out September 8th
I really wanted to like BLK JKS. They have been described, by people who should know better, as a South African TV On The Radio. Their drummer was named the “best musician” at SXSW 2008 – a gathering not short on phenomenal musicians. They bring genuine African voices to a genre where derivatives like Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors have recently thrived. By all accounts they should knock my socks off.
But here’s the disappointing thing: They don’t. Shocker, I know, but BLK JKS’ debut LP After Robots isn’t the greatest thing you’ll hear this year. It’s not even close, really.
Which is a damn shame, if I may say so, but perhaps a teaching moment. See, we’ve come to expect incredible things from bands we’ve never heard of. We’ve grown accustomed to the Bon Ivers and Arcade Fires of the world, blooming from genesis to greatness in what seems like seconds. We forget that lots of great bands start out as great concepts with mediocre execution. Bands develop, hone their talents, refine and streamline their creative processes. The world of insta-stardome that we’ve become accustomed to isn’t for everyone.
BLK JKS suffer from the musical schizophrenia that often besets these greenhorns. At their best, they are reminiscent of today’s best world-rock bands: TV On The Radio, Bloc Party, Yeasayer. At their worst, they are a hodge-podge of unfinished thoughts, a Tool mimicking rock band that seems to be searching for an identity of its own. I’ve listened to After Robots over and over, desperate to catch a glimpse of some defining moment, some song that really hits all the high points, some statement about who this vowel-less band is and what they want to do.
It remains unclear.
Album opener “Molalatladi” is a growing, horn-infused tune that plays up BLK JKS’ diverse beginnings with lyrics in English as well as tribal African languages. It’s complex and exciting, almost to its own detriment. The muddled energy is spread out a bit more on “Banna Ba Modimo,” but here, again, it’s tough to make out a clear direction of the song. The chorus ties the tune together a bit, but leaves the verses floating awkwardly between focal points, seemingly extraneous. The complex layering that really defines the album reaches a fever pitch later on “Lakeside”, where the drumming gets so busy that I’ve more than once paused my iTunes to make sure some other song wasn’t playing somewhere else.
It’s too much. After Robots is overwhelmed by its own complexity. It seems like BLK JKS entered the studio with a brainstorm of ideas and recorded them all, rather than filtering through the noise to find the gems. When they do simplify a bit – the opening phrases of “Standby,” for example – it sounds sublime. Elsewhere it’s a mess. I would imagine that BLK JKS play an incredible live show, full of great musicianship and happily intelligible chaos onstage. On record, however, the chaos is less easily discernible.
I’m pretty sure that beneath the rubble there’s something worth listening to on After Robots, but no matter how much I search, I can’t find it. I want to like BLK JKS. I really do. But on this go around, they’ve missed the mark. Lesson learned – let’s give them some tours and some time to solidify their mission. Hopefully they’ll fight through the noise and find a sound.
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Chris Barth is a columnist here at Pretty Much Amazing. You can read his more succinct daily posts at his music blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.