[The boys from Champion Trees at Evol. PHOTO: Murray Williamson]

Champion Trees‘ debut album, Now 3000, is a diary of personal trials written with the frank honesty of an old friend. The 12 tracks are fleshed out with candid detail and explicitly local contexts, totalling a full-length 42 minutes. That’s an ambitious debut for an up-and-coming band, and something that’s rare in the single-focused streaming era. Released on 1 July, Now 3000 recounts adventures in self-doubt, restless romance, and losing days in the Cape Town suburbs.

The sentimental tone of the album can threaten to weigh the listener down, but some well-mixed drumming keeps things from sinking into melancholic quicksand. In fact, there’s a decent variety in rhythm throughout the album. Perhaps this is unsurprising considering their formally-educated drummer, Langa Dubazana, holds a BMus in Jazz Performance.

Besides the teasingly short but groovy ‘Langa in Japan’ which opens the album, there is the bossa-nova-styled ‘Californ-i-a’ and the catchy foxtrot ‘So Says Richard’. Uplifting guitar lines from Troy Nijland shine through the moody vocals to keep even the heavier tracks — like ‘Quick’ and ‘Last Words’ — feeling quietly optimistic.

Their weighty lyrics and stripped-back sound often draw comparisons to Eliot Smith or contemporary torch-bearers like Alex G. There are also hints of joyful folk-punk energy on tracks like ‘The Case for Procreation’ and ‘Namibia’ that are reminiscent of Frank Turner’s early work.

However, the band’s style is far from derivative. Champion Trees approach pensive subject matters with a self-deprecating yet determined, underdog attitude that feels like it belongs distinctly in the southern hemisphere. These heartening undercurrents matched with their observational lyrics give Champion Trees a real charm that grows with every song.

On the South-Easter

Now 3000’s gently hopeful bent gets to work its magic in the album’s seventh song, ‘Quick’. The lyrics have a lot in common with the others on the project — themes of falling behind and things slipping away, of impotency and purpose. All this floating through the air on Francis Christie’s raw vocals that couple well with the band’s sincere songwriting.

But as the track moves into its third act, we are lifted out of this mire of passing time by a slowly rising lead guitar. “The heaviness is shedded and I’m on the breeze / On the South-Easter”. Building to a moment of liberation from the mundane and habitual, ‘Quick’ leaves you feeling inspired to get outside and feel the wind on your skin.

We’ve all got socks

On top of a deceptively danceable rhythm section (courtesy of bassist Alexis Pienaar), ‘Last Words’ spins us an intimate story of loss, mortality and legacy. The muted guitar lets the percussion take the instrumental spotlight to keep the momentum going through one of the album’s more contemplative tracks.

‘Last Words’ showcases the strength of Champion Trees’ observational, story-telling lyrical style. They manage to craft sentimental touchstones that are personal and specific, but read like metaphors that anyone could recognise in their own life.

“And then he reached down, touched his socks / The hour came we lost him / And Lex got left sock, I got right / We have them to this day.”

This is evident throughout their work — the ability to make personal specifics feel deeply relatable. It makes for a particularly moving combination.

Running off the leash

The album’s tenth number is an upbeat, but no less impassioned, reprieve from an album that can be decidedly sombre. Where the rest of the album may have some optimism leaking through the cracks, this track gives it centre stage.

‘The Case for Procreation’ is an unrepentantly joyful appeal to young love — while still employing the same kind of tongue-in-cheek lines that are woven all through Now 3000.

Despite his rougher vocal style, Christie isn’t afraid to hold a note, and the chorus on this number shows that he’s extremely effective when he does let his voice off the leash.

In a globalised digital world where much of the media we consume can feel internationally impersonal or particularly American, Now 3000 is a heart-warming exercise in Western Cape sentimentality. 

Champion Trees’ work will leave you feeling both nostalgic and itching to make new memories with close friends. If you’re looking for the first, the album is available to stream on most platforms. For the second, get out there and catch the band live. For their next gig, they’ll be opening for Grassy Spark, Will Linley and PHFAT on 23 October for Some Sundays at Nooitgedacht Wine Estate in Stellenbosch.

Author

​​I write about the tech sector in hopes we can find human-centred alternatives to the mess we’ve made for ourselves. I get involved in the music scene because leaving passion unpursued is a sin. When my feet aren’t busy on the sokkie floor, you can find me chasing silver linings.

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