The Cairo Gang is basically the brainchild of one Emmett Kelly, one of Chicago’s lesser-known darlings. Kelly arrived in the Windy City a few years ago, but has quickly made an impression on the music scene there, and that’s saying quite a bit, using the city’s homegrown talent as a starter. Throw in former Wilco performer Leroy Bach into the mix, and it only lends itself more credibility. The end result is the Cairo Gang, a group you probably wouldn’t find busking the streets of Egypt anytime soon, but one that has enough intrigue to make this an engaging and rather highbrow listen.
The Cairo Gang isn’t one of those cookie-cutter bands that are churned out hand over fist these days. One has only to listen to the eerie but alluring “Antwardee”, which could be mistaken for something Jeff Tweedy screwed around with when the rest of his band wasn’t in the studio, to realize how distinctive they are. Think of an electric version of the Dirty Three and you might get a glimpse into this short instrumental. After that, Kelly and Bach paint a rather pretty psychedelic picture during “Resist”, a song that seems to bubble underneath the surface with its tension, but never spills over. The only problem is that it’s too short, sounding almost unfinished in some respects, despite the sweet, earnest vocal approach. The “hippie” factor becomes prevalent with the mellow, mid-tempo, and somewhat folksy “Warning”, with its shakers and percussion. It’s not quite Devendra Banhart hippie-dom, but it sounds a bit like the late Elliott Smith inspired by a viewing of Woodstock.
The Cairo Gang early on sound like they’re in a bit of a time warp, especially on the heady, somewhat Floydian “A Hammer for the Temple”, which, unlike its title, is quite soothing and relaxing. Unfortunately, though, the group seems to suffer from some sort of sonic ADD, as a vibe or feeling that just gets going ceases quickly thereafter. Perhaps the group didn’t want to mess with the spontaneity of the recording, but a good idea two minutes in is usually a good idea three and a half or four minutes in as well. This leads into the buzzsaw wall of feedback and guitar wailings entitled “Assholes”. Finally, the group gets into something deeper than just a few lyrics and sounds. Here it’s a great string of effects and textures that could have fallen off The Piper at the Gates of Dawn — not quite “Astronomy Domine”, but more like “Pow R. Toc H.”.
Perhaps the first real highlight is the great singer-songwriter folk that Kelly delivers with “Bones in the Ground” that sounds like a cross between Donovan, the late Nick Drake, and Ron Sexsmith. And it’s this same hue that makes the ensuing “Turbulent Water” shine in its rather tranquil, serene arrangement. Another plus is how it seems fulfilling at just over two minutes, unlike the 100-second ditties that seem to dominate the early portion of the record. Kelly and Bach hit gold however with a gorgeous and slow-building rock nugget called “So It Goes” that relies on a rather lazy tempo to put it over the top.
The second half of the album is fuller-sounding and developed, beginning with the strumming that drives “Last Time Since September” into a hypnotic folk-pop flavor that is hard not to sink your teeth into. Just as appealing is how gentle and calming “Zyczgkowy” is with its simple acoustic approach, with some effects thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, “Silhouette” sounds a bit disjointed even by their standards, a track that goes from a static-y guitar feel to some loopy, ambient territory without batting much more than an eyelash. But it’s a blip on this album, with a Beatles-tinged “Safe and Sound” falling into the Cairo Gang’s comfort zone. It’s an eclectic musical milkshake that seems to go down without any problems whatsoever.