Record review: “Story” by The Sout Project
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.