he explores, and given his huge popularity, overexposure to these is a possibility – ironically moreso because he’s so generous with his songs (the tracklisting here extends to 16 songs). Dive and Perfect are both beautifully heartfelt and direct, the Foy Vance co-write Galway Girl fizzes with energy and How Would You Feel (Paean) is a lighter-waving date song that’ll score Sheeran more points with the ladies (should that be necessary at this point). Bibia Be Ye Ye brings in some African touches, with a catchy kwassa kwassa guitar lick driving the song up front, and Nancy Mulligan has a lovely old folk lilt.
Once a more-precocious-than-most band comprising and aimed at students, Jesus Culture quickly stamped their authority on the contemporary worship scene with hits like Rooftops and stand-out features such as Kim Walker-Smith’s distinctive, rich voice. Progress from those impressive beginnings has been consistent, and Let It Echo sees a more mature outfit with an easy confidence that is matched to fluent songwriting skills. The album begins with a powerful opening trio of tunes, with Never Gonna Stop Singing’s bubbly, kwassa kwassa-tinged pop; the instantly anthemic Fierce and powerfully dynamic, congregation-friendly Alive In You. The guitar lick in In The River could just as easily herald a Coldplay song, and the rest of the piece is similarly well-crafted pop, while God With Us has echoes of the musical style most associated with Jesus Culture’s original parent church – Bethel, in Redding, California. Miracles was an excellent song on release, and its inclusion on Michael W Smith’s latest worship album has placed it firmly back in the spotlight. Singer Chris McClarney is another Jesus Culture singer with a unique voice and it is perhaps sad that he is not used more on this collection. That said, Everything And Nothing Less, which he does front is not one of the highlights. There are plenty of those around, though, so the album’s slight unevenness in quality terms is not as much of an issue as it otherwise might have been.
“World music” is usually little more than a term lazily applied to music that includes percussion and a five-stringed guitar with a Portuguese name. This ambitious collection – three discs’ worth – presents the inclusivity and sense of community that was originally a hallmark of the genre, involving, depending on who you believe, somewhere between 130 and 145 artists from 15 different countries. It’s an astounding feat of collaboration, even in an age of worldwide digital connection, what with collating everyone’s schedules, writing and arranging the material, getting all the contributions recorded and then, eventually, mixed. The production by Neill Solomon, Phil Manzanera, Dan Chiorboli and Mauritz Lotz is superb, featuring an incredible consistency given the music’s fragmented genesis, and the playing is top-notch, which is unsurprising given the individual and collective pedigree of the musicians. What is both exciting (in that artists are still taking a powerful lead in keeping leaders around the world accountable) and sad (in that such a role is still so necessary and there is still constant abuse of power) is that all of this material – 37 tracks in all – is protest music. Still, if corruption, violence and suppression must be placed top of mind, listening to heartfelt, beautifully performed compositions is on of the better ways to have that happen. Given the scope of the project and the momentum it creates as it unfolds, listening to it all in one go could be a challenge. This is not pop music, rather being designed to inspire and inform thoughtfulness as much as it is to purely entertain. That said, there are a number of songs of considerable beauty and with hooks to match their heart. I Can Hear My Papa Calling and Brothers In Freedom (the latter in memory of Ray Phiri and Hugh Masekela) are early high water marks. Can You Hear My Call?, Biko (a cover of the Peter Gabriel hit), Nothing But The Truth and an a capella version of Johnny Clegg’s Asimbonanga are some of the pillars of the second disc. And Roger Lucey’s reflective Thabane, the energetic Addimu A Oshun, and a joyous version of Shosholoza are memorable points on the final disc. A massive achievement, and one worth investing in, not only as a music fan, but also as a citizen of the world, concerned about the state we’re – all – in.
Le Club is a brand featuring a collective of DJs dedicated to alternative and rock music from the Eighties and Nineties and helmed by DJ and record executive Adrian Skirrow. In the movement’s heyday, like-minded music fans used to gather at Johannesburg venues including the eponymous Le Club, Chelsea Underground, Subway and The Junction; now events are held in other establishments, but the vibe and enthusiasm for the material remains undimmed. This 21-track compilation is a great introduction to the scene for newcomers and a wonderful throwback to a less commercial template-driven time when creativity seemed more welcome and authenticity was a little closer to the surface in popular music than is often the case now. Tastes will vary, but highlights are common: The Romantics’ What I Like About You (from 1979, making it the oldest song on the collection); The Stone Roses’ She Bangs The Drums – much dreamier than the image the band often chose to portray at the time; and Crash from The Primitives, which hasn’t aged at all. Then there’s Bubblegum On My Boots by The Springbok Nude Girls, reminding listeners how ridiculously fresh and different it was on its release nearly 20 years ago; The Stranglers’ yearning Always The Sun; the sublime pop of The King Of Rock ‘n Roll by Prefab Sprout and the R&B/gospel/rock mash-up that is Primal Scream’s Loaded. If the album was designed to make listeners recall the time and place where they were when they first heard a particular song, plus who they were with at the time and what they might’ve got up to with those people, it’s a success.
For a band founded on the ethos of enjoying the creative possibilities of getting together with friends, the notion of Rend Collective literally gathering around a campfire and recording a set of interpretations of both their own and others’ songs for Campfire II feels completely feasible. Whether or not the recording process was as unpretentious and informal as the album title suggests, the results have the desired effect. The songs – along with the emotions they inspire – are placed front and centre and, once they have served their purpose, they end. This is a style in opposition to the massive production numbers that roll on to nine, 10 or 11 minutes on many contemporary worship releases, and it serves as a lesson in how to achieve effectiveness without trickery. It helps that Rend Collective – and the squad of additional musicians who join them here – are wonderfully skillful players and singers, whose talent is matched by their passion and enthusiasm. This means song titles like Live Alive, Every Giant Will Fall, Joy Of The Lord and More Than Conquerers are not just catchy marketing lines; they’re statements backed by whole-hearted conviction, tangibly evident in the vocals and playing and the movement that the arrangements suggest and instigate.
Ignore the title Ultimate Hymns For Today: if a record label released an “ultimate” album, they’d be going of business soon, and the varying definitions of “hymn” will likely mean that half the listeners hearing this compilation will disagree with the classification. What remains worth commenting on, then, is whether the music included here is any good, and whether combining these songs in a single package makes said package an attractive entity. In short, yes and yes: the music is great, and being able to press play and enjoy the next couple of hours (it’s a double album) is a boon. As a general rule, the newer songs here appear in their original form, or at least performed by the artists who wrote or first released them, with some of the older compositions having being beautifully re-interpreted, mostly in relatively stripped-down ways. Sam Cox does lovely acoustic things to both Lord I Need You and Abide With Me, and All Sons & Daughter’s add their trademark heartfelt folk feel to Christ Be All Around Me. Modern hymnwriter (most would agree that’s an accurate description) Stuart Townend is well-represented with How Deep The Father’s Love For Us, Beautiful Saviour, In Christ Alone and The Power Of The Cross. And performers known for other styles of music present fantastic new takes on established classics, with Rend Collective’s Boldly I Approach (The Art Of Celebration) and Martin Smith’s Great Is Your Faithfulness being two of the highlights. With 30 tracks collected here, this is a lovely release to sit with for a sustained amount of time.