Susheela Raman is a world music marketer's dream. She is 28 years old and has great hair. She was born in London to South Indian parents, raised in Australia, and has apprenticed with both Hindustani singing experts and with "Asian Underground" techno-raga bands like Joi. Narada Records has been trumpeting this album, her first solo work, as "the first world album ever nominated for the Mercury Prize!"
Given all this, it would have been very easy for Salt Rain to deliver some low-key and vaguely Asian grooves, and settle into that soft pillow called "easy street". Instead, Raman and her collaborators have made a challenging album that takes a lot of roads at once and arrives at many different destinations while still feeling like a unified whole. It's an amazing achievement that most people will never hear. It's the death of "world music", and the beginning of something else entirely.
Most of the songs on this album are actually ancient Indian devotional songs in Sanskrit, Hindi, or Tamil; these hymns of praise are set to modern chord structures and treated as if they were songs written yesterday instead of hundreds of years ago. Raman possesses one of the most stunning voices I've ever heard, in any of the five languages in which she sings; hers is a husky feminine tone that I cannot compare to anyone else singing today. She can be delicate and rough and downtempo and uplifting, all in the same song if necessary. She and her main collaborator, English guitarist Sam Mills, have figured out a way to incorporate nearly every kind of mood on the planet into these invocations while still letting them breathe their own holy air. They are new and old at the same time -- and they're funky, too.
A lot of the credit for how this album sounds has to go to the supporting cast. Musicians from ten different countries contribute to this album, but the core band (consisting of guitar, bass, African and Indian percussion, and cello) has simply nailed a sound that remains international at the same time that it explodes all notions of what "world music" should sound like. This is a rhythmically complex sound full of danger and fun; all these beautiful melodies work with the modern studio work so well that "organic" is the only word that comes close to working. Even the most gentle songs, like the opening track, "Ganapati", will suddenly burst into blissful percussion workouts bolstering Mills' blues riffs and Vincent Segal's hardcore cello work. And Hilaire Penda is simply the greatest bass player on the planet.
There are also three original songs on the album, and two incredibly canny covers. The originals don't achieve quite the same effect as the traditional pieces -- this is due to their being rooted in the present, and to a slight lyrical corniness that doesn't offend, exactly, but certainly sticks out. Raman's heart is in the right place with songs like "Woman" and "Salt Rain", and her lyrics aren't exactly bad, but they suffer from first-album syndrome. A quick example should suffice: "Woman, where's your dignity? / How can you lie there while the lover destroys you? / He doesn't know your worth / But you bear the burden and make it yours...." These lines work in the context of the song, but they're not exactly classical poetry.
Then there are the two great covers. Raman deconstructs the Sherman brothers' fake-Indian song from Disney's The Jungle Book, "Trust in Me", and turns it into a smooth Egyptian reggae lover's rock. Making the Sherman brothers sexy must have been hard work. And Raman's hushed version of Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren" is funereal and hopeful and thoroughly beautiful, the perfect way to end an album that grabs and doesn't let go.
Salt Rain is definitely one of my favorites this year -- it's heartfelt and addictive and bodes well for Raman's career. This album thoroughly blows away every conceived notion of what "world music" is supposed to be. That sad little genre-label is hereby retired forever -- we're accepting nominations for a new one.