Review: Kele’s “The Boxer”

Jul 1, 2010 3:13pm

As a solo artist, Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke has decided to go strictly on a first name basis.  That’s not the only change Bloc Party fans have in store on his album, “The Boxer.”  Within the context of his band, he’s always walked a fine line, mixing angular new wave, pounding post-punk and soft balladry.  Sure, there was always a slight dance edge to the band’s sound, but it wasn’t the focus.  “The Boxer” puts the beat up front, tones the guitars down and attempts to be his bid for pop stardom.  Those familiar with Kele’s Bloc Party work will know that he sometimes has unusual sensibilities.  Interestingly, within this more pop-based dynamic, he has chosen to turn his weirdness level up. Voices are sped up and beats jump and skip along.  It makes for a very compelling but wonderfully puzzling concoction. “Walk Tall” sets off the album with the army chant, “I don’t know what you’ve been told…,” backed by a low, bending garage-dance bassline.  During the chorus he lists rules to live by.  “Rule number three / Forget where you’ve been. / Cut your ties to the past and wave it goodbye.”  It’s evident he’s taking his own advice.  While there is an element reminiscent of his Bloc Party work, it’s closer to the material found on the band’s two remix records.  This may be jarring at first to fans of their 2005 landmark debut, “Silent Alarm.” If that wasn’t odd enough, “On The Lam” hoists the dance flag even higher.  Kele’s voice is sped up, slowed down, tweaked and halted digitally like a malleable sonic entity.  Fans of straight-up rock will most likely be turned off by this.  Taken alone, without any previous knowledge of his rock past, it’s kind of a cool track.  There are enough drum-fill bits and left-field flip outs to keep it from becoming a house music cliché.  Everything is ridiculously chopped into pieces for a dazzling, jaw-dropping effect.  Sounds are spliced and inserted.  A dial tone here.  A spoken bit there.  It’s definitely different, but it’s quite fascinating as well. “Tenderoni ” is the single.  (No, it has nothing to do with the Bobby Brown song.)  Again, this song might take Bloc Party fans a few spins to accept. I must admit, its garage-house-pop vibe didn’t catch me at first, but I gave it a chance.  In the song Kele addresses a lover who has “been running with the rude boys for much too long,” proclaiming, “You think you’re one of them.”  The verses pound along, not preparing you for the explosive chorus.  His signature yelp can be heard over an aggressive, revved up beat.  This song could probably be a huge dance hit here in the States, but might be too “experimental” to be given a chance.  It will most likely have more success in the U.K., where audiences seem to be more open to innovative sounds.  “Other Side” takes a tripping beat and combines it with a looped guitar note.  The beat stumbles as if from a drunken 808.  There’s a subtle, electric flamenco blues vibe present on this track.  Sounds are adjusted and manipulated with ease.   Synths buzz and clatter.  Again Kele’s voice is chopped and tweaked.  Especially as he sings, “It’s driving me insane.”  The carefully spun chaotic mood makes you almost believe him.  Towards the middle, the song becomes a conga-heavy dance jam, with a slightly tribal tone as he repeatedly chants the words, “over to the other side.”  Indeed, Kele’s biggest strength here might be his ability to infuse different elements of world music into an alternative pop setting.  As the Liverpool, England-born son of Nigerian immigrants, he no doubt has been exposed to wide, international cultural palate, and his diverse influences mesh well.  He’s also skilled at adding the element of surprise.  The sampled grunt that appears multiple times throughout this track seems to come out of nowhere.  It’s pleasing every time. “Everything You Wanted” is a pop plea for a lover to stay, declaring, “I could’ve given you everything you wanted, everything you needed.”  It’s been done a million times before, but not quite like this.  Backed by a buzzing beat and some vibrating synths, he’s able to give this somewhat basic sentiment some heft.  It doesn’t hurt either  that the hook allows him to showcase his more melodic side. The next track is called “New Rules.”  Once again, Kele finds his melodic sweet spot, recalling the Bloc Party track, “Blue Light.”  The song is highly atmospheric, yet subdued. What sounds like a harp but is probably an acoustic guitar plucks along with measured, almost classical beauty.  Since Kele likes to keep things interesting, a sampled phone operator is heard in the background in a loop saying, “Please hang up and try again.”  This turns out to be one of the prettiest tracks on the record as Kele sings, “I’m learning to be laid back about certain things.”  He and background-vocalist Jodie Scantlebury have some nice interplay.  Her presence gives the track just the right kind of tenderness. Indeed, this is an unquestionable album highlight. Fans looking for more of Bloc Party’s signature drive need to listen to “Unholy Thoughts.” While the track never fully rocks out with loud guitars, it plays like a quieter answer to songs like “Helicopter” or “One Month Off.”  Again, this is another album highlight. “Rise” takes a drum machine beat and meets it with a sound similar to that of a xylophone or a marimba.  It sounds like it would make an excellent piece of movie score.  Like the previous two tracks, this song showcases Kele’s more sensitive side.  He sings, “Brothers, sisters, can’t you see that you are stronger than you think.”  There’s a near gospel-like sense of uplift here, which is taken to its limit when an additional female vocalist comes in and repeats the line, “I’m taking over.”  From that point on, the track turns into a twisting, scratching house-jam  free-for-all, until it slowly recedes  into a peaceful lullaby. “All The Things I Could Never Say” begins quietly with a ping-ponging synth.  It builds and blossoms into a beautifully sad, jilted, broken-hearted love song.  Kele sings, “You are making me older.  You are making me ill.”  The backdrops might have changed from the Bloc Party records to a more techno-heavy style, but Kele still knows his way around a gut-grabbing song.    This quieter second half of the record shows he still has excellent instincts.  The disc ends on an up note with the bouncy, clapping track, “Yesterday’s Gone.”  This song expertly combines the dance-heavy edge of the first half of the record with the softer, more melodic tone of the second half.  For this reason, it makes for an ideal stopping point. If you are a Bloc Party fan expecting more post-punk, guitar-heavy hooks, you won’t find what you are looking for here.  You will find a high-quality, highly experimental electronic record.  That may seem jarring at first.  My advice is to give this record at least four or five open-minded spins before making up your mind.  If it catches you in the right way, its hidden gifts will become apparent.  Kele has reinvented himself , but deep down, he’s still the same songwriter.  As “The Boxer,” he’s definitely prepared for the fight. 

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