Rolling Stone Review by Toast Coetzer

Red Earth & Rust
Skeletons of Memory – Songs for the West Coast Independent
4 stars

Brooding, uneasy history lesson
Red Earth & Rust’s third album has struck a vein rich and deep with vocalist Jacques Coetzee and a cast of crack musicians setting to their task like readers in a burning library. The songs describe different landscapes and historical events along the west coast of South Africa and Namibia much like Ry Cooder has documented California on recent ‘concept’ albums. “Ruby from Hondeklipbaai” tells of a woman stuck in a harsh place, “Donkergat” is an eerie revisit of Langebaan’s whaling days and “Can a Man’s Skull Roll” the story of 12 headless skeletons dug up by stranded sailors on the Skeleton Coast. Though maybe five songs too long (there are 18), this excellent album is one for the long haul.

Key tracks: “Skeleton Coast”, “Absence”, “Genocide”

Audio Video Review - Richard Haslop

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

Red Earth Rising

Red earth rising

By Bronwen Dyke

IT’S funny how the most unlikely of meetings can produce the most interesting results. Red Earth and Rust is the result of just such a coupling. Jacques Coetzee is a lapsed academic and classically trained singer in his late 30s. He is also blind. Barbara Fairhead is a good few decades older but certainly doesn’t look it. The two met at a poetry evening when Jacques heard Barbara recite the line “Forever I have lain with you in red earth…” The rest, as they say, is both romantic and musical history.

Now the pair are preparing to launch their second album, an ambitious 27-track opus featuring the talents of Jonny Blundell (guitar), Brydon Bolton (double bass and electric guitar), Ross Campbell (percussions and drums), Dave Ferguson (harmonica) and Aron Turest-Swartz (piano). This eclectic mix was handpicked by the duo, who basically went to gigs, liked what they saw and afterwards approached individual musicians to collaborate.

The result is an interesting blend of lyricism with folk, blues and adult contemporary rock fusing into something that is at its core very elemental and almost primal. Jacques explains the process: “Barbara sends the lyrics to my computer, I then transfer it onto my Braille machine, after that I kind of walk around with it in my head. I live with it for a while. Because the lyrics come first, my job is to find a space for the lyrics to live in”. Aron Turest-Swartz (ex-Freshly Ground) seemed like a natural choice for the album’s production, but Barbara and Jacques became worried when the 14-song single album that they had planned grew into 27 songs. Fortunately Aron was on board with their vision and the result is Dark Mercy and Wrestling the Angel.

The recording process was also slightly different because usually everyone’s focus is on the vocalist for his or her cues, but because Jacques is blind they could not rely on eye contact. “Everybody has to be able to see Jacques’ hands because they can’t look into his eyes,” says Barbara. But even this is underplayed, with both of them being quick to point out that Jacques’ blindness has very little impact on their music. And, although Jacques hopes that anyone living with a disability might be inspired by his tenacity, he certainly doesn’t paint himself as a hero of any kind.

Of course there’s the question of their romantic relationship, which could be considered unusual by some. Barbara good-humouredly relates the story of a woman approaching Jacques and commenting on “how sweet” his “dear little mother” was. Jacques laughs when asked what his big issues are and initially replies: “sex and death”. After giving it more thought though he says somewhat more seriously: “There’s an inner life in everyone and it’s in the every day things that we all have to do, mostly buried. Music and poetry can help you get in touch with that. My concern is how we as individuals can find ways to become more intimate with ourselves”. Barbara is, as ever, in tune with Jacques. “Everyone has pain and suffering and we’re all reaching for something transcendent but how do you tell the man with nothing not to be a victim of circumstance? I put that into my lyrics but try not to be moralistic or preachy.”

Their musical influences make themselves obvious over the course of the two albums; Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Tom Waits are all there lurking in the shadows, but there’s an accessibility and optimism that belies it all. And of course there’s the live performance aspect, which promises to be unique. Far from being strange or undesirable in any way, Red Earth and Rust shows the distance that can be traversed when it comes to the meeting of two minds.

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The debut release from the Cape Town-based band with the catchy name is something rather rare and awesomely compelling. At the helm are the vocals of classically trained singer/songwriter, poet and “lapsed academic” Jacques Coetzee who, despite being blind, paints a world of vivid imagery, embroidering his songs with a rich narrative texture in a vein not dissimilar in style that of Nick Cave or say, Tom Waits.

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