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Zendooni: Funk, Psychedelia and Pop from the Iranian Pre-Revolution Generation

(Pharaway Sounds; US: 10 Jul 2012; UK: 13 Aug 2012)

A mixed bag of 1970s Iranian tunes

This 19-track compilation of obscure and hard-to-find Iranian pop songs—many of them released here on CD for the first time—is billed as “Funk, Psychedelia and Pop from the Iranian Pre-Revolution Generation.” Well, pre-revolution these songs may be, but there is little funk to be heard on these tracks, and nothing at all that sounds like psychedelia. This is essentially a collection of Farsi pop music from the 1970s, occasionally diverting, rarely compelling, and often sounding like warmed-over Hindi film music.


The collection kicks off with a duet from Ahmad Wali and Hangama, “Shab Labane Dagh Khesh (His Hot Lips at Night)”, and with a title like that, you’re expecting something with some pizzazz. Instead, there’s a midtempo tabla beat, some wavery synth and harmonium, and sitar accents in counterpoint to the male and female voices. Did I mention that much of this record sounds like warmed-over Hindi film music? That trend starts right here, and continues throughout most of the album. “Ouj (Culmination)” by Nooshafarin channels something of a smooth-jazz vibe, which is undercut by the string section buzzing away in the background, but they do have sense enough to ease off when her singing is at its most urgent. Nooshafarin comes back for “Paratesh (Worship)”, which begins misleadingly with a funky bass-and-high-hat riff that, unfortunately, soon evaporates in a swirl of strings.


And so it goes. The pop side of the pop-funk-psych equation dominates tune after tune. Fereshte’s “Shahre Khali (Empty City)” employs a nice flute line and some nifty keyboards, but it wouldn’t sound out of place on American AM radio of the 1970s (vocals aside, of course). “Bi Vafa (Unfaithful)” by Kambiz utilizes a compelling piano rhythm and tinking keyboards to leaven its string section, but it’s still at heart a string-heavy pop song. And “Aroos Khanam,” sung here in a wavering tenor by Amir Rasaei, sounds like nothing so much as one of those overblown love songs so prevalent in Indian movies.


Not until the last few tunes on the record does the listener get a different taste of what Iranian music had to offer. The song “Zendooni,” performed here by Farzin, benefits from a bouncy bassline and an almost-reggae rhythm. “Hamishe Tanha (Forever Only)” rolls along on waves of bass and swooping minor-chord strings,  while “Baaghe Geryeh (Crying Garden)” drops wah-wah guitar and a bit of slide into the mix. Even with such songs, though, the inventiveness tends to go out the window once the singing starts.


Alas, the sound quality leaves much to be desired. Presumably, the folks over at Pharaway Sounds did their best at cleaning up and remastering the material, but much of it still sounds muffled and muddy. No doubt this is a reflection of the source material, but that does little to improve the listening experience. Given the excellent work done by labels like Soundways Records and Analog Africa with material from the same era, one wonders if further improvement wasn’t somehow possible.


On the other hand, the enclosed booklet is an excellent resource, reflecting careful scholarship and a real love for the material. A densely-packed 16 pages, the booklet offers pictures of all the performers and an overview of the musical scene in Iran at the time, as well as a song-by-song annotation of the entire album. The booklet goes song ways to contextalize the performers and help novice listeners to understand each one’s particular significance.


Definitely a niche item, then, although one that might appeal to aficianados of the obscure. There are some curious sounds here, certainly; just be sure to leaven your expectations when it comes to the funky and the psychedelic.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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