With hooks this good, who cares about derivativeness?
Chris Power 2011
In 2008 the UK independent label Merok, home to the debuts of Crystal Castles and Klaxons, put out a seven-inch from LA-based Rainbow Arabia. Sandwiched between releases from blog-adored acts Telepathe and Salem, the microtonal loops and ululating vocal of the Arabic-flavoured Omar K fit the label’s pedigree and whetted appetites for more. It’s slightly to Rainbow Arabia’s detriment, then, that their first album is emerging almost three years since that initial buzz was generated.
But given that the first US release for husband and wife duo Danny and Tiffany Preston, the Basta EP, was the product of a first weekend’s work together in their Echo Park basement, it’s understandable that their full-length needed time to develop. In the interim came a second EP, Kabukimono: five new songs padded out with a couple of forgettable remixes. Now, finally, we have Boys and Diamonds.
Kabukimono saw Rainbow Arabia expand their sample library beyond the overwhelmingly (and randomly, the pair having bought a Lebanese synth before they started recording) Arabic inflection of their earliest work, and Boys and Diamonds is eclectic to an even greater degree. So eclectic, in fact, that it proves difficult to pin down exactly who or what Rainbow Arabia is.
That isn’t always a problem. The West African guitar licks of the title-track wrap around an immediately satisfying sliver of electro-pop, while single Without You is a synth-smeared new wave gem that might have been plucked whole from a John Hughes soundtrack circa 1986. With hooks this good, who cares about derivativeness? But on the cod reggae of Nothin’ Gonna Be Undone and Blind – a disco crossbreed blending dancehall, Karin Dreijer Andersson and Cyndi Lauper – Rainbow Arabia give the impression of being a talented karaoke turn rather than a band with their own identity. On those tracks when you’re not so busy singing along that you don’t care, the quicksilver ventriloquism of Tiffany Preston’s vocals begins to seem more drawback than benefit.
There are exceptions. The brooding semi-instrumental Papai and the heavily percussive yet gentle Jungle Bear, wobbling along on minimal techno stabs, succeed without being immediately redolent of anyone else. The overriding impression of Boys and Diamonds, however, is of MIA’s global smash-and-grab style of musicianship minus the bonding agent of an overarching personality. Add that missing element to their songwriting talent, and Rainbow Arabia will have some substance to bolster their catchiness.