50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part One (Revisited)

robert_johnson2-1-290x300

NO SELF-RESPECTING writer should ever undertake the process of making a list lightly. As we all know, lists are ultimately trivial, subjective and practically a provocation inviting rebuttals, questions and caustic dismissal. They are, therefore, matters of life and death. Making this list made me (more) insane, so I know my mission is accomplished, in spirit if not actuality. Even picking the title caused consternation: some people will know and love all of these albums; all people will love and know some of them. The point, simply, is to celebrate fifty that I don’t think get enough love, and that I recommend without reservation. That said, this is not an exercise in obscurity: we already have hipsters happy to select the most abstruse or impossible-to-procure albums. In the cases where I allow for works I know a lot of people recognize, I’ve included them because in my experience, not nearly enough people seem to own them (spoiler alert: the top two selections are critically regarded masterpieces, but in my humble opinion they should be a great deal more beloved and recognized).

I enforced a few guidelines to make the project manageable: there is exactly one blues album, one classical, one “world music”, one country/bluegrass, one soundtrack and one jazz (but I broke that rule, inevitably): entire lists could—and should—be made of each genre, and I tried to limit the reggae, because an entire list is begging to be made at some point. There are more than a few albums on this list that I heard or read about and all music fanatics understand the karmic implications of turning friends and strangers on to albums that improve their lives. Getting off the familiar path always is always a word-of-mouth enterprise, so I thank everyone in advance for mentioning lesser known albums that warrant celebration in the comments section.

Let’s get it on.

50. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings

Yes, everyone has heard of him. But have you heard this music? Do you own his collected works? They fit on one disc, so there’s no acceptable excuse not to.

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson? Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve. The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937. And as anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring.

In sum, if you consider yourself a fan of history, or culture, or America, or Art (etc.), you need this in your collection, and not as something to put on display, but something you will return to, often, to remember how deep, dark and mind-boggling humanity can be, at its best.

Robert J

49. Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), is a chamber quartet by French composer Olivier Messiaen. This music was not merely inspired by the concentration camps, it was written, and then performed there. True story, and worth looking up. When considering the circumstances that accompanied its creation, the hyperbolic title not only seems appropriate but even inadequate. The music itself? Exactly what you might expect: stirring, solemn, celebratory. It is a living document of endurance and memory, and it is the soundtrack of a hope that can never be silenced.

messiaen

48. Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um

One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. Plain and simple, Mingus Ah Um sounds like the 20th Century: it is a self-portrait of a man who helped define the direction of post-bop jazz, commenting on the country that created him. Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter. Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.

mingus

47. Bela Fleck: Natural Bridge

It’s possible there is not a more maligned or misunderstood type of music than bluegrass. Banjo wizard Bela Fleck is probably the best-known practitioner of what is commonly referred to as “Newgrass” (progressive bluegrass). His credentials are unimpeachable, and his entire discography is consistently remarkable, but Natural Bridge stands out as a document that can entice a newbie and satisfy an aficionado. Pushing boundaries and styles, the results are buoyant and expressive, a tour de force of collective musicianship: every song is hummable and manages to sound familiar yet fresh on first listen. It’s difficult to imagine anyone with a remotely open mind being immune to the considerable charms on display, and it’s likely this could be a gateway to a love affair that never ends.

Bela F

46. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate: Ali & Toumani

Although Mali legend Ali Farka Touré was taken entirely too soon (despite having lived a long and productive life, artistically and spiritually) in 2006 after battling cancer, this posthumous release, his second collaboration with kora master Toumani Diabete, is an ideal summation of his work and perfect point of entry for newcomers. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.

ali toumani

45. Mikey Dread: Beyond World War III

If Mikey Dread (Michael Campbell) had never decided to pick up the microphone and sing, his status would be secure in reggae history. His groundbreaking weekly show on Jamaican radio, the ingeniously entitled Dread at the Controls not only made him a celebrity, but it brought Jamaican music to the masses, making hometown heroes out of otherwise obscure acts (And then there is his fruitful, crucial association with The Clash: keyword Sandinista!).

This is one of the true lost classics. No, that’s not accurate. It’s more accurate to remember that it was never considered a classic in the first place, so it’s not a matter of it being lost so much as never having been found. And that is unacceptable. The style here is heavy dub, with Dread (who, again, already had plenty of experience perfecting mash-ups of reggae hits) applying his considerable production acumen to his own songs. The mood is mostly upbeat, at times festive, at times jovial and, when appropriate, somber. This is party music for the apocalypse.

mikey D

44. Elysian Fields: Bleed Your Cedar

This album should have made the beautiful Jennifer Charles a superstar. That it didn’t says more about our country, and its tastemakers, than it does about Elysian Fields. The songwriting and guitar playing of Oren Bloedow is effulgent throughout, and the album manages to be spooky and luminous at the same time. Centerpiece “Fountains on Fire” is sexy yet forbidding: Charles is a siren who will lull you to sleep and then steal your soul. Other tracks like “Jack In The Box” and “Anything You Like” have unmistakable noir elements while delivering the adrenaline. This is lounge music from hell, sung by an angel.

Elysian F

43. Robert Fripp and Brian Eno: No Pussyfooting

The origin of ambient? If not, definitely one of the early, and more enduring experiments that led to thousands of lifeless imitations. Considering the pedigrees of both men (long since anointed as legends) it’s almost impossible to imagine this not being brilliant, but recalling the relatively primitive conditions in which it was recorded, No Pussyfooting remains a revelation. Considering Fripp was in the midst of recording masterpieces with King Crimson’s most riotous ensemble and Eno was fresh out of Roxy Music, the subdued, glacial pull of this album is the type of anomaly we now know we could—and should—have expected from these two geniuses. In addition to being a remarkable recording in its own right, this can also be seen as a template for the types of sounds Eno and Fripp are still experimenting with, four decades later.

Fripp Eno

42. Wax Poetic: Nublu Sessions

Yes, this is the one that has Norah Jones on it. And I’m grateful for two reasons. First, even though Jones sings on only two tracks, they are both top-notch. Second, her involvement in this project clearly elevated its commercial appeal and helped more people stumble upon it. Nublu Sessions features a variety of guest vocalists, all to incredible effect. In addition to Jones, we get N’Dea Davenport, U-Roy and especially Marla Turner, whose vocals are some of the sexiest and most memorable of the last decade. Turner’s work on “Della” is an instant classic that invokes Motown filtered through a psychedelic jukebox: it is an ethereal Burt Bacharach song, equal parts Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes and Portishead. Nublu Sessions effortlessly meshes jazz, rock and pop, and is everything that great music is capable of being. Do yourself a favor and grab hold of this.

nublu sessions

41. Cornershop: Handcream for a Generation

It seemed too good to be true that this band became one of the big stories in 1997 with their breakthrough When I Was Born For The 7th Time. In a way, it was. Whether because of pressure (self-imposed and critical) or lack of sufficient inspiration, it took them over five years to make their next album. With America’s typical attention span, that meant they were not only mostly forgotten, but effectively yesterday’s news. It’s a shame, then, that this atmosphere (partly of their own making) led to the apathetic embrace of 2002?s brilliant Handcream For A Generation. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this album was (and continues to be) met with such indifference. Certainly, it doesn’t have the sure-fire hit single that “Brimful of Asha” was, but in many ways, the best songs on this album are better than the best songs on the one that preceded it.

In any event, it is one that remains ripe for reeavaluation, and the delights it contains are considerable. Put as simply as possible, anyone who dug When I Was Born For The 7th Time is strongly encouraged to snatch Handcream For A Generation. Cornershop’s inimitable Indian/British rock permutations are consistently clever, inventive and always, always cool as shit. This is one of the coolest albums of the new century and, in fact, it may be too cool for its own good. For skeptics or naysayers, how can you possibly go wrong with a record that has a song entitled “Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III”? This is intelligent music that makes you want to dance, laugh, and marvel at how such creativity is conceived in the first place.

Cornershop

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

Share

50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part One

robert_johnson2-1

NO SELF-RESPECTING writer should ever undertake the process of making a list lightly. As we all know, lists are ultimately trivial, subjective and practically a provocation inviting rebuttals, questions and caustic dismissal. They are, therefore, matters of life and death. Making this list made me (more) insane, so I know my mission is accomplished, in spirit if not actuality. Even picking the title caused consternation: some people will know and love all of these albums; all people will love and know some of them. The point, simply, is to celebrate fifty that I don’t think get enough love, and that I recommend without reservation. That said, this is not an exercise in obscurity: we already have hipsters happy to select the most abstruse or impossible-to-procure albums. In the cases where I allow for works I know a lot of people recognize, I’ve included them because in my experience, not nearly enough people seem to own them (spoiler alert: the top two selections are critically regarded masterpieces, but in my humble opinion they should be a great deal more beloved and recognized).

I enforced a few guidelines to make the project manageable: there is exactly one blues album, one classical, one “world music”, one country/bluegrass, one soundtrack and one jazz (but I broke that rule, inevitably): entire lists could—and should—be made of each genre, and I tried to limit the reggae, because an entire list is begging to be made at some point. There are more than a few albums on this list that I heard or read about and all music fanatics understand the karmic implications of turning friends and strangers on to albums that improve their lives. Getting off the familiar path always is always a word-of-mouth enterprise, so I thank everyone in advance for mentioning lesser known albums that warrant celebration in the comments section.

Let’s get it on.

50. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings

Yes, everyone has heard of him. But have you heard this music? Do you own his collected works? They fit on one disc, so there’s no acceptable excuse not to.

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson? Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve. The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937. And as anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring.

In sum, if you consider yourself a fan of history, or culture, or America, or Art (etc.), you need this in your collection, and not as something to put on display, but something you will return to, often, to remember how deep, dark and mind-boggling humanity can be, at its best.

Robert J

49. Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), is a chamber quartet by French composer Olivier Messiaen. This music was not merely inspired by the concentration camps, it was written, and then performed there. True story, and worth looking up. When considering the circumstances that accompanied its creation, the hyperbolic title not only seems appropriate but even inadequate. The music itself? Exactly what you might expect: stirring, solemn, celebratory. It is a living document of endurance and memory, and it is the soundtrack of a hope that can never be silenced.

messiaen

48. Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um

One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. Plain and simple, Mingus Ah Um sounds like the 20th Century: it is a self-portrait of a man who helped define the direction of post-bop jazz, commenting on the country that created him. Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter.  Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.

mingus

47. Bela Fleck: Natural Bridge

It’s possible there is not a more maligned or misunderstood type of music than bluegrass. Banjo wizard Bela Fleck is probably the best-known practitioner of what is commonly referred to as “Newgrass” (progressive bluegrass). His credentials are unimpeachable, and his entire discography is consistently remarkable, but Natural Bridge stands out as a document that can entice a newbie and satisfy an aficionado. Pushing boundaries and styles, the results are buoyant and expressive, a tour de force of collective musicianship: every song is hummable and manages to sound familiar yet fresh on first listen. It’s difficult to imagine anyone with a remotely open mind being immune to the considerable charms on display, and it’s likely this could be a gateway to a love affair that never ends.

Bela F

46. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate: Ali & Toumani

Although Mali legend Ali Farka Touré was taken entirely too soon (despite having lived a long and productive life, artistically and spiritually) in 2006 after battling cancer, this posthumous release, his second collaboration with kora master Toumani Diabete, is an ideal summation of his work and perfect point of entry for newcomers. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.

ali toumani

45. Mikey Dread: Beyond World War III

If Mikey Dread (Michael Campbell) had never decided to pick up the microphone and sing, his status would be secure in reggae history. His groundbreaking weekly show on Jamaican radio, the ingeniously entitled Dread at the Controls not only made him a celebrity, but it brought Jamaican music to the masses, making hometown heroes out of otherwise obscure acts (And then there is his fruitful, crucial association with The Clash: keyword Sandinista!).

This is one of the true lost classics. No, that’s not accurate. It’s more accurate to remember that it was never considered a classic in the first place, so it’s not a matter of it being lost so much as never having been found. And that is unacceptable. The style here is heavy dub, with Dread (who, again, already had plenty of experience perfecting mash-ups of reggae hits) applying his considerable production acumen to his own songs. The mood is mostly upbeat, at times festive, at times jovial and, when appropriate, somber. This is party music for the apocalypse.

mikey D

44. Elysian Fields: Bleed Your Cedar

This album should have made the beautiful Jennifer Charles a superstar. That it didn’t says more about our country, and its tastemakers, than it does about Elysian Fields. The songwriting and guitar playing of Oren Bloedow is effulgent throughout, and the album manages to be spooky and luminous at the same time. Centerpiece “Fountains on Fire” is sexy yet forbidding: Charles is a siren who will lull you to sleep and then steal your soul. Other tracks like “Jack In The Box” and “Anything You Like” have unmistakable noir elements while delivering the adrenaline. This is lounge music from hell, sung by an angel.

Elysian F

43. Robert Fripp and Brian Eno: No Pussyfooting

The origin of ambient? If not, definitely one of the early, and more enduring experiments that led to thousands of lifeless imitations. Considering the pedigrees of both men (long since anointed as legends) it’s almost impossible to imagine this not being brilliant, but recalling the relatively primitive conditions in which it was recorded, No Pussyfooting remains a revelation. Considering Fripp was in the midst of recording masterpieces with King Crimson’s most riotous ensemble and Eno was fresh out of Roxy Music, the subdued, glacial pull of this album is the type of anomaly we now know we could—and should—have expected from these two geniuses. In addition to being a remarkable recording in its own right, this can also be seen as a template for the types of sounds Eno and Fripp are still experimenting with, four decades later.

Fripp Eno

42. Wax Poetic: Nublu Sessions

Yes, this is the one that has Norah Jones on it. And I’m grateful for two reasons. First, even though Jones sings on only two tracks, they are both top-notch. Second, her involvement in this project clearly elevated its commercial appeal and helped more people stumble upon it. Nublu Sessions features a variety of guest vocalists, all to incredible effect. In addition to Jones, we get N’Dea Davenport, U-Roy and especially Marla Turner, whose vocals are some of the sexiest and most memorable of the last decade. Turner’s work on “Della” is an instant classic that invokes Motown filtered through a psychedelic jukebox: it is an ethereal Burt Bacharach song, equal parts Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes and Portishead. Nublu Sessions effortlessly meshes jazz, rock and pop, and is everything that great music is capable of being. Do yourself a favor and grab hold of this.

nublu sessions

41. Cornershop: Handcream for a Generation

It seemed too good to be true that this band became one of the big stories in 1997 with their breakthrough When I Was Born For The 7th Time. In a way, it was. Whether because of pressure (self-imposed and critical) or lack of sufficient inspiration, it took them over five years to make their next album. With America’s typical attention span, that meant they were not only mostly forgotten, but effectively yesterday’s news. It’s a shame, then, that this atmosphere (partly of their own making) led to the apathetic embrace of 2002?s brilliant Handcream For A Generation. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this album was (and continues to be) met with such indifference. Certainly, it doesn’t have the sure-fire hit single that “Brimful of Asha” was, but in many ways, the best songs on this album are better than the best songs on the one that preceded it.

In any event, it is one that remains ripe for reeavaluation, and the delights it contains are considerable. Put as simply as possible, anyone who dug When I Was Born For The 7th Time is strongly encouraged to snatch Handcream For A Generation. Cornershop’s inimitable Indian/British rock permutations are consistently clever, inventive and always, always cool as shit. This is one of the coolest albums of the new century and, in fact, it may be too cool for its own good. For skeptics or naysayers, how can you possibly go wrong with a record that has a song entitled “Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III”? This is intelligent music that makes you want to dance, laugh, and marvel at how such creativity is conceived in the first place.

Cornershop

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

Share

Ali Farka Touré’s Finished Business (Revisited)

Great news from Nonesuch Records (Via FB):

Congratulations to Toumani Diabate and the late Ali Farka Toure, winners of the Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album for “Ali and Toumani”!

I am thrilled to see this great collaboration get the attention it warrants. I reviewed this album last winter for PopMatters and can attest, almost a full year later, that it will remain heavily in the rotation.

There are usually two distinctive types of posthumous releases in music. The first and more frequent is the one that makes you cringe, often involving the rapacious pillaging of the vaults, foisting unfinished or unworthy product on a (mostly) unsuspecting public. Of course the unearthing of an occasional gem (sometimes) compensates for the smattering of detritus an artist never intended to allow into the world, and for good reason. The second instance involves authentic work that was either close to completion, or polished material that for whatever reason never saw the light of day (there are countless examples of this phenomenon in jazz).

The unexpected but most welcome release of Ali and Toumani is, to be quite certain, an example of the latter scenario. Although Ali Farka Touré was taken entirely too soon (despite having lived a long and productive life, artistically and spiritually) in 2006 after battling cancer, the two albums that appeared in rapid succession just before and shortly after his death lessened the blow. The fact that his last proper album, the typically excellent Savane, was heard by the world after he had left it did not cause many fans (at least not this one) much room or reason to hope there was any unfinished business. As it happens, based in part on the rapturous reception his first collaboration with Toumani Diabaté, 2005’s Grammy-winning In the Heart of the Moon, the two men were eager to work on a second recording. Ali and Toumani is the delightful result of this second, and unfortunately final, meeting of the minds.

For anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of discovering either of these indispensable artists, this release is an ideal point of entry. The fact that we got any music from Ali Farka Touré after 1999 was a significant blessing. Touré, who was proficient in the ‘90s, made the abrupt but admirable decision to stop playing music and focus on his duties as mayor of Niafunké. Indeed, it was In the Heart of the Moon that prompted Ali’s return to the scene, as the two men already had a special bond based on mutual respect and admiration. Both are considered masters of their respective idioms: elder statesman Ali plays guitar-based “desert blues” and the much younger Diabaté is heralded as the supreme kora player on the planet (the kora is a 21-string African harp that looks and plays like an oversized lute).

In the liner notes to In the Heart of the Moon Diabaté calls Touré “the lion of the desert”. Famously, there were no rehearsals prior to the recording, at Touré‘s insistence. Touré understood both men would draw upon their considerable knowledge of each other’s work, and the improvised results were equal parts confidence and comradery, drawing upon traditional songs as points of departure. A similar strategy was employed for the Ali and Toumani sessions, and the results are equally stunning.

Knowing that Touré was close to the end of his battle with cancer certainly adds import to this occasion. As Diabaté says in the liner notes, “Ali was ill. There were moments, when playing a song, that we were forced to stop, because Ali was in so much pain.” Despite Diabaté’s protestations, Ali would insist on continuing. Not for nothing did the great man earn the nickname “Farka” (donkey) as a tribute to his legendary stubbornness. That strength and focus is evident in these recordings, as it is in practically everything Touré did—musically and otherwise.

It would seem perfectly straightforward, then, to discuss music with (almost) no vocals that consists (mostly) of acoustic guitar and kora. But in part because these two geniuses are capable of sounding like a miniature orchestra, and in part because the sounds they make are so rich and teeming with emotion, it is actually rather difficult to do this work justice. So let’s just say it is a complete triumph and anyone with even a passing acquaintance with either musician can count on guaranteed satisfaction.

The opening track, “Ruby”, was an untitled composition Touré brought to the studio, which he subsequently named in honor of Diabaté’s five-year-old daughter, who was present throughout the recordings. As is the case with most of the songs, Ali plays the tune while Diabaté embellishes, managing to sound like he is commenting as well as anticipating the next note from the guitar. It has a consistently hypnotic effect: the guitar is a waterfall and the kora is the whirlpool it continuously drops into.

There are no dull or mediocre moments, but a few songs immediately stand out. The third track, “Be Mankan”, is a tranquil waltz that features a subtle but striking kora performance. As Touré establishes the melody and reiterates it, Diabaté echoes every move, like a mono recording spliced with a stereo overdub. “Samba Geladio” is another irresistible groove that is quite reminiscent of “ASCO” (from 1999’s Niafunké). Indeed, it is very like an acoustic version of that jam. “Sina Mory” is one of the few tracks with singing, and it was inspired by the suggestion that Touré recall the first song that inspired him to play guitar. Needless to say there is a full-circle element to these moving circumstances, with memory living—and kept alive—through music.

This is a deep, darkly beautiful work. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.

Share

Ali Farka Touré’s Finished Business

There are usually two distinctive types of posthumous releases in music. The first and more frequent is the one that makes you cringe, often involving the rapacious pillaging of the vaults, foisting unfinished or unworthy product on a (mostly) unsuspecting public. Of course the unearthing of an occasional gem (sometimes) compensates for the smattering of detritus an artist never intended to allow into the world, and for good reason. The second instance involves authentic work that was either close to completion, or polished material that for whatever reason never saw the light of day (there are countless examples of this phenomenon in jazz).

The unexpected but most welcome release of Ali and Toumani is, to be quite certain, an example of the latter scenario. Although Ali Farka Touré was taken entirely too soon (despite having lived a long and productive life, artistically and spiritually) in 2006 after battling cancer, the two albums that appeared in rapid succession just before and shortly after his death lessened the blow. The fact that his last proper album, the typically excellent Savane, was heard by the world after he had left it did not cause many fans (at least not this one) much room or reason to hope there was any unfinished business. As it happens, based in part on the rapturous reception his first collaboration with Toumani Diabaté, 2005’s Grammy-winning In the Heart of the Moon, the two men were eager to work on a second recording. Ali and Toumani is the delightful result of this second, and unfortunately final, meeting of the minds.

For anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of discovering either of these indispensable artists, this release is an ideal point of entry. The fact that we got any music from Ali Farka Touré after 1999 was a significant blessing. Touré, who was proficient in the ‘90s, made the abrupt but admirable decision to stop playing music and focus on his duties as mayor of Niafunké. Indeed, it was In the Heart of the Moon that prompted Ali’s return to the scene, as the two men already had a special bond based on mutual respect and admiration. Both are considered masters of their respective idioms: elder statesman Ali plays guitar-based “desert blues” and the much younger Diabaté is heralded as the supreme kora player on the planet (the kora is a 21-string African harp that looks and plays like an oversized lute).

In the liner notes to In the Heart of the Moon Diabaté calls Touré “the lion of the desert”. Famously, there were no rehearsals prior to the recording, at Touré‘s insistence. Touré understood both men would draw upon their considerable knowledge of each other’s work, and the improvised results were equal parts confidence and comradery, drawing upon traditional songs as points of departure. A similar strategy was employed for the Ali and Toumani sessions, and the results are equally stunning.

Knowing that Touré was close to the end of his battle with cancer certainly adds import to this occasion. As Diabaté says in the liner notes, “Ali was ill. There were moments, when playing a song, that we were forced to stop, because Ali was in so much pain.” Despite Diabaté’s protestations, Ali would insist on continuing. Not for nothing did the great man earn the nickname “Farka” (donkey) as a tribute to his legendary stubbornness. That strength and focus is evident in these recordings, as it is in practically everything Touré did—musically and otherwise.

It would seem perfectly straightforward, then, to discuss music with (almost) no vocals that consists (mostly) of acoustic guitar and kora. But in part because these two geniuses are capable of sounding like a miniature orchestra, and in part because the sounds they make are so rich and teeming with emotion, it is actually rather difficult to do this work justice. So let’s just say it is a complete triumph and anyone with even a passing acquaintance with either musician can count on guaranteed satisfaction.

The opening track, “Ruby”, was an untitled composition Touré brought to the studio, which he subsequently named in honor of Diabaté’s five-year-old daughter, who was present throughout the recordings. As is the case with most of the songs, Ali plays the tune while Diabaté embellishes, managing to sound like he is commenting as well as anticipating the next note from the guitar. It has a consistently hypnotic effect: the guitar is a waterfall and the kora is the whirlpool it continuously drops into.

There are no dull or mediocre moments, but a few songs immediately stand out. The third track, “Be Mankan”, is a tranquil waltz that features a subtle but striking kora performance. As Touré establishes the melody and reiterates it, Diabaté echoes every move, like a mono recording spliced with a stereo overdub. “Samba Geladio” is another irresistible groove that is quite reminiscent of “ASCO” (from 1999’s Niafunké).  Indeed, it is very like an acoustic version of that jam. “Sina Mory” is one of the few tracks with singing, and it was inspired by the suggestion that Touré recall the first song that inspired him to play guitar. Needless to say there is a full-circle element to these moving circumstances, with memory living—and kept alive—through music.

This is a deep, darkly beautiful work. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.

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Vieux Farka Touré: Fondo

Word to the wise: get on board the Vieux Farka Touré bandwagon now. Not so you can be hip or prepared to drop his name at a cocktail party (for one thing, no one would listen to this music at a cocktail party, and more importantly, who goes to cocktail parties?) or for any reason that would behoove Starbucks to put this disc in their stores. No, the best reason to acquaint yourself with Vieux Farka Touré is because he is a surpassingly brilliant young musician who, if we are fortunate, has a long and productive career ahead of him.

Nobody seems to agree on what “world music” actually means, which is probably not such a bad thing. It might suffice to suggest that “world music” is the sort made outside the States, likely sung in a different language and unlikely to yield traditional hit singles. In other words, music that involves actual instruments played with some degree of proficiency by sentient beings. Anyone with a moderately open mind might find Fondo, the followup to Touré’s eponymous (and astounding) debut, a very welcome antidote for the myriad of overproduced and underwhelming product being pumped out for mass consumption.

It has only taken a few years, and two albums, for Vieux Farka Touré to distance himself from what could (and should) have been an overwhelming impression made by his father, Ali Farka Touré. The elder Touré, who passed on in 2006, was a living legend from Mali whose music delineated the natural but often overlooked link between traditional African music and American blues. His profile was greatly expanded after the release of Talking Timbuktu, his Grammy-winning collaboration with Ry Cooder, in 1994.

 

Vieux is his father’s son: to some fans the songs on Fondo won’t sound drastically different from the many great albums Ali made over the last two decades. But even a cursory examination reveals both subtle and significant differences. For one thing, Vieux has obviously listened to, and been influenced by, all sorts of music. There are traces of reggae and rock, as well as folk and blues, all of which mesh seamlessly with the more traditional music of his native land. Where Ali’s guitar playing was stark and subtle (yet always dexterous and exceedingly expressive), a vibrant, almost colorful playfulness abounds in Vieux’s work.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid discussing Ali, not only because Vieux looks and sounds so much like his father, but because he studied—and continues to work with—two men so closely associated with Ali’s music, Afel Bocoum and celebrated kora wizard Toumani Diabaté. Both men appear on Fondo, and their presence lends an old-school authenticity to the proceedings. This working arrangement would be almost embarrassingly incestuous if the results were not so consistently outstanding.

Fondo finds Vieux treading the natural bridge his father built between Malian music and Delta blues. Where Ali’s work, particularly his earlier albums, ceaselessly caused the listener to marvel at the common ground between the two continents, Vieux invokes and recalls the connection, but often strains to do more with both sound and tempo. Many of the tunes, like “Sarama” and “Chérie Lé”, have “western” (rock) drums, while the various percussion serve as embellishment and not the foundation for the beat. The three songs with Bocoum (once more) recall Ali, but in each instance the music, not the voices, is at the forefront of the mix. On “Walé”, one of the standouts on an album filled with them, the calabash makes its first prominent appearance, invoking the ancient desert. It is eerily beautiful.

Vieux truly demonstrates his range, as well as his fully formed songwriting talents, on the instrumental tracks. The suitably entitled “Slow Jam” establishes a solid blues that travels from Niafunké to Natchez, and back. The music is so authoritative, so convincing, it’s difficult to believe Vieux is only 28 years old. (Incidentally, the sound throughout is immaculate, and it is further testament to his skills that Vieux co-produced this record with Yossi Fine.)

The other highlights are the two tracks that conclude the album. The last track, a reprise of the opening “Fafa”, is a showcase for Vieux’s guitar. The song is like a whirlpool, spinning in and out of itself, a tranquil and hypnotic drone. “Paradise” reunites the student with his mentor/teacher Toumani Diabaté, and the interplay between Touré’s guitar and Diabaté’s kora is stunning. This is truly trance-like music few, if any, other artists are capable of making.

Fondo is the unequivocal announcement of a major talent, and the well-earned accolades are easy to predict. This constitutes the second consecutive triumph for Vieux Farka Touré: this is not world music so much as music from the world, and certain parts of the world we don’t hear or see as often as we should. Mostly, Fondo is the sound of a son escaping his father’s shadow, even as he shrewdly embraces many of the best elements that made his old man so memorable.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/93731-vieux-farka-toure-fondo2/

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