Amadou & Mariam have been making music forever, but when they first hit my radar about seven years ago, their mere existence seemed like some impossible-to-make-up story of music’s power to overcome awful circumstances: Two blind musicians from Mali, married to each other, traveling the world and performing a cosmopolitan sort of Afro-pop and sounding absolutely transported with joy. That’s a lovely story in a simplistic TV-movie sort of way, but it also sells the duo’s musical skills short. And now that they’ve been in the Western media spotlight for the better part of the decade, it’s been nice to see the feelgood narrative fade to the background and to see the world recognize Amadou & Mariam for what they are: Expert pop synthesists. Breakout single “Sabali,” for instance, sounds like pure and fully-realized 2009 robo-pop, a fluid and fully hybridized combination of any number of things that were happening in global pop music at that moment. And Folila, their new one, is something even more interesting. There’s a lot going on on the album, but at its heart it’s a euphoric psychedelic rock album.
Folila has a lot of guest stars: Santigold, TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, the Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears. But this isn’t something like Santana’s Supernatural, a glorified compilation where the guests pay tribute to a great musician by overwhelming him at every turn. For the most part, the guests here remain firmly in the background, giving the album slight musical shades that help it vary from song to song but never stealing the songs away from their hosts. As with Amadou & Mariam’s other albums, Folila shifts a lot from song to song, pulling from Afro-pop and from traditional Malian music but also from blues and dance and rap. But there’s one thing that dominates this time around: Amadou’s guitar. And that motherfucker is a beast.
The one time I saw them live, around the time I first started paying attention to them, I was pretty stunned at how different Amadou was live than on record. Onstage, he’s a jittery, divebombing guitar hero, fast-shredding his way through songs that seemed relatively simple and buoyant on record. Folila stops short of capturing Amadou’s live style, but it comes closer than their last couple of records have. Even the gently lilting tracks have tricky, winding leads and solos. But my favorite tracks on the album are the fired-up ones that sound like they would’ve fit in just fine in, for instance, those late-’60s/early-’70s movies where a cop chases a suspect into a nightclub and gets confused because all the walls are covered in colorful polka-dot spotlights and everyone is frugging. On opener “Douga Badia,” Santigold plays a more active role than her other guests, with her and Mariam’s voice cutting straight through Amadou’s guitar fuzz, and it honestly reminds me a bit of Santigold’s guest turn on Major Lazer’s surf-guitar/dancehall throwdown “Hold The Line.” Meanwhile, the Ebony Bones collab “C’est Pas Facile Pour Les Aigles” goes full-on flower-power rave-up, and it’s one of the catchiest things you’re likely to hear this spring.
The duo recorded Folila first in New York and then again in Mali before patching the two recordings together in Paris. That’s an odd but effective way of doing things. The album doesn’t sound like a self-conscious fusion of Western and Malian musical styles. Instead, it’s a blur of ideas, with every musical influence melting seamlessly into the whole. Amadou & Mariam have fully internalized every musical idea they try out on the album, and they try out a whole lot of musical ideas. The end result is a pretty great springtime record, a fun and playful artifact from two crazily gifted pop polyglots at work.
Other notable albums out this week:
• Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s full length Trembling Bells collaboration The Marble Downs.
• M. Ward’s solo comeback effort A Wasteland Companion.
• Former Avail frontman Tim Barry’s muscular, folky ramble 40 Miler.
• Zambri’s chilly electro-pop breakout House Of Baasa.
• Alabama Shakes’ charged-up blues-rock debut Boys And Girls.
• Black Dice’s sputtering, experimental Mr. Impossible.
• Choir Of Young Believers’ Scandinavian prog-pop opus Rhine Gold.
• FRKWYS Vol. 9: Icon Give Thanks, Sun Araw’s full-length collaboration with M. Geddes Gengras and dub legends the Congos.
• Alex Winston’s incisive pop debut King Con.