Afropop is back. Well, it’s been back – or did it ever even leave? With Paul Simon’s foray in South African township jive music on his 1986 masterwork Graceland (and his following world music albums throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s), a marked rise of African influence in western pop music came about. More recently, Vampire Weekend has been making white boys’ dance with chilly, colourful African rhythms and eastern-tinged melodies. And, on a darker side, Local Natives have worked afropop beats into the backbones of their introspective freak-folk.
On their exciting new record Naomi, The Cave Singers overtopped the world music floodgates immediately. Surely not yet as ubiquitous as Vampire Weekend, or even Local Natives, The Cave Singers offer a brand of afropop committed to sounding both western and more authentically African than either of their aforementioned contemporaries.
With the first jangles and jumps of opening track Canopy’s electric guitar, it’s clear Naomi is not entirely west of the Prime Meridian. Singer Peter Quirk’s meandering, casually rich delivery, hopping delightfully over light percussion (that eventually falls into a township feel), is gripping. But just as he reflects the chanting nature of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s most melodic solo lines, Quirk offers a truly catchy chorus hook – splitting the difference marvellously.
And as Naomi continues, it continues to rock. Have to Pretend takes as many notes from the guitars on Simon’s 1990 album Rhythm Of The Saints as it does from Peter Hook’s Joy Division basslines (for more of this, see edgy-bass-heavy Early Moon). On Karen’s Car, a rollicking rhythm section pushes Quirk’s yawning verse gleefully forward into an earworm of an afropop hook. And with It’s A Crime, the band digs into a dirty British invasion guitar hook under Quirk’s half-punk, half-Mick Jagger vocal line, restraining the instrumentation and allowing for thrilling moments of negative space.
In fact, the spare instrumentation is rather a trend on Naomi. On softer folk tunes, like the driving Week to Week, Cave Singers succeed in applying Real Estate’s suburban calm to Quirk’s more powerful voice. Though the melody is not entirely engaging, and Quirk’s lyrics are not quite comprehensible, the arrangement is intriguing.
Inevitably, then, the songs on Naomi are not always immediately gratifying. Evergreens is somewhat repetitive, with a melody that doesn’t travel much over the looped guitar patterns – an argument could be made for its meditative nature, but even after several listens, it still struggles to truly set a mood. Furthermore, several of the record’s tunes, though dynamic in their own right, are too sonically similar to sit so closely packed on one album. (Perhaps a shorter record would have avoided this problem.)
Elsewhere, Naomi finds The Cave Singers drifting slightly too far towards their influences. Easy Way is a satisfying pop song, but the weight of Tom Petty is undeniable. And more generally, Quirk finds himself in Rusted Root territory when, with his voice and with this kind of genre-bending folk, he should be trying at all costs not to.
Ultimately though, The Cave Singers synthesize folk, rock, and world music sounds from the 1960s through the present in an original way. With the detachment and bare-bones attitude of early punk rock and contemporary alternative rock, the folk-romp tendencies of everyone from Paul Simon to Eric Clapton and Cream, and the percussive, winding, soulful glory of traditional and pop music from around the world, Naomi is a thoroughly unique product. Not without fault, the album is a solid, cohesive work – and sign of The Cave Singers’ electrifying potential.