Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Koyal (Songbird)" by Nitin Sawhney (2005)

When it comes to the topic of 'world fusion', I think there's good reason to be afraid, be very afraid... at its worst, the very noble idea of integrating music from different global traditions (or, if 'tradition' is a bit of a misnomer for the frequently modern styles at work, let's say 'styles') is fraught with problems: first and foremost is a kind of dilettantism that frequently seeks to 'spice up' otherwise bland music by infusing it with a touch of 'exotica'. With no disrespect to Martin Denny, it's that very word that got world music, and world fusion, started as a viable commercial enterprise - on arguably the wrong foot. There's frequently a 'look at the natives' feel to a lot of these cultural mash-ups that not only turn vivid musical traditions into museum pieces but also discourage true collaboration: sing how you would have anyway, and I'll put some beats underneath. The different strands of DNA all too infrequently recombine to form new, viable hybrids: most of the time, they merely exist in the same sonic space at the same time: musical oil floating on musical water.

So I have little to say about Nitin Sawhney. The English will see him as Indian, Indians will see him as English. Like a good many English musicians of South Asian heritage, those little bits of music that have floated around him perhaps since childhood somehow manage to make their way back into whatever music he's making as an adult. He's all over the map, stylistically, ranging from jazz to hip-hop to classical. While South Asian music is never that far away, it's hardly strictly a Bhrangra-esque take on Indian-music-plus-Western-beats. What Nitin Sawhney is doing, largely, is creating music regardless of genre: assembling sounds without consideration of which kinds of sounds have until now co-existed. It's not genre-mixing so much as music that makes the concept of genre irrelevant.

I can't find anything songwriting credits more elaborate than 'written by Nitin Sawhney', so it's entirely possible that the gorgeous melody and Hindi-language lyrics (about a songbird) were really composed just a few years back. But they certainly sound like they've been around, floating on the air, since time immemorial. The song gest started with a looped piano, some pretty standard 'downtempo' drums, and an Indian flute. So far, so new-age, really. It's gorgeous, but nowhere we haven't been before. For me, what makes this song so special is how little it gives in to the trappings of Buddha Bar 'fusion': well before its brief three minutes finish (no solos, no instrumental segments), you've forgotten just how 'European' and 'modern' its instrumentation is. The record scratches never go away, but they become merely a part of the atmosphere. Somehow the oil and water mix perfectly here.

But it also manages to avoid that 'look at the natives' feel either. As foreign as it all clearly is (the singer sounds like every female singer you've heard in every Bollywood movie you've caught on TV), it doesn't quite feel foreign, and I think that's because the melody pulls emotional strings that are universal and recognise no genre.

Which, I guess, is ultimately the 'lesson' of world music, by which I mean the Western fascination with, and appropriation of, music from other countries: however exotic something might appear, it still appeals to emotions that are, of course, universal. The lyrics don't seem to mean much, but the two voices in combination mean a million things I can't quite put my finger on. I've seen this song described in a few places as 'haunting', but I don't get that at all. It's nothing spectral, unsettling or anything like that. It's something... purer. I'll embarrass myself further if I keep trying to describe it, but that's what it is. Something very simple, but very heartfelt.

And God is is gorgeous.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

"One Love / People Get Ready" by Bob Marley and the Wailers (1977)

There's just some things not worth arguing about. Yes, this song espouses religious beliefs I do not share ('a thumper's song', my father calls it). Yes, it takes a full verse from Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready". Yes, it's a re-recording of a twelve-year-old song, in a dearth of inspiration that plagued Marley throughout the seventies. Yes, by now it's entirely enveloped in that haze of sunny benevolence that takes certain works of art away from the field of objective criticism (or even enjoyment) into the realm of admiration-by-default. "One Love" is so universally loved and uncritically adored that it almost seems that there's nothing to say about it...

Which is fine, really. It's ultimately a song so simple and yet so gorgeous, so full of hope and beauty, that silence might well be the best way to approach it. Or, of course, singing along with it. If music differs from other forms of art in that it is ultimately communal, if an artist's work is irretrievably tied to the people who consume it, then this is about as high as the art of music climbs. If any song deserves to be considered a 'treasure of mankind', this one does. It may be an expression of belief in a very tiny religious movement indigenous to a very tiny island, but somehow it's universal. People knowing nothing about Rastafarianism or Jamaica can still find themselves in this music, can still find joy and uplift: the equalising power of music. Bob Marley, a Jamaican signed to a British record label and a symbol for people in pretty much every country of the world, was a global phenomenon in a way an American act simply couldn't be at the time (until "Thriller", at least).

Of course, by the very nature of its existence, this song is a political statement. Its idealism is political, but for all of its cheeriness, the lyrics are primarily about judgement, about condemnation. Even if they weren't, though, the song would still be about empowerment: about the small having power over the large, about the weak having power over the strong. The song is about unity, and the inherent power of unity. Bob Marley's lyrics may say nothing about that, but the message still remains strong and clear.

To the point that it's still there even if you choose to tune it out entirely. As political as Bob Marley inevitably was, there's no need to have a political bent to enjoy this music: it basks in a sunshine of its own making. It is an irrepressibly optimistic good-time song that lets in no rainclouds. It's all but impossible to be cynical about this song. It represents, and evokes, all that is good about life on earth. What else does that?

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procul Harum (1967)

I'll never be a church-goer. I just don't have it in me. But I acknowledge that in shutting myself off from religious experience, there is an aspect to the appreciation of music that I also, if not quite shut myself off from, at least limit myself access to. I can listen to the best of gospel or sufi music and feel something real – but undoubtedly something less, or at least different to, what believers experience. Not quite ecstasy. Secular people have to find ecstacy somewhere else.

It's not quite ecstasy that this song offers. It's not quite the meditative trance or the reverent awe. It's a little bit of all three, though. Procul Harum's first recorded effort, the organ-and-gibberish epic “Whiter Shade of Pale” has nothing much to do with traditional religion. Nothing in popular music in the 1960s, or the 1950s or 1940s before it, did. It would still be a few years before Jesus started appearing in pop songs like “Spirit in the Sky” or “Put Your Hand in the Hand”, and this is just as secular as anything by the Beatles before it. The lyrics seem to have more to do with seasickness than anything found in a church. Yet, to me – this is what religion sounds like. Or rather religion at its best. If I had a religion, the halls of its holy houses would ring out with music like this. Lindsay Buckingham calls it 'classical soul music', and it's that too: a perfect mixture of European classical grace and American popular music feeling, thus in both cases reverting back, pincer-like, through European pipe-organ liturgies and African-American folk spirituals, to religious experiences anyway. The organ line is apparently cobbled together from various classical pieces anyway. It sounds like it. But it also sounds more than a little like the hazy confusion of the lyrics, it sounds like accessing only a tiny bit of something much greater but seing awed by it nonetheless. It sounds profound, it sounds knowledgeable. It sounds like greatness. Whatever else, it sounds indescribably beautiful. And ageless, too. Though you get the sense that it truly is from 1967, from the so-called 'Summer of Love' where people were otherwise convincing themselves that their-less-than-stellar musical efforts were in some way the pinnacle of art, this quiet and understated piece feels like it could fit in any era, really.

Or any dimension, too. I don't happen to believe in heaven, but I have no problems convincing myself that such a place would nonetheless be filled with music. And much of it would sound like this.

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Saturday, June 5, 2010

"Luka" by Suzanne Vega (1987)

Is it really possible for an artist to release one of the worst songs in the world and one of the best songs in the world on the same album – in fact, back-to-back as the first two tracks? Well, if you're a New York folkie, undeniably talented yet sadly precious, clever yet too-clever-by-half, sensitive and senseless, it's possible. In short, if you're Suzanne Vega, it's possible.

They like to talk about the evolution of pop (or 'rock') lyrics in the 1960s, how Bob Dylan led music away from the so-called 'moon in June' style of lyrics to something more powerful. Superficially, that's true – but all I can say is that there are different types of 'power'. There were certainly moving lyrics before Dylan, and Dylan operated on a plateau that, while stunning, perhaps didn't always offer the most direct access to the listener's heart. I don't think Dylan would see that as the point.

One of the many things that good lyrics can do is tell truths that can't be told in a spoken voice: when wedded correctly to melody, well-written words can take on a second layer of meaning entirely absent otherwise. This is why poetry and lyric writing, while obviously related arts, are ultimately distinct.

The jangling guitars, those closely-miced drums, that keyboard-imitating-a-marimba that serves as the main instrument – all these things put the song unquestionably in the mid-80s. Without them, Suzanne Vega might just be any folkie-out-of-time. But I don't know if folkies were actually brave enough before Suzanne Vega to stare child abuse in the face like this, unflinching, courageous.

It's easy to be preachy about child abuse, to condemn the abusers and to turn the victims into faceless charity cases: soapbox stuff. Don't get me wrong: I like my righteous indignation as much as the next person, but this is something altogether more impressive: written from the perspective of the abused child, the lyrics make every effort to hide the abuse, to apologise for the abusers, to say 'it's no big deal' – all clearly illustrating without ever needing to directly say just how big a deal it clearly is. Suzanne Vega's plainspoken delivery underlines this. This is no heart-swelling, overwrought performance. This is something altogether more subtle, and as a result more direct. It's all very moving.

The other thing that makes this different from, and truer than, a more ham-fisted approach to the topic is the fact that there's no resolution. As the song ends, Luka's not been saved from his destiny, the parents (about whom we know nothing really) haven't gotten their just desserts, no victory has been proclaimed. All you get is Luka's desperate cry to be left alone: 'just don't ask me how I am'. Those neighbours' doors will continue to hide scenes of torment and torture. All Suzanne Vega has done is remind us that such things really do happen.

And yet, a mere reminder is sometimes the most powerful thing you can give.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Funkytown" by Lipps, Inc. (1980)

“Funkytown” proves something very rarely considered but widely accepted: that a strong composition absolutely transcends genre and era. “Funkytown” is one of those very rare things in music: a universal. What I mean by that is that, technically, it's a late-era disco/pop cross-over, and technically it is from that grey area between the 70s and the 80s (chronologically, I mean: though sonically that's appropriate too), having been released in January 0f 1980. But none of that matters: I have a feeling that if you played it in the roughest C&W honky-tonk bar, somehow it would be accepted and loved. Why? Well, one thing about the song is how completely unassuming it is: not a drop of attitude or bad vibes. It's just a simple, breezy pop song with no agenda whatsoever. So no reason to dislike it, right? More importantly though: it's just a well-crafted song, packed with incident. It has that timeless keyboard riff, it has those guitars in the chorus. It had a chorus, and verses, and linking bits, and it progresses from one part to another with an indisputable logic. It was catchy and it was fun. It wasn't wildly funky, but it had a touch of the funk – enough to justify the title anyway. Still, it made people feel funky while listening to it, and it's one of those songs that lets people dance as badly, and un-self-consciously, as they want: without delving too heavily into cliché, it does take people to... well, to a place where music is fun and you can enjoy it without pretense.

It fit, decades later, into the sountrack of a cartoon, Shrek 2, with absolutely no difficulty whatsoever. With nothing changed or updated, it was suddenly a 21st century kids' song. And why not? All things to all people, there is nothing “Funkytown” can't be, no shape of a hole this square peg won't fit effortlessly into.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Crazy in Love" by Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z (2003)

Jay-Z and Beyoncé actually made two back-to-back wonderful songs at the time: I have a soft spot for “'03 Bonnie and Clyde”, but the sad fact is that it consists of a 2Pac song whose lyrics the duo clearly didn't understand and a Prince song whose lyrics they clearly didn't understand. It's like they Googled 'girlfriend' and made a track out of the songs that showed up. But it's a hip-hop song built around an acoustic guitar riff, and how cool is that?

No acoustic guitars in this song, mind you: none of that soft-focus hippie stuff at all. If pop is meant to be bold and brassy, than this is a pop masterpiece. Scientists need to be studying this song, in order to discover the effortless way that the energy Beyoncé and the production team bring to it gets transferred, across radio waves and speaker wires, to the listener. As methods of energy distribution go, it's way more effective than a world of pipelines or power cables. I think this song could wake people from comas and put wheelchair-bound grandmas on the dancefloor. Not only is it infectious, but it's actually generous with its energy and sunny positivity, as if Beyoncé were strutting down the street in the middle of a parade, throwing armfuls of energy at the passers-by. There is no darkness here, no moodiness or aggression: it's just a celebration of love, of happiness and of positivity.

And it does so with one of the weirdest backing tracks I could imagine: an over-the-top horn sample looped into infinity, a cowbell-heavy rhythm loop that sounds like it's come from some island dance party. I think one of the main ways that the music – or at least the pop music – of the past decade will be remembered is through its willingness to create songs, and insanely catchy songs, out of the weirdest combinations of musical detritus. It's music designed for people who load their iPods with all manner of different kinds of songs and then listen to them on 'shuffle' mode. This is what pop music is today: an iPod on shuffle mode, condensed into a single song. Which is what makes it so great, and why for me the first decade of the 21st century is one in which the songs that were the most popular very frequently also happened to be the ones that were the best.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Thank You for Talking to Me, Africa" by Sly and the Family Stone (1971)

What is funk? I think it's one of those things that aren't really easily defined, but when you encounter it, you know it. Obviously, James Brown holds the patent. Even if funk wasn't entirely a one-man creation, certainly he's the touchstone from which all funk derives. His journey from soul man to funk viruoso in the late sixties and early seventies is an inspiring and awesome one.

But I think you could argue that it's not actually the most illustrative journey into funk. For that, one needs to turn to Sylvester Stewart. Stewart, who rechristened himself Sly Stone, was a music insider in San Francisco, working behind the scenes, before launching his own career. It's interesting to think that such a charismatic frontman originally kept himself out of the limelight. It's seen as revelatory that his band, the Family Stone, was mixed-race. I'm not so sure that it is, really. After all, you can't hear skin colour on a CD, and I don't even know – or care to know – whether it was the drummer or the keyboardist who was white. You know, whatever. What does matter, at least for the early years of the Family Stone, was the way their music arguably fused what was popular in 'white music' and what was popular in 'black music' – in the 60s, they weren't very distinct things either, with all kinds of cross-pollination, but Sly and the Family Stone played just as readily on 'R&B' stations as on 'rock' stations.

More importantly, they were jubilant. Ecstatic. Happy, carefree music: righteous, yes, but righteous in an idealistic way. Positivity, in music and in message.

Things got a bit different with 'Thank You (Falletinme be Mice Elf Agin)', the unfortunately retardedly-titled song that forms the linchpin between 'early' Sly and 'late' Sly. It's somehow upbeat and downbeat at the same time. It's somewhere between the sunny-optimism of the hippie-era sixties and the more strident realism of the more radical early seventies. And, just as importantly, it's still sixties pop, but it's becomeing a deeper and deeper funk: just listen to that bass. That's funk. That's where James Brown lives.


After that single, Sly and the Family Stone apparently fell intol a drug-induced haze that made it tough as nails to actually get an album released. It took a few years – which was a few lifetimes back then – for them to produce There's a Riot Goin' On, with its iconic, red-white-and-black American flag cover. The fifty stars have been replaced by suns, but there's nothing sunny here. This is deep, dark stuff. To say it's drug-induced is missing the point: of course it's drug-induced. So was everything they did in the sixties. Just different drugs. Or, perhaps, different reactions.

This album takes funk into, arguably, a deeper and darker place than James Brown ever went. And the highlight, the centrepiece, is a rerecorded version of that very single. This time, it's seven minutes long, slow, narcotic, messy, but undeniably funky as hell. Whatever Sly and the Family Stone were on, it wasn't peace-and-love pills. But that doesn't make this music depressing: it's not. What it is is intoxicating, addictive... the bass played by Larry Graham is so effortlessly funky that it's stunning. He's not doing much here, but whatever 'funk' is, he's exuding it with every slap of a bass string. Everything else is merely wrapped around that amazing bass, and it's all as sloppy as possible: it's still a communal sing-along, but no one is listening to each other really. The guitars are not exactly chicken-sctratch, but they are abrasive: not musical at all, really. And all over the place...

How does this song work? With its messy and depressing constituent parts that barely cohere, how can the result be so affirming, so exciting and so thrilling? Well, whatever funk is, I suppose it is at its core truly a mystery. Or a form of magic, maybe.

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