BBC – Music – Review of Invisible System

A note of caution: despite the title, this is not the first offering from this adventurous fusion project, and you could have heard many of the songs before. Introducing… draws from Invisible System’s two previous albums, Punt and Street Clan, as well as The Cauldron EP, and adds some good extra material.

Currently a download-only affair, Introducing… will be released on CD in September, as a “bonus” album with the new Rough Guide to Ethiopia. But it’s well worth checking out now if you’ve not heard Invisible System before.

A boldly unusual project, the man behind it all is Dan Harper. A former aid worker in Ethiopia, Harper built his own studio and persuaded several of the country’s best musicians to record with him. Back in England, he asked a wide selection of British musicians to contribute, with Harper on guitar, bass, percussion and programming.

Results, for the most part, are impressive, with the African recordings matched against settings that range from dub reggae to trip hop and psychedelic rock.

Though there were sections on the Street Clan album where the Ethiopians were almost lost in the exuberant musical blitz, Harper manages to avoid such problems here: the backing is assured and at times even restrained, though still highly original.

The Ethiopian musicians include the great Mahmoud Ahmed (whose compelling voice can be heard on Maljam Kehnoelish), along with pianist Samuel Yirga and singers Tsedenia Gebre Markos and Mimi Zenebe of Dub Colossus. The British players include Justin Adams and Ed Wynne.

Introducing… presents considerable variety, with songs like Oumabetty dominated by powerful Ethiopian female vocals, set against a rumbling bassline, while on Skunk Funk the vocals are set against a slinky groove. Gondar Sub finds African singing dissected by slashing, reggae-influenced guitar lines, and there’s more reggae on the upbeat Mama Yey, which includes Jamaican-style toasting.

The closer, Fiten Azorkugn, sounds more mainstream and contemporary,  though it’s dressed up with throbbing bass and percussion. All told, this is impressively original stuff.

BBC – Music – Review of Ondatrópica

You’ve got to admire the tenacity of Will ‘Quantic’ Holland. Simply referencing the greats of Latin music in his inventive productions was never going to be enough.

In 2007, Holland exited Britain and relocated to Cali, Colombia, where he opened an old-school analogue studio. He has travelled the length of the country in search of musical treasures, compiling excellent retrospectives that should be in every collection.

Now, Holland has joined forces with co-conspirator Mario Galeano (a Colombian musician and academic who collaborated with Mad Professor via his Frente Cumbiero project), to preside over Ondatrópica, an orchestra made up of seasoned veterans and rising talent.

Cumbia fanatics will be delighted by the presence of legendary figures such as top 1970s bandleader Fruko, sax wizard Michi Sarmiento, and pianist Juancho Vargas, who apparently left his hospital bed to record his contribution. Add a younger crew of beat-boxers, rappers, percussionists and so on, and you get a fantastic sound that mixes cumbia and champeta with hip hop and funk, tinged with occasional reggae leanings.

In addition to its tasteful reinterpretations of classic Colombian styles, one of the best things about this debut is that the sound is so unpolished. Rather than aiming for overblown perfectionism, this pleasingly anarchic project that draws together 42 musicians has kept its grooves loose, the permitted spontaneity keeping the vibe feeling that much more real.

I Ron Man playfully re-casts Black Sabbath as a drunken Cumbia dance bash; Gaita Trópica updates the gaita style; while Libya simply holds chilling instrumental tension. Elsewhere, Ska Fuentes is a horns-driven track that references Jamaica’s Skatalites, and Punkero Sonidero is a dubwise psychedelic romp

Suena has a pleasingly gritty rap from Chilean MC Ana Tijoux, and Rap-Maya has amusing beat-box work from Cartagena’s El Chongo. There’s a smattering of salsa, boogaloo, bomba, charanga and mambo as well, all of which means you can slap this one on at a party and know that your guests will keep boogying down.

This is an adventurous project that has been executed with tasteful verve. Hats off to Galeano, Quantic and Soundway for making it happen.

BBC – Music – Review of Arnaldo Antunes, Edgard Scandurra & Toumani Diabaté

This rather oddball Mali/Brazil collaborative album comprises the follow-up to a performance by these three musicians at the Brazilian festival Back2Black in 2010.

Singer/poet Arnaldo Antunes is best known outside Brazil for his role in another three-way collaboration – the hugely successful Tribalistas album he made with compatriots Marisa Monte and Carlinhos Brown in 2002. In that instance, his droning but engaging voice was restricted to backing vocals. So it’s interesting to hear him actually sing here.

Of course, the world’s most famous kora player, Toumani Diabaté, scarcely needs introducing. Conversely, São Paulo-based guitarist, composer and singer Edgard Scandurra is a major figure on the Brazilian music scene, but not so recognised beyond it.

Though not without a certain naïve charm, A Curva da Cintura actually sounds more like a work in progress, or even a scrapbook of musical ideas, rather than a finished album, and suffers from a dearth of fully formed songs.

Underwhelming opener Cê Não Vai Me Acompanhar plods along on a leaden 4/4 beat. With such a rich array of roots rhythms to choose from, in both Malian and Brazilian music, this feels like a let-down. But a radically altered interpretation of Diabaté’s Kaira stands out.

The original was the beautifully meditative title track of his 1988 solo debut, and also appeared as an instrumental on his 2005 collaboration with Ali Farka Touré, In the Heart of the Moon. This new version has a vocal from both Antunes and Safiatou Diabaté, the wife of Toumani’s younger brother, Sidiki. It also has some lovely balafon by Fode Lassana Diabaté of the Afrocubism project.

There is an intriguing moment towards the end of the bluesy Ir, Mão, when the gritty-voiced griot Zoumana Tereta joins in with his soku fiddle and some eerie wailing. It’s just a shame there isn’t more of this kind of chemistry apparent in many places, or a little more substantial songwriting.

Some redemption is found in the carnivalesque conclusion of Coração de Mãe and the light-hearted rock-out Meu Cabelo (‘My Hair’). But like many a “supergroup” before them, this one doesn’t quite meet the expectations that their combined reputations create.

BBC – Music – Review of Kenny Chesney

The sanitised sound of New Nashville and what has become the soulless swagger of Music Row might rankle country purists, but identikit singers with Teflon stubble have been swelling stadiums stateside for over two decades.

Tennessee’s Kenny Chesney might not be a familiar name in the UK – he’s probably best known as the former Mr Renée Zellweger – but back home he’s huge. He released his debut album in 1994 and has since spread his straightforward brand of cowboy hat-wearing back-porch pop over 15 albums, including Welcome to the Fishbowl.

This new album’s first single, Feel Like a Rock Star, sees Chesney teaming up with fellow country superstar Tim McGraw for an unapologetic cashing in on Nickelback’s Rockstar, which is a counterfeit copy in everything from melody and lyrics to sentiment. Lacing a rip-off with a vague hillbilly twang, Kenny, does not make it any less shameless.

Chesney shouldn’t take all the blame though, as he didn’t write the song. In fact, it’s interesting to note that he actually only co-penned three of this album’s tracks; and even then he was helped out by prolific songwriter Skip Ewing.

The massive team behind Welcome to the Fishbowl is proof positive that this record – like the rest of Chesney’s multi-million selling back catalogue – is aimed squarely at the mainstream. These songs are genetically engineered to be both supremely catchy and intensely wet.

Tugging on the heartstrings seems to be Chesney’s favoured fallback, with the album’s more buoyant moments and familiar, mountaintop guitar riffs eclipsed by the slushy El Cerrito Place and the god-bothering balladry of Always Gonna Be You.

Then there’s the mawkish Sing ‘Em Good My Friend, an uncomplicated musing on mortality that features some more lightweight bible-bashing and bald couplets such as “I’m gonna cry right now and that’s okay / We’re all going die someday”. We don’t imagine that Wordsworth will bother spinning in his grave over that one.

Welcome to the Fishbowl is already a chart-topping record in the United States, but one suspects it’ll take more than this to make Chesney a household name on UK shores.