Kongos - Lunatic

South African boy band rocks harder on the accordion than you’d think possible.

Additional Info

8.0

ALBUM: Lunatic

ARTIST: Kongos

2012

Rock

Their name evokes images of the Congo, but their origin is a bit more tame. The group Kongos is made-up of four brothers, Johnny, Jesse, Dylan and Daniel Kongo. Their father, John Kongos, has undoubtedly influenced the group through his own musical career, having much success in South Africa in the 1960s and 70s. Kongos slide easily into a category with Kings of Leon, The Killers, and The Black Keys; a band of brothers making melodic dance music with the refined instruments of Rock. I, like many others residing in the United States, discovered this band on the radio while I was jamming out in my car in sunny Southern California. The Kongos represent a Rock n’ Roll style that has been blossoming in the 21st century: accordions, poetic lyrics, and a chorus that unifies the counterculture. The Kongos’ sophomore album Lunatic is a refreshing reverb on modern day Rock.

The Kongos found themselves in a two-year lull following their album drop in South Africa. Lunatic (2012) saw widespread exposure across various stations in South Africa in 2012, including 5FM and Tuks FM, but their top hits like “Come With Me Now” and “I’m Only Joking” faced trouble breaking through to stereos in America. In October of 2013, the group self-released in the US with high hopes. Eighteen months after their initial album release, the group became skeptical of their product and seriously considered forging new content. Drummer Jesse said there was a long period of waiting for the album to catch on in the States, but when it did happen, the change was instantaneous. A Denver radio station picked up “Come With me Now” in January, 2014, and the band spun to the top of the US charts. Finally, gaining the recognition that they deserved across the globe last year, they have become “the fastest-rising debut top 10 on the charts since Lorde's "Royals" last July, and the fastest by a group since Flobots' "Handlebars" in 2008, according to Billboard.

You’re wondering now, “what makes this band of South African musicians so worth the listen?” A few things. They address their listener as “you” consistantly, directly, engaging their audience in their material. In turn, the listener connects his/her own personal history within the general themes of the lyrics. This appeals to listeners seeking personal connections with music, and fulfills Kongos' goal of forging autonomy within their listeners. The lyrics of Lunatic obsess over the regrets of the past, the creation of history, the attainment of knowledge, asking “Where have all the heroes gone?” The references in their music come from observations that the band has constructed based on what they see in life. The generalized presentation of these observations allows listeners to apply their own personal experiences to the music, such as with the line, “Oh, we've tried/ At times we've lied/ But few have known/ And fewer have shown.” The art the Kongos make thrives on the autonomy of the individual who is listening because various interpretations can be taken away from the same piece of work.

Kongos cares about their fans, specifically about the individuality of each and every one of them. It’s evident that the band recognizes the effects of Capitalism on modern society. They mourn the divide between the rich and the poor and the narrowing gap between man and machine. Materialism, the consequence of Capitalism, has re- prioritized what we find important. Today, the self is no longer a mind to cultivate, but a body to dress up and accessorize, defined by its possessions. The band’s attempts to resonate with their listeners by addressing them in first person and using compelling lyrics.

Tim Kassar quotes German democratic intellectual Erich Fromm in his book The High Price of Materialism. Fromm said, “In the medieval system capital was the servant of man, but in the modern system it became his master.” The world has become transfixed with materialism and possession due to our capitalist society and the Information Age. Capitalization on the advancements of computers has created a perceived need in society - constant acquisition. Whether it’s the answer to the trivia question that’s plagued you all day, or those discounted concert tickets that came out this morning, the Internet has allowed us to obtain whatever we want, whenever we want it. Commodity now rules our lives, rather than the reverse that was true in the medieval system. So, why is this relevant to Kongos? Their album, Lunatic, is ridden with social commentary on contemporary society’s obsession with getting a fix, having the hot new thing, and the disconnect this forges between a person and their identity. Kassar writes, “[Materialistic values] diminish our personal freedom. Said differently, a strong focus on the pursuit of wealth, fame, and image undermines the satisfaction of needs for authenticity and autonomy”. Seen most prevalently in “I’m Only Joking”, “Kids These Days”, and “Hey, I Don’t Know”, the Kongos brothers are actively participating in this scholarly conversation. Their lyrics touch upon discussions of true love, an inner connection to the self, and growth in personal experiences. The High Price of Materialism claims this personal connection, or autonomy, and is compromised by “The Chains of Materialism” that cause us to focus on external motivating rewards, like money, instead of intrinsic motivation, like passion. External rewards “lead people to care more about the rewards than the activity, consequently to experience less interest and enjoyment”. A passion-project in themselves, it makes sense that Kongos is fighting for the Transcendental aim of re-connecting with the inner self. Their album has the honorable objective of reuniting the everyday individual with their passion, what makes them lose track of time and forget about themselves. Perpetuating this goal, it’s easy to lose yourself in the complex conversation going on in Lunatic.

“In the medieval system capital was the servant of man, but in the modern system it became his master.” - Erich Fromm

1. I’m Only Joking
“I’m Only Joking” opens the album with a punch.It’s got a solid metal beat, eerie harmonizing of vocals, and catchy lyrics that alternate between eloquent descriptions and the straightforward admonishment “I’m just fucking with your head.” It touches upon the human propensity in the Information Age to accept every “crazy little thing I read.” With the inclusion of pronouns other than “I”, it’s easier to visualize a storyline within “I’m Only Joking” than some of the other tracks on this album. With the same personal tales of consumerism occupying a majority of the tracks on Lunatic, hearing the story of a new character, say, the chick that’s “Licking her chops/ She looks at the lunatics/ She needs another fix,” is welcomed. The musicianship is executed in an exciting, frantic, energizing manner. The abrupt pause at the end of the song (-.10), before the final chord, is unexpected. It draws the listener in before one final, powerful riff that surely wakes up the listener’s inner rebel.8.5
2. Come With Me Now
This is the chart-topping hit that lead Kongos to fame and acclaim. The lyrics, sung in first person, swoon an irresistible summons laced with rhyming poetic lines, a definite dance beat, and an accordion. Vocalists Jesse and Dylan invite the listener to follow, they’ll “show you how”, as they break through the everyday into a realm of deeper meaning. Rock well done.8.5
3. I Want to Know
Hinging on Kongos’ affinity for wordplay,this song has a smooth rhythm reminiscent of reggae, and lyrics that keep a listener on their toes. A major drawback presents itself when one understands the lyrics. They never take up any specific focus, and seem to circle around the broad topic of putting up a pretense. Some of their lines are more impressive than others; ”Taking your refuge in your reason/ Just to beat the fear/ That we don't know why we're here” sounds much more poetic than “And I, yeah I/ What’s it gonna take/ And you... yeah you/ What’s it gonna be.” A decent listen, but lacking any real depth, this tune takes up space on the Lunatic album.7.0
4. Escape
Slowing down the beat, “Escape” serves as a gentle break, differing from the up-beat hard-rock style that opens the album. The lyrics become a bit repetitive due to the recitation of natural disasters in a listing manner. In the song, love becomes a means of escaping natural disasters, which, really, is an unlikely and not a relatable story. With lines like, “When the big one finally hit's LA/ When Yellowstone has it's day,” the message Kongos are conveying here casts an apocalyptic shadow over this quasi-love song, making their point seem scattered and random. 6.5
5. Kids These Days
This songs peaks to me! Walking down the streets of LA, I’m hard pressed to find an individual who isn’t distracted from the reality in front of them by an iSomething glowing in their face. The assumed-omnipotent nature of generation y, something often experienced but maybe less often noticed, is brought to light here. Kids these days are talking “with such conviction/ whether truth or fiction,” they believe whatever they see on TV, but deny any information from an elder. They waste time, supported by companies like Apple, who “reinvent the wheel/ watch it spin/ marvel at the breakthrough they had found,” when really, the world can only stomach so many iPhone versions. This becomes the chorus, emphasizing the statement the band is making.8.5
6. As We Are
This is a romantic ballad, simple yet elegant. Written byJohnny Kongos, the lyrics read as if written originally for a poem dedicated to the fleeting attainability of love, talked about by many, tried by all, and accomplished by few. The third stanza is my favorite: an attempt to understand love by the cliche phrases surrounding it. “Now where do we begin,” he blindly starts. “It’s said we must look within/ Cause love is to be and to be is to love/ So reach up, reach high... and someday we’ll find out what love is.” But many of the lyrics contain the word “trying”, for, isn’t that really what love is?8.0
7. Sex on the Radio
Following the theme that daily life is melancholy, banal and needs adjusting, this tune celebrates the avant-garde imposition that is sex on the radio. Simply, the song celebrates a break from the norm. The rhythm picks up more complexity than the previous tune, taking away from the conciseness of the rhythm overall. The chorus makes for the x-factor in this equation, adding a welcomed etherial break from the accordion band-jam.8.0
8. Hey, I Don’t Know
The powerful baseline kicking off this track hooks you instantly. The harmony intrigues your ears, and the lyrics and meter are perfectly balanced. Again, we see the Kongos taking up philosophical subject matter. They circle around the discussion of how one acquires knowledge, questioning our nature to believe everything we hear, especially in history lessons. Jesse Kongo, creator of the song, relaid that he wanted to create a dichotomy in this song that represents the distance between a King and a peasant. I can see this attempt in “Hey, I Don’t Know,” but I think it could have been presented in a much more direct manner. It’s hard to grasp their objective without reading the lyrics because the refrain, “Hey, I don’t know/ Why don’t you tell me,” distracts from the political objective Kongos set for themselves.7.5
9. Traveling On
It’s rare for a contemporary band to rely so heavily on the vocal quality of their singer, but here, it’s wonderful. The melancholy nature of the love-lost ballad is perfectly communicated through the melting voice of lead singer, Dylan. The pace of this track makes for a dreamy, sleepy pause from the pounding bass frequently heard on Lunatic. The mellow pace allows the listener to really understand the lyrics and grasp their weight. This track laments the human search in life for “better,” no matter the city, the people who surround us, or the time passed since love lost. The concluding lines are icy in their honesty, “And when the years pass us by/ I wonder if we'll cry/ For losing so much time/ For moments we may miss/ For the love that still exists tonight/ Maybe I'll go it all alone/ See the world and make my way back home/ Or maybe I'll keep traveling on.” The story is presented as a first person account, but the experience shared is relatable for many and applicable to various situations, fitting “Traveling On” in with the message of the other tracks.8.5
10. Take Me Back
The accordion and return of the kick drum initially are reminiscent of a badass pirate ship, or, maybe, the theme song for a biker club. The Kongos are obviously worried about society’s habit of sleepwalking through life. They acknowledge our growing gluttonous greed for “more” and the never-ending search for satisfaction in materials. We are always looking ahead and never remaining in the moment. Unfortunately, Kongos is too accurate in the line, “Now what I'm saying is nothing new/ This repetition's right on cue.” The hardcore rock vibe returns once again in “Take Me Back,” with a subject matter that has been poked at and interrogated since the opening of the album. We got this message in “Kids These Days” and “Hey, I Don’t Know,” so it begins to feel tired at this point in the album.7.0
11. It’s a Good Life
Something about this song falls short. The beat is refreshing with a removed emphasis on their hard core rock ’n roll style. The jam feels fun, teasing listeners with the idea of retreating from the messy life that consumerism creates via desert island or arson. But, it feels tired, and halfway through I want to press skip. At this point in Lunatic, the listener is itching for a song with a positive message, after the miles of social criticism presented in tracks 1-10. The refrain and title mask the reality that the song is falsely celebratory, because really, it just reminds us once again that life is potentially monotonous and repetitive. It’s also irritating that one can’t just “say fuck it/ Maybe you just light a match,” but, hey, maybe that’s the point Kongos is trying to make.7.5
12. This Time I Won’t Forget
As if it is Part Two of “Take Me Back,” this track mellows out once again and echoes the vibes of Track 10. It’s heroic, mourning the loss of “Mother, father, brother, son,” while finding solace in something as simple as breath. This song is particularly successful in its ability to both convey the deep sadness surrounding death, and the refreshing enlightenment that occurs when you realize: “Cause now I'm alive/ I'm taking my first breath/ Oh I'm alive/ And this time I won't forget.” 8.5
Written by Shelby Tatomir
Reading and writing are my roots, making music, design, and photography sprouting branches of special interests that I am always striving to cultivate.



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