What A Boost is Serious Music

Rachel Aggs (Shopping) on how Rozi Plain’s new album is “pure joy!”

I’ve been watching Rozi Plain play gigs for over a decade and never have I seen someone so genuinely confident and comfortable on stage. It’s something I admire in a deep way. She has a way of seeming so herself, unpretentious but committed to cutting the crap and doing a good job up there; she clearly communicates her songs, creates a space, lets everyone pause for a second, and gives us a piece of something beautiful. There is something so deliberate and thoughtful about the music Rozi makes. I do think it’s wormed its way into how I think about making music, what the possibilities are, what confidence can really look like.

A while back, I was saying to my bandmate Rachel Horwood (who, funnily enough, now plays live with Rozi on tour), “Wow, I can’t wait to hear the new Rozi album. I hope I don’t have to wait long.” I then opened up my laptop ten minutes later to find an email from Rozi asking me to write this thing with a link to her new album, What A Boost. I replied straight away in amazement, explaining how weird it was that I’d just been talking about her; she replied, “the planets align!” So I spent a great train ride from London back home to Glasgow listening to this incredible new record.

As soon as the opening riff on “Inner Circle” slinked into my headphones, I knew this was going to be special. Rozi should get more cred for being such a brilliant guitar player. Maybe it’s the finger-picking style, or just the understated way that she plays, but I do think her guitar playing gets overlooked. It is shapeshifting, intricate and perfectly placed; the guitar playing of someone who is really listening.

The hurdy-gurdy style string drone at the end of this song really got me too, so spacious and tasty. I know words like “expansive” and “spacious” get used a lot in music reviews, but  this album really is. There is a meditative yet powerful space on this album that she carves out for herself, just like she does on stage. And it’s not just the music: lyrics like “inner circle/in a square/over there” magically tesselate together like puzzle pieces, and you can see and feel the shapes as you listen. Ironically, the guitar riff from “Dark Park” keeps getting stuck in my head along with the mantra lyrics, “forget, remember/forget, remember.” I catch myself walking around the house humming and singing this to myself a lot.

Another thing I love about Rozi’s music is that it’s always been so adept at mixing in elements of non-Western roots music in a non-appropriative, non-“fusion” kind of a way. It’s unfair that as guitar players living in the UK, we are expected to only draw influence from Western pop and rock. Rozi has always echoed my own feeling that obviously the world is so much bloody bigger than that! Because it’s not even about mixing or “fusing” or borrowing or being influenced — it’s about being alive and listening.

She does this perfectly with the song “Trouble,” its Ethiopian type of mind-melting back beat and the Getatchew Mekurya-type sax playing (Alabaster Deplume, boy is he good!). Or, a particularly sparkly example would be “The Gap,” which messes with some real polyphony. It’s like the rhythmic equivalent of that thing when you are on a train and the train next to yours is going the other direction, so for a second you can’t tell which direction your train is going anymore — maybe you’re even standing still? There is also a synth sound on this song that makes me think of the best ‘90s South African pop by total dudes like Thomas Chauke and Penny Penny. The guitar has the mad one string rhythm of Ghanaian kologo master King Ayisoba and the analog synth stabs and claps remind me of a William Onyeabor-type pop song. It’s got it all!!! Oh, and the way the hocket-style vocals (I recently discovered that “hocket” is the technical name for the musical Tetris technique of vocalists sharing the same melody, filling in each other’s gaps, so to speak) build, the song is almost devotional, an incantation of pure joy! I could feel my spirit being lifted, I could feel the weight of it.

This is Serious Music! I wish I had the words! It is cosmic! It makes total sense that the album closes with a Sun Ra cover. Rozi is one of very few “indie” musicians that I feel can get away with doing such a thing. I first discovered Sun Ra at age 18 through an interpretation of “Adventure-Equation” by Glasgow free jazz gang Scatter. I had picked up Sing Stupendous Love in my local record shop purely based on its CD cover collage of a saucepan with pink goo pouring into the universe (I was a weird kid, I lived for this kind of thing). So I have these Scottish white people to thank for introducing me to the whole universe of Sun Ra, the extra terrestrial Afro Futurist space ship pilot I never knew I needed.

Rozi’s cover of “When There Is No Sun” is up there on my list of great interpretations of the Word of Ra. Her music is serious in the way that I think jazz is serious. It feels abstract when it picks at the seams of a song and breathes in life to your headphones. It makes really difficult thoughts tangible, and expresses tension in a way that I think only music can.

The first single from What A Boost, “Symmetrical” shines and bobs along in the all the best ways but has a dissonance that is the most satisfying kind, like scratching a really good itch. There’s this strum pattern on the guitar that breaks the blocks of stepping stone rhythms just after Rozi sings a playful run through the alphabet “Asymmetrical, to be symmetrical, to see symmetrically” and, wow, it’s like a reflection on water or something, a wonky upside-down face! The song presents right and wrong-ness all at once: “Yes you can stand it/just can’t understand it.” It makes me think about those things in life that nag and niggle at you.

A friend who I tried to start a band with once described the type of music he thought we could make together as being like a plate: “Y’know, practical — you can eat your dinner off it.” I wasn’t totally sure what he meant at the time, but I often think about that when trying to write songs. Although it sounds stupid, I do think you could eat your dinner off Rozi’s songs! There is a philosophical kind of simplicity at play on this album. She manages to talk about the grit that gets under your fingers while making it all seem so beautiful. Rozi offers us a kaleidoscopic kind of meaning that’s constantly wiggling and rearranging itself through different refractions of light. But through all that beauty, it’s still really useful music; it genuinely helps me get through the day. And isn’t that sort of the point?

What A Boost is a soft and calm album, but it’s jam packed with bold ideas. Nowadays, I do notice the need to be quiet and listen to other people, to slow down and meditate a little more than I used to, and Rozi’s music occupies an important space in my brain for that. It’s the kind of music you put on when you’re having coffee in the kitchen and it really gets into the guts of your day — like oiling the gears and cogs in your brain. I believe this new record does that job (and more!) better than any she’s made yet.