Called “Britain’s answer to Ry Cooder” by the UK’s Guardian, Justin Adams is a bright imaginative guitarist. As an ambassador’s son, he was raised in a “very English” atmosphere in Jordan, Libya, and Egypt. Outside the walls of the embassy, he was immersed in the music that is intricately woven through daily life in the Middle East. He moved from there to spend eight years on guitar with Jah Wobble before backing the likes of Sinéad O’Connor, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, and lately Robert Plant. After 20 years of playing music with other groups, a trek to Mali shook him loose. He refocused on his early life’s observations and impressions of music in other places, where music is regarded as a natural component of daily life and is supported by the belief that music is created and played primarily for the sake of the music. Desert Road is Adams’ reaction to Mali and his reawakened sensibilities. This first solo album is dubby, trippy, and evocative, with Adams soaring on guitar (reverbed electric or acoustic) or plucking the sparse rhythmic groove on the n’goni (a three-string predecessor to the banjo) and rasping out throaty visceral vocals. Pushed with African percussion and accents (bells, scrapers, finger cymbals, and even a cardboard box), Adams’ desert music is often drawn from the deep well of blues that people now say came from Mali, blended with North and West African music and dipped with electronic ambience.
Adams, like many musicians, has an ongoing fascination with the notion of space, but here he contemplates the expansiveness of the West Sahara desert, and the feelings engendered just considering the vastness of that one portion of the world’s landscape. Just a few steps in and you can be lost and then you must search for possibility. Such shifting emotional responses to environment can be startling, beautiful, and challenging even for the listener.
There’s no single way to describe Desert Road as each of the 12 pieces contributes to the overall landscape. Adams paints sparse yet expansive vistas with sonic shadings and tones. His melodies develop like desert dunes; by the time he describes the structure, the music peels away to shift and form another layer. His approach is sometimes unsettling by its very unpredictability but when the pieces fully combine, the epic panorama remains.
Circling Moroccan rhythms and heavy African percussion push “Wayward” along, as bouncing, jumping, and hypnotizing as a long drive on a desert road. We’re all prepared to disbelieve mirages, but we still are amazed when one appears. “Wallahee” is a gentler progression, while the “Tafraoute” and “Majnoun & Leila” will inevitably prompt reminiscences of Ali Farke Toure. The cycling riffs of Tanzanian m’bira rhythm carries “Hummingbird” pleasingly aloft, and provides the wings for flight. But as to how Adams can instrumentally evoke then describe the feelings of catching sight of the evening’s “First Star” is a mystery.
Adams’ esteem as a musician who strives to illuminate the music of distant places is growing. He produced the French troupe Lo’Jo’s album Bohême de Cristal, which would be enough for a lifetime of grace. But Adams provided the music soundtrack for Kin, a movie about the Namibian desert, and traveled back to the Sahara with Lo’Jo to record the Tuareg Rebel Blues group called Tinariwen all within a single year following the UK release of Desert Road.
This record reminds me there is a great difference, or a large space in between what people usually experience in the media as far as distant deserts are concerned, and how it is that people may react to or really feel about them. Desert Road is a rich and promising invention that provides a thoughtful atmosphere when considering some of the many moods of a complex and distant place.