Unfortunately, only half as cool as it sounds.
Two accomplished British producers set out to make the "ultimate chill out album". To help them, they enlist a 28-piece Bollywood orchestra and elite Indian soloists and vocalists. Sounds like a pretty great idea, huh? That’s why it’s so disappointing that the results are far from "ultimate". In fact, they’re average.
The biggest problem with Bombay Dub Orchestra is that, despite the promising premise, it’s relatively faceless. The ultra-smooth music reflects very little of the dynamism, chaos, and charisma that the very word "Bollywood" implies. Producers Gary Hughes and Andrew T. Mackay (not the Roxy Music sax player, by the way) have refined tastes, for sure. But dudes, throwing some strings, tablas, and sitar on top of fair-to-middling trip-hop still leaves you with fair-to-middling trip-hop at the core.
From the descending swoons and swirls of opener "Compassion", the music is beautiful -- that’s undeniable. But it’s just too smooth, too "pleasant". It’s as if Hughes and Mackay still consider Enigma to be the ultimate in mood music; no matter how old you are, Bombay Dub Orchestra sounds like it was meant for your parents. Incorporating dated-sounding drum’n’bass into "The Berber of Seville"? Bad idea. Ditto the Enya-meets-Nature Store arrangement of "To the Shore". Call it the Phantom Menace syndrome: It’s not exactly horrible, but you can’t stop thinking how it could’ve been so much better.
And it does get better as it goes along. "Dust" actually gets a swinging, contemporary-sounding rhythm going. With its lush, meandering strings and genuinely spaced-out effects (one of few occasions when "dub" actually applies), it ends up sounding like nothing so much as Doves. Whatever, it works just in time. "Sonata", basically a solo piano piece, gets the mood right, too. And the melodramatic nosedives, female vocalizing, and sitar on "Beauty and the East"... now that’s Bollywood!
Maybe Hughes and Mackay realized the underwhelming fruit of their efforts, because they included a disc of their own remixes of the material. Subtitled "dub", it’s mostly not, but it is slightly more engaging, the barren, stoned-out interpretation of "Dust" being a highlight.
But it’s too little, too late. And it’s been done better before, too. Dan the Automator’s 1999 Bombay the Hard Way does an excellent job of harnessing classic Bollywood sounds to modern electronic production... without putting you to sleep.