White Juju

by Soweto Kinch
(LSO Live, CD, LP, DL)

During the UK’s first lockdown in 2020, the saxophonist, poet and MC Soweto Kinch followed the rules – one state-sanctioned walk a day.

Kinch, who is a historian as well as a musician, took a good look at the streets of daily walks and noted all the symbols of imperial power, warfare and a fealty to a very one-sided version of the past. White Juju – a sardonic way of referencing that symbolic, racialized power play – is an album that takes aim at it all, and it has been written and recorded at a tumultuous time. Layered over the album’s music are some of the subjects of the day: Black Lives Matter, the weasel words of Boris Johnson, and of government and police spokespersons denouncing ‘cultural vandalism’. Long known as a jazz man, Kinch expands his reach of sax and poetry to include orchestration – the album was recorded live at London’s Barbican Theatre and backed by the London Symphony Orchestra – and the result is powerfully emotional.

The heart of jazz has always been political: it has, historically, expressed so much, and so it is with White Juju. There is some clunkiness, but the album is stunning when it comes together. ‘Dawn’ starts with flutes that emulate birds – and by extension, freedom. More jarringly, sonorous cello lines underscore one of White Juju’s nastiest voices – historian David Starkey, speaking on a rightwing chat show. Clunk can be forgiven; this is passionate, clever bricolage that looks for social justice even in the symbols and mouthpieces that deny it.

Louise Gray

This Stupid World

by Yo La Tengo
(Matador, LP CD, DL)

Whatever (and whoever) is stupid in this world, Yo La Tengo are not part of it. The New Jersey-based indie band, mostly a trio except when they are not, have been quietly, carefully, watchfully noodling away for – gulp – nearly 40 years now and This Stupid World is the band’s 16th studio album. Happily for those of us fighting on a daily basis with stupidity, worldly and otherwise, Yo La Tengo still operate with a querulous energy, their music never making a definitive statement, rather leaving question marks, observations, hints, pauses even.

The biggest pause is a well-modulated hum of electronics that comes at the end of ‘Brain Capers’, a mid-album track that blends the voices of Ira Kaplan (guitar/piano), Georgia Hubley (drums, piano) and James McNew (bass) with a swoon of guitar loops and an ever-insistent drumbeat. The track segues into a more psychedelic whirl – the album’s title song. It’s not exactly a Hendrix-inspired question of experience that this track asks – for a start, the vocals are purposely in a fog of sound – but the soundscape is beautifully retro, a cross between some Velvet Underground and the Byrds.

Yo La Tengo have always been characterized by a tightly controlled gentle jangle, where lead duties are swapped around the trio with commendable democracy. The excellent ‘Until It Happens’ is a wonder of choppy rhythm, sparse vocals by Kaplan and pointillistic guitar notes: nothing less than a masterpiece of small gestures. However, it’s the points when Hubley takes the mic that Yo La Tengo reach a mind-expanding apotheosis. ‘Miles Away’ is seven glorious minutes of swoony vocals and a drifting keyboard/guitar soundscape that is heading for the moon.

Louise Gray