Release Date: Oct 6, 2009
Record label: Green Owl
Genre(s): Indie, Rock, Electronic, World
There was a David and Goliath quality to the simultaneous performances that closed out the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival. Against the Flaming Lips' grid-draining light show and extravagant confetti budget, the Very Best pitted a grinning guy in a rakishly cocked plaid hat, a stocky Euro-hipster with a console-laden table, and a couple of head-wrapped backup singers. The crowd seemed thin and politely engaged during the first song.
Indie bands love to pretend that they’re something special, that they’re not just another plain old group of boys with guitars and a Smiths records. They like to claim that 'we’ve always had a dance element'. They love to pretend that they listen to lots of different types of music, throwing around fancy, obscure genres that bear little relevance to what they actually sound like.
The problem with hearing so much music is it gets harder to be surprised. But this album defies all preconceptions and never settles into a genre that you could name and locate on the shelves or download menus. From the minute it starts, there's an authority to the production, as if it knows what it's doing and where it's going. The sounds are well-recorded and neatly balanced, and, just as you start to realise that you don't understand the words and can't figure out which country the singer is from, you've reached track three and somebody is singing in English.
Esau Mwamwaya seems to ease into greatness. His songs and life sound charmed, inevitable even. The son of a civil servant in Malawi, he grew up listening to Dolly Parton and Lionel Ritchie. A month after he started singing for his first band, when he was 22, Mwamwaya picked up the drums even though he hadn’t tried percussion since he was a kid.
Because of the lingering guilt over blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, there’s a certain amount of trepidation and uneasiness that accompanies bands like Vampire Weekend, white college students who reappropriate traditional African music for audiences who wouldn’t care about the music of the forgotten continent otherwise. Warm Heart of Africa, the debut album from the Very Best, carries all the pre-packaged white-guilt signifiers -- the music was created by two white guys from Britain (Radioclit), the sound fits nicely with all modern purveyors of what passes as afro-pop these days, and it features collabos with indie it-persons (Ezra Koenig of the aforementioned Vampire Weekend and M. I.
But as vivacious and energetic as it is, there's something even more fundamentally potent and potentially profound going on here (not to suggest that dancing isn't profound -- indeed, that might be precisely the point). Take "Chalo," an unabashedly uplifting barrage of Enya-esque synth stabs which was reportedly (amazingly) recorded on the same night that the group's three members first met, and whose lyrics they've described as about "using love to stop the world's problems. " This is the sort of thing that helps explain why the Very Best can sport such a ticklish moniker with such evident aplomb: somehow, with these guys, it comes off not so much as a boast (albeit an improbably credible one) but as an encapsulation of the boundless optimism and idealism reflected in their songs and in their sound -- a fervent, infectious belief in music's power to bring out the very best in the world and in the human spirit.
Afro-pop dons neon-pink scrunchie, heads to club, gets down to geopolitical rapWhile I never needed to hear the T-Pain Auto-Tune vocal effect in Chichewa, the beats and hooks on this collaboration between Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya and London-based DJ/producer duo Radioclit are inventive enough to forgive the occasional overindulgence.from M.I.A. and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Warm Heart’s Afro-pop jams are influenced by both the polished pop of American and British ’80s groups and the more aggressive side of the modern global discotheque. .
Making the leap from mixtape to a proper album can be even more difficult than overcoming the dreaded sophomore slump – the bar being measured against is one of critical hyperbole, not commercial success. Global in its scope and appeal, the Very Best – Malawian-born, London-based singer Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit, the British production duo of Johan Karlberg and Etienne Tron – accomplishes this feat with rare relative ease on its debut LP, Warm Heart of Africa, a summery celebration of cross-pollinated Afro-pop. The trio borrows from its free 2008 download (the Architecture in Helsinki-sampled "Kamphopo" and remixed "Kada Manja") but also adds 1980s synth-pop ("Chalo"), dancehall grooves ("Nsokoto"), and the M.