Monday, 18 March 2013

Sleepy Time Ghost - Youthman Riddim EP

First published on in March 2013.

Sleepy Time Ghost
Youthman Riddim EP
Unit 137 (18 mins)

Sleepy Time Ghost a.k.a. Harry Metcalfe is a London-based producer, and his debut EP, Youthman Riddim, seems to mark him out as one of the rising stars of dub music.

Taking its form from the Jamaican sound system tradition of playing a dubplate riddim (backing track) several times while different deejays lyricise over the top, this EP consists of four tracks all based upon the same riddim.

The first two tracks use the riddim – a real funked-out affair – as is, with deejay Ras Demo and Bristolian sound system Lionpulse contributing a track each. Both of these guests lend their own take on the track, with Ras Demo providing a lighter feel compared to Lionpulse’s rootsier offering; the latter also contains a couple of great trombone and saxophone solos.

For the second two tracks, the riddim is remixed by producers Joe Ariwa and Hylu & Jago. Joe Ariwa, who studied at the feet of the mighty Mad Professor, offers a straight up dub remix of the Youthman Riddim whereas Hylu & Jago take Lionpulse’s version to a place bordering on the realm of drum and bass.

This is a brillant EP with a really authentic feel to it. Each track has its own personality and occupies its own space in the quartet and so it’s difficult to pick one stand out piece….although this reviewer’s personal tastes marginally prefer Joe Ariwa’s remix. That doesn’t matter though – the EP’s concept works completely, and it’ll leave you itching to hear a whole album of the producer’s work.

Keep your ears open for more from Sleepy Time Ghost, but in the meantime, play this LOUD!

Monday, 11 March 2013

Salif Keita - Talé

First published on in March 2013.

Salif Keita
Universal/Proper (53 mins)

In recent years, the ‘producer-as-artist’ style of album has become increasingly popular, with the album’s credited artist seemingly delegating the creative control to the producer; arguably the most musically successful examples of this are Amadou and Mariam’s Dimanche à Bamako (produced by Manu Chao in 2005) and last year’s Dan Auerbach-produced Dr. John album Locked Down. Salif Keita’s latest album appears to very much continue this trend.

Produced by Philippe Cohen Solal of the Gotan Project, Talé seems a logical progression for Keita’s music. Having gone through the ranks of both the Super Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs singing pop music of the day – a Malian take on Congolese rumba Lingala – Keita went on to forge his solo career mixing popular Western styles with Malian music. Although he has released some ‘back to the roots’ albums, such as 2005’s Mbemba, he’s pretty much kept with the times in term of the latest musicians and styles to collaborate with and within. Thus, in Talé, Keita and Solal have created an album that, while maintaining the Malian sound, layers electronica and dubstep with jazz and hip-hop. Influence is also taken from other African cultures, most noticeably on the track ‘Samfi’, which opens with a guimbri line (later replicated on synth) and takes its limping rhythm from that of the qaraqab – both features of Moroccan Gnawa music.

The guest spots provide some of the most interesting listening on the album: Esperanza Spalding’s soaring high-pitched vocals on ‘Chèrie S’en Va’ adds a beautiful inflection over the dark and brooding backing of double bass, calabash and bass synth figures; Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango’s lengthy solo on ‘Après-demain’ is entrancing and is rendered moreso by added delay; and on ‘C’est Bon C’est Bon’, Roots Manuva’s appearance sees him take on the role of reggae deejay as well as providing his usual rap style.

The best voice to be heard on the album, however, is of course Keita’s, but it is unfortunately understated on many of the tracks, either through its place in the mix or its absence for the majority of the piece. Thus, while it is musically successful and an enjoyable listen, Talé seems very much like a “Philippe Cohen Solal feat. Salif Keita” album, and some fans may be aggrieved at the lack of Keita’s personality within the work. Perhaps the producer being given an artist’s credit would have been fairer all round.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite - Get Up!

First published on in March 2013.

Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite
Get Up!
Stax/Decca Records (40 mins)

Guitarist Ben Harper and blues harp player Charlie Musselwhite are no strangers to each other’s music. They first met when they recorded the track ‘Burnin’ Hell’ with the great John Lee Hooker, and they’ve since worked together on two albums: Harper’s Both Sides of the Gun and Musselwhite’s Sanctuary. This is the first time they’re recorded a whole album together, though, and the result is somewhat of an album of two halves.

It starts promisingly with the track ‘Don’t Look Twice’, essentially an acoustic blues duet between the two with occasional crashes from the drums and bass. This piece contains some great blues couplets, such as “You know it’s bad when your ceiling says to the floor, I’ll trade you places I can’t take it up here no more”. Harper takes vocal duties throughout the album and in this track he shows off a fragile, high-pitched tone which suits it to the ground. Unfortunately, for the first half of the album, the opener is the only one that really stands out. Of the next four tracks, there’s a pretty average ‘Mannish Boy’-esque talking blues; a waltzy, gospel-inspired piece; a passable bit of blues rock; and a laid back soul offering. None of these are offensive, as such – they’re all good songs individually – but the frequent genre-shifting leaves this set of tracks feeling a bit stilted.

Persistence is well-rewarded though, because from the brooding sixth track, ‘I Ride at Dawn’ (the only track on the album on which Musselwhite doesn’t feature), the album takes a turn for the much better. Although there’s some alternation of genre here (there’s another blues rock and a New Orleans-style boogie) this set of tracks seems to gel much better than the first lot, leading to a really enjoyable listen. It’s here that some of the best individual tracks lay too.

‘I Ride at Dawn’ is a spooky anti-war song, sung as by a soldier marching to his death. Some great slide guitar from Harper emphasises the dark texture of the bass and drums and really makes this track great. Probably the best track on the album, however, is its last. ‘All That Matters Now’ is a slow blues which really takes its time – all of the parts on this track (vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano and bass) are all to some extent understated and it’s a great way to end the album on a mellow note.

It’s a shame that the peak reached during the second half of the album couldn’t have come a little earlier on, and even as little as a rearrangement of the tracks could have made this good album into a great one. As it is, be prepared and persevere through the first few tracks to get to the best bits and enjoy it for what it is – a good, if slightly stilted, blues album from two generations of the genre’s masters.

Stephan Micus - Panagia

Previously unpublished.

Stephan Micus
ECM Records (65 mins)

This album is based upon seven Byzantine Greek Orthodox prayers to the Virgin Mary – the titular Panagia. Micus uses this image to represent the ‘female energy’ that is represented in goddesses in many religions and the concept of yin and yang in Taoism, believing that this work helps to spiritually balance the male-dominated world we live in.

In his usual style, Micus performs all parts of the album himself on instruments thrown together from all over the world – here he uses plucked and bowed string instruments from Pakistan, Bavaria, India and East Turkestan, as well as the Egyptian ney (flute) and his own invention, the 14-string guitar. The styles of music he plays on these instruments are no less varied, from Greek Orthodox and Gregorian church music to elements of Indian and Chinese classical music. Micus’ vocals also play a prominent role on the album and they’re sung entirely in Greek – a language he doesn’t understand.

As pretentious as the album’s concept and execution seems, the music on it is actually not unpleasant. Most tracks display an interesting array of genres from around the world without staying overly precious to the instruments the artist has adopted. Micus’ overdubbing technique works well for the most part, especially during instrumental pieces, although it does have a tendency to get a little unsettling when vocals are involved – a chorus of 22 Stephan Micuses (Mici?) is somewhat disconcerting.

This is a good relaxing listen, and more enjoyable if you appreciate its spiritualism, or alternatively, ignore it.