We say: One of most recognized Indian mash-up men brings on the noise and nuances.
There are only a few world music electronica artists who can fill concert halls in multiple countries and reach commercial success on par with rock bands, but Karsh Kale is one that has managed it. Since coming out with a bang on his 2001 debut album Realize, which was one of the best fusions of Indian and western music forms at that point, he has continued to build up a fan base and gain commissions for TV ads and film scores. Born in England and raised in New York by immigrant parents from India, Kale straddled multiple continents from the start and after training as a drummer and tabla player, he studied classical and popular Indian music, but also the Beatles, Stones, and Zeppelin.
Ten years on, he continues to evolve and branch out as an artist on Cinema, experimenting but also swinging for the commercial fences now and then. He moves from pure Bollywood-beat electronica to rock to atmospheric mood pieces, but seldom lets the sonic landscape get too predictable or repetitive. In a music world where Indian vocals over club beats have become as common as reality TV stars, Kale still retains a distinctive sound. It's an expansive signature of flutes, electric guitars, and occasionally manic percussion. He also produces real songs with real melodies, not just sampled vocals glued on top of manufactured bass and drums.
This is a challenging album on first listen, with musical styles frequently banging up against each other. In some cases it's on the same track, like on "Malika Jam," where one part could be an aggressive Nine Inch Nails song with female vocals, then a chorus comes in that's all lilting and soft. After that it's the title track, which could indeed be a soundtrack for an interesting movie. "Supernova" is the clear dance floor track that will probably be pumping in clubs from Mumbai to Manhattan for a good while. On several tracks, the beginning starts out sparse, as on "Avalanche" with just piano and vocals, but gets more complex as the song builds. "Joy" starts out as more of a chill-out lounge track, but then pumps up the beats, adds more samples panning across the speakers, but keeps it grounded in India with high-pitched vocals, flute passages, and tablas making a walk-on appearance in the last third of the song. "Phoenix Rising" is an out-and-out rock anthem, with Kale on vocals in English, a song ready to be whipped out next time he gets on a football stadium stage.
They don't all work so well. "Ma" is a slow and too-pretty song with a woman's vocals interspersed with a precocious child's. The dirge-tempo track "Peekaboo" is musically interesting the first time, especially with headphones, but will probably not make the cut for many listeners' playlists. Thankfully the album closes out in an upbeat manner with "Sunbeam," a percussion-heavy, steadily building song with Indian singer Vishal Vaid on vocals.
Overall, this is an album that feels confident and brash, a synthesis of cultures that adds up to a hybrid music form retaining the artist's unique signature.
We say: Watcha in the world is this?!
After listening to this album a dozen times, I'm still not quite sure what to make of it—or even how to properly describe it. Nelly McKay meets George Clinton? Transglobal Underground jams with Gogol Bordello? No, this strange group is so delightfully all over the map that this is more like a world music version of 1970s FM radio. It's eclectic, unpredictable, and continually surprising. Yeah okay, a little maddening too, like an over-reaching concept album that can't be bothered with any boundaries, but that's part of the charm.
It's also probably going to be a commercial bomb since it's hard to tell where anyone would file this in terms of categories or how the band would be billed on a festival ticket. Sometimes it's dance music, sometimes it sounds like Algerian desert blues music with a beat, then a soft clarinet passage will come in, with plaintive lyrics in Arabic over the top. Next up, gypsy music with a rooster crowing in the background, then samples of a doorbell, an alarm watch, and the language switching to...Hebrew for "Im Nin'alu." Later, the title of "Il etait une fois dans l'est" is in French, but it's actually sung in Yiddish instead. WTF?!
Balkan beats and Sephardic folk follow, the fastest track being all instrumental except one exclamation of "Alright now, watch this!" Then hodgepodge songs in a couple more languages. The last track, "Viens Viens," ends with an interview snippet in French that sounds like it must be a good joke. Radio Babel indeed. Perhaps it makes sense when you consider the members of this collective based in Marsailles, France. Vocalist Sista K is the daughter of a Jewish Polish mother and an Berber father, with others being from the French Alps, Corsica and Algeria
Some will surely find this musical jaunt through a Berlitz office maddening, but in a world of carefully calculated niches and elevator pitches, it's kind of refreshing to listen to a group that's just following its own whims, wherever they may lead. This sounds like an album put out to please the band, not a specific audience. If you like it, great. If not, well, they clearly had fun making it.
We say: A time warp trip back to when Iran knew how to party.
Wait—the Iranians have funk in their blood? They know how to get down? Well they did, once upon a time. Before the mullahs came to power in the religious revolution, Persia had long been a hotbed of musical experimentation, with a history that went back to the dawn of musical instruments themselves. Then it all ended in 1979 and those who could see the writing on the mosque wall or were exiled left, for new hotbeds like Istanbul, Beirut, or Cairo. Others weren't so lucky and were put under house arrest. The regime burned most of the recording studios and musically, Iran went sonically dark.
So this Persian Funk collection is a fascinating glimpse back to a freewheeling time that's hard to imagine now, when American music circulated freely in Iran and bands could try their hand at fitting the new styles into their repetoire. The Shah certainly had his faults, but he was a big supporter of the arts and government money helped fund recording labels. Secret Stash Records dug through most of the remaining archives to find some of the best funk and soul tunes recorded in Iran during the 70s.
The music itself is already a time machine, reminding us of soundtracks of Shaft-era movies and TV shows like The Jeffersons. Apart from the cover of Aretha Franklin's "Respect," and the cover of Stevie Wonder's "Past Time Paradise," however, most of these tracks sound like they took a wrong turn on the way to the inner city and somehow ended up in the Middle East.
Some songs have vocals in Farsi, first of all, which already sounds strange on top of, well, funk. Some of the rhythms get more complicated as well and oddball instruments enter the mix, especially on "Del" and "Soul Raga." These are real marraiges of east and west, decades before everybody and their brother was mixing tablas, sitars, and other exotic instruments with dance grooves that originated across an ocean or two. The studio sessions must have been a trip, especially on a track like "Ghabileye Leyli," which mixes a heavy bass line and wah-wah guitars with a full string section.
In a nod to the 70s, this collection is available on LP, but not CD. You can fast-forward to now though and get a digital download from Amazon.