Sauti Sol, the Kenyan quartet who won the Museke award in 2010, for best group, kept up the same smooth acoustic sounds and careful harmonies on their second album, Sol Filosofia. The four college students sing in perfectly crafted melodies, mostly in Swahili. Most of the songs are driven by soft guitar arrangements and understated percussion, giving a meandering, and appropriately for the title, introspective, quality to most tracks. There are exceptions: “Private Spice” is a roots reggae tune about finding the small pleasures in life that picks up the tempo from the others. Sometimes this emphasis of gentle harmonies can detract from other sounds that should be present and you end up with songs like “Bowana Lelisu,” which is pretty enough but wanders into a type of acoustic r&b that some American listeners might find a little banal or just too sentimental. It’s heavy on the voices we’ve already heard and light any other substantial sounds. There’s also the kind of strange cover of “Row Your Boat” which again works fine with Sauti’s execution, but probably could have been left off the final version just because it sounds silly.
The four sing about most of what could be expected from this genre: love, nostalgia and other high emotions. “Coming Home,” channels the tune of the Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey” for a melancholy reflection on a lost relationship. The songs feel very consistent and the backing musicians, though maybe underused, are able to turn on the Afropop or the American soft-rock whenever needed. The last track is “Sol Generation” a more intense song (relatively, that is) about rebelling against negativity and finding solidarity with fellow citizens. It features a mix of electric guitar, violin, and a thumping drum that is very reminiscent of '80s U2 or The Police. What really works best are songs like this and the other rockier one, “Sofia” where their powerful voices rise into a emotional chorus in time with the wailing guitar. It’s a little like when the Temptations chose to make harder, psychedelic songs where the harmonies are not the only thing to be heard.
Sauti Sol might benefit from moving next in an alternative rock direction now that they have conquered the intersection of soul and acoustic wonderfully. Time will tell.