With a lot going on, South African Spoek Mathambo's second album unleashes township tech on unsuspecting passers by. While it's good, it doesn't quite fully hang together.
Such a varied and beautiful continent; deep, rich heritages, ancient cultures, incredible wildlife, lush forests and arid deserts, colourful and vibrant communities, yet it is also scarred by war, drought and poverty, subjected to centuries of colonial control and order followed by years of indifference and neglect.
African music reflects and speaks to this diversity and history. Musicians such as the great, and I mean great, Fela Kuti and his afro-beat systematically pummeled the Nigerian state through his music (he got it back tenfold). Cheb Mami, Cheb Khalid, Rachid Taha, and Souad Massi were thorns in the sides of both the Algerian government and insurgents with their political and morally corrupting rai and rock music. And the Arab Uprising has been sound tracked by the beats and rhymes of hip-hop from artists such as El General from Tunisia, Ibn Thabit from Libya, and Arabian Knightz from Egypt.
South African Miriam Makeba, Ethiopian Mulatu Astatke, and Seneglese Baaba Maal, to name but three, have brought the groove to African music. Crossing African blues, rock, township jive, soul, funk and everything in between, the music is seriously ingrained and embedded in the culture of Africans, from the very top of the North to the very bottom of the South.
This hodge-podge of styles, maybe one could even say schizophrenic outlook, is writ large all over Spoek Mathambo’s new album Father Creeper.
From Soweto, a township in Johannesburg in South Africa, Spoek -- a Rapper/Producer/DJ, one time member of Glam-Rap duo Sweat-X, and all-round creative tour-de force -- has pronounced his sound as "township tech," and there are definitely elements of both the township and tech in his music.
“Kites” opens the album with a chopped guitar, sparse drumbeat, and throbbing synth before the vocals cut in. Spoek has a light touch, which instantly calls to mind Pharrell; there is a very easy, effortless flow to his delivery. Also coming through though is what I can only describe as the bleeping noises taken from the much-loved '80s arcade game Space Invaders. If it doesn’t actually make you get up and dance, “Kites” certainly gets your feet tapping as it pulls you into its bouncy groove.
“Venison Fingers” has an electronic township jive and feels like an extension of “Kites”. It’s an odd track that veers between tempos and sets little alarm bells ringing for the rest of the album.
Better is “Put Some Red on It”. Spoek allows space in this song about the African diamond trade, and in doing so lets the song breathe. This is late night smokers' music and would sit happily alongside A$AP Rocky and OFWGKTA.
The album then turns toward Vampire Weekend territory with a straightforward indie track called “Let Them Talk”. The lead guitar brings the African highlife sound as Spoek and guest vocalist Yolanda plead with each other to "Let them talk / Let them talk" as the drums bring an off kilter beat to proceedings. For this reviewer it's the standout track on the album.
“Dog to Bone” continues the African highlife guitar sound but adds elements of dubstep and even Radiohead to the mix. It’s slightly disconcerting and confused. Title track “Father Creeper”, named after a reference to a dodgy South African TV jingle, is all dark and brooding synths and treated vocals. “Stuck Together” is another straight ahead indie/rock track with a lovely melody and vocals that brings to mind Living Colour and even Lenny Kravitz.
The last two tracks on the album “Grave (Intro)” and “Grave” sum up the album as a whole. “Grave (Intro)" is an instrumental full of feedback and piano, with elements of dub and electro peering through the murkiness before giving way to clean guitars and a '60s/'00s Buffalo Springfield/Animal Collective vibe.
There is much to admire on this album. Clearly Spoek Mathambo is a creative and restless talent. His South African heritage and culture alone do not appear enough to satisfy his wanderlust; he’s looking to merge it with the sounds of the world that surround him (a nice inversion of the glib title of "World music" thrown at non-Western music).
But the magpie-collecting element also lets him down a touch. I’m not sure if it's this or the programming and sequencing on the album, but it doesn’t quite hang together as a whole. There are too many ebbs and flows, highs and lows, for this to be a great album, but one has to credit Spoek and Sub Pop for having the courage of their convictions, and trust in one another, to release such a genre defying album.
I have a feeling that live, Spoek would tear the house down. Such boundless energy and restlessness would find a natural home on stage in front of an audience, allowing Spoek and his band to stretch out and improvise. I also think he is definitely amongst those musicians worth keeping an eye just to see where he goes next on his musical adventures and to watch his development unfold.
I look forward to seeing (or should that be hearing?) where he goes next.