Imagine the regular Hindi film song run through a blender, with a mixture equal parts outright pop (at its most trivial) and the ambient music of Brian Eno and Bang on a Can. Or: don't imagine it, just check out I See You, the latest (and unexpectedly compelling) offering from Vishal-Shekhar. I am quite a fan of their "anthologizing" aesthetic as displayed in Bluffmaster!, but it is heartening to see that I See You is not more of the same. And it's damn good.
I initially set out to write a straight music review, proceeding song by song, but soon realized that was not the way to approach this little slice of ambient Bollywood, which has the "playing in the background" and hence unintrusive quality of some of Talvin Singh's work -- except these are also supposed to be filmi gaanas! As I've framed the album it sounds like a paradox, although I like to believe that it is not an incoherent one, as it insinuates itself into the listener's mood, sneaking by in its filmi disguise.
Vishal's and Shekar's orchestration is impressive here, and the duo is ever conscious of the intended effect: even the most seemingly resonant tracks here -- Subah Subah and Haalo Haalo -- sound much louder when one sings them than they do on the album, where the vocals are never permitted to escape the wider music in which they are embedded. The achievement -- of control and effect -- is particularly impressive in the case of Haalo Haalo, an ostensibly "straight" neo-Punjabi tune sung with customary enthusiasm by Sukhwinder Singh and Sunidhi Chauhan; Vishal-Shekhar do not allow this song to "get away", smothering its immediacy beneath layers of electronic abstraction.
The overall result is a glossy, bejewelled album, certainly impressive, though verging on the lifeless, at least for my ears (Midival Punditz are equally electronic, but far more luxuriant and in-your-face; the musical aesthetic of I See You is almost ascetic by comparison). But -- and this is a rarity these days -- I See You is an album, and what lingers is the cumulative effect, rather than any one track (although Haalo Haalo comes closest with its relative energy and addictive refrain). Sunidhi Chauhan's vocals are an especial revelation in Sach Hui, once the unmistakably ambient beginning that pays homage to A.R. Rahman's Chinatown from Fire is out of the way: I for one had not expected her to sound so sweet and girlish as she does here, far from the muscularity and assertive sexuality of Omkara's Beedi; I certainly don't want the Vishal-Shekhar treatment on a regular basis as applied to Chauhan's resonant voice, but in the context of this album it works, serving as a reminder that she is no one-trick pony. Kehna Jai Jo, with its half-hearted nod to lesser fare from Strings, is the least of the album's four songs, although I stress that the variance is -- by design -- not large here. This is not an album to pick tracks from, but one that will either work for you as a whole -- or won't. It's worth checking out because it's interesting, which is more than I can say for most of what is out there at the moment.