Almost 18 000 Facebook fans sit and knyp, hold their breath, hope and pray the new aKing album doesn’t drop them. Hope it upholds the same raw emotional energy and easy soft rock hooks as their debut, Dutch Courage. They still want to blister their fingers holding aloft cheap plastic lighters at future aKing gigs. The anticipation is unbearable. Will they let us down? Will aKing appease the legion of South African pop rock fans they seduced with their debut, or will they turn them around and send them dribbling back to the safe, formulaic shores of Nickleback, Counting Crows, early U2 and Bon Jovi? It’s a risk for sure. It’s hard to follow up a successful debut. Near impossible, some might say. And so in suburbs from Claremont to Florida, from Morningside to Waterkloof, from Peak to Somerset West earnest nineteen year olds are on their knees praying for Hunter, Laudo, Hennie and Snake not to let us down. Praying for ‘Safe As Houses’ version 2, upgraded, better, different yet strangely familiar yet exciting and undiscovered. The hot new stuff that invites you take it home and play it repeatedly, appreciating it more each time. Will they be disappointed?
The album starts with an upbeat and mellow country guitar, jangled over that familiar driving rock ‘n roll bass, which is almost a trademark for the Fokof spin offs. Playful 80s style staccato lyrics, like a relaxed David Byrne, without the freak. Laudo’s chopping it up, showing some versatility. Then to the familiar, chorus, a swelling anthemic, chest thumping chorus, that tickles a sadness in your heart and causes you to look up from your beer towards the stage. Classic aKing. Shades of Dutch Courage, obviously. A touch of Stellenbosch blues, brought down with an anti-climactic pop riff. Build it up and chop it down. Kind of sounds like they’ve been listening to a lot of Peter Gabriel, Big Country, James and a whole lot Creedence. Laudo’s definitely a talent on the vocals, but there’s an insecurity there, more pronounced on this album. His voice is more theatrical, he seems willing to take risks both vocally and with the lyrics he and Hunter are writing. Less practiced, less international cock rock and more intentional Cape Town. Granted it doesn’t deviate too far from it’s familiar pop rock roots and love all serve all motives. A lot of the songs still have the feel of an assured one man cover band playing a pub gig before the rugby. And I mean that as a compliment. This is still very accessible rock music, and I have no doubt it’s going to be huge. But perhaps there’s more honesty this time around. And by necessity, that’s something we’ve never heard before, and therefore it’s a more challenging sound.
The subject matter is suburban and emotional, the lyrics are poetry, especially on songs like ‘Facebrick Constellations’ (which has an Alabama 3 feel to it) and ‘The Heart of a Fool’. Other songs like ‘Gentile Gentlemen’ and the title track ‘Against All Odds’ have a more distinctly South African feel to them. A unique white rock South African sensibility, as if they’re channeling the spirit of James Phillips, old Nude Girls and Bright Blue, maybe even a touch of eVoid in amongst their Big Country musings. But it’s a unique hybrid sound.
Compared to Dutch Courage, Against All Odds is more friendly, looser, simpler. It has a warmer sound. It’s upbeat, and some of the songs carry a touch of ska and even a twist of kwela in them. There are vocal arrangements that hint at African choral traditions. There are other nods towards bands like Foto Na Dans. And this album sounds a lot less Fokof than the last. More country. Probably due to the absence of one Johnny de Ridder, along with his intricate guitar solos and intuitive layered, ‘wall of rock’ arrangements. Perhaps not entirely replaced, but compensated for by Jaco ‘Snakehead’ Venter’s percussion. The drums play a lot more centrally on most of the songs. Then Theo Crous fleshes it out with keys and simple, intelligent production. Unlike Dutch Courage which the band crafted meticulously in studio and then struggled to reproduce on stage, Against All Odds is much more honest. You suspect the album will morph and develop more as a stage show. It should also be easier for the band to play live. Slowly we’re getting to see what this band is really all about. Whether aKing’s mass of fickle pop rock fans have the patience to come along for that particular ride remains to be seen. Against All Odds will slowly start to weed the seen from the scene.
In truth, I think this is a winner. The legion of aKing’s fans won’t be disappointed. They’ll rally around this album like drunk Tukkies students to an Oppikoppi campfire. By the last two songs, I’m hooked. They’re pure heart string pluckers that make you wish you were on stage belting them into the night and having them thrown back at you by a thousand strong crowd. A-grade pop rock that could hold its head high alongside anything bands in America, England or Australia could make, and yet it still sounds distinctly South African. I’m gonna burn my thumb on a cheap plastic lighter.
If aKing, and the rest of the radically productive Fokof family can teach creative South Africa anything – it is to make your art regularly. If you’ve got a skill, you’ve got to put it out there. That’s how you live the dream. You play what’s on your mind, to the best of your abilities push it out and move on to the next thing.
It’s just like Laudo says self-reflexively in the last song and by far my highlight of the whole album, Know Your Bones:
“Anything too dumb to be spoken should be sung / a song is never finished only abandoned / sing if you’ve got nothing to say / I know your bones they’re begging to be let out of your wardrobe / couldn’t leave well enough alone / teach them to dance and let them go”
It’s an anthem waiting for an audience.