I'm not a musician, but I don't see how anybody can play the same type of music day in and day out for years on end without getting bored. Surely after a couple of decades of playing blues based rock and roll a guitar player would want to explore something else, if for no other reason than to open their minds to new ideas that could be incorporated into their genre of choice. However that doesn't seem to be the case with the majority of popular musicians out there, as they appear quite content to keep doing the same thing over and over again with only a few minor variations along the way.
All of which only serves to make the work of Les Triaboliques on their soon to be released, September 8th/09, disc rivermudtwilight, on the World Village label, all the more impressive. Les Triaboliques are Ben Mandelson, Lu Edmonds, and Justin Adams, guitar players who began their popular music careers during the British punk era playing with bands like Magazine and The Dammed, or in the case of Adams, as sideman for people like Sinead O'Conner. They are the first to admit that American music of the twentieth century was the first and major influence on their music, but unlike others their musical voyage didn't stop there.
Perhaps it's only fitting that Justin Adams has become well known for his work with the Tuareg nomad band Tinariwen, as he, Edmonds, and Mandelson, have been musical and literal nomads. Wandering the world, from Siberia to North Africa and stops in between, each of them has absorbed a variety of influences that has broadened their musical horizons far beyond what we normally find in popular music. It seems only natural these three wanderers would eventually end up together when the winds blew them back home to Great Britain, where they all originally hail from, pooling their talents and experiences to make this recording.
The eleven tracks on the disc not only represent their multiple influences but also the huge variety of instruments that each of them have taken up. Brilliantly, what they've decided to do is not wed an instrument to its country of origin - ie have an oud only play Turkish music - but have used them where they fit best and feel most appropriate no matter what an individual piece of music's background might be. Naturally some of the results might sound a little startling to your ears, especially until you get used to the sounds of the various instruments, but if you can put aside any preconceived notions on how a song is supposed to sound you're in for some delightful surprises.
For, while Adams sticks mainly with the instrument he's mot familiar with, guitar, Mandelson and Edmonds get to show off their versatility on instruments like things called a thee planktone, cumbus, bow bus, or khomuz. Now I doubt if I could have told you those names before listening to this disc, and even now I doubt I could recognize them by their sound (the only thing lacking in this disc is the fact that they don't break down which instruments are used with which song), I do know they are being played extraordinarily well.
For it becomes abundantly clear that this is not just some affectation or dalliance on the part of these guys to pick up other instruments because they sound "cool". You can't do the things they've done on this disc without having spent a serious amount of time studying, practising, and playing. This isn't a group of guys simply hacking around for the fun of it or to make themselves look good. They are three musicians who are so passionate about what they do that they've exerted a lot of time and energy into how to make it h more interesting for themselves and of course those who listen to it.
One of the best examples of this is probably the medley of "Hora Anticuta Draga" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". You haven't lived until you've heard the latter played on what sounds like it must be the barizouki. Aside from the version sung by Michael Burdon and the Animals, I can't begin to count the number of times I've heard this song performed by an endless succession of bar bands, and yet hearing these guys play the song it's like I was hearing it again for the first time. Instead of it being almost the challenge that it usually sounds like, they've managed to capture its more plaintive nature and turn it into a genuine plea for understanding.
Each song on this disc has been given the same careful consideration that they've shown towards "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" when it comes to choosing the instruments to be played and its arrangement. As a result, even on songs that you're most familiar with you'll hear something new. Yet at the same time they haven't gone out of their way to change songs just for the sake of changing them. It's extremely difficult to play a song written by somebody else and retain its core while giving it your own interpretation, but that's exactly what Les Triaboliques have done.
What's even more impressive is the fact that they've taken on the extremely difficult task of performing songs from other cultures as well as their own and not sounding awkward. Too often you'll hear somebody playing a song from another country, or singing in a language other than their own, and it sounding affected or false. Yet listen to Edmonds singing "Gulaguajira" ("I The Dissolute Prisoner) in it's original Russian, you don't think about the fact that he's singing in another language - in fact I didn't even notice he was until the second time I listened to the song - because he is so completely involved in the story of the song that you can't help but believing in it.
When you're an established popular musician it's very easy, and acceptable, to keep doing much the same thing over and over again. However there are those who aren't satisfied with just playing variations on the same theme endlessly and so push themselves and their music in new directions. Justin Adams, Ben Mandelson, and Lu Edmonds have pushed further than most on their new album rivermudtwilight and the results are remarkable for not only their integrity, but for their quality as well. It's not often you get the chance to hear music as well played and lovingly presented as the material on this disc so don't miss out on it.
(Originally posted September 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.