Album Reviews

Various – Open Strings: 1920s Middle Eastern Recordings – New Responses

(Honest Jons) UK release date: 20 April 2009

One of the most intriguing jobs in music must surely fall to the people who curate compilations for Honest Jons. Already this year we’ve had classic African calypso, and now further exotic vaults have been raided for our listening pleasure. Open Strings is a two disc set of traditional music from the Middle East. The first disc is comprised of archive material from the 1920s and disc two contains modern interpretations along the same theme.

Open Strings is an interesting collection, but perhaps not one the world has been clamouring for. Disc one is a collection of classic recordings, complete with authentic low-fidelity, crackles and hisses. There’s a certain charm in knowing that these recordings have probably been languishing somewhere, just waiting to be plucked from relative obscurity. However, after a while the archival nature can begin to grate a little.

Open Stings is exactly that: purely stringed instruments. There’s no doubt about the instrumental skills on offer; most of which are so deft that they could give even the lightening fingers of Rodrigo y Gabriella a run for their money. However, it’s here that the limitations of this package become evident. After a short while into the first disc’s epic span everything begins to sound the same, with the result that casual listeners are likely to become alienated by the exotic twanging.

Although the album is maybe of more value to aficionados than the curious, there is a strength in the mental images it conjures up. For a while you can close your eyes and let this transcendental soundtrack transport you to dusty and exotic climes.

The second disc undeniably holds more power with its modern interpretations of the original source material. There’s more variation in styles and the modern production techniques are obviously of benefit. It’s a little more psychedelic in tone, but no less spiritual. It dodges the pitfalls of the first disc by being more energetic and individual, highlighting the traditional folk elements and feeling more immediate than ambient.

Ultimately it’s difficult to tell exactly who will be drawn to Open Strings. Those who have already warmed to this type of music are likely to revel in its rare treasures, but others may feel that this is little more than random plucking to be played in the background in restaurants. But perhaps if the strings are open, then maybe your mind should be too.

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