Such is the attention span of the music media for anything outside of the usual parameters of pop, rock, hip-hop and the rest that there only tends to be room for one act from the less high profile genres at a time. For the past few years, it has been the turn of North Africans Tinariwen to fill the world music slot – with a number of celebrity fans queuing up to sing their praises and festival crowds around the world (including the Electric Picnic) falling at their feet. Their unique selling point was that they combined African tradition with electric guitars, leading them to be hailed as the continent’s most rock ‘n’ roll band. Throw in a history as political rebels and they were a PR dream come true.
Tassili, their fifth album since the turn of decade, sees a slight change of direction. Gone are those radical electric guitars (does no-one remember the Bhundu Boys?), replaced by a more acoustic sound. The record certainly opens with a very different tone, with not only this more organic sound (it was recorded in an Algerian desert town) but a Western voice amongst the usual harmonies. The interloper turns out to be Nels Cline of Wilco, one of a few guests to make the trip. It’s a magical combination, and one that continues into the album. The first half is loaded with some superb moments, an entrancing folk album with worldly elements. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band add a swing to ‘Ya Messingha’ and the appearance of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone from TV On The Radio on ‘Tenere Taqqim Tossam’ is a masterstoke.
Largely though, this isn’t a question of Tinariwen and their celebrity friends and the band themselves carry the majority of Tassili. After this strong opening, it all starts to dip however. Maybe they could have done with a few more of those pals, but you do find yourself looking for some extra elements beyond the camp fire vibe and some of that old fire in their belly. Yes there are some nice moments here and there but ultimately the record is more than a little unsatisfying. Perhaps it’s time for someone else to take their place in our affections.