Many of the best albums around are rife with contrast. Variety may be the spice of life, but a journey through light and dark; soft and loud; genre A and subgenre X can certainly add a great deal of flavour to a collection of songs too. Language Barrier is a strong example, but the contrasts that Shirlette Ammons puts to tape are far from natural peaks and troughs. Instead, this North Carolina poet, author and musician puts her talent to use creating one of the most original and instantly memorable releases of recent times by stacking rich, indie rock guitar music directly up against experimental hip-hop.
Opening track ‘Earth Intro Segue’ sets things off with a short, fuzzy guitar chord sample and minimal electronic beat, before Shirlette’s unique brand of dejected spoken rap brings a touch of dark surrealism, her voice doubled to create a mind-twisting cascade of expertly crafted rhymes. After just two and a half minutes, the track ends, but the chord sequence from the original sample is wrought out of a folk violin for the beginning of track two, ‘Earth Intro’. Then, the warm indie guitar and drums kick in, reinforcing the now very familiar musical line, and it all becomes clear: track one sampled track two, and they belong together as a bewildering pair, to open an album of surprises.
The chart-worthy warmth of ‘Earth Intro’, complete with its inescapable hooks is followed by the dreamy, xylophone-embellished ballad, ‘Dear Nora’ before ‘Language Barrier Segue’ brings female, German rapper Sookee to the fore, spitting her famously guttural native language over an odd, major-key marching chord sequence and a choppy grime beat. There are a wealth of guest musicians across Language Barrier‘s ten tracks (one on each track except the first) and Sookee’s surprise appearance highlights the issue that it can be hard to decipher an actual identity for the music on the album as a result. However, when Shirlette herself returns as before, laying down dual-vocal, downbeat poems, the whole ambitious project starts to weirdly come together. From here on, a pattern emerges and a serious case of ‘expect the unexpected’ becomes the most exciting part of the experience.
Sooner or later, the whole contradictory musical concept of the album will really start to grow on any discerning listener’s ears, the initial confusion gradually replaced with acceptance, enjoyment and a great deal of respect for what has been achieved. The sharp changes of genre also mark changes in mood, never more so than between the gritty ‘On the Road Segue’ and the upbeat, danceable ‘On the Road’. It’s like Shirlette is repeatedly putting on a mask of happiness to cover over the underlying, brooding darkness – and a very convincing mask at that.
Whilst the final track ‘Travel Light’, featuring American folk artist Phil Cook, makes for an odd conclusion, refusing to sit quite right with the structure of an album which took almost its entire length to make sense, it is nonetheless a perfectly enjoyable close to an incredibly ambitious, boundary-challenging and bewildering record which, given time, concentration and more than a single listen, is nothing less than astonishing.