You’ve heard of Desert Blues? How about Desert Celtic Cajun Folk, with added reggae for good measure? With no unexpected bumps, this is a heady distillation of styles that doesn’t unwelcome.
Release date: 27th May 2022
Label: Ports of Call Music
Format: CD / Digital
Unless you are an avid reader of the tiny sleeve notes offered these days on CDs, the chances are you won’t be that familiar with this dude. Alternately, you’ll have heard the name but won’t, at first, anyway, associate the name with the music here and won’t remember, anyway, the context. But don’t let that put you off, as, by so doing, you will be missing one of the more charming records of the year. And, yes, I guess charming is an odd choice of word. Charming is often a word lifted out to describe old world values, sometimes with irony. I use it to describe this pearl of a project, which, for all the evident ramshackle swagger and bluster, manages to be a reservoir of taste and erudition. Townes Van Zandt in a tatty tweed jacket and a post-doctorate degree in musicology.
This is his third album, and Mulholland reads as if he has had an interesting career. The notes for this release suggest he seems to have spent most his 10,000 hours of experience on the road, performing in bars and living in squats, often in southern and eastern Europe, ahead of his casually dropping in references to Haiti and Mali. The actual bio reveals a touch more gravitas, he having mingled with all manner of artists across the US and the UK: Nikki Sudden, Captain Sensible, Tony Rose, dEUS guitarist Craig Ward, as well as writing, performing and, perhaps most importantly, engineering, mixing and producing their music. This clearly became a thing as his travels had him embracing the wider world musically, working with such giants as Toumani Diabate, Rachid Taha and Tony Allen. Likewise, if you like desert blues, he produced Tamikrest’s 5th album, Kidal. Other accomplishments include setting up the Festival Acoustik Bamako, with the aforesaid Diabate, in Mali’s capital and which ran for three years. Not bad for a wee boy from Scotland’s central belt. And hardly surprising that Damon Albarn should call on his expertise for is 2019 show, Africa Express, the Circus. Resident now in France, given the “home” of African music is widely seen as Paris, he is a bigger name there than here.
So is this all chunky Afro-Caribbean fusion, awash with syncopated percussion and steel pans? Actually, that is almost the last thing it is, although reference to that side of his palette certainly creeps in, usually subtly, managing to segue seamlessly into the songs, most of which display an undeniable basis in folk, country and blues. Indeed, he is clearly a child of the sixties, indebted to one Bob Dylan, if not for his song structures per se, or even his style, although there is some of that, more for the permission to use his own voice and to be proud of it. Structured and trained, no, but an effective cradle for the warm and comfortable songs. This is most keenly expressed in the opener, Moving On, a glorious swirl of organ embedding a road song that is, yes, charming. In the single drop of key as he sings the words “Listen to my song” in the chorus, I find myself hooked. The unabashed name-dropping of Jack Kerouac and Federico Garcia Lorca firmly nails his plate where he wants the listener to see it. A straightforward yet delightful chug, led by Mulholland’s keys, the guitars, bass and drums are near perfect in their layering, the guitar shimmering between the verses, a hint of the sub-Sahara breaking through.
Filling Up The Silence couldn’t be more Americana, with the flickering banjo of Sean Condron drawing you in, another gentle amble into campfire territory. Some exquisite harmonica squeezes slowly in, courtesy the wonderfully and appropriately named Matt de Harp, with Mulholland’s faded tenor a soothing balm across the instrumentation. Condron, who plays guitars elsewhere here, is an old buddy of Mulholland’s from Prague, another itinerant musician by nature, a New Yorker by birth. River Walk then jostles you from getting too comfy, clearly a different vibe, with spiky rhythms and the bouncing other instrumentation. In style, I guess a blues, OK, a desert blues, with a repetitive vocal that is closer a chant. It differs from, say, Tinariwen or that ilk, by the inclusion also of n’goni, taman and karanyan, ethnic African stringed instruments all, alongside the electric and electric slide guitars. These are all from Yacoubi Sissoko, one of the acknowledged masters of the kora, which he actually doesn’t get to play here at all, perhaps for reasons that will become apparent. And if you’re thinking the drumming is a bit tidy, well, that’s Tony Allen, in one of his last sessions.
Jumping the continental divide, back to the sort of shabby elegance of Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, comes Getting There, which has me also in mind of possibly similar journeymen, themselves better known for the company they keep than for their own music. I’m thinking Anto Thistlethwaite, Kimberley Rew and, even Henry Priestman, sidesmen with slim but memorable solo repertoires. Slotting in as an earworm, it is difficult to shake off, try hard as the next song, Walk A While, tries. With a melody not entirely unacquainted with Chimes Of Freedom, it sideswipes with the contrasting accompaniments of harmonica, this time Vincent Bucher, and the kora of Toumani Diabate himself. A majestic sway, the kora is, unsurprisingly, not a little astonishing. Backing vocals from Orit Shimoni and Pamela Badjogo, contrive to make this a stand out, understandably a song Diabate describes and asks for as ‘his’ song, his acolyte Sissoko here delegated to calabash. Which allows Live Anywhere the space to act as a depiction of Mulhallond’s modus operandi. The lyrics pan out his beliefs, explaining that whilst he could live anywhere and leave it too, “that don’t mean you don’t miss all you leave behind when you’re searching for something that’s so far behind“. With fiddle and bouzouki adding cajun and celtic hues respectively, it is the message song of the project. Mulholland’s voice sounds at its weariest, a lament for places seen and people met.
Your Race Is Almost Run is simpler fare, a slighter tune that is all the better for that, again a Dylanesque flavour permeating through, held by the conversational lyric and the drums of Stephane Douceraine, like Condron and De Harp, an old mucker from the days of bar band gigs and loose living. Carousel has a playful carnival feel, if at dawn the morning after. The heavy lifting of guitars, bass, keys and vocals are all Mulholland, showing his light touch on electric slide, with De Harp and Douceraine again at hand for ballast. The same trio, with Orit Simoni’s bvs, embellish Head Against The Wall, a slow jump blues: “the future seems so long ago, it just drifted out of sight,” it is an ode to keeping on keeping on, against and despite the odds. A change in the ambience of the backing structure, it shows his equivalent ease within this idiom, and there is a beaut of a guitar solo in the middle eight, mixing bottle neck and straight, with the harp wailing evocatively around it.
Silence Falling Slow starts with what sounds like kora, yet is probably mandola, playing anthemically, almost in the style of Hank Marvin. Sissoko is on percussion duties again, calabash and shaker, that enough to give a pan-continental feel, this mournful song otherwise a blend of harmonica and guitars. With the last few songs all pointing toward the downbeat and distracted, the gears need and get suddenly jumped into the reggae lite of On My Way. A distant relative of Mother And Child Reunion, this is African reggae, Sissoko providing fabulous n’goni and Tony Allen the drums. Searing guitar dissects across the spaces between the verses, Mulholland’s own, with Jean-Philippe Dary, the French-Guyanese bassist so frequently the yin to Allen’s latter-day yang, alongside, as he was for River Walk. What it lacks in structure is more than made up for by the construction, if that makes sense. Olaf Hund’s electric piano is tasty too.
The final track is a direct throwback to Mulholland’s Mali sojourns and is a duet between he and Baba MD, apparently the first musician he befriended on his arrival in the country. An exquisite blend of both American and African blues motifs, the lyrics, vocals, guitar and keyboards are all defiantly western, the percussion and kamelengoni and karanya pure central Africa, as the keening and moaning vocalisations added by MD. Exquisite and a fine place to end.
This album is an unexpected joy. The layers Mulholland adds and invites, track by track, are, largely, filtered in carefully and deliberately, the journey between styles and across continents subtle and surprising. Never trying to ape the cultures of others, he brings their features into his own characteristic post-Dylan style, providing a broadly successful fusion. Inescapably a post lockdown record, much of the material has been revived and retrieved from older material, set aside for whatever reason, and now reworked on again, during these last couple of years. With additional musicianship flown or phoned in when necessary, this takes the skill of an experienced studio man to hide the joins. Mulholland has that skill and experience, aided by the mixing skills of David Odlum, and this album is a gem hiding in pure daylight, should you be looking for that something a little different from the same old same old.
(For those seeking a harder hit of his ensemble work, look out for the Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra, with Mulholland and Allen, or Alba Griot Ensemble, with Mulholland and Sissoko. Both via Bandcamp.)
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Thanks a lot Seuras for the great review! Much appreciated, Mark Mulholland