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Thomas Belhom - Remedios

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Artist: Thomas Belhom

Album: Remedios

Label: Ici D'ailleurs

Review date: Sep. 14, 2004

Although he may be a Frenchman by birth, Thomas Belhom draws his musical inspiration primarily from the American Southwest. A sometime resident of Tucson, Arizona, Belhom has at various points collaborated with Naïm Amor (as Amor Belhom Duo), Howe Gelb of Giant Sand, and John Convertino and Joey Burns of Calexico. Remedios, his solo debut, finds him heading in musical directions decidedly different than those of his American counterparts: whereas Calexico have of late turned toward more traditional song structures and a more prominent use of vocals, Belhom favors a meandering, organic approach. Few of the tracks on Remedios could really be described as “songs”; percussion-dominated atmospherics dominate, with only a secondary importance placed on melody and tonality.

Like Convertino, Belhom is first and foremost a drummer, and it shows. Even when playing guitar or accordion, he takes a rhythmic approach, treating tonal instruments as pitched percussion (see the tapped guitar intro on “Mathilde” or the punchy accordion on the title track) rather than sources of melody. As a result, the album’s more melodic segments fade in and out of the rhythmic backdrop, stripped of the more privileged role they might be expected to receive. Belhom’s vocals are likewise understated, gently warbled behind layers of processing; although he’s by no means a singer, his voice conveys an otherworldly, alien quality that meshes perfectly with the lo-fi ramshackle instrumentation.

The most interesting quality of Remedios is its success in detaching sounds that are so characteristically Southwestern from their geographical implications: Belhom’s music does strongly resemble that of Calexico and Giant Sand, but it doesn’t evoke the same cultural milieu. Belhom uses the typical Tex-Mex tropes – reverb-soaked electric leads, nylon-string guitar arpeggios, booming bass drums – in such a way that they’re allowed to speak for themselves, no longer representative of anything extra-musical. Remedios is therefore a perfect example of successful musical cross-pollination; American forms are adopted, then modified by a European, and thus transformed into something else entirely.

While Remedios certainly has its share of virtues, it would be overzealous to call it a total success. While most tracks are intriguing or effective in some respect, most go on for far too long, exhausting their expressive potential somewhere around the halfway point. Therein lies the risk of a defiantly unstructured and unedited approach: what’s good may be good enough to redeem the whole, but spends an inordinate amount of time submerged in mediocrity.

By Michael Cramer

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