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A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Eagle, the debut album by master alternative country, ‘Chinagrass’ songwriter/dombra (traditional lute of nomadic Central Asia) and guitar virtuoso, Mamer, from the Qital County in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Province and his four piece band offers a refreshing change of pace for those seeking distinctive listening music that never slips into the background, simply because it always has something unexpectedly intriguing for your ears to latch onto. And, as well-executed as this recording is, those listening to it could never fully ‘know’ the palette of sounds inherent to this colourful selection of songs.

The album’s title track seems slightly off-kilter at the same time as it rolls along as smoothly as any folk-rock song by Crosby, Stills and Nash.  Its’ clever beginning, speeding through time and radio airwaves past traditional Chinese music and patter onto such much more steady, but unusual, yet familiar turf, is informative as well as entertaining. Mamer lets listeners know where he stands, musically and otherwise, from the very start of the imaginative musical journey he and his band are about to guide us through. Mamer’s singing on this track is confident and oddly springy as elements of his distinctive throat singing style emerge, against a warm, country rock flavoured background that seems both old and, entirely new and invigorating.  

After a brief, charmingly traditional Chinese opening segment, which ironically, sounds faintly distant, ‘Iligai’ offers differently easy listening with unexpectedly permeating glimmers of sunlight, suggested by dapperly fingered guitar and down home Jews harp progressing into an unexpectedly upbeat segment of clapping,  mellowing the track back, full circle, to where it began. The earnest singing of Mamer on this track increases its strength as does its lovely combination of eastern and western instrumentation, right down to its glistening and resonant guitar playing.

On the wisely titled ‘Proverbs’, Mamer’s throat singing takes centre stage with Beatle-esque ambling guitar reminiscent of ‘Dear Prudence’ accompanied by harmonising backup vocals and recorded voices, enabling the track to assume an elevated, message to convey feel and sound. Its repetitive phrasing resurrects memories of the ‘Hey Jude’ kind, as Mamer conveys his vocal and instrumental messages with a large group of singers lending fervent choir-like support.

Track four, ‘Celebration’, a rich, acoustic instrumental number, opens with some strident, layered guitar and banjo from Mamer and company and guest artist Bela Fleck, with a barn dance melody line designed to  get the feet going. This compelling track alone would be worth the price of a CD but as there are already three other worthy tracks before, you’ve no reason to look or listen for more...Or do you?

The gently uplifting ‘Man’ features duelling ‘banjos’ Mamer style, meaning east meets west, making for something totally unique at their juncture. Amiable, pensively placed native Chinese fiddle heightens the track’s sense of experimentation and, place. Though Mamer’s singing here is somewhat less guttural, it is still richly resonant and deep, and once again, a bevy of voices helps to heighten the song’s soaring overtones. A surprise ending as close and gentle as a breeze rounds the song off.

At it’s opening, track six, ‘Kargashai’, perhaps Eagle’s most infectious number, makes you feel as though Mamer is singing, directly to you. Perhaps that’s because its phrasing is so familiarly country rockified, though Indian rhythms and flamenco style beats, punctuated with springy Jews harp enable the song to evolve it into an undeniably hearty melting pot.

‘Flute Song’ offers expansive, steely guitar playing, furthered by a combination of Jews harp, galloping drum and lilting Chinese flute, creating mental images of a powerful animal, striding across vast plains, nostrils flaring and dust flying. Small wonder, as Mamer, a member of the nomadic Kazakh culture, ‘grew up on horseback.’

On ‘Mountain Wind’, Mamer’s dramatic story-telling vocals, accompanied by restrained instrumentation leads us on, as his singing becomes more plaintive, ending on a bittersweet note, suggestive of regret. The thoughtful placement of this track offers respite from the urgency of the one before it.

‘Blackbird’ is as dappled and light as a summer stream, with all the vibrancy of youth and promise spring offers. Mamer’s singing is lighter and more restrained here, as is its accompanying clapping, buoyant Jews harp and sweetly rendered backing vocals. Now is the perfect time to be hearing this song, it seems to say.  

Number ten, ‘Where Are You Going?’ begins with what sounds like recorded TV conversation, interestingly placed against Mamer’s thoughtful singing, once again, more customarily guttural. Pointed, acoustic guitar playing showing great skill and control leads us, though it is reminiscent of the aforementioned Crosby, Stills and Nash with and/or without Neil Young.

‘Mountain Wind’ (remix) featuring the late Hector Zouzou is beautifully atmospheric and intricate with its wavering, instrumental trills, vocal vibratos, tinkling chimes and tasteful sprinklings of synthesizer. This is a track that is contemporary, yet, timeless  and truly, one to treasure.

It’s not surprising to hear that Mamer has spawned an alternative country music scene in his homeland called Chinagrass, despite the fact that the nomadic grasslands where he, his father and grandfather originated from are 2,000 miles away from his country’s capital city, Beijing. Thankfully, in addition to this album offering an imaginative, finely penned and performed selection of songs to contemplate and, increasingly savour, it also has some of the cleanest production values imaginable. Which is fitting, as the more you hear of Mamer the more you’ll want to hear him again.




Editors Note: In case you're wondering why there is no release date listed on this review, it is because this CD was released in May 2009, but I thought it was far too intriguing and unique not to be shared.



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