By BRUCE DENNILL
Neil Diamond: Melody Road 4
Jack White: Lazaretto 8
Sing Uit!: Aanbiddingsbelewenis 6
Neil Diamond calls the songs on this album a return to his musical roots. That may be true, but the sentiment suggests that he – at some point – must have wondered away from said roots, and listening to Melody Road, it’s difficult to pinpoint when that might have been, as the collection sounds exactly the way you’d expect a Neil Diamond record to sound. Given his prodigious sales over the years, that’s not bad thing, but equally, it’s a confirmation that this album is just more songs, not necessarily better or different songs. The title track opens proceedings and is inoffensively pleasant, with the cross-cultural love story of Seongah And Jimmy the introduction point for more interesting themes. Diamond is certainly not alone in being in a tricky situation where, as a hugely influential figure, his career has lasted long enough to have his acolytes join or surpass him in current industry impact terms. But others. James Taylor included (though he took 13 years between his last release and his latest album) have found new ways to present their thoughts and perspectives in musical terms. Here, there is Diamond’s distinctive voice, backed by arrangements (guitars, keys, subtle strings) that augment his tone but can’t obscure the fact that, bar perhaps Alone At The Ball, which is the strongest candidate for a single, and Marry Me Now – featuring a tempo that perfectly suits Awkward Mom Dancing – these new songs are innocuous to a degree that will only inspire excitement in die-hard fans.
Jack White is one of a handful of popular musicians whose niche is unique enough that, provided his attitude – unapologetic and inventive – remains, he can do more or less anything he likes and listeners will respond. On Lazaretto, he often sounds like the sum of many of his oft-stated influences, not least because the collection kicks off with a co-write of sorts with Blind Willie McTell, whose Three Women Blues is reworked as White’s raucous, cymbal-smashing Three Women. The title track references White’s musical past most strongly, and would have very easily sat in the middle of a White Stripes album. Thereafter, there are regularly nods to Americana, with Little Mae Rische’s backing vocals and Maggie Bjorklund’s pedal steel on Temporary Ground adding a pleasingly country feel. Would You Fight For My Love? might be the result should Nick Cave undergo a garage punk makeover before the instrumental High Ball Stepper provides an intermission before the commencement of Act II. The beginning of that part of the album – Just One Drink and Alone In My Home – are the commercial highpoint of the collection, with the former the sort of easy-to-love blues-rock single the Rolling Stones built their apparently immortal reputation on and the latter also bearing the marks of the Sixties, perhaps in the form of Elton John in an experimental mood. Entitlement (the song, not the perspective) suggests that award-winning musicians aren’t immune to the tidal wave of forum-page and social media “wisdom” that sees ignorant nobodies claiming that their perspective is the only correct one. Black Bat Licorice has a groove as swampy and sweaty as its curious name. The album clocks in at slightly less than 40 minutes, but there’s a feeling when it ends that White could keep doing this for days on end, drawing on his encyclopaedic musical knowledge and skill in creating arrangements that sound rowdy to begin with and then electrifying once they bed in.
Well-made contemporary worship music remains popular with a large and growing audience in South Africa and abroad, with sales dominated by big-budget outfits like Australia’s Hillsong and Hillsong United; Gateway, New Life and others in the US and Soul Survivor, Worship Central and others in the UK. Independent groups, especially those writing and performing in languages other than English, sometimes don’t make of an impact, as they’re go unsupported by all but friendly community radio stations and distribution may be via word of mouth in the congregation of the church they attend. None of that has stopped Kiblerpark-based singer-songwriter Heinrich Berner and Sing Uit! from delivering a fine set of original compositions in this live set. Stylistically, there is a good deal of overlap with the basic template used by the majority of the above-mentioned groups, which makes sense in that it’s a formula designed to accommodate both creativity and congregational friendliness (technically, non-musicians expected to sing will be unable to keep up if it’s too complicated). But the structures of the songs and the lyrics are both sound throughout, and given the sometimes tricky grammatical structures of Afrikaans, this is worth noting. Opener Al Die Lof, a call and response number that includes the crowd’s participation and energy, lays out the band’s stall, and Magtige Koning and Vader, Ons Glo – which features a lovely little guitar lick, round out a strong trio upfront. Later, Wat Kan Mens Se (Koning U Is Asemrowend) features vocals that recall the high-range leading of Kari Jobe, and there are a number of other strong tracks. The production is impressive, particularly given that these are live recordings. Ironically, it’s some of the collection’s strengths – that it does sound of a standard alongside high-charting equivalents – that whittle away some of its freshness, as you might, until you were close enough to hear the lyrics, assume that it’s a group whose work you’ve heard before.