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Published: 2003/09/28
by Jeremy Welsh

O – Damien RiceThe Voice – Vusi Mahlasela

Vector Recordings 48507

ATO Records 0011

In the current jamband community, it often seems as though emotion is
evoked through improvisation and musicianship. A spiraling solo,
telepathy-like group communication, dead-on song renditions. While one
can find interesting and well-written lyrics in the genre, the focus is
almost always on the music over the vocals. So it is interesting to turn
to music from overseas to find passion in songwriting and vocals. On
Damien Rice's O and Vusi Mahlasela’s The Voice – both are
North American
debuts – the artist opens himself up to the listener, exposing their
deepest feelings and seamlessly incorporating them into the music.

Damien Rice is as artist who feeds off of the unknown. He seems full of
restless energy on stage, pouring out his songs with all of his emotion,
feeding off of the rapt crowd in front of him. His music is deeply
personal — so deep that it can not help but pull the listener into his
stories and feelings. Artists often talk about feeding off the emotions
of the crowd — with Rice, his music touches so deeply that it is
almost as though he has a power over the listeners, feeding off of their
complete attention.

After achieving platinum status in Ireland, Rice has released his
album O to the United States. His success in England and Ireland
while
remaining relatively unknown in the United States calls to mind David
Gray. The singer-songwriter was originally a member of the band Juniper,
but left in 1999. He claims he was uncomfortable with the formulaic pop
direction that the band was taking — brought to a head with their
signing of a major-label record deal. He packed up, and headed to
mainland Europe. He first tried to work on an Italian farm — but he
found that work even more rigid than the situation he was in with
Juniper. So he spent the next eight months freeing himself by busking —
offering himself and his music, living off of the donations of
strangers. The courage and drive to sit on a sidewalk and open himself
to anyone walking by clearly shaped Rice as a musician. He discovered
a way to draw listeners in. On returning to Ireland, he began to grow
newly-found focus on music with the help of producer David Arnold. With
the portable studio that Arnold provided, Rice began to shape the
songs that would come to make up O.

On O, Rice is joined by a core group of musicians — Lisa Hannigan on
vocals, Vyvienne Long on cello, Shane Fitzsimons on bass, and Tomo on
drums and percussion. Their accompaniment is fitting for the tone of his
introspective songs — subtle, atmospheric. And Hannigan's beautiful voice
is
the perfect foil for Rice's songs – providing the female point of
view, floating above and weaving with the cello. While the studio
versions of Rice's songs are strong, they are simply frameworks for
interpretation in a live setting. Rice's restlessness comes through when
he takes the stage, interpreting his own music. And in solo settings, he
utilizes loops and samples of himself much like Keller Williams and
Robert Hunter, setting up a rhythm or distorting his acoustic guitar.

Rice's song writing focuses mainly on personal relationships. He
speaks to the tumultuous emotions of a crush on "The Blower's Daughter"
and to the disappointment of a late-night infatuation on "Cheers
Darlin'." One of the most interesting songs on the album lyrically is
"Cannonball" — Rice sets the listener up with a series of apparent
contradictions ("Stones taught me to fly, love taught me to lie, life
taught me to die, so it's not hard to fall when you float like a
cannonball.") to try and show how everything about life and
relationships can be seen as learning experiences, especially when you
don't expect it.

While Damien focuses on the personal, Vusi Mahlasela uses the beauty of
his voice to address political issues. Mahlasela was born in a town near
Pretoria, South Africa. Growing up in the heat of the anti-apartheid
struggle, Mahlasela put his feelings and thoughts in to words, performing
poems and songs at African National Congress rallies. Nobel-prize
winning author Nadine Gordimer Mahlasela Vusi "a national treasure," even
providing him with his guitar. Dave Matthews, a native of South Africa,
felt the urge to introduce Mahlasela's pure sound to the rest of thewWorld
and invited him to perform on his own 2000 album Everyday. More
recently,
Matthews helped to produce the soundtrack to the documentary
Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony which features four of
Mahlasela's
songs (as well as music by Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, and Miriam
Makeba).

The Voice is Mahlasela's first North American release and is a
collection of
handpicked songs that span recordings over the last eleven years. Almost
all focus on the South Africa's struggle against apartheid — humanity,
understanding, equality. The strongest song on the album is "When You
Come Back," a song about when all the political prisoners are free to
return home. It begins with Mahlasela's beautiful voice singing a
capella,
hitting all registers – slowly, he is joined by other voices, then a
guitar, then a bass, all building into this glorious melody, proclaiming
that the bells will ring and the drums will beat when the prisoners
return. A more solemn song is "Weeping" which describes how inhuman the
oppression of the South Africans was — in a country so proud, the sound
that you heard "wasn't roaring it was weeping." Throughout the album,
Mahlasela incorporates horns and strings – and always his angelic voice – with traditional drumming and rhythms, creating a fresh and current
sound.

Damien Rice and Vusi Mahlasela are both artists who show courage —
courage to place their deepest feelings and thoughts into songs for
listeners to experience. The beauty of Rice's work comes through in
his story-telling, how he is able to sing to the pain and love he has
felt. The beauty of Mahlasela's work comes first through his amazing voice – so pure, almost angelic. It is his voice that then brings the listener
into the struggle, and triumph, of the people of South Africa.

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