With each album, the New York-based musician Karsh Kale keeps bumping his game up another level. This album, his third or fourth depending on how you count, is his most diverse and daring yet; he moves into some genres that even he hasn’t tried yet, and it really loosens up his urban/Indian/worldbeat groove. But there’s something more important than all his paradigm-shifting, and it ends up being the best thing about the album.
It’s not so apparent at first, because unfortunately the weakest track is right up front. “Manifest” is framed by some just-okay backpack-rapping from MC Napoleon Solo, and although it’s got a good little beat going, there is something too “look at me I’m hip and relevant” about it. But the next song, “Dancing at Sunset”, adds a new extra spice to the stew. It’s got a kind of emo-rock vibe, with big guitar arpeggios and a repeated chorus of “Electricity is surging through my body” to go with its swoony Bollywood strings and its wailing wordless vocals. (It was written by important new bandmember Todd Michaelsen.) Kale has been telling everyone for a long time that he doesn’t make “Indian” music — I guess we’re supposed to believe him now. There are a whole bunch of new sounds here, including some dancehall on “Rise Up” and some hints of indie-folk power balladeerage on “City Lights”.
But the most important thing is that this is the most fun Karsh Kale has ever had on a record. He’s had a tendency towards portentiousness in the past, but he’s moving beyond that into a new realm. Everything seems bigger, louder, lusher; everything feels ballsy and brave. “Free Fall” could hit big in virtually any club in the world; it uses Trixie Reiss (Crystal Method, etc.) to perfect effect, letting her do a sexy coo and a full-on roar over a tricky time signature. When he brings on Ekova singer Dierdre for “Innocence and Power”, Kale lets her weave together five different vocal tracks together over his tight electronic arrangement.
The troubled world situation sits over this album’s shoulder — songs like “Hole in the Sky” and “Louder Than Bombs” are stretched tight with tension and fear, but end up coming out on the other side as hopeful and optimistic anyway. And the delicacy of the sitar work on “New Born Star” is not exactly a new element in Kale’s work, but the vulnerable way he frames it, layered over and under ambient sounds and soaring vocals and funky beats, is more subtle than anything he’s ever done.
Is it a masterpiece? Not quite yet. But he’s knocking on that door, in some of the most interesting ways possible. Now that he’s added fun to the mix, I predict greatness lurking right around the corner.