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Sir Richard Bishop - The Freak of Araby

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Artist: Sir Richard Bishop

Album: The Freak of Araby

Label: Drag City

Review date: May. 28, 2009

Listen through Sir Richard Bishop’s six readily available solo albums, and you get the picture that the worldview of the former Sun City Girls’ guitarist is not only complex, but also more than a little ambiguous. What exactly is Richard Bishop? A dealer in the exotic? A dabbler in esoteric mysticism? A “traveling salesman”? The Freak of Araby doesn’t make Bishop’s worldview any simpler for us, but it does clarify it some. He is, first and foremost, a traveler, picking up inspiration as he roams, but he is also a worshiper at the altar of the guitar, occasionally himself transforming into a guitar hero/idol.

What separates Bishop from the tourist hordes and other slaves to the six-string, though, is that his frame of reference is wider than that of most people, his irreverence bolder and his wit sharper. But irreverence in Bishop’s world doesn’t equal disrespect. Rather, it gives him the courage to take on musical challenges others might pass up, or not even see.

On The Freak of Araby that challenge is the guitar styling of Omar Khorshid, an Egyptian-born guitarist and composer of music for film. After a period of immersion in Khorshid’s music, Bishop recorded a handful of standards from the Arabic world alongside a few from his own pen. Playing exclusively on electric guitar again and with a bare-bones band (bass guitar, drum kit and hand percussion), Bishop does his best to inhabit Khorshid’s spirit, eschewing any extended soloing in favor of concise variations on simple, sensual themes, some of them Morricone-like in their directness and memorability.

But one can’t talk about Khorshid (or Arabic popular music in general) without talking about the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum. Khorshid played in her backing band at one point, and later recorded a tribute album to her, and her presence also hovers over this album, both in choice of material (Bishop takes on “Enta Omri,” a song she is forever linked to) and in how Bishop plays. In the lack of solos and the dedication to intoning strong melodies, one hears a vocalist’s focus, while the intense melodrama suggests Khaltoum’s favored mode, if not a a barely concealed sexuality.

That Bishop doesn’t quite live up to the inspirations here is forgivable. Evoking the controlled ecstasy Kalthoum was capable of is tall order indeed. Matching Khorshid’s mix of virtuosic simplicity and bombast, while not as monumental, is also daunting. Bishop’s interpretations of standards little known in the West are enlightening and his originals a nice complement, but they feel a little dry at times, even flat. One would’ve wished for more of the adventure he shows on pieces like “Taqasim for Omar,” a brilliant solo feature, or the delay-pedal and reverb orgy of “Sidi Mansour,” a piece that reaches for the same psychedelic excess Khorshid could unleash. In this case, a little less tribute and a little more irreverence would have been very welcome.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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