A multicultural collaboration that only sporadically shines.
Jon Lusk 2010
It’s one thing for hip indie bands such as Vampire Weekend to use African influences in their music, but an altogether different thing when Western and African musicians actually collaborate on a record. The precedents range from inspired (Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland) to incompetent (Damon Albarn’s Mali Music in 2002), and this group’s second album falls about halfway between.
Dirtmusic are Australian expat Hugo Race (The Bad Seeds, The Wreckery), and US citizens Chris Eckman (The Walkabouts, Willard Grant Conspiracy etc) and Chris Brokaw, who has worked with The Lemonheads and Liz Phair, among others. They take their name from a novel by Australian writer Tim Winton, and came together through a shared resolution to escape the “digital sheen” of much contemporary rock for a more organic, back porch sound.
When the band attended the 2008 Festival in the Desert in Mali, they found common musical ground with the Touareg band Tamikrest, jamming with them almost non-stop for three days. The following year, the two groups met again in the Malian capital of Bamako for an intense recording session, which produced Tamikrest’s accomplished debut Adagh and this, an album named after the acronym for Bamako’s international airport.
While Dirtmusic’s contributions to Adagh were respectfully discreet, this record relies heavily on the desert blues vibe of Tamikrest. They’re effectively the backing band on most tracks, with vocals (in English) and guitars, banjos and keyboards by Dirtmusic.
Things open promisingly enough with Black Gravity, where the combination of electric and acoustic sounds as well as kit drums and hand-percussion suggests early T. Rex, with Tamikrest’s singer Ousmane Ag Mossa weaving a chorus in Tamasheq between Eckman’s verses. The cover of the Velvet Underground classic All Tomorrow’s Parties works well by avoiding the obvious (and because it is drone-based, like Tamikrest’s music) and is one of two songs featuring a wailing vocal by Tartit singer Fadimata Wallet Oumar.
Thereafter, the fact that Dirtmusic possess neither a strong and distinctive singer, nor a great many memorable songs, means that much of BKO wafts by fairly inconsequentially, with only Smoking Bowl and the slight instrumental Niger Sundown standing out. Perhaps they should have spent a little more time on their material before recording it.