As the second great Touareg rebel-rock album to appear this year, Ishumar confirms the potency of hypnotic Saharan trance-blues. Singer-songwriter and guitarist Moussa Ag Keyna served his musical apprenticeship with Tinariwen before striking out on his own, accompanied by singer/percussionist Aminatou Goumar and, on this album, the multi-instrumentalist French producer Dan Levy. Like his brethren in Tinariwen, Moussa was deeply involved in the Touareg uprising - in which he nearly lost a leg, and his songs reflect that commitment, with "Maraou Oran" ("For 12 Moons") commemorating fallen comrades, the funky "Kik Ayittma" (Hey, My Brothers!") reminding younger Touareg of their elders' sacrifices, and "Ammilana" ("Oh My God, Oh My Soul") condemning the breaking of promises made to his people. Though featuring just the one guitar, the sound is clearly modelled on Tinariwen's, with the distinctive Saharan shuffling camel-rhythms, call-and-response vocals and spiralling guitar lines. Poetic, propulsive and life-affirming.
Artist: Charles Brown
Label: Rev-Ola Bandstand
Best remembered as the progenitor of smooth piano blues - in which guise he was a big influence on Nat King Cole, among others - Charles Brown is depicted in more lively and ebullient mood on this splendid compilation, its 30 tracks drawn in roughly equal measure from his early period fronting Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, and his subsequent solo career. Indeed, his first solo hit "Get Yourself Another Fool" was a barb directed at his former bandleader, from whom Brown split following Moore's brazen attempt to grab himself a bigger slice of the trio's earnings. Despite the absence of the pianist's best-known hits such as "Black Night", there's compensation aplenty here in tracks such as the gold-digger warning "C.O.D." and "Bobby Sox Blues", his genial version of the T-Bone Walker hit about a girl with "a head full of nothing but stage, screen and radio". Throughout, Brown's sprightly pianistics and warm delivery display an unexpected affinity for gentle humour, rather than the sweet, smoky melancholy for which he was best known.
Artist: The Asylum Choir
Title: Look Inside
In between his tenure as part of Phil Spector's Wrecking Crew, and his eventual emergence in the Seventies as a star in his own right, Leon Russell's first steps on the road to personal acclaim came via The Asylum Choir, the quirky psychedelic duo he formed with session guitarist Marc Benno. Equal parts acidhead weirdness, Zappa-esque satire, free-form sonic detritus and ebullient hippy honky-tonk music, their only album crams more madcap invention and musical diversity into under half an hour than most bands make in their entire careers. "Welcome To Hollywood" and "Black Sheep Boogaloo" bookend the album with fairly straightforward, energetic rock'n'roll grooves - though they still can't resist scattering breaking-glass noises and humorous spoken interjections into the latter - while in between are corralled all manner of fanciful novelties, from the cosmic baubles bedecking "Icicle Star Tree" to the speeding-up Big Ben chimes and falsetto rewrite of "Land Of Hope And Glory". A true hippie oddity, available for the first time on CD.
Artist: Gogol Bordello
Title: Super Taranta!
Label: Side One Dummy
New York gypsy punks Gogol Bordello cook up a fair old storm of fiddle and squeezebox, sounding something like the Balkan Pogues, only minus the dog-eared Celtic sentimentality. Quite the opposite, in fact: Eugene Hutz's dubious opinion of race-based nationalism in songs such as "Your Country" and the amusing "My Strange Uncles From Abroad" (imagine Borat as Harriet Tubman) is mirrored by his atheistic disdain for religion in the excellent "Supertheory Of Supereverything", in which he contends that God appears to have no sense of humour. "I don't read the Bible/I don't trust disciple," he advises sagely. Hints of mariachi, reggae and tarantella infuse some of these grooves, but the dedication to social justice that furnishes the band's backbone is best delivered via Balkan-skiffle rave-ups such as "Forces Of Victory" and the opener "Ultimate", on which Hutz sensibly pledges himself to a better future: "There were never any good old days," he observes, "They are today, they are tomorrow/It's a stupid thing we do, cursing tomorrow with sorrow."
Artist: Setsubun Bean Unit
Title: Setsubun Bean Unit
Even by the eclectic standards of today's flourishing world-music scene, this is a weirdly wonderful crossover project, inspired by a trip to Japan taken by three members of folk-brass ensemble Bellowhead. Reedsman Brendan Kelly, sousaphonist Gideon Juckes and percussionist Pete Flood were so impressed with the local festival celebrations of Setsubun (in which soya beans are thrown in the air to ward off evil spirits) and Bon Odori (in which ancestors are honoured in song) that they decided to combine the traditional elements with their own western instruments and styles. The results are richly varied, from the blend of austere vocal, percussion and bass clarinet of "Fire Festival", to the tin whistle, drone and chant of "Akita Ondo". Elsewhere there are echoes of Stomu Yamash'ta in the tuned percussion of "Moon River Is A Swamp", while "Rettsu Kissu" effects a sort of Balkan woodwind dub-skank, and "Tora San" chills proceedings with a wistful Japanese croon underpinned by clarinet, guitar and vibes in lounge-music mode. The oddest pleasure you'll experience all year.
Artist: Anti Atlas
Title: Between Voices
Label: One Little Indian
Between Voices is the sister-album to this March's Between Two, so called because this time, the two members of Anti Atlas - Radiohead's manager Chris Hufford, and composer Ned Bigham - have incorporated guest vocalists from as far afield as Norway, New York, Iceland and Italy. Using looped string parts sampled from the likes of Debussy, Mahler and Dvorak, they have created a series of softly shifting backdrops to which are added the subtlest suggestions of rhythm and pastel tints of piano, brass or woodwind. On "Wait For Me", the string pad settles like mist around the sparse flugelhorn figure, with Kalli's vocal accentuating the similarity to Blue Nile; and extending the meteorological metaphor further, the strings ironically lend more of a sunset glow to "Cool Is The Night". The most accomplished vocal performance, meanwhile, is that of Gemma Hayes on "It's A Shame", marked by a throaty little catch which she has the sense not to overdo, a mark of the all-round restraint that is the album's decisive characteristic.
Artist: Bobby 'Blue' Bland & Junior Parker
Title: The Earls Of Duke
Label: Rev-Ola Bandstand
The title refers to Duke Records, the R&B label owned by notorious showbiz double-dealer Don Robey, whose mob connections ensured that his acts never kicked up too much fuss when he rooked them out of royalties. Bobby 'Blue' Bland and Junior Parker were Duke's two biggest acts, the latter best-known for his version of "Mystery Train" that proved so influential on Elvis Presley. That's not included here, but there are several variations on its infectious, shuffling groove, most notably "I Wanna Ramble", a perfect demonstration of the languid charm which was his main contribution to R&B. Bland started out as Parker's valet and assistant in the postwar years, but by the mid-Fifties had eclipsed his former boss, as his deep, dry baritone croak scored hit after hit on the R&B charts: check out tracks like "Woke Up Screaming", "Honey Bee" and "It's My Life, Baby" for compelling evidence of the emotional intensity that carried his career into the Seventies, securing him the lasting devotion of high-profile fans like Van Morrison and Rod Stewart.
Artist: Seasick Steve
Title: It's All Good EP
Throwback bluesman Seasick Steve takes poverty as the theme of his latest EP, a subject which despite his minimal accompaniment - his guitar doesn't even boast the full complement of strings, for heaven's sake - he manages to cover in markedly diverse ways. "Now, me and money, we don't see eye to eye," he admits on the title track, wondering if he'll ever get paid his due. "Everybody always tellin' me how great I am/They just can't pay much," he notes sardonically over a hypnotic guitar riff in the Hopkins/Hooker/Burnside style, "Maybe I'm gonna be one of them people gon' be famous when they dead." But he remains sanguine, proceeding to offer a testimonial to his "sweet little Thunderbird" - the cheap wine, not the expensive car. The final track, a remix of his last album's "Last Po' Man", accentuates the song's mesmeric groove by lashing Steve's cyclical guitar figure to a modern shuffle-groove and twitchy synth-bass, rather in the manner of Martin Tino Gross's club-conscious remix of Burnside's "Shake 'Em On Down". All different, and all good.
Artist: Grand Drive
Label: Loose Music
"Be happy in the skin you're living in," advise Grand Drive's Danny and Julian Wilson on the opening track of their fifth album, and one which bears out that advice. Ten years into their career, the South London brothers seem completely at home among their mostly American musical vocabulary of 12-string guitar, organ and smooth, Eagles-style harmonies. Their return to the more personal surroundings of an indie label after several largely fruitless (ie, under-promoted) years at a major may also have something to do with the warm, intimate tone of songs like "Talking In Your Sleep" and "Birdsong", and the broadening of their instrumental palette to incorporate mellotron, harpsichord and fizzing synthesiser. Lyrically, too, the songs seem more personal and contented, proclaiming the virtues of emotional and geographical stability with a blend of home and heart that reaches its apogee in "What You Know", while manfully shouldering the burdens of regret, separation and mistrust with a spirit best summed up by track title "Be Lucky".
Artist: Josh Rouse
Title: Country Mouse, City House
Label: Bedroom Classics
It's "Nice To Fit In", claims Josh Rouse in the song thus titled, "...because I'm living on the outside of it all." And so he is: apart from Howe Gelb, it's hard to think of another American singer-songwriter whose worldview has been as coloured by their multi-national lifestyle - in Rouse's case, flitting between Nashville and Spain, where Country Mouse, City House was partly recorded. With his amenable voice and languid arrangements, Rouse ploughs a musical path slightly removed from the alt.country mainstream, with a benign, casual manner which, one suspects, requires just a breakthrough hit to secure a place in the public heart.
Artist: Prince Fatty
Title: Survival Of The Fattest
Label: Mr. Bongo
Prince Fatty is a group made up of Jamaican session legends such as drummer Style Scott from Roots Radics, and organist Bubblers from the Ruff Cut Band, assembled by studio svengali Mike Pelanconi. Survival Of The Fattest features a series of classic old-school, early-Seventies-style reggae grooves, some of which are allotted contributions from guest vocalists. While the performances are intermittently sharp, with Nyabinghi-style hand drums and twitchy organ offbeat salvaging "Curious", and whip-smart guitar chops supporting the trombone instrumental "Meltdown", there's precious little excitement or diverting sonic novelty about these journeyman tracks: "Cow Foot And Gravy", so to speak, is no "Roast Fish And Corn Bread".
On previous albums like Nuada and Under The Skylon, London trio Candidate adopted wildly divergent styles to celebrate two great lost British landmarks - the soundtrack to The Wicker Man, and the iconic structure created for the 1951 Festival Of Britain. Oxengate develops further the folk-music approach of Nuada, but in a broader instrumental palette. The opener "Furlough" recalls Midlake in both its vocal and instrumental timbres and the way in which it gives voice to a long-gone soul - in this case a dead soldier whose spirit wanders through his beloved's dreams - while elsewhere songs such as "Wesley", "Avro No.1" and "Marie Alexander" sketch different aspects of conflict (escape, concealment and defence) in different ways, from the a cappella vocals of "Wesley" to the harmonium, guitar and thunderstorm of "Avro No.1". But it's not all about antiquity: "(Going Back To) Amsterdam" is a jolly celebration of low-budget Euro-travel, and there are "pylons striding through the broken corn" of the landscapes depicted in "Cast Into The Storm". Their most varied and satisfying project yet.
Artist: Seventeen Evergreen
Title: Lunar One EP
Label: Lucky Number
This five-track taster for the forthcoming Life Embarrasses Me On Planet Earth album is about as perfect a small-scale project as will be heard all year, suggesting that the San Francisco-based duo of Caleb Pate and Nephi Evans may be about to follow in the footsteps of such previous indie-oddball crossovers as Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips and Midlake. Which is odd, given that their lush electronica-based songs have more in common with the likes of Matmos and Boards Of Canada. A sci-fi concept mini-album, it includes disconcertingly blithe warnings about alien invasion, via the ethereal synth arpeggios of "Constellation" ("They will try to pollute your mind") and the puttering marimba and cyclical vocal rounds of "Burn The Fruit" ("They'll evaporate the masses"), and a pastoral Pink Floyd-style tribute to "Atlas" ("He stays awake, hoping his arms won't break"). The title-track, however, best embodies their aim of evoking Eno's notion of "nostalgia for the future", its rumination on the mystery and solitude of space travel coming across like a weightless, furtive extension to Bowie's "Space Oddity".
Title: War Stories
Label: Surrender All
With this album, James Lavelle and Richard File shift further away from their original dance-informed indie incarnation into territory more commonly occupied by Goths. Their choice of guest singers - among them Ian Astbury, Josh Homme and Massive Attack's 3D - indicates the forbidding tone of these lumbering, angst-ridden Goth boogies, though Lavelle displays just as firm a grasp of the grim essentials on tracks like "Morning Rage" and "Hold My Hand". Elsewhere, Clayhill's Gavin Clark brings a more frail, sensitive presence to "Broken", summarising the album's essential character with the line "We're miles adrift, but inches away".
Artist: Jeb Loy Nichols
Title: Days Are Mighty
Jeb Loy Nichols's baritone is rather better employed here than on its predecessor Easy Now, where his desire to make an album free of irony or cynicism inadvertently emasculated much of its impact. Not that he's exactly breaking new ground with these 11 songs, which are mostly concerned with small mercies and missed opportunities. Both "Can't Find The Words" and "25 Years Too Late" deal with emotional inarticulacy, while in the title-track, he wakes to find his lover didn't come round as promised, but manages to find solace in the prospect of a new day, despite being torn up "knowing that my morning sun's gone in".Reuse content