Songs of the sirens

2008-01-12 00:00

About a year ago, a band with the strange name of the South Jersey Pom-Poms appeared on the Durban music scene. The posters for the band’s gigs were almost wilfully naïve and obscure, using images of sirens from the early 20th century as their backdrop.

These images, it turned out, were more appropriate than I might have guessed. The South Jersey Pom-Poms hark back to a time before rock and roll broke the dam of popular music. Conceptually based in the thirties and forties, the Pom-Poms exude a certain innocence that is musical, stylistic and emotional.

Listening to their gorgeous sound, it’s as if Elvis never shook his hips and instead continued singing swooning ballads and songs to his mother. The Beatles, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix, Nirvana — it’s like they never happened. In fact the only band or performer that the band collectively acknowledges as an influence is Carla Bruni, the velvet-voiced model-cum-singer whose voice is similar to that of lead vocalist Eva Jackson, and who, to songwriter Jochen Zeller’s disbelief, is currently in romantic liaison with French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

This doesn’t mean that the Pom-Poms don’t reference the world after the 50s. They do, for example, cover Elvis’s Blue Moon, although actually it’s the early 90s Cowboy Junkies version to which they pay tribute, and the songs segues with almost gleeful innocence into the 50s classic Everyday. They also rearrange Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Lose Your Lover and Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang (made famous once again by Tarantino’s Kill Bill). But not for a second do they indulge in the histrionics of modern rock or the (sometimes charming) vacuity of modern pop.

The elements of thirties Berlin cabaret (courtesy of Zeller’s German heritage) mingle with vestiges of British folk and music hall and 40s jazz to carry the band into a musical space that while thoroughly accessible is also idiosyncratic. The songs and influences are eclectic, but there is nonetheless a coherence that runs through their performances that is perhaps expressed best not in musical terms but in visual terms, the image of a siren on a smoky stage.

With simple, elegant song-writing courtesy of Jochen and Eva, the Pom-Poms construct a cinematic world. Strangely, this delicately constructed world doesn’t feel like escapism, although it clearly is.

Laid-back and beautifully mellow, the Pom-Poms exist far from the homogeneity of modern rock. While there is a global tendency towards quieter, more considered songs, most South African rock quartets still tend to make a great deal of noise, often at the expense of — or in place of — song writing finesse, and the practise of drowning the lyrics in feedback guitar is common. This approach has produced some great music but it also results in a sense of genericness.

It is against this context that the Pom-Poms are so refreshing. They dare to be quiet and restrained without ever being in fear of losing their swing.

Lead singer Eva expresses herself in a manner that reminds me much of Lou Reed’s solo material in her blend of impassioned delivery and acerbic dryness. Drummer Grant Emmerlich (who moonlights as a vet!) is almost the antithesis of the rock drummer, approaching his drum set with a lightness and delicacy. Bassist Ben Murrel is not even vaguely convinced that his guitar is a phallus, and at times even sits on the floor while playing in a slightly percussive manner. And guitarist Jochen approaches his craft with a rare elegance and humour.

Watching the band rehearse, it’s remarkable how democratic the process is. I’ve watched more than my share of band rehearsals, and usually the ebb and flow is dominated by one or two personalities, most often the vocalist and the lead guitarist. By contrast, the Pom-Poms operate on a collective level. While the pleasure of much rock music often extends from the conflicts between energies, much of the joy of the Pom-Poms lies in the fact that the four egos disappear beneath the music.

The band began two years ago as a trio. Eva and Ben had both been students of Jochen at the University of KZN and the three started playing together two years ago. They subsequently roped in drummer Grant Emmerlich when they got to the point where they needed percussive. The quartet launched into the public eye as the Pom-Poms at the Blue Waters Hotel a year ago and will be completing the circle tonight with the launch of their debut album.

As for their name, they got it off a t-shirt that a friend of Ben’s was wearing, that was literally a promotional device for a group of low-rent cheerleaders. Ben says that the name was chosen more in the absence of any other possibilities, than because they thought it was perfect. Jorgen says that he loves the fact that the name makes so little sense in the context of Durban.

And critics might argue that the music also makes little sense in the context of the city. Certainly, the South Jersey Pom-Poms do not make any sounds that are recognisably Durban or even South African. But at the same time there is something quintessentially Durban about the various fusions of form and culture that constitute the Pom-Poms.

•The South Jersey Pom-Poms will be playing at the Blue Waters Hotel tonight at 8 pm.

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