Music

K'naan meanders further into pop land

The Globe and Mail

K'naan publicity photo.

This just in from K’naan: “It’s not easy being me.”

None of us really knows what it’s like to live in another’s skin, but if pressed, I would guess that being K’naan may have been a tougher gig formerly than it is now. This is a guy who escaped Somalia when the bullets were flying, came to Canada with his family as a refugee, and set up in none-too-posh digs in Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood. True, he was an exile and still is – though more often seen in Los Angeles than Toronto – and for many people, the pain of exile doesn’t ease over time.

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From Rexdale, K’naan moved into a recording suite and made three studio albums that got favourable notice in the hip-hop community and beyond. The guy had a different sound, a nimble way with words, and a great backstory, which he used sincerely and effectively in his music.

Things were rolling along just fine, and then K’naan reached for a Coke – or rather, the Coca-Cola Co. reached for him. They chose his Wavin’ Flag song for a commercial that ran prominently during broadcasts of the FIFA World Cup of Soccer in 2010. Suddenly, K’naan became the unofficial chairman of the world’s unofficial uplift committee. Nelson Mandela received him at his South African home.

Everyone in popular music wants a big hit, but an inspirational monster hit like Wavin’ Flag raises the question, with particular force, of what to do next. Would K’naan keep his dusty feet on that high road, or get back to telling stories that don’t always have a bright side?

In More Beautiful Than Silence, he does both. This EP, a five-song instalment on an album coming in the spring, goes further into pop land than K’naan has been before, but also offers some new twists on his foundational story about a displaced person trying to ride over the bumps as well as he can.

Coming to America deftly rewrites his story as it might have been: same start, same exile, but the hero’s way out is a marriage of convenience and a quick exit as the police come calling in Rexdale. He flits across the border, still singing a catchy chorus about just wanting a good life, while a velvety African men’s choir sample seethes underneath.

The title song climbs a bittersweet staircase melody through verses and chorus, as K’naan mulls over themes of displacement and death and new life. A gospel choir takes over and the tune ripples to a close with flourishes of piano and violin.

Better draws close to the new-day ethos of Wavin’ Flag. “Never give up on your dreams,” K’naan intones, like a guidance counsellor with better beats. But a reference to his own success with Wavin’ Flag makes it clear that what he means is: Don’t give up dreaming even after some of your dreams come smashingly true. “I’m only gettin’ better,” he insists. Not with this track, which feature some hideous Auto-Tune abuse in the chorus.

Is Anybody Out There plucks another narrative from the projects, with drugs and cops again, and a generic hold-me chorus sung by Nelly Furtado. The album’s other famous guest, Nas, appears for a rap cameo in Nothing to Lose, a brassy but empty number about paying your dues, keeping it real, etc.

By the end, I’m counting two good songs and three I’ll soon forget. Let’s hope the ratio’s more favourable on the full album.

More Beautiful Than Silence

  • K’naan
  • A&M/Octone/Universal


Other new releases:

POP: Voyageur

  • Kathleen Edwards
  • Maple/Universal
  • Three and a half stars

“Change the sheets, and then change me.” There’s a ton of reflection to Kathleen Edwards’s transitional new album, a master class in songwriting that is intensely personal but elegantly wrought, with singing that is affecting yet never pushy in its want to explain. House Full of Empty Rooms, for example, is an achingly beautiful expression of a hollowed relationship. So I feel almost guilty when it’s Edwards’s simple “sha-la-la-la-la la” on the Sheryl Crow-styled rocker Mint that grabs me the most. But there’s such a freshness and freedom to it, coming from an artist clearly enjoying a growth spurt. Co-producer Justin (Bon Iver) Vernon arranges a more shimmering sonic framework than we heard on Edwards’s three previous albums, and there’s new piano and organ touches around, too. Ultimately, Voyageur is a breakup record that is as much about the here and now as it is about the past. Brad Wheeler

ROCK: Aja

  • (as interpreted by) The Darcys
  • Arts & Crafts
  • Two and a half stars

To release a recording covering all seven songs on Steely Dan’s Aja, as Toronto’s the Darcys have just done, is an exercise in chutzpah and uselessness. Chutzpah because the 1977 original is pretty much a masterpiece, intimidating as hell, with note-perfect performances by the era’s top players. Useless because, as William Gibson wrote in a Steely Dan appreciation, Dan ditties uncannily “manage to transcend the duller registers of the cultural calendar.” The Darcys wisely eschew any attempt to mimic or, worse, lampoon the Dans, favouring a lush, monumental sound, indie-style, instead of the “jazzgloss” of the original. As homage, it’s quite fun but hardly a revelation or revaluation. Available on limited-edition vinyl and for free digitally at TheDarcys.ca. James Adams

ROCK: In the Rock Hall

  • Bidiniband
  • Pheromone
  • Three stars

The man is wild. Author-musician Dave Bidini’s second Bidiniband album is a gas, an eclectically conceived rock collection in which musical ideas and lyrical inspirations defy expectations – from song to song, and within individual tracks. The island-tinged Popcorn references many FM-dial icons, and Last of the Dead Wrong Things rocks in a free world where the Clash still live. Hey Paul and Donna scratches my 54-40 itch and involves some slippery rhyming (Donna with Toronta). Eunoia, which takes its words from Christian Bök's vowel-specific, Griffin Poetry Prize-winning poem of the same name, is a sprawling epic of spoken word, Neil Young grunge and blitzkrieg bopping – and that’s not even a quarter of it. “The rebel perseveres” is the chant of that song. Yes, he does. B.W.

Bidiniband plays Toronto’s Dakota Tavern, Jan. 28; Halifax’s The Carlton, Feb. 7.

CLASSICAL: Sergei Rachmaninov: Romances

  • Dmitri Hvorostosky, baritone; Ivari Ilja, piano
  • Ondine Classics
  • Three and a half stars

Rachmaninov’s songs are more likely to howl their pain at the heavens than whisper sweet nothings in small rooms, and it’s rare to hear them in recital: The piano accompaniments can be turbulent and virtuosic – rivals to smaller voices – and the texts intimidate non-Russian speakers. We love baritone Dmitri Hvorostosky in this music not only because Russian is his native tongue – the melody rolls out like an exotic EKG of voluptuous vowels, consonants and tonal inflections – but also for his smooth line, luscious sound, and for an uninhibited emotional extravagance that would seem overblown in most repertoire (and shrill in brighter-toned singers). One caveat only: Hvorostosky projects so easily that we’d happily up the piano’s volume, especially in the Op. 21 songs. Elissa Poole

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