William Onyeabor: Box Set

In October of last year, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label released Who is William Onyeabor?, a compilation of the obscure Nigerian musician some eight years in the making. A few months on, Sinkane’s Ahmed Gallab led an all-star tribute to Onyeabor. Over the course of concerts in London, New York, and Los Angeles, Gallab assembled the likes of Byrne, Damon Albarn, members of Hot Chip, the Rapture, and LCD Soundsystem, the Beastie Boys’ Money Mark, fellow Nigerian stars the Lijadu Sisters, Dead Prez, jazz star Joshua Redman and ’60s free jazz legend Pharoah Sanders, Peaking Lights, and more to cover Onyeabor’s music live. There was also a documentary, a remix record for Record Store Day, and six commissioned original pieces of art by contemporary West African and American artists. Now follows a 9xCD box set (also split into two hefty vinyl boxes) that collects the entirety of William Onyeabor’s recorded output. But even after listening to all nine of these albums and absorbing the contributing essays from Mike Rubin (an expanded version of his New York Times profile) and Nigerian author Chris Abani, as well as recollections of the search for the man from Luaka Bop’s Yale Evelev and Eric Welles, one question still remains: Who is William Onyeabor?

There’s little doubt that Luaka Bop turned over every single stone in their quest. They both talked to Onyeabor on the phone and traveled to his compound in Enugu. (Welles tells of his travels from Lagos to Nigeria’s “coal city,” where Onyeabor remains a prominent businessman, with a flour mill, gas station, Internet café, and record pressing plant, along with a street named after him and the honorific title of “High Chief.”) And they did ask Onyeabor personal questions while in his presence. But at almost every turn, he evaded specifics. And so very little biography on Onyeabor has been advanced beyond what was written on the back of his debut album, which calls him “a French and American trained professional film maker,” though the stories go that he also studied film in Russia. And when he returned to his native Nigeria, he had both filmmaking equipment as well as a trove of prohibitively expensive early synthesizers.

His 1977 debut Crashes in Love is subtitled “A tragedy of how an African Princess rejects love that money buys” and is presented to the record buying public as a soundtrack to Onyeabor’s film of the same name, though there seems to be no trace of the film. On the front cover is an advert for Onyeabor’s own Wilfilms, which produces, exhibits, and sells features and documentaries, as well as “Records, Motion Advert, General Entertainment, etc.” and the back features the disclaimer: “You may wish to know that it is neither all nor only the sounds contained in this album that are tracked in film.”

There are no credits other than that of Onyeabor, but there’s a full band behind him, a crisp backbeat of drums and hand percussion, horns, snaking guitar lines and bubbling bass, and female singers who sing “One day you’ll be lying dead” on the mortality funk of “Something You’ll Never Forget”. Onyeabor’s organ sounds less like a synthesizer prototype purchased in an Eastern bloc country and more like something airlifted from an Indiana rollerskate rink and what would be the primary instrument on future albums is relegated to accompaniment instead, the horn line and bass. 

On Crashes in Love, Onyeabor is of a piece with his Nigerian contemporaries—the album bears similarity to the likes of other mid-70s bands like BLO, the Funkees, and Ofege. The title track has a lilt to it as if at any moment the melody might veer off into a particularly light-footed take on “Red Red Wine” while “Heaven & Hell” sports the kind of breakbeat that would have led beat heads to seek the album out in the first place. It closes with one of Onyeabor’s stranger songs, “Jungle Gods”, featuring roiling bass and thundering percussion, Onyeabor speaking in echoplexed tongues. It’s also an outlier in that the sense that soon after followed a second version of Crashes in Love, now minus “Jungle Gods”. The alternate version of this album sounds ever so slightly sped up on “Something You Will Never Forget”, and now features a sputtering drum machine atop every other song.

In his essay to the box set, Abani recalls hearing Onyeabor’s “Atomic Bomb” on the way to seminary, where it vies for attention with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Michael Jackson, Fela Kuti, and Bob Marley amid the din of the marketplace. Not even a few months later, Abani and his fellow Nigerian classmates attended an assembly on the nuclear threat and later that night dance to the ecstatic eight minutes of “Atomic Bomb”, which inverts that world-destroying fear into an expression of love. 

On Onyeabor’s 1978 album,he ditches his dream of being a filmmaker and emerges as a singular musical artist. Opener “Beautiful Boy” features a relaxed loping beat, the organ now resembling a ray gun from a ’50s alien invasion, Onyeabor unveiling a soft croon to a woman, “I’m gonna take you home.” Elsewhere, he furthers his loverman persona, singing “My love, I need you all my life.” Another undeniable groove powers “Better Change Your Mind”, the most politically-engaged Onyeabor song and the catalyst for Luaka Bop’s search for Onyeabor when they included it on Love’s A Real Thing: The Funky Fuzzy Sounds Of West Africa.  

Tomorrow, his third album in as many years, now featuring Onyeabor in a velvety double-breasted suit, begins to move away from the solid groove of Afrobeat towards something more diaphanous. The drums and bass loosely twine about Onyeabor and his female backup singers, their vocals unhurried, the organ squirreling in, out, above and around the rhythm. “Why Go to War” has what sounds like a Slinky threaded through an electric guitar and then nervously plucked, continuing Onyeabor’s mind being on both the smallest of affairs between man and woman and the mutually assured destruction of the world. The album also features what some 35 years later might be Onyeabor’s greatest pop “hit,” the preening funk of “Fantastic Man” (which you can now hear on ads for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). And no wonder—it’s a doozy, Onyeabor peacocking before a group of females even as he steps on a disco duck and has a UFO crash land on his fly threads.

“Body & Soul”, the title track off his next album, has made its rounds on open-minded dancefloors via a few different 12” pressings. It scans as Afrobeat while maintaining a slack beat, suggesting downtempo, reggae, funk and disco, with modular synth bleeps without ever being beholden to any one of them. Instead Onyeabor (dapper in a white tuxedo on the album sleeve) testifies to his love of music, body and soul. But the rest of the album maintains a relaxed grip on Afrobeat, “The Way to Win Your Love” urgent in its pleading if not its meter. While on “Poor Boy,” Onyeabor’s keyboard blurts are hurried and the interplay between horns, drums, and synths are some of the most intricate to date.

Great Lover is the album I’m least familiar with, in that only “Love is Blind” –with its “Ring My Bell”-esque synth swoops– was previously compiled. It continues Onyeabor’s run of swag covers, now posing in a tux and tophat, his wristwatch bling-sized. On the back are photographs of the Wilfilms compound, which seems formidable indeed in rural Africa circa 1981, with a four-story building, 24-track recorder, 32-track mixing console and a photo of Onyeabor wearing that top hat indoors with the caption “We Mean Business” underneath. “Tell Me What You Want” shows Onyeabor absorbing reggae and its lilting rhythms, his keys chirping and pinging like island birds and the album itself sounds cloaked in haze, either from there being missing master tapes or the condition of the copy sourced here. But such sonic haze no doubt will endear it to Ariel Pink, Lewis and DaM-Funk fans, or those who now associate low fidelity with heightened mystery. 

Hypertension finds our mystery man now dressed as a mariachi band member, right down to a blood-red sombrero. But musically he seems taken with calypso and soca and other Caribbean rhythms on “The Moon and the Sun” and “Papa Na Mama”. That amalgam of island beats, disco sensibilities, and Onyeabor’s warped synths bring to mind compilations like Tropical Disco Hustle, showing a strange kinship between the Caribbean and Nigeria during the Year of Thriller.  

By the next year, a greater urgency underlies Good Name (Onyeabor now sporting a white cowboy hat and gold crucifix chain), a two-track album with one song apiece taking up an entire side. In much the same way that a continent away Indian pedal steel guitarist Charanjit Singh invented acid house with Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat in 1983, Onyeabor himself seems to be anticipating the rise of the machines. Squelches and throbs propel “Let’s Fall in Love”, continuing Onyeabor’s foremost inspirations, God and love. On “Good Name”, the guitars sear, the sputtering drum machines skitter fast as rats, and Onyeabor’s keys bear a frayed and serrated tone as he sings—a trace of desperation in his voice—how “no money can buy a good name.”

Anything You Sow, the Onyeabor album that first entranced me, was also his last album before he gave his life (and every subsequent interview answer) over to Christ, turning his back on his musical output. Sampled by Caribou (under his Daphni alias) and no doubt a template for the likes of Four Tet, LCD Soundsystem, Peaking Lights, and James Holden, to name a few, Onyeabor’s influence can most easily be gleaned here on primitive-futuristic tracks like “Everyday” and “This Kind of World”. Over a joyous splutter of a beat on “When the Going is Smooth & Good”, Onyeabor couches a bitter pill. Perhaps a commentary on Onyeabor’s own status at the time of his conversion, the song rails against people who soothe in good times only to evaporate in bad, or worse still, “to help in knocking you down down down.”

In the past decade, the only other Nigerian artist to merit such a career-spanning box set was Fela Kuti, yet in some ways it’s odd to consider William Onyeabor an equal. While Fela was truly a force of nature (the year of Crashes in Love’s release, Fela himself recorded and released six albums), Onyeabor seems, for lack of a better word, meeker (if more liable to keep his stylish shirt on). Fela’s music feels irreducible as steel while Onyeabor’s is curiously ductile. An enemy of the state as opposed to a respected businessman. Both were politically-minded, though it’s hard to compare Onyeabor to the vociferously outspoken Kuti.

A God-fearing man making sweet, light-hearted ditties in juxtapose to a demiurge with a compound full of women, yet both men have greatly influenced western music-making in the late 20th century and early 21st century. Fela’s influence spans from Brian Eno to Talking Heads on up to Broadway and his revolutionary music can be felt in an instant, but Onyeabor’s was quiet and every bit as revelatory. Folks tinkering with analog gear and archaic drum machines and how to make such machines express sweet-hearted human sentiment may not have realized Onyeabor’s example until reaching this precise thin layer of sediment buried deep down in reissue culture. Perhaps then Onyeabor’s renaissance will be closer to that of Arthur Russell’s, both of their catalogs continuing to find resonance among those fiddling with gear, be it in their bedrooms or in their compounds.

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Sunn O))) / Scott Walker: Soused

You won’t need to pinch yourself awake: As if to ensure listeners that Soused isn’t some fantastic nightmare or haunted daydream, Scott Walker and Sunn O))) begin their five-track, 50-minute collaboration with a brief series of exclamation marks. Walker’s voice sweeps in with extreme operatic gusto, delivering a set of simple, sliding phrases over sparkling synthesizers. Dual classic rock riffs trail those hails, like “Paradise City” abutting a scrap of “Heartbreaker”. And as it all fades toward silence, Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley shatter the creeping calm with their expected amplifier army. To emphasize the madness, the sound of an American bullwhip slaps at the back of the din. Yes, Scott O))) is real, and yes, it is a touch ridiculous.

In the wake of Lulu, the intriguing but errant byproduct of a more famous elder leading a more famous metal act, such a partnership felt like a joke someone might have made on a message board in 2011. Gabriel and Mastodon? Jagger and Down? Walker and Sunn O)))? Sure, line them up, but don’t assume that they will all net Lulu’s Warner Brothers deal. At least there was stylistic precedent for this hypothetical pairing. Though Walker was once a pop star, his work later in life has been experimentally ambitious, adding webs of dissonance to song cycles that explored discontent in dozens of guises. Even now, his 1995 LP, Tilt, seems diabolically heavy and jarring, employing unease as compositional exigency. Released only seven months apart, his 2006 album, The Drift, and Sunn O)))’s Black One, feel now like complementary surveys of the same seismic divide. Walker originally wrote “Lullaby,” Soused’s jarring and arching climax, in 1999. His music doesn’t fear the dark.

As legend has it, Sunn O))) approached Walker a half-decade ago with a blind call for collaboration. He’d never heard them, but they hoped he’d pen something to sing for “Alice”, the orchestra-gilded finale of their 2009 LP, Monoliths & Dimensions. He didn’t, but he did become a convert to the band’s maximum-volume, minimum-movement metal. He began writing new material with Anderson, O’Malley and, it seems, both their instrumental and thematic tones in mind. Together, they recorded those pieces earlier this year in London, with several of Walker’s more customary contributors adding drums, horns, keyboards and electronics.

Soused is billed to “Scott Walker + Sunn O))),” an ostensible meeting of equals. On T-shirts, the project is even playfully dubbed Scott O))), written in the same lower-cased, bold-faced font that the electronics company and drone duo have long used. And as is his wont, O’Malley designed the packaging for Soused, an austere grayscale colossus guided by a system of holistic organization.

But the music itself never tries to sell the conspiracy of equal and reciprocal collaboration. Sure, Sunn O))) made the first move here, but any real work required Walker’s acceptance and effort. This is, then, a Scott Walker album, where Sunn O)))—Anderson, O’Malley and longtime multi-instrumentalist and collaborator TOS Nieuwenhuizen—serve as a very large, potent instrument within Walker’s band, or maybe a set of them, like a rack of guitars pulled from a closet. During “Brando”, they follow him, saturating the background but almost always ceding the spotlight. When he sings “A beating would do me a world of good,” Anderson and O’Malley bend inside his shadow, taking the riff’s next step down.

Anderson and O’Malley even flash back to their high-school days in Thorr’s Hammer, or their subsequent separate bands, for “Fetish”, the album’s singular and brilliant flashpoint. Just before the song’s halfway point, they’ve traced Walker’s voice only with ominous noise and tracked him with mid-range melodies. “He imagines he feels it, tugging and clinching, hears it rustling and rising,” Walker yells, pausing suddenly as if to summon help. Sunn O))) answers, matching the beat of drummer Ian Thomas with loaded guitar and low-lying bass, like they’re an insurgent young doom band again, racing toward a crossover crescendo. Later in the track, they sprawl out beneath him, their amps and instruments harmonizing obediently alongside screeching trumpet, stuttering drums and stabbing static. They are, perhaps for the first time, part of a force greater than their own.

Sunn O)))’s career has been defined by their search for ways to augment their riffs, to make them bigger than simply big; but after 15 years and a half-dozen full-lengths, they’ve yet to take the routes through which Walker pulls them here. The only prototypically Sunn O))) moment arrives during the back half of “Bull,” when they cycle a slow set of notes across occasional percussion and over scrambled field recordings. But it’s mostly a mid-record volume respite, a break in the command of Walker’s stentorian elegance.

Soused documents depravity and wanton desire, or needing something—pain or the absence of it, protection or the illusion of it, privacy or the desecration of it—so bad it’s ripping your worldview into pieces. Walker empties volumes of data into those ideas, pinballing between 17th century painting debates, New Testament infanticide and Iroquois lullabies within the course of the shape-shifting “Herod 2014”. In less than a minute of “Bull”, he moves from a string of screamed Latin imprecations to a recited text message, reprinted in the liner notes as an iChat bubble. During “Brando”, he details successive episodes in which the named actor was beaten, shouting the elliptical list with an urgency that gives the sadomasochism a private power.

Though Walker was once a sort of balladeer icon, his lyrics trend toward the obtuse and ponderous. The words on Soused don’t forsake those qualities, necessarily, but there is a certain relatability and readability here, as if this return to rock ’n’ roll has pulled him back toward earth. Despite the macabre battle between the innocent and the hunter of “Herod 2014,” Walker delights in the language, using alliteration and end-rhyme to fashion what could pass for old-fashioned folklore. “The deer fly, the sand fly, the tsetse can’t find them,” he offers, his voice cold but comforting, like that of a wolf in disguise. “The goon from the Stasi
 is left far behind them.
Their delicate derma 
won’t witness a ray.” In this new relationship, Walker seems to have rediscovered a sometimes-hidden element of his own work—its playfulness and its perversity, the coexistence of the smile and the frown.

Is it selfish, then, to hope that this might be only the start, the unlikely origin of a partnership that extends beyond a one-off album? Walker is, of course, infamously reluctant to talk about his future in making music, and he can be rather chelonian with his output; much the same applies for Sunn O))), at its core a duo of dudes involved in a dozen other things. That’s one reason Soused feels more like an event and an experience than a vital, persevering record for either party. It’s good and, at times, completely absorbing, especially when Walker and the amplifiers seem to be fighting on the same side of a great battle. Soused is compelling, almost inherently so, but it’s not a classic. What if they gave this time to be more than a mere oddity, so as to feel no rush to launch from the gates and exclaim that this is, in fact, real? We’ll probably never find out, but we never thought we’d hear Scott O))), anyway. 

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Kindness: Otherness

Adam Bainbridge is a member of a group of voracious, industrious artists—among them Devonté Hynes, Solange, Sky Ferreira, and Kelela—who consider themselves “pop.” It’s a group that values collaboration, guesting on one another’s albums and who, increasingly, are dipping their toes into popular music as producers and writers. “You’ll never guess who I just worked with,” is, these days, a popular volley between Bainbridge and his former flat-mate Hynes, both now in-demand collaborators for more traditionally popular artists. They value the word “pop,” presumably, not because they want to be judged against current popular music but because defining yourself as a pop artist means never having to say you’re sorry: you can work in whatever idiom you want, with whoever you want, in whatever manner. There’s a freedom to pop music not availed to anyone who defines themselves as an indie rocker, or a punk, or a soul singer.

One of the chief curiosities of Otherness, Bainbridge’s second album as Kindness, is trying to understand what this freedom means in the context of his careful, quiet compositions. Bainbridge’s music sounds nothing like the current maximalist strain of popular music, and it sounds only a little like certains kinds of popular music from decades past. It’s more deliberate and varied than Bainbridge’s debut album, World, You Need a Change of Mind, a pleasant indie-disco record lacking in ambition.

Bainbridge aims higher on Otherness, setting his sights on pristine studio gems. He expands his arrangements, enlists collaborators (Hynes and Kelela chief among them), and dispenses with the cover songs that buoyed World. Bainbridge constructs his tracks largely with piano, horns, and bass, free of guitar. His lyrical currency is that most pop of topics: love lost and found. On Otherness, Bainbridge is a descendent of artists like Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Bryan Ferry: self-serious rogues who whipped the undomesticated wilds of jazz, disco, and R&B into digestible platters. Such is the M.O. of Otherness: throw everything at the wall, very tastefully.

Bainbridge is a standout producer, and Otherness crackles with crisp filigrees and luxe baubles. The soft-pedaled funk of tracks like “Why Don’t You Love Me” and “With You” show lovely restraint, while welterweight breaks and brisk hi-hats keep “World Restart” and “This Is Not About Us” from blanching. “I’ll Be Back” is a lavish, slo-mo house lullaby. There is a rare clarity and fidelity to Otherness‘ arrangements.

But, beautiful as they are, no one inhabits them. The only source of tension on Otherness is the disconnect between the album’s sumptuous vistas and the dull songwriting that roams them. Otherness burdens its precision with unimaginative melodies and plodding tempos (“For the Young”, “It’ll Be Ok”). Bainbridge moans wanly during “8th Wonder” (“I’m thinking about my baby now/ Yeah”) before interrupting the track with a jarring guest verse (during which M.anifest shouts out Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”, lest you have any doubts about Otherness‘ smothering sincerity).

Bainbridge, doleful and even keeled on World, opens up his voice here but proves too thin and affectless for the kind of soulful interjections he wishes upon “This Is Not About Us” and “I’ll Be Back”. When Robyn takes lead on the jaunty “Who Do You Love?” the effect is like removing your earplugs at a concert, exposing yourself to an almost violent level of detail.

Most irksome is “Geneva”, a musty, choral ballad that consists largely of one line—”If you could read my mind/ You know what you’d find”—repeated mantra-like through the song, something that initially scans as quiet reflection but quickly reveals itself to be gibberish (seriously: if you could read his mind—but you can’t—you wouldn’t even need to read his mind). “Geneva”, one trifle repeated ad nauseam, is nearly six minutes long. Otherness is full of moments like this, drawn-out tiltings at romantic windmills that too often resolve themselves in near parody. When Hynes and Tawiah trade deep questions on “Why Don’t You Love Me”, they sound less like star-crossed lovers and more like two very confused people quixotically locked in song. “With You” features two sultry saxophone solos that mostly smack of The Simpsons and Bill Clinton.

Pop music has plenty of tolerance for vapidity and emptiness, but you’ve got to be able to sell it. Look no further than Hynes’ “It Is What It Is” if you want an example of a banality contorted into substance. You wonder if Bainbridge recognizes that something’s missing: “Making pop music that’s less immediate than other engineered pop, sometimes you need a helping hand that explains where it’s coming from or the emotional universe it lives in.” Maybe Otherness‘ emotional universe requires context, but who other than Bainbridge would provide it? Otherness isn’t just less immediate than other pop music; it’s less self-aware, and way less fun.

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