, September 19th, 2013 10:05
In recent years, the advertising industry has developed into a contemptible archenemy of independent music artists. After Beach House's repeated rebuffs to Volkswagen, which was keen on soundtracking a TV spot with their song 'Take Care', the Baltimore twosome discovered the car company produced a near-exact facsimile of the tune. Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, and LCD Soundsystem were victims of similar apery. In a well-trafficked blog post, members of Sigur Ros spiritedly admonished Productiontrax.com, a purveyor of royalty free compositions that offers a portfolio featuring music "in the style of Sigur Ros – positive, uplifting soft piano, strings, great for corporate video."
I burden you with all these details because one of the most heterogeneous and effervescent releases of the year was conceived and constructed by an individual who writes musical scores for television commercials: John Withers, the fiery-haired, Africa-trotting mastermind behind the Cape Town duo John Wizards. The pair's eponymous debut, an authentic and head-whirling patchwork of familiar sounds and styles, crumbles the notion that penning songs for advertisements can be the work of larcenous, soulless automatons. At the same time, Withers' advertising chops are indeed evident: concise melodies give way to even more concise melodies, hooks are instantly infectious, tempos run at fast speeds. (Quick aside: Withers' unwillingness to compartmentalize his work from his personal art is evident with 'Finally/Jet Up', a track that started out as a jingle for a clothing chain.)
John Wizards triumphs not merely because of what Withers' sonic scraps and snippets reverently evoke (highlife and juju compilations from Soundway and Strut, South African house music, deep funk, 80s new wave), but because he meticulously arranges these innumerous parts into–overlapping, dovetailing, sometimes discordant, sometimes harmonious–wholes.
Withers, 25, is a member of a generation that employs "say it quick, say it well" as a mantra, a generation that lives at speeds of 500 megabits per second and is more culturally aware and diverse than any previous. John Wizards is built for his contemporaries. It's an imaginative statement on consumption and reinvention in the mp3 era – an album for short attention spans, an album where songs riotously mutate before the listener is ever fatigued. This is evident from the get-go: Opener 'Tel Lek Schrempf' kicks off with a cascade of fragile piano notes, rolls out rhythmic and percussive synth melodies, then tosses in some bristly electric guitar near the conclusion.
I read somewhere that in working, cohesive relationships it's important for one person to be a balloon and the other to be a rock. Withers is the balloon, no question – after hearing the soaring, gets-you-giddy, slightly funky 'Muizenberg' or the tense build-up and festive climax in 'Hogsback' it's impossible to think otherwise. That means the other individual in this partnership, 39-year-old Rwandan vocalist Emmanuel Nzaramba, is the rock. Older, more experienced, extremely world-weary (in interviews, Nzaramba has spoken of family members killed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide), the singer's soft phrasing and understated emotion brings balance to Withers' high-spirited soundscapes.
On 'Lusaka by Night', Nzaramba's AutoTuned vocals – delivered in his native Kinyarwandan – are both mischievous and melancholic. On 'Maria', he lets his voice ache, but never to excess, never to the point of turning the song syrupy. Closing track 'Friend' may feature his best performance of all. With much of the album dedicated to numbers that compel the listener to shake their apple, 'Friend''s inclusion is necessary. It's a ballad for when the dancing has stopped, for when feet are blistered and the head is heavy and the sun is peeping over the horizon. Over austere melodies, Nzaramba sings in a near-whisper. He's fatigued, but buried underneath is a sense of deep contentment, a full understanding that the good times of today are often the sad thoughts of tomorrow.
With John Wizards, Nzaramba and Withers have arrived. And with a debut as startlingly eclectic as this, the burning question is not where they will go from here, but where they won't go.