Reviews August 1, 2012
Albums create the worlds in which their songs live. It’s often a subtle process, developing behind the songs in a manner only discernible over the course of the album. In the case of the world explored by MTMTMK, the newest album from nation (and genre) hopping group The Very Best, subtly is not necessarily the operative word. From the distorted, crawling horns that open the first track, the listener is thrown headfirst into the album’s glisteningly hi-tech sound world. Vocals, massed into richly clustered choruses and carefully smoothed with just the right touch of electronic polish, float above the music in clean lines, calling like thunderous voices from the air. The beats, constructed out as complex mixtures of tonal content and rhythmic pattern, stray between the four on the floor of European clubs and more syncopated rhythms reminiscent of the electric African pop that emerges from places like Ghana or South Africa. The songs are primarily mid-tempo, certainly fast enough to dance to, but slow enough that they can reach the zone of epic dance-floor melodic-ism that they strain towards attaining. This effort is helped by the group’s impressive ability to craft indelibly catchy pop hooks, a skill that they demonstrate throughout the album. On tracks like the “Yoshua Alikuti,” which builds to the kind of absolutely massive chorus that almost cries for sweaty-euphoric anthem status, or the pop-wise chants that drive “We Ok,” The Very Best manage to combine the melodic structure and feel of African music with the emotional pacing and structure of western pop. The result hits with all the hyper-focused body-rocking power that is one of the premier achievements of the modern top-ten, while still maintaining both its intelligence (being this catchy without being obvious and predictable is hard to pull off) and its own distinctive voice. The sound is somewhat akin to being strapped to a ball rolling at high speed through a futuristic pin-ball machine- everything is blur of lights and synthesizers rushing by at incredibly high speed, and you might be worried but you DON’T CARE because you’re moving so fast. Stretched across an album, the cumulative result is a form of pan-African, trans-continental pop, one that escapes being tied to the sound of any particular country or style. Although filled with appearances by artists like Amadou and Mariam, and K'naan, and consistently drawing upon sounds and styles from across the African continent, the album avoids the sense of compromise that often creeps into the work of many musicians attempting a similar balancing act. By self-consciously clothing their music in the electronic signs (and sounds) of modernity, the Very Best are able use the flexibility of pop to their advantage. Calling on any and all influences while forcing them to submit to the logic of their own musical ends, they create an album that is simultaneously global and local, true to its roots regardless of whether these roots are from South African choirs or international electronica. This is the sound of cosmopolitanism, where it is possible to develop a form of authenticity in what might appear to be the most synthetic of cultural forms. Coming on like a transmission from the future, MTMTMK seems to point us towards a world in which cultures mix freely without the threat of loss, joined together by their thrall to the heady rush of the dance floor.