A recording contract must be something of a mixed blessing for an unsigned band whose reputation is built on years of live gigging.
If you’re Wust El Balad, one minute you’re playing to a small group of shrieking fans in El Sawy Cultural Wheel, the next you’re shooting shiny video clips in metro stations with producer Tarek Al Erian to promote your inoffensive new album.
Which is neither to malign Mr Al Erian nor indeed metro stations – both are marvellous Egyptian institutions. The point is that something went wrong somewhere on Wust El Balad’s journey from the stage to the metro station, and they were unable to capture the dynamism of their live performances on their eponymous first album.
Take for example “Antika, one of the band’s signature tunes. They belt it out during live performances – mostly to keep up with the audience roaring the lyrics back at them. The album version, on the other hand, is semi-acoustic and muted, almost loungey, and stripped of all its power as a result.
One wonders why they altered a successful formula for the album.
Yes concerts are one thing and recorded songs are another, but when Wust El Balad recorded this album they were clearly in a difficult position.
Their fan base is built on their live performances which means that fans (who are after all the people who will buy this album) have come to love their songs in the context of their concerts, which are fun, high-spirited and high-energy affairs – a different experience altogether to listening to a CD in one’s bedroom.
Compare this to bands who find mainstream fame on the basis of their recorded material; new fans are necessarily more forgiving because, having never seen the band in concert, they have nothing to compare the music with – but these new fans must be persuaded to buy the album in the first place.
Wust El Balad have had to compromise – which is where “Arabily, the album’s opening track and single comes in.
Hearing the Take That-esque opening harmonies of this song I thought that I had accidentally purchased the CD of Egypt’s answer to New Kids on the Block, boy band WAMA.
This impression is only increased as the song progresses and each of Wust El-Balad’s three vocalists alternate singing duties, carried along by the jaunty rhythm behind them.
It isn’t that “Arabily is a bad song. In fact once you get past the opening harmonies and faltering first verse it develops into a catchy chorus, enjoyable if one ignores the lyrics which go on about holding hands and dancing the dance of life. (Start placing your bets now on how long it is before this chorus is used in a mobile phone company commercial. It has that particular brand of buoyant optimism which advertisers appear to believe will make us all talk to each other frenziedly with abandon, phone bills be damned).
The problem is that the song just isn’t very Wust El Balad, or at least not the Wust El Balad we’ve all come to love. Still, it makes sense as a single commercially I suppose, if nothing else because the lyrics justify the inclusion of the obligatory stunner in a tight skirt in the video.
Had the band insisted on for example “A’m Mina (Uncle Mina) as the single, teenage Melody TV viewers would have been forced to watch two old men sharing a joke companionably, as is dictated by the lyrics, while accountants at Wust El Balad’s record label cried.
“A’m Mina is one of the better songs on the album, in large part thanks to a nice Beatles-inspired bridge in the middle. And the influence of other rock and pop bands is clear at various points in the album.
“Magnoun’s fast-paced bouncy riff brought to mind 1980s Scottish popsters Wet, Wet, Wet; “Etkalemy is vaguely Jon Bon Jovi at the beginning; while closing track “Kol El Meliha has a distinctly Pink Floydish feel about it in its closing bars.
The CD inlay in fact proclaims that Wust El Balad is “an amazing blend of sounds, combines traditional Arabic music with modern and western twist [sic] – which is all well and good but, on the album at least, this mixture sounded cumbersome.
This is in part due to the album’s inconsistent and slightly odd production.While “Arabily is super slick, songs such as “Wust El Balad and “Antika sound almost like a demo tape.
Perhaps this is an attempt to capture the freshness of Wust El Balad’s live performances? Who knows! I googled the album’s producer, one Daryl John Kennedy, and at first glance thought that Mr Kennedy was one of candidates in the race for the White House, with his presidential style bouffant hair and the American flags which adorn his website everywhere.
I was startled to find that he describes himself as a “cultural ambassador who carries out “independent ambassadorial work for the US, plays 16 instruments, and is becoming a “valuable American asset overseas. All very bonkers, and I left the website unenlightened as to the production choices on this album.
Alas Wust El Balad’s first album is a disappointment, but songs like the excellent “Yemken and lead singer Adham’s outstanding vocals both demonstrate that the band have the potential to match the excellence of their live performances once they adjust to life signed to a label.