Okay, Let's Try This Again
This is the third draft of this review, because the others got all weighed down in their own conceptual issues. Usually, I love conceptual issues, but this time it’s not working at all. So I’m just going to write about this album, Susheela Raman’s second solo record, and how it sounds and how it makes me feel and how I think it’s one of the best and most fun and most intense things you will hear this year if you give it a chance.
When I reviewed her first record, 2001’s Salt Rain, I said that Raman’s sexy eclectics would be the death of “world music” as a label and as a concept (There will be a short break while you go read that review). Well, this one does everything that Salt Rain did and avoids that record’s biggest misstep, which was Raman’s tendency to over-write her own original songs. There are no original songs here, everything being either a cover of centuries-old Carnatic or Shaivite or Marathi hymns to subcontinental gods, or of more modern songs. So: problem avoided.
If you are a little worried about the idea of listening to 400- or 1200-year-old songs sung by a singer you’ve never heard of, rest assured that they have all been placed into really interesting settings by Raman and co-conspirator Sam Mills, whose guitar-playing really takes a back seat to his production and arrangement skills. And that’s “interesting” as in “fascinating” and “infinitely intricate” and “kick-ass”—I have no hesitation in saying that the band that plays on this record is the greatest assemblage of talent you will ever hear on one record.
To start with, they’ve enlisted Tony Allen on drums. That’s right, Tony Allen, the man who played drums for Fela Kuti, the man behind the whole idea of Afro-beat. Tony frickin’ Allen. As the drummer. How brilliant is that? Well, quite brilliant, as he’s the best in the world. Aref Durvesh (Indian percussion) and Djanuno Dabo (African percussion) provide a latticework over Allen’s solid nimble beats. And Hilaire Penda is still the best bass player I’ve ever heard. This group, with Mills on guitar and sitar and other drone-items, is the core, and you can’t imagine what kind of rhythms they come up with. Gentle numbers like “Bliss” are borne on a rolling wavelike slink that includes the soul of three continents. But don’t be fooled—songs like “Sarasa” are in the minority here. Most of the pieces are more uptempo than they were on Salt Rain; on “Manasuloni”, this crew punches it hard, shifting up three separate times into what can only be described as the most rock and roll beat I’ve heard since AC/DC. This is all in support of lyrics sung in Sanskrit praising the “emerald one”, the “darling of the solar dynasty”. Trippy hippie stuff, if it was in English, but it’s not, so it sounds great.
And this core group is helped out immensely by the many guest artists who appear. Don’t worry, you don’t know any of them. But they are crucial, and they are all masters in their own disciplines. The two real revelations are Tuvan singers Albert Kuvezin and Radik Tiuliush; these two throat-singers are real stars in their neck of the world, and real stars here too. “Amba” is a 6/4 reggae-influenced stroll until we hear Tiuliush’s overtone vocals and his avant-jazz solo on the igil (a Siberian horsehead fiddle), at which point it becomes something really strange. Then, when Kuvezin comes in with his bass vocal, it is as if the earth opens up and we are staring down in the pit, and it’s beautiful and we like it. I always thought the Tuvan throat-singer thing was novelty hype, but now I am completely a convert, and I’d see these two anywhere they go. And, on the title track
I’m not ready to talk about the title track yet. Let’s talk instead about the subtle contribution of flamenco pianist Dorantes on two tracks (“Bliss”, with its syncopated handclaps, is a real standout), or about how Tom Diakite almost steals the whole record with his kora support on “Sakhi Maro”, or about Manos Achalinotopoulos (no, that’s not a typo, I checked it twice) enlivens the Bollywood classic “Ye Meera Divanapan Hai” with his lovely clarinet work, or about how Raman actually manages to make Joan Armatrading’s ‘70s-pop “Save Me” sound timely and sexy and vital.
Oh, okay, fine, let’s talk about “Love Trap” the song. This absurdly sexy and sexily absurd thing is an adaptation of Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed’s “Behmin Sebab Litlesh” with new lyrics in English by Raman and arranged by Mills. It runs the original through a libidinal processor, with lyrics like “Tantalize me and tease me with your tender kiss / Your honey lips are impossible to resist” and delivered in I-am-currently-having-mental-sex-with-all-of-you mode by Raman. There are sitars and boogie-band drums from Allen and percolating twin percussion lines and imperative depth-charge singing from the Tuvan studs and some surprising chicken-scratch guitar work from Mills and allusions to both Yes’ “Roundabout” and the B-52s’ “Love Shack” and way too many elements for it to actually work but it does. It’s horny and sexy as hell and it combines every sort of music ever made, and it is really so over-the-top as to be campy and silly and so unashamed of that fact that it becomes cool and sexy again. Hands down, the best single of the year.
Too bad it’ll never make the charts. As hip as Indian rhythms are right now in dancehall (Wayne Wonder and Sean Paul are both jocking that diwaali rhythm) and hip-hop (Jay-Z’s collab with Panjabi MC, Missy & Timba’s “Get Yr Freak On” which was really borrowed from that Nelly Furtado song which was really taken from Bollywood in the first place), the USA is just simply not ready for actual Indian people singing in anything like actual Indian styles, even if they are singing in English and have elements of African and American and European and Asian musicks in their songs. The song is strong enough that it could be a big hit, and Raman herself is attractive and hip-looking enough with all her bouncing ringlets and perfect multi-culti features that a video featuring her would completely destroy all of MTV but we’re just not ready, and it’s just not gonna happen.
(Actually, “Love Trap” is not even the best song on the album. The aforementioned “Manasuloni” is even hotter, and “Half Shiva Half Shakti” is the most disturbed-rock song I’ve heard in ages, with some great “noise guitar” from Kuvezin. But enough.)
Okay, so I’m completely in love with this record. Not only does it sound timeless and deep, but it also has ephemeral pop chops and rockout moments and delicacy and strength, and it could probably seduce the frostiest love-target at 300 meters. Love Trap has, over the course of the last three weeks, become part of my DNA, never again to leave heavy rotation.
It’ll be too bad if I’m the only one who ever hears it, though. Too bad for you, I mean.