Artist Stories, Opinion, Stories

New Academics: A Retrospective

In the winter of 2013, I developed an expensive addiction to Tony Cox’s International Guitar Night. As a subject of this great addiction, I was exposed to its undeniable perks. I sat in the crowd on no less than 3 consecutive nights, and, while wearing a smug grin and wondering if anyone recognised me as a regular, bore witness to some very special moments in acoustic guitar playing. 

After Jon Gomm – a virtuoso with respect to percussive guitar playing – had finished his set on night number one, he acknowledged one of the audience members after a flattering tweet. I naively followed suit but was not rewarded with the same brief taste of fame. Despite this deflating embarrassment, I returned the following night and was rewarded with an impromptu, intimate performance of Radiohead’s High and Dry by Jon Gomm and Guy Buttery. Other highlights included Buttery successfully making use of a saw as a musical instrument – using it to produce a hauntingly beautiful piece about a UFO observation station in the Free State – and Preston Reed (widely considered to be the most gifted guitarist in the world, boasted the event poster) delivering a mind blowing, whirlwind of a set. I was most taken, however, by the performance of a humble man by the name of Dave Baudains.

Baudains is the ex-guitarist for the South African two-sometimes-three-sometimes-four piece, New Academics. Since their mysterious entrance into hibernation (we daren’t speak of disbandment) early in 2010, Baudains’ music has evolved. It now bears more characteristics that make him most at home at an event hosting finger-style guitar legends such as Jon Gomm and Tony Cox. He was great, and though very different to the stuff of the New Academics (an important objective of embarking on a solo project), his compositions exhibited the same brilliance that made me fall in love with the New Academics album, The Apple.

The band formed in 2004, originally comprising of Baudains on guitar and backup vocals, and lead vocalist and sampler, Joe Penn. Shortly after the band’s inception came a relocation from Cape Town to Johannesburg, which saw the addition of two more musicians – Howie Combrink on drums, and Martin Labuschagne on the bass guitar. It was this combination of creative minds that produced the Academics’ first album entitled: City of Strange. The album was nominated for a South African Music Award in the category of Best Alternative Album. In 2008, in the presence of new drummer, Brendon Van Rooyen, the band recorded their second studio album, The Apple, and it was around this time that my ears pricked up.

Now, I speak specifically of their sophomore album simply because it is the one with which I am most familiar, and it is the one with which I developed a strong relationship during my high school career.  My intention is to stick to the music and avoid memory lane, where tales may emerge of me threading my iPod earphone rather cleverly, but in retrospect not subtly, through my sleeve so I could listen during English; or how myself and the rest of the underage crew danced around to a stripped-down version of the band performing as a two piece at what used to be Back2Basix. Fuck.

The album kicks-off with ‘Fuzz’, and the listener is instantly exposed to a unique blend of influences. Penn travels seamlessly between quick rapping and delivering incredibly complex and meaningful lyrics via his raw, and sometimes rugged, singing voice. All the while he never strays from a distinct South African English accent, and upon first listen one might be taken aback by the extent to which the accent is utilized. Initial reservations disappear, however, when one realizes that this is the only way it can be. Any alteration to the lead vocalist’s natural inflection would detriment the entire timbre.  The properties of Penn’s voice go way beyond reminding the listener that the band is South African, thereby developing some sense of national pride. For those who, when regarding the quality of a musical act, are for the most part immune to this potential bias (myself included), the vocals still create outstanding additionality.

The band draws inspiration from genres as diverse as hip-hop, afro-beat, jazz, funk and rock. The danger here is an uncomfortable “smoothie” of too many influences. There is no sense, however, that the genres are crammed discordantly, rather that they combine in natural synergy. The musical platform is perfectly designed for Penn and Baudains to tackle their lyrical masterpieces (at the risk of being dramatic). The subject matter is broad, but is always delivered in tightly-knitted metaphors and rhymes and often refers in some way to life in South Africa. This quality is most represented   the title track, ‘The Apple’, in which a tale is told of Jesus returning to, and struggling in, a troubled contemporary Johannesburg. The album was met with great success, equalling that of City of Strange by being nominated for a SAMA in the same category, and exceeded it by supporting 3 triumphant European tours.

Now seems an appropriate juncture for me to declare my favourite track off the album. While I’m tempted to indulge this expectation, I’m not going to, and it’s not because I’m being stubborn. It’s because I could say ‘0.16666667’ (aka ‘4am’), but then I’d say “what about ‘Nervous Passenger’”, “oooh but you can’t forget ‘The Apple’”, “then again there’s ‘In Transit’”, and once the reader realised where this was going, you’d see before you the entire track listing.

My New Academics memory was recently jogged partially due to Baudains’ performance earlier in the year, but also by an out-of-the-blue facebook update from their page long thought to be dormant (again, we don’t entertain the thought of death). The update referred to New Year’s resolutions, the appropriateness of which is debateable given the considerable distance from January 1st from both ends of 2013 at the time of posting. Nonetheless, it served a dual purpose in that it let us know the band may still be alive and kicking, and it reminded me to take another listen.

I’m reluctant to give in to clichés such as “standing the test of time” and other such phrases, and it might be painfully apparent that I’ve been dancing around them; but now is the time to give in. It is a timeless album and, while its memory is important, and it has proved a proficient structure around which to build this piece, it should not be confused as the main driver behind the affection. There is a definite element of nostalgia, yes. But that’s not the reason the album is so great. Its brilliance is truly perennial, offering enjoyable listen after enjoyable listen even 5 years after its release. This enjoyment is based predominantly on the pure musical deeply rooted in the album. Prior to the hiatus of 2010, there was chatter of a third album which would take on a spacey, electronic identity. We wait in excited anticipation.

Listen to City of Strange and The Apple here.

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