In explaining to a pal of mine why M.I.A got the nod over Animal Collective on my best album list for last year, I confessed it was desperately close. I felt however that while Strawberry Jam blissfully makes my day every time I spin it, it’s more a triumph for that band’s amazing evolution than anything else.
I doubt there are bands out there aiming at re-creating such art or even hoisting around their copy as a beacon for a movement, paving the way for what is to come. Indeed, in the tradition of Animal Collective EPs following albums, they’ve put out the okay-ish Water Curses. More interestingly, we wait for (and impatiently too) the much anticipated debut from Annie Sachs from their stables. Kala, however, stood alone as a make-or-break for not just Maya but for the clique that she’s the link of, awaiting their opportunity to terrify and pleasure us with their brilliance.
If Kala had failed then this movement would’ve suffered a setback huge enough to dishearten men and women who have sacrificed everything just to follow the direction their experimentation is taking them.
Thankfully, Kala succeeded despite the flippant reaction Maya causes in so many who view her art as linked to something she simply cannot claim to be a huge part of. The hypocrisy of this thinking doesn’t even merit serious discussion so I will not harp on it. More important to us is that this movement continues to grow, and in various directions too, and not suffer the same fate a sub-genre like trip/hop did. (Never mind the fact that Portishead is back with their best album yet).
The follow-up success now rests with Philadelphia native Santi White, who is the face of the duo Santogold. (John Hill is the silent production hive.) Their debut has been pushed back enough times to worry anyone who’s invested time to finding out about them. You already know however that Santi’s an amazing talent because the press on her since last November hasn’t waned one bit. Like most critics, I’d had already started reviewing this album. I already had attached high praises based on the six tracks that were out there tantalizing our ears. Now the finished product is here, glossed, remixed, and overdubbed to perfection.
And indeed it is near-perfection. The album effortlessly mirrors the heavy 80's pop sound Santi clearly grew up on, yet not once does she overdose on it. That ensures that subtle tracks like Lights Out and Anne reveal a clear Pixies fixation that is mixed with a funk intuition that hits its intended vibe dead on.
Even better, the punk-tinged You’ll Find a Way runs its heavenly chorus with remarkable skill. Not content, she rolls out ska by numbers on Say Aha and infuses it with dub and new wave. Even though the artist she’s mostly associated with is M.I.A, it’s evident that Santi has been crafting her own inimitable style for some time. She isn’t a mere clone of her Sri Lankan contemporary but an equally intriguing enigma. Santogold steps right up to the punk plate Kala hints and hits everything out of the ball-park. And just for bragging rights, she even tags L.E.S Artistes along the pop vibe everyone’s been clogging in Umbrella’s cloudy exhaust.
Whereas Maya’s music is mostly pastiche because of her art background, Santi studied Caribbean and West African drumming at college and thus her production is more natural and coherent. Santi’s emergence therefore is just as important because she too represents a swathe of musicians that a pop-driven market like North America largely overlooks. Not many straddle pop/rock and rhythm and blues anymore; especially as alternative soul has largely been forgotten.
It’s not as radical as Kala but yet it manages to brook another direction and that is what is so progressive about Santi White. She shores up something deeper than arty genre-testing and hearkens back to a past where musical ideas didn’t restrict themselves. These ideas (I’ll single out the divine I’m a Lady for this point) don’t rock the house as much as they jolt it, but the personal motivation is quaint and touching. Sure, she may look passive on the album cover and content to fold her hands while apparently puking glitter.
But is it really so or is it the unleashing of a style that has been neglected for far too long? Either way you spin it — thanks to Santogold outsider chic remains alive no matter how hard pop culture tries to wrestle it’s intensity into a cold, heartless and homogenous thing.