Bombino – Nomad (2013)

Bombino’s previous album Agadez was something of a success and brought him to much wider attention, and he got an invitation from Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys to make a record in Nashville. This is that record. Auerbach produces and inevitably brings a more western perspective (not to mention a bigger budget) to proceedings.

Kitty Empire’s review in the Guardian eloquently itemises the potential pitfalls of these first world/third world encounters.

Cross-pollination is hampered by gaps in language, by preconceptions (on both sides), by label demands for a marketable product, by the suspicion that someone might be using someone, or that the wider audience being sought might be put off by music too far off their wavelengths. The opposite fear is true too: that the cognoscenti will be alienated by watered-down fusions.

I think I agree with her that in this case the union has avoided most of these pitfalls. I’m also wary of the tendency on the part of audiences of not wanting these third world artists to change too much because maybe they just want to update their sound, and surely that’s their prerogative?

Certainly the changes between this album and it’s predecessor are marked. Most obviously Auerbach fattens and dirties the sound and expands the instrumental palate with keyboards, vibes and pedal steel guitar (played in a distinctly country mode). And he brings in a drum kit (!) which overrides the usual desert blues rhythm section on several tracks and imparts a lot more thump to the music and steers it away from the more subtle rhythmic games of Agadez.

“Thump”? Sometimes, as on the opening “Amidinine”, there’s an interesting lurching feel to the rhythms. Drummer Max Weissenfeldt represents a shrewd choice by Auerbach and cleverly steers clear of rock clichés that might have ruined the compositions. The pedal steel players are agile and sympathetic to the music even whilst playing in a recognisably country style. The fusions often work well here and without overpowering Bombino’s essence,

In particular Auerbach seems to have paid a lot of attention to Bombino’s guitar sound. It’s often, but not always, fatter and dirtier and often doubled or trebled. He also doesn’t stick with one sound throughout, sometimes sticking close to the the essentially clean sound that was used on the previous album, sometimes going for a much bigger, more overdriven sound.

The production strikes a good balance between innovation and respectfulness. I was less keen on the keyboard additions, but they’re no hanging offence. Auerbach’s approach was to get a live base track down and then embellish that, and so the record isn’t too glossy nor too too rigid. He uses the stereo spectrum well, often accentuating an instrument or part by careful placing in the aural arc rather than by simply turning it up.

But for me there are two problems with all of this. The first is Bombino’s voice. There’s another instrument that is getting double tracking and treating with effects. In this wider, richer, bigger sonic landscape the vocals are the one thing that do get overwhelmed. His voice is too slight.

The other is that the tracks are just too short. Hardly anything here goes past the four minute mark. Is this just the way things organically panned out, or is Auerbach keeping things shorter for radio stations and pop audiences? Either way it seems to me that this plays away from one of Bombino’s long suits. He seems to be the most overt guitar hero operating in the “desert blues” genre, and as on Agadez or on the Songs For Desert Refugees compilation he’s at his best when he’s got time to build up a head of steam. He can really build and sustain interest over a long solo. He’s a bit predictable in the song writing department, the real thrill is in the guitar playing. This album seeks to emphasise that, but somehow draws the sting a little by not giving him his head.

Despite my reservations I came to enjoy this album, and if you’re into the “desert blues” aesthetic or looking for an interesting twist on electric guitar playing in a rockish vein (in a fun reversal of what went on in the 60s, the “desert blues”  artists spent a lot of formative time copping licks from white players) then this is an enjoyable and interesting album. But if the house were hypothetically burning down and I could only grab one Bombino album, it wouldn’t be this one. (This is very hypothetical, since all the Bombino albums I have were bought from iTunes and so all I have to do is grab a memory stick.)

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