Both liberals and conservatives will find something to like about Khalid Hanifi’s new album, A Brief Respite from Shooting Fish in a Barrel, described by the Ann Arbor singer-songwriter as a collection of “resolutely non-partisan politically and economically themed songs.” To be sure, liberals will be more likely to subscribe to the lyrics’ pointed and ironic depictions of war, wealth, and the ideologies that justify the first for the second under the banner of freedom. Politicis aside, there’s much to be commended in Hanifi’s clear and commanding vocals and the album’s musical range, which coolly spans pop, country, and blues. Compromise rarely sounds this harmonious.
Despite its title, A Brief Respite is anything but, with each song smartly questioning and confronting power in its various traditional forms. Money and social class bear the weight of Hanifi’s scrutiny in “The Splendor of Empire,” whose lyrics suggest the impossibility of matching and maintaining the aggressive pace of fortune. The pop song’s shimmering and palatial sound features Hanifi’s quick plucking on acoustic guitar and the keyboard electro-riches of Jonathan Visger, a local indie musician who helped produce the album. When just Hanifi and drummer Chuck Mauk performed the number in July at Top of the Park, Hanifi prefaced it with a wry proposal to the audience: “If anyone can spot the Warren Buffett quote, I’ll give you $5.” Lucky for Hanifi, only one man took him up on the offer.
The quote in question comes from a 2006 New York Times interview in which Buffett confirms class warfare between the rich and everybody else. Yet, just as Hanifi avoids the partisan divide, he resists labeling and sorting people according to dollar signs. Earlier this year, Hanifi stated on this album’s Kickstarter website that the goal of these songs is to inspire dialogue beneficial to everyone–the 100 percent.
On the country tune “Free the World to Death,” Hanifi satirizes American imperialism through an updated trope: an Old West cowboy, tweaked out and riding through a Middle Eastern desert. The lyrics are provocative, discomforting: “Democracy, democracy, one size fits all. First get down on your belly and crawl.” This, coupled with local rockabilly guitarist George Bedard’s swaggering solos, makes for a well-thrown punch of a song. The album also features a version of this song sung in Pashto–an official language of Afghanistan–completing Afghan American Hanifi’s sardonic appropriation of an image and a musical style often associated with red-white-and-blue jingoism.
Other standout tracks include “Rock and Roll Frankenstein”–whose heartsick acoustic sound, lustrous slide guitar, and warm vocals echo Beck’s masterpiece album Sea Change–and the sexy, bluesy “The Way Business Gets Done,” again featuring guitarist Bedard as well as Hanifi’s ability to hit–really hit–those high notes. Songwriting aside, it’s Hanifi’s voice–softer than Elton John’s steel-edged vocals, less pinched than Elvis Costello’s, yet reminiscent of both–that captures your attention. At the same TOP concert this past summer, on a 100-plus-degree day, Hanifi delivered a pitch-perfect rendition of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” earning him loud cheers from a refreshed audience.