Tinariwen released their first full-length album, Radio Tisdas Sessions, in 2001, but it was their second, 2004’s Amassakoul, that caught the world’s ear, brought them widespread acclaim, and kick-started the whole “desert blues” movement. The first decade of the 2000s was a heady time that saw the band playing in London for the Live 8 concerts, jamming with Carlos Santana, and joining Robert Plant onstage for a tear-it-up version of “Whole Lotta Love.” (YouTube it — it’s worth a look, notwithstanding the grainy video and lousy sound.)
Sooner or later, though, every band faces the inevitable question: “Now what?” Having achieved more in a few years than most bands manage in their whole careers, Tinariwen is faced with the classic conundrum: how to continue building their legacy without repeating themselves, and how to retain a freshness of approach without forgetting what made them so compelling in the first place.
Their way of addressing these questions on their fifth full-length album, Tassili, is to dial back the electric guitar a fair bit, relying more on acoustic sounds while injecting contributions from other musicians. Wilco guitarist Nels Cline contributes some ambient guitar crunch on opener “Imidiwan Ma Tennam”, probably the best track on the album. Other songs incorporate vocals by Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio and horn backup courtesy of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but against all odds, some of these masalas actually work. In large part, this is because Tinariwen’s music is such a rich stew of sounds that Cline’s guitar or the Brass Band’s throaty growls simply become new spices in the mix. Where the collaboration falls flat is on “Tenere Taqqim Tossam”, which brings Adebimpe’s honey-smooth vocals to the fore where they tussle with the Tuaregs’ throaty rasping. It sounds as jarring as you’d expect, and oddly enough, it is the album’s first single.
The collaborations jump out at the listener, but they account for only half of the album’s 12 songs; in some cases, the guests are barely noticeable. Much of the rest is recognizably Tinariwen, and there are plenty of solid tunes here. Any listener new to the band is likely to be impressed. For longtime fans, though, a sense of diminishing returns may be setting in. Tinariwen have released five albums in ten years, including four in the past seven years; they’ve also released a concert DVD, contributed to compilation albums, toured relentlessly, and lost two founding members to another group, Terakaft. All this is a fair amount of activity for any band not named the Beatles; along the way, Tinariwen has spawned what is arguably the most exciting movement in world music today. But a sense of repetition is creeping into some of their music, which is a shame.
Tassili is a strangely ambivalent album. It neither wholly embraces the East-West fusion experiments suggested by its handful of collaborations, nor does it herald a back-to-basics acoustic approach, despite the prevalence of such acoustic guitar tunes as “Walle Illa”, “Tameyawt”, and album closer “Takkest Tamidaret”. The record seems unable to make up its mind about where, exactly, it wants to go.
So then, is this record the document of a band at a crossroads? Maybe so. But given Tinariwen’s consistent excellence over the years, that may not be an entirely bad thing. There’s no telling where the band will go next, but one thing is sure: it will be worth listening to where they end up.