With the way the Nigerian ’70s/’80s synth-dance-funk recording artist William Onyeabor was often portrayed, it seemed like more than a few people thought that the most interesting thing about him was that so little was known about him.
The current fascination with him outside Africa started with the inclusion of his track “Better Change Your Mind” first on the Nigeria 70 compilation then on the Luaka Bop compilation World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love’s a Real Thing a decade ago, and the good folks at Luaka Bop went through an arduous process to secure the rights to release more Onyeabor material.
However, as one discovers while reading the booklet in the comprehensive collection William Onyeabor (in one 9-CD set or two 9-LP sets each with a bonus 7-inch single), just releasing this music wasn’t enough; they simply had to learn more—more than the scant paragraph of facts about him—and even traveled to Nigeria to track him down.
Any true music geek enjoys the deep dive into an artist’s catalog and history. That said, whenever this writer would play a William Onyeabor song for people in a room, someone would inevitably ask what it was; the point is that Onyeabor’s music is just intrinsically fascinating, with an ineffable, strange quality.
Clearly, there are American funk and dance music influences and west African infusions, and the songs totally work with their own crazy vibe, with Onyeabor singing in English about love or cold-war anxieties. However, the ingredients are seemingly in internal conflict—the Moog and Elka synths are both warm and alien, and the production has both a high ambition and a less-than-pristine endearing scrappiness, with horns and female backing singers occasionally chiming in.
In 2013, Luaka Bop released the compilation Who Is William Onyeabor?, which concentrated on his more dance-funk-oriented material, but the collection at hand reveals an artist who also favored reggae and pop hooks. Included are all seven relatively short Onyeabor albums (averaging 30 minutes each), including both versions of his debut Crashes in Love, plus the 2-track EP Good Name.
Everyone loves a great story, but William Onyeabor—easily one of the best reissues of 2014—is so arresting and immediately enjoyable that any backstory actually isn’t necessary, nor is the shroud of mystery.
Mark Robinson is best known for his groups Unrest, which went from off-kilter punk/hard rock to off-kilter strum-happy jangle-pop with numerous oddities along the way, and Flin Flon, a slithering post-post-punk power trio with a deceptive simplicity.
In more recent years, he’s been putting out music as Fang Wizard—a duo with Trevor Kampmann (a.k.a. hollAnd)—and Cotton Candy with his wife Evelyn Hurley (of Blast Off Country Style). Cotton Candy has covered catchy commercial jingles, including the themes for Bumblebee Tuna and Meow Mix, and knowing this, Robinson’s latest venture makes a lot of sense.
STO is a short-film series, where Robinson documents in 90-second videos different, unique (mostly of the mom-and-pop variety) retail stores in the Boston area, including bookstores, record stores, vintage stores, a typewriter store and a five-and-dime. Each video features an original soundtrack and serves as both a tiny wordless documentary or an unaired TV commercial, and a digital album compiles the themes for the first 12 videos, plus three bonus themes.
While Robinson is typically a guitarist, here he leans on electronics and keyboards, with each track employing nearly the same minimal, soft synthetic beat at a brisk tempo for consistency. Therefore, each theme must impart its own character through its instrument choices, from a marimba sound on “Weirdo Records” or organ chords on “Irving’s Toy & Card Shop.”
There are similarities here with early ’80s new wave music without blatantly aping any certain genre, and the tracks serve their modest goal and manage to sound mildly cerebral and inspiring. If anything, these songs sound like they might be heard on uplifting commercials for computer companies in the mid-’90s.
STO Soundtrack is not exactly an essential entry in the Mark Robinson catalog, but it does shed some light on his affinity for simple, penetrating, infectious melodic lines as an extension of his obsession with commercial jingles.