The Perusal #23: Meskerem Mees, Wet Tuna, Jack Ellister, Color Dolor…

November 19, 2021

A LOOK AT WHAT’S OUT THERE/Dominic Valvona

Meskerem Mees ‘Julius’
(Mayway Records)  12th November 2021

Disarming and whimsical (almost), the two attributes most often associated with the gentle songwriting of Meskerem Mees, prove a winning formula on the debut album Julius. Softly as she goes, the burgeoning Belgium, with Ethiopian roots, manages to make the despondent and profound sound either like a skip across a Wes Anderson set or wistful meander through pastoral dioramas and meadows.

Already acquiring the reputation and accolades – winning, no less, the Montreaux Jazz Talent Award for 2021 -, Mees is being feted widely: And for good reason. Whilst Julius (nothing to do with the tragic Caesar) sounds familiar, imbued as it is by a cross-generational mix of troubadour (from Joni Mitchell to newer faces like Laura Marling and Courtney Barnett), this album remains personably authentic, sweet in places, but full of observational heartache and guidance. It may not sound like it, but Mees is baring her soul, “twirling” not walking, yet vulnerable on the inside. She makes old tropes sound refreshingly light and breezy, whilst always getting across the depth and themes with just an acoustic guitar and a sighing, bowed, on occasion shrieking, cello (played by close High School friend and “sister-in-arms” Febe Lazou) and a scale dash suggestion of piano as company. All three instruments are played with restraint, a nature caressing and tender accent: though sometimes the pace is picked up with a shuffle of rhythm guitar. That guitar, picked, plucked and brushed, reminded me in places of a jolly Nick Drake and Bert Jansch, the melodies, a bit of gentle Fleetwood Mac.

It’s all quite brilliant, managing to evoke sadness and yearning tragedy with such freedom and pleasant endearment. The earnestness of Josephine Foster with a pinch of a more listless Michelle Shocked and piece of Joan Armatrading spring to mind; especially on the obligatory anti-war qualm ‘Man Of Honour’, which chronicles a brother corrupted by duty bound feelings of manliness and respect, going off to fight overseas. There’s a lot more layering to be revealed than that of course, but then that’s the beauty of these unguarded songs that freely pass through folk, country and pop genres. Mees regales seasonal rhyming couplets that reach out to the heavens, grown apart relationships, kooky seabed tales, dreams of isolation and alternate utopias on a charming songbook of niceties and emotive pulls on the sleeve and heart.   

Various Artists ‘Nahma: A Gulf Polyphony’
(FLEE)  12th November 2021

You wait a lifetime for the incredible, spiritual song and hand drum sway of pearl divers in the Gulf, then all of a sudden in the space of a week in November two albums of this evocative sub-culture arrive: Well partly anyway. In the last Perusal I featured Boom Diwan’s recent Minarets partnership with the South African jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, who use the rhythms and influence of this pearl diving culture in their own music. Here though, in two very different forms, those extraordinary free divers are centre stage on a double album of in-situ archival recordings and contemporary transformations.

The third release from the FLEE platform includes both Poul Rovsing Olsen’s original late 50s recordings of these brave divers and a myriad of electronic treatments, created either from those same recordings or inspired by a semblance of them. The music is however just one angle; the double vinyl edition (which itself arrives in a specially commissioned and “innovative” transparent cover, made out of algae) comes with a 240 page book of photographs, essays and artwork. The FLEE hub also promises a “cycle” of exhibitions and conferences off the back of this album’s release.

The music us altogether something else: a lead voice calls and a chorus of unified voices answer as a rhythm is tapped out on hand drums or in the form of clapping. They sway as a whole together to what sounds like Arabic prayers, exultations and promises. I’d imagine there would be a deeply held belief in placating the elements and their heavenly protector as they prepared to dangerously dive for those valuable pearls. At times, especially on ‘Ya Mal (Midaf)’, that throng hums like a chorus of throat singers on a recording that starts to sound almost Tibetan. At all times it suggests hardiness, but spiritualism too. And is always captivating.

Invited to pay homage to those “valiant” souls, a number of contemporary electronic (and beyond that) artists have been asked to re-contextualize and transform the original recordings. One name that sticks out immediately is the burgeoning Viennese techno-pop and arty electronic artist Conny Frischauf, who’s quirks and quarks debut album Die Drift was reviewed on the site back in January. Her contribution is one of the most removed visions, with no obvious echoes or samples but instead an offering of Kraftwerkian waves, double-tracked vocals, wafts of fluted sounds and a constant piano refrain. In contrast to that, Tomaga conjures up a communal reverberation of the mystical. Sadly losing one half of that duo last year (Tom Relleen) it’s down to Valentina Magaletti to sprinkle some magic on the mirage-feel ‘Dub Divers’. YPY’s strongly coded ‘ZZMMYYHH’ contribution keeps the clapping and hand drumming but offers some more mystique, and a sort of David Ornette Cherry style beat. The Hieroglyphic Being goes for a cyclonic scuttle and metal sulphur techno beat on the echo-y cyber dream ‘Kuzaliwa Upya’. Evoking a touch of Electric Jalaba, Tarek Yamani’s ‘Hilal’ features bottle tapping percussion, rippled bass and Arabian vapours, whilst Alan Strani takes impassioned calls and places them in a 80s movie soundtrack on ‘Vaguement (Haddadi)’.

The traditional B-side (as it were) features the already noted Frischauf treatment, Ben Bertrand’s poetic ambient fluted, ambiguous still water contemplation ‘And The Ashes Of Our Burning Souls Will Fly Away’, Aya Metwalli’s echoed and throbbing shuttered stick beats ‘Sitt-il Muhanno’ and Joakim’s voice and water looped, jug poured ‘Zumayyah’ remix.

Some remixes, treatments, visions work better than others, but overall the lingering presence and traces of those 50s recordings are enlivened, given an added mystery and new feel altogether on an album of discovery. This collection for all the senses lifts the lid on an entire tradition and culture seldom in the spotlight.

Batila ‘Tatamana (Hold On To What You Love)’ 
(Galileo Music) 19th November 2021

Despite the more than justified resentment and firsthand experiences of racism in his German home, Batila reclaims his ancestral roots and pride with the most soulful of voices on the ambitious debut album Tatamana (Hold On To What You Love). Clearly defined, whether that’s in the Congolese dialect of Lingala or in English, or as represented in the relatively recent past syllabic block pattern “Mandombe” script there’s a heartfelt call to celebrate and own a pre-colonial and African-driven future.

Once part of the label-signed Soylant Green hip-hop act in the 90s, the Congolese/Angolan heritage artist (born Ange da Costa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) decided to leave and pursue a collage education, before taking up songwriting for other artists, most famously the Congo star Papa Wemba. Mutually beneficial it seems, Batila’s songwriting gave a certain contemporary feel to Wemba’s music, whilst also rub off on his.

This though is Batila’s inaugural songbook; a commercially, easy on the ear and disarming mix of pop, reggae, soul, new highlife and modern Congolese sounds that he calls “Bantu soul”. Backed by an accentuated, gently and softly administered ensemble of musicians, including his DreamBus band, and guests (far too numerous to all mention individually, with at least eight vocalists in the backing chorus alone), Batlia yearns passionately about his beliefs: even penning a desert bluesy, with lilt of South Africa, languid down low in the undergrowth song about “Kindoki”, the indigenous witchcraft performed in the Congo, which through slavery was exported to Haiti and beyond. Batila aims to snatch it back from colonial devaluation; from its accusations of “black magic”, “mumbo jumbo” and primitive superstitions: although Kindoki does translate directly as “possession of evil spirits”. 

In a similar vein, the Wyclaf Jean-esque ‘Resurrection’ features a sample about the subliminal messages delivered both in the sermons and depictions of the church that came hand-in-hand with European colonialism (in this case Belgium): how the savior, Christ, and his angels are always white whereas the devil is black. Though when the self-proclaimed Christian Simon Kimbangu and his breakaway group – mentioned in the album notes as the one who passed on the Mandombe script to Wabeladio Payi in a dream in 1978 – claimed he was an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, that his powers included healing the sick and raising the dead, he was ceremoniously thrown in jail, almost executed.

Many such important figures (a snatch of Martin Luther King Jnr.’s most famous speech for example) can be heard or felt across a lilted skip and shuffle of King Sunny Adé, the modern R&B like pulse and synthesized effects of Congolese artists like Innoss’B, an electric future brass and horns soak of highlife and echoes of Hugh Masekela. Poetically deeply soulful Tatamana lights the way forward for not only the DRC, but the continent, with a call for self-determination, hope and faith in the country’s own abilities to save Africa, to be the one’s to control its destiny and future: no more waiting on a “white savior” to save them as Batila sings on the lullaby-turn-wake-up-call actionist hymn ‘Afreekan’.

The travails of being the “exotic”, “other” and only Black face in a majority white region of Germany, which also includes outright hostility and racism, and the effects of dislocation, remoteness to birthplace and culture can be felt on what is a well-produced album of new Afro-soul and pop. Batila is clean-cut and as I said at the start of this review clear in his messages: a search and reclamation of his roots and identity.

Wet Tuna ‘Eau’d To A Fake Bookie Vol 1. & 2’
(Hive Mind Records)  19th November 2021

Picked up and transported on to a double dose of vinyl, Hive Mind Records have combined the Wet Tuna duo of Matt Valentine (moonlighting as MV) and foil Pat Gubler’s (aka PG Six) first two Eau’d To A Fake Bookie volumes on one record.

Channeling a myriad of past psychedelic-country-blues-Americana set-ups (which includes playing together in Tower Recordings and separately with Wounds, The Golden Road, Garcia Peoples and The Weeping Bong Band) that stretch back to the mid 90s, the partnership transforms a sextet of covers, unburdened by time constraints on this marvellous trip. And although the opening peregrination, ‘When I Get Home’, takes its cue from the distinguished pastoral British folk icons Pentangle (appearing on the band’s fraught Reflections LP in 1972), this improvised version has the distinct feel of a maple wood burnished Vermont wilderness rather than bucolic kitchen sink drama. That aroma, the Canadian log cabin atmosphere, permeates all these cover versions because it’s exactly the place where these tracks were recorded, during the first lockdowns of 2020. On this dreamy, smooth and reverberated version they seem to take the original song’s wistful lyrical references to red wine and being stoned literally; floating in a smoky vapour of Skip Spence, John Mayall, Rhyton and Peter Green era Fleetwood Mac. Totally free, the Tuna remould a delightful if plaintive original into a sort of mirage.

Sticking to an alternative American songbook (well, near enough), the rest of this spread includes a mix of mavericks and idiosyncratic lost artists’ recordings. The ultimate lost soul, championed and revered in their own lifetime, there’s an untethered bluesy krautrock (think Faust IV and Can’s Unlimited musings) enveloped ether vision of the below-the-radar singer-guitarist Michael Hurley’s much more lo fi and much shorter ‘Water Train’. Crowned as a luminary catalyst for Ohio’s alt-rock scene in the 70s, the very late Rocket From The Tomb and Pere Ubu instigator and Creem writer Peter Laughner reaches out from beyond that same ether on the Tuna’s country-rock-goes-UFO-takeoff cover of ‘Baudelaire’. Dylan, Verlaine and Thunders drift through a daydream on this almost narrated take.

At this point the words country and psych and the reference to being stoned might suggest a partiality for The Grateful Dead. You’d be right in one sense, as they have a go at Jerry Garcia’s ‘Deal’; a track he wrote with Grateful Dead affiliated contributor, the poet Robert C. Christie for his eponymously entitled first solo album in 1972 – actually it must be pointed out that this year proves pivotal in the choices made by the Tuna pairing, with most of the covers being from that year or either side of it.  On this, actually ironically quite straight, take echoes of Skip Spence (again) join in with solo Lennon, a real nice bit of Muscle Shoals electronic piano and peaks of cosmic rays.

That leaves a promising, languorous Compass Point Allstars meets Flaming Lips in a timeless delay vacuum version of Jimmy Cliff’s reggae soundtrack hit, ‘The Harder They Come’ (abbreviated in this case), and an Afro-disco-rock version of the hot-footing Washington D.C. R&B and jazz-funk fusion, and Donald Byrd acolytes (hence this track and the band’s name), Blackbyrds’ ‘Fallin’ Like Dominos’

In a reverb hallucination of rippled delay, squalling lead guitar, brushed and loose drums, distant effected vocals and fuzz the duo (who it must be pointed out opened up the floor to their fellow ‘forest freaks’ S. Freyer Esq., Jim Bliss, Coot Moon and Carson ‘Smoke hound’ Arnold) float around incipient tuning exercises in The Stooges Funhouse, the acid phaser fanning of the Crystal Stilts and Sam Flex, and waft towards leftfield 70s outsider music. Cut off from the world, with zero pressures, they’ve jammed out a brilliant couple of albums of relaxed, removed psychedelic-country-blues covers that prove surprisingly melodious and groovy, but always dreamy.

Color Dolor ‘Blurry Things’
(Soliti) 26th November 2021

With a touch of serendipity the fourth album from the Helsinki duo Color Dolor is nothing if not lushly rich in atmosphere. For despite the process of spontaneity and the relaxed attitude (a culmination of first takes and unfinished songs) Blurry Things is a perfectly produced work of fragility and built-up dramas: an album that’s anything but listless. For this most magical of dreamy havens marries the more artful of 80s pop with Scandinavian synth-pop and a lilt of both indie and country music to create a commercially viable sound with depth and character.

An album of sorrow, yearning and heartache, made more unique by the vocals of Stina Koistinen, whose voice and lulls reach aria like heights when illuminated by the luminous light of the moon on the gorgeous glowing opener, has both a semblance of Stevie Nicks, Janelle Monáe and Róisín Murphy. One of three singles on this album, the plaint Balearic ‘Shy’ reminded me of Here Is Your Temple, even a little bit of Beach House.

Musically it’s a diaphanous if emotionally charged glide between Robyn-like club EDM (the remix sounding ‘Dream Of You’), bit-crusher beat churning trip-hop (‘It’s Okay’, which reminded me of the Sneaker Pimps for some reason) and classy Eurovision entries with an edge (the most recently released single, ‘Andrea’).

Beautifully played throughout with a few surprises in direction, Stina sings of the need to escape the outside world – retreating underwater or do a special room – yet also wishes to reconnect with it. Emotionally charged but paced, controlled, Blurry Things is full of effects, ideas and experimental turns. Essentially it’s all just brilliant dream pop and an excuse for adventure.

Jack Ellister ‘Lichtpyramide II’
(Tonzonen) 19th November 2021

Cosmic courier Jack Ellister is back with a second instalment of his “light pyramid” emitting kosmische egg series. Beyond these earthly realms, out into the universe, Jack once more acts as a 21st century space age romanticist version of Fredrich Höelderlin. Once described by a contemporary as “the most German of Germans”, the famous humanist and writer’s profound poetics grace the album peregrination ‘Der Mensch’. Words (“whoever honours what is good does not harm himself”) are lifted from Höelderlin’s own German romanticist tract of the same name, which looked to the ideals of being a good human.

Jack’s repeated origins, beginnings suffix (“Geneser”, “Genesis”) look to the stars for escapism, referencing habitable planets on the edge of our solar system (namely the Kelpher 186F exoplanet) and circumstellar discs (‘Kuiper Belt Excursion’) whilst quizzically, often in an abstract form, reading or wafting descriptive lunar landscapes.

Musically light (as that album translated title suggests) this cosmic angled trip is influenced by early synthesizer music, the kosmsiche and library music. This translates as a navigation through a redolent and seamless soundtrack of Cluster, Jean Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Eno, Ananas Symphonie period Kraftwerk, Mannuel Göttsching and Artificial Intelligence era Richard H. Kirk. Electronic music with a soul and gauzy film of bouncing and pitter-patter synthesized bobbles, notes and arpeggiator, signals, frequencies, there’s still room for Jack’s dreamy guitar (acoustic and electronic) threads, harmonic twangs and gentle rhythms, which only really come to the forefront on the album’s closer, ‘Genese: Stadt Land Fluss’. Jack actually gets going on guitar with a dose of  space age desert fuzz rock on ‘Fragesteliung’.

Within this ambient field of creative journeys an historical schooner sails across a wind chilled icy and ghostly tundra, and radioactive poisons acquire a monitored sci-fi accompaniment.

Jack proves a nimble, professional acolyte of the form; softly melding the familiar to his own astral visions of cosmic music and beyond. Lichtpyramide II is a seamless exercise in both universal evocations and invocations: another quality space music and progressive soundtrack from the stargazer.     

Simon McCorry ‘The Illusion Of Beginning And Endings’
(White Lab Recs)  13th November 2021

The diverse cellist-composer Simon McCorry is measuring time and sounding the barely noticed abstract passing of it on his latest album of minimalist suites.

Not one to stand still for long, the prolific McCorry will probably have notched up another couple of such lightly-conceptual dips in and out of descriptive moods by the time I finish writing this review. I must have featured four such albums, collaborations alone this year: from his Flow and Nature Is Nature albums for See Blue Audio to his Critical; Mass sonic partnership with Requiem (I believe a second volume is already circulating).

A solo work this time (of a kind), The Illusion Of Beginning And Endings features McCorry’s considered, mournful, emotive bowed cello and an atmospheric turn and hazy undulation of synthesised waves and forms that often evoke the neo-classical music of Roedelius – especially his collaborative work under the Qluster tag – and the Aphex Twin’s early Ambient Works series (I’m thinking more Vol.2 than 1). Added to this careful suggestive set of moods and movements you’ll hear a tinkle, perhaps a walking line, or smoother piano motif amongst the reflections, contemplations. The piano is brought to the fore however on the album closer, ‘Elegy’. Despite that title, this subtle composition, played by the pianist Simeon Walker (McCorry’s only guest), lets the performer and instrument breathe, as every creak, stretch and press of the keys is registered alongside the soft felt like resonated notes that are being played.

Landscapes, scenes and states-of-mind take shape in a well worn, almost decayed, atmosphere of light play, hardship, sadness and sorrow. McCorry’s cello changes throughout all these moods: sounding more like a fiddle and even a hazy sax on the looped and almost back-in-time ‘Dreaming’. Through ebbs and flows, long bowed frowns and shorter weaves, he creates drama and memories in an often-timeless space: one in which it stops almost completely.

Once again McCorry manifests a moodscape from the most minimal of touches on an album that proves and articulates time in a set of musically painted worlds. 

Kensho Nakamura ‘Llamhigyn Y Dwr’
(Pampsychia) 5th November 2021

Inhabiting the strange sounds and senses of Celtic mythology’s pond and swamp dwelling chimera, the “Llamhigyn Y Dwr”, Kensho Nakamura creates a kooky, idiosyncratic electronic language from a myriad of nutty and cartoon sounds, samples.

A “water leaper”, this malcontent shrieker of a creature is part bat, part frog, with a long lizard like tail that has a sting at the end. What it picks up, when not gnawing on unfortunate prey, is a continuous cut-up and snatches of workshop mechanics, muffled voices, bubbling chemistry set primordial swamp sounds, xylophone signatures, dings, tinkles, goofy burbles, bleeps, slurps and broadcasts.

Breaking through this unending collage of staccato and floated samples is a smattering of brief waves and rays of ambient colour: some even sounding like the semblance of a tune and rhythm. From a water garden lurking Esperanto period Sakamoto to moist-dripped library music caverns, Nakamura conjures up some weird environments as he runs across a Casio keyboard of presets. The final ‘Waltz’ features the mysterious Keisuke S_d_, who’s contribution could be the lunar liquid sounds, or the snippets of a transmogrified ‘Yankee Doddle’, or even the alien antenna bending: who knows? The mind boggles.   

Imagine µ-Ziq and the Sad Man in a “neo-fairytale” and you’re partly on track, for this is an odd swampland sonic diorama of tomfoolery and electronic music mischief.

Oliver Earnest ‘The Water Goes The Other Way’
(Glitterhouse Records) 26th November 2021

Uncoupled from the German post-rock/post-punk band Kaufmann Frust, Oliver Hauber treads a distinctly different pathway on his debut solo affair. Adopting the “earnest” moniker, the Stuttgart singer/songwriter channels his time spent as a kid in Colorado, a love for the riffs of both the Artic Monkeys and Modest Mouse, and the obvious signs of The National’s Matt Berninger to produce a pretty decent songbook that crosses the musical boundaries of slowcore, country, stadia rock and indie.

With such a great command of the English language (including wordplay) Oliver moves with a sophisticated élan through a mood board of broodiness, wry self-deprecation and despondency; yet lyrically seeing hope in the most unforgiving complexities of what modern life has to offer, and surmounting all manner of human frailties, ego and personal weaknesses. This comes out in repeated lines, refrains; on the opening ‘Gathering Speed’ it’s the languid ache of “There’s another day”.

I mentioned Matt Berninger a paragraph ago, but Oliver’s tone – a sort of castaway baritone – reminded me of Morrissey in places, or Gene’s Martin Rossiter.

He’s not alone on this pathway to new musical horizons; a whole host of mostly German musicians are there to break the fall. Among the roll call Kaufmann Frust band mate Jan ‘Branko’ Breier is set loose on the shakers on the mental fog clouded and oscillating ‘Crosswords’; the Icelandic diy and punk scenester Indridi Arnar Ingólfsson wields a fuzzed-up angulated electric guitar on the sorry state of affairs relationship, ‘On The Outside’; and both Esther Schwartz and Victoria Hillestad offer wooed, lulled ethereal harmonies and vocals to a number of songs. Always at his side during the album’s ten articulations is the producer Florian Stepper, who when not on the soundboard fills in on everything from synthesized atmospheres to electric guitar, bass, organ and strings: swapping around with the multi-instrumentalist Oliver, who also plays more or less all of those aforementioned instruments at some point on the album.

Wilco, White Lies, Merchandise, Iron & Wine, Pulp, Why and The Horrors (when they started listening to Simple Minds) all seem to crop up in this reviewer’s head: all of which are a good thing. Oliver Earnest proves a fruitful, impressive at times, debut for an artist that should go it alone more often.

Josh Semans ‘Winter, Gesture EP’
(Hidden Notes Records) 3rd December 2021

As the nights draw in with every passing week and the cold start’s to bite, it’s rather comforting (to a point) to take in the evocative, poetically inspired suites of Ondist, composer and producer Josh Semans. That is until a barrage of Battles, Seamajesty and Holy Fuck freeform breakbeat like drums hurtle and splash and kick in; although the final movement of this EP quartet travels in the direction of Klaus Dinger’s ‘motorik’ beat.

Putting aside the drums, this set of gesture entitled compositions is mostly a tactile semi-classical affair of gentle lofted clarinet, sensitive and thoughtful piano and the quivery, aria and apparitional like wave forms of Semans’ chosen instrument, the theremin-esque “ondes martinet”; an early electric-instrument that’s played with a keyboard and by moving a ring along a wire, which creates this strange contraption’s signature “musical waves” sound.  It’s used here to conjure up winter spirits, oscillations and airy ripples, but it evokes Joe Meek’s space age analogue satellites on the warbled, early Mute label fizzled hits on electric tinfoil snare, ‘Running (One Last Relentless Gesture)’.  

The results of sending out feelers during the lockdowns, and by absorbing the poetry of the one-time Scottish Poet Laureate, novelist and campaigner Jackie Kay – in particular her ‘Winter Heart’ poem –, Semans made the call and clarinetist Ruby Lulham (moonlighting as Clariloops), pianist Simeon Walker (the second time he shows up in this roundup, appearing also on Simon McCorry’s The Illusion Of Beginnings And Endings) and drummer Steve Hanley all answered. Fanning the fireside in virtual communion together the results are rich, incipient, cosmic and classical.

When the drums do turn up it all suddenly becomes a different record, almost a spontaneous one. The breaks and distant freeform expressions (which on the clarinet waned ‘While The Stars Outside Shiver’ sounds distant, as if they were being played in another room down the hall) bend towards jazz and trip-hop.

If a sign of quality was needed, Winter, Gesture is being released via the Hidden Notes platform – remember the brilliant Inkling album they put out in May by the Spindle Ensemble? Let me put it this way; they know a thing or two about experimental new-classical music. And so Seamans and his collaborators artfully magic up a deeply felt seasonal highlight; a precursor to fully realised peregrinations and feelings in 2022.

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

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