By BRUCE DENNILL
Petite Noir: The King Of Anxiety EP
All Clear: Look In The Mirror
Various Artists: Shadows
Cyndi Lauper: Detour
At first listen, Cape Town’s Petite Noir (real name Yannick Ilunga) sounds like a blend of Black/Colin Vearncombe and latter-day Radiohead – low-pitched vocal lines over swelling and dipping synths and scattershot computer-generated beats. Like Radiohead, he’s also not too fussed about traditional song structures, creating soundscapes and mood pieces rather than songs per se. That said, he sounds a little like Nakhane Toure when he’s launching into a falsetto during the epic Chess, quite a lot like Bloc Party in Shadows – perhaps the tune best suited to being punted as a traditional single; a bit like Depeche Mode on Till We Ghosts, courtesy of the reverb-laden backing vocals and vaguely sinister atmospherics; and somewhat like Prince on the closing The Fall. Once you begin to unpack the music here and its many carefully constructed layers, the brevity of the collection becomes a touch frustrating. But when you consider the care with which each song has been presented and the time Ilunga has taken to do things the way he wants to (Till We Ghosts was first released in 2012; this EP came out in 2015), it’s possible to appreciate that placing quality over quantity is a rare and valuable philosophy and adjust your view to preferring a no-filler EP over a less focused full album. Ilunga gently pushes that way of thinking, which is already a facet worth appreciating before you even press “play”.
Allan Kolski Horwitz is, along with his singing and songwriting, a poet and playwright who never pulls a punch when addressing a theme he feels strongly about. Accordingly, his latest album as All Clear doesn’t pander to commercial tastes, featuring angular production and a number of lyric lines designed to set out a stall, not draw in neutrals. That said, Horwitz’s experience as a writer sees him create compositions that, despite many rather dated instrumental effects, immediately embed themselves into the psyche of his listeners. At their best – opening duo The Revolution Needs and On Your Own are strong contenders – the songs here sound like David Bowie, with all of that revered musician’s quirky twists, turns and hooks. Horwitz’s vocal tone is gruff, in the manner of Neil Diamond, if Diamond was predisposed to be a little more shamanic in his performance style. Some tracks, like Secrets, ultimately meander a little too much, but there is both sufficient tunefulness and intensity to make Look In The Mirror an intriguing listen.
The music for Shadows, the fifth volume in Irish author John Connolly’s series of soundtracks to his written work, starts with electronica, which initially doesn’t feel right, because there’s a sense that this less organic sound can’t carry the same emotional weight as some of the more traditional songs. Opener A Violent Yet Flammable World, by Brooklyn outfit Au Revoire Simone, sets the tone in this regard with a touch of Eighties-style pop that soon takes a diversion into more moody, atmospheric territory, where fans of these compilations will be more at home. Wilco’s Impossible Germany is brings everything back on line, being included for its tone rather than its content – Connolly admits to having no idea what it’s about. Mark Lanegan could be the poster boy for Connolly’s approach, his naturally dark outlook and sandpaper vocals a natural link for the author’s damaged protagonists, particularly Detective Charlie Parker. Grant Lee Buffalo’s Soft Wolf Tread makes the story of Red Riding Hood even darker that it was originally, helping readers to place themselves in the minds of Connolly’s villains, before This Is The Song (Good Luck) by The Punch Brothers finally offers a glimmer of light, albeit a faint one. To finish, there is Desperados Under The Eaves by Warren Zevon, a musical storyteller whose life, Connolly discovered, had been saved by a novelist (Zevon’s hero Ross Macdonald) when the musician was his lowest ebb. This is a slightly more difficult collection to get into than Volume IV, but it still serves its purpose admirably, enriching the literature it supports.
Cyndi Lauper has done just about everything else in the music industry, so perhaps it was just a matter of time before she found her way to Nashville and the opportunity to make an album of country songs to round out her formidable portfolio. That an early advisor and guide for this collection was Sire Records founder Seymour Stein may have helped Lauper to tie down both a balanced assortment of songs and a phenomenal list of guests including Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Jewel and Alison Krauss. Lauper’s expressive, slightly off-kilter vocals fit this genre as well as they do the many other directions she’s taken. Opener Funnel Of Love recalls Tom Petty before the title track, a duet with Harris, adds a jaunty swing to a philosophically weighty theme. The production, as you’d expect, is pristine and, over the walking bass of Heartaches By The Number, Lauper’s animated vocals – lead and backing – ooze with character. You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly is one of those country tunes where the happy melody is balanced by coal-black humour, and Vince Gill’s smiling vibrato is a wonderful counterpoint to Lauper’s more free-form style. The best is saved for last. Hard Candy Christmas features Alison Krauss, and the pair give the piece a sort of Seventies, Carpenters sheen, with lovely vocal interplay.