What is the space of a song? What do you expect when you cue up a piece of music via the device of your choice: a kind of fullness of arrangement, the onrush of arrangements that one gets when listening to everyone from Arcade Fire to St. Vincent to The Ronettes? Or do you prefer something pared-down–something where a song’s arrangement doesn’t feel as though every conceivable instrument was incorporated into the mix, and perhaps even a few that could have been used were left out. It’s a minimalist approach: it pares a song down to its most basic elements, and leaves plenty of evocative spaces in its wake.
My first exposure to something like this came in 1996, when I saw the original lineup of The Spinanes play a show in New York. At the time, the group was a duo: singer/guitarist Rebecca Gates, and drummer Scott Plouf. Their first two albums, Manos and Strand (as well as the early EPs collected on the EP Imp Years) feature Gates’s impeccably-timed, evocatively-phrased songs and largely confined their arrangements to voice, guitar, and drums. You might hear a keyboard from time to time; on parts of Strand, a handful of backing vocals from Elliott Smith can be heard. But largely, these songs are given a greater energy in part due to the tension between the richness of the songs and the starkness of their arrangements. At the show in question, the energy produced by the two musicians on stage rivaled anything I’d seen with a more traditional setup.
The lineup I saw that night didn’t last forever, and the final Spinanes album, Arches and Aisles, and Gates’s subsequent solo work, has a fuller, more lush sound; they show off a different side of Gates’s talents as a songwriter. More recently, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the music of Friendship Commanders, a duo from Nashville who tap into a primal sort of punk energy even as they forego a number of the trappings that one might associate with punk bands–including a bass player. Here, there’s also a knowing defiance of expectations; here, there’s also a rapid-fire push towards the frenetic, that point at which acceleration approaches the transcendental.
All of which makes for a potentially strange segue into talking about Niger’s Les Filles de Illighadad, whose new album Eghass Malan is out this fall. (The group takes its name from the town from which they’re from.) It’s their second album, after a self-titled debut released by Portland’s Sahel Sounds label last year, comprised of live recordings made in an outdoor space. I’d ordered it after listening to a few songs on the label’s Bandcamp page; its first half consists of intricately played voice-and-guitar songs, while its second half consists of one long instrumental piece, titled “Tende” after both the type of drum and the style of music on display.
Here, too, what got to me were the places where the starkness of the playing created a mood that encompassed everything. Through they’re an ocean apart, it imparted a similar feeling to the way I feel when listening to the music of Grouper–that blend of deft playing and an emotion that saturated everything around it.
The first Les Filles de Illighadad album was centered around vocalist and guitarist Fatou Seidi Ghal and vocalist Alamnou Akrouni; Eghass Malan was recorded at the end of the group’s European tour, where they were playing as a four-piece. (A 2017 feature in She Shreds provides an abundance of information on the group’s formation and evolving lineup.) As expected, the sound heard here is fuller, and the recording is more crisp. But here, too, there’s a sense of the unexpected–the steadiness of the drum, and the vast sense of a low end that it brings to the proceedings, adds a deeply tactile dimension to the group’s music.
Footage from concerts the group has played in Europe can be easily watched online. An in-studio performance from Utrecht, for instance, gives a good sense of how the group’s live chemistry manifests itself, and how the intricately-played songs on Eghass Malan look and sound in a live setting. This audience footage from a late-2016 concert in Ghent gives a great sense of the band operates in a venue–with a crowd in front of them, the sound is looser, and there’s more of a give-and-take with the audience. (There’s also a bit of awkward dancing from some of the concertgoers; as an awkward dancer myself, I know the feeling quite well.)
Les Filles de Illighadad was one of my favorite albums of last year; the recent arrival of Eghass Malan in my life was a pleasant surprise in a year from which pleasant surprises have been hard to find. It’s a fantastic display of musical ability, a case study in how repetition and rhythm can make for compelling music, and a powerful collection of songs. That these arrangements can come at some listeners from unexpected places makes for an even stronger experience; these are powerful works both for the notes played and those that are absent.
Tobias Carroll frequently writes about books, music, and pop culture for a variety of publications. He is the author of the books Reel and Transitory, and can be found on Twitter as @TobiasCarroll.