John Wizards is the brainchild of Cape Town multi-instrumentalist/producer John Withers, who recorded his debut with the help of Rwandan vocalist Emmanuel Nzaramba. The band's self-titled LP is anchored by Withers' warm production, but it features an eclectic mix of sounds that borrow elements of bass music, R&B, dub, tropicalia, and African music ranging from Congolese rumba to Shangaan electro. Still, even though it includes 15 tracks, John Wizards is a surprisingly focused debut, particularly when one considers that the album is coming from an outfit that can total up to seven members when playing live.
From start to finish, the album is both ambitious and endearingly simplistic. While John Wizards is certainly eclectic, listening to the record as a whole isn't as scattershot it might seem, largely due to Withers' limited set of tools (he recorded with just a condenser microphone, guitar, and limited computer software). Though it's easy to wonder what it would be like if Withers had stuck with, say, reggae ("I'm Still A Serious Guy"), lounge-pop ("Jamieo"), or ambient ("Friend"), it's to the listener's benefit that he can't seem to settle in one place.
"Lusaka By Night," a track originally released as a part of a John Wizards' 12" earlier this year (it arrived with remixes from Planet Mu regular Ital Tek and Hyperdub's LV), contains a deceptively varied approach to its sun-flecked sound. The song mixes African percussion and contemporary R&B while adding subtle electronic textural flourishes. Nzaramba's vocals, sung as a vocoded croon, are buoyed by a slinky bassline, hand claps, and sunny guitar. Veering closer toward yacht-rock territory is "iYongwe," a track whose electro-funk bounce is reminiscent of infomercial themes or daytime TV intros from the early '90s. (As a day job, Withers has composed music for television commercials, which makes sense considering the album's occasionally cheesy air.)
The more traditionally song-oriented tracks, such as "Limpop," may remind some listeners of Vampire Weekend, who have been borrowing from African music (perhaps of the kind Withers grew up with) for years. It's an interesting case of cyclical cultural appropriation that's probably best not to parse here. A better comparison is probably to The Very Best (a.k.a. Radioclit and Esau Mwamwaya), who have a similar love of cross-pollinating genres, and, like John Wizards, share ties to the dance world.
It's also worth noting that John Wizards (like the "Lusaka By Night" 12" before it) is being released via ever-broadening experimental dance hub Planet Mu. While the label has certainly expanded beyond its core focus in recent years, John Wizards is perhaps its most pop-oriented release yet. Even so, the LP has its fair share of dance cuts that aren't wholly outside Planet Mu's wheelhouse. "Finally /Jet Up," for instance, becomes a repetitive, house-leaning track once it gets going, and its less-than-three-minute runtime could have easily been extended. "Durvs" suffers from the same abbreviated length, but it's a pleasant diversion while it lasts. With so many tracks, though, it's a positive that John Wizards is so acutely aware of sonic economy—there's a ton of ground to cover, and to the group's credit, the album rarely flags.
Considering the LP's story as a bedroom project, it's tempting to look at the album as a stopgap before John Wizards can record as a full band in a proper studio. Some may also wish for the group to hone in on one or two styles and forgo all the genre hopping. However, both criticisms would do the project an unnecessary disservice. Though it's likely that John Wizards will grow and refine its sound, there's no reason to take away from what has already been achieved. As it is now, John Wizards is an effortlessly fun, pan-global pop record that stands on its own, no qualification needed.