Thursday 8 August 2019

Ways of Hearing – Kyla Brox

Kyla Brox, Pain & Glory

Shall we take it as read that Kyla Brox is sassy, open, alternatively tough and vulnerable, possesses a towering voice and meets all the tests for greatness in the separate spheres of soul and blues, that her songs are honest and true, and the band cook, and that big words like Pain and Glory can be bandied about with impunity. Put simply, Pain and Glory is Kyla’s best album yet, and this follows too, because each album is the culmination of all her previous efforts and her life experience.  

Let’s do, and then we can move onto some interesting questions raised by the music, and ask about the relevance of soul and blues to our culture at this moment in history, and wonder if soul and blues are synonymous or even compatible terms, and ponder the difficulty of adapting the unreconstructed ‘sugar mamma’ to the ethical standards of the modern world. It’s enough to give anybody the blues! 

The first thing to say is that Kyla couldn’t really escape her destiny, as the daughter of a blues singing father and a soul singing mother. This is the subject of the autobiographical ‘Bluesman’s Child’: 

Too many hours in the back of a van 
Twelve years old already in his band
If I ever want to see him the only way 
Is to get on the stage and play, play, play 
It can be a little wild 
The life of a bluesman’s child 

This exercise in debunking, coming at some personal risk, is typical of Kyla’s honesty. It is interesting to compare that self mythologist, Victor Brox, with his daughter. Victor, like many another bluesman, is concerned with what he can do to you or for you. His potency derives from the power he exercises over others. A certain amount of role-play and fabrication is involved, but this only adds to the gaiety. He continually promises more than he can deliver, but makes up for the shortfall by hamming it up outrageously, to the mutual enjoyment of all. 

The thing is, Kyla never hams it up. Where Victor acts, Kyla is. This is not just a nicety of style: it is a fundamental difference between men and women. 

Not that Kyla is averse to a bit of role-play herself. One of the great archetypes of the blues is the sassy, infinitely accommodating sugar mamma, a heartbreaker and object of male fantasy. And though Kyla is adept at this role, the nearest she gets here is reluctantly foregoing a fling because “in the morning in the cold light of day / I remember I already have a husband and a family” (note that idiosyncratic pronunciation, ‘familay,’ to rhyme with ‘day’). This tale of virtue in peril was co-written with husband Danny Blomeley. 

To be a woman is to be divided into two. And, to simplify a bit, the objectified woman has its musical counterpart in the blues. That is, the sugar mamma appraises everything she is and does in the light of how she appears to others, and especially how she appears to men. To acquire some control over this process, a woman contains and interiorises it. This, in musical terms, is soul. The process is hard and calls for a large reserve of inner strength. In expression, it always comes tinged with sadness, and is so hard-won you find yourself asking, was it worth it? Soul, of the femme variety, is also the sound of a woman luxuriating in her strength, and is a sign of empowerment. So blues and soul are, in fact, symbiotic forms; the yin and yang of Afro-American music (Kyla proffers the Lancashire version). She continually treads this line. She struts her stuff and is thrilling, until it is time for her to reveal how she really feels, and show how vulnerable she is to pain and hope. This is where Kyla is most herself.

So ‘Sensitive Soul’, hitched to a Memphis beat, is a very, very assertive paean to sensitivity, and of such vivacity and energy that you really wouldn’t want to mess with this shrinking violet. ‘Pain & Glory’ itself is a medium paced affirmation of unconditional love and unbridled emotion. It has a stirringly good melody, the proper attribute of classic soul. ‘Manchester Milan’ like many another interior monologue, soon slips into transcendent rapture. By contrast, ‘Let You Go’ is a blistering put-down – brusque rejection being the prerogative of the blues mamma, who reappears with a jolt just when you’ve been lulled into security by the soul belle. 

And then, just when the listener has ticked off all the tracks listed on the CD sleeve, something extraordinary happens. 

‘Hallelujah’, Leonard Cohen’s greatest song, came late in his career. It is a man’s song about the mystery of women, couched in quasi-spiritual, masochistic imagery. What does it mean when a woman sings it? Well, when a woman such as Kyla Brox sings it, it means she claims all its power and passion for her own sex. We lose one mystery and find ourselves in an even greater mystery. This is a performance so passionate and wounded that exhilaration and agony become as one, the ultimate aim of soul. 
And Kyla throws it away as a secret track. Is this some meaning of the word ‘integrity’? 

1 comment:

  1. I have only one word: wow! Only Mike can mix history, music anthropology and feminism. Amazing words for amazing Kyla.


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