I don’t know whether there is something called a ‘listener’s block’, you know, similar to a writer’s block, which you hit when you just can’t seem to be able to write anything even though a deadline looms large, but most of last week I hit an impediment that could probably be called that. My quest for discovering new music appeared to hit a roadblock. It wasn’t as if the usual stream of new stuff wasn’t coming my way. It was. And through the usual channels: mp3 blogs, emailed newsletters, tips from friends and so on. It was just that I was too keyed up to enjoy the music that was coming my way.
So I decided to dig into older music just to get in the mood for the newer stuff. I chose Gil-Scott Heron’s From South Africa to South Carolina (1976). Scott-Heron (who I may have mentioned in one of my previous columns) is among one of the most under-rated and overlooked musicians. Better known in the 1970s as an outspoken spoken-word artist and street poet than as a musician, Scott-Heron with his deep baritone voice can be called a progenitor of rap and hip-hop. The album I heard features Scott-Heron and his frequent collaborator in the 1970s, Brian Jackson, keyboardist, flautist and singer and comprises studio as well as live tracks that refer to resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa (in 1975 when it was released, From South Africa to South Carolina may have been the one of earliest albums in the US to do so). There are songs too that deal with the anti-nuclear movement but also ones that are more autobiographical.
It’s funny how old music can lead you back to new music. I read that Scott-Heron had almost disappeared from the scene between the eighties and the nineties during which he was in and out of jail on drug possession charges. He was almost forgotten. Then, last year, I was pleasantly surprised when a colleague much younger than me referred me to his new album, I’m New Here. With 15 songs yet just 28 minutes long, the new album is a big surprise. It has big beats and is book-ended by a two-part, autobiographical poem, On Coming From A Broken Home. That’s an autobiographical poem: Scott-Heron, who’s 61, was brought up by his grandmother after his parents divorced.
Growing up as an African-American in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, first in the south (Tennessee) and then in New York, wasn’t easy and his songs are deeply influenced by these experiences and, of course, the politics of race and revolution of the times.
Not on I’m New Here. Made 16 years after he last got into a recording studio, his new album is less political but it does not show any adverse signs because of his long hiatus. In fact, it is musically superior and the lyrics of most of the songs and spoken interludes are introspective. The only criticism I have for it: it’s too damn short. I hope this is the beginning of Scott-Heron’s resurrection.
After I’m New Here made last week’s listening sessions a bit more contemporary, I picked up an album that I was avoiding for sometime. Avoiding, mainly on account of the band’s name. Asobi Seksu are mostly a duo from New York City and the band’s name, I learnt, means ‘playful sex’ in Japanese. Seriously. There’s nothing Japanese about their music (although one half of the band is keyboardist Yuki Chikudate, presumably of Japanese descent, who sings most of the songs and her mate is James Hanna who plays the guitar and also sings). I also read that before they called themselves Asobi Seksu, they were known as Sportf**k. But once I got over my preconceived notions and tapped into their latest album, Fluorescence, I was in for a treat. Asobi Seksu play what some people call dream-pop or shoe-gaze music (a genre where typically musicians try to be self-effacing during performances).
On Fluorescence, the vocals are dreamy and effects laden and it makes for mellow listening. I heard it the first time and made a note to self (the note: ‘Asobi Seksu may be good for curing a hangover’; I was, of course, referring to their music and not the band name) and will soon put it to test. But seriously, what’s not to like about dreamy music with non-invasive lyrics delivered by a woman with a soothing voice?
The third album that made its appearance on my playlist towards the end of last week was the new album by Glasgow’s Mogwai who pundits (damn them!) call purveyors of post-rock. Post or pre, for me Mogwai makes trippy, instrumental music with melodic bass lines, long guitar riffs and lots of distortion. I had their first album, Young Team (1997), which I enjoy, particularly on the headphones after a tiring day. The new one, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (2011), is similar. It has the trademark heavy guitar sound, effects, the deep basslines and minimal lyrics. If Asobi Seksu is an antidote for a hangover, Mogwai can be a perfect accompaniment for hurtling towards one.