Friday, August 19, 2005

Ear Candy
Pop, rock, world music is fine – but what about the soul?


Three recent Indian releases exemplify some of what is wrong with our non-film popular music…and a little of what’s right. All 3 albums have interesting moments but the one thing common to them is also their primary shortfall - a lack of heartfelt emotion overall. Or basic integrity, if you like.

Pehchan
by Silk Route (BMG Crescendo)

The biggest let-down in the history of indipop till date. Expectations were high after their superb 1998 album Boondein. With cassettes priced at Rs 100, Pehchan was certainly the highest-priced indipop title ever. The marketing people appear to have gone on an overdrive with this album, and not entirely unsurprisingly seem to have royally screwed up. The first blunder was choosing the song “Sapnay” for the video. Somebody must have convinced the band that they should milk their romantic image for all it was worth. So, they choose the soppiest, most insipid song in the album, create an asinine, clichéd video around it, complete with lead singer Mohit throwing utterly ersatz intense gazes away from the camera. Then, the overall album presentation - cover design and inlay, seems to be the result of marketing brainstorming sessions. The album has just 8 songs, two songs less than what Boondein did, perhaps another brainwave designed to optimise future output – god hopefully at least knows what’s going on here.

It’s particularly mystifying when you hear the first two tracks on the album. The breezy “Jadu Tona” and the gentle “Door Chala Aayaa” are as good as anything Silk Route have ever done and easily the best tracks on this album. Exquisite musicianship and lovely harmonies are still their hallmark. One would think they’d have wanted to put their best foot forward with the video. Because after these two tracks, it’s pretty much downhill. “Dastak” is still interesting, what with its theme of evoking spirits and Kalyan Baruah’s superb guitar-work, but overall it appeals to the mind, not the emotions - always dangerous ground to tread. The momentum just fizzles out, especially after it’s followed by “Morni” – a traditional tune, prettily arranged but just not compelling enough. “Tu Woh Nahin” and “Chakkar Ghor” have the same problem perhaps - they just don’t strike the emotion-chord. “Lullaby” – the English track is crap – more for the pseudo accent and self-conscious fakeness that permeates the song than the clichés it is soaked in, musically and lyrically. It is amazing that they didn’t use their song “Higher” that they once performed on a 1998 Channel V show – it was truly lovely. But those were different times it would seem; the band appears to have lost considerable maturity since. Whether there is a connection with losing their oldest member Atul Mittal or not, one cannot say, but the difference is certainly palpable. They seem to have made a formula of their sound. If that is record company-induced, the band would do well to change their label before it’s too late. The album has been a flop and they could become history very quickly. The audience has a very short memory.

Bhoomi
by Sulaiman and Salim Merchant (Virgin)

Actually, the Merchant brothers are not artists but the producers of this album, which is being hyped as India’s first World Music album. The concept is interesting enough – eight traditional folk songs from different areas of India, rearranged to give a contemporary feel, each song using a specific regional musical instrument.

It starts out marvellously – with Ustad Sultan Khan singing a song in Brujbhasha – called “Kate Nahin Raat”. Though the arrangements are exquisite and the Ustad sings wonderfully, the real strength of the track is its composition by the Ustad himself (thus rectifying the problem in his other album out- Piya Basanti). The closing track is also composed by the Ustad - a Rajasthani lullaby sung by Shubha Mudgal. As it turns out, these two tracks are the highlights of the album They do deviate from the overall theme of being traditional songs though.

Thereafter, some of the tracks are nothing but remixed folk. Mind you, the traditional tunes are lovely, the vocalists are excellent, without exception. But the beats and the weird instrumental insertions take away from a lot of the original charm. The Maharashtrian song – “Jaysuree” and the Bengali Baul song are good examples of that. The devotional Gujarati song –“Ruddi Ne Rangeeli Re” even more so. A ugly concoction of loud samplers and electric guitar snarls gangrape the lovely little tune that even the flute and sarangi cannot save.

The arrangements are more tasteful for the Dogri and the Assamese songs. They work almost in the same way Nusrat and Michael Brooke’s “Mastt Mastt”worked; funky, without losing the earthy quality (though the hip female chorus that appears for a short while on the Assamese track does try to molest it). Maybe that’s Real World studios’ most important contribution to the album. The Rajasthani gypsy song – “Talediya Malediya” is lovely, but the soundscape is just too damn busy with extraneous, and might one add unnecessary, instrumentation. It seems the dandy Merchant brothers were too keen to imprint the tracks with their individuality, lest someone wonder what their musical contribution was. The two songs composed by the Ustad haven’t been similarly manhandled however; perhaps the Ustad put his foot down, no samplers! More power to him.

Still, one has to give credit to the Merchant brothers for at least embarking on this project. Bhoomi is definitely worth listening to, despite its warts. Unfortunately, it is self-defeating to provide such a distracting (and frankly, often cacophonous) common thread to music from a continent that pulls together as a country in these times. The luminous beauty of the originals is affected and it becomes more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional experience. Maybe, next time around, there’ll be a little more restraint.

Drive Carefully For Our Shake!
by Orange Street (RSJ)

Rock Street Journal (RSJ) is a hard rock magazine that has been popular in the college circuit for years. Now, they’ve set up a music label to popularise the indigenous bands even more. The idea is to finance a band’s studio album, which they give out free (on cassette) with their magazine. It’s a very laudable idea no doubt. On the consumer side though, it isn’t quite as exciting. Frankly, it’s the magazine that’s really being given free with the album. If you remove a couple of Sam Lal pieces, RSJ is worse than a college rag and at Rs 100 is a joke. Also, choosing 2nd grade T-Series cassettes to put this music on is sad. But hell, at least somebody’s trying. This is the first album that was distributed with the November issue.

Orange Street is a Delhi rock band, though they sound like they’re from Seattle or something. The band would probably take that as a compliment, but it’s not, in fact, that’s what’s most wrong with it. The ersatz American accent is hugely off-putting and their overall swagger seems to be totally derivative and not from within. They believe they’ve “written songs for people to remember and not to make any political statements or sympathise with tragedies”. This is usually what people say they have nothing to say, and “say” doesn’t mean literally in words, but any worthwhile feeling or thought fit to express, from within or without. The electric bluster is meant to compensate, and boy, does that reveal their lack of evolution. Also, trying to compose compelling songs electrically is much more difficult than doing so acoustically. Rather like the trend in the English theater scene in Bombay in the early-nineties, when many were attempting absurd plays before they’d understood the basics of conventional theatre. The band seems to have an unhealthy, but sadly typical, obsession with techniques (like getting the drum sound more right than any other Indian band!). A little more thought and energy put into their songwriting could have made this a really classy offering.

Still, there are actually some positive things about the album. The musicianship is uniformly good, often excellent. The funky guitar-work (electric and bass) in “Paint The Sky” and “Saint Sinner” (get past the accent and there’s a lot to enjoy in this song), the solo in “Hey”, well, they rock. Anirban’s vocals are energetic and often affecting; wish the Vedder-Cobain influence was less palpable. “Again!!” is the song where everything comes together just fine – infectious tune, tightly arranged, nice words, sung well. “Over And Under”- partly acoustic and “Candywalk”- fully so, suggest the heights the band can touch if they stop simply playing with their instruments but use them as tools to communicate something of substance (which, incidently, can even be as happy as most of the songs here). It’s useful to remember that rock concerts are one thing, studio albums quite another. The music system is a great leveller – if you’re competing with the world’s best music, you’d better have something to say.


Gentleman
February 2001

1 Comments:

OpenID indianrockmp3 said...

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3:25 AM  

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