Elwan (CD)

Tinariwen's home country of Mali has changed substantially in the last twenty years. The Tuareg rebellion in 2012 led to a far more conservative Islamic ruling party that went as far as banning the public performance of music. As a result, Tinariwen no longer records in their native country, but instead recorded their newest album between the suburbs of Paris, southern Morocco, and Joshua Tree (a terrain probably closer to their homeland). But listening to their newest album, Elwan, it's hard to believe that they've suffered any political turmoil. The delicate micro-guitar riffs that spin into hypnotic melodies is still there with gorgeous, droning vocals and infectious drum riffs. And like their last few albums, there's a hint of western influence with guest appearances from Kurt Vile, Mark Lanegan, Alain Johannes, and Matt Sweeney. "Sastannaqam" might be the closest they get to traditional rock. Though all their call-and-response is there, the track opens up with a startling funky bass line that's never been heard on any of their other albums. The lead guitar is also noisier and more distorted that it's ever been. It's someone channeling the screeching of Neil Young's electric guitar through Saharan winds. But among the joyous tracks like that come serious ballads that seem to fit into any political landscape. "Ittus," written and sung by Hassan Ag Toumani, one of Tinariwen's founding members, tragically repeats (in Arabic) "I ask you, what is our goal? / It is the unity of our nation / And to carry our standard high." Elwan continues a string of albums that makes Tinariwen seem incapable of producing a bad album. Even two decades in, no one sounds quite the way they do.

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Jei Beibi (CD)

As Cafe Tacvba approaches their 30th year as one of Mexico's greatest rock bands, they've used the dower post-election mood to do some introspection and reevaluation. Though their early albums embody the liveliness and freedom of the rock en español craze that also gave us groups like Caifanes and Enanitos Verdes, they've gotten more introspective and more mature as time has gone by. Jei Beibi, a delicious pun that sounds like "Hey baby" with a Spanish accent, still contains a mixture of Mexican folk music, melodies influenced by The Beatles, and enough of a sense of humor that shows they haven't gone too far out, while still balancing it all with lyrics that feel a little more thought out than usual. The album opener, "1, 2, 3," is misleadingly joyous with a rad '80s synth riff and a melody right out of the new wave. Even the lyrical content is lighter than the rest of the album with classic (and borderline ironic) lyrics about unrequited love, sugarcoating the song into a jubilant pop ballad until you notice the oblique references to real mass murder and corruption in Mexico. "Futuro" embodies the vibe of the album with a beat that bludgeons you with wonky synths, heavy percussion, and cartoonish vocals packed into a song that treads somewhere between a funeral procession and dancing to cumbia after drinking a 12-pack. Unlike the opener, the lyrics here examine a laissez-faire attitude about the pointlessness of life and death that is completely disorienting when mixed with the psychedelic rhythm of the song. Three-decades in, Cafe Tacvba makes their American counterparts sound like milquetoast acts rehashing the same gimmick for decades. This is adventurous rock that plays with form and isn't afraid to take risks, but still manages to be completely listenable. Forget it being the best Latin album of the year, it might just be one of the best rock albums this year.

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Freedom Is Free (CD)

As the country stews in its volatile division, with outrage crying from all corners, the title track off Chicano Batman's new album, Freedom Is Free, is perhaps one of the few healing salves to emerge in recent months. Both lyrically and musically, the track is unpatronizing in its optimism, yet still served with a slight dose of melancholy. Much like the rest of the album, the band's Latin-influenced garage rock is fused with a heavy R&B backbone. The drums are funky, crunchy, and would almost sound sampled were they not played with such live soul. The opening track, "Passed You By," is a neo-soul gem, with guitars that bring to mind the R&B guitar stylings of Curtis Mayfield and Steve Cropper while "The Taker Story," which criticizes man's presumed right over the land and its subsequent destruction, is like a relaxed James Brown track. Songs like "La Jura" and "Angel Child" bring to mind the psychedelic pop of '60s Rio De Janeiro, and the guitar and organ get pretty far out and fun on "Friendship (Is A Small Boat In A Storm)."

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Al Jamilat (CD)

It seems like it was divine intervention that Yasmine Hamdan's first exposure to the west was in Jim Jarmusch's 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive, where she gave a wonderful live performance that felt like a perfect preview of her sound. Her first album reached the States the following year, delivering a fresh sound in the world of art pop. Now three years later, she returns with her third album and it's already one of the best albums of the spring season. Treading between trip hop influenced rhythms and Middle Eastern tonalities, her unique voice leads the way for new directions in pop. The album has been loosely translated as "The Beautiful Ones" or The Beautiful Women" and it reflects what Hamdan has in mind. She herself says that "It's about me as a woman... I think of women as a minority in most societies today. Women, children, homosexuals, transsexuals. We are all, in a way, minorities of when it comes to power and economic structures."


In a time when the west seems to be turning to myopic, racist, and intolerant views, embracing her femininity and racial identity in a multicultural world feels like defiant protest. "La Ba'den" opens with a guitar echo reverberating in out-of-tune wonky experimentation until the beat kicks in and morphs the song into a chill electronic riff. Her voice has a gruffness and raspier overtone that puts her in a similar league with Marianne Faithful's current work. As the song starts to wind down, the instrumentation spreads out with Arabic violins delicately screeching, minimal piano chords, and harmonic ambiance until the track vaporizes. Yasmine Hamdan proves that protest music is alive and still retains that level of poetry and sensitivity it always has. It's an album that's made in defiance of the changing values of our world.

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