Best known for defining the pulse of Fela Kuti’s propulsive Afrobeat sound, the self-taught Tony Allen is a near superhuman combination of metronomic sense of time, light touch, economy, endurance, and musicality. Though it took a long time, his distinctive beat is part of the world’s musical vocabulary now. Since parting ways with Fela, he’s done quite a range of work, including a couple of recent, fairly high-profile collaborations with Damon Albarn that took him pretty far away from the pigeonhole people tend to place him in on the basis of his best-known playing.
Film of Life doesn’t quite break new ground for Allen, but it does offer a pretty solid and succinct demonstration of Afrobeat’s adaptability to changing times. There are no side-long epics in the Fela mold here, but Allen packs quite a bit into each of these four-to-seven-minute-tracks, building up from his own drums grooves with hypnotic guitar and bass patterns, a richly arranged horn section, and an assortment of other sounds that are nearly all overwhelmed by the massive rhythm that dominates everything.
Allen himself handles vocals on the first two tracks, mostly talking in his deep bass register and aided by a female chorus, narrating a personal history and thanking the listener for being there. His voice is appropriately situated well down in the mix; he does his best talking with his hands, and though he shows a little uncharacteristic flash here and there, the really impressive thing about Allen is the way he can take a simple, slow beat like the one on “Tiger’s Skip” and make it sing when a lot of drummers would have trouble just staying in time at that tempo. Comparing it to the much faster beat on the storming, spacey funk instrumental “Ewa” reveals a lot about what makes his playing so special; no matter what else is going on, Allen has an ability to stay steady and fill time with exactly as much embellishment as necessary.
Albarn’s guest vocal turn on “Go Back” provides the album’s highlight and the closest thing to a single that it has to offer. The man could sound sad singing “The Wheels on the Bus”, and the contrast of his hang-dog delivery and Allen’s spryness makes for a song as good as anything the two have done together in the Good, the Bad, and the Queen or Rocket Juice & the Moon. Moments like this and Kuku’s totally unexpected Auto-Tuned vocal in the second half of “Koko Dance” take Film of Life a few steps past a simple summary of the things Allen excels at and make it something to hear even for people who aren’t Afrobeat obsessives.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1CdXXOw