mu­sic Don’t You Turn My Brown Eyes Blue

An­wen Craw­ford ON Young Fathers’ ‘Co­coa Sugar’

The Monthly (Australia) - - APRIL 2018 - An­wen Craw­ford on Young Fathers’ ‘Co­coa Sugar’

Why are Young Fathers one of the best bands in the world? Be­cause ev­ery­where they go they ar­rive free of clichés, in­clud­ing the clichés you might as­so­ciate with a hack­neyed phrase like best band in the world. What do you hear when you hear that? Think again. No lead singer, no lead gui­tarist, no de­fined mu­si­cal roles. In­stead, all three mem­bers of Young Fathers – Al­loy­s­ious Mas­saquoi, Kayus Bankole and Gra­ham “G” Hast­ings – sing, shout, holler, croon, scream, hum, whis­tle and (sort of) rap, some­times over the top of one an­other, some­times tak­ing turns. Their vo­cal parts can be so dis­parate that you’d swear each man was si­mul­ta­ne­ously fronting his own band in his own mind, and then all of a sud­den they’ll con­verge, tightly enough that you can’t tell them apart. The mu­si­cal logic is in­scrutable, and in­fec­tious. Added to this tumult is a spe­cific pal­ette of in­stru­ments: a squally ana­logue syn­the­siser; an or­gan or key­board on oc­ca­sion; shak­ers and floor toms. (Live, Young Fathers be­come a four-piece with the ad­di­tion of tour­ing drum­mer Steven Mor­ri­son, who plays a stripped-down kit stand­ing up.) Imag­ine, if you will, the joy­ful en­ergy of chil­dren in­vent­ing chants in the school­yard, shaded by post-punk’s la­tent fury and then bright­ened again by tiny in­stances of pure boy band charm. No floppy fringes, no win­some cheek­bones, no sad love songs. (I love a band that doesn’t write love songs.) “Don’t you turn my brown eyes blue,” the group warn on “Turn”, a song from their third al­bum, Co­coa Sugar, re­leased last month. “I’m not like you / I’m noth­ing like you.” It’s no lie. Young Fathers aren’t like any­one

or for tena­cious. The band name comes from the fact that each mem­ber shares a given name with his fa­ther, but it’s also a clue as to the un­sul­lied ebul­lience and preter­nat­u­ral se­ri­ous­ness that are equal forces within the group’s mu­sic. Their con­tra­dic­tions shouldn’t work, but they do: chaotic and chore­ographed, busy and aus­tere, abra­sive and melo­di­ous. Young Fathers met on the dance floor of an Ed­in­burgh youth club as 14-year-olds, in the early 2000s. (The more west­erly Scottish city of Glas­gow has given the world Pri­mal Scream, The Blue Nile, Sim­ple Minds, Kode9, The Pas­tels, Bert Jan­sch, Life With­out Build­ings and the broth­ers Young of AC/DC, among oth­ers. Ed­in­burgh has given the world … Bay City Rollers. else at all, which is a thing that can be said of hardly any of their mu­si­cal peers. Their songs prac­ti­cally de­mand that you get up and move, but also that you pay at­ten­tion. “Learn your lessons,” they warn again. Call them a hip-hop group at your peril. “That’s just a tag that we’re stuck with be­cause of how we look,” Hast­ings once told the NME. “It’s bor­der­line racist.” Co­coa Sugar could mean black and white, could mean bit­ter and sweet, could mean some­thing else al­to­gether. Words are im­por­tant to Young Fathers be­cause their mu­sic is based so much in vo­cal­is­ing, but the mean­ing of the words isn’t all that’s at stake. It’s about the mulch. It’s about the mouth-feel. Co­coa and sugar are both rather gritty – a word that can stand in for gran­u­lar

And Josef K, a rather dour post-punk band even by post-punk stan­dards: no drunk­en­ness, no stage ban­ter, no en­cores. Group har­monies and in­ter­mit­tent sever­ity – yes, it feels right that Young Fathers are from Ed­in­burgh.) They spent their early days to­gether writ­ing songs in Hast­ings’ bed­room; Hast­ings pro­grammed the beats us­ing cheap soft­ware, and the three teenagers recorded their vo­cals with a home karaoke ma­chine, shar­ing one mi­cro­phone be­tween them. Even now, with two mix­tapes, three al­bums, one Mer­cury Prize, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mas­sive At­tack and mul­ti­ple ap­pear­ances on last year’s T2 Trainspot­ting sound­track to their name, Young Fathers re­tain both a make-do spirit and a po­tent sense of ur­gency. No gim­micks, no grand­stand­ing, no easy mes­sages. The mem­bers of Young Fathers give the strong im­pres­sion of be­ing “po­lit­i­cal” peo­ple: they have, for in­stance, pre­vi­ously re­fused in­ter­views to the Bri­tish tabloid press, on ac­count of those pa­pers’ right-wing ten­den­cies. But within their mu­sic they refuse to be ex­plicit, and there­fore re­duc­ible, or para­phrasable. This, too, is a form of pol­i­tics. Don’t ask me what the songs are about; I couldn’t tell you. I do know that those songs feel full of move­ment, sur­prise, anger and joy, and that a part of this joy comes from the group con­duct­ing a pri­vate mu­si­cal con­ver­sa­tion with one an­other, but in pub­lic. On their records and es­pe­cially live – if you ever get the chance to see Young Fathers live, run, don’t walk – they are her­metic yet per­me­able, like the last gang in town but one ea­ger for new mem­bers. Their poly­phonic, lead­er­less style en­cour­ages a lis­tener to imag­ine them­selves join­ing in. An ex­am­ple: buried within the YouTube search re­sults for “Young Fathers live” is some shaky mo­bile phone footage of the group per­form­ing “Shame”, a song from their pre­vi­ous al­bum, White Men Are Black Men Too (2015), and one of their most in­stantly ap­peal­ing. The footage is from a show ear­lier this year in the Slove­nian cap­i­tal of Ljubljana. Within 30 sec­onds of the song’s be­gin­ning one fan has got them­selves up on stage, then there are two, then six, then two dozen peo­ple danc­ing, singing, and tak­ing selfies with the band mem­bers, who mean­while con­tinue to per­form with­out pause, as if this were the most or­di­nary and the most wel­come thing in the world. “What you do to feel bet­ter?” sings every­body. “What you do to feel good?” Be­come a mem­ber of Young Fathers, ob­vi­ously. Co­coa Sugar is partly the re­sult of what Young Fathers learnt by play­ing live, night in and night out, for the bet­ter part of five years, roughly from the re­lease of their first mix­tape, Tape One (2011, reis­sued last year), through their Mer­cury Prize–winning de­but al­bum, Dead (2014), to its fol­low-up and be­yond. It is an al­bum made by mu­si­cians who have come to re­alise that mu­si­cal sim­plic­ity is dif­fi­cult to achieve, and that sim­plic­ity is not the same thing as ob­vi­ous­ness. The sonic tex­tures of Co­coa Sugar aren’t markedly dif­fer­ent from those of Young Fathers’ pre­vi­ous work, but the songs move with greater ease. Take “In My View”, re­leased as a sin­gle in Jan­uary, which pro­ceeds from a fa­mil­iar base – ana­logue syn­the­siser, brisk per­cus­sive pat­terns – and then ad­mits more space be­tween the el­e­ments. It is also, un­usu­ally for Young Fathers, quite a me­lan­choly song. “In my view / Noth­ing’s ever given away,” sings Mas­saquoi on the song’s cho­rus. (Young Fathers don’t al­ways do cho­ruses.) “I be­lieve / To ad­vance then you must pay.”

Young Fathers are one of the best bands in the world be­cause they ex­ist on the very edge of ex­pli­ca­bil­ity and of be­long­ing.

Though the song is full of feel­ing, it is also an ex­am­i­na­tion of feel­ing. Be­fore you feel too sorry for them, take a look at the ac­com­pa­ny­ing film clip, which be­gins as a se­ries of maudlin nothings (a woman cry­ing, a lonely cow­boy danc­ing) and ends as a de­con­struc­tion of th­ese very im­ages. “The Art of Mak­ing Peo­ple Care” reads one of the ti­tle cards that flash on­screen as the shots pull out to re­veal crew and cam­era. “Show Me Your Softer Side.” No in­dul­gence, no false com­mu­nal­ity, no sen­ti­men­tal­ity. The most pierc­ing song on Co­coa Sugar is called “Tre­molo” – an evoca­tive, mu­si­cal word, and one with mul­ti­ple mean­ings. On the one hand, a tre­molo – a trem­bling – is the dis­tinc­tive “shim­mer­ing” sound made by a vi­o­lin­ist or other string player who draws their bow rapidly back and forth while play­ing one note. It’s also an ef­fect that can be pro­duced by cer­tain gui­tar am­pli­fiers and ped­als – tech­ni­cally speak­ing, a mod­u­la­tion that pro­duces a change in vol­ume, though the “shim­mer” is com­pa­ra­ble to the string player’s. Lastly, the tre­molo arm on an elec­tric gui­tar, also called a whammy bar, changes the pitch of a note, a tech­nique more ac­cu­rately de­scribed as vi­brato. And so? “Tre­molo my soul,” sing (and shout, and speak) Young Fathers on their song, over a wood­block beat and a gen­tly swelling or­gan. The vo­cals shim­mer. The song on the whole is sad, de­fi­ant and strange. Souls that trem­ble, am­plify and bend. No scene, no trend, no genre. Young Fathers are one of the best bands in the world be­cause they ex­ist on the very edge of ex­pli­ca­bil­ity and of be­long­ing – a vul­ner­a­ble, dif­fi­cult place to be. A per­haps ec­static place. (Ec­static, from the Greek ek­sta­sis. Put out of place. To stand out­side one­self.) They are also, in the best sense, a pop band. It isn’t their fault that the bulk of con­tem­po­rary pop is scarcely as ad­ven­tur­ous as they are.

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