Top of the World
The editor's choice selection of the 10 best new releases, a track from each album appears on the issue's CD covermount.
There’s a growing trend for West African acts to court global popularity by employing Anglo-American producers to give them a rock’n’roll makeover. Rokia Traoré’s latest is produced by PJ Harvey’s long-time collaborator John Parrish, and now the Touareg guitarist Omara ‘Bombino’ Moctar has travelled to Nashville to record with Dan Auerbach of the American indie blues duo Black Keys.
The band recently won four awards at the 2013 Grammies, including one for Auerbach as producer of the year. He’s given a robust, clattering blues-rock sound to Nomad that should achieve the desired effect of appealing to the indie crowd who read MOJO and Uncut rather than Songlines. That Auerbach has pushed Bombino further in the direction of mainstream rock than Justin Adams ever did with Tinariwen or Chris Eckman of the Walkabouts with Tamikrest is evident from the first notes of the opener ‘Amidinine’. With the guitars playing at double-speed, the loping Touareg beat is transformed into a frantic, heads-down rock’n’roll boogie. It has an undeniable dynamic, although something of the haunting desert mystery has evaporated along the way. The same heavy attack informs most tracks. ‘Niamey Jam’ creates a new genre we might call ‘Touareg garage’.
Elsewhere, Auerbach adds splashes of synthesizer and pedal steel, while on ‘Imidiwan’ and ‘Aman’ he gets Bombino to bop like an Africanised T.Rex – the Black Keys are big Bolan fans, and sampled T.Rex’s ‘Mambo Sun’ on their Brothers album. But although this is one of those records that on first listen will probably have you asking ‘what have they done?,’ by the third or fourth play it sounds fabulous.
TRACK TO TRY: Tamiditine
Heart and Soul
Better known for bass playing than for his equally natural singing ability, Clinton Fearon reflects on his career with legendary roots reggae band The Gladiators over the course of Heart and Soul. When Fearon did take lead vocals – on lesser-known Gladiators cuts such as ‘Marvel Not’, ‘Richman Poorman’ and ‘Let Jah Be Praised’, the band could have been Jamaica’s Motown equivalents, unrecognisable to their sound when fronted by the significantly rougher vocals of Albert Griffiths. Griffiths had a style well suited to dancehall, a direction The Gladiators moved towards after Fearon’s 1987 departure. On Heart and Soul Fearon plays bass, rhythm and plucked acoustic guitar on 12 stripped-down Gladiators originals, capturing how the tracks must have sounded in early composition. Fearon also provides hearty percussion with a variety of giving and receiving objects, namely hand-mallets, bamboo sticks, cowbells and glasses of water (full and empty).
It is in this creative percussion that Heart and Soul becomes something new, avoiding what could be an easy re-hash for Fearon. ‘Chatty Chatty Mouth’ is a near note-for-note, harmony-for-soulful-harmony repeat of the 1976 Joe Gibbs-produced original, only with a vibra slap rattle substituted for Gibbs’ vintage snare effect. Where one expects to hear guitar solos, Fearon fills in with playful scats – a carefree tone laid out in the first few seconds of the opening ‘One Love.’ If the stripped-down approach appeals, listeners should also check out Fearon’s self-descriptive 2005 release Mi An’ Mi Guitar, an even sparser reinvention of The Gladiators’ back catalogue.
TRACK TO TRY: Chatty Chatty Mouth
Alma de Cantaora
There’s a fine line between busting envelopes and not knowing where you’re going. At times Spanish singer-songwriter Amparo Sánchez seems to almost relish being directionless, but as the possessor of an ‘alma de cantaora’ – a genuine singer’s soul – she always manages to rescue the song. Sanchez hasn’t got a great range, but she has the presence and raw power to seem assured whether delivering a solitary diva’s turn or joining in a rousing chorus.
Plenty of guests share the songs with her, including Cuban singer Mane Ferret on the deliciously melodious ‘Vieja Pasión’ and Tucson alt-country rockers Calexico on the ghostly ‘Muchacho’ – both of whom also helped out on Amparo’s 2010 album Tucson-Habana. But Sánchez’s band deserve even more applause than any of the featured stars, as it’s their cool virtuosity that conjures the strange Tex-Mex Spanish sound that is a genuine one-off.
It would be easy to write Amparo Sánchez off as yet another purveyor of rootless fusion music, but her cleverest trick is to combine the Latin American political engagement and earth-mother spirituality of the lyrics with a wandering Spaniard’s gloomy scepticism and wit in the music. It’s a beguiling mix.
TRACK TO TRY: No 4 Vieja Pasión
The complexity, depth and sheer scope of Family Atlantica’s debut release means that after a dozen listens you’ve still only scraped the surface of what’s inside. Created by London-born musician Jack Yglesias, Venezuelan singer Luzmira Zerpa, Nigerian/Ghanaian percussionist Kwame Crentsil and a host of collaborators, the album follows few stylistic rules, venturing into rumba, Venezuelan music, blues and even Ethio-jazz (thanks to a guest appearance from Mulatu Astatké on ‘Escape to the Palenqué’). _The only constant is the presence of Zerpa’s astoundingly rich and expressive voice, Crentsil’s percussion and the sense that you’re never really going to know where the album will head next.
You could compare Family Atlantica to the early 70s work of Gilberto Gil, exploring African music with Latin rhythms and a love for Western artists like Jimi Hendrix, but Family Atlantica goes a lot deeper than that. Stories of slaves being shipped to Latin America, of life in Venezuela, of modern displacement of Africans, are all told next to each other. A common thread is created between the stories and musics of Africa and its diaspora; the huge expanse that is the Atlantic Ocean is bridged. Many albums have previously tried to unite African and Latin American music – last year’s AfroCubism being a case in point – but rarely has it been done with so much joy, adventure and expansiveness that it becomes impossible to separate the source from its offshoots. Suddenly, the band’s name makes perfect sense.
TRACK TO TRY: Manicero
Caetano Veloso signs off his letters and emails with ‘um abraçaço’ (a big hug) and with this CD he signs off a trilogy which began with Cê and Zii e Zie, both of which received widespread critical acclaim. Abraçaço is a fusion of Caetano’s older tropicalia style and the indie-infused pop of contemporary urban Rio. His backing band comprises Pedro Sá (guitar), Marcelo Calado (drums) and Ricardo Dias Gomes (bass) – younger musicians at the current Carioca vanguard, who have worked with amongst others his son Moreno.
Abraçaço is altogether quieter and more melancholic than its two predecessors. It kicks off with an irreverent homage to bossa nova which sets the tone, almost subverting the genre. ‘A Bossa Nova e Foda’ translates as ‘bossa nova is fucking great!’, which is hardly the sunny, softly spoken bossa spirit. While the mood throughout Abraçaço is reflective and introspective, it is never sweet, and it never recalls some imagined golden past. Guitars jar rather than soothe, and Caetano’s lyrics are packed with lament, loss and invective. The sunny, poetic happy melancholy of the bossa ballads of Vinícius de Moraes are turned visceral and prosaic.
The dream of middle-class Brazil which dominates bossa is undermined by Caetano’s exposure of its often cruel political reality: ‘O Império da Lei’, whose quiet mood is underscored by a clatter of north-eastern Brazilian drums, tells the story of the murder of the Catholic environmentalist Dorothy Strang in the Amazon. All this is hard to appreciate if you speak no Portuguese, of course. It is a shame that language should be such a barrier to a full appreciation of this rich and truly contemporary album, which proves that, like David Bowie, Caetano is still relevant and exciting.
TRACK TO TRY: O Império da Lei
Hardy’s fifth album was recorded with her touring band The Midnight Watch: Blazin’ Fiddles guitarist Anna Massie; Braebach bassist James Lindsay; and keyboardist/accordionist Angus Leyton of The Halton Quartet. It features new versions of traditional material, often retitled and augmented with verses displaying Hardy’s assured songwriter’s touch, alongside a handful of self-penned tunes. These include the wonderful ‘Three Pieces of My Heart’ – a tune that would fit perfectly into country singer Willie Nelson’s repertoire of broken-hearted love songs. The original material on this album has the depth, strength and melodies to stand tall alongside her take on Phoebe Smith’s ‘Yellow Handkerchief’ or ‘The Outlandish Knight’ and ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsies’ (here titled ‘The Seventh Girl’ and ‘Good Man’s Wife’ respectively).
Acoustic guitar and piano predominate; the village-hall upright piano sound on the closing shanty of ‘One More Day’ is haunting and ethereal over a spare guitar backing. There’s plenty of space in the arrangements that allows the voice to lead with a clarity and tenderness of feeling. There are touches of the 70s West Coast singer-songwriter tradition of Laurel Canyon – perhaps in the predominance of piano arrangements – and Bella Hardy has a natural ability to fashion catchy pop hooks in the forge of big, doom-laden folk songs.
TRACK TO TRY: Yellow Handkerchief
Beyond the Ragasphere
Whoever still thinks of ‘fusion’ in the context of Indian music as a term of abuse will have to change their opinion after listening to this varied and gripping album. Try, for instance, track seven, set to the North Indian ‘Raga Pillu’, which shows an exciting interplay between two slide-guitar players representing different musical cultures: the Kolkata-based Debashish Bhattacharya, trained in North Indian Hindustani art music, also the composer of this album, and the American bluegrass player Jerry Douglas. This dance-like piece expresses indeed the meaning of this raga: love, joy and happiness. As does the whole album, in fact.
On one 16-minute track Bhattacharya interacts with the jazz-rock legend John McLaughlin. In a transoceanic collaboration, the 70-year-old jazz veteran demonstrates his deep knowledge of Indian melodic structure and jazz improvisation while Bhattacharya adds his intricate slide-guitar lines. Mainak Nag Chowdhury – probably the best Indian bassist there is – and Jeff Sipe on drums add a more funky nuance to the guitar playing. There are two teardrops only: one might wish for more in-depth and lengthy interactions between the Bengali slide-guitar player and some of his international guests. Also, the voices singing above the instrumental pieces remind you too often of several Indian recordings wherein temple chanting meets cheesy pop.
TRACK TO TRY: JD2 Pillusion
By the time Ana Moura released her fourth album in 2009, Leva-me aos Fados, she had gone as far as she could down a particular road. If nothing else changed in her music, she would have been cursed to repeat the same record over and over again. Not that there would have been any harm in that, since her standards were high and solid. Her singing had grown surprisingly strong in the last few years, surpassing the more naive approach of her first two efforts, and she had successfully broadened her fado wide enough for it to include subtle Portuguese folk intonations and the saxophone of Tim Ries, part of the Rolling Stones touring band. But the time had come for her to take a step forward. And in order to do so, she needed to break loose from the past.
Fear not: Desfado is not a radical turnaround in Moura’s career. But it is the bold record everyone expected her to deliver after her collaborations with the Stones and Prince. Having proved what a tremendous singer she can be when keeping within the tight rules of the genre, the time had come for some risk-taking, profiting from Moura’s pop qualities. After parting ways with her long-term producer Jorge Fernando, Moura took a whole new direction with Desfado. She still records a couple of traditional numbers, but the majority of the album is written by younger songwriters, such as Deolinda’s Pedro da Silva Martins, António ‘fado meets bossa nova’ Zambujo and pop/rock artists like Virgem Suta, Manel Cruz, Miguel Araújo and Márcia Santos. She also adds a more international appeal with Larry Klein’s production and her take on Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’. ‘I Dream of Fire’ features jazz legend Herbie Hancock on electric piano. So, while stretching Moura’s reach, Desfado does not disappoint = or mislead fado lovers. It’s simply a cry for freedom, beautifully crafted.
TRACK TO TRY: Desfado
Rachid Taha’s first album in four years is not quite in the same bracket as Muhammad Ali’s retrieval of the World Heavyweight Championship in 1974, as the press release would have you believe. But, following a few troubled years and 2009’s weak Bonjour, it is a re-emergence worth our attention.
There’s a swagger about the 2013 version of Taha that will reassure his fans. He’s clearly not content to fade away, his fire still evident in that Gauloise-seasoned voice, somewhere midway between Serge Gainsbourg and Joe Strummer, with all its retained rasp and bite. Andhe’s still comfortable in both camps, the Arab world and the West. One moment he’s calling up the ghost of Oum Kalthoum by sampling her on ‘Zoom Sur Oum’, the next he’s radically overhauling Elvis’ ‘Now or Never’ into a slow-burner of oud and darbuka.
Any comeback is certainly aided by having Justin Adams in the producer’s chair: it’s a rare beast indeed that can match Taha’s credentials when it comes to welding the music of North Africa to rock guitars. And if having Robert Plant’s guitarist-of-choice in charge wasn’t enough, The Clash’s Mick Jones is also invited to the party. Not that the invites stop there. Among those sharing lead vocals on the closing bonus track are Brian Eno, Femi Kuti and Eric Cantona, in a multi-voiced reprise of Taha’s anti-racism anthem ‘Voilà Voilà’.
While not quite packing the knockout blows of earlier records like Made in Medina, Zoom’s propulsion, energy and modernity has brought the real Rachid Taha back to us. Welcome home.
TRACK TO TRY: Fakir
Radiant, original and beautifully constructed, Panagia is Stephan Micus’ 20th album, which is an achievement in itself. In its own way it is a quiet masterpiece. The word panagia refers to the Virgin Mary in the Greek Orthodox church and the album includes six settings of Byzantine hymns to the Virgin (although Micus says it’s dedicated to ‘the female energy that is everywhere in the world’).
The opening and closing hymns are sung to an accompaniment of Bavarian zither, but the others are written for between ten and 22 voices, all multi-tracked by Micus. ‘I Praise You, Sacred Mother’, is performed by 20 voices and strongly influenced by Georgian polyphony. In his music, Micus isn’t interested in imitating traditional music, but creating new sounds.
On Panagia the vocal tracks alternate with instrumental ones, mainly for string instruments that he’s collected on travels around the world: plucked zither, 14-string guitar and Chitrali sitar (from Chitral, western Pakistan), and bowed Indian dilruba and sattar from the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Often the bowed instruments sing troubadour-like melodies over the accompaniment of plucked strings. At other times the music sounds ritualistic with gongs and bells. It harks back to a previous album, Athos (1994), which also used Byzantine texts, but predominantly featured wind instruments. The music is predominantly slow and contemplative and has the otherworldly beauty of John Tavener or Arvo Pärt, although Micus’ music could only really have been composed and played by the man himself.
TRACK TO TRY: You are the Life-Giving Rain