Degrees of Passion
VARIOUS : Drop The Debt (Wrasse Records : WRASS 095)
ERIN McKEOWN : Distillation (Nettwerk/Parlophone)

Music allied to a cause can sometimes be a disappointing enterprise. Are a bunch of egos hi-jacking music to promote their sagging profiles? Occasionally such projects suffers from musical blandness which may not help the cause much. Thankfully, this cd manages to escape all of these pitfalls. It is a passionate and varied album and anyone who parts with the asking price is contributing to a more than worthy campaign. And all the tracks are exclusive to this cd.

Artists from Brazil to Senegal, Cameroon to Venezuela join with each other in addressing and opposing a common problem. So, as you might expect, there are many diverse musical voices sharing the same space. Fernanda Abreu & MV Bill blend voices which are partly submerged in the drum dominated mix. Electronic and acoustic musics sit easily side by side. The huge brassy arrangements of Columbia's Toto la Momposina urge on the equally huge, spirited vocals which declare that : 'We Have to end the debt/So we can move forward'.

Brazil and Ivory Coast join forces in a reggae based polemic. Tiken Jah Fakoly & Tribo de Jah "Baba" declare that their 'parents die in poverty' working the fields while the tv coldly states that 'the country's success depends on farming'. Meiway, also from the Ivory Coast, reiterate the message 'cancel the debt' on Assez', using a deceptively relaxed groove. The cool reggae and brass of Zedess sound equally relaxed but the words again are angry on 'Cadeau Empoisonne', accusing the World Bank and the IMF who 'were born to hand out poisoned chalices'.

Massila Sound System incorporate a sample of Thomas Sankara's passionate speech, made shortly before his assassination, into their mix of raw guitar and choppy electronic rhythms. This contrasts with the spectre of blandness which intrudes briefly on Africa South's 'The Third World Cries Everyday', a track that has neither verbal nor musical passion.

Fortunately, Zimbabwe's Oliver Mtukudze can always be relied upon to deliver both. His 'Murimi Munhu' sets his own gruffly distinctive voice in a call and response with some unnamed female vocalists with a rippling melodic backdrop of guitars and percussion. It is capable of moving you whether or not you speak his language. Like much of the music here it transcends linguistic barriers and speaks to the whole body.

There are many styles represented on this cd united by the same sense of injustice, all but one track has earned its place and it bears much replaying.

As befits someone who has been sharing a record label and tour with The Be Good Tanyas Erin McKeown offers some stripped down, mostly acoustic, singing and playing. It was apparently recorded in a farmhouse in Massachusetts and exudes an engaging warmth, passion and intimacy. The instruments are kept to a minimum, mostly guitars, piano and drums, which allows her slightly quirky vocal style to be foregrounded.

Oddly, I was also reminded of some early Rikkie Lee Jones material. Maybe it's in the way she sometimes half whispers/mumbles the words or has something to do with her other vocal inflections. And musically she inclines a little to jazzy shuffles too, which further led me to the comparison. It isn't one to be ashamed of anyway.

The songs vary from the brief but brisk opener, 'Queen Of Quiet' to the rockier closing song 'Love In 2 Parts'. One of those jazzy shuffles, 'Didn't They' sounds as though it was written sometime in the 1940's and showcases McKeown on guitar and piano over some brushed drums. It has a 'live' feel, as does 'La Petite Mort' which features some raucous vocal enthusiasm on the chorus and, inexplicably conjured an image of Ms McKeown kicking off her shoes and scampering round the wooden floors. With an eye and ear to the 1940's again she's chosen to cover the Rodgers and Hart song, 'You Mustn't Kick It Around' which may be somewhat under-resourced tune-wise but is another opportunity to indulge in some energetic and rhythmic vocalising and shouting. And those drums get brushed some more. Maybe she's thinking of starting a surreptitious skiffle revival.

Further enthusiasm and shuffling is evident on 'The Little Cowboy' aided by some gliding dobro and crisp guitar and Ben Demerath who 'yodels and hums' a bit. It has a spontaneous feel to it that probably took weeks to achieve but I don't mind a little deception in the name of art.

She is also capable of moments of tenderness overcoming a title like 'How To Open My Heart In 4 Easy Steps' with carefully placed 'oohs, hums and wails' from Katryna Neilds and Beth Amsel and her own most intimate and passionate vocals. Whatever she sings she sounds as though she is having a good time, as do her partners. I look forward to the next release. But someone should re-think one of the photo shots on the cover. It makes her look like a distressed bag lady with a banjo. Perhaps there's a future album title in there somewhere.

© 2003 Paul Donnelly