Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Music Review: JHOOM BARABAR JHOOM (Hindi; 2007)
Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy ("SEL") are among the most frustratingly inconsistent composers in Bollywood, and this listener never knows quite what to expect from their latest offerings. Nor is this unexpectedness a result of any great creativity that is always one step ahead of the listener, but of the periodic artistic disinterest, commercial pressures, and outright complacency that periodically overtakes most on the Hindi music scene. This sad malaise is evident courtesy some recent SEL offerings such as Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna or Salaam-e-Ishq (at least when not salvaged by Kailash Kher's singular voice), utterly devoid of the charm of Dil Chahta Hai, Kuch Na Kaho (though even this had some unpardonable triviality in the form of "ABBG"), Bunty aur Babli (not least of which, with no small thanks to Gulzar and a showstopping turn by Aishwariya Rai, was "Kajra Re", one of Hindi cinema's masala peaks this decade, and in my opinion the best Hindi item number since Sholay's "Mehbooba"), or the virtuosity of Kyun? Ho Gaya Na! -- simply the most creditable SEL effort to date along with "Baat Meri Suniye to Zara" from Kuch Na Kaho (the instrumental from Don (2006) might have changed this judgment to a certain extent, had Midival Punditz not stolen the musical show with an instrumental -- "Don Revisited" -- that was cooler than anything else in the album, and used Shah Rukh Khan's voice to better effect than I have ever seen, marrying his quirky energy to an ambient groove that managed to be both chill and unsettling). There was, in short, every possibility that Jhoom Barabar Jhoom would be a letdown, especially given the recent spate of turkeys from Yash Raj's music factory (most prominently the snoozefest that was Ta Ram Pam, preceded by the human rights violation that was Dhoom 2.
Twenty seconds of the first track, titled (wait! wait! you'll never guess this one!) "Jhoom Barabar Jhoom", dispelled my pessimism. On the surface, this is a pretty typical "Punjabi-ized" number, but that is before one comes to grips with the irresistible velocity of its chorus, replete with heavy percussion and a neo-qawwali beat, and before one is surprised by just how traditional the stanzas are. And then it dawns on one: the song bears the stamp of Shaad Ali, specifically of his retro sensibility: the "jhoom...jhoom" chorus brings to mind older Hindi film qawwalis, while the stanzas recall a musical idiom less cluttered than the contemporary one. Yet make no mistake, this song is very contemporary Bollywood in its pace, its vocals (who knew Shankar Mahadevan would prove to be such a good Amitabh voice?), its (let's face it) obviousness. Almost as if one has encountered an old, somewhat sober, friend, who is at this moment simply freaking out. The word "addictive" comes to mind; SEL must agree, since they use the tune two more times in the album -- but more on that later.
What can one say about a song bearing the unpromising title "Ticket to Hollywood"? Quite a bit, actually: the opening seconds are reminiscent of "Pyaar mein sau uljhanen hain" from Kyun? Ho Gaya Na!, but from then on the song is very much its own, combining the merest hint of lounge restraint with its polar opposite, a drunken tune that goes round and round, but never meanders. Neeraj Sridhar's vocals kick things off, and Alisha Chinai's voice serves as an excellent foil later on (no-one showcases Chinai's otherwise humdrum voice better than SEL seem to be able to do). The musical arrangements are lush yet airy -- like most other songs in this album, "Ticket to Hollywood" doesn't take itself very seriously. A special nod to Gulzar's lyrics -- beyond the clever nod to the place of "Hollywood" abroad, I don't have the faintest idea what most of them mean, magar "oonay ponay hi sahih" they sure sound like fun.
"JBJ" is the stripped down version of the title track, and is one of this album's few sustained attempts to evoke a tapori vibe, and a tipsy one at that. The title track is richer, and simply more in every sense of the word, but "JBJ" is perhaps easier on the ears, and a bit more raw (in particular the refrain beginning with "Tu been bajakay jhoom"). This is no remix version, but a full-fledged variation on the album's principal (only?) musical motif. Not least because of the ever-sexy Sunidhi Chauhan, who oozes carnality every time she croons.
Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is not a name one expects to pop up on this album, yet there he is with Mahalaxmi Iyer in "Bol Na Halke Halke", and in a song that is reminiscent of a certain sort of contemporary Tamil film duet -- to this lay ear it shares some kinship with the music of Yuvan Shankar Raja. While not as catchy as its analogue from Bunty aur Babli, "Chupke se", it is definitely less conventional, and musically richer -- although I am not sure Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is the ideal choice for a "straight" love duet. Don't get me wrong, as always he is an accomplished vocalist, but neither he nor this song appear to be in sync with the mood of the rest of the album (the jazzy instrumental riff that follows Iyer's introduction in the song is an exception, but can't really make up for the incongruity of Khan's classical-style notes in the middle of the song). The one abiding feature to take away from the song: a mellow chorus line that is perhaps the only bit in this album that is not pitched high.
"Kiss of Love" is time pass, catchy and rambunctious but ultimately lacking in personality (odd given it features Vasundhara Das' distinctive voice in addition to Vishal Dadlani's far less notable one) -- it has "manufactured" stamped all over it, from the same production house that gave us Dhoom 2's generic music, not to mention the composers of the equally soulless "Where's the Party Tonight?"
in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. Yawn.
Each succeeding version of "Jhoom Barabar Jhoom" adds an additional voice or two, and the album's final version features KK, Sukhvinder Singh, and Mahalaxmi Iyer in addition to Shankar Mahadevan. It's the lightest version of the three, and the most staid when it comes to the stanzas -- but keep an ear out for the percussion-laden instrumental portions, as well as the 1970s masala qawwali vocals leading up to those bits, wherein SEL cut loose to an extent. Think of this song as the North Indian brother to the Punjabi title track (which would, with some exaggeration, make "JBJ" the Mumbaiya of the lot).
Good grief, there's a rather shapeless instrumental, "Jhoom Jam", to round things off, a reminder that one should not attempt to be Rahmanesque if one isn't A.R. Rahman. It has some nice moments involving a (possibly synthetic) shehnai, but as a whole does not rise above the level of musical filler.
All in all, this is a very enjoyable album, although one wishes it had more soul (a la Bunty aur Babli), and perhaps more variety of pitch, which is almost always high. But it is undeniably infectious, and befits a film that seemingly has "blockbuster" written all over it.