Album Reviews

Natacha Atlas – Mish Maoul

(Mantra) UK release date: 24 April 2006

Natacha Atlas - Mish Maoul Over her first five recordings, Natacha Atlas has purveyed Eastern soul at something near its purest and most complex, mixing the East’s own musical forms with Western genres in increasingly seamless grace. Now also a UN Peace Ambassador, there could have been a danger of her losing touch with the kind of humility that possibly allowed for such a fluent and variegated expression of her roots.

Yet Mish Maoul, her sixth LP, seems to step out further into a blissful and ever more consummate expanse. Atlas is evidently maturing as a musician like fine wine, and revelling in, rather than bowing to, her increasing world stature, and underpinning her increasingly fine art is a voice that continues to probe new realms.

2002’s The Natacha Atlas & Marc Eagleton Project being something of a departure into a more stripped down atmosphere, Mish Maoul represents a return to the controlled, yet culturally-teeming stylings of Atlas’s first four LPs. Atlas here makes her usual innovative pilgrimages into forms as apparently disparate as hip hop, Euro-pop, bossanova jazz, orchestra balladry, Eastern alt pop and Arabic rhythms, her voice accompanying, emoting and knitting through the various styles with a soothing profundity.

Perhaps more pointedly than before, Mish Maoul’s Eastern exoticism, whether expressed in instrumental arrangements or Atlas’s tones, relates and weaves with its Western ingenuity to absurdly good effect, and when left alone, has a broader self-confidence and more relaxed identity than in past efforts.

Feen leads the way for Mish Maoul as a genre-joining quest. A quintessentialAtlas fusion of indigenous Eastern instrumentation and hip hop, Gamal El Kordi’s accordion coats Princess Julianna’s soulfully political rap in evocative quirks of texture, creating a fresh and noble slant on the protest song. ForAtlas, very little is out of bounds, and all that seems to be, she’s quick to traverse. Bathaddak at first evokes a pop take on a classic Kachaturian waltz before transmogrifying into a form of Eastern/Euro-pop, in which she proves the merited point that even in the unlikely event of her being in the novelty-fond likes of Aqua, Atlas could still pull something off approaching transcendent.

Bathaddak’s glitzy Euro pop stylings also show that she would make a better Gwen Stefani than the Lady of Legs and Exuberance herself, her voice layered in call and response over the recurring insights of the omnipresent PrincessJulianna. Haram Aleyk is a similar take on the playfulness Stefani tries to evoke, though such a comparison is jesting and superficial in light of Atlas’s sheer, primal vocal and artistically evocative powers.

Veering characteristically in another direction, Ghanwah Bossanova is a sultry, smoky bar room jazz epic, Bernard O’Neill on double bass and, at the same time, piano, taken for the ride of his life by Atlas’s effortlessly powerful vocal range. The orchestra-led Bab El Janna is similarly, smoothly revelatory. Of the tracks on Mish Maoul that offer a relatively pure contrast to her relentless quest to distil new hybrids, Atlas’s opening duet with Sofaine Said, Oully Ya Sahbi, is a slow-building epic of quixotic Arabic romanticism -indigenous instruments like darabuka, ney and kawala coming straight out of aHermann Hesse novel to fill out the track with richly authentic flavour.

Another relatively pure-breed Eastern blast amidst the pioneering fusions is Wahashni – a luxurious yet seriously affecting whirl of qanun, zils, bells, thumb piano and claps, underpinned by the mysterious Dabulah’s constant keyboard drone and floated in the air by Atlas’s meditative, mantra-like lament. Possibly the purest effort, Hayati Inta, has O’Neill’s menacing and off-key double bass rumble overlapped by tribal male chants and a blinding riff from one of oud, gambri, bendir, zournas, karkabou, prgmg, djouwak or table massaged into greatness by the heavenly entity that illuminates this work like a golden thread.

Although there’s not a token piece of music throughout this LP, whether it comes in response to a rap as foreign to her as egg and chips, a bass line that harbingers death, or a primal jungle call, Atlas’s voice is a thing to behold. She has an extraordinary, nigh-on mystic depth in her whole expression that reverberates profundity in the unlikely situations she delights in throwing up. Mish Maoul gives expression to an extraordinarily attractive alt-pop music that drips with the wisdom of heritage and the beauty of subtle, global orchestration. From Ms Atlas, this is all we need ask.

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