DRC Music – Kinshasa One Two review

Damon Albarn is best-known as the leader of Blur and then multi-media act the Gorillaz, but he’s also an experienced globe-trotter. In 2002 he put out Mali Music after traveling through that country, recording the music of artists he found along the way, and adding keyboards and drums ‘n’ sich back in London. The result was a surprisingly sedate album that really did sound like Albarn’s take on Mali, not just something Malian or something Albarn. The guy’s got a pretty unique sound, which you can pretty much love or feel indifferent to–don’t think it’s striking enough to inspire hate in anybody. I mean, the Gorillaz, they’re cool, right?

That’s right. Albarn likes synthesizers, particularly when they’re making dark, spooky, or melancholy sounds. That’s evident on every Gorillaz album; collaborations like The Good, The Bad, and the Queen; and now on his second African album, Kinshasa One Two. For this album he and a group of similar-minded producers (some of whom worked with him in the Gorillaz, most notably Dan the Automator) jetted down to Kinshasa, capital of the DR Congo, in search of music. And music they found. But the album they made doesn’t sound as respectful a tribute as Mali Music, and it’s not particularly interesting.

The main sin of Kinshasa One Two is that it strips the Congolese music of its energy without giving anything back, musically. Albarn & Co.’s dark sounds, cool synths, and bass-heavy techno often overpower the found music. Perhaps this might not have been the case had the team stayed longer and allowed more Congolese input into the song structure and production. As it is, tracks like “Hallo” and “Respect of the Rules” sound like Gorillaz songs. “K-Town” is kind of fun, and “Lourds” is a relief because it lets its source material shine. Those tracks buoy the first half, but when the album moves into its back half things get pretty bleak. Not “bleak,” that’s too strong a word–just lame. “We Come from the Forest” benefits from a neat loop, but the loop goes on too long and just can’t support all the wacky synth sounds Albarn & Sons throw at it; once the vocals come in it’s tired and we’re tired too. A few experimental cuts later, “Three Piece Sweet” and “If You Wish to Stay Awake” are techno pieces meant to be energetic, but they glow about as brightly as very old neon signs. “Departure” closes the album, presumably as the producers get on a plane to leave Kinshasa, and there’s nothing African about it–shows what a lasting effect the trip had.

Albarn can be good. I like Blur and some Gorillaz stuff. But sometimes it sounds like he’s phoning it in, as on The Good, The Bad, and the Queen, or else paying somebody to do it for him while he takes a nice nap. Unfortunately this is one of those times. But hey, it’s for a very good cause–all proceeds go to Oxfam to provide relief for Congolese citizens, caught in the crossfire of the deadliest war since WWII. Nice guy, huh?

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