The Invisible Hands
(out of 5)
Underground-music legend Alan Bishop isn't opposed to frequenting a hot spot riddled with conflict. Over the last year and change, the ex–Sun City Girls bassist/vocalist and cohead of the Sublime Frequencies label has been spending a lot of time in Cairo. There he formed the group the Invisible Hands with Montreal psych-rock vet Sam Shalabi (oudist/guitarist for Shalabi Effect and others), plus guitarist Cherif El-Masri, vocalist Aya Hemeda, and drummer Magued Nagati. The new milieu and bandmates have benefited Bishop, who also records eccentric loner rock as Alvarius B.
Those expecting the Sun City Girls' voracious genre subversions or excoriating psychedelia won't be sated by the Invisible Hands' debut LP. The Invisible Hands— which was also recorded with Arabic lyrics—may be the most accessible release ever to bear Bishop and Shalabi credits. In contrast to his more extreme vocal approach in SCG (ranging from Allah-startling wails to snide muttering), Bishop sings with singer- songwriter earnestness here. And it works, mostly. It's tough to shake entrenched expectations of Bishop-esque tongue-in-cheekiness, but his sincerity enhances this album's delicately wrought songs. The Invisible Hands excel at the morose, orchestral ballad that lifts you up as it takes you down, elegantly. Check out "Black Blood," a Lee Hazlewood–esque bit of acoustic-guitar storytelling about a man who's tortured, and "Dark Hall," featuring Shalabi's incredibly dexterous oud-plucking. Another standout is "Hitman Boy," which carries a Barry Adamson/espionage-blues-rock vibe, augmented by El-Masri's electric-guitar flare-ups. But the shocker is "Soma," an ebullient orchestral-pop nugget whose chorus you can actually whistle. Strangely for someone of Bishop's caustic, iconoclastic bent, the song could be a hit in a just world—a world that Bishop doubts will ever exist.