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Lion City Tristan Bath , April 22nd, 2014 07:18

The horizon-broadening trip to Africa is a trail well blazed by this point amongst western artists, but Dirtmusic's third album, recorded in the Malian capital of Bamako, indicates something beyond the mere cut-and-paste fusion of which ethnic Afro-western collaborations have often previously consisted. This Aussie/American group's last couple of albums have been frantic near misses, wonderfully trying (and sadly somewhat failing) to fully fuse their Americana indie folk/rock with Malian blues grooves.

Since 2010's BKO recorded in the west African nation's capital of Bamako, the balance of the group's sound has gradually fallen increasingly in the favour of Malian elements, with a growing array of native collaborators, which on Lion City includes legendary Malian, Samba Touré. Despite these fruitful surroundings, and their skilfully democratic fusion of sounds, Lion City, like the previous two albums, only just fails to live up to the promise of its blurb - and that's not without a very many fine moments along the way. What's clearer than ever on Lion City is that the group's greatest weakness is often in the enduring singing and song writing of the group's founders, which periodically still jars with the hugely compelling new sounds being brought into the fray.

Lion City sees the duo of Hugo Race (Fatalists, The Bad Seeds) and Chris Eckman (The Walkabouts), at their least central to the music, though the group's focal point hasn't really been its core members since the aforementioned BKO album opened the studio up to Malian musicians. The collection feels like the group's most freewheeling to date, clearly largely culled from spontaneous jams, and with the vocal duties shared between half a dozen collaborators. Race only graces some four of the eleven tracks with his vocal stylings – and the album's in fact quite a bit better for it.

The two opening tracks - neither of which feature the former Bad Seed - are practically stellar. 'Stars Of Gao' is an instrumental overture marrying psych electronics with Malian noodling and walls of electric guitar tones in a thrilling three minute crescendo, while 'Narha' slowly evolves from a simple basic groove into trippy acid chaos, awash with Black Arkian spring reverb on Aminata Wassidje Traore impassioned vocals. In fact, the ghostly influence of 'Scratch' Perry looms over much of the proceedings, like the swirling opaqueness of closing gambit, 'September 12', featuring a muddy vocal from Senegalese youngster, Ibrahim Douf, and again on the quite overtly dub collaboration with Samba Touré. Despite these high watermarks, Race's vocal on 'Justice' – undoubtedly the worst track on the album – slices through the atmospherics like an unwelcome guest at the party. That having been said, 'Clouds on Cover' sees Race utilising his rugged pipes more appropriately for the purposes of breathy narration over ghostly gentle desert blues guitar licks.

If you like the infectious beats and haze of Malian desert blues, do yourself a favour and get it from the source first. Most of the collaborators on this album have released awesomely superior albums of their own – just listen to Ben Zabo's self-titled album of Malian highlife. Even so, the guys at the centre of Dirtmusic have produced a lot of excellent tracks when making this album, and very successfully fused their own music with Malian styles, and truly collaborated rather than merely sampled or copied from native Malian traditions - but there's still the nagging feeling that it might have been even better had they left themselves out of the equation entirely.