Album review: Lorraine Klaasen “Nouvelle Journée”

“Is this the end or the beginning now?” Lorraine Klaasen asks on “Where to Now” on Nouvelle Journée (Justin Time Records, 2016), and for the South African vocalist who now resides in Quebec, Canada, it’s a question of self-reflection. Thirty years into a career, Lorraine had slowed down to care for her ailing mother. This time with family cultivated a deep appreciation for life and for heritage. So Lorraine went back into the studio armed with a list of covers and a reimagining of her tune “Where to Now”. She teamed up with premier jazz and Afro groove musicians to weave together a slinky set that is at once glossy soulful and funky.

Lorraine sings in Tsonga, Sotho, isiZulu, Xhosa, English, and French. She leaps from upbeat songs about justice to slower songs of remembrance. It’s a cross-cultural, cross-epoch exploration of sound, and it’s pretty, tight, and fresh. Her laidback singing and the relative loose instrumentation reminds me of one of my favorite musicians, Oliver Mtukudzi, but Lorraine really allows her sound to go wherever fits.

The title track is about a fresh start, and this is something Lorraine clearly experienced as she went back into the studio. She powers through the electrified groove. Immediately following is the tumbling “Ke Tshepile Bafatsi”, a prancing song about a higher power. Both songs include accordion that’s intestinally sparse but fulfilling.

By the time we get to Polokwane, we’ve entered deep jazz, complete with upright bass. Also at this point, the album becomes disjointed. The flow of Nouvelle Journée isn’t great. The intention was set on songs about something unifying, not sounding unifying. Amazingly, Lorraine can sing from numerous languages without any problem, but the album can’t decide if it feels groovy or solemn, and the attempt at both and everything in between isn’t super sharp.

Then again, each song on its own is really good! The highlight is “Izani Nonke”, undoubtedly chosen because it sounds like Mtukudzi, but it’s also a charming moment for Lorraine to have a little fun while spiritually lifting the speakers. “They may say I lost my beauty,” she croons; “They may have said I had my time.” Well, clearly she’s got a bone to pick with that notion.

The question that comes up for me is: who is the record for? I love it, but I also love worldly music and albums rich with a story behind them. And as little as I like jazz, Lorraine is one of those people who can change your mind, at least for the four minutes she’s singing to you. I think, if you enjoy South African music, and if you enjoy a good voice, Nouvelle Journée is worth a risk. It’s got something sweet to it. It’s got heart. It’s got Lorraine.

Album review: Gary Dread “Point of View”

Gary Dread’s other band, The Movement (where he plays drums), is a progressive reggae band that blends multiple genres with creative risks. Seemingly, Gary’s solo material plays to his other side, that of strictly roots. While all of Gary’s solo music has played around with rock steady, dancehall, and lover’s rock (three standard reggae sub-genres, for those who don’t know), Point Of View (self-released, 2016) is his most focused yet.

From minute one it’s clear that Gary’s lyricism isn’t anything otherworldly, but classic reggae sounds have always suffered from this, and reggae has always been more about the vibe and groove than it ever has about lyrical ingenuity. Despite that disclaimer, this is some of Gary’s most inspired stuff. For instance, “My heart was made to love,” he begins on the opener, “Protect”. “I am willing to work,” he adds; “I am willing to learn.” This statement precedes a series of songs backing it up. Gary’s flow has improved since Food For Ya Brain (2013), and his delivery has relaxed since Bring Forth Light (2014). His voice might not be soulful or operatic, but his delivery is wholly his own.

But where Gary really shines is his musical precision. The song structures throughout Point of View is consistently delightful. His use of bass and keys is tight, especially on the song “Reggae” (go figure). He does a nice job of integrating dancehall beats and synths in with traditional tones. “Urban Love” characterizes this infusion, even as Gary offers, “You’re the one for me/ I feel this in my heart/ Nothing… breaks us apart.” It’s nothing new, by any means, but it’s a good song overall.

“Be Free”, a marijuana anthem (of which Gary excels), is one of the album’s best. Gary croons, “Want it more than a six-pack.” In this way, Gary brings in a bit of Self, something that Pont of View overall needs more of. Once again, Gary’s going for a classic style here, and if so, he’s hitting the center of the target. What I wish from this respectable and excellent musician is to find his own voice and to explore pushing his own limits. What would it be like to hear tales of Gary Dread? Don’t know, but I’d like to.

That tension makes me torn about Pont of View. Gary’s instrumental layering is tasty. Look no further than the closer, “Elements of Love”. While simple in composition, it grows and peters out, rises and falls, precisely. This is also some of Gary’s nicest lyrics: “I see too many homeless with no food on their plate.” Gary’s position in the reggae world is certainly defining itself, and beyond that, it’s clear Gary’s just having a ton of fun making music, but with a rich passion for song structure, Gary’s wit is overshadowed.

Fans of contemporary spins on traditional reggae riddims will enjoy Gary’s commitment. Fans of that progressive sound will be left wanting, but maybe not- not if, like Gary, you can just vibe and enjoy your presence among the bass n’ drums. If you liked his previous releases, you’ll find this one in the same vein, although maybe more blood is flowing.