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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Angélique Kidjo - Remain in Light Hour Music Album Reviews

Angélique Kidjo - Remain in Light Hour Music Album Reviews

Inspired by its Afrobeat underpinnings, the Beninese singer tackles an album-length cover of the Talking Heads’ 1980 landmark, in the process unearthing hidden rhythmic and emotional nuances.

Nearly 40 years on, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light remains a pinnacle of New York City rock, in part because it drew from anything but the strictures of rock‘n’roll. Instead it preferred cycling polyrhythms, mesmeric vamps, and dizzying layers and loops. But depending on which half of the band you asked, you might get a different answer as to its sources. For the rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, the band’s newfound groove came courtesy of funk, R&B, and hip-hop (Frantz played drums on Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”). But frontman David Byrne and producer Brian Eno traced the album’s inspirations to Afrobeat. It’s the latter that perked up the ears of Beninese icon Angélique Kidjo, who first encountered “Once in a Lifetime” in the early 1980s but never heard the entire album until 2016. “It might be rock‘n’roll, but there’s something African to it,” she recently told Rolling Stone about her first brush with the classic.

In taking these coastal art rockers’ nervy sound back to Africa, Kidjo also picked a pregnant moment to cover the album in its entirety: The nuclear pall of the early ’80s compares all too easily to our current predicament. Kidjo’s own track record makes her a natural for such a task, given her expansive vision of the continent’s music (to the point that she has often faced the asinine accusation that her music isn’t authentically “African”). And she has plenty of help here, from Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Blood Orange’s Devonté Hynes, Kanye/Rihanna producer Jeff Bhasker, and the man whose cephalopod-like drumming originally inspired the album, Afrobeat legend Tony Allen. While she foregrounds the 1980 record’s latent paranoia, social disquiet, and political loathing, Kidjo also imparts a tactile sense of resilience to offset the original’s despair.

The ecstatic gush and worming electronics of “Born Under Punches” remain intact, right down to a glitch recreation of guest guitarist Adrian Belew’s arcade-on-the-fritz guitar solo from the Talking Heads recording. But it’s when Kidjo and her cohorts diverge from the source that the album’s headier moments arise. The band’s twitchy approximations of Nigerian pop polyrhythms on “Crosseyed and Painless” and “Houses in Motion” become more muscular and graceful with Allen himself behind the kit.

But the star of the set remains Kidjo. Her poised and powerful presence fleshes out nuances in Byrne’s lyrics that the precocious singer often seemed to approach cerebrally rather than feel viscerally. While he may have gleaned certain ideas about African iconography from Robert Farris Thompson’s 1979 study African Art in Motion, Kidjo has that tradition fully ingrained in her extensive body of work. As Byrne once put it to Thompson about “The Great Curve”: “You think that’s very down and earthy, but I was talking about something metaphysical.” Kidjo, on the other hand, transmogrifies the song’s refrain (“The world moves on a woman’s hips”) back to flesh and blood.

Kidjo also transforms the queasy ambience of the album’s last tracks into something resembling optimism. That dirge for a terrorist bomber, “Listening Wind,” might be the recast album’s defining moment. Against steadfast hand percussion, Kidjo assumes the role of the song’s protagonist, Mojique, while Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig sings backup in Kidjo’s native Fon. Their voices converge in the chorus into something that feels at once desperate yet emboldened, giving voice to that otherwise powerless protagonist.

Whether it’s a coincidence or a more concerted reckoning with patriarchy, this year in music is revealing a number of black (both African and African-American) female artists tackling canonical works by male musicians, many of them white men, and reframing and recasting those classic songs and albums in a manner that feels refreshing and revitalizing. Bettye LaVette breathed life into neglected numbers as well as well-worn standards from the Dylan songbook; Meshell Ndegeocello reimagined both Jam-Lewis and Prince classics so that they might be heard and felt anew. Kidjo finds her own way into these songs, infusing them with a tactile sense of empathy. Rather than echo the emptiness of a line like, “The center is missing/They question how the future lies,” her voice imparts a sense of hope, allowing in a brief glint of light.

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