By BRUCE DENNILL
The Cult: Hidden City
Simply Red: Big Love
Nichole Nordeman: Every Mile Mattered
Various Artists: Rada Unearthed – Volume One
Awolnation have, with their impressive chart and sales record to date, more than earned the right to experiment, and much of this album, particularly the opener and title track Run, initially feel like the work of a band who’ve done something new in a rehearsal and thought, “It’s a bit weird, but we like it.” What might seem like self-indulgence on a first listen, though, soon finds its groove and once you’ve given the full tracklisting a couple of chances, it becomes clear that there is some very canny songwriting and arrangement work in place here. Not least, there is the ability to switch, instrumentally and vocally, from mellow, controlled pop to mildly unhinged industrial rock, as when vocalist Aaron Bruno murmurs the word “Run” in the middle of that first song. Fat Face is a lot mellower, but Bruno’s octave leap for the latter part of the song provides a fantastic dynamic lift. The quickfire chorus of Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf) suggests genial menace, if there such a thing, and the whole tune is louche and cool. I Am is one of the more straightforward compositions on the album, and its simplicity translates to an immediate, anthemic interpretation – try to avoid singing along, if you can. Headrest For My Soul is a tender anomaly, a strummed acoustic musing that gives your speakers a rest from the barrage of bass everywhere else. Holy Roller bucks expectations, being a relatively low-key reflection rather than the more boisterous number the title suggests. Woman Woman brilliantly connect the dot between EDM and pop, filled with strong hooks and driven by a forceful beat. Like People, Like Plastic is another entry with a successful loud-quiet progression (and an oddly violent ending), before Drinking Lightning suggests what the Beach Boys might have sounded like had they hit the scene in 2015. An impressive release that refuses to bow to market pressure but hits the mainstream mark regardless.
Having long been a band of notable intensity, it’s noticeable, on this collection, that some of that spark has – not unexpectedly – faded to some degree. Ian Astbury, though still possessed of a fine voice, no longer has the capacity to deliver the banshee howl that was a trademark of many of the band’s earlier hits, and the overall production seems tailored to complement this less feral instrument, with the band sounding more compressed and contained via Bob Rock’s studio work. Minor keys still ensure an edgy sound to many of the songs, with Birds Of Paradise having a alternative, slow-goth-headbanging touch. The arrangements are not short of energy, with opener Dark Energy kicking off with a rolling drumbeat and echoing guitar riff from Billy Duffy. Hidden City feels like an old-fashioned album rather than anything designed to have bespoke highlights, and it’s likely that the band’s established following will appreciate that, though it does make the collection a challenging point of entry for newcomers. Often, a song will start strongly – Deeply Ordered Chaos and Avalanche Of Light have striking intros – but then not maintain that same level, with the bulk of the composition sounding unmistakably like The Cult, but not otherwise particularly fresh. Hidden City is probably a safer bet for fans than it is for more general audiences.
For all the occasional dip in goodwill towards the man based on some or other tabloid-worthy exploit, Mick Hucknall has always been a fine musician and songwriter, capable of consistently delivering music of high quality. He is getting older now, and his style sounds as though – it may not be by design – adapting accordingly. Opener Shine On, the intro for which establishes a level of energy and production expertise that sets a high bar for the rest of the collection, features many of the facet’s of Hucknall’s signature sound, without leaning on previous successes for inspiration. Beyond that, in terms of the aforementioned adapted sound, there is a hint of Rod Stewart in almost everything. This has to do with a slightly more gravelly edge to Hucknall’s voice, but also with the rhythms and melodies of the songs the singer has written – the sort of American Songbook material that Stewart has built the latter part of his career on. The title track is strings-drenched piece that almost demands to be sung while wearing a smoker’s jacket. The Ghost Of Love ventures close to cheesiness, backing up a line about “a round of applause” with the sound of … a round of applause, but the writing and structure of the song ensures that all the aspects of the composition, including the effects, hang together beautifully. The same right-side-of-mawkish feel applies to Dad, a heartfelt tribute in which the emotion involved is a positive force, not a cheap gimmick. Tight Tones has a fantastic funk groove, while The Old Man And The Beer swings smoothly and with considerable style. Whether Hucknall ever returns to his chart apogee remains to be seen, but as a whole album, Big Love is a authentically gratifying offering.
The guitar virtuosity of Corneille Hutten and his playing partner Dirkie van Staden are impressive in any setting, but it can be the case for listeners with diverse music tastes that a full album of instrumental fingerstyle playing can feel slightly one-dimensional. It is perhaps with that in mind that this album sees CH2 collaborate with a wide range of friends and colleagues, as well as including material from diverse traditions and genres. Experienced American session player Michael “Nomad” Ripoli adds his blur-fast fingerwork to Maslow, Circus Gypsy and La La Love, adding a fresh approach while also confirming Hutten and Van Staden’s world-class playing at a technical level. The same is true of a take on Asturias that features the spectacular talents of Polish youngster Marcin Patrzalek. Nigerian singer Butera Knowless adds smooth vocal tones to My African Dream and Ko Nashize and flautist Wouter Kellerman accompanies the duo on an interpretation of Sting’s Shape Of My Heart. It is still, however, the speed and certainty of CH2’s playing – underpinning all of the above and showcased in standalone instrumentals, that is noteworthy, from traditional classics like Volare to AC/DC’s Thunderstruck performed on two classical guitars. Starstruck is a generous collection at 16 tracks, and offers something for just about any preference.
Hardship is arguably more compelling inspiration than joy, and there is tangible suffering behind the title track and many of the other songs on this collection from CCM stalwart Nichole Nordeman. The title track opens Every Mile Mattered, underlining the value of going through darkness and coming out into the light to slick production and a melody that recalls Sara Bareilles. Dear Me features stark lyrical honesty from a singer who has spent a lot amount of time in the bright spotlight of the charismatic worship scene but is now reflecting on the relative value of that role versus loving and serving people as and where they are. It’s a song worth listening to in headphones and with your eyes closed to minimise distraction – a philosophy primer as much as a ballad. No Longer is equally thoughtful, but simpler, its message encapsulated in its hook – “I thought living safe meant living stronger; no longer.” Nordeman’s relationship with God is explored in meaningful and beautiful ways that don’t necessarily require the mention of His name, including the poignant Hush Hush (“Rest your head ‘til you’ve had rest enough; hush, now hush”). There’s an understanding, too, of how the way words are expressed can change the meaning that they impart, with a version of U2’s Beautiful Day, stripped of the driving energy of the original, giving the song a melancholy sheen. Conversely, The Sound Of Surviving has a triumphant, propulsive arrangement, matching lyrics to energy. Closer Slow Down concludes matters with brittle, beautiful sensitivity, a duet with youngster Pepper Ingram that captures the tenderness of a mother towards her children, but also the ever-present worry that rushing through life and relationships (both parents and children can be guilty) will mean never appreciating the value of the small things. A superb lyrical achievement with a number of melodies and arrangements to match.
Rada (Rape, Alcohol, Drug Abuse – more details at rada.co.za) is an organisation offering resources to people affected by these societal scourges, with Rada Unearthed the musical arm of the outfit, a platform designed to help musicians showcase their music and to raise money for other projects run by the organisation. Sales of compilations will play a role in that regard. Rada Unearthed – Volume One includes 18 tracks that share overlapping themes tying into the concerns Rada is trying to alleviate, and with the intent, generally speaking, of providing encouragement to listeners. Styles vary – there is rock (Keep Marching On by Prime Circle), R&B (When Is The Time by Caroline Borole, featuring Reason Ndlovu), pop (Fight by Michael Lowman) and even a little remixed maskandi (Rada Fever Mix by Howie Combrink) – but lyrically, the characters in the stars are searching for answers and, crucially, making an effort to find them. A strong collection of original work by South African artists, with a heart for positive change.