Wednesday, August 28, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1296: J.S. Ondara

I’ve been randomly rolling a lot of records from 2019 lately, and they’ve been treating me well. This is my 8th album from 2019, and the 5th with a rating of four stars or higher. It’ll be a hard battle to make the top ten list this year, but this next artist is an early favourite to do so.

Disc 1296 is… Tales of America
Artist: J.S. Ondara

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? Young Mr. Ondara himself, sporting a funky suit as he plays a little street corner guitar.

How I Came to Know It: I read a review of this album on Paste magazine and was intrigued enough to give a few tracks a listen. I was quickly hooked.

How It Stacks Up:  This is Ondara’s only album so far, so there are no other albums to stack it up against.

Ratings: 4 stars but almost 5

Nairobi is a long way from Minneapolis, and you get the impression listening to “Tales of America” that all that distance helped provide the inspiration for J.S. Ondara’s unique sound. The more I listen to this album the more I’m thankful he made the trip.

Like a lot of great art, Ondara’s music is hard to categorize. It is a mix of folk and soul, sung with a rich, evocative tone that reminded me favorably of Tracy Chapman. While the record has a touch of strings here and there, and a few background vocalists, for the most part it is just Ondara strumming an acoustic guitar and singing.

The guitar is honest and raw but the star of this record is Ondara’s voice. He pulls every shred of emotion out of each word, and yet somehow manages to never sound overwrought. His range is fantastic, with a bluesy bawling tone in the low register, and a falsetto that sounds like an angel has descended when he goes up high. I actually thought a couple of the songs were a duet until I saw a video and realized it was all Ondara. Listening to these songs on my headphones was a bit of a letdown at times, because I missed the experience of having him fill my living room.

Ondara writes all the songs, which are thoughtful tales of heartache and spiritual exploration. He also is the master of the pop hook, which he nestles right in the pocket between his folk and blues sensibilities. The hooks are so catchy that they sometimes overshadow the rest of the song, but that’s OK because their repetition is so sublime it is all you need. On “Saying Goodbye” Ondara repeatedly sings “I’m just getting good at saying goodbye” but it isn’t true – he makes you feel those goodbyes from the first utterance of the phrase. Hearing it more often just helps it sink into your bones.

On “Torch Song” Ondara sings:

“My heart is never on time
Always a little behind”

I kind of wanted this song to be a little behind the beat, but it was hard to argue with the perfect phrasing Ondara finds in every rhythm. It is like he’s hearing it in smaller pieces than you can, finding micro-touches that create variability without ever leaving the pocket.

The record is filled with restlessness and yearning. The relationships are uncertain but full and deep, and Ondara’s angelic warble makes you feel like you’re walking lost down a crowded street, or maybe boarding a bus without looking to see what town it’s heading to. All that wandering in his real life translates honestly and organically into his music.

And while there is a current of uncertainty, you also get the impression that Ondaras’ center travels with him through every song. His music is raw to the world, but at ease with the experience. “Lebanon” in particular, exemplifies the experience. The narrator of the song opines:

“Hey love, I’m ready now
Can’t you see the riot
Inside my veins?”

But combined with a slow Johnny Cash-like guitar mosey and Ondara swinging his way through a chorus of:

“In the water, the fire
I’ll go wherever you go
In the valley, the canyon
I’ll go wherever you go.”

You don’t feel lost or frustrated – you just put a bit more spring in your step and stop worrying about where you’re heading. It reminded me of that old Buckaroo Bonzai quote, “Wherever you go…there you are.”

J.S. Ondara has the relaxed worldly wisdom of an old soul.  Listening to him sing lets you feel raw and vulnerable, but safe and calm in the same moment. I look forward to what he does next.

Best tracks: Torch Song, Saying Goodbye, Television Girl, Lebanon, Good Question

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