March 31, 2014

"I'm Only Joking" by KONGOS

Contrary to the title of this song, I seriously like iTunes' efforts this week. Not one, nor two, but three free singles available for download before tomorrow. Now, they're not all winners - I think I can rule out Latin heavy rock as a genre of interest - but each of this week's songs has something that makes it valuable.

iTunes is pushing out these Latin free singles, and the exposure to music that isn't in English is really cool. Thanks to De La Tierra, I'm listening to Latin rock for the first time (I don't like it, but hey, nothing ventured). Simone Felice's "Running Through My Head" is a heartfelt song that takes the latter half of a cheesy pick-up line and turns it into the lyrical basis for a beautiful chorus. The featured free single, "I'm Only Joking", is essentially an introduction to a whole new kind of rock n' roll. When you consider that the genre has been around for six decades, it's quite the accomplishment.

The band to achieve this feat is KONGOS, a group of four very talented brothers. They're the sons of one-hit wonder, John Kongos, best known for "He's Gonna Step On You Again" which reached the Top 10 in 1971. If you compare these two singles, you can hear where KONGOS gets their musical influence from.

Their music is strange for us as Americans to listen to. It sounds vaguely like Southern rock with the use of accordions and occasional fiddles, but that isn't the right label. The grim chords, reverberating vocals and distorted guitar sound like grunge music, but they're not really comparable to groups like Nirvana. If you listen to the other tracks on their album, Lunatic, you'll hear reggae, you'll hear trance rock, you'll hear alternative vibes that allude to The Killers or CAKE. All of this is to say that KONGOS barely fits within the burgeoning "alternative rock" genre, especially because of their distinctly African tribal influence.

Yep, you read that right. The brothers of KONGOS, and their father, are from Johannesburg, South Africa, and it really influences their music. One reviewer called it "rock-tribal", especially applicable to this week's single. But enough talking about the music - let's listen to it.

If you don't want to watch the handsome, brooding stranger meander his way to a secret dance party, you can skip ahead 35 seconds. At this point, the song opens with the African tribal drumbeats. It's an ominous swell, as if moving to the edge of the jungle. The electric guitars start to hum and the song really begins. The first verse has the spooky, almost-whispered lyrics accompanied by a haunting accordion melody.

"There is a song
You're trembling to its tune
At the request of the moon.

Licking her chops
She looks at the lunatics
She needs another fix."

The song when accompanied with the music video reads to me like a critique of Western party culture: dancing to gritty club music because you're supposed to, while making deceitful small talk and trying to get someone to come home with you for the night. It's perhaps a melodramatic take on what is supposed to be entertaining nightlife, but it makes its point.

The heavy drums continue throughout the song, accented by neat little musical tricks. The choruses end with unison back-up vocals and heavy reverb to give a sense of grandness to the lyrics. There are cool electric synth interludes to build anticipation between sections of the song. There's the steady ambient build before a sudden drop in intensity that gives way to the third verse. The end of the song is accented by sudden a cappella sections that disrupt the steady drums. All of these accents make the song so much more interesting than if it were just a monotonous, dark sermon, but one thing stands out to me, as a drummer. The drummer discreetly and seamlessly switches between the swing-time tribal beat and a straight four-four drum beat to accent certain sections of the song, and all the other instrumentals follow along in time. It's a subtle display of musical proficiency that makes me respect them all the more.

Now, for all of this artistry and complexity, it's not a very pretty song, but it shouldn't be. It's supposed to be ugly, and gritty, and a little nasty, and the rock-tribal feel of the drums carries you right through all that and has you stamping your feet in time with the ugliness. I was surprised by how much this song grew on me as a I listened to it, and the rest of the album, Lunatic, had the same effect. 

After flitting through free song samples and embracing KONGOS' variations on gritty rock and roll, I found myself captivated by every track. In fact, I exceeded my music budget so I could buy the whole thing. If a free single successfully gets me to buy the entire album, then it did its job pretty damn well. I'm sure this kind of music isn't for everyone, but for me, I found the Kongos brothers' to be very talented, and their music to be captivating and thoughtful. They have certainly earned a fan in me, and for that, I give "I'm Only Joking"

4 out of 5

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