Skeletons Of Memory: Songs For The West Coast
(Self released)
Review: Richard Haslop

For years the received wisdom about South African music, or at least white English language South African music, has been that the songs don’t instill a sense of place in the listener in the way that, for example, the best Texan songwriters seem to do as a matter of course. While conceding that, at a certain level of musical engagement and as a hopeless generalization, there might once have been some truth in that, it always seemed that those imparting the wisdom probably weren’t listening hard or widely enough.

By giving itself such a descriptive subtitle, “Skeletons Of Memory” both declares its intentions and stakes out its territory upfront. The trick from here on – and it’s a long album, comprising 18 songs, lavishly housed in a hard covered booklet – was clearly going to be to live up to the label without turning into a travelogue or losing the thread along the way. In a nutshell, I’d be surprised if another album this year evokes its geography as beautifully as this one.

It’s the third album by Cape Town’s Red Earth & Rust, the second having been a double. The core of the band is lyricist Barbara Fairhead and her piano playing singer-composer partner Jacques Coetzee. They say that, when you lose one sense, the others are heightened. Coetzee, who is blind, might listen more closely to lyrics than anyone else I know. His occasional ruminations in print on songs that he loves never fail to capture their essence, and his ability to find the precise emotional pitch for Fairhead’s poems, stories, insights and observations demonstrates a remarkable affinity with the personal investment that she clearly has with the wild and desolate west coast and its people.

He has an especially well-developed gift for melody too, and the tunes he finds for them give the songs an immediacy and an intimacy that beautifully balance their lyrical mystery, memory and palpable sense of longing for a time and a place that are closely and carefully drawn but remain just out of reach. Once, looking at a map of South Africa, I expressed the opinion to a companion that Hondeklipbaai seemed like the most remote place in the country. Whether or not it’s correct, the lovely Ruby From Hondeklipbaai has effectively confirmed that impression, perhaps for all time. It also establishes, in the context of songs with a sense of place, that it’s usually the song that matters, rather than the place, a fact that this record confirms over and over again, whether the place is specified (Kunene River or the stunning Cape Frio Seals), or more broadly sketched (Narrow Dirt Road, Rain On A Tin Roof).

In Jonny Blundell the duo has found the ideal producer. With an ear for the small, intimate details – a rickety banjo, a ghostly hint of vastrap, a snatch of Scottish reel, a gorgeous violin melody here, a string quartet there, a way to fit Xhosa traditional music giant Madosini into a Benguela backdrop, always ensuring that the musical points are made, but never too broadly – he has made the songs a canvas as cinematic as the stories they tell, and as the land they tell them about; and that’s a trick you don’t see every day.

SOUND: 4.5