Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for December, 2011

Pure Paul, Simply Simon


CD recommendation

So Beautiful Or So What/ Paul Simon

SO 2011’s over. If one looks back at the rock and pop releases of the year, there were some highs and some lows. Like all years.

On the negative side, many well-known rock groups produced albums that had some individually great songs but yet lacked the extra brilliance overall. Coldplay’s ‘Mylo Xyloto’ seemed too pop-pish when compared to their older material. On ‘I’m With You’, funk-rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers sounded grossly repetitive, in spite of a new guitarist. Radiohead’s ‘The King Of Limbs’ and REM’s ‘Collapse Into Now’ were reasonably good, but definitely not among their best. Nickelback had a crackling rocker in ‘Here And Now’, but it was the same old ‘whine’ in a new bottle.

The goodies included ‘Codes And Keys’ by alternative rockers Death Cab For Cutie, ‘The King Is Dead’ by folk-rock outfit The Decemberists, the much-acclaimed PJ Harvey album ‘Let England Shake’ and ‘21’, which proved that Adele is the female voice to look out for in the next few years. Superb albums all. But if this blogger is to choose his album of the year, it would be Paul Simon’s weirdly-titled ‘So Beautiful Or So What’.

The second greatest Paul (the first being McCartney, of course), Simon turned 70 on October 13. At a time when many of his living contemporaries (barring Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Eric Clapton and maybe commercially, Carlos Santana)  have ceased to recreate the magic of the past, he came out with one of his best solo efforts. Among the 12 he’s released so far, this one is next only to his 1986 masterpiece ‘Graceland’, in my opinion.

Many of us would have grown up on this genius’s work with the evergreen Simon & Garfunkel. Songs like ‘The Sound Of Silence’, ‘The Boxer’, ‘El Condor Pasa’, ‘Scarborough Fair’, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, ‘America’ and ‘Mrs Robinson’ have been part of our musical upbringing. In comparison, he hasn’t really been too prolific or consistent as a solo artiste, though he’s had some quality recordings like ‘Graceland’, ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, ‘One Trick Pony’ and ‘The Rhythm Of The Saints’.

Simon’s latest album comes five years after ‘Surprise’, where he’d teamed up with the highly-innovative Brian Eno. Listening to ‘So Beautiful Or So What’, two things stand out. One is Paul’s voice, which sounds like he’s still in his 40s or even 30s if you please. Yes, there are instances when he seems to be inspired by Dylan, more in the pattern of delivery than in the vocal texture — like on the song ‘Love Is Eternal Sacred Light’. But there are also times when his voice is filled with youthful romance ­— like ‘Dazzling Blue’, which features Indian percussionist Karaikudi R. Mani.

The second plus point is the quality of Simon’s lyrics, which are as evocative and elegant as before. ‘Dazzling Blue’ and the title song are simple but beautiful.  ‘Love And Hard Times’ and ‘Getting Ready For Christmas Day’ have a religious flavour.  But the ones that stand out are ‘The Afterlife’, where a dead man talks of his experience of meeting God, and ‘Rewrite’, which is about a person who’s ashamed of his part but optimistic about his future.

Aided by Phil Ramone’s lush production, ‘So Beautiful Or So What’ is an album that grows on repeated listening. So what if it doesn’t have the sheer experimentation of ‘Graceland’ and its South African flavour, or ‘The Rhythm Of The Saints’ and its Latin American feel? In fact, this is straight-ahead songwriting at its best. And that’s what makes it so beautiful.

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2011: Tai Tai Phiss


 

MUNNI and Sheela became history, as new item bombs like ‘Chammak Challo’, ‘Jalebi Bai’ and ‘Chikni Chameli’ blasted our senses. If they were taking a nap, out came lyrical blunder-showers that went ‘Ja Chudail’, ‘Tai Tai Phiss’, ‘Character Dheela Hai’, ‘Katiya Karoon’ or ‘Bhaag DK Bose’. In the end, a non-Hindi number called ‘Kolaveri Di’, written for a Tamil film in some hybrid lingo called Tanglish, became the biggest rage even among hardcore  Bawly-wood music buffs.

For Hindi film music, 2011 was a total disaster. A quick run-down over the list of releases, and there wasn’t a single ‘great’ soundtrack. There were some good songs here and there, but only a smattering of them. Maybe the melodious ‘Teri Meri’ in ‘Bodyguard’. Or the infectious ‘Ooh La La’ in ‘The Dirty Picture’. The catchy ‘Daarling’ in ‘7 Khoon Maaf’. The rock track ‘Sadda Haq’ or the clap-along ‘Kun Faya Kun’ in ‘Rockstar’. The likeable ‘Senorita’ in ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’. The semi-classical ‘Saans Albeli’ in ‘Aarakshan’. The brilliantly-rendered ‘Bhare Naina’ or the Ben E King-inspired ‘Dildara — Stand By Me’ in ‘RaOne’. Or the rabble-rousing ‘Singham’ title song, which sounded like a cousin of last year’s ‘Dabangg Dabanng’.

However, these songs were few and far between. None of them could be described as an out-and-out classic. And an entire soundtrack of super-songs? No way. We didn’t even come a few miles close.

Among the lot, one may argue that soundtracks like ‘Rockstar’, ‘RaOne’ and ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’ had their highs. But clearly, they weren’t anywhere near the best of Rahman, Vishal-Shekhar or Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. One may also claim that there was some kind of a different sound in ‘Shor In the City’ and even ‘Delhi Belly’ — never mind if the later was crammed with lyrics like ‘Bhaag DK Bose’, ‘Ja Chudail’ or ‘I Hate You (Like I Love You)’, whatever that means. Music director Pritam showed some promise in ‘Mausam’. But there again, there wasn’t one score path-breaking enough to set an entirely new trend.

If one looks at the previous three years, one finds a fair number of above-average or even outstanding soundtracks. In 2008, we had ‘Rock On’, ‘Jodhaa Akbar’, ‘Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na’, and for their commercial flavour, ‘Singh Is Kinng’ and ‘Dostana’. The next year had the brilliant ‘Dev D’, which exposed us to the supremely fresh talent of Amit Trivedi, besides ‘Delhi 6’, ‘3 Idiots’, ‘Wake Up Sid’, ‘Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani’ and ‘Kaminey’. Admittedly, 2010 was relatively weaker than the previous two years, but we still had some hugely-listenable stuff in ‘I Hate Luv Storys’, ‘Dabangg’, ‘Ishqiya’, ‘Raajneeti’ and ‘My Name Is Khan’.

So that brings us to the all-important question: what went wrong in 2011? To begin with, one definitely can’t blame the quality of films, as the year did have its share of movies that rose above the ordinary in terms of storyline or performances – examples being ‘Stanley Ka Dabba’, ‘The Dirty Picture’, ‘Pyaar Ka Panchnama’, ‘Delhi Belly’, ‘Shor In The City’,’Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’, ‘No One Killed Jessica’,‘Yeh Saali Zindagi’ and ‘Rockstar’ (if only for Ranbir Kapoor).  Despite its dragging second half, ‘Rockstar’ had enough potential to be a sizzling soundtrack, but was marred by some inconsistent singing by the otherwise-brilliant Mohit Chauhan, and maybe a surfeit of songs.

The dropping quality of Hindi film music can be attributed to a combination of other factors. For starters, both filmmakers and music directors were hell-bent on cashing in on what works. ‘Munni’ and ‘Sheela’ became a rage, so everyone wanted to project their own version of an item song. Street-friendly lyrics were accepted by the masses, so they came up with something as inane as ‘Tai Tai Phiss’ and ‘Character Dheela’.

The second factor might be the general change in the approach of composers towards film music. To begin with, many of them think — or are forced to think — of producing songs that may make for good ring-tones or caller back tunes. All they need is a quick-fix riff. Lyrics or any in-depth content are absolutely unnecessary. And if they don’t think of music for mobile phones, they think of doing songs that could work in television dance shows or which are ‘remixable’ for club-play, which again restricts their potential.

Reason number three is that even when they try and produce some serious music, they follow a predictable path by going in for what they call a Sufiana flavour. To begin with, it’s blasphemy to use the word ‘Sufiana’ for most of these tunes – ‘Sufi’ music is something very pure and having spiritual connotations. At best, these numbers use an orchestration and vocal arrangement influenced by that kind of music ­— the lyrics are anything but ‘Sufi’. Whatever it is, the moment they try and follow that genre, they end up sounding repetitive. Moreover, we’ve been having an overdose of that, and this is something that is likely to continue.

At the moment, one isn’t sure what’s in store in 2012 — ‘Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu’ and ‘Kahaani’ seem promising. Hopefully, things won’t be as terrible as in 2011. Clearly, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the year gone by was one of the worst for Hindi film music. A year when the entire genre went ‘Tai tai phiss’. And for heaven’s sake, over the next few months, we’ll have to endure all those best music awards when none of the films actually deserved it.

 

The Kirana class


ON a particular Sunday each month, some two or three hundred Hindustani  classical music lovers wake up before dawn to attend the Pratah Swar concert at the Ravindra Natya Mandir in Prabhadevi, Mumbai. Organised by Tata Capital and Pancham-Nishad in the non-monsoon months, the series begins shortly after 6.30 a.m., and is unique in a scenario where most classical concerts take place in the evening. There is a pleasant open-air setting, no entrance fee is charged, and better still, one gets to hear live performances of morning raags likeTodi, Ahir Bhairav, Lalit or Komal Rishabh Asavari.

On Christmas Sunday, the venue was packed when 40-year-old vocalist Anand Bhate began raag Ramkali, just around the time it began getting bright. The slow opening section ‘Darbar dhavoon’ and the drut portion ‘Sagari rayn ke jaage’ drew a huge round of applause.

The composition was once popularised by the late Kirana gharana doyen Pt Bhimsen Joshi, from whom Bhate has studied for 15 years. Needless to say, the more knowledgeable members of the audience came in expecting to hear some Bhimsen-ji classics. Over the next two hours, their wishes were fulfilled, as Bhate rendered two of his guru’s pieces in Miyan Ki Todi, one in Hindolita (a combination of raags Hindol and Lalit), a Marathi abhang and the evergreen ‘Teerth Vitthal Kshetra Vitthal’ in raag Ahir Bhairav, before concluding with the Bhairavi thumri ‘Jamuna ke teer’.

One might argue that Bhate’s voice does not have that ‘X’ factor, specially if one tries to make comparisons with his guru or any of the greats. It’s a pleasantly-modulated voice, but probably doesn’t have the power or the timbre to make you sit up on first hearing. Still, he more than made up by displaying a fabulous command over the raag and effortlessness in singing taans, with perfect breath control in the longer passages.

Bhate is pretty well-known in his home-town Pune, and has appeared regularly at the prestigious Sawai Gandharva music festival. Unfortunately, he hasn’t performed in Mumbai as often as one would expect. However, this was his second performance in India’s commercial capital in a week – the previous Sunday, he had a jugalbandi with Jayateerth Mevundi, the other genius from the Kirana gharana.

That brings us to an interesting subject – the future of the Kirana gharana. Besides Bhate and Mevundi, the other singers one can think of are Kaivalya Kumar, Pranati Mhatre and Bhimsen-ji’s son Shrinivas Joshi. Of the lot, Mevundi is already a star in his own right – his career path reminding one of the progress made some 12 or 13 years ago by Ustad Rashid Khan of the Rampur-Sahaswan gharana. Though he’s not learnt directly from the legend, but from his disciple Shripati Padegar, there are many who have commented on Mevundi’s similarity to – or copying of – Bhimsen-ji, both in khayal and in the light classical pieces.

As music aficionados would know, Kirana has been one of the most-represented vocal music schools – the others being Gwalior, Agra and Jaipur-Atrauli. Popularised by the legendary Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, it has boasted of many brilliant artistes like Sawai Gandharva, Abdul Wahid Khan, Sureshbabu Mane, Hirabai Badodekar, Roshan Ara Begum, Gangubai Hangal, Bhimsen Joshi, Firoz Dastur, Basavaraj Rajguru and Prabha Atre.

There have also been other talented artistes like Gangubai’s daughter Krishna Hangal and Bhimsen-ji’s disciple Madhav Gudi, who may not have reached the level of fame achieved by their gurus, but did help in spreading the reach of the gharana.

If one looks at the sheer impact some of the Kirana legends created in their hey-day, it would be preposterous to imagine anyone coming close today. After all, there can never be another Abdul Karim Khan or Bhimsen-ji or Gangubai . But that’s not the issue here.

Today, the classical music scenario has changed completely. It has become vastly more commercial. The ‘star’ culture is dominating the scene. Musicians are looking for short-cuts to fame or for different avenues to make a quick buck. Aggressive PR has become the norm. Most festival and concert organisers tend to pack in the same well-known artistes to ensure good ticket sales, albeit at exorbitant rates. Except for the concert listings and interviews of the ‘stars’, there is hardly any serious print coverage. Radio and television concentrate mainly on Bollywood music. Like in other genres, CD sales have been affected by the downloading syndrome. Barring old-time listeners, even the audience’s appreciation of classical music isn’t as intense as it was a quarter century ago. Unlike in the past, only a small section can identify a raag when it’s played at a concert, without hearing the announcement.

Yes, there is talent aplenty.  But keeping all the other factors in mind, it would require a great deal of patience and determination from the younger musicians. If any gharana is to move forward, a Herculean effort would be required, besides the fate factor. Constant support of the concert organisers and record labels is required too. As such, it is the responsibility of artistes like Bhate, Mevundi or Shrinivas Joshi to ensure that Kirana doesn’t become a thing of the past.

Sen-sational


 

Depths Of The Ocean/ Susmit Sen

Fusion/ EMI Music/ Rs 350

RATING: ****

DAZZLING solo stretches, brilliant improvisation, amazing use of folk, classical and jazz-rock influences, music that simply grows with each repeated listen. On his debut solo album ‘Depths Of The Ocean’, Indian Ocean’s Susmit Sen again proves why he’s considered to be one of India’s leading and most innovative guitarists.

Those who’ve admired Indian Ocean will obviously find traces of the folk, Hindustani classical, jazz and rock elements that have blended marvellously to characterise the band’s distinct sound. But the emphasis here is clearly on Susmit’s unique style, aided by contributions from a range of vocalists like Shubha Mudgal, Nitin Malik of rock band Parikrama, Papon, Sari Roy and the late Asheem Chakravarty, who played a pioneering role in the development of the Indian Ocean signature.

Significantly, the album begins with a song featuring Asheem. ‘Rejuvenation’ starts off with smooth guitar phrasing, till Asheem’s taans take over. Because of its combination of musicians, this piece has a very clear Indian Ocean feel, but the next number, ‘City Lights’, has a completely different identity, embellished by Shubha Mudgal’s classical vocals, and a cameo flute performance by Rajeev Raja.

The title tune, featuring Nitin Malik, has some strong choruses, whereas ‘Tribute’ is a single-take guitar piece that boasts of a steady, classically-inspired build-up and a lilting climax. ‘Wild Epiphany’, which features Assamese singer Papon, has a folk feel, and ‘Intimacy’ with Sari Roy is really addictive, thanks to a wonderful catch-line. The seven-track set concludes with ‘Six String Salute’, Susmit’s solo guitar interpretation of the National Anthem.

Needless to say, ‘Depths Of The Ocean’ is an out-and-out treat for fans of Susmit, Indian Ocean and quality guitaring. And while the guitar is the dominant instrument throughout, one gets the right dose of the drums, tabla, bass, keyboards and flute. The only dampener, perhaps, is the price tag of Rs 350 — a hundred bucks less would have made it more accessible in these days of falling sales.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

Morning melodies


EVERY Sunday morning, the Karnataka Sangha auditorium in Matunga, Mumbai, hosts a musical programme under the aegis of its cultural wing Kala Bharati. In most cases, it features a Hindustani classical music recital, though at times, one hears Carnatic music, bhajans or Kannada music too.

There are three good things about these events. To begin with, attendance is free. Secondly, they are normally attended by the genuine music lovers – or rasikas, to use the correct Indian phrase. Finally, one often gets a chance to hear some lesser-known but really talented artistes.

The auditorium is comfortably air-conditioned, and the acoustics are fine. However, there is little leg-room between rows, and matters get worse when somebody tries to make his way to the centre of a row in the middle of a performance. Strangely enough, the hall is invariably half-empty or half-full, depending on which way you view it.

On December 11, a jugalbandi (duet) by flautist Vivek Sonar and sitarist Chirag Katti was to be followed by a vocal recital by Piu Sarkhel. The show was part of the two-day festival organised every year by Khayal Trust in memory of Gwalior gharana vocalist Sharatchandra Arolkar, and quite a large number of sponsors had chipped in. The previous evening featured Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande —one of the best female Hindustani classical vocalists today — and Ghulam Abbas Khan, though this blogger couldn’t attend.

Sunday’s show was scheduled at 10 a.m. A lot of people walked in closer to 10.30 a.m, as that’s the time concerts normally begin at this venue. By that time, Vivek and Chirag had just concluded the alaap (opening part) and begun the jod (middle part) of raag Basant Mukhari.

The stringed sitar and the woodwind instrument bansuri (Indian bamboo flute) make a wonderful combination, and both musicians showed wonderful control and expertise. The alaap was beautifully constructed, and both players built the mood wonderfully.

Chirag, who has studied sitar from his father Shashank Katti, came up with some brilliant phrases, though one at times thought he was trying to dominate the rendition. But Vivek, a disciple of master flautist Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia, showed maturity and magnificence in his playing. Tabla player Amit — couldn’t catch the surname, unfortunately — gave perfect accompaniment.

Khayal Trust’s Amarendra Dhaneshwar, a vocalist and music columnist, summed up their performance aptly. “At least I don’t have to worry about the future of Hindustani classical music,” he told the gathering. Totally agree with him.

Next came Piu Sarkhel, one of the few female representatives of the Indore gharana (musical ideology).  Now, those who have followed the history of Hindustani classical music would know that this gharana was founded by the legendary Ustad Amir Khan, one of the greatest vocalists India has ever heard. The fact that Piu’s father Kamal Bandopadhyay was one of Khan-saab’s senior disciples would have given her perfect exposure to the nuances of this gharana.

Today, the Indore gharana does not have too many exponents — among the male vocalists, the name of Mahendra Toke comes to mind.  As such, followers of the gharana looked forward to Rajkot-based Piu’s recital.

Piu began with raag Komal Rishabh Asavari, one of Khan-saab’s best-known recordings, in which she displayed brilliant technique and a good variety of taans (types of vocal passages, where the phrase ‘aa’ is improvised on). Her voice tended to get shrill on the faster portions, but she made up with her execution. Her presentation of ‘Man ke panchhi bhaye baaware’, another Amir Khan favourite in raag Gujari Todi, was exquisite, and a bhajan provided a perfect climax.

At a time when many festivals play it safe by sticking to the big celebrity names, it’s always a pleasure to hear artistes such as Vivek, Chirag and Piu. Hindustani classical music has a lot of talent just waiting to be given the right exposure, and it’s heartening that Mumbai-based associations like Kala Bharati,  Khayal Trust, Dadar Matunga Cultural Centre and Sharda Sangeet Vidyalaya in Bandra East, besides the better-known Pancham-Nishad, are doing their bit.

The Mehdi Hassan magic


IT was an evening filled with nostalgia. On Sunday, December 4, ghazal singer Talat Aziz presented a concert dedicated to his mentor Mehdi Hassan. Though Mumbai’s Tata Theatre had only a 60 per cent attendance, it was filled with a huge number of knowledgeable listeners, who kept requesting one favourite after another. And though two of Mehdi-saab’s most popular songs — the Ahmed Faraaz-penned ‘Ranjish hi sahi’ and Qateel Shifai’s ‘Zindagi mein to sabhi pyaar kiya karte hain’ — had been presented to much applause within the first half hour itself, the evening kept getting more and more special.

Part of the Lokpriya series organised by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, the concert was a super-treat for those who’ve grown up on Mehdi-saab’s magic. The fact that Talat was in prime singing form added to the ambience, as he was wonderfully accompanied by a tabla, flute, violin, and additional keyboards and percussion. While Ghalib’s ‘Dil-e-nadaan’ opened the evening, the other classics comprised ‘Dil ki baat labon par laakar’, ‘Gulon mein rang bhare’, ‘Rafta rafta’, ‘Mujhe tum nazar se’, ‘Shola tha jal bujha hoon’, ‘Dekh to dil ke jaan se uthta hai’, ‘Ab ke hum bichde’ and ‘Ku-ba-ku phail gayee’. The gems one missed included ‘Bhooli bisri chand umeedein’, ‘Kaise kaise log’, ‘Phool hi phool khil utthe hain’ and ‘Mohabbat karne waale’, but then, everything couldn’t be packed within the 9.30 pm deadline.

Besides the Mehdi Hassan hits, Talat also rendered three of his own hits — ‘Phir chiddi raat baat phoolon ki’ from the film ‘Bazaar’, ‘Zindagi jab bhi teri bazm mein’ from ‘Umrao Jaan’ and ‘Aaina mujhse meri pehli si surat maange’ from ‘Daddy’. As a tribute to the late Jagjit Singh, he also rendered ‘Tumko dekha to yeh khayal aaya’, with the crowd singing along. In short, it was a memorable session.

WHEN one talks of ghazals, the names Jagjit Singh, Pankaj Udhas, Ghulam Ali, Talat Aziz and Hariharan are usually mentioned. Followers of old Hindi film music would also talk of Talat Mahmood, who sang some marvelous ghazals both in films and in non-film recordings. However, if one asks the more serious and seasoned listener, he will in all probability speak of Mehdi Hassan and Begum Akhtar. The latter passed away in 1974, leaving behind some amazing recordings. Only a small section of old-timers managed to attend her concerts.

Mehdi Hassan, based in Pakistan, did quite a few concerts in India in the late 70s and 80s, when ghazals were at their popularity peak here. Because of ill-health, he has stopped performing for over a decade, but his recordings still have a devoted set of admirers. Though many of today’s ghazal fans would have missed his shows, some may have been lucky to see the other Pakistani ghazal great Ghulam Ali.

While listening to Mehdi Hassan, the first thing that attracts anyone is his voice. Mellifluous, melancholic, majestic, it captivates with its sheer timbre and texture. As one goes a bit deeper into his music, one notices how wonderfully he uses classical nuances and rhythmic elements in his compositions. Moreover, he always boasted of an amazing choice of poetry, whether it was by Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Fair Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Faraaz, Qateel Shifai, or even younger poets like Farhat Shahzad. The more one hears his songs, the more they grow.

Though I have been listening to Mehdi Hassan’s recordings for some 27 years now, and possess a pretty large collection of his songs, I have not had a chance to see him in concert. However, I was lucky to have met him once when he visited India in 2000. It was a private mehfil at the residence of Saurabh Daftary, and there too, Talat Aziz was the main performer.

It was a short meeting, with Talat introducing us. I was too much in awe of Mehdi-saab to request him for a formal newspaper interview, and once the music began, I simply preferred to enjoy the atmosphere. Though Talat, and later Jaspinder Narula, sang for a large part of the evening, Mehdi-saab did chip in with ‘Dil-e-nadaan’, despite being advised by the doctor to avoid singing. He also sang a few shers of ‘Ranjish hi sahi’, after Jaspinder had sung the first few lines. It was a moment etched in my memory ever since.

Over the next few days, I was on a total Mehdi Hassan trip, rediscovering old songs and adding new cassettes to my collection. The craze continues even today, for very few singers have had the kind of effect that Mehdi Hassan has.

A date with Cutie


There are times when one doesn’t hear a great band because one has never been exposed to it. There are also occasions when one hears a great band simply by accident, quickly becomes a huge admirer, and goes on to recommend it to almost everyone. In my personal experience, American alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie would come under the latter category.

While working at EMI Music over five years ago, I handled the repertoire of Warner Music, with whom EMI had a licensing agreement. Every few weeks, Warner would send copies of CDs it had released — or was due to release — in the US. Death Cab for Cutie’s 2005 album ‘Plans’ was one such instance, and for many months, I never bothered to listen to it, probably because I found the band’s name as weird as Britney Spears’ dress sense.

Death Cab for Cutie??? Was it dark and deathly-depressing, was it plain taxi music, or was it boringly cute bubblegum-pop?

While leaving EMI, I took a whole lot of CDs home, mainly because there was nowhere to dump them in office. Most gathered dust for a few months. In one sudden brainwave in early 2007, I played ‘Plans’. A cross between a ‘Let’s-see-what-it’s-like’ approach and a ‘Try-it-before-you-dump-it’ decision.

I didn’t really pay attention to the first few songs. But suddenly, ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’ hit me like a bullet — wonderful tune, great voice, outstanding lyrics, qualities of a clear-cut anthem. Must have heard it 20 times at a stretch, and then made sure I carried it everywhere to play in front of friends. Almost everyone who heard the song was converted, including the tone-deaf. Of course, I cursed myself royally for not releasing it while I could officially do so. What a waste!

Today, Death Cab is my favourite band from the 2000s. There’s something about vocalist Ben Gibbard’s heavenly voice, compositional style, guitar and piano that captivate me totally. The support of guitarist-keyboardist Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr makes it a perfect blend. Yes, I have loved other 2000s bands like Coldplay, Kings Of Leon, Maroon 5, Arcade Fire, Doves, the Decemberists and The National — all of them outstanding in their own way — but Death Cab just has that extra edge, in my hideous opinion.

Though the band was formed in 1997, and was primarily known for its 2003 release ‘Trans-Atlanticism’, it actually went trans-Atlantic with ‘Plans’ two years later. Besides the classic ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’, the album had brilliant numbers like ‘Soul Meets Body’, ‘Crooked Teeth’ and ‘What Sarah Said’. The next album ‘Narrow Stairs’ is best known for ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’ (whose intro is just out of the world), ‘Grapevine Fires’ and ‘No Sunlight’, though overall, it wasn’t quite as consistent as ‘Plans’.

So far, so cute. Superb vocals and great guitar riffs — the basic ingredients of good rock music. The band could have stuck to that winning formula forever. But it didn’t.

Cut to the latest release ‘Codes and Keys’, and Death Cab has gone in for a more keyboard-driven, ambient, moody sound. Though some of the fans may not have welcomed this change, it comes as an amazing proof of the group’s versatility and willingness to experiment and move on. Yes, one does find influences of Brian Eno, David Bowie, later-day Radiohead and even Pink Floyd here and there, but the compositions are so remarkable that one would love to keep them on repeat mode.

My favourite from ‘Codes And Keys’ is ‘Unobstructed Views’, with an intro that just keeps building up, and a finale that makes you long for more. ‘You Are A Tourist’, ‘Home Is A Fire’ and ‘Monday Morning’ grow on repeated hearing, and ‘St Peter’s Cathedral’ grabs you with its lyrics and melodic simplicity.

‘Codes And Keys’ is one of the nominees for Best Alternative Album at the forthcoming Grammys. Needless to say, the band has attained a pretty huge following in the rock/ alternative community. At the moment, it may be more of cult worship than mass fan-dom, but I’m sure people are now discovering it more because it is showing the right consistency and getting the right exposure, and not by sheer accident.

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