Confidence Man and Space Invadas
When push comes to shove, my favourite music is rhythm and blues. Not so-called modern R&B – the sterile, robotic pop that clutters up the playlists of countless unlistenable radio stations. I mean the real stuff: the soul, blues and funk that courses through the history of popular music like a mighty torrent.
Yesterday saw the release of two fantastic Australian R&B albums: Confident Music for Confident People by Confidence Man and Wild World by Space Invadas. Both groups take a lot of their inspiration from defunct – or de-funked – musical genres, sprucing them up and retooling them for modern ears. The end result is two of the freshest sounding albums I’ve heard this year.
Confidence Man play dance music, pure and simple. EDM may be ubiquitous but the unhinged, uninhibited brand of house music on Confident Music for Confident People is as rare as rocking horse manure right now. Opening track “Try Your Luck” clicks immediately, with stupid-clever lyrics boisterously declaimed over a classic disco beat replete with all the trimmings: shuffling hi-hat, lively congas and busy cowbell. Next, “Don’t You Know I’m in a Band” slackens the pace but keeps up the rhythmic intensity, sounding something like Daft Punk playing a version of War’s “Low Rider”. As with all of Confidence Man’s songs, the smart-arse lyrics are not meant to be taken too seriously:
Always a place for me in the VIP
The drinks are always flowing and I’m smiling ’cause the drugs are free
And the girls, all the girls they love me
’Cause they know, yeah they all know
They know I’m in a band
Don’t you know I’m in a band?
Confidence Man began life in a Brisbane share house. Initially, it was a musical goof between four friends, a lighthearted distraction from their other, more serious-minded indie bands. Adopting fake identities and disguises to dissociate themselves from their other projects, Confidence Man soon took on a life of its own: only two weeks after they released their first single, “Boyfriend (Repeat)”, they had signed a deal with hip British label Heavenly Recordings and now, just over a year later, they are releasing their debut album.
Janet Planet, Sugar Bones, Clarence McGuffie and Reggie Goodchild had unwittingly stumbled onto a recipe for success. Their feel-good music had obviously struck a nerve but their extroverted live performances were another weapon in their accidental global conquest. Janet and Sugar’s self-taught, klutzy cheerleader choreography, along with the beekeeper-in-mourning disguises worn by Clarence and Reggie, gave their shows a theatrical edge that made their infectious music even more appealing. This cheerful exuberance perfectly matched their music and their fame grew with every festival appearance, beginning with Golden Plains in country Victoria, followed by Byron Bay’s Splendour in the Grass and, finally, The Great Escape and Glastonbury in Britain. To get a taste of their live show I suggest you look up their Splendour performance of “Boyfriend (Repeat)” on YouTube.
Already a minor classic, “Boyfriend (Repeat)” is the third track on the album but there are many others just as strong, if not stronger. “All the Way” is a real grower, with bumpy tempo changes designed to mess with the equilibrium of dancers and driven by a stringy synth bass and Italo-house piano. That piano sound was overused to the point of nausea back in the days of acid house and the years after, but there’s no denying that when it’s used well it never fails to raise the roof and raze the dance floor.
The 11 songs on Confident Music for Confident People are stacked with anthemic vocals and juicy synths, layered over big beat, breakbeat and freakbeat grooves. They’re bursting with energy and have tons of spirit. “Catch My Breath” is like early Groove Armada, “Better Sit Down Boy” hearkens back to the early days of breakdancing and hip-house, the Hi-NRG “Sailboat Vacation” has more unapologetically house piano and a finale that references “The 39 Lashes” from Jesus Christ Superstar. At different times, Confidence Man’s music reminds me of LCD Soundsystem, The B-52s, Fatboy Slim, Deee-Lite and even Stock, Aitken & Waterman. “Out the Window” is practically a homage to ’90s-era Primal Scream and is also sheer pop genius in my opinion. Album closer “Fascination” is another song that is proud to wear its Madchester influences on its sleeve.
Confident Music for Confident People is so immediate, visceral and downright festive that it’s easy to miss the sophisticated musical sensibility that lies underneath all the don’t-give-a-fuck shenanigans. They may be out for fun but when they get down to serious business they can seriously get down. This is not an album for navel-gazing; it’s designed for booty-shaking. Confidence Man kicks butt and they’ll make you want to move yours.
Space Invadas is another group whose music looks back in order to move forward. It’s been eight years since the duo’s first album, Soul:Fi, but yesterday vocalist Steve Spacek and producer Katalyst finally released a follow-up. Wild World sticks close to the template they established on Soul:Fi, with Katalyst peppering the production with a treasure trove of funky beats and odd musical curiosities gleaned from his enormous record collection. Space Invadas have once again recruited a few key guest vocalists and rappers to add their unique flava to proceedings but, as always, it is the remarkable voice of Steve Spacek that ties the whole album together.
In October, the album’s title track was released as the first single. “Wild World” begins with a scratchy guitar lick, sampled from who knows where, before a smoky Hammond organ and a loping bass guitar start a finger-snapping rhythm. Spacek sings about searching for signs of humanity in a hostile world, and Melbourne rapper Remi follows that thought with some politically charged verses of his own, confessing that the daily concerns of his very privileged life are trifling in the context of a world racked by war and oppression. Spacek ends “Wild World” by quoting directly from the chorus of the Cat Stevens song of the same name, though this is definitely not a cover of that well-known hit.
The beautiful timbre of Spacek’s voice and his relaxed delivery has often seen him compared to such music legends as Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, and Spacek doesn’t suffer in the comparison. On Wild World’s second single, “Now That I Know”, his production partner Katalyst invokes Curtis Mayfield quite literally, basing the entire track on hefty samples taken from “I Loved and I Lost”, a song Mayfield recorded in 1968 with his group The Impressions. Katalyst speeds up the original considerably and subtly bolsters the rhythm section, bringing out a swinging quality in The Impressions song that is revelatory. Of course, one should never really be surprised by the innate groove of old R&B musicians: soul is soul at any speed.
I have always worshipped Mayfield as an artist and I consider his work with The Impressions to be some of the most brilliant music ever recorded. As such, they have always been sacrosanct to me – until now. If anyone ever doubts how creative the use of samples can be, they need look no further than “Now That I Know”. Katalyst and Spacek have transformed an old soul classic into an entirely new soul classic and I take off my hat to them.
Katalyst samples another soul chestnut elsewhere on Wild World, though this time he’s using a lesser-known cover version. Lou Pride’s sly, funky rendition of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” furnishes the beat loop for “Woman in Charge”. The 1970 recording sounds fresh as a daisy in this new arrangement that mingles acid jazz with neo-soul. When Pride’s sampled voice declares “It’s a man’s world”, Natalie Slade answers him with lyrics depicting the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, happily numbering herself among the latter:
At a rich man’s table
Say it, money never change you,
Tell me, can you ever speak?
You don’t know me
Like Spacek, Slade is a brilliant singer and she easily holds her own against the soul veteran. She also appears on Wild World’s opening track, “Welcome”, which is another gem.
American rapper Guilty Simpson, a favourite of legendary producer J Dilla, makes a stellar appearance on the Gothic hip-hop track “Late Night”. Spacek sets the mood with a story about vampiric night prowlers while a gloomy brass note sounds like a foghorn underneath agitated, scurrying strings. A pack of barking dogs introduces Simpson, who spins his own macabre tale of cutthroat street life and nocturnal dread in the dark city.
Everywhere you look on this album, or should I say listen, there are vintage sounds and classic grooves. They may have been sampled from such arcane sources as a rare ’60s single from Jamaica or Cuba (which I suspect is the case with “Love and Hope” and “Don’t Ever Look Back”) or, perhaps, from an experimental electronic album that originated in an old Eastern bloc regime (“Satellite” and “I Just Want To”). Nevertheless, it’s also true that most of what you hear on Wild World is completely new. The vintage sources have been augmented by modern production sounds or have been created completely from scratch, sounding for all the world like antique recordings. Regardless of the exact provenance of any of the elements that have gone into the making of Wild World, their transformation is complete in the hands of Space Invadas. This is their music, their vision and their genius. I love this record.
When you listen to Confidence Man or Space Invadas, it’s easy to get carried away with playing spot the influence or pick the sample. That may be fun but it misses the point. Although both groups are poles apart stylistically, each has drawn inspiration from the music of the recent and not-so-recent past. In this they are no different to any musician who has ever existed. Most important of all, they have captured the essential joie de vivre, the soul and spirit, that has always been the wellspring of good R&B. It is a style of music that has enjoyed a rich history and, thanks to artists such as these, it will continue to have a rich future.
EXHIBITION ‘So That You Might Know Each Other': Faith and Culture in Islam
National Museum of Australia, Canberra, April 20 – July 22
THEATRE The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until April 28
MULTIMEDIA Synthesizers: Sound of the Future
Grainger Museum, Melbourne, April 19 – September 9
EXHIBITION Real Bodies
Moore Park, Sydney, until October 1
MUSIC Nocturnal: Music Cities Edition
Melbourne Museum, April 19
SCULPTURE Sculpture at Scenic World
Scenic World, Katoomba, until May 13
MUSIC Live & Local Parramatta 2018
Venues throughout Parramatta, April 14
MULTIMEDIA NGV Triennial
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until April 15
CINEMA The Tasmanian Eco Film Festival
Cinemas throughout Hobart, until April 14
CLASSICAL Celebrating George Dreyfus
Robert Blackwood Hall, Melbourne, April 15
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 14, 2018 as "Beat banquet bingo". Subscribe here.