It’s true that the most recent world-music pop ship sailed rather quickly with the rise and fall of Vampire Weekend and Beirut, but those artists fell prey to absurd claims against what critics and trolls referred to as authenticity. That’s not going to be an issue for Painted Caves. The love child of Palestinian-American Ali Lubbad and a rotating cast of worldly contributors, this band does not scream “U.S.A.” in any way other than that the lyrics are sung in English. The music on the band’s self-titled debut full-length is not cheesy, and it doesn’t sound phony or fussed-over—it’s full of rich, layered vocals and full, eclectic arrangements wherein no unconventional note or beat sounds out of place. In a parallel universe with a true world community, this is pop music.
“Paper Tigers: Ballad Of The Office Worker” starts the album sounding like something from Paul Simon’s Rhythm Of The Saints. But with a booming guitar riff and a cymbal crash, it defects quickly into grand, quasi-post-rock territory. Lubbad’s effortlessly soothing vocals occasionally burn with a smoky urgency, like Mark Lanegan, but not quite so deep. Traditional and folk arrangements form the basis of the overall sound, but the sentiments are spiritual and unashamedly pop, and the shimmering guitar that forms the backbone of most of the songs creates an easy access point for Western brains. Still, the focused mixture of cultural schemes brings to mind latter-day Captain Beefheart or a way-mellow Secret Chiefs 3 more than any FM radio touchstone.
“The Ocean” embodies the dichotomy of gravity and light-heartedness that Painted Caves inhabit. The mood is celebratory and loving, and the cascading kanun and oud (traditional Middle Eastern strings) are incredibly uplifting. Yet at times, the booming didgeridoo and dark electric guitar conjure up desolation and solitude, echoing the sad potential of the lyric “There will never be another you.” Admittedly, “Half-Human” is silly, the innocuous “shoo-be-doos” and tossed-off lyrics muddying what could’ve been a pleasant instrumental. But from the calmly searching (“Ocean,” “Peace Bear”) to the rhythmically infectious (“Morse Code,” “Blood In The Water”) to the weirdly mesmerizing (“Painted Caves”, “Man Is Coy Behind Animal Tears”), Painted Caves is guaranteed to move you in some way.