Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review: Amadou & Mariam - Welcome to Mali (* * * * 1/2)

I tried to ignore this album but it found me just the same, and I can’t describe how glad I am that it did. It’s not that I actively avoided listening to it, but even with the stellar reviews pouring in last year, I never took the time to track it down and give it a chance. Fortunately, Welcome to Mali was just recently released in the U.S. and a couple weeks ago, a copy showed up in my mailbox. The time for ignorance was past. After about four minutes with the record, I had instantly fallen in love with these unlikely rock stars, Amadou & Mariam, the fifty-year-old blind couple from Mali. No, it’s not a gimmick, these two are making inspiring and legitimately fantastic music, combining influences from around the world in an amalgamation of all that’s exciting about rock, blues, soul, and pop.

Mariam’s warm and kind, yet strong and stern, voice takes the lead on about half of the cuts on Welcome to Mali, while her husband’s smooth, earnest vocals are more prominent on the rest, though the two musicians both contribute significantly to each track. Opener “Sabali” caught Pitchfork’s attention last year and was listed as number 15 on their top tracks of 2008, and for good reason. Mariam’s voice glides smoothly over layers of keyboards and drum machine in a retro-pop-meets-Afro-pop moment that is both surprising and magical. It’s the first of many genuinely awe-inspiring songs packed into the duo’s fifth disc, though it also stands out distinctly from the rest in terms of style.

Although the album’s fifteen songs explore so much territory and feature a generous amount of studio production, much of the record still feels tied directly to the couple’s traditional roots. Songs like “Magossa,” and “Djuru,” both Mariam’s, sound grounded and relatively simple, and it’s her half of record that holds more tightly to a generally familiar Afropop style which the producers dress up fashionably. A few tracks, like the funky “Unissons Nous,” a collaboration with blues singer/songwriter Keziah Jones, blend Mariam’s traditionalism with blues and soul influences for especially impressive results. Her appeal lies in her sincere delivery and overall sweetness that make her songs so easy to love and enjoy.

Amadou’s songs more frequently feature the stylish genre blends that help give the record such a universal appeal. In addition to singing, he contributes his stellar guitar skills throughout the record, claiming influences like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. His love of rock ‘n’ roll comes through loud and clear on most of his material, especially the incendiary “Masiteladi” and the poppy, infectious “Compagnon De Lavie,” the former of which more prominently feature his signature guitar work. Elsewhere, he explores funk and soul on “Africa” (featuring guest rapper K’Naan), classic rock on “Bozos,” and expansive chamber-pop on the English-language track “I Follow You.” With a team of talented musicians to back him up, Amadou confidently blazes through each track with flair.

The couple’s willingness to embrace a wealth of seemingly incongruent ideas and explore new musical possibilities makes the album fascinating, but it’s their ability to reign in those influences with such apparent ease and confidence that takes the music to another level. The songs can occasionally feel weighed down under too much production, but the beautiful melodies and emotive vocals create something special in each song, a remarkable accomplishment for any musician. Though the duo sings primarily in French and Bambara, the music itself is so expressive it never matters much that you can’t understand what’s being said. Welcome to Mali is a superb album, illuminating, uplifting, and truly special.
Last Word: Amadou & Mariam return with their inspired and inspiring fifth record, a fantastic blend of influences gathered from around the World and presented with style and sincerity.


Dustin said...

This is a really good album. It is hard to stop listening because there are so many musical influences in their music.

bathmate said...
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