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Record review: “Story” by The Sout Project

1 December 2009

I’m not really the right person to ask to write record reviews, and I’ve found this one very difficult to write. It’s not so much a review as my own response to the record, and to and trying to analyse my own response.

Story by the Sout Project collective, was produced in Cape Town. As the producers describe it story | The Sout Project:

This fresh expression of ‘world emergent’ music has been conceived and recorded in Cape Town South Africa.

While deeply engaged in diverse musical traditions and oozing creative musicality ‘Story’ is more than just an album it represents a vision woven into song. Eclectic and ecumenical the music emerges from a spiritual journey which is being shared by many others across the world.

I listened to it a couple of times. It was pleasant. It was OK. But I find it difficult to get excited about it.

I would describe it as “restaurant music” — something to be played as the background to conversation over a meal. There seemed to be remarkably little variation in tempo or volume or style from one song to the next, and that is one of the characteristics that make good restaurant music, something heard in the background, but not overpowering, where no one is listening to the words. In some parts, especially the beginning, this impression was strengthened by the words being drowned by the accompaniment.

Saying that worries me, because it feels like damning with faint praise. So perhaps the fault is with me rather than with the music. That is why I say I am probably the wrong person to be asked to review this kind of music. And I can think of two reasons for that:

First, I’m the wrong generation.

The music in Story might well appeal to young people today, people in their 20s. But I am a child of the 1960s. Back then “contemporary Christian music” was modernist and dull. “Relevance” was all the rage, and most Christian theologians and musicians were trying to make Christianity “relevant” to the modern world, and especially urban industrial society. So most of the hymns of that period oozed modernity, like Ayn Rand’s heroines saluting smoking factory chimneys as signs of entrepreneurship and progress.

God of concrete, God of steel
God of piston, God of wheel

The use of contemporary jargon characterised the “contemporary Christian music” of that period, and there are echoes of this in Story, where there are phrases like “unsustainable ways”. There is some advance, though, in the recognition that the “concrete and steel” lifestyle was not sustainable in the long term, but the use of contemporary “relevant” jargon dates it quickly.

Back in the 1960s the best “contemporary Christian” music (or spiritual, because it wasn’t all Christian) was produced by secular pop groups. Mass in F Minor by the Electric Prunes was one example. But instead of using contemporary “relevant” terms and language, it was actually a setting of the old Latin Mass. They also did a version of the Kol Nidre, the Jewish mourning ritual. There was also Missa Luba, a setting of the Latin Mass to Congolese folk tunes.

But then I asked my son to listen to it, to get a different generation’s opinion, and he said it was not really his kind of music, though he knows some people who would like it.

The second problem is that I am the wrong culture, the wrong church

After being an Orthodox Christian for over 20 years, I suppose my tastes and expectations for spiritual music have changed. Two other Orthodox Christians, both of my generation, listened to Story with me (one was my wife), and their response was more or less the same as mine. It is pleasant enough listening, but doesn’t excite us. My wife said she wouldn’t listen to it at work. She listens to old pop music or Russian chant.

So perhaps it’s a cultural difference as well, or a denominational one, if you prefer.

The producers were clearly aware of the multi-cultural nature of South Africa’s society, and tried to include different languages — English, Zulu, Xhosa, Hindi. There were also different instruments from different cultures, though the differences seemed to be obliterated as all seemed to be shaped into a common style, with a single tempo, a single volume.

It reminded my wife of The Fisherfolk, a Christian group that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. It reminded me of Era, a group that my son likes, though he didn’t seem to like this one as much.

If Sout are to produce another album, I would suggest that they check the balance of the singing and accompaniment, as the accompaniment often drowns the singing. And also perhaps vary the tempo and volume occasionally. It was the same percussion all the way through that made it seem monotonous. But perhaps that was what is intended, and is part of the signature style of the group, and so it might not be a good suggestion.

I’m sorry I can’t be more positive about it. I feel a bit like the bloke in the car ad a few years ago who said that the car (a Fiat Palio) was nice, and the owner objects. “Nice! You are calling my car ‘nice’? A cup of tea is ‘nice’, Mrs Warren at the nursery school is ‘nice’.” But that’s about all I can say about this record. It was quite pleasant to listen to, it was OK.

But I’m probably the wrong person to ask. I don’t have an iPod, I don’t download music, I don’t listen to podcasts, I don’t even have speakers on the computer on which I’m writing this.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 2 December 2009 3:03 pm

    OK Steve I asked you, and you wrote it. Thanks for taking the time to do that.

    This, like the food in your restaurant, is a matter of taste. Some say “Too much sout” and others, too little. But let me answer some of your criticism.

    To my ear, and others agree, the mix of styles is bordering on extreme. Certainly, no conventional record company is going to touch it – it’s too wide a selection. It’s certainly intruiging that your culture finds it monotonous.

    One or two points of fact. The tempos range from 78 to 120 BPM, and I’d say that is fairly wide. In terms of melodic variation, I have specifically tried to keep the music singable, and that normally means not greater than one and a half octaves. Perhaps this comes across as too narrow if your benchmark is Pavarotti.

    One more factor I’d mention is that there is a dearth of rhythm in music that has been overly affected by a sense of the platonic “other” – Christian chant starting with Gregory all seems to draw us to a disembodied “heavenly” sphere, and I am very keen to rediscover an Incarnational connection with Earth, the body, time, and rhythm. This is where the cultural revolution which I identify with, has moved. It started with Rock n Roll, moved on to Rock, then got very much more “tribal” with Rave and World music. These are some roots to consider.

    I think we are indeed on different cultural wavelengths, and have differing measures of what constitutes “variation” and “interest”.

    Thanks again for putting yourself through a difficult task.

    Nic
    The Sout Project

    • 2 December 2009 8:17 pm

      Nic,

      Thanks for responding, and telling more about the thought behind it. It wasn’t difficult to listen to, and I’ll probably listen to it again — perhaps it’ll grow on me. But as my son said, he knows there are people who do like that kind of music, and so I hope they find it, and enjoy listening to it.

  2. 4 December 2009 8:47 am

    “There seemed to be remarkably little variation in tempo or volume or style from one song to the next”?!?! Are you listening to the same copy that I’m listening to?!?!

    • 4 December 2009 11:43 am

      Roger,

      I’ll listen more carefully next time…

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