Album Review | Independent Records | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 4/5
This double CD works in a number of ways. To look at it in reverse order, its second disc, the original tracks, acts as a killer compilation of tracks originally released by the IRL. While the first disc, the remixes is part exploration of a shared musical language and for the uninitiated part mix of the known and the unknown. While it’s the disc of original tracks I return to most frequently, both discs alone offer plenty of rewards and reasons to listen again. However together they are something truly special. By their nature it seems logical to start at the beginning, so the second disc of original tracks opens with Tinariwen “Oualahila Ar Tesninam” a track off their 2004 album Amassakoul. Tinariwen are a group of Tuareg musicians from the northern Sahara region of Mali. Their blend of furious percussive hand claps, call and response vocals and a dirtier version of the endlessly looping Malian blues guitar is always compelling. From music named after the desert we get “Desert Road” from Justin Adams. Adams, having played with Jah Wobble and Robert Plant and been heavily influenced by Arabic music, is a maverick, musically nomadic, player. His rolling guitar is a beautiful counterpoint to Tinariwen. Adams’ 2000 album Desert Road is an absolute classic if you like layered mood music you can fall into. Had Mike Oldfield had recorded Tubular Bells in Bamako, Mali, rather than rural Oxfordshire, it might have sounded like this. Here the Justin Adams track functions as a pause between two infectious upbeat tracks that it’s impossible not to move to. Third track is Adams paired with Juldeh Camara, a Gambian Griot, musician and storyteller. “Ngamen” is a duet between Adams’ primal blues slide and Camara’s plucked or bowed one string fiddle, the Nyanyero, with a superb vocal over the top. So far so perfect. Terakaft (Caravan) are another Malian Tuareg band with rolling guitar lines, glorious vocals and some treacherous rhythms. The mood shifts with some rawer tracks, blind South Sudanese singer General Paolino has a voice that I’d defy you not be moved by, but there is a grittiness and an edge. His voice is not gymnastic but it is real and affecting. “Paolino” blends perfectly into the street music of Malawi Mouse Boys. MMB were roadside fast food sellers, peddling mouse kebabs to passing traffic in Malawi. Their music, group vocals behind a lead singer, like African Doo wop, is backed with percussion and a strummed guitar. Like “Paolino”, it is raw, with rough edges, but it has power because of, not despite those edges. Written between sales and presumably to drum up sales, MMBs music is compelling, proof that, as Si Kahn says “It’s not just what you’re born with, it’s what you do with what you’ve got”. Imed Alibi’s “Maknassy”, is a bigger production, its guitar from producer Justin Adams, weaves it back into what has gone before and Tunisian singer Emel Mathouthi’s vocals are worth the price of the album on their own. She cuts loose over Adams’ guitar and you are transported. Lo’ Jo are a France based band. Their tracks “Sur Des Carnets Nus” and “Yalaki” are taken from 2009’s Cosmophono. The Lo’ Jo sound atmospherically mixes the feel of a circus band, French chanson and North African music with some fiendish production. It is all atmosphere and utterly beguiling. Xaos features Dubulah a key character in IRL’s history. Dubulah or Nick Page was a founder member of the dark World Dance band Transglobal Underground and Dub Colossus the ethio/UK fusion band. Like “Desert Road” Xaos’ “Pindos Full Moon” and “Processional” are interludes between toe tappers. A mix of Greek electronic musician and composer Ahetas Jimi and traditional musicians. It is ambient, timeless music, designed to reset your soul and is quite beautiful. Dub Colossus’ “A Voice Has Power” places a spry reggae dub rhythm behind one of those, ‘diaphragm shaking’ low vocals that Transglobal Underground delighted in. Dub Colossus’ album Addis to Omega, is a set of dub styled tracks featuring Dubulah, Justin Adams and others. It is fusion music at its best and well worth further exploration if you haven’t already. Acholi Machon are a Ugandan band and mix thumb piano percussive lines with call and response vocals that hark back to Tinariwen and the Malawi Mouse Boys. That the second disc stands alone and is a triumph of sequencing, blending into a seamless musical road trip is a testament to IRL’ ears and vision. The album is a successful attempt to kick down musical doors and barriers to listening. The first CD gets to people, via the remix and the dancefloor, the second disc is a more contemplative listen and compels you to search out the original albums. This is an excellent album, but only buy this if you are prepared for it to cost you a fortune, leading you to the eleven parent albums and the back catalogues of eleven amazing acts. Like all the very best compilations, stretching back to those seductive 60s cheapies like Island’s You Can All Join In, lock up the plastic, this is going to get expensive. The remix CD opens with Transglobal Underground’s rework of Tinariwen. The percussion that opens the original track is king, the call and response vocals and raw guitar when they come in later are back in the mix and an element rather than attention grabbing. Despite treatment, wherever you put it, that Tuareg guitar still grabs you and the track works well. This track like the Dhol Foundation remix of “Ndinasangalala” smooths some of distinctive rough edges out to make something smoother, something more pop. Although the rich drum sounds of the Dhol Foundation are always interesting, this track does contain one of the collections few hiccups where the over-laid huge drums rather clash with the original vocal tracks. Dub Colossus’ mix of Justin Adams’ “Desert Road” bends the original. The guitar sounds part Brian Eno’s “Desert Guitars” from Another Green World and part Justin Adams North African Saharan guitar. The Radar Station mix of “Ngamen” by Adams and “Camara” is very funky with some wonderfully lofi dub keyboard squiggles and an incredible guitar break in the track where we are back in an early 70s psychedelic wig out. It is wonderful for all that, re-mix and original elements blend perfectly. On the Afriquoi remix of “Terakraft” all that remains of the original track is the vocal, around which new beats and rhythms are wrapped. Where the Radar Station mix of “Ngaman” is sympathetic. The Afriquoi and the Lunar Drive mix of General Paolino, are radically different. Little of their original feel remains, the original tracks are treated as textures, but the resulting music is still very much worth a listen. There is still something glorious about hearing General Paolino’s vocal spinning over crossing electronic rhythms. The Dalek Romeo mix of “Manja” starts strongly, the frantic energy of the vocals is intensified by the electronics, and the original rhythms are built into the new electronics. However the middle section by comparison, sounds worryingly like 80s Tangerine Dream, but it works well when the MMB vocals return. Like the Adams and “Camara” Radio Station mix, something both sympathetic and new and exciting is made. The Echodek mix of “Maknassy” gives you more of Emel Mathouthi’s vocals which is a treat, but the heavy rhythm, at times un-wielding against the slippery subtly of the vocal represents to these ears another rare mismatch. The Syriana mix of Lo’ Jo’s “Sur Des Carnets Nus” is dark and edgy. Strange vocals, a great jazz double bass, endless atmosphere shortwave radio vocals, it’s as if David Lynch’s Twin Peaks soundtrack, decamped to North Africa. This is glorious, the soundtrack to a hallucinatory fever dream. The TJ Rhemi mix of Xaos “Pindos Full Moon” and Insentisi mix of Dub Colossus. “A Voice Has More Power” retain the textures of the original tracks while layering in a beat. Penguin Café Orchestra’s mix of Acholi Machon’s “Convoy” is another left field joy. The rhythm is drawn out of the original mix and a very Penguin Café Orchestra strings part winds around the vocal. Bernard O’Neill’s mix of Lo’Jo’s Carnet US Vatican Radio is an ambient mash up, like The Orb at its finest and a beat free surprising closer. Across the double album, this is an intriguing set. Part celebratory retrospective of key tracks arranged and sequenced with a masterly touch. Part wide ranging remix project with different artists mining for what Dubulah calls 21st Century soul. Either way, the exposure is deserved and the listening journey is always interesting and represents time well spent. Like any journey some of it is ultimately more memorable than other parts, but anything that gets us listening harder and wider can only be a good thing. In these shifting times of uncertainty, this double CD set is a strong reminder that below superficial and irrelevant differences our similarities and common languages of music and emotion run deep and ultimately bind all of us together. Credit and respect to IRL for consistently delivering and for such a sympathetic set that rewards and surprises.