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Vieux Farka Touré

The Secret

(Six Degrees; US: 24 May 2011; UK: 23 May 2011)

A stellar album from a standout guitarist and singer

Vieux Farka Touré‘s 2010 live album was heavy on the electrified side of the electric/traditional equation, with effects-laden guitars and thundering bass propelling through high-energy takes on his tunes, most of which were taken from the 2009 release Fondo. Given that his debut album was a more organic affair, it remained to be seen in which direction Vieux would be moving, toward tradition or modernity. In light of The Secret, the none-too-clear answer is: both.


Vieux’s dad, Ali Farka Touré, was plenty plugged-in himself, so it’s not exactly a break with tradition that the electric guitars retain a strong presence here. But where Ali tended toward the downtempo and trance-inducing, Touré junior is fond of uptempo rave-ups and shredding guitar solos. There is a good deal of that on the new record too, but it’s balanced nicely with a selection of slower, more melodic numbers.


The opening track keeps you guessing, though. “Sokosondou” features a lilting rhythm over polyrhythmic percussion, a bouncing bassline and Vieux’s sounding-older-than-he-really-is vocals. Although fast-paced and guitar-driven, it’s a lovely tune that wouldn’t sound out of place on a more “traditional” record. As if to shake off that expectation before it has time to materialize, follow-up tune “Aigna” features copious guitar noodling by sometime Allman Brother and all-around guitar whiz Derek Trucks. East-meets-West musical mash-ups are not always promising—remember Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry’s egregious “7 Seconds”?—but this track is a delight. Maybe Vieux learned a thing about collaboration from watching his father record one of the all-time classics of the genre, Talking Timbuktu, with Ry Cooder. Whatever the reason, “Aigna” is a killer track, and Trucks’ swampy, distorted guitar fits right in.


Sadly, the same cannot be said for Dave Matthews, whose unremarkable voice tarnishes “All the Same” to the point where the song is altogether forgettable. Hearing these two songs back-to-back is an education in why collaboration is a sometimes thing. Matthews is simply too bland to add anything to the swirling stew that Vieux has created, whereas Trucks chips in his own singular contribution, but avoids taking over.


There are other collaborations on the record, but they are subsumed to the overall vibe of the disc. As mentioned, that vibe veers between stadium raucousness and reflective tradition. Reflection comes to the fore in “Wonda Guay” and “Ali”, the latter presumably named after Vieux’s father and similar in tempo and sound to some of his classic recordings. “Lakkal” picks up the pace a bit and offers some funky organ—another example of a musical mash-up that works well.


The back half of the album matches the first in terms of variety and approach. “The Secret” clocks in at nearly seven minutes and establishes a repetitive, hypnotic groove that is so well suited to Vieux’s chiming guitars. “Sankare Diadje” and “Amani Quai” features chanted, unison vocals and steady beats underlaid by layers of percussive complexity. Album closer “Touri” slows things down a bit, brings back some subtle keyboards and ends the proceedings on a sweet note.


At this point, Vieux Farka Touré is very much his own man as a musician and recording artist, which is an astonishing thing to say about someone whose career has been so short and whose father was so dominant in the field. It is exciting to wonder where his creativity and talent will take him next. Judging from this release, it could be anywhere.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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