[8 October 2013]
Native South African pop singer Jean-Philip Grobler’s band name evokes the exotic imagery of an extinct volcano, tropical forests, mountainous terrain, and all the sandy beaches that comprise the island of St. Lucia in the Eastern Caribbean Sea. Nicknamed “Helen of the West Indies”, after the desirous Helen of Troy, the island changed hands fourteen times between the British and the French Empires in a tug of war for its beautiful landscapes. As immediate and gorgeously crafted as the songs are on Grobler’s debut album When The Night, I can imagine there was quite a label bidding war for the seductive sounds captured here amongst these eleven tracks.
Brooklynite by way of Johannesburg and Liverpool, Jean-Philip began his formal musical training as a child in the Drakensberg Boys Choir School, touring the globe and being introduced to everything from “Bach to minimalist opera” in the interim. He outgrew the South African mountains, headed to England to continue his academic studies, and eventually ended up in New York City. It seems he found his land of musical milk and honey, for the promise he and his live band had displayed on previous EPs, has evolved into widescreen electro-pop more inventive than most of his peers out there. When The Night shows an artist who has sharpened his knives, played homage to his genre’s past, and created songs that are uniquely and rapturously his own. Expect to have a smile slapped across your face by the end.
The album deftly balances a fine line between unabashed indie pop and a more conventional synth pop sound. With the right amount of cross-promotional exposure, the songs of When The Night could easily spill over into the collective mainstream conscious. Grobler deserves that kind of success. Each track seems to have been built from the rhythm section up, like a carefully-assembled, sonic layer cake. The previous EPs didn’t necessarily flow as smoothly between songs, but that seems to have been remedied in the full length format. Intros and outros are often tied together through swirling synthesizer passages that evoke the soundtracks to ‘80s fantasy films, images of hand gliding through clouds or hazy island sunsets. Devoid of any filler, St. Lucia has delivered a flawlessly constructed record, one that begins as strongly as it ends.
“All Eyes On You” kicks off the set with the sound of gauzy synths, plucked bass guitar strings, and Grobler’s singular voice waxing hopelessly romantic, as he promises that he’ll have eyes for no one else. Latching on to a current trend of throwing a sax solo into the mix, the clever arrangement is such that the inclusion of a potentially hackneyed retro instrument doesn’t send your eyes rolling skyward. The track builds and builds to the point where you could easily imagine a crowded club with hands stretched high in the flashing colored lights. Having seen the band live, that’s exactly the kind of physical response their music elicits.
“Call Me Up” continues the retro pastiche, and again surprisingly rises above all the influences. Grobler appears out of the surging haze accompanied by bass, trolley-clanging holiday chimes, drums, and the pulsating sound of a tinny hi-hat before erupting into an infectious chorus where he’s joined by the vocal of his bandmates, in a wall of sound. By the end of the song, it appears night has crept in and the sound of cicadas and nocturnal insects make their presence known in the background.
“Closer Than This” fully utilizes the lovely harmonizing talents of co-vocalist Patricia Beranek and injects the proceedings with the shimmering sounds of an acoustic guitar, jangling tambourine, and a summery vibe that finds the band pushing past the confines of an intimate nightclub venue into full-on stadium territory. This aesthetic trickles into the latest new-wavy single “Elevate”. Once the horns come blaring into the mix, thoughts of a Phil Collins brass breakdown instantly pop into the mind. It’s at once deferential and tongue-in-cheek innovative in its execution.
By the time track five has arrived, things have taken an inky black, clubbier turn as the synths come roaring forward and the tribal drums come out to play. It’s as if The Presets and St. Lucia had decided to throw a party together. The sexy four-to-the-floor “September”, with its menacing melody, driving bass line, jagged guitar riffs, and magnificent middle eight, explores the darker side of Grobler and his bandmates. The song throws you in the middle of a crowded, sweaty dance floor before dawn breaks. As daylight arrives Jean-Philip sings, “Hold your head up / Reach for the sun”, and the sound of clanking percussion and light-drenched choral harmony sends the track out of the club and into the early morning sky.
“The Night Comes Again” recalls something you might have heard in the closing credits to a film some 28 years ago. If “September” placed St. Lucia firmly in the thick of the island nightlife, post-midnight, then this track serves as reminder of all the festivities that came before and will come again. “The Way You Remember Me” is the throbbing heart of the album, as rapturous as anything that came before and as joyful as anything that follows. It evokes the innocence of a wide-eyed, youthful love, with its constantly fluttering synth chords, surging drum beats and wailing saxophone solo. I kept waiting for the brassy woodwind instrument to return after it appeared on the opening track. It resurfaced again and in the context of the song, it works perfectly.
The epic, seven minute long “Too Close” initially gives the impression that it will float along like a jellyfish on the surface of a lagoon, until suddenly something dark pulls it underwater. Layer after layer of sound is added until the sweeping percussion and synth sirens come to a halt. The lyrics “I will hold you too close” take on a different interpretation, as whatever was peacefully bobbing on the surface, now lies in the jaws of something below. The track ends as tranquilly as it began.
“Wait For Love” coasts along on a electro-pop, Tropicalia ambience, similar to British alt-dance band Friendly Fires. Former EP single “We Got It Wrong” contains a multitude of moods throughout its four minutes and fifty-eight seconds, faultlessly bouncing from Afro-pop to Temper Trap-esque indie-pop, capturing the ups and down of a relationship. Final title track “When The Night” begins with a light, rapidly thumping synth, before the bass is cranked up and the joy quotient fully erupts. My foot started tapping the floor and by the end of the song, my inner Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, wanted to gyrate about the room. I’ll admit it, I eventually gave in to the beat. Luckily, no one was there to see how ridiculous I looked.
The Nobel Laureate, poet, playwright, professor and St. Lucian-native Derek Alton Walcott once wrote this of his island home: “In the mist of the sea there is a horned island with deep green harbors…a place of light with luminous valleys under the thunderous clouds…Her mountains tinkle with springs among moss-bearded forests. And the white egret makes rings stalking its pools…a volcano, stinking with sulphur, has made it a healing place.” Clearly Jean-Philip was equally as transfixed with the beauty of that place, where “the land, the people, and the light” is the cultural motto. Whether he actually set foot on its beaches, or stumbled upon photographs and thought it would be the perfect name to conjure up escapism or island nightlife, Grobler’s debut album succeeds in capturing every one of those images. If you can’t get out of bed, you’re miserably depressed or having an absolutely rotten day, I present to you the antidote. Few debuts by a pop artist or band are this actualized, this mature or this euphoric, but When The Night takes home the prize.