Review: Dear Reader – Rivonia
Published on April 6th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
Johannesburg songstress Cheri MacNeil impressed Rocksucker with her previous album Idealistic Animals, and she’s only gone and outdone it with this self-confessed “pop opera” about her childhood in Apartheid South Africa.
“Down Under, Mining” kicks Rivonia off in deceptively innocuous fashion, moving lyrics such as “Mother, my brother is dead in the gutter / Dead in the gutter, oh my baby brother / Mother, my father is down in the ground / Down under, mining / Fetching the white man’s gold” concealed amidst a skipping rhythm section and huffing, syncopated backing vocals. “Took Them Away”, which chronicles the arrest of ANC members that inspired the album’s title, is also an ostensibly ‘pretty’ tune, and by this point the more hard-nosed amongst you might well have been put off by MacNeil’s sugary sweet, childlike vocals, which land somewhere between Regina Spektor and Joanna Newsom.
It’s worth sticking with, though, because the ornately arranged, elegantly performed piano ballad “Good Hope” is followed by a suite of tracks that seem to get gradually more remarkable.
“27.04.1994”, named for the date of the first interracial elections in South Africa, is the first of these: it packs so much good stuff into its three minutes and one second, even sounding in parts like early-’70s Beach Boys, before “From Now On” dazzles with its otherworldly, sublimely hummed backing vocals and knockout lines like “I miss the spring in green / The maze my sisters grew / I miss the rain on the roof as I lay with you”. “There was no room at the inn / For men with darker skin” laments McNeil on “Man of the Book”, a sort-of sea shanty secreted into stomping Soft Bulletin territory, the directness of the narrative also evidenced by “There’s no milk in the land / Can you hear your people weeping now?” from haunting piano ballad “Teller of Truths”.
“Already Are” is a mysterious, plinky duet with a rather Richard Hawley sounding chap – moreoever, it is superb, subtle psych-pop reminiscent of Andrew Bird, with whom MacNeil shares a knack for poignantly measured lyricism. “Cruelty On, Beauty On” is wonderful, like some shuffling, menacing sort of rhumba, before the a capella choir singing of “Victory” brings the curtain down to quite stunning effect. Cheri MacNeil has much to say, and such a beautiful way of saying it: dear readers, embrace Dear Reader.
Rocksucker says: Four Quails out of Five!
Rivonia is out on Monday on City Slang. For more information, please click here to visit Dear Reader’s official website.