Album reviews: Tinariwen – 'Elwan', Sampha – 'Process', Rag'n'Bone Man – 'Human', and more

Also: Chuck Prophet, Ron Gallo and Noveller

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The Independent Culture

Tinariwen, Elwan

★★★★★

Download this: Tiwayyen; Sastanaqqam; Tenere Taqqal; Talyat; Assawt; Nannuflay

Sometimes, events conspire in ways which dwarf the largely adolescent concerns of rock and pop. Take the plight of Tuareg desert-rockers Tinariwen, acclaimed cultural ambassadors currently unable to reside in their beloved Tenere (homeland) due to the Salafist insurgency ultimately caused by Western adventurism in Libya. Elwan (Elephants), perhaps their most powerful album since Amassakoul, confronts their situation head-on, in songs musing on the values of ancestry, unity and fellowship, driven by the infectiously hypnotic cyclical guitar grooves that wind like creepers around their poetic imagery. “The Tenere has become an upland of thorns where elephants fight each other, crushing tender grass underfoot,” sings Ibrahim Ag Alhabib on “Tenere Taqqal”, lamenting their homeland’s use as battleground for struggles between elephantine power blocs beyond their control; while the abandonment of ancestral ways draws equal criticism on his own people in “Imidiwan N-Akall-In”: “All that’s left is a groaning land full of old people and children / Oh my brothers! You’re on the wrong path”.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a deep vein of melancholy running through the album, which had to be recorded in France, Morocco and California (where the likes of Kurt Vile and Alain Johannes contributed additional guitar lines) rather than Mali. But they remain positive despite their situation, with the songs of Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, in particular, finding solace in reverie of the nomadic life, with “your friends and your mount, and a brand new goatskin, watertight”, and in the lingering memory of a “light-skinned girl with blossoming face” emerging from a tent. The latter song, “Talyat”, bounds along eagerly, with its enthusiastic call-and-response vocals riding a dervish web of guitars and drums. Musically, the album features much more extensive percussion than the simple handclaps and tinde drum of Tinariwen’s earliest records; here, the Gangas de Tagounite quartet employ a range of extra drums and shakers to add an urgent, peppery depth to the music.

Ultimately, the album’s success is rooted in the balance between the barreling, spiky grooves of tracks like “Tiwayyen” and “Assawt”, with their skirling whorls of guitar, and the more contemplative reflections on solitude and fulfillment, such as Eyadou Ag Leche’s “Nannuflay”, to which Mark Lanegan adds a verse about “no more sleepwalking”. It’s Eyadou’s most pointed observation that best summarises the band’s invidious position, “pursuing memories built on a dune that’s always moving”. Thankfully, they’re used to that nomadic existence.

Sinkane, Life & Livin’ It

★★★☆☆

Download this: Telephone; Passenger; Favourite Song

Compared with his perky previous albums Mars and Mean Love, there’s something underwhelming about this third effort from Ahmad Gallab, aka Sinkane – it feels every bit as pedestrian and dutiful as its title suggests, its slow, methodical grooves pleasantly light but laborious. The wah-wah guitar licks, wheedling synth lines and jazz-funk beats are most urgently assembled on “Telephone”, its groove fattened by the Daptone Horns; but elsewhere, there’s a slinky, slightly stilted feel to “U’Huh”, while the aptly-titled “Deadweight” is salvaged mostly by the snakelike guitar break at its end. Elsewhere, Sinkane’s debt to the late William Onyeabor is most clearly evident in his blending of bright guitar and synth figures in “Favourite Song”. But it’s all a bit undercharged and formulaic, lacking spice and surprise, especially heard after the majestic righteousness of the Tinariwen album; by contrast, Sinkane’s admission that “Sometimes I feel I’m not my body / I’m just the thoughts that cloud my head” seems a lazy indulgence.

Sampha, Process

★★★★☆

Download this: Plastic 100ºC; Blood On Me; (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano; Timmy’s Prayer

Vulnerability is the current stock-in-trade of neo-soul, but rarely has it been indulged quite as imaginatively as on Sampha’s Process. The British producer/singer, already a low-key presence on albums by Solange, Kanye and Frank Ocean, not only employs a fresh palette of sounds – from the harp-like pluckings of “Plastic 100ºC” to the beguiling Celtic-flavoured organ of “Timmy’s Prayer” – but also applies them to matters beyond romance: notably here, the process of bereavement. A multitude of Sampha’s layered voices laments the lack of closure in “Incomplete Kisses”, while “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano”, picked out on the family’s out-of-tune instrument, offers a more personal tribute to the singer’s domestic roots. Elsewhere, “Blood On Me” confronts his fear of being mugged by faceless hoodies (“I swear they smell the blood on me”); though Sampha’s escape, embodied in the twirling kora and scuttling beat of “Kora Sings”, will always lie in his music.

Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins

★★★★☆

Download this: Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins; In The Mausoleum; Post-War Cinematic Dead Man Blues; Alex Nieto

Master guitarist and accomplished songwriter Chuck Prophet is on top form with this latest collection of reflections and rejections. The pervasive tone of zeitgeist fatigue crystallises in “Post-War Cinematic Dead Man Blues”; but it’s there from the start, in the assertive anthem about the potency of cheap music, personified in the mysterious death of Bobby (“I Fought The Law”) Fuller in 1966: in the manner of Alex Chilton, Prophet somehow manages to be both wistful and euphoric at once. He’s clearly an encyclopaedic master of musical form, piling up influences across these tracks, notably the terse, hypnotic twitch of Alan Vega’s space-age rockabilly that drives “In The Mausoleum”. But the most effective borrowing applies the “Rockin’ In The Free World” riff to the police killing of “Alex Nieto”, which draws strength from Prophet’s repeatedly returning to the victim’s character: “Alex Nieto was a pacifist, a 49ers fan”. Powerful and personal, it’s a persuasive protest tribute straight from the heart.

Ron Gallo, Heavy Meta

★★★☆☆

Download this: Young Lady, You’re Scaring Me; Poor Traits Of The Artist; All The Punks Are Domesticated

There’s an enjoyably manic quality about Ron Gallo’s punk-inflected rock that comes across best in the frantic guitar interplay between him and sidekick/producer Joe Bisirri, their churning lines aptly evoking the singer’s obsessional terror about a girl whose “cavern eyes are preying” in the opener “Young Lady, You’re Scaring Me”. For all his energy, alas, Gallo seems an unhappy, disappointed soul, whether sketching the terminal disaffection of a soured love in “Put The Kids To Bed”, slagging off a drug-addict mother in “Why Do You Have Kids?”, or regretting fading dreams in “All The Punks Are Domesticated”. It’s not always pretty – his blast of antipathy “Can’t Stand You” is just relentless disparagement, with none of the subtlety of “Positively 4th Street”; ultimately, it’s small wonder to find him, in “Poor Traits Of The Artist”, caught between loving and hating his need to create.

Rag’n’Bone Man, Human

★★☆☆☆ 

Download this: Human; Skin

The sad corollary of the proliferation of polls predicting the coming year’s Next Big Thing is that sometimes the thing in question isn’t quite up to snuff. Last year, Jack Garratt’s debut album failed to fulfil the expectations of winning both the Brits Critics’ Choice and the BBC Sound Of 2016 polls; and Rory Graham, aka Rag’n’Bone Man, first and second respectively in this year’s polls, may follow in like fashion, despite the initial success of his single “Human”. That song leads off his album, and for a few tracks – specifically, the victim’s plaint “Innocent Man” and devotional anthem “Skin” – it sounds like the real thing, as Graham’s burly blues pipes wrestle raw emotion from songs sketched over skeletal beats and sample grooves. But things go rapidly downhill, soured by the earnest, self-important tone of songs like “Grace” and “Ego”; while “Love You Any Less” is just achingly dull, a slice of blandly sepia soulfulness that stains the songs around it.

Noveller, A Pink Sun Set For No One

★★★☆☆

Download this: Deep Shelter; Rituals; Another Dark Hour

A contributor to the massed-guitars projects of composers Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca, Sarah Lipstate uses the pseudonym Noveller for her own solo guitar recordings, with A Pink Sun Set For No One the follow-up to 2015’s acclaimed Fantastic Planet. She finds endless diversity in the instrument, ranging from the plangent simplicity of the title track to the swaddling sheets of sound that comprise “Lone Victory Tonight”, and is clearly influenced by previous lone operators: the methodical manner of “Corridors” recalls Tubular Bells, while “Another Dark Hour” profits from the application of heavy Frippertronic sustain. But her main progenitors are minimalists: “Rituals” is Lipstate’s tribute to Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians, its arpeggiating guitar lines intertwining hypnotically, while the opening “Deep Shelter” takes a different approach, its lowing drones sliding over each other in Terry Riley-esque manner, seeking rhythmic pulses behind sheets of high, keening tones.

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