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Case/Lang/Veirs – Atomic Number (2016)

One of the young year’s most pleasing strangenesses is the announcement of a partnership between the legendary k.d. lang, singer-songwriter Laura Veirs and the force of nature that is Neko Case. It’s not the sound that’s strange but the fact that this powerhouse combination was able to come together: despite Case’s successes solo and with The New Pornographers, or Veirs’s nine acclaimed long-players, lang’s many albums have outsold the others’ by a factor of at least 20. She’s an artist of a different commercial class, and these kinds of pop stars rarely accede to sharing a marquee. Then again, lang’s not your average Grammy winner, and it appears that she was the one who initiated the Case/Lang/Veirs collaboration, e-mailing the indie stars out of the blue. Perhaps she had heard Veirs’ sweet Sun Song, from 2013, where Case sang backup vocals; perhaps she had caught the two other singers together on tour. If nothing else, the project’s a reminder of the freedom -our biggest stars should and do have: instead of listless nostalgia tours or one-off cameos, millionaire artists can afford to risk some capital on experiments.

Judging from the trio’s debut single, Case/Lang/Veirs has yielded rich results. Although Case’s singing voice is the loudest-resounding, Atomic Number’s folksong feel most recalls Veirs’ work. (Laurel Canyon sorceress Judee Sill was also apparently a big influence.) Lang’s presence is all poise – a harmony underlying the others, steadying them, without a need for fireworks. Oddly, while the lyrics are a little abstruse – this might be a song about women, it might be a song about sex – the force of the piece lies in its clarity: a sureness, an unwavering conviction, that good things don’t need to justify themselves.

Kwesta ft. Cassper Nyovest – Ngud’ (2016)

I adore this slab of South African hip-hop, a track that seems to invert its own natural sound. It would be mindless party music in someone else’s hands; frankly, it would be enough to have been left to Cassper Nyovest’s hands. But the headliner here is Kwesta, another of the region’s biggest names, who sounds as if he has spent all month in a burning house. Kwesta’s scorched croak has a lil’ Lil Wayne in it, or even a little Ja Rule; I’m not knowledgeable enough to know how his rhymes compare. Yet even from 8,000 miles away I can feel Kwesta’s darkened presence. Despite Ngud’ s ravey synths, despite Nyovest’s bland genericness, the track feels beautifully brittle, splendidly tense. Drake’s made a career reconnoitering nightlife’s achey ennui; on Ngud’ , Kwesta is a reminder of the same nights’ sharp edges, their stakes.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

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