Marc Antoine must have worried when he told his label, GRP, that he wanted to call his new recording Universal Language. (It seems he used the same name for one of the cuts on his debut album Classical Soul.) But one listen to the vast cultural landscape he covers musically and his varied approaches to the acoustic guitar, and it's clearly the perfect title, regardless. While Antoine has been self-produced up till now, this time he has help tackling all the complex global rhythms. On his own recordings, Phillippe Saisse has a tendency to let too many textures get in the way of great communication, but here, he fortunately has not taken away Antoine's penchant for floating lyrical melodies over thick hip-hop grooves; rather he enhances that attractive combination with unusual percussion combinations, clever synth sounds, and occasional horn flavorings and spacey sounds. "Palm Strings" begins with Antoine playing a dreamy flamenco melody over a bouncy, echoing synth line and a mix of a shuffling scratchy groove and more exotic percussion sounds. Flutist Dave Valentin blends beautifully with Antoine on the hook, which is given a richer Latin vibe with darting horn accents. "Celta" artfully blends dense grooves and happy-go-lucky guitar melody with a synth-created Irish pennywhistle, enhanced by the subtle mandolin harmonies of Jeff Golub. Golub gets a chance to go Eastern on "El Camino," with his gently gonging sitar accents echoing behind a galloping bass groove and Antoine's double-fisted flamenco attack: rhythm guitar textured beneath a plucky lead melody. The tune's seven very busy minutes allow breaks for segments of thick percussion and Arabic vocal chant; the effect is like a wild ride across Eurasia. Antoine heads to Africa on "Elikya (Hope)," strumming folksily over a sparse percussion line as Lokua Kanza haunts the melody with a soaring chant in the language of Zaire, first as a solo voice, then textured as a joyful choir. While Saisse keeps most tracks busy as an airline schedule, he shows admirable restraint here, allowing the focus to stay on Antoine's high-toned melody, easy improvisations, and the soulful voices. Saisse does the same on the graceful lullaby "Children at Play," adding only gentle, distant rhythms, a few atmospheric enhancements, and samples of children's voices to let Antoine's melody speak mostly for itself.
Universal Language Review
by Jonathan Widran