A New Sound from Congo

By Pareles, Jon | International New York Times, May 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

A New Sound from Congo


Pareles, Jon, International New York Times


New releases from Mbongwana Star, Zella Day, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Giant Sand.

Mbongwana Star, a band from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, radically upends expectations of Congolese music; "mbongwana" means "change" in Lingala, a Congolese lingua franca. Its album "From Kinshasa" (World Circuit/Nonesuch) is a world away from the lilting rumba rhythms, suave singers and intertwined guitars of Congolese soukous; it's also far more surreal than the so-called Congotronics of Konono No. 1, a group that brings its amplified thumb pianos to one song on "From Kinshasa." The soukous guitars are still there, now and then, but solitary post-punk guitar lines also hang in the air, and they share a spooky, precarious soundscape that changes with each track: Heaving with distorted bass, warped by the echoes and shifting reverb of a psychedelic-dub production, invaded by noise. ("Shegue," which means "street child," ends with what sounds like gunfire.) Coco Yakala Ngambali, the band's lead singer and main songwriter, has a scratchy, ravaged voice, though what he's singing about is left untranslated by the low-information album package. Mbongwana Star's producer and bass player is Liam Farrell, an Irishman based in Paris, but the album is the opposite of a prettied- up crossover. Anything familiar quickly slips into the shadows.

Zella Day, a 20-year-old singer-songwriter, makes broad-stroke, all-or-nothing pop on "Kicker" (Hollywood). "Kicker" isn't Ms. Day's debut album; she made one locally in Arizona when she was 13, and has continued writing songs ever since. Taking some cues from Lana del Rey, she sings about desire and self-destruction, about pleasure bound up with addiction, betrayal and surrender. She sometimes draws on Ms. del Rey's slurred vocal phrasing and film-score nostalgia, too. But her music is far more fortified. Ms. Day arrives with reinforcements: the booming drums that pace each majestic chorus, the orchestras or massed keyboards and guitars that loom up on cue as her voice thickens and quivers. Her lyrics grasp for archetypal resonances with titles like "East of Eden" and "Sweet Ophelia," or they get down to basics as in "High," which opens, "We are high, I'm in love." There's ample calculation on this album, but also a hint of genuine darkness behind each treacherous romance.

Karen Dalton arrived in Greenwich Village during the early 1960s folk revival with songs she'd learned growing up in Oklahoma and a voice that held a reedy, startling, bluesy quaver. …

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