18 October 2011

To have your mind blown

Years ago, I worked in the music section of an Indigo bookstore (if you're American, think Barnes and Noble).  While the corporate structure was somewhat annoying, it was an amazing place to discover new music and new artists.

There were 3 or 4 of us who generally staffed the section and one of the biggest perks was that we could choose the music that was heard in the store.  Frequently, this had commercial implications, as we were only allowed to play CDs that we had multiple copies of.  However, what it did was make us scour the shelves for interesting things that either a) we had multiple copies of, or b) that we really dug and would order multiple copies of.

Back in those days, a music store actually had music in the store (rather than DVDs and video games) and Indigo had a pretty good selection of stuff that was pretty obscure.  This was my first introduction to the mind-blowing Susheela Raman.

A British singer of Indian descent, she combines south Indian music with popular styles.  Her first two albums (which we had in the store at that time) just blew my mind with the fusion of styles and her powerful voice singing in the microtonal ornamentation style.  Using tabla drums instead of drum set for the most part, some of what she did stuck with me as I began down the road of the creation of own musical fusion.

This blog entry comes from "rediscovering" her, through suggesting her music to a friend, and then learning of her latest album, Vel.  (Click the link to go to the site for the album.)

I felt that Raman had gotten away from the things that really interested me in her first two albums (Salt Rain and Love Trap) on her third offering, Music for Crocodiles.  My feeling was that her sound had become more mainstream, as if she was trying too hard to find a larger audience.  The fact that she recorded a song in French (she appears to perform a lot in France, and has released albums on French record labels), as well as more songs in English than in Tamil.  The melody lines on Music for Crocodiles seemed to be very typical of contemporary popular music, and lacked the original and unique sound of her previous work, and served as an uninspired vehicle for her unique voice and singing skills.

However it appears that she has since shed her record label, and become more adventurous again with her newest album.

On a quick listen, the more funky South Indian rhythms (including tabla) and more interesting microtonal ornamentation are more present on Vel than on Music for Crocodiles.  There is also much more heavy electric guitar as well as electronics, and more of a throbbing, driving rhythmic bent to a lot of the songs on the album from Music for Crocodiles, which seemed (to me at least) to be an attempt to remake herself as more of a coffee-house type singer/songwriter.

Vel, to me, sounds like a place where Raman is more comfortable, using her powerful voice to punctuate and float on top of a darker, heavier, thicker ambient atmosphere. 

If it is true that she is now self-producing and self-releasing (like so many artists are doing today), I highly recommend that you click the link, and buy her music (available on iTunes).

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