BBC – Music – Review of Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba

In a very short time, Bassekou Kouyate has established himself as one of Mali’s most popular artists, both in the recording studio and on the live stage. Kouyate also rejoices in an unusual band formation, which includes four players of the n’goni, manifested in its differing tonal sizes. It’s a gossamer string deluge…

The n’goni is a variably sized lute-like instrument that’s more spiritually connected to the banjo; it’s usually got between four and seven strings. Kouyate plays most of the solo licks, and his Ngoni ba bandmates set up a dense strumming pulse, interspersed with intricately arranged outbreaks of staccato punctuation.

These ostensibly simple instruments are capable of immense expression, intensified by the densely layered production techniques of Howard Bilerman, who’s previously manned the controls for Arcade Fire and the Godspeed crew.

Ngoni ba also features two percussionists and the charged lead vocals of Amy Sacko. The sessions coincided with the Malian coup, and were surely sharpened by the country’s atmosphere of uncertainty.

Kouyate’s solos are surrounded by a phased, burning aura, as his bent-note elaborations head further towards the desert rock of Tinariwen. He manages to explore this freshly electrified path without losing his acoustically sensitive properties, combining the crucial aspects of both loud and soft amplification levels. The small resonating box becomes a ringing chamber of contained power.

This third album features an array of guest stars, but these are ingested deep within the composite band belly, without seeming too starkly gratuitous. The veteran master Kassé-Mady Diabaté sings with Sacko on Sinaly, but the lesser-known Zoumana Tereta makes a greater impact, his husky, weathered tones dominating three songs.

The n’gonis are always upfront, but this is also an album of stunning vocals. Khaira Arby guests on Kel Magni, delivering her expectedly transcendent invocation for peace, the tune tripping towards a clapping, lurching escalation.

The only track where a guest forces a complete transformation is Poye 2, where Taj Mahal prompts a slow blues slog, invoking the spirit of Howlin’ Wolf, trading vocals with Kouyate in French and English.

Then, it becomes clear that the wildest acceleration was saved until last, with the closing highlight, Moustafa.

BBC – Music – Review of Solange Knowles

On her last album, 2008’s Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, Solange addressed the elephant in the room. “I’m not her and never will be,” she sang on a track called God Given Name. This was an obvious reference to the other Knowles girl – the one who’s sold 75 million records and got Jay-Z to put a ring on it.

In recent years, Solange has proved her point by establishing herself as an edgier, trendier artist than Big Sis. While Beyoncé was releasing a single with Lady Gaga, Solange was duetting onstage with Dirty Projectors. And now she’s signed to Brooklyn indie label Terrible Records, home to Grizzly Bear and Chairlift, and working with Dev Hynes, aka Lightspeed Champion.

This EP is billed as a “collaborative effort” between them, with Hynes handling production and the pair co-writing all seven tracks. A full-length Solange album is due later in 2013, but True feels greater than a stopgap. It’s already yielded the brilliant single Losing You, which sounds like Borderline-era Madonna having a minor panic attack.

Nothing else packs the same instant punch, but True still makes good on that song’s promise. This is a fully realised tribute to early 80s pop-RnB music, filled with candy-sweet keyboard sounds and beats that could be the work of a battered old Casio drum machine. Solange and Hynes even get Verdine White from Earth, Wind & Fire to play bass on the final track.

The EP’s musical cohesion is matched by some consistently romantic lyrics. On Locked in Closets, Solange recalls a childhood fantasy: “All I wanted was the dream of being in love with you.”

Elsewhere, she acknowledges that the reality is difficult to achieve. Don’t Let Me Down is a plea to a new lover, Lovers in the Parking Lot an admission of culpability; and Some Things Never Seem to F***ing Work doesn’t concern a glitchy printer.

These songs give more with each listen; Solange’s vocal arrangements keep revealing an extra melody or another ear-snagging lyric. The result is an incredibly addictive pop record that’s comparable to no other contemporary release.

From a singer who’s always been defined by comparisons to somebody else, that’s quite an achievement.

BBC – Music – Review of Nosaj Thing

“This record is very personal to me… I was just writing [it] for myself… It was therapeutic.” So says Los Angeles producer, DJ and remixer Jason Chung of his second LP as Nosaj Thing. And Home is certainly a quieter, more introspective set than its maker’s 2009 debut, Drift.

That Drift wasn’t exactly loaded with floor-fillers makes Home a proposition so slight in places that it threatens to vaporise entirely, leaving only traces of songs where once beats bounced heartily. As pretty as cuts like the piano-led Prelude and the delicate motifs of Distance are, they risk relegation to background fare.

Naturally, the impression is rather different when Home plays out on headphones – this is, like Drift, a superbly immersive affair when the mood is right, when train windows fill with blurring vistas and the listener allows these 36 minutes to click as a relatively cohesive whole.

The title track buzzes like Starkey finally blinded from all his stargazing, and Glue pops and fizzes like the comedown at a southern playa’s pyjama party.

Like comparable producers’ work, though – that of Clams Casino for example – Nosaj Thing’s material can feel it’s missing a vocal anchor. Chung’s recognised this, and Home features contributions from both Toro y Moi (Chaz Bundick) on the slowly sizzling Try and Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino on Eclipse/Blue.

If the former proves a little too chillwave-y, the latter’s a real moment, a wonderful marriage of unique vocals and exemplary production. It’s a track that comfortably explores both IDM and hip hop colours and contrasts, its percussive constituents insistent yet perfectly accessible. And Makino’s typically breathy (and breath-stealing) performance is as captivating as Blonde Redhead fans have long known.

With remix credits on tracks by the likes of The xx, Portishead, Philip Glass and Flying Lotus, Chung has moved in some varied circles. Home goes some way to presenting a settled, singular sound at work – but, still, one feels this isn’t the zenith point of a winding career path. It’s frequently beautiful, but perhaps too ephemeral an experience to establish a hold on anyone with more than music on their mind.

BBC – Music – Review of Pere Ubu

Lady From Shanghai is Pere Ubu’s 15th studio album of a 37-year career (discounting a five-year break in the 1980s). These ornery Cleveland outsiders inherited most of their sonically difficult qualities from wobbling ’n’ quavering vocalist David Thomas, who has been their only constant member. They’re like a fantasy stateside twin of The Fall, mirroring as Thomas does the key presence of an equally uncompromising Mark E. Smith.

The opening Thanks steals from Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell, although only barely, amidst spurtings of electro-percussion, elasticated bass and sample matter. Thomas boasts with deathly irony, coated with a bitter, twisting streak.

The dominant force of these songs is one of detailed sonic transgression, caught in a presumably intentional boxy, hard-edged production. Stripped and brutal, the dense repetitions are full of vocal stutter-snippets.

Robert Wheeler is the chief electronics contributor, but Thomas has increased his own role in this zone. Further digital tweaks are added by the mysterious Gagarin, who also plays piano and organ. The familiar hands of guitarist Keith Moliné and drummer Steve Mehlman are also in place.

Mandy is a more conventional song, eerily romantic in its unsettling manner. And Then Nothing Happened enters a more abstract industrial zone, Thomas subsequently sounding absolutely forlorn and resigned during Musicians Are Scum. Lampshade Man is more of a rocker, revolving around a persistent guitar riff, surrounded by abrasive electronic textures.

Pere Ubu continue their established method of song interference to its bitter conclusion, permanently scarred by accumulated collage effects. The “rocking” continues with the jabbing and jolting 414 Seconds, and the album concludes with the most extreme abstraction of The Carpenter Sun.

The tunes, riffs and words might not be quite as impressive as those from the days of yore, but this is still a very arresting example of sonic art: tense and deranged, savage and serrated. Pere Ubu have frequently varied the ratios between pop song and avant attack, and this latest statement rises up towards the latter extreme.

BBC – Music – Review of Broadcast

Berberian Sound Studio was one of the finest films of 2012. Released on a limited cinematic run last summer, it’s a psychological thriller/horror affair starring Toby Jones as a sound effects specialist who begins work in an Italian horror film studio on an amazingly titled (if slightly worrying) film called The Equestrian Vortex. And he soon starts to go a bit mad.

So far, so Broadcast, you may think. And you’d be right. Having created spooky soundtracks for imaginary films – check out their 2009 album, Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age – creating unnerving accompaniments comes easy to them.

Using wonky equipment, elderly electronics, spooky organs and creepy reverb, James Cargill – the one remaining member after Trish Keenan’s shocking early death in 2011 – has assembled a perfect soundtrack for the on-screen action. This was the couple’s final work together, although Cargill has said there is more unreleased Trish-featuring material, which may come out in the future.

At 39 tracks, it may seem a bit daunting, but much of these are tiny fragments of sounds and effects – The Serpent’s Semen is just eight seconds of screaming; Mark of The Devil and Found Scalded, Found Drowned unfold menacingly, yet still somehow only 45 seconds apiece; and at least half the tracks clock in around half a minute.

There’s a kid-in-a-sweetshop aspect to proceedings, as Cargill throws in everything to create a perfect spooky mood. Numbers such as The Sacred Marriage, the film-in-a-film title track of The Equestrian Vortex, Beautiful Hair and His World Is My Shed are suitably eerie vignettes to underscore the visual tenseness.

The two tracks that, by comparison, go on a bit – the floating creep-out of Teresa’s Song, and Lark of Ascension – could have been lifted from Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece of 1977, Suspiria. And closer Our Darkest Sabbath is actually quite gorgeous in a “Hello, you have a stalker” fashion.

Berberian Sound Studio and Broadcast are a perfect match, and this soundtrack – something you may not want to listen to alone if you keep hearing a weird noise outside the window – gives you an idea of how magnificent this band can be.

BBC – Music – Review of Nils Frahm

While a musician’s ability to overcome the temporary loss of a thumb certainly doesn’t match the achievements of the Paralympians last summer, there’s something similarly uplifting about the genesis of Nils Frahm’s latest, delicate album.

Provoked by an unfortunate accident involving a bunk bed and gravity, Screws – named after the four pieces of metal doctors used to hasten the healing process – finds the increasingly acclaimed pianist inspired by his predicament to compose within his limitations rather than follow doctor’s advice and leave his instrument alone during his recovery.

The back-story is, arguably, unimportant: it’s likely only trained musicians would be aware of the hindrances he faced. In keeping with much of Frahm’s work to date, these are deceptively simple, minimalist sketches in which the personality of the piano – its timbre, the creak of its hammers – is of as much importance as the performer’s.

But these nine pieces – one for each finger, presumably, written and recorded over nine consecutive evenings – are meditative celebrations of his love for his instrument, one from which he (as he himself says) “pathetically” thought he might be separated.

They are, accordingly, full of a tender emotion that more often than not overcomes the fact that they’re sometimes closer to the New Age avenues explored by George Winston than, say, the work of Erik Satie. Frahm himself initially only deemed the collection worthy of a free download rather than a commercial release.

However, as with the latter composer’s Gymnopédies, the atmosphere they evoke is no less significant than their melodies, and there’s a gentle melancholy at the heart of the best tracks – like You, the album’s opener – that is impossible to ignore.

Re, too, is imbued with a sadness that lifts towards its end as Frahm’s undamaged right hand sweeps briefly up his keyboard, while Me – enveloped in tape hiss – is at times so insubstantial as to be barely there.

But, though these 28 minutes drift by almost imperceptibly, they’re evocative, intimate and surprisingly moving. Sometimes it’s about what we do with what we have rather than what we lack.

BBC – Music – Review of Young Fathers

Multicultural Edinburgh trio Young Fathers have, with this collection, established themselves as a standout act amongst 2013’s domestic crop of hip hop. Tape One first emerged as a free download in 2011, but now, with Anticon’s backing, it’s set to reach a wider audience. And it deserves to.

The California label has looked to the UK for signings before, adding Bristol’s SJ Esau and Leeds’ Bracken to its roster. But Young Fathers represent its most promising import yet. Liberia-born Alloysious Massaquoi, Nigeria-bred Kayus Bankole and Edinburgh native “G” Hastings dissect rap constituents from the past 30-odd years and reassemble them into a striking realisation of what the genre can be in the 21st century.

The results are both reminiscent of preceding emissions from rap’s fringe-mentality movers and shakers, and compellingly unique in their colourful fusions. The latter aspect is perhaps inevitable given the mixed upbringings of the protagonists at play, but never a guaranteed plus in the grand scheme. That everything blends so brilliantly is slightly unexpected and gratefully received.

Echoes of De La Soul, Saul Williams, Shabazz Palaces and more drift throughout these arrangements; so too do the more cerebral rappers to have graced Anticon’s books – WHY? and Serengeti amongst them. Yet always a singular voice – or, rather, a trio of them – sings through the influences, telling of experiences and ambitions wholly individual.

A first listen is all it takes for lyrical motifs to imprint themselves into the memory: “Don’t you turn my home against me / Even if my house is empty” comes the refrain closing opener Deadline. Sister rides African-coloured rhythms redolent of Spoek Mathambo’s Father Creeper LP of 2012, albeit with an unmistakable Scottish accent cutting through the track.

Romance moves with dub-like spectral grace, while the percussive punch of Rumbling marks it as the clubland cut of choice: “White boy beat / Black boy rhythm,” it states, outlining vital ingredients. Which, when stirred so excellently, suggest Young Fathers could follow Massive Attack from scene-specific successes to crossover acclaim and substantial commercial impact. Their Protection could be special indeed.