POP MUSIC

Friday, March 3, 2006

Baltimore duo Metal Hearts titled its second LP "Socialize," an amusing choice for a disc that is subdued and knotty, evoking the rinsed-out grays of a winter sky.

The group was exceedingly self-effacing during its set Wednesday night on the Black Cat's Backstage, to the point of apologizing for the shrillness of the drum machine and cutting the set off after a mere 30 minutes, as if it were disturbing the crowd. That was a shame because the Hearts' intricately crafted songs sounded great, an ever-shifting tangle of diving guitar runs and zigzagging rhythms.

Anar Badalov and Flora Wolpert-Checknoff both played electric guitar and sang, and the drum machine that propels their recordings was supplemented (and for much of the set, replaced) by a human drummer. Those live drums took some of the rigidity off their sound but hardly diminished the impact.

"Mountain Song" and "Gentlemen's Spell" had strictly defined borders, but within them, guitars chased each other in intensely finger-picked interlocking runs, Badalov's and Wolpert-Checknoff's voices harmonized with synchronicity and the drums clattered like an electric typewriter shorting out.

And for a band whose stage presence was all reticence, the two seemed intensely focused on forward motion: Half of the set was devoted to new songs. Which they apologized for. Without need, of course.

-- Patrick Foster

Vusi Mahlasela

Vusi Mahlasela is known as "The Voice" in South Africa because of his soaring, textured tenor. He needed that powerful instrument to command the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage on Wednesday, in competition with the mediocre sound and the occasional squawking baby. Still, it's hard to complain about a free solo concert by one of South Africa's greatest artists, even if you needed to sit near the stage to hear an acceptable representation of his gorgeous singing and acoustic guitar playing.

Born 41 years ago, Mahlasela grew up in the Mamelodi township. He still lives there when he's not traveling the globe as a musician and emissary for Nelson Mandela's 46664 project to raise awareness about the global pandemic of HIV/AIDS. Politics and activism are a daily part of Mahlasela's life and common topics in his compositions, several of which he introduced with explanations, including "Our Sand, Our Land" for the displaced San people of southern portions of the continent and "Troubadour" for poet and antiapartheid activist Dennis Brutus.

Many of his songs are in English, but when Mahlasela sings in Zulu the beauty of his voice takes on a whole different shape, with the clicks and lisps of the language adding percussive textures. Mahlasela's chords, strumming and picking patterns mostly follow that of U.S. folk music; there's relatively little African-style guitar in his playing. But the simplicity of his songs allows him to croon elaborate melodies, especially on his stunning "When You Come Back," about people returning to South Africa after apartheid. Along with his interpretation of the South African folk song "Silang Mabele," which he didn't perform, the tune is Mahlasela's crowning achievement. The gospel-like whoops from the otherwise sedate audience testified to that.

-- Christopher Porter

Vusi Mahlasela

Vusi Mahlasela is known as "The Voice" in South Africa because of his soaring, textured tenor. He needed that powerful instrument to command the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage on Wednesday, in competition with the mediocre sound and the occasional squawking baby. Still, it's hard to complain about a free solo concert by one of South Africa's greatest artists, even if you needed to sit near the stage to hear an acceptable representation of his gorgeous singing and acoustic guitar playing.

Born 41 years ago, Mahlasela grew up in the Mamelodi township. He still lives there when he's not traveling the globe as a musician and emissary for Nelson Mandela's 46664 project to raise awareness about the global pandemic of HIV/AIDS. Politics and activism are a daily part of Mahlasela's life and common topics in his compositions, several of which he introduced with explanations, including "Our Sand, Our Land" for the displaced San people of southern portions of the continent and "Troubadour" for poet and antiapartheid activist Dennis Brutus.

Many of his songs are in English, but when Mahlasela sings in Zulu the beauty of his voice takes on a whole different shape, with the clicks and lisps of the language adding percussive textures. Mahlasela's chords, strumming and picking patterns mostly follow that of U.S. folk music; there's relatively little African-style guitar in his playing. But the simplicity of his songs allows him to croon elaborate melodies, especially on his stunning "When You Come Back," about people returning to South Africa after apartheid. Along with his interpretation of the South African folk song "Silang Mabele," which he didn't perform, the tune is Mahlasela's crowning achievement. The gospel-like whoops from the otherwise sedate audience testified to that.

-- Christopher Porter


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