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Freak Of Araby



(LP/CD - Drag City, 2009)


Taqasim For Omar   7:16

Enta Omri  2:45

Barbary  2:20

Solenzara  5:01

The Pillars of Baalbek  5:18 

 Kaddak el Mayass  3:26

 Essaouira  2:21

 Ka'an Azzaman  2:51

 Sidi Mansour  6:03

 Blood-Stained Sands  7:30 


It can be hard to judge work by an artist when you know that they can do pretty much anything once their mind's set. Guitarist and Sun City Girls founder Richard Bishop has a fluid and not overly nerdy mastery of a shit-ton of musical styles. Dude can improvise or play intricate compositions; he can go slow and weird or fast as fuck; he can play like he's at a Turkish funeral or Hindu religious ceremony or Western swing wedding, do a perfect Django-esque tune at breakneck speed, and then pull off a dirty bar-band take on "Radar Love". It's only when you take in all of it that you get close to what Bishop's own style is: he's a shape-shifter, plain and simple. As soon as you have him figured out and pinned down, he's well onto the next thing. Even the most casual fan will warn that you never quite know what you're going to get.

This time out, Bishop jettisons the guitar soli approach that's defined the majority of his solo stuff. But he does so only after first clobbering the listener with a magnificent example of the form, "Taqasim For Omar". The Omar in question on this particular guitar improvisation is the late Egyptian guitarist Omar Khorshid, whom Bishop credits in interviews as a major inspiration for this whole project. One minute into the second track, "Enta Omri", we're introduced to the Freak of Araby Ensemble, where they tastefully lay down tablas, bass, and doubled-up guitar until the final number, "Blood-Stained Sands", which is all reeds (Moroccan chanter horns) and percussion.

Half the songs on The Freak of Araby are covers of Middle Eastern tunes, and the other half are originals. Bishop is half-Lebanese, so it's tempting to see this as some kind of "back to the roots" affair. In the Detroit suburb where he grew up, Rick and his brother Alan were exposed to a lot of Middle Eastern music; their grandfather used to play the oud and a double-reeded flute as well as records by the likes of Fairuz and Oum Kalthoum. If you hear echoes of Morricone or surf music here, that makes sense-- pretty much any time you amplify Middle Eastern jams you realize how far that approach to sound has reached. You hear the Morricone because both Bishop and Morricone are masters at synthesizing disparate sounds from different cultures; too bad they've never gotten to collaborate.

Freak is one of Bishop's most cohesive and accessible albums. Since it also has such an NPR-friendly backstory, expect Bishop to appear on Terry Gross soon. Which means you can also expect a record composed entirely of synth dirge nursery rhymes about circumcision next time around. That, or a Sammy Davis, Jr. tribute record. Or both.

  - Mike McGonigal (Pitchfork)