The Very Best

MTMTMK

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Three years on from the exuberantly joyful Warm Heart of Africa (and one after the stop-gap grab-bag Super Mom mixtape) the Very Best return with a sophomore album that, without radically altering their distinctive blend of African singing, synthesizer-based pop, and various strains of global dance music, is nevertheless a notably different affair. Recorded in the Malawian capital of Lilongwe, MTMTMK finds the group -- down to a duo after the departure of Etienne Tron -- delving deeper into African music while simultaneously flirting more boldly with clubby, high-gloss electro-pop. It's a shift that's reflected in the album's sizable pool of contributors: instead of indie-friendly luminaries like Ezra Koenig and M.I.A., remaining Besties Johann and Esau have teamed up with bona fide African superstars Amadou & Mariam and Baaba Maal (all on one track, no less, though regrettably it's the atypically beatless, frankly somewhat interlude-like "Bantu"), and world-conquering Somalian rapper K'naan (on the vaguely insipid "inspirational" "We OK"), as well as up-and-comers from across the African pop and dance music diaspora -- Seye, MNEK, Xuman, Jose Hendrix Nkedo, DJ Mo Laudi -- but they also engaged in songwriting collaborations with the likes of Bruno Mars and Taio Cruz (the latter resulting in the weird, garish Auto-Tune crash-course "Rumbae.") The variety and superabundance of collaborators, intriguing though it is, may partially explain why MTMTMK has a tendency to feel slightly faceless: almost unthinkably, the mighty Esau Mwamwaya, whose brightly harmonized vocals are the defining, integral element of TVB's sound, sometimes seem to get lost on his own album. Sure, he's always here, singing sometimes in English but mostly in his native Chewa, but his formerly inescapable magnetism doesn't quite shine through like before. If it's telling that most of the best moments here are those without guest vocal features -- chaotically eruptive opener "Adani," politically charged first single "Yoshua Alikuti," the jumping "Rudeboy" -- it's at least as significant that these cuts feature probably the hardest-hitting beats on the album, and come the closest to recapturing the first album's endearingly scrappy streak. Elsewhere, excepting the Eastern-tinged hip-hop reggae experimentation of "Mghetto," MTMTMK veers surprisingly close to the kind of streamlined, airbrushed, electro-dance confections that dominate Top 40 pop and R&B circa 2012, albeit generally with enough polyrhythmic (and cross-linguistic) complexity to make genuine crossover success highly implausible at best. It's not that overt poppiness is necessarily a bad look for these guys: "Kondaine," for instance, is the most blatant attempt to re-create the irresistibly frothy cheerfulness of the debut's stand-out title track, and it pretty much succeeds. But there's a fine line between blissfully sunshiny and merely cloying, and it's one that the Very Best aren't quite as adept at navigating this time out. They haven't lost their uplifting positivity or their restlessly inventive production spirit -- they just seem to be missing a bit of that Warm Heart.

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