Fetish – Little Heart (an album review of sorts)

Various disclaimers are in order here. Well, two, really. First, I’m not a music journalist. You’ll find one restaurant review on this site, and one review of a godawful U2 concert, but usually I stick to talking about politics, philosophy and religion. All of which are topics that could be said to feature on the new Fetish album, Little Heart – which you can listen to (and buy!) here – depending on how you define the topics, of course. But talking about that would be more philosophical rambling, and today we’re talking about rock. Not just any rock – rock that was born in the mid-90’s, then excited pretty much every South African I knew (sure, they were 95% white liberals) for 7 or so years, and then disappeared.

A few weeks ago, I watched Searching for Sugarman, the documentary on Rodriguez, a musician that international readers might not have heard of. As I remarked to the Doctor at the time, it was okay, except for the soundtrack. And the segue to Fetish here is that some folk also wondered what happened to them since they disbanded in 2004. They were too interesting to disband. At least, that’s what I thought, and therefore what I assumed all right-thinking people were thinking. But not only are they back, but they also have stories to tell. And you don’t need to be a dope-addled hippie to enjoy this soundtrack.

If I were a music journalist, I’d probably model myself on Charles Bukowski, who wrote this review of a Rolling Stones concert without seeing much of the show at all. Because music – for non-professionals like me at least – is far more about the mood and the time. This is true for Rodriguez (not in the mood, at any time) as well as for Fetish, and this is perhaps the right time to introduce the second disclaimer, which is that I’m in no way impartial here. Dominic Forrest (guitar) is a good and long-standing friend, and Jeremy Daniel (keyboard) is a more recent friend. In a archetypal-rock-star anecdote, I could tell you about that night that Dominic…

Look, as I say, I’m far from impartial here. But all right-thinking people trust me.

So, the new album. It’s certainly an evolution of their sound, which I think a good thing. First, because the time for 90’s rock was the 90’s, and second because artists should demonstrate growth (as should audiences – so if you still want only 90’s rock, the problem is you. And then, you’re incentivising people to make more of it, which makes your problem everyone else’s problem). The tracks are far more layered than the stuff you’d remember off previous albums, and that’s not only because of superb sound engineering – there are some quite delicate and compelling interplays between instruments, and tonal and rhythm shifts. So, it’s a more sophisticated album, certainly their most mature in lacking much of the bombast that was evident in early work.

But it’s still there – and this is something that many fans will like, even though I don’t. The first single, “All Time Low” is in parts quite the aural assault, which is what I imagine it’s intended to be. But it’s also the track which exemplifies, to me, one of the weaker elements of the album – the dynamic range of the vocalist, Michelle Breeze. I think she does certain sorts of vocal very, very well. I’ve just re-listened to “Malice”, off “So Many Prophets” – the Fetish track that is a constant on my iPod portable media player – and when you get to 2:10 or so on that track, she starts sounding really good for the duration of the chorus. It’s that angst-filled energy that thrilled us all on one of their first hits, “Blue Blanket” off the first album. But when Breeze is not in that mode (and that mode can’t – or shouldn’t – be sustained over an entire album), the vocals are sometimes rather monotone, in that it sounds like there’s a complaint but you’re not quite sure what it is, or why you should care.

The songs on Little Heart weren’t rehearsed at all before being recorded – the entire session time was a manic 10 days (if I recall correctly) which brought together musicians who hadn’t been in the same room together for years. In light of that, it’s a pretty impressive piece of work. But you can hear that unfamiliarity in the album too:  sometimes it reminds you of the band you knew in the 90’s, and sometimes it sounds like something different – as I say above, more evolved and layered. But you can hear that it’s not integrated – that the familiarity with each other, and with the material, is not wholly present. You can hear the sounds of what could/should have been, if life had worked out differently.

I say this mostly because there’s always an element of each song that stands out as superb – but the parts are often better than the whole. There are sections of superb vocalisation, or instrumentation, or lyrics – but then you’ll sometimes also be sometimes be listening to a beautiful bit of keyboard or guitar work and be struck by a jarringly banal lyric. These are things that I’d think would have been ironed out – at least in part – if Fetish had the luxury of months of rehearsal. Or, if they’d been writing and playing together for all these years between this album and the last.

In this age of digital music, it’s odd to remark that the second side of the album is markedly better than the first. But for me the album closes far stronger than it begins. So it leaves one with a good impression – not just of what could have been, but also of some genuinely interesting tracks which bear repeat listening. “Over the edge” is one of the strongest Fetish tracks ever, for example, and people who like things heavy will (I suspect) love “Paper skies”.

And as a concluding note – what is perhaps most notable here is how talent shines through. These folk haven’t been playing together in years, and then they put together something in little more than a week which should easily win the SAMA (do they still exist?) for local rock. Not that you want to aim to sound like the best local, of course – but listening to this does, once again, make me think that South Africa once boasted one of the most promising acts I’d heard in the 90’s, anywhere. And it’s good to have them back, for as long as they’ll stick around.

P.S. It’s been suggested that it’s not quite clear whether this review is positive or not, and that maybe a rating would be in order. I’m not sure I’m in favour of ratings, because the baselines seem too arbitrary unless someone has a history of reviews you can benchmark against, relative to your own tastes. For this sort of impression, the only rating that seems justified is a “‘worth buying/watching/listening to” or ‘not’. This album is certainly in the former category for me.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.