Fear of Men
Here we go for another round of “Name That Influence,” the game that all music nerds love to play (while regular people within earshot just roll their eyes.) The Brighton, England quartet Fear of Men plays a kind of clean, bright pop music that seems to borrow elements from early ’80s post-post-punk pop, like Altered Images, and Sarah Records recording artists along with successors such as the group Lush. Singer Jessica Weiss has the kind of singing style—clear, pretty and unflashy—that this writer is a sucker for, and it bears many similarities to that of Alison Statton, who sang for the early ’80s bands Young Marble Giants and Weekend. Even the band’s visual aesthetic, with stark layouts and photos of marble statues, seems to be a tip-of-the-hat to Factory Records, and the group apparently is well-versed in indie-pop history, having covered songs by the New Zealand group The Chills and Beat Happening.
Early Fragments is a satisfying compilation full of easy delights, collecting tracks from three singles from 2011 and 2012—Ritual Confession, Mosaic, and Green Sea—plus a demo version of “Doldrums” and the track “Seer,” which serves as the mini-album’s opener, with wistful electric guitar strums and some irresistible vocal turns. “Mosaic” continues the salvo, offering the earworm chorus vocal hook “Break me into pieces to feel safe” among atypical drum patterns and ringing, jangle-guitar patterns. As the collection progresses, the songs actually get slightly more aggressive and driving, although the proceedings remain mannered and controlled. Actually, the drummer at times seems like he’s trying to break free from pop structures, with a pounding attack that’s not oppressive but more raucous than usual pop drumbeats. Two of the peaks on Early Fragments are back-to-back: the motorik-beat-driven “Born” and “Doldrums,” which jumps up with a surprise blast in its last 20 seconds. On this collection, Fear of Men clearly accomplishes what it sets out to do, delivering willowy, memorable pop with simplicity while avoiding being bland.
Orchestra Super Mazembe
Mazembe @ 45RPM, Vol. 1
This writer has a soft spot for 7-inch vinyl singles, whose limited time capacity offers a sort of challenge to the musician: you’ve got just a few minutes to win over the listener, so make the most of it. Singles were the dominant music media in east Africa between the ’60s and ’80s, and the new compilation of late-’70s singles from Orchestra Super Mazembe, none of which has been released on CD previously, wastes no time in making an impression on the listener. Immediately, from the beginning of Mazembe @ 45RPM, Vol. 1, the listener is immersed in the group’s upbeat, irrepressible sonic fabric, with a vitality that is nearly impossible to shake.
With members originating in Zaire before settling in Nairobi, Kenya in the mid-’70s, Orchestra Super Mazembe, which translated means “giant bulldozer orchestra,” played a form of dance music called Lingala, named after the language. With a uniformly high quality of material, the collection highlights several of the band’s touchstones: fluid, spirited call-and-response vocals, animated drum rhythms on a minimal kit—often just using a hi-hat and snare drum—and most strikingly, absolutely gorgeous lead electric guitar melodies that flow effortlessly.
Most tracks here are around eight-to-nine minutes long, presented in their unedited forms, since the limited size of a 7-inch single required the tracks to be split into two pieces, and the sound quality is excellent, with a commendable job by Douglas Paterson who spent hundreds of hours on the audio restoration and research for this project, which also yielded a second volume (also recommended) available only as a digital download. Apparently, despite having incredibly vibrant and upbeat music, many of the songs here have lyrics about strife and concern for the poor and suffering. Typically on our fair continent, we just hear infusions of east African styles only occasionally permeating popular music, but in its unadulterated form, as heard on this collection, it’s as rewarding as it is inviting.