Putumayo Presents: India
We say: Playing it safe in Bollywood
If you've liked the Indian music you hear in your local restaurant or in the movies, this new collection from Putumayo is an ample introduction to Indian music from the stage and screen. If your tasted run more to the likes Karsh Kale and Dhol Foundation, however, it will probably come across as a bit old-fashioned and tame.
This collection mostly focuses on Bollywood music, with the typical high-pitched female singers and their suave tenor counterparts. Mixed in are some traditional devotional songs, with the whole comprising a path straight down the middle. There are no meandering classical noodlings that would put western ears to sleep and none of the upbeat electronica mash-ups that have electrified dance floors and lounges across the world.
There are plenty of A-list names though, starting with A.R. Rahman, who recently won an Oscar for his music in Slumdog Millionaire. Sasheela Raman-well-known on the international scene-is joined by Bombay superstars like Kailash Kher and classical headliners such as Deepak Ram. There are no real surprises here, but if you're nostalgic for the time you traveled in India, this will bring back plenty of memories.
We say: New Delhi club masters spin for the late nights
For a darker and less organic version of Indian music, New Delhi producers/DJs Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj smash up and mash up whatever comes their way, but without losing the elements that set music from the subcontinent apart. Midival Pundits released their first album in 2002 and gained attention from scoring the movie Closer and from their contribution to the Six Degrees anniversary collection: a unique cover version of the Led Zeppelin song "Four Sticks." Thankfully, that track reappears here and is a real standout.
Labelmate Karsh Kale was involved as the third man in this duo, lending his production, songwriting, and instrumental skills. His influence especially shows on the flute-featuring instrumental "Drifting" and the Trent Reznor meets Hare Krishna track "Desolate." Fans of his will find a lot of what they like on Hello Hello.
A few tracks fall flat, especially the electronica rock anthem "Atomizer" (some elements are just not meant to be mashed) and the routine club music sound of "The Lucky One." Overall though, this is a more consistent and confident album than their previous MIDIval Times collection. It is a good one to grab if you like Indian club music better than what you normally hear on an Indian bus while barreling down the highway.
We say: 16 tracks isn't necessarily better than 12...
Lila Downs has long been one of Mexico's most interesting and unpredictable singers. Who else has a bio that makes references to Oaxaca, Minnesota, opera, an auto parts store, a circus clown, and the Grateful Dead within a couple paragraphs? You can bet that if nothing else, her music will surprise you. These days, that's a rare bet, so it's especially gratifying to report that her latest album is both enjoyable and challenging.
The album starts with a Mariachi-band sounding horn section, but then breaks into a downright funky song sung in English—"Little Man." Two songs later, "Minimum Wage" is also in English, a bluesy shuffle about the trials of working for cheap. "Perro Negro" mixes Mexican and Gypsy music into a new form altogether and it works. She can bring emotion to a strong duet with Mercedes Sosa on "Tierra de Luz," or do a duet about chickens with a straight face on "Los Pollos."
As with so many current albums, the main drawback is that Downs didn't know when to quit. There are 16 tracks on here, which is at least three too many. I could have done without the cover of "Black Magic Woman" since I've already heard the song enough times to last three lifetimes, but at least it does sound sufficiently different with its horn section, Raul Midón vocal interlude, and accordian. I like the Lucinda Williams song "I Envy the Wind," but I didn't need to hear it twice: once in English, once in Spanish. "I Would Never" is the real bummer though, sounding like something a second-tier country music radio star would phone in on a break.
Lila Downs has won a Grammy, she contributed to the movie Frida, and she sells out concerts on both sides of the border. The experience and confidence shows on this latest album, but what really matters is that she still keeps pushing the boundaries instead of taking the easy way out. Even when she bombs now and then, there's something brilliant coming if you just wait for another track.
Putumayo Presents: Salsa!
We say: An instant Salsa party on tap
Is this the best salsa compilation ever or just another in a long line of mongrel collections? The people who can answer that question aren't even going to pick something like this up to start with; it's for the unitiated like you and me, people who have enough trouble just telling the difference between Cuban and Puerto Rican music. (Hint: you hear the former blasted out of souped-up cars in Miami and the latter out of souped-up cars in New York City.) All that matters for us really is that it's a fun party album.
This is an oddly American collection for some reason though, with seven artists being residents of New York or Los Angeles. The rest hail from Colombia: groups Fruko y Sus Tesos and Gruopo Galé (a 15-piece band!), plus young dance club favorite Juanito y la Agresiva. Salsa music itself is arguably really a product of New York anyway though. The big city played a big part in the mixing of styles from Latin America and taking the tempo up a few notches in dance halls.
There are some newcomers in this bunch, but most of the featured artists are respected bandleaders and groups who are household names in the salsa world: Chico Alvarez, Pancho Sanchez, and Eddi Palmieri for a start. If you like salsa music already, this will work for an impromptu dance party. If you want a taste for your collection, this is a safe and solid compilation for getting started.
Perceptive Travel editor Tim Leffel is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, now in its 3rd edition. He once wrote bios and marketing copy for now-forgotten rock bands, but he currently spits out more heartfelt raves on the Cheapest Destinations Blog and the Practical Travel Gear Blog.