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by Thomas Hauner

22 Feb 2009

The epochal South African protest singer and songwriter Vusi Mahlasela played an engaging show before a docile but erudite audience in the sprawling Walt Whitman Theatre at Brooklyn College—a tiny collegiate oasis deep in Brooklyn. The diverse but reserved crowd almost came across as too reverent, passive towards the poet and musician. Only by the end of Mahlasela’s set did they finally muster the courage to indulge in his group’s propulsive polyrhythm and guitars.

Mahlasela will forever be associated with the soundtrack of the anti-apartheid movement. But he is still decidedly a protest singer. (Broadly, that is considered “African folk” music). His defiant, peaceful, and artistic resistance to injustice makes it impossible for him to ignore continuing calamities. However, given the serious subtext of his songwriting and singing his music is not cloaked by the surrounding darkness he endured in the past. Rather the prevailing harmonies of life—love and family—are at the center of his message.

“Everytime”—a track featuring Jem on his 2007 release Guiding Star—was a beautiful flowing song about a devoted lover. Lucid African imagery articulated Mahlasela’s universal sentiments: “Your beauty burns the grass like fire.”

Musically, he and his four-piece band played a brilliant mixture of global sounds, perfectly balancing blues and soul with traditional South African rhythms, melodies and language. “Thula Mama” dedicated to his grandma for thwarting the police when trying to arrest Mahlasela as a young activist—blended scat singing and vocables into a smooth homage to mothers. During the bridge Mahlasela traded a cappella verses as the band perfectly transitioned in-between. Finally the song drifted away in a jubilant, but faint, sing-along: “My song of love / My song of life”.

Purpose is never far from Mahlasela’s mind. It is his guiding principle in life and music, and so everything he does must resonate with a positive and humane message. He took a moment to speak out about the marginalization and forced relocation of Botswana’s indigenous San people, or Bushmen. Remarkably, he never sounded preachy or forceful or hippy-dippy. Instead it was an earnest reproach of an unjust policy, never undermined by segueing into a song introduction. Rather he emphasized his point with a poignant ethical and rhetorical question: Where are they to go?

Mahlasela was not all serious, though. While tuning his guitar he joked, “this is a Chinese song called Too Ning… it’s over now.”

Ending the show with Miriam Makeba’s iconic “Pata Pata” was a well-received homage, Mahlasela spinning, twisting, and shuffling to the song’s rhapsodic refrain.

 

by Matt White

22 Feb 2009

The Pet Shop Boys accepted the award for Outstanding Contribution to Music this week at the Brit Awards and also performed a medley of their hits (along with their excellent new single “Love etc.”). Even brief appearances from Lady GaGa on “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” and the Killers’ Brandon Flowers on “It’s A Sin” couldn’t ruin the seemingly endless stream of pop perfection. Is it possible that their music sounds more contemporary and relevant now than it did in the ‘80s?

Their upcoming album Yes hits stores on March 23rd.

by Bill Gibron

22 Feb 2009

In a little less than 12 hours, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will finish up the 2008-9 awards season with the handing out of their precious, publicity-oriented Oscars. In preparation for the critical shoulder shrug to come afterward, SE&L offers these articles written about the coveted little gold statues. They range from reaction to the nominations, a discussion of the Dark Knight snub, and an overview of the multiple times when the Academy got the winner wrong. So put on your designer duds and get ready to walk that torn and tattered red carpet. It’s time for the movie biz to pat itself on the back - and as usual, we can’t resist being spectators.

The Race is (G)On(e): Oscar Surprises and Snubs

The Darkest (K)Night

Critical Confessions: Part 14 - The Art of Backlash

Who’s Number 2?

And the Winner Isn’t…10 Oscar Blunders Revisited (Part 1)

And the Winner Was WHAT?...10 More Oscar Blunders (Part 2)

by Rob Horning

20 Feb 2009

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen raises a good point about Spin magazine’s new record-rating system (it’s pertinent to the one PopMatters uses as well).

The old rating system granted up to five stars but now the maximum number of stars is ten.  This signals that they wish to start exaggerating the quality of the product.  When there are only five stars you know that they are laying their reputation on the line when they grant five stars to a new CD….  But say they give a new release eight, nine, or who knows maybe eight and a half stars?  What exactly are they trying to say?

So by make the rating system capable of finer distinctions, it becomes basically opaque.

I dislike ratings, though I understand why they get used—some readers would like a bottom line without reading, or will only read when the high rating cues them to. Naturally, this gives incentive to writers (and editors) to rate everything higher. Often, the rating is at obvious odds with the reviews themselves, which, if they are not overwrought 75-word blurbs full of incomprehensible comparisons, tend to be more ambivalent, or more charitably, balanced. The best reviews, in my opinion, aren’t reviews at all; they simply take the work in question seriously enough that you know it is stimulating, worthy of careful attention. In other words, everything that is reviewed should be considered worth checking out—in effect, a one-star system, I suppose. The only things that should get panned—a maybe this is a reason for the backlash effect perhaps, come to think of it—is newsworthy new work by already well-known acts. A hatchet job won’t be published at all unless it is about someone the readers already care about, so established artists are often the only ones being savaged in print. Reviewing is a pretty thankless job, and a backlog of bile can easily build up in response to the corrosive effects of the practice—the routinized listening, the striving for things to say to overcome the “dancing about architecture” problem.

When I reviewed music, I had trouble reducing my opinion to a rating, not because my insights were so nuanced, but because in general, most records are incomparable. They can’t be reduced to a common aesthetic currency. What does it mean to rate a reissue of a Kinks record a 10 along with a newly released Radiohead album? Aren’t the standards being applied entirely different? Doesn’t an album grow richer with the years, as its influence plays out and the responses it has prompted in generations of listeners enrich its significance? Ratings set up false equivalencies between works that basically bars them from being taken as seriously as works—art shows and books, for instance—deemed too complex to be assigned a number of stars. Pop music, though, is meant to be cycled through quickly rather than lingered over, and the ratings system suits that end, even if our actual listening practices, thankfully, don’t.

by Matt White

20 Feb 2009

I first heard Simple Minds the way most people probably did; in The Breakfast Club. John Hughes’ magnum opus of teen angst begins and ends with “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” a song written for the film by Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff. They offered the song to a number of artists, including Billy Idol and Bryan Ferry, but were turned down by everyone until Simple Minds, under pressure from their label, agreed to record it. The song has been both a blessing and a curse to the band. It was their first and only US number one hit and stayed on the UK charts for an incredible two years. The band, however, obviously had mixed feelings about the success of a song they did not write. This became evident when they decided not to include the track on their next album Once Upon A Time, much to the chagrin of their record label. The album was (and remains) their biggest selling record, but Simple Minds surely couldn’t help thinking that most people who bought it had probably never heard of them before The Breakfast Club. These people missed out on the band at the height of their powers. When they were a glorious mess of ideas and influences. When their sound was changing and developing so fast that they themselves could barely keep up. Unfortunately, the greatness of these early years made the disappointment of their later albums that much harder to take. 

Few bands have made such an artistic leap in such a short amount of time. Within one year, Simple Minds released their debut album Life in a Day wearing their influences (Roxy Music, Bowie, Magazine) a little too plainly on their sleeve, to writing, recording, and releasing Reel to Real Cacophony, a record that could not have been the work of anyone else. Angular guitars fight with stabbing synths, creating a kaleidoscope of post-punk pop. Amongst other landmark releases of 1979 from Joy Division (Unknown Pleasures), PiL (Metal Box) and Gang of Four (Entertainment!), it’s easy to forget Reel to Real Cacophony but it’s important not to. It’s an album on par with anything released that year.

Taking their interest in electronic music further, Simple Minds changed gears again with the aptly-named Empires and Dance, released in 1980. Songs like “I Travel” and “Thirty Frames a Second” are cold slices of paranoid disco, dance music for Arctic oil rigs. It’s with this album that singer Jim Kerr began touching upon political issues in his lyrics. At this point they’re effective in their vague evocativeness, and still buried amongst other more abstract imagery, but it was the beginning of a trend that would become detrimental and just plain annoying by the time the ‘90s rolled around.

The band’s label, Artisa, were unimpressed with Empires and Dance and pressed only a minimal amount of copies, making the record difficult for fans to find. Simple Minds jumped ship and signed with Virgin, promptly releasing two albums simultaneously. Sons & Fascination and Sister Feelings Call sees the icy landscapes of their previous album begin to melt and reveal hints of the epic scope their music would soon take.

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Double Take: 'The French Connection' (1971)

// Short Ends and Leader

"You pick your feet in Poughkeepsie, and we pick The French Connection for Double Take #18.

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