IF, LIKE me, you have an axiom that nearly all truly great music is pretty; harmonic, melodic, hummable even – but also weird, boundary-pushing, sonically exotic, genre-splicing, slightly head-messing, clever, unusual; then, ladies and gentleman, prepare to welcome Bastien Keb to your world with the wide open arms of a besieged frontier settler who sees help approaching.
Who he? You may ask. Well: Bastien is the Zorro mask behind which Seb Jones rides out into the musical world. He first made waves back in 2015 with his debut album, Dinking In The Shadows of Zizou, which set out his eclectic sonic worldview: it included gems such as the Shuggie Otis-meets-Money Mark lofi funk of “Down River” and “Beat Without A Heart”; but also the gorgeously ramshackle souljazz of “Pork Belly”: all smokey basement bars and aperitifs downed from trays, peeling interwar posters and bliss. It’s a gem of a record – oh, don’t even think about hiving yourself off to Discogs to hunt one down unless your wallet is as fat as a farmer’s on market day – tis kerching, to put it mildly.
He followed that little nugget up two years later with the calendrical 22.02.85, in which his ever-broadening palette took in the sweet, cinematic eerieness of “Lovely Wool”, the furiously quirky and addled lofi funk steel of “Younger”, and still had space for the atmospheric flute groove and rhymes of “Fit Rare”. It was music for jaded ears: playful, curious, taking everything Bastien wanted and pulling it together gloriously with an adept touch. I hadn’t heard an album with such scope of vision since … since well, maybe Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below, in an absolute refusal to be hidebound by genre and a glorious talent for working across all of them.
Yes, the vinyl of this is also pretty oof, pricewise, je suis desole; any chance of any represses at all, gents? But then: genius doesn’t come cheap.
Autumn 2020 arriveth: and Salisbury-based Bastien has a third LP for us, The Killing of Eugene Peeps, which Gearbox Records will be delivering unto a waiting world come October 9th. I can tell you now: when the queue forms down at your local record emporium, be in that number.
A note on talent, before we place diamond tip on revolving wax: all the instruments, the all of it, in what you are about to hear, is played, recorded, produced and mixed by Bastien himself. He’s a guitarist, first and foremost; but as it happens, he’s also a dab hand at trumpet, bass, drums, piano, flute, &c, &c; some of these instruments borrowed, donated or plain found. You will hear a supporting cast of voices throughout: take a bow, if you would, Kenneth Viota, Claudia Kane, Cappo, Camille Imogues.
Right, let’s crank up the gramophone.
We begin in “Theme” – yes, there’s an imaginary soundtrack concept herein, putting us to some extent in the grand lineage of albums such as Barry Adamson’s Moss Side Story (which, no time here, there’s a link; Mute have reissued it). Brass crescendos; timpani thunder; guitars wah-wah. It’s the best soundtrack to an Italian film you’ve never yet dug out of a crate; a
world- life-weary narrator, voice gravelled by nicotine and too many 3am flits, confesses: “I always wanted more. I always hoped there was more. The closest I ever got was the lights of the city.” Think noir. Think Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart. The music releases, loosens … climaxes abruptly with steeliness.
And then … the 3am, bone-deep chill of “Lucky (Oldest Grave)” and “Rabbit Hole”, the single from June, which we covered here; a massed chorus of multi-tracked Bastiens lament in that stark and winter-monochromatic way Bon Iver captured in such arresting fashion early on and forgot to bottle thereafter. It’s a wholly different continent of noir. This is the noir of your soul. “Rabbit Hole” eases the sorrow of the preceding track just a little. “She won’t wait forever,” Bastien sings. Bells and gently picked acoustic guitars caress.
Our omniscient narrator returns to observe the night city in the increasingly unsettling slur of “God Bless Your Gutters”, which segues, “with tears in my eyes” into the slurring cinemascope of “Theme For An Old Man” – low-slung funk crosses 110th Street to rescue you, but there’s still these microtonal string dissonances to alert you that all is not entirely well. “Can’t Sleep” leads us further into the story with a sweetly bowed saw … “All the while she’s sitting on his chest / He never really knew kindness.” Increasingly, you get the idea our shattered-voice narrator is some kind of otherwordly guardian of la ville nocturne.
“All That Love In Your Heart” rejoices in glimmering vibes, backgrounded lovers’ murmuring and wordless vocal melody lines. We’re back in lost classic soundtrack mode here. Beauty is the watchword; Francis Lai would be proud to have written this one. But this too will pass; was it reverie? “The night brings the rats … happiness is for doers and triers,” our narrator preludes the haunting, ramshackle delicacy of “Young Ponies”. Regret at something essential lost seeps from every minim. I mean, fuck. This is deep work. If it were longer there could be genuine tears.
Thankfully, Bastien releases us into the dream funk delirium of the edgy “Street Clams” – wah-wahs scathe distantly, with a vibraphone wrapping you in the welcome warmth of its seeking jazz.
And just when you think you have a handle on the multifarious stylistic breadth of the record; why, then previous collaborator Cappo is unveiled to bring finely honed lyrical flow to “Paprika”, all roasted and spiced with exploratory retro-electro and badass funk bass. Because if you’re some kind of genius, busy building an album in which Morricone meets backwoods Americana meets noir film, a little conscious hiphop is the obvious next ingredient. Stunning.
The short jazz essay of “Israel Ate His Own Mind” takes us by the hand and leads forth into “Bookie”: widescreen cinematic groove, all summer sweat, a walking bass, the shade of Piero Piccioni conducting the strings. “The Clerk” and “Murmurs” are the tiniest of playful atmospheric fragments; our weary narrator reappears in the nuanced lament, “The Trains Don’t Keep Me Up Now”. What does keep him awake? … ” … the loneliness, as the world got quieter and my thoughts got louder.”
Harmoniums and distant guitar, swathed in reverb, lead into “Lucky (Reprise)” – the chill of the take near the beginning of the album still present vocally but now refracted through the reverb of remembrance, taking on some sort of sad comfort.
Have we then reached a better place? “Alligator” suggests at least a different one, if still one where the shadows still loom as a scarring of the heart. It’s one in which musical saws, pianos, studied bass, gospel soul a la Tom Waits or a very drunken Nick Cave combine. “There’s alligators in the water / And the boat is all but sunk,” Bastien intones; let yourself sink.
An absolute tour-de-force – reader, I useth not this hackneyed old saw lightly – culminates in the narrated closing theme of “The World Creaks”. There’s reason to be cheerful! “There’ll be better times ahead / I hear hell’s nice this time of year”. Hey! Come on, it’s something … the album sweeps to a calm conclusion back in European soundtrack land, measured strings and woodwind, soft guitar chords. I think I need to begin again.
If 2020 is anything beyond the ‘rona, musically I think it could well end up being the year of the solo, multi-instrumentalist, multivalent vision. Earlier in the year we had the folk noir of Fair Mothers; Canada’s Sing Leaf and Yves Jarvis both released idiosyncratic, beautiful and very personally motifed musical visions; Bastien Keb may just have trumped them all.
The Killing Of Eugene Peeps is a soundtrack and a collection of songs; is Eugene our narrator, watching now from the other side of the final curtain? Christ, don’t ask me; I think that’s for each one of us to ponder.
It’s an album that hits the previously uncharted sweet spot between Americana, 60s’ European soundtracks and hiphop – well, uncharted by all but Bastien; he must be a fascinating person to have an all-back-to-mine with, around the stereo in reverence. It’s sad, it’s knowing, it’s groovy as hell. It’s much more than an imaginary soundtrack; it’s a novel.
There’s a reason his previous brace of long-playing sallies into the world go for the eye-watering amounts they do; it’s because this music is clever, reflexive, intriguing, questioning, and will repay much investigation. One of the records of the year. Buy.
Bastien Keb’s The Killing of Eugene Peeps will be released by Gearbox Records on October 9th on digital, CD and vinyl formats. Order yours here.