Tony Stamp absorbs a record about caring by American soul maestro Curtis Harding, a drip-fed double album by dream-pop luminaries Beach House, and the latest high energy outing from local hip-hop artist Phodiso.
If Words Were Flowers by Curtis Harding
Looking at the above image of soul singer Curtis Harding, you notice the square, twinkling sunglasses, signet ring on his finger, and acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, and on closer inspection, the guitar’s headstock has a healthy layer of dust on it. It’s probably accidental, but that detail strikes me as perfect - not because his music is dusty, far from it - but all those signifiers speak to the way he picks through musical history, never settling on one particular sound or era to tell his musical story.
Blending up genres is nothing new of course, in fact in the age of streaming it’s par for the course. But Harding achieves it with seemingly no effort, like the way he slips in and out of spoken delivery on second track ‘Hopeful’. I hesitate to call it rap, although hip hop is one of the many genres he draws on. He describes his music as ‘slop n’ soul’, listing blues, gospel, psychedelia, R&B and rock as part of the mix, and the thing is, you can clearly hear all of those in that one song.
His mother was a gospel singer, and his beginning in music was playing drums for her in the church band. She also introduced him to singers Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples and inspired the name of this album. His mum used to tell him “give me my flowers while I’m still here”, and so Harding, reflecting on our current tumultuous times and wanting his listeners to feel appreciated, gave this collection the name If Words Were Flowers.
A few years ago my colleagues at RNZ Music and I noticed how much ambient music was being made in the wake of the pandemic, and I’ve spoken on this programme about the way that trend has changed to artists trying to provide comfort. That was Harding’s goal too, in fact, he mostly scrapped an album he had recorded and started almost from scratch. He said he wanted to make “music to help people understand that they’re not alone”.
Gospel is cited as an influence on this album, and that’s apparent every time his voice is subsumed into a choir of singers. He also names Sly Stone as a touchpoint.
All the components here are so excellent it’s maybe easy to take his voice for granted, but it's an instrument that oozes feeling. On the song ‘Explore’ he springs from an angsty midrange to a spine-tingling falsetto in the chorus, seemingly without breaking a sweat.
It would be a fantastic tune without the addition of a sci-fi synth or meandering saxophone, but it’s elements like those which make this journey so much fun. Harding is happy to make way for extended musical breaks that swell and buffet each song to their destination. It’s also packed with tight horn hooks, as heard in the chorus to ‘Where’s the Love’.
That track is maybe the closest Curtis Harding gets to rapping on this album. It was hip hop that provoked him to make music his career, after getting inspired by his sister’s collection of rap tapes. But on If Words Were Flowers, it’s all part of the mix. This is a soul record through and through, but it’s the openness to different genres, feelings and flows that make it a truly great one.
Once Twice Melody (Chapters 1-3) by Beach House
In the wake of streaming, plenty of artists began to experiment with different ways of releasing music, whether that meant surprise drops of entire albums, uploading standalone singles, or Kanye West putting out collections that he continued to tinker with, and then put out again.
This well-loved Baltimore band have been making dream-pop for over fifteen years now, and are in the process of releasing their eighth record - a double album that’s arriving in four chapters (a process which started in November). This luxurious four-month release window seems appropriate given the grandeur of their music. And as you might expect from a double album, it’s their grandest, most cinematic outing so far.
The term 'dream pop' sprang from acts like Cocteau Twins and Mazzy Star - breathy vocals drenched in reverb, complex textures, and of course pop structures. Beach House's duo of Victoria Legrand on vocals and Alex Scally on guitar have added plenty more instruments to their arsenal over the years, including a vast reservoir of keyboards, and they deploy them over and over with a singular purpose, woozy and romantic.
It’s a small thing, and a very common songwriting technique, but I want to point out the way they often repeat a keyboard motif, and change the chords underneath it, creating an instant charge of emotion. It’s something they do very well, often minimising the vocal to let the arrangement breathe - you can hear what I mean in the chorus to ‘New Romance’.
The same structure appears on ‘Runaway’, along with vocoder on Legrand’s voice, and the pair’s favouring of rudimentary drum machine sounds. To my ears, it's a combination that strongly evokes New Zealander Annabel Alpers’ work as Bachelorette.
This is the first time Beach House have produced one of their own albums. It’s also the first to contain a string section, arranged by David Campbell. Apart from him, the only other guest musician is James Barone, who supplies occasional live drums. The album’s fantastic sound and balance can be credited in part to legendary mix engineer Alan Moulder, as well as a few others who helped mix, including the equally acclaimed Dave Fridmann.
Like many a double album, the first half of Once Twice Melody doubles down on the band’s style, like they’re trying to create the perfect version of a Beach House song, and then the latter half (so far), opens up the gates to new styles and structures. The aptly named ‘Sunset’ evokes campfires at the beach with the inclusion of acoustic guitar. It’s stripped back but aurally inventive, featuring strings, reversed guitar and of course buckets of reverb.
Once it’s fully available, this collection will include a whopping eighteen tracks, with a duration of an hour and a half. It’s a totemic work, representing four years of work for the band, and shows how good the results can be when musicians decide to keep refining and building on a singular thing. I’m looking forward to seeing what Chapter Four holds, but I’m almost more curious how they could possibly follow this up. It’s such a soaring, definitive collection, they couldn’t get any more ‘Beach House’ if they tried.
Act III by Phodiso
When a young rapper named Phodiso Dintwe made his first appearances a few years back, it felt like local hip hop had gained a fresh new perspective. The production values weren’t high, but that just added to the feeling of someone giving everything they had to their art. There was a slightly breathless energy to it all, like he was running full steam toward his goal, and the listener was along for the ride. On his latest EP Act III, the production values are higher, but that infectious zest for the work still shines through clearly.
‘Look’ exudes funk from every pore, along with a healthy dollop of swagger - a component in all these tunes. Guitar scratch and a rogue Rhodes piano plonk decorate a slinky bassline, and my favourite element might be the female backing vocals that enter on a whim. They speak to the way I feel Phodiso’s music has progressed - these songs often feel playful, like he honed in on various ways to make them more fun, and turned the dial right up.
‘Right To It’ contains a theme familiar in hip hop - basically Phodiso is saying he’s not going to hide his light under a bushel. Specifically, he’s telling his mum, which is an amusing wrinkle.
What made me smile about the track is its tumbling wordplay: ‘Rumour has it that you like to spread rumours’ is a great line, and he follows a lyric about not being cool enough to give a cold shoulder with a nod to Atlanta icons Outkast, citing a polar bear’s toenails as an example of something very cool.
A few tracks later he brings back the word ‘mama’, referencing the line ‘mama say mama sa mama coosa’ which was coined by Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango and adopted by Michael Jackson and Rihanna. Here Phodiso ties it into the horror franchise I Know What You Did Last Summer.
It’s a dizzying pile-up of references and impressively tongue-tying bars. At its best rap is a celebration of language, and in Phodiso’s case, that extends to multiple languages. He was born in Botswana before moving to the UK aged five and then settling in Aotearoa. Over the course of the EP he raps in Setswana, French, and Shona, as well as English, and on the final track ‘Late’ incorporates te reo Māori into the mix.
That song's also the most playful thing on Act III, with double bass, injections of brass, and female voices chiming in with spoken word, as well as someone repeatedly saying ‘who’s Alexander’, a reference that goes flying over my head (or maybe it’s just an inside joke).
Regardless it’s all ammo in Phodiso Dintwe’s dedication to providing a good time. His is an attitude, and an energy, that’s much appreciated.