Album Review: 96.2 FM “Modern Music Contest” – 1st Edition

Well, Mashrou3 Leila are releasing their long awaited debut album in a week, so before it’s too late, I’m reviewing their first ever album appearance: The CD of 96.2 FM’s first edition of the “Modern Music Contest” (or “Concours Musiques Actuelles” 1ere Edition). But wait there’s more! Also making their debuts are 10 other artists, whose contributions to this work I will be taking a close look at, but not too close…

First some background information. This contest was basically a callout for young musical talents in Lebanon. So anyone between the ages of 18 and 35 sent in demos before November 30th, 2008. Following that, a professional jury selected the tracks, whose performers (or some of them at least) would be brought into Tunefork, Fadi Tabbal’s studio, in order to professionally rerecord their tracks, which would go on to be featured in the CD I am about to review. The CD would come with a username and password. Each purchaser of the CD was to listen to all the tracks and then cast his/her vote online.

The finalists that appear on this album would then go on to perform in The Basement where a jury would decide on a winner, and the online vote counts too I guess.

So Mashrou3 Leila won the contest and this CD now serves as the album to purchase for Leila-holics to get their fix, as well as an echo of the other contestants who even though did not win, got the chance to actually have their work released.

-The Look: This is a very minimalistic little package, consisting of a cardboard sleeve, the CD itself, and a paper inside.

The front cover is of a black and white radio sitting on a black, white, and purple shelf with a stack of green CDs to its left and a black and white box of empty CD-Rs to its right, all in front of a blue wall. All are quite relevant as 96.2 FM would be a radio station, artists would have submitted their entries on homemade CD-Rs, and they finalists appear on an officially released record; this very one.

The back is a continuation of the front revealing more of the green CDs. There is the track list as well as a brief description which says: “All contestants were given 5 hours to record and mix their tracks, at Tunefork Studios, Beirut, with Fadi Tabbal, in February 2009. All tracks are the result of these recording sessions, except tracks 2,6 & 9 taken from the original demos.” That was insightful actually, since one would assume that they’ve all been rerecorded… Also, links…

The CD itself is a bullseye constituting (from the center outwards) blue, red, green, and purple. This release has quite the colorful theme. On its peripheries, the track list again.

The paper on the inside, which is hand cut by the looks of it, has a username and password on it, as well as instructions on how to use them, printed in both English and French.

-The Sound: Now, this is the first compilation I review, and I know that each track has a different style due to being performed by different artists, and in this case some tracks have a different producer than others. So I’ll do my best.

1- Sylvain Nassar – “Once”:

I like this one. It’s a very upbeat, very “pure” rock song. Sylvain Nassar sings of the struggles he’s faced in the past, the urges us to live life to its fullest since we only have one chance to do so. “We only live once”. There’s a nice guitar solo too. I like the fact that Mr. Nassar, an unknown musician, gets his big break singing a song about getting a big break and seizing the day. The track is very good, but nothing too radical.

2- A.Boxx – “Into the Night”: Some English rap now. This is one of the three tracks not produced by Fadi Tabbal. The beat features some distorted guitar, piano, and… handclaps. I’m not a huge fan of handclaps…  A lady sings the chorus, and then comes the rap. It’s very typical. He uses swear words unnecessarily. It’s too “gangsta” for me. Some strings are featured in the verses. A lady raps too. Same style of lyrics…  There’s better rap out there. Allow me to promote an international artist for a minute here: I present to you, the one and only, Busdriver: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32INdYsV2sU

3- Mashrou3 Leila (or Mashrou’ Leila as they are listed here, but I prefer it with the 3, it’s more Arabized) – “Raksit Leila”: Starts out pretty happy-go-lucky. “This could go either direction from here, but what direction will it be?” I ask myself. A violin joins in. “Aw yeah, this is going places!” I declare. The lead singer (who I’m not supposed to know is Hamed Sinno, but yeah, let’s face it, they won and they’re famous now) sings in Arabic, the only song in Arabic on the entire CD, in a Lebanese dialect too, about how tired he is with the state of the country and of people complaining about it. Hamed Sinno struts his vocal abilities, which are impressive to say the least. A short piano intermission that ends with a zalghouta leads into something that sounds like a blend of Latin and Gypsy music. There’s whistling too! Yes, it definitely did go places, and that’s why it won wasn’t it?

4- Sandmoon – “Sea of Love”: This is opened by a keyboard tune that is joined by some percussion. I don’t like the vocals too much… Guitar joins in briefly, as well as saxophone. I don’t find it that interesting really.

5- Soul + – “Trust Me”: Starts out with some nice guitar, drums, and bass. It’s soul and funk. Two vocalists sing simultaneously, one with a higher pitch than the other, or maybe that’s just overdubbing; Sounds pretty good. He sings of people not seeing the truth and him just wanting to feel good about himself. I don’t like how it ends with a simple fade out though, it lacks closure.

6- Anthony Touma – “Mendiant”: My French skills are very poor, so I don’t think I’ll be able to actually understand what is being said but more how it is being said, so forgive me for that. This track was not recorded at Tunefork with Fadi Tabbal. A piano tune, strings, and ride cymbal hits. Frankly, too cliché for me. Whatever he’s singing, I don’t like the way he’s singing it… I dunno, it’s all too familiar. There’s a decent drumbeat though. An electric guitar solo plays for a while, it’s not too bad. No, just… no. I let the French thing slide, but the music is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for me… sorry, no.

7- Karimbo Zone Mixity Miracle Genius – “They Wanna Know”: Alrighty! The second rap song on this record! It has both French and English lyrics. It kicks off with a weird “aaaaaahhooh” that I find kinda neat. The beat is nice; guitar and drums, like it was sampled from an old record. I like old school hip hop… Behind that there is kind of some holy chant action going on. Weird, I like. The rapper reminds me of Rayess Bek when he raps in French. The chorus features piano, and the Arabic word for Lebanon, made to rhyme with “god damn”; clever. Then the English portion of the rap. The guy raps of his love and devotion for Beirut and his frustration with the situation in the middle-east. It’s actually pretty witty stuff I must admit. It ends with the same time of scream that started it out. This is THE hip hop song of this record, bravo.

8- Elyas – “Asile de Flux”: I’m not prejudiced against the French language or anything, but it just happens that this song isn’t that original, just like “Mendiant”. The best use of the French language on the CD is in the previous track. Guitar tune, synthy sounds, with the occasional cymbal taps. The guy’s voice isn’t that bad though. Then it’s just your run of the mill rock song for the chorus, plus some piano. I dunno, why did French get pinned with such average sounds?

9- Lara Matar – “Tempest”: This was not recorded in Tunefork.This is just piano and vocals. Not looking like my kind of thing already. The lady’s voice is nice and her lyrics are pretty good, they talk about her devotion to her lover. Overall very nice, but I’d like to hear it played with a band.

10- Stephanie Merchak – “As the Light of Day Slowly Fades Away”: The only instrumental track on the album. It’s electronic from the looks of it. A synth tune, joined by synth percussion and effects. Some of the sounds remind me of Munma, but this is something in a totally different neighborhood from him. There’s an acoustic drumbeat which is nice and percussive. More effects, more synth, yeah… Very original.

11- Cristobal – “Over Song”: Finally, a fitting end to this record, Cristobal, who has gone on to achieve some success, bids us farewell with this song. It starts off with an acoustic guitar tune accompanied by cello. There’s a second guitar too I think. Cristobal sings of things being over, and people being over. There’s some xylophone too. Now he sings of things that are over not being over. There’s some nice vocal chanting too. I feel like it’s Christmas time and the whole family’s having dinner or something, don’t ask me why. It fades out, leaving us with a sense of completion.

Well, this was it. As you may have heard the first 50 times I mentioned it, Mashrou3 Leila won, and indeed they did get the chance to record an album of their own and that will be released December 19th. See you there!

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