Tony Stamp points his taringa at the gorgeous debut from Te Kaahu, reggae legend Horace Andy's team-up with equally legendary producer Adrian Sherwood, and a nineties oddity by post-hardcore band Girls Against Boys.
Te Kaahu O Rangi by Te Kaahu
In September 2020, pop musician Theia unveiled her te reo Māori project Te Kaahu. First single 'E Taku Huia Kaimanawa’, was dedicated to her late grandmother Rangirara, and felt very personal. It wasn’t clear if this was a one-off tribute, or a sign of more to come, but the public response was rapturous.
Nearly two years later the album Te Kaahu O Rangi has arrived, a meticulous package of gorgeous song-craft that has the feeling of something made with the greatest care - every word, image and sound the product of deep thought from its writer, designed as an immersion into te ao Māori.
The PR around this album credits it to Theia, and Theia is the pop nom de plume of Em Walker. The story goes that, when Theia released her te reo song ‘Te Kaiwhakaora O Te Ao’, some of her American fan base began asking her about the words and their meanings.
These songs sound very different to her pop output, which is brash and loud. When asked about the difference, she said she wanted to make something that her tupuna wahine would enjoy; gentle and nostalgic.
The PR also specifies the intention to “shine a light on the beauty and vulnerability in Māori music, which is so often overlooked in the mainstream narrative”.
The first single was co-written by Australian producer Oh Boy, and had the slightest hint of pop modernity to its composition, but the bulk of the material is penned by Theia alone. There’s a writing assist from producer Jol Mullholland on ‘Rangirara’, and on 'Waikato', which pays tribute to the location of Theia’s marae.
The thing I find staggering each time I listen to the album is not just how disarmingly beautiful it is, but how simple. Simplicity in songwriting is hard, and speaks to how gifted Theia is, but she also packs each track with meaning.
In 1862 Maori prophet Te Ua Haumēne funded a religion called Pai Maarire, meaning goodness and peace. The song by that name here finds Theia honouring his ideas of peaceful resistance, as well as grappling with generational trauma stemming from the time.
The moments when Theia reaches up to her top register, as on that song's chorus, are aural bliss, and the good news is the album is full of them.
‘E Hine Ē’ is a waiata aroha (ballad) that Theia says is ‘for any woman you have loved or will love’. As an example of the poetry running through Te Kaahu O Rangi, the English translation of one lyric reads “You remain firm in rough seas, as a rock stands in the ocean, my beloved.”
The album is bookended by acapellas that reference the kaahu (hawk) as a spiritual guardian, and again, Theia’s voice on its own is a feast for the ears.
Em Walker is fluent in te reo, and has a degree with a double major of Māori Indigenous Studies and Te Reo Rangatira. She’s a passionate advocate of the language and has spent time teaching it professionally.
That spirit infuses Te Kaahu O Rangi, and not just in its lyrics. Writing about the album she specified using kupu whakarite or metaphor, pepeha or sayings, and whakataukī - proverbs. Te ao Māori is there in the building blocks of the album.
Theia has said the Te Kaahu kaupapa is to heal, restore and empower her people, and it’s hard to imagine a more honourable motivation for making an album. These are songs that will reach far and wide, impeccable written, and carefully thought through. Her tupuna wahine would be proud.
Midnight Rocker by Horace Andy
In 1972 reggae singer Horace Andy released his first album Skylarking. It contains the song of the same name, which has gone on to be his most enduring.
Andy was just twenty one years old, but his singing voice sounded much older. His trademark vibrato was already in full effect, making it through most of a line before forcing out the last syllable in raspy segments.
He found mainstream success nineteen years later, guesting on Massive Attack’s first album Blue Lines, and went on to feature on all five of their albums - including the hit ‘Teardrop’ - and their touring roster as recently as this year.
He also released around forty solo albums. And his latest sees him team up for the first time with one of the UK’s most renowned purveyors of dub music.
For the uninitiated, dub is an offshoot of reggae that emerged when producers deconstructed tracks to focus on their rhythm, and added generous helpings of reverb and echo. The idea of using a studio like an instrument has its roots in dub.
Adrian Sherwood has been producing an electronic form of the genre since the 1970s. He’s worked behind the boards with pioneering groups like Tackhead, African Headcharge and Dub Syndicate, but is possibly best known for founding the label On-U Sound Records, a benchmark for quality dub sounds since the eighties.
Midnight Rocker is his first collaboration with Horace Andy. As dub goes, it’s reasonably conservative, with a live band sound that rightfully prioritises Andy’s vocals.
Sherwood curated this album, pairing a handful of Horace Andy classics with new material penned by UK artists LSK, Jeb Loy Nichols and George Oban.
There are reggae mainstays brass and melodica throughout, as well as unexpected choices like violin and harmonica. There’s a dignity to this palette that suits being matched with an ageing singer, but it never feels safe, or boring. Sherwood’s firm control of sonics always keeps things fresh.
On ‘Materialist’, a new take on a seventies classic, the original’s already impressive bassline is replicated by a synth version. You can imagine him relishing the subwoofer-taxing results.
These updated versions honour their originals and provide interesting additions and counterpoints, and while the newer material can’t really hope to occupy the same hallowed ground, it comes close.
It’s hard to miss the poignancy of Andy reflecting on his mother’s advice to be patient on the song ‘Today is Right Here’, then concluding she was wrong. Old age has taught him that life passes quickly.
The Guardian has dubbed Midnight Rocker a masterpiece, and it’s undeniably a late career triumph for both Horace Andy and Adrian Sherwood. It’s surprising it took them this long to partner, and throughout there’s a sense of reverence from the British dub specialist toward the Jamaican singer.
The album’s biggest surprise is a cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Safe From Harm’, originally sung by Shara Nelson. You might think it was chosen by the man associated with the Bristol veterans, but actually it was Sherwood who had a hankering to hear Andy’s version. Like all this material the singer makes it his own thanks to how fully he engages with the tune, and of course his voice, which all these years later, truly sounds like no one else.
House of GVSB by Girls Against Boys
In 1996 I was a burgeoning indie rock fan with no access to the internet. What I did have was access to magazines, and record stores that let you listen to albums before you bought them. $33 dollars was a lot to spend on a compact disc, but occasionally I’d buy one I wasn’t 100% sure on. The thing is, you wanted to get your money’s worth, so I spent a lot of time listening to albums I hoped would grow on me, and they usually did.
One was House of GVSB by post-hardcore band Girls Against Boys, which was reissued last year to mark its 25th anniversary. Listening back after all these years I still enjoy it, and they remain a band who made enough weird choices to warrant a reassessment.
If you’re not familiar with ‘post’ genres, you probably get the gist - post-rock takes rock instrumentation and uses it to explore other forms, post-punk applies avant-garde impulses to a punk aesthetic, and post-hardcore likewise take a hardcore aesthetic - buzzsaw guitars, tight rhythm section - and then goes in whatever direction it pleases.
In general these terms cover a very broad range of acts, in fact labelling Girls Against Boys post-hardcore often feels like a stretch.
There’s a link to be found in Scott McCloud’s vocals, which are always delivered in a hoarse monotone, a kind of quieter version of hardcore’s throaty screams. The vocal melodies when they happen usually come courtesy of bass player Eli Janney.
Another point of curiosity is their twin bass attack. Johnny Temple lays down traditional bass lines down the centre, while Eli Janney’s are often fuzzed out and effected past the point of recognition.
To my ears around fifty percent of the album has dated extremely well, thanks to the band thinking slightly outside the box. Plenty of moments feel like pure nineties cliche, but time will do that.
What the band does have is a degree of sex appeal. So much nineties music was extremely poe-faced, so to hear these men groove and murmur felt out of step with the times in a good way.
Girls Against Boys last album came out in 2002, with an EP emerging twelve years later that found the band sounding exactly the same. They hit on a very unique chemistry and stuck with it, and being a band that doesn’t sound like anyone is no small feat.
Like many of the albums I forced myself to come to grips with in the nineties, it was worth it.