Tinariwen – [Album]

Thursday, 08 September 2011

One always has to wonder what wavelength some musicians are on – and that fact always comes to a head each time they're asked to contribute an endorsement of another group. You've seen these things before; on the front of Grandpaboy's Dead Man Shake, Paul Westerberg likened the sound of the guitar to “a knife fight in a phone booth” (which is kind of funny, given Westerberg is Grandpaboy) and Tom Waits has likened John Hammond's voice to the sound of a train going through a tunnel (on the sticker affixed to Hammond's album Wicked Grin – which was a tribute to Waits), for example. Now, on the cover of Tassili, Robert Plant has testified that “listening to Tinariwen is like dropping a bucket into a deep well.” What exactly is that supposed to mean? Taken quasi-literally, one could assume that Tassili is drenched in reverb and damp sounding, with a sort of backwoods flavor laced into it somewhere. While the rustic and rural feel of the record makes at least half of the statement accurate, actually listening to Tassili shows the album to be very dry sounding – which rules out the dampness of the average well completely; so what the hell is Plant getting at?

Some things are just incomprehensible that way, I guess, but one thing that can easily and definitively be said of both Tinariwen and Tassili is that they're both perfectly representative of the parts which comprise them. The dry and lonesome (to the point of being desolate) guitar parts kicked in by Nels Cline are exactly what listeners have come to expect of Wilco since Cline joined the band, or even closer would be the moody expanses the guitarist contributed to Floored By Four. Likewise, the more worldly strains which dominate this record from top to bottom are exactly what listeners know Kyp Malone is given to handing off to every project to which he has contributed with the exception of TV On The Radio. Because no one's pushing boundaries here, those who are familiar with what to expect from these players will either be fairly warned or titillated by the possibilities that such a combination implies, and will love or hate Tassili accordingly.

With that knowledge in hand, the worldly sounds which pour out of Tassili from the moment “Imidiwan Ma Tenam” rolls out to warm up the record won't come as much of a surprise to listeners, but what will come as an out-and-out shock is how many sounds come out all at once and how easily they fit together; from the beginning, an unusual mixture of what sounds like Afro-Cuban jazz, middle eastern lounge, Mexican flamenco and a couple of others even more difficult to pin down asserts itself and spins through like a succession of tumbling tumble weeds and what comes is a mercurial mixture which will have listeners fascinated and listening closely, if only to see if they can actually pin it down or pigeonhole it. That opportunity is never offered though because songs like “Walla Illa,” “Tiliaden Osamnat: and “Djeredjere” regularly stir up the mix (and overall sound, by extension) to keep it from stagnating.

So what exactly is Tassili from a musical qualification standpoint? It may sound like a soft option to contend it, but the best way to explain it (and listeners will know this after the first time too) is to simply say that Tassili plays like a world music smorgasbord; the album incorporates easily recognizable, staple sounds from the music indigenous to at least six different locales from around the world, throws them in a melting pot and then pours them into a dozen different moulds. The results are both fascinating and fascinatingly incomprehensible.



Tassili is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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