‘Down Under, Mining’ –Track Review:
South African-born chanteuse has an important political compass that urges you to follow.
Availability: ‘Down Under, Mining’ is available now via:https://itunes.apple.com/gb/artist/dear-reader/id299724538
Gold is to be found, when you dig down deep…
as it is a song that demands repeated listens. It initially will soothe and lull you into a sleep, but builds and expands in all directions, projecting a Bjork-like experimentation and boldness, minus the histrionics or the same malevolent oddness. The voice behind the South African outfit is singer-songwriter, Cherilyn MacNeil, who were formed back in 2006. They changed their name to Dear Reader, from The Younger in 2008, and have been suitably garnered and celebrated in their native land. Looking through the Internet, Dear Reader has an impressive amount of real estate, and music old and young is available widely. I was made aware of their heart-stopping back catalogue via reliable friend The Girls Are. It is a mystery as to why Dear Reader has perhaps a rather muted subscription in the U.K. In the a lot of Europe, especially Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland, Cherilyn will be bringing her unique blend of musical mystery and political assiduity to these nations through most of 2013. Her last album was 2011’s ‘Idealistic Animals’, and struck quite a mixed chord with a lot of the music press. Clash Magazine labelled the release ‘quirky and sincere’, and commended MacNeil’s ‘warm vocals’. Perhaps less effusive was Drowned In Sound, who noted at the album’s loss of cohesion towards the mid-point of the album, suggesting lyrical wandering was in need of some honing; but they did celebrate her bold and experimenting sound and odd, but fascinating time signatures. NME went on to say that her zoological-themed song titles were too niche, and the album’s pervasive themes: loss of religious faith, self doubt, and reflection were going to be too alienating. The point of the album, was to explain why she lost faith in religion; something that initially made her believe she was someone. The machinations within the album were not supposed to deville faith, but give a toned down execration of her changing mindset; explaining to the listening the catharsis and personal ambiguity and fear one goes through when something so meaningful becomes meaningless.
Critics, or as I like to label myself, ‘music lovers’, seek different forms of artists and bands, to keep their mind interested, and being a songwriter myself, I look for talent to inspire me. Adopting new music is scrutiny to personal taste and subjectiveness. Many reviewers and critics are more praise-worthy of artists who best fit their CD collection, and are familiar to them. I am a big fan of female talent, and have been impressed by a huge raft of new artists: Nadine Shah, Fake Club, Emma Stevens, Chess, Little Violet and Rose and the Howling North, who between them cover a large spectrum of sounds and styles. All of them, with little exception are relatively unheard of and maybe not music I would have thought about listening to before I heard them. That is the point when reviewing new music. Whether it is largely po-faced or introverted or fun and frivolous, the idea is to accentuate the positives and look deeper. If you are too margialinsed and unmoving, then you will never accept or love anything new. So long as (new music) stands between at least one of key five pillars: good lyrics, interesting music, interesting sound, great vocals and memorable songs, then reappraisal and repeated listening will be in order. If you are too calumniatory because the music is consistently downbeat or mournful because you don’t wasn’t to think or feel sad, then it is an inexact parallel to what I have described. If none of the five criteria is met, then fair enough. But if many boxes are ticked, then it is rather narrow-minded and uneducated when being too reproachful. To matters at hand, then.
Ahead of the release of new album ‘Rivonia’ (released on April 8th on City Slang) I listened to ‘Down Under, Mining’. The lyrical and thematic shift over the last 2 years has gone from personal examination to political commentary, particularly about Apartheid-era South Africa, which is what this track focuses on. It does not take a huge gasping about the history of South Africa, nor a first-hand recollection of Apartheid, to understand or appreciate the song. It begins with an appropriate immediacy. In the foreground is Dear Reader teasing with a bubbling and springing chorus of ‘uh-uh-ohs’, whilst behind her, is a somewhat reflective, and to my ears, Gregorian hum. When she gets down to cohesive lyrical intent, the first thing that strikes me is her voice. It has a delicacy and playfulness or modern stateswomen, yet has a lot in common with Bjork. There is an equivocal kookiness to her aesthete, a childlike jour de vivre and joyful over-pronunciation. There is a similar tribal feel to the percussion in the song as well, which propels the vocals wonderfully. Whether acting as a sonic evocation of a gang mining sorrowfully, or just intending to emphasise the overall mood, it is very effective. Perhaps suitably, the lyrics have a striking sting in their tail and are quite foreboding. “Mother/My Brother/Is Dead in/The gutter”, is a especially bold and unforgettable lyric, and given extra reverence and chill, due to the brilliant delivery: punchy, studied, making sure you hear and understand every line. The words are intend to resonate, and haunt, and given the sparsity of musical or vocal accompaniment during the 1st half of the song, what is being sung earns an unnerving starkness that will stick with you for a long time. The theme of the song- as you can probably detect from the title- is about mining, and particularly miners dying and suffering whilst digging for coal and treasure for “the white man”. The chorus consists mainly of the song’s title being sung calmly: no hyperbole or exasperation, bolstered by an army of backing vocal and gutter-punch percussion. There is a political bite to the manifesto laid forth, and through vivid lyrical painting: “Your spell is upon us”, and grave foretelling: “Dust chokes above”. It is a gloomy tableaux of choking and dying workers (or borderline-slaves); toiling and in pain, as the greedy and tyrannical white man watches from above. It is quite a short song- well, 3:21– and are it does leave you wanting more. Another verse and chorus perhaps, but in a good way: it makes you seek out more and wonder what the album will produce. Special mention should go to the accompanying video. The video uses shadow puppets, painstakingly crafted by Berlin artist Barbara Steinitz, and follows the songs lyrics faithfully and effectively. It is a gorgeous, breathtaking achievement and grips you to watch it over and over again.
Overall it is a brilliant song. Dear Reader’s voice has touches of modern artists such as Little Boots; it has a sweet and naive tinge to it, but is much more authoritative and impressive. The Bjork comparisons are not foolhardy; there is a very similar tone and majesty to her singing. Lyrically it strays away from the ethology angle and doubts about religion and self, and concentrates on social politics and repression. Whether this is a direct response to lacklustre critical response or reflective of the authour’s interest and mind-space is hard to say. Whilst I did love the tenderness, playfulness and innovation from her ‘Idealistic Animals’, I love the directness and boldness of ‘Down Under, Mining’. All of the key vocal and playful elements are in play, but the lyrical and thematic shift is interesting. It is less downcast and hopefully will strike a universal and respective core amongst music lovers and uneducated core of music critics. The subject matter is still relevant and timeless, and it is a brave shift for any artists to stray from the love/relationship/self-interest plateau that accounts for about 95% of all releases today. I cannot wait to see what other delights are in store when the album is released, as Dear Reader deserves a lot of attention and reinvigorated focus.
There is a new single- ‘Victory’- released on 8th April. It has a gorgeous and spine-tingling vocal chant, of male and female parts, and accompanies a suitably innovative and stunning video. I hope there will be fewer shrugged shoulders and imperious eyebrow-raising from critics in a few weeks. The people that really count: the buying public, know a great artist when they hear one, and have shown support, faith and passion for the music of Dear Reader. I hope she goes forth, boldly, and continues to build on the sheer momentum she has now. In a world where most talent fits neatly into a prefabricated compartment, with little shock, awe, or distinctiveness, it is reviltalising to hear a bold and striking track. ‘Rivonia’ will be a fascinating study, of an artist who is restlessly moving forward and making bold strides. Listen to her music and make up your own mind about her. But promise me one thing, is you are the kind of person who ‘likes what they like’, and turns their nose up at anything out of their wheelhouse. Listen to ‘Down Under, Mining’, and don’t feel guilty…
… when instead of uncovering coal, you find a diamond.