[17 July 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
For their third album as Bombay Dub Orchestra, British producers/musicians Andrew T. Mackay and Garry Hughes have shaken things up a little. While their first two albums made soothing yet vapid muzak out of the sounds of traditional Indian music, Tales From the Grand Bazaar makes soothing yet vapid muzak out of the sounds of traditional Indian and Turkish music.
The album takes its title from the huge 15th century open-air market in Istanbul. Its creation was a suitably eclectic meeting of minds and cultures, taking in Turkey, India, Jamaica, and the United States as well as the duo’s home country. Native musicians from each region, including notable Jamaican producers Sly & Robbie, contributed to the album.
In this sense, the music is authentic. Most tracks feature some combination of droning sitar, probing oud, and sundry other stringed instruments. This is all underpinned by lumbering, often dubby rhythms and ruminative tablas, with strings and the occasional male or female voice laid over the top.
The ironic, troubling fact, though, is that despite the breadth of the production and the miles covered, the results are positively milquetoast. Listening to Tales From the Grand Bazaar is the aural equivalent of perusing a glossy travel magazine. The pictures of those far off places are real, alright. But everything is presented in such a pristine fashion that you can’t help but feel that, if this were as close as you ever got, it would not really be much like being there at all.
With such a large, accomplished supporting cast, the onus for Tales From the Grand Bazaar‘s failure to excite or engage falls on the two constants, Mackay and Hughes. As on their previous releases, they sabotage the ethnic instrumentation with drowsy, half-baked, and—frankly—outdated electronic elements. At one time, this may have been called “chill-out music” or even, in a stretch, “trip hop.” But it doesn’t merit either label.
Yes, “Sea of Marmara” is lush and dubbed out, while the echoing, almost metallic percussion of “Bohemia Junction” flashes something close to an edge. This is probably the work of Sly & Robbie, although most of their productions passed into the realm of bland electronica years ago, too.
If one is willing to give into the pure pleasantness, all is not lost. “A Time of Beauty”, relying on minimal piano and some electronic fluttering, is blissed out in a way that is almost affecting. Of the dubby numbers, “Four Thousand New Colors” is rather palatable, conjuring up the old Bollywood grandeur.
Still, for the most part, Tales From the Grand Bazaar is the type of “world music” that gives world music a bad name. Bombay Dub Orchestra have aimed to send the listener on an enlightening, globetrotting adventure. That’s fine, as long as you accept that you’ll be taking that trip in an elevator.