Monday, October 26, 2009

Tony Allen, Jimi Tenor - Inspiration Information 4

Tony Allen, musical director of Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 band in the critical years of 1968-1979, collaborates with veteran Finnish weirdo Jimi Tenor for a horn/electronics/afro-beat drums showdown. Word has it that Tenor has been on an afro-beat kick for the last few years, so this ought to have his little Finnish heart racing.

Inspiration Information 4 kicks off with “Against the Wall” a crisp and formidable intro, citing “I got my tightest pants on”; this becomes creepy funk. Horn lines ground the weirdness and the squirrelly vocal. Dork-suavé. “Sinuhe” introduces a female-led chorus and mbira into the sonic palette, feeling much more authentic, serious and preachy than the lead-off track. Tight buzzing organ and polyrhythm, choral exclamations and horn blasts are played with in mixing, giving this a touch of dub. Horns take solos and extended vamps. It all comes together in a way that makes this feel very much like the old Fela records, moreso than the 2nd generation of Kutis have achieved on their own (from what limited experience I’ve had).

Even when Tenor is more prominent, the chirpy grooves are as real as they come. “Selfish Genes” has Tenor on vocal again, and he’s only annoying in contrast to the real soul of the original ensemble he’s performing with. Were this strictly a Tenor record, maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal. Or maybe if I bothered with a second listen, it would grow on me. Either way, my foot is still tapping, and the horn solos are good, hard.

“Path to Wisdom” invokes politics, with a spoken-word rhythmic rant. I feel like the groove here is wiser than the words, a spooky electro-funk, torn in two by a deliberate Tenor on tenor, gradually accelerating, getting more and more aggressive over warbly, farty synth. “Darker Side of Night” is equally spooky, leading off with a chorus of harmonizing Jimi’s. Each vocal proclamation is preceded by solemn, dry horn fanfare, announcing the weird, sinister message to come. The juxtaposition of synth pad and flute when transitioning between solos is nice; they’re making it sound like this stuff belongs together.

“Mama England”, a cheerier rhythm and gleeful horns and flute. Two old timers chew the fat about stuff I can’t quite catch, and the chorus apparently declares the bands’ desire to do naughty things to the entirety of England. Ok. Piano tinkles and big, big trumpet lead this one out to be quickly run out of my mind by “Got My Egusi.” The choral vocal and mbira are back: “Now is the time for youuuuu to get up and daaaaaaaance!” The horns work quick and deadly over the tight shuffle.

“Cella’s Walk” gets things considerably more moody; dark, thick stuff. High and reverberated synth is here, some dub elements and a koto-sounding stringed instrument (kora, perhaps?). The echoey touches on organ and horns, together with the moderate pace, give this track a lounge feel. There is an attempt at cultural groove fusion here that hasn’t happened elsewhere on the record. The next and final track continues this international experiment more seriously, and literally with the title “Three Continents.” It strikes me now that the fusion idea was probably intentional across the record, so it is curious that I’ve only recognized it now in the waning moments. The only “fusion” I had noticed to this point was the expert afro-beat meeting Tenor’s tomfoolery, with spotty success. The hand-drums in “Three Continents” are more active than previous tracks, and the unidentified stringed instrument from “Cella’s Walk” is featured here as well. An underlying drone emerges, possibly emulating tamboura. Tight-lipped horn and synth-organ combos play the fanfare; strikes of spring reverb like lightning interrupt the organ’s increasingly elaborate leadoff solo. Discordant horn blasts precede a Tenor-led chorus, “I’ll follow you anywhere you decide to goooooooo.” And then spooky flute. The twists in this final track suggest it is the most thought-out of the album, and the longest at over thirteen minutes. The electronic touches are more prevalent here than elsewhere and more varied in a way that would have been appreciated if applied across the earlier tracks, as it makes things much more interesting.

All in all, Inspiration Information 4 is a cool if uneven record. Tony Allen’s workout from track to track is ace, for sure; as is the rest of the afro-beat ensemble. But Tenor is all over the place, introducing many half-considered ideas and a lot of incongruence. His horn and flute solos are great, but maybe that’s because within those instruments he sounds more appropriately part of the band - which isn’t to say the electronics and afro-beat fusion is a bad idea. If the electronics and kitsch had been taken further throughout, things may not have felt slightly disjointed.

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