Dirtmusic ‘Lion City’ (Glitterbeat Records) – 31st March 2014
Essentially the production house band for the much-venerated African and beyond Glitterbeat Records, Chris Eckman – formerly of Seattle band The Walkabouts – has lent his talents to the desert blues and rock’n’roll protest laments of the label’s Tamikrest, Samba Toure and Lobi Traore signings.
Alongside former Bad Seed Hugo Race and Bostonian ‘indie rocker’ Chris Brokaw, Eckman formed the borderless drifting Dirtmusic: a moniker that was pulled from the Tim Winton’s Booker nominated ‘Dirt Music’ novel, whose pages are dominated by the unrelenting, and often harsh, Australian environment. Defined by one of stories protagonists, the tragic hero of the piece, Luther Fox, ‘dirt music’ is described as: ‘anything you could play on a verandah. You know, without electricity.’ Though their earnest nature and roots-y approach follows this sentiment, the group also turn on the electric guitars, creating a mysterious sometimes trance induced outer world soundscapes; searching way beyond the humble dusty homestead porch.
Accentuated, stripped back and refined, their fourth album, Lion City, is a far more contemplative affair than previous efforts. With a pondered sonorous dirge they set the scene, opening with the equivalent of a Timbuktu version of Alexandro Jodorowsky and Don Cherry’s The Holy Mountain soundtrack, on the amorphous introduction, ‘Stars Of Gao’. Obscured through shrouds of mystical ambience, this track alone merges the Sub-Sahara and the Outback with the Cajun Louisiana swampland: Throat singers perhaps? Didgeridoo even? Or traditional Malian instruments, its never quite clear what you’re actually hearing. Only ever shifting up through the gears to shuffle mode they hypnotically glide or trek at a meditative pace, every song is a mirage, waiting to slowly unravel its true shape.
An extemporised session created in Bamako during the recording of their 2012 LP Troubles, Lion City was borne in a climate of political upheaval in Mali, sparked by a political coup, which was itself a consequence of the Bedouin Tuareg’s armed struggle to gain autonomy in the country’s northern territories – boasted, but soon hijacked, by Islamist fundamentalist groups from outside the region; motivated for entirely different reasons and at odds with the original Tuareg’s plight. Those lamentable events are mirrored in the echoed soul-searching vocals and longing accompaniment, hypnotising if serenely delivered from a host of Mali’s (and on one occasion, Senegal) leading lights. Part of the original Troubles recording set-up, the Ben Zabo Band, Samba Toure and Aminata Wassidje Traore are joined by a congruous caravan of impressive talent: Purveyors of the finest festival, ceremonies and celebrations Takamba rhythm music, Super 11, add an exotic if slightly foreboding atmospheric tone to that already mentioned opening vapourous trance prelude; guitarist Ousmane Ag Mossa, bassist Cheikhe Ag Tiglia and percussionist Aghaly Ah Mohamedine of the mighty blues rocker’s Tamikrest, take a Nomadic ride along the silk road on ‘Movin’ Careful’; rising Bamako Hip Hop star MC Jazz incants a ricochet cry over ringing looped guitar and warped ominous synth waves on ‘Day The Grid Went Down’; and Ibrahima Douf lends a haunted radio transmitted voice to the emotive ode to his grandmother, on the Eno-esque liquid ‘September 12’.
Far more successful if not authentic than anything Albarn or indeed the ‘Radio’ polygenesis collectors The Clash could ever produce, these Westerners move serenely, blurring the cultural boundaries as they circumnavigate the psychogeography of the chaotic city and romanticized but often harsh sand dune landscapes of both West and North Africa. You could say it was a culmination of the entire Glitterbeat labels stock, condescend into one challenging soundtrack.
The reverberations are far more sedate and pining, if not at times esoterically ominous, but no less powerful and evocative than previous sonic expeditions, if anything Lion City is a thoughtful attentive pause, taking the group in perhaps a different, more ambient direction.