Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Music Review: SIVAJI (Tamil; 2007)

Look at the cover: nope, it's not about what you see, but about what you don't. That's right, the miniature passport-style photo of A.R. Rahman that we've come to expect on his albums is missing. "Missing"? Yet who in the Tamilverse is big enough to push Rahman off an album cover? Ahh, now that one's easy -- just take a look at what you do see on the cover. In a word: Rajni. Four times over. And nothing but Rajni.

Do I writhe in indignation? Nope, because this is as it should be: for while Rahman is first among mortals, his musical wizardry second to none, Rajni belongs to a symbolic order where notions of "more"/"less"; "better"/"worse" simply pale into insignificance in the face of Rajni's Rajniness. In this symbolic order - the Thalaiverse for the uninitiated - the ultimate referent of Rajni's persona is Rajni himself. The director Shankar knows that. You and I certainly know that. And it's fitting that the album cover honors this truth too, and does so by way of pop art homage to both Andy Warhol and the glory days of Tamil cinema poster art, in a tongue-in-cheek homage to Rajni's peerless position in Tamil popular culture. And once I heard this album, I realized (as if there were ever any doubt) that, most important of all for the purposes of this review, Rahman knows it too.

Sivaji is great fun. Which is to say, don't listen to all the killjoys who say the album is a disappointment "coming from Rahman" or some such crap-- these sad folks have been comparing this album to, I don't know, Iruvar or Alai Payuthey. Puhleez. The only appropriate reference is to a Rajni film, and thus the question is: how does Sivaji stack up against the other Rajni-Rahman combos of the past, namely Padaiyappa, Muthu, and Baba? My answer: with head held high.

"But this is bigger," I hear you whisper; not just Rajni and Rahman, but Shankar too. Fine, I'll allow you that, and will add to the mix past Shankar-Rahman albums too: Gentleman, Indian/Hindustani, Muthalvan/Nayak and Boys. Sivaji nevertheless acquits itself well as an album -- though at the level of individual songs, there's nothing here to equal the impossible yearning of Usilambatti or the hypnotic yet impersonal intensity of Kappaleri Poyache/Ab to Kashtiyan bhi -- possessed of an evenness that makes virtually the entire album very listenable (not something I could say for, say, Muthu), and infectious, authoritative and - there's that word again - fun. But then, could one expect any less from a Rajni film bearing the subtitle "The Boss"?

Balleilakka begins things in Padaiyappa-vein, with a rambunctious number that hearkens to the street, a blend of Rajni populism and Rahman refinement imbued with a velocity that renders it simply addictive. The elements are all here: the raucous male backup vocals, the multiple female voices, percussion, and even the odd shehnai. Yet, as in Padaiyappa's title song, Balleilakka is ultimately given to the seemingly ageless S.P. Balasubramaniam, whose trademark smoothness is honored by a remarkably fluid tune that only knows top gear.

Style, the latest Blaaze offering from Rahman, isn't my kind of song, but is nevertheless a creative step up from some of the uninspiring rap in albums like Boys, principally because Rahman structures this number not as a straight song so much as a medley of voices, each only tangentially interested in partnering the others, with Rahman's arrangements serving more as musical backdrop rather than enframing architecture. The result is a conceptually interesting song, although one that doesn't probe too deeply - Shankar's eye is doubtless ever fixed on the bottom line - and hence verges on the trivial.

The album takes a more traditionally sumptuous turn with Vaaji Vaaji, like Balleilakka reminiscent of Rahman's playful oeuvre from years ago (though incorporating the technical refinement of the master's later work). But Vaaji Vaaji is no Munbe Vaa from Sillunu Oru Kaadal: the song embeds a conventional Tamil love duet in a relatively restrained musical schema (including occasional lounge strains), yielding an understated track that is perhaps the album's first indication that the Thalaivar is older than he used to be. I couldn't shake the feeling that there is more to this song than is readily apparent on a first listen: look for this song to steal up on you when you are casting about for something to hum.

Athiradee is an unabashed tribute to Rajni the pop-icon as well as to Shankar's forte for incorporating as much of the detritus of contemporary culture into the musical architecture. The track is sung by Rahman himself, and is littered with delightfully promiscuous lyrics referring in the same breath to Rajni's prior roles (Billa, Batcha), Roger Moore, Eddie Murphy, James Bond, and "first night." There is more than fluff here though, principally because of Rahman's soulful vocals and a soaring guitarish sound that clues us in to the fact that we are listening to a veritable pop culture tribute.

Ever since I first heard him sing in Ratchakan, Udit Narayan's Tamil has struck me as nothing short of perverse, principally because Narayan sings the language exactly as he does Hindi, with not even a nod to Tamil's rhythms and sound. Sahana is no exception, though the charm of the vocals here is the sharp contrast between Narayan's and Chinmayi's voices, which adds an edge to this gloriously mellow love song. For those who thought Guru's Tere Bina was an aberration, Sahana re-presents, in a very different musical context, the seductive combination of resonant music and an easy-paced tune that does not dominate the listener so much as it envelops. Are songs like these a sign that Rajni isn't the only one who's older than he used to be? If Sahana bears witness to the fact that Rahman himself is moving closer to middle-age, it is worth noting that this sort of mellow ethos appears to manifest itself only in the context of stately romantic duets. To put it another way, age seems to have led Rahman to appreciate the virtues of, not boring sobriety, but an erotic domesticity.

The last song in the album, Sahara, is a companion-piece to Narayan's version, and Vijay Yesudas' less Bollywoody, more soulful rendering is one of the highlights of the album, marvelously juxtaposed with Gomathi Sree's earthy quaver. Sahara is also different in that it is suffused with a sadness that its more capacious sibling lacks. It lacks the richness of Sahana, but more than makes up for it with the unmistakable taste of loss.

Sandwiched between the above two songs is The Boss, inaugurated by the swishes we have come to recognize as a Rajni hallmark over the years, the Thalaivar's gestures given sound. Unfortunately, the beginning merely segues into a somewhat incongruous Blaaze/Raqueeb Alam/Naresh Iyer semi-rap that just doesn't jibe with Rajni's ethos. The decision not to end the album on this (mercifully brief) misstep, akin to a moment in the film's soundtrack rather than a full-fledged song, was surely the right one.

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