Friday, April 27, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 4/27/12- Bola and Allo Darlin'

While the heyday of world music on LP may be long past, there have been enough recent appearances of new global sounds on vinyl to make one hope they represent the beginnings of a sustained trend. One such record is by the Ghanaian kologo player and vocalist known as Bola; his Volume 7 is a forceful and organic blend of the traditional and the contemporary.
Of course it needs to be said that the digital age has swung the doors wide open on a massive outpouring of previously unavailable music from all over the world, giving the casual listener access to a disparate selection of sounds that in prior eras would’ve only been heard by pure accident, if at all. The proliferation of blogs hosting MP3s is viewed by many with jaundiced eyes, but if done conscientiously these websites can exist not as an exercise in freeloading but instead as an educational resource, a platform for communication and most importantly as an instigator of further possibilities.
One such is example is Brian Shimkovitz’s Awesome Tapes from Africa. Way back in 2006, his website began exposing listeners to a steady stream of mostly cassette sourced obscurities obtained largely through his travels to the African continent. By this point, it would take even the most determined listener many months to appropriately absorb the content on his site, but it doesn’t seem to be Shimkovitz’s intention that his visitors hear everything; instead, hopefully a visitor will be captivated by just one discovery from an array of choices that would’ve not crossed their path otherwise. And as testament to those further possibilities mentioned above, Awesome Tapes has begun releasing records, the first being La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol. 3 by Malian musician Nâ Hawa Doumbia, and the second being the subject of this review.
Bola Anafo is from the Upper East Region of Ghana and his instrument the kologo is a two stringed lute with a calabash gourd resonator. It’s been likened to the banjo, an instrument which came to America (and the Caribbean) from Africa. But Bola is also a vocalist of potent intensity as well as a musician unconcerned with (or perhaps oblivious to) the often persnickety Western standards of tradition. To specify, in addition to his the omnipresent kologo, Volume 7 also features the use of drum machine, keyboard and synthesizer, and if this fact inspires encroaching dread in the reader, it shouldn’t. It’s immediately clear that the inclusion of programmed rhythms and synthetic additives hasn’t been thrust upon Bola by an outside producer working in the interest of increased record sales.
Instead, the use of recent (if appealingly “inexpensive” sounding) tech quickly situates that listeners desiring an antiquated expression of “tradition” should look elsewhere, for while Volume 7 indeed features a deep connection to Ghanaian culture through the employment of the kologo, it’s far from a museum piece. In a sense, Bola is comparable to the wild junkyard aesthetic of Congolese group Konono Nº 1, in that they share a willingness to incorporate whatever’s necessary to advance the music they play. It’s just that Bola is less eccentric in his developments and more “pop”; one of his biggest influences is King Ayisoba, a fellow kologo player who worked with musicians from the hiplife style, a form that combined hip hop with the longstanding genre of Ghanaian highlife.
The music on Volume 7 is hard-driving dance music that’s matched by the impressive power of Bola’s voice. Singing in the Frafra tongue, his ability as an explosive shouter is only amplified by the difference in language, bringing the sheer passion of his vocals to the forefront and (in my case, anyway) greatly relieving the desire to know the exact meaning of his words. Bola’s singing could accurately be said to lack variation, but that’s surely by intention, matching up well with the qualities of the kologo.
As an instrument with only two strings, the kologo doesn’t possess the wide expressive range of its descendant the banjo, but with one string tuned to bass and the other to treble, it easily possesses enough tonal variance to get the job done. And what’s immediately apparent is that Bola’s playing of the instrument is assured and methodical, the result of long study and dedication. If the eight songs on Volume 7 are initially quite different in sound from the norms of Western music, they are no less complex in conception or precise in their delivery.
And that lack of variation could be a stumbling block in appreciation for some listeners, though I think there is enough overall depth (and a few curve balls, like the brief bit of auto-tuned vocal at the beginning of “Tigantabame”) to keep well-disciplined ears from getting too restless; circular patterns of electronic keyboard that grow in infectiousness, an insistent rigidity in the low-tech drum machines that also establishes a momentum of tight grooves, and the rich mixture of melody and rhythm from the kologo. Again, these songs are plainly conceived as dance music (though quite different in execution from the tight elasticity of American funk); every track on the record save for the last is over six minutes long, and what the raw drive of Volume 7 lacks in variety it makes up for with verve and finesse. This is repetition by design, and the more time spent with it the more it grows.
And there are some very pleasant extra-musical vibes going on with Volume 7, starting with the very title of the record, which underscores that what’s on display is a straight reissue of one of Bola’s numerous cassette releases. That may not seem like a big deal, but from my perspective it indicates a level of sincere respect for this musician and his work. Bola has at least six previous tapes under his belt and very likely has additional subsequent volumes. From these sources, Shimkovitz could have easily assembled a compilation with the intention of spotlighting growth and an artificial (or at least misleading) sense of variation. Though not being privy to his other recordings, it’s certainly possible that Bola burst onto the Ghanaian tape scene fully formed, with each release exploring a unwavering sonic terrain, a hypothetical possibility that I actually find quite attractive.
But if this were the case, I’d likely be reviewing Volume 1. No, Shimkovitz obviously felt there was something special about this particular cassette, and by making it available on LP/CD/download for curious consumers outside the sphere of the musician’s homeland, the integrity of Bola’s art is retained without any needless tampering. And perhaps it’s not a big deal, but when coupled with the fact that Bola is getting fairly compensated in this agreement, the whole endeavor feels like a relationship between equals. After expenses, it’s a 50/50 split between artist and label. Nowhere to be found is that all too familiar aftertaste of the First World capitalizing on the Third.
Along with recent issues of new and old sounds by Sidi Touré (two albums on Thrill Jockey), El Rego (via Daptone), the aforementioned Nâ Hawa Doumbia release on Awesome Tapes and numerous records on labels like Soundway and Strut, Volume 7 makes a strong case for lending an ear to the diverse sounds of Africa.
Thirty years ago, the imperative of world music was shared between major labels, smaller companies (often with government or philanthropic connections, e.g. Ocora from France), and extremely cool indies like John Storm Roberts’ Original Music imprint. Flash forward to right now and the independents are just about all we have left. That might seem worrisome, but with guys like Brian Shimkovitz on the case bringing the music of Bola and others into sharp global focus, it appears that we’ll be just fine.

The finest examples of indie-pop manage to feel deliciously out of step with current trends, leaving their mark by confidently being themselves in a sea of records spinning variations on the latest thing. London’s Allo Darlin’ has a secure handle on this tradition, and their second long player Europe is not only a well-done expression of what makes the genre so appealing, but also bodes well for the band’s future.
In a manner not unlike how zydeco is identified with Louisiana or no-wave is described as a style of New York development, indie-pop is essentially thought of as a form born from the United Kingdom, for that is where its generally acknowledged roots (the melodically inclined punk of The Buzzcocks, pop-savvy post-punkers such as Television Personalities, Josef K and Orange Juice) are all located, and it’s also the locale that really kick started the whole movement in earnest (think The Smiths, C86, and both Sarah and Creation Records).
Sure, there were certainly a few likeminded groups across the globe (say Beat Happening in Olympia, Washington, The Cannanes in Sydney, Australia and Shonen Knife in Osaka, Japan) but these outliers weren’t really integrated into the scheme of things until indie-pop spilled out into a global movement in reaction to the post-grunge ‘90s (one instance of a parallel scene, New Zealand’s proliferation of small bands centered largely around the Flying Nun label, rests almost entirely on its own merits and should be looked upon as a scene unto itself).
So it makes sense that Elizabeth Morris, a native of Australia, would end up making records as a London migrant. Allo Darlin’ is led by Morris, and from the quiet beginnings of a few self-released EPs while also serving as a member of Tender Trap (a band with a solid indie-pop pedigree, featuring three members of Marine Research, most notably Amelia Fletcher, also formerly Heavenly and ‘80s legends Talulah Gosh), she and her group have grown in confidence and scope to be one of the better examples of indie-pop currently operating.
And the connection to Tender Trap is a significant one, for along with a similarity in sound, Morris’ singing and songwriting displays the same sort of confidence and smarts that Fletcher has exhibited in both her fledgling and mature work. Curiously, when first noticing the title of Europe’s standout track “Tallulah”, my kneejerk reaction was that it was in reference to Fletcher’s first band. But no; there is indeed an extra letter l in the name, and the track instead refers to the fifth album by that most excellent Australian band The Go-Betweens, who in a manner similar to Morris spent a fair amount of time in Great Britain in the earlier stages of their career.
Nostalgia is a big part of the indie-pop trip, in particular the pining for or the idealizing of a time and place from before you were born. For instance, the use of old photographs was a recurring motif on indie-pop album covers like Television Personalities …And Don’t the Kids Just Love It and needless to say, pretty much the whole run of Smiths’ records. This has resulted in some observers painting over indie-pop with a brush soaked in conservatism, but that line of thinking usually has some sort of agenda, most frequently either rockist (i.e. they don’t have the “right” attitude) or in service of a constant flow of innovation (they’re not playing music the “right” way). There’s a reason why Orange Juice, those Smiths, C86 and Beat Happening all inspired sizable waves of often mean-spirited detractors, and it’s why when Nirvana openly expressed admiration of The Vaselines through covers of “Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun”, so many Black Sabbath-loving observers very openly couldn’t deal.
Europe absolutely possesses this by now well established inclination to look back, but like the best of the prior work in the style that embodies this outlook, it’s far more than just an exercise in yearning. The biggest quality in Morris and company’s favor is that she’s not operating from a sense of simple nostalgia; rather, her songs depict an often bittersweet recollection of the past and how those memories interact with the present. Marcel Proust may not have loved Europe (had he somehow lived to hear is charms), but he would’ve certainly understood it.
While their self-titled debut from 2010 was a pleasant affair that set the context for Allo Darlin’ rather nicely, Europe is a big step up in both songwriting quality and in the assurance of delivery. Opener “Neil Armstrong” not only shows off the bands’ strides extremely well, but it will also establish to newbies exactly what Allo Darlin’ are about; it’s the kind of song that can easily tempt a listener into donning a moth-eaten cardigan while puffing on a clove cigarette and gazing at a black and white photograph of Tom Courtenay. How fragile, and yes, how winsome. And the track that follows it, “Capricornia”, begins with some almost requisite achy strum before kicking into a crisp up-tempo slice of indie-pop that’ll likely charm the trousers right off longstanding fans of The Wedding Present.
From there the album just rolls. The title cut really drives home how the majority of Europe’s tracks exist essentially as audio letters or confessions to characters (either real or fictive, setting up a sweet ambiguity) that Morris  as narrator holds close. Plus, its use of strings is quite tasteful, complimenting the songs’ pleasant rainy day jangle, never overwhelming it. This is followed with “Some People Say”, which features the terrific ukulele strumming of Morris, this element helping to define Allo Darlin’ as something much more than just a standard bunch of indie-pop idolaters.
And the uke is employed to magnificent effect on “Tallulah”, again Europe’s standout cut. In both its melodic simplicity and the open vulnerability of its storytelling it can feel like a readymade for some aspiring filmmaker with a digital camera, a handful of eager if outwardly blasé cast members and a trust-fund just waiting to be whittled down to nothing. And this is cool, except for one thing; the movie has already been made by Elizabeth Morris. All that’s required to watch is the closing of the eyelids.
A song like “Tallulah” requires a certain level of bravery to pull off, for if it fails its much worse than a misstep. It’ll be downright embarrassing. And while this song succeeds wholeheartedly, it’s also quite nude in its emotionalism, and listening to it can feel a bit like eavesdropping. Of course, this is absurd. It is a record, after all. But that’s the power of music for you.
If “Tallulah” is Europe’s best moment, it’s also an album with no bum tracks. Penultimate cut “Still Young” is the closest the disc comes to straightforward rocking, and it can’t help reminding me of what Velocity Girl might’ve sounded like if they’d resided closer to the River Thames than the River Potomac. Another similarity throughout the record (especially on “Some People Say”) is Glaswegians Camera Obscura, though Allo Darlin’ are just a wee bit more spritely. For fans of indie-pop, Europe will be a welcome addition to the library, and it just might tear the wig off newcomers to the style.
I can easily envision some of those listeners glancing to the bottom of this review and wondering why Europe didn’t receive a higher grade. And in a sense, they’d have a point, since the text above is loaded with praise and lacking in faults. To elaborate, this is indeed an LP without any glaring flaws, but it is also a record that’s very much “in the tradition”. Allo Darlin’ fit into the Slumberland roster like long, thin torso snuggly hugging a thrift store sweater, and their sophomore record is one of the best femme-fronted indie-pop slabs to grace my ears in quite a while.
And if it were readily apparent that Allo Darlin’ had outdone themselves and hit a qualitative ceiling in the making of Europe, a higher grade might have been called for. But in this case, it’s obvious that Elizabeth Morris and her cohorts are capable of far more than just putting their own superb spin on a fine genre; if they keep at it, they could very likely play a role in defining the indie-pop sound for a whole new generation. With this possibility in mind, my highest marks are being saved for if and when.