These days, the media at large seems to put under fire, anyone who dares to make a drastic change, yet hypocritically sing the praises of the likes of David Bowie – the master of reinvention. Historically, any artist that dares to make something different stands the test of time and yet, when Johnny Borrell set himself free of the shackles of pop-rock with Borrell 1, it was to a less than welcoming critical reception. Not that he was doing anything wrong, just very, very different. Then he joined forces with Zazou, again, not to the critic’s taste but I find myself asking why? He’s been ganged up upon by the masses for what I can see, for no other reason than he wasn’t making ‘hit’ records but instead, as Johnny himself put it, making real music. Something which which I wholeheartedly agree.
Johnny Borrell & Zazou’s collaborative LP, The Atlantic Culture is an eclectic collection of music styles fuelled by Borrell’s distinctive vocals, Sax, Violin, Double Bass and anything else this talented bunch set their hands on. It’s a brave departure from albums past for Borrell and I for one, can see musical genius behind it. Blending a vast array of styles including jazz, blues, and other world music isn’t easy and yet these guys have pulled it off with a great success.
The album kicks off with Swim Like a Star, mixing near-recitative vocals with a minimalistic yet soulful blend of piano, sax, double-bass and sporadically littered with violin. Opening with the line “This is the doctor calling / we have kept you here for the good of your health” and moving into an almost satyrical character analysis of someone anon only breaking the recitatives with the sung Swim Like a Star. You’d expect a near-7minute track to get boring but this is far from it, it’s just varied enough to keep your attention without being distracting.
Next, we have the title track from the previous EP, The Artificial Night. It’s piano driven and abstractly samba. It’s full of beautiful, almost gypsy violin. After that, Black God’s repetitive baseline guitar riff is almost bluesy and Doors-esque while everything that builds around it layers up to make it into a more jazz feel reminiscent of the lesser mainstream Nina Simone. The vocal parts are few and far between and form more of a part of the backing rather than the focus of the track. The overall effect is pretty hypnotic, so much so that you barely see the end coming amongst the busy sound which suddenly stops and becomes a violin finish of held notes.
More so than any other track, We Cannot Overthrow has a distinctly romantic summer-jazz feel, this with the lyrics “Girls flick their hair and look at me sideways” but other lyrics such as “We must worship what we can’t overthrow” and “We can’t overthrow / yeah we will love tonight” gives me the feeling that there’s a deeper meaning behind it. This is followed by the slow and steady 60 Thompson is an incredibly soulful piece, the sax makes the hairs on my neck stand up every time. Love is the running theme now – “Looking for a love that can be made / behind your barricades” and those sing-along lyrics interspersed with that incredible sax leaves this one a firm favourite for me.
I’m also a fan of The Ego Song, a 50’s skiffle-esque, root-5 bass and honky-tonk piano number which is sung like a tuneful drunkard. It’s a bit of a comic, sing-along number which makes for an intermission breaking the album up before it all gets a bit bigger and bolder with Zazou’s Theme.
Zazou’s Theme starts with abstract sax and violin before starting with circular, fuzzy bass riffs and percussion over which the sax is given a platform to really show off. It’s vocal-free and foot tappingly infectious. It sets the scene for the next few tracks which become more musically diverse, big and bold with Bastida Cantina,The Camera Song (which also featured on the preceding EP), Cacambo’s March and Passion Flower. The finishing touch is an excellent, near-a cappella, harmonised vocal rendition of Dylan’s Man Gave Names to the Animals which Johnny Borrell & Zazou have very much claimed for their own.
Drawing inspiration from a plethora of styles which have become consigned to history, The Atlantic Culture, while deftly well clear of the mainstream, does exactly what Johnny Borrell & Zazou set out to do. It’s not a commercial effort, but they’ve made an album of real music, completely different to anything you’re likely to hear on the radio and yet as worthy of praise if not more so than anything you are likely to. With the industry where it is and the availability of music to stream, you’ll do yourself no harm by giving this a ‘spin’ and if you value music beyond the mainstream, you will find something in here for you. Go on, you know you want to.