We’re told that, as a young man, Pouya Mahmoodi liked Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin and jazz. Born in Iran, he spent his early teens in France, developed an interest in the guitar that seems to have verged on nerdish teenage obsession, and, after many hours spent playing alone in his room, found himself with what he refers to as an “accent”, a combination of Western rock and the poetic, yearning melodies of classical Persian music.
But a Westerner who listened to Mehr for the first time without knowing any of that background information would hear something less esoteric, music like quiet adult contemporary guitar rock with jazz overtones, modestly bluesy sometimes, often not, music that would make the under-tens yawn with its absence of call and response and verse-chorus-verse and ping-pong melodies and hokey-pokey legs going in and legs going out. Boring! shouts the five-year-old, stamping around the room and demanding the Wiggles. Mellow, says the stressed parent. Relaxing. Soothing. Thoughtful. Hush, child. “He’s mumbling,” said my layman the first time I played it.
“He’s not, he’s singing in Farsi.”
“He’s mumbling in Farsi.”
“He’s not mumbling. He’s singing. In Farsi. That’s how Farsi sounds.”
Mahmoodi has a mild-mannered, steady voice with an elongated lilt and a gentleness that makes him sound as if he’s singing to himself and you happen to be accidentally overhearing him, a man in dreamy, longing private communion as if somewhere inside his brain he’s always back there, years ago, still on his own in his bedroom, with you passing by his window on foot.
On second and third listens, the different influences begin to disentangle themselves. Some tracks have a distinctive Iranian sound, others are more definitely Westernised. The bluesy-loungey swing of “Me Ta Vo” goes past leaving a faint smell of Chris Isaak and “Wicked Game” in the air behind it, while “Raz O Niaz” moves to the beat of a regular stress that made me think of Middle Eastern folk songs and something else that I couldn’t quite place at first which turned out to be 1970s Turkish psyche rocker Edip Akbayram. For “Bamdad”, he borrows a smidgen of dreampop guitar, an echoing old Cocteau Twins sound that gives the song the occasional melancholy of an empty room. It’s disrupted about half-way through by an irritating rock-guitar solo.
Two of the songs, “Noban” and “Dingomaro”, take their lyrics from the rituals of zaar, a supernatural healing movement that incorporates spiritual possession. Zaar was brought to Iran from Somalia and Ethiopia, and the songs have an open-vowelled softness, a lullabye drift, and a woman singing backing vocals. This woman’s name appears to be Negar Rostami Nejad. She has a more prominent role in “Rang”, where she plays a creamy violin as well as singing.
Mehr is an unassuming release. The idea that the author of these domesticated tunes might have once thrilled to “Black Dog” and Robert Plant’s bare-nippled chest and forensically tight jeans is an odd one. This is an album that keeps its clothes on. It sits peacefully on a chair, dreaming and singing to itself, sighing to the violin, snapping its fingers to Vladimir Jaggi’s drums in “Niayesh”. An album for people who like to keep their shirts buttoned and their thoughts benign.
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