Tennis tactics – learning from the Australian Open 1993 final (Graf-Seles)

July 3, 2020

TL DR:  It was not Graf backhand breaking down/stubborn slicing that lost her the match but Seles unexpectedly and brilliantly adjusting her tactics by stepping inside and taking the ball very early and Graf’s own inability to replicate that due to her late contact on the forehand.  As well, Seles’ ability to hurt Graf on the forehand corner not only won her points but eventually shattered Graf’s confidence in her trusted weapon.

Detailed analysis follows below.

The Australian Open (AO) 1993 women’s singles final between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles was at the time regarded as possibly the greatest grand slam women’s singles final.  It would still rank as one of the best.  While that has more to do with ‘drama’, the narrative itself was fascinating.  They had split their two grand slam encounters in 1992 (and the only two times they played each other that year), with Seles winning with great difficulty at the French Open and Graf romping to a straight sets win at Wimbledon (which however came under the cloud of Seles being instructed not to grunt).  Whether rightly or not, the Australian Open bout was seen as a ‘neutral’ venue to ‘decide’ the match up.

I put these words in quotes because these are simplistic and fallacious parallels often drawn by tennis fans (and even the commentators at times, in trying to spice up the proceedings) to boxing, but tennis does not operate like boxing. Nevertheless, Nastase himself said in the run up to the Australian Open 2009 final that Nadal was already the king of clay and with the 2008 Wimbledon win, was the king of grass so the question now was whether he could become king of hard court as well.  This, of course, ignores Federer’s two prior triumphs over Nadal at Wimbledon (in fact Fed owns the Wimbledon H2H comfortably at 3-1 over Nadal but you wouldn’t know it to hear the punditry) and also that there is a second hard court slam, US Open, which doesn’t play quite like AO.

Speaking of Federer-Nadal, there is likewise a temptation on the part of tennis fans to equate their rivalry to Graf-Seles.  Right-left, one hander-double hander, the parallels seem obvious.  And yet, they are inaccurate and the differences between their match ups underline how good Nadal had to be to take on Federer on his own turf and beat him there.

I will get to those differences during the analysis but another reason, apart from the ‘drama’ angle, why this match is interesting is such matches have become rare at the WTA.  Due to the lack of heavyweight bouts, players simply play their own game against each other (this isn’t my say so, Evert and Navratilova said so as well). Matches can be exciting to watch but rarely do we come across tactical patterns in the match up in the way there were in Graf-Seles (and likewise in Big 4 match ups).

I will post the best quality full match link I could find on Youtube as also the tennis abstract charts.  After quickly running through the statistical highlights, I will discuss the point patterns and how they related to strengths and weaknesses.

 

I strongly recommend opening the above video in YouTube so that you don’t have to scroll up again and again to look at different stamps.  And below are the stats:

http://www.tennisabstract.com/charting/19930130-W-Australian_Open-F-Steffi_Graf-Monica_Seles.html

From the statistics, it can be seen why this match is highly regarded. Graf had 21 winners to 33 unforced errors and Seles had 29 winners to 37 unforced errors.  A net positive ratio would look amazing but considering the pace at which both traded blows, those are solid numbers. Graf had first serve won percentage of 60.3% and 50% on second serve.  Seles had 65.4% and 57.1% respectively.  Just how often do you see both finalists win 50% or more points of second serve?  Not very often unless it’s a Williams sisters special. Osaka and Kvitova played out a solid final too at the AO in 2019 and their second serve numbers were 45.2% and 46.3% respectively. Kenin had outstanding second serve numbers this year but Muguruza managed only 29.4%. Halep was sub 50% as well in 2018 v/s Wozniacki. My point is made. It was a high quality, hard fought final on balance.

However, let me drill down on these numbers to dispel an oft paraded myth about this match (again, a myth that Mary Carillo herself helped popularise).  People point to these numbers to say Seles beat Graf all ends up in every department in spite of Graf pulling out all stops.  That is half-true and half not-true.  There is a good reason why we look at setwise numbers because the story of each set is different.  That’s the case here too.  Here is a rather big-ass table with the numbers.  You can, of course, find the same numbers on the tennis abstract link as well:

 

First serve in % First serve won % Second serve won % RPW% Winners Unforced Errors
Set 1  
Graf 72.7 58.3 66.7 46.7 7 10
Seles 63.3 52.6 54.5 39.4 12 16
Set 2  
Graf 64.0 56.3 55.6 34.6 6 10
Seles 53.8 71.4 58.3 44.0 11 12
Set 3  
Graf 69.2 66.7 25.0 29.2 8 13
Seles 79.2 73.7 60.0 46.2 6 9

We see a few patterns from this data:

  1. In both sets 1 and 2, Graf got in a lot of first serves but wasn’t winning a particularly high percentage off them.  Whereas Seles got in fewer first serves but won more off it (particularly set 2).
  2. In set 3, both upped their first serve game but Seles to unbelievable levels.  Graf got in 69.2% and won 66.7%, which makes it the most she won off her first serve (if we count all first serves as opposed to just the ones she got in). But Seles got in a whopping 79.2% and still won 73.7% of those first serves.  Basically she shut Graf out of 58.3% of all first serves in set 3.
  3. Corresponding to this, Graf’s RPW kept dropping from excellent numbers in the first set to pretty mediocre in the third while it was the opposite for Seles.
  4. Graf’s second serve won % again was incredible in set 1, solid in set 2 and abysmal in set 3. Seles was solid in set 1 and got better and better, reaching 60% in set 3.
  5. The last interesting aspect is the winners to UEs of both. Graf’s numbers were almost the same in both set 1 and set 2 and her winners were single digit.  She was waiting on Seles to make the play. Seles made the play in both set 1 and 2.  In set 1, she was less successful with a higher gap between winners and UEs but in set 2, she narrowed the difference to a net -1. This seemed to turn the tables and it was Graf who got more desperate to make the play in set 3.  But she only succeeded in slightly improving winners for significantly more UEs, while Seles’ numbers mirrored Graf’s in the first set.

From these data points by themselves, we can conclude a few things that are also corroborated by what we see in the match.  Seles started slow and got better through the match while Graf started strong and struggled to keep up the level throughout the match.  And in the third set, just as Seles peaked, Graf played her worst tennis of the match, resulting in the most lop sided of the three sets.  From the visual of Graf clutching her abdomen and lightly rubbing it at 1:25:52 (among other indications), we can also infer that the prolonged physical and tactical battle had worn down Graf both physically and mentally (OK, sounds kinda captain obvious when I put it that way!). This could also be why she pretty much gave up on the last game of the match (uncharacteristically so), bringing a tame end to an otherwise hard fought and very interesting contest.

Now let’s get to the analysis.  As I mentioned earlier, there are significant differences between this and the Federer-Nadal matchup and hence, applying the ‘Seles attacked Graf backhand to win’ theory is flawed.

  1. Federer is one of the best in the business on the men’s side when it comes to hitting on the rise with possibly only Djokovic and Agassi shading him among the all time greats.  The equivalent early/on the rise great on the women’s side is Seles, not Graf.
  2. Conversely, Graf in fact takes the ball pretty late on the forehand side where Federer takes it early.  This does not make it not a weapon but it does impose some limitations which took a creative tactician like Seles to expose.
  3. Even being the older player, Graf was still a better athlete than Seles.  This was evident especially at Wimbledon ’92, where the rain made the grass slick and Graf had no problems running the entire length of the baseline to cover court while Seles was rushed.  On the other hand, Nadal in his twenties was a panther and certainly quicker than Federer. Related, this is why the outcome of the AO match may not have necessarily predicted a USO duel between Seles and Graf (and while both those were post stabbing, Graf did beat Seles at USO on those occasions).  This is counter-intuitive, but the pace of the court makes it harder for Seles to take it early in the case of Wimbledon/USO while it gives Graf more pace to work with so that her late contact doesn’t necessarily result in weak shots, while at AO she HAS to strike the ball hard every time.
  4. Federer comes over the backhand a lot and while he does often run around his backhand, he doesn’t always park himself in the backhand corner.  Hence, the patterns Nadal needed to employ to hurt Federer were different from Seles against Graf.

Let’s discuss movement a little more as we start to break down the chinks in Graf’s armour that Seles exploited.  In terms of pure physical movement, Graf was monstrously good. I mentioned Wimbledon ’92; check out from 6:05.  Seles has opened up the forehand corner and attacks but Graf manages to hang in there with incredible hustle and eventually wins the point with impossible mobility (note: this is the first and last reference to the Wimbledon match and all timestamps up ahead will be of the AO match again).

HOWEVER, when it comes to tactically using the movement to her advantage, Graf wasn’t the greatest.  For one thing, she tended to lean on moving to the backhand corner all the time.  This meant that sometimes she struggled to move from to the right of the hash mark to the forehand corner to cover an attack into that area.

Watch the point at 16:30.  Seles’ return is into Graf’s forehand side and she hits a reasonably good forehand but down the middle and Seles sends a harder, flatter stroke closer to singles alley.  This time, Graf is unable to cover the two steps she needs to get to the ball in time and is forced to lob. Seles is quick to seize on the opportunity and hits a swing volley off the lob for a winner.

There are two observations also to be made from that point, apart from demonstrating how Seles was able to time and again open up the forehand side even without grinding down the Graf backhand in the way Nadal would have against Federer. The first is that Graf’s shot selection was not always purposeful through the match and she served up many neutral balls with pace for Seles to redirect suitably.  Seles on the other hand targeted the court geometry astutely to set up points.  Related is the second point, which is that Graf didn’t hit a single swing volley in the match.  Graf did approach the net a few times and was successful in her endeavours on balance but the reason she didn’t approach more often is she tended to rush straight to net rather than use transition steps.  This suggests to me that she was somewhere not feeling super comfortable taking forehands early and inside the court on that day (and in general too, I would not say she used the short ball forehand as much as you’d expect an attacking baseliner like her to).

The point at 1:28:34 (facing break point on her serve at 2-3 in the third set) highlights the above.  Seles floats the return.  All Graf has to do is step in and kill the forehand.  But watch her footwork into the shot.  First of all, she is not moving in decisively.  She watches the ball for quite a bit before deciding she has to step in.  And then, she takes several short steps to get to the ball instead of big, ‘dancing’ steps. As a result, she’s both a bit late getting to the ball and also lacking the momentum big steps would give her.  The outcome: she blows an easy forehand way long and walks off in a huff, the decisive, ‘fatal’ break of serve duly handed over to Seles.

Let’s change tacks a bit now.  As we can see from the stats, the first set was very closely matched.  After a nervous start, Seles steadied and Graf assisted her by handing back the early break as she had a brief walkabout in a service game.  But Graf held an edge throughout the first set and Seles conceded the break again, this time down 4-5, giving Graf the set.

It looked all nicely set up for Graf going into 1-1 in the second.  But, against the run of play, she went off the boil even as Seles produced a couple of great returns and conceded the early break.  From there on, the patterns of the first set more or less continued. Graf still seemed to be producing more weight of shot with Seles often standing a little behind the baseline to handle the barrage.  But Graf wasn’t able to create break points coming into the game at 4-3, a Seles service game.  This was a must win game for Graf and for Seles, it was particularly important to shut Graf out of this game.

The very first point of this game, starting 59:26 on the Seles second serve, shows Seles changing the pattern.  Note here: Seles was in the lead but it was she, and not Graf, who chose to break the pattern to grab the bull by the horns. Anyhow, as the rally starts, we notice Seles now staying put inside the baseline. And she keeps boldly attacking the Graf forehand (NOT the Graf backhand) with it. Graf keeps hitting forehands down the middle but is rattled by the time taken away and at 59:34, produces a weaker forehand. It’s not a floater, it’s just a little slower.  But it’s enough for Seles to immediately adjust the angle and pull Graf wide.  Graf copes well the first time around but the second time of asking, she is forced to lob, yet again.  Graf defends Seles’ smash well but Seles steps in again to attack Graf’s forehand yet again.  This time, Seles smashes the Graf lob right on the line and wins the point.

In fact, as a contrast to the above, at 1:02:00 (30 all), Graf returns with the slice and stays on slice throughout.  It’s Seles who ends up pulling her attempted down the line winner long.  What is interesting is Seles persisted with the pattern even though this delivered mixed results.  The reason for this could be that Seles wanted to keep Graf off-balance and not let her get used to one pattern of play.

Two contrasting attacks into Graf’s backhand slice suggest as much.  In the above game, the point at deuce (1:03:12) has Seles trading forehands with Graf’s slice.  But notice she is often dropping the forehands short or hitting them off-pace.  This was intentional; she was softening Graf and lulling her into a repetitive pattern.  Note: Graf did not switch the pattern at any point in the rally to a topspin backhand even though, no, she was not being rushed and it would not have been impossible to come over on the backhand on those balls. Graf also maintains the more conservative court position of the two even though Seles is not rushing her on the backhand. At 1:03:58, Seles baits Graf with a forehand bouncing on the service line.  Graf duly slices it back cross court.  But she has now given Seles too much time and Seles simply steps in and goes down the line.  This shot failed her at 30 all but she didn’t back off; she went for it and this time hit it with a lot of margin.  With Graf now safely ensconced in a comfort zone in the backhand corner, she didn’t even budge even though Seles’ shot wasn’t very deep nor hit at a blistering pace. Seles had masterfully lulled her into ignoring a weak court position.  It’s like chess, pretty much.  Graf was evidently furious with herself and tried to jump all over the second serve on game point, but only managed to deposit the forehand into the net.

Contrast this with another pivotal point, this time from the third set.  1:32:25.  Seles leading 4-2 and serving at deuce, Graf again needing very badly to break her to stay in the hunt.  Seles again worked Graf into a slice handcuff but through a different route this time.  In the point from the second set, Graf had hit a down the line slice return that Seles had immediately gone cross court off, forcing Graf to move across to her backhand corner.

In this point from the third set, Graf, now wise to Seles’ tactics, hits the return inside out (yes, an inside out slice landing only a few feet inside the baseline!). Seles hits it back to Graf’s backhand with Graf now standing in the middle. Graf now pushes the slice much closer to singles alley at which point Seles has her on the run on the forehand. But not hard enough to produce a lob.  Again, Seles is baiting her, offering her a shot at a forehand winner.  Graf doesn’t bite and hits a strong but not lethal cross court forehand. Seles switches back to a backhand attack. We seem to be drifting back into a pattern similar to the point from the second set.

Until, at 1:32:45, Seles ratchets up the pace and depth, pushing Graf on the defensive.  Look at the very next Seles shot, how far inside she steps in to take her shot.  She is going almost half volley and you can see Graf has to hurry to set up her next shot. I wish there was close-up slo-mo of this point (and especially this juncture of the point) but it looks to me as if Graf is kind of scooping up the slice to force a drive on it.  She is rushed and not able to cut through the ball as much as she would normally.

Once again, instead of grinding down Graf with more such on the rise shots, Seles baits Graf creatively.  She offers her a softer ball and Graf immediately switches the line of attack from Seles’ backhand to her forehand.  It is now Graf baiting her to go down the line on her forehand.

Seles duly takes the bait but not in the way Graf would have wanted.  At 1:32:52, Seles hits it down the line with a short-ish length and decent but not extravagant pace.  It’s also not too close to the line.  It’s a smart target, basically. Graf now has to run a few steps across to cover the forehand.  You can tell from her moan she is not enjoying that.

In fact, Seles makes a calculated bet that Graf is hiding her queasiness on the forehand side after previous errors on big points.  She trusts Graf to be tentative on the shot and sure enough, look at the forehand Graf hits.  It’s a few feet short of the service line and yet not short enough to be short-angle.  It’s a nothing-burger basically and Seles easily covers it.  Once more, rather than going for the kill, Seles baits Graf, pretty much inviting her to go cross court on the forehand again.  But Seles’ shot is deeper this time and Graf in her anxiousness to attack, ends up getting rushed.  She has to hit way closer to the bounce than she prefers and she ends up botching the forehand as it sails way long.  The mixture of anger and exasperation on Graf’s face says it all; she has checked out of the match at this point.

In a certain sense, then, the diehard Graf fans have it right.  It was not Seles troubling Graf through 1991-92 and instead, when Graf was able to play her best, her athleticism and power could overwhelm Seles (Wimbledon as well as US Hardcourt championships ’91).  Hence, Seles had to construct a gameplan around outthinking her, not outhitting her.  Seles had to push Graf into a pattern where she would beat herself and that is exactly what happened by the end of the match. Seles also showed great flexibility in making adjustments mid-match and proactively, not reactively.  She could have easily been lulled into repeating the same patterns at 4-3 in the second set.  The result likely would have been Graf breaking her and maybe going on to win the match.  But she stayed one step ahead of Graf.  Likewise, when Graf belatedly started to adjust her returning patterns, Seles was once again wise to the change and adjusted her own attack to keep Graf off-balance.

From a recreational player’s point of view, these are some of the takeaways from this match:

  1.  Rather than pure power, understanding the geometry of where you position yourself in the court and where you hit the ball to is not only more important but more effective as well.
  2. Except when you are defending big hitting from the other side, it is important to be purposeful with your groundstrokes.
  3. This is an elaboration of 2. If you’re inclined to follow a low-risk, defensive strategy, go deep at your opponent’s weakness.  If you want to be aggressive, go wide at your opponent’s strength. That is, make them play the shot rather than try to put it where they cannot make a shot because the latter is not only harder, but involves you taking on much more risk than you may like.
  4. On the return, when coming over, hit deep down the middle to take time away without losing margin. When slicing, go short angle or at least closer to the lines.  It is harder to run towards a low slice and get under it. Down the middle and you’re giving the server too much time to choose an angle of their choice.

Naan Ketkadha Padalgal – 10 overlooked/obscure Ilaiyaraja gems

July 1, 2020

For the longest time, I got introduced to new Ilaiyaraja songs (new as in not heard by me before) through one of three sources – mixtapes compiled by my mother or relatives in Chennai, TV jukebox programs (we had no Tamil radio living in Mumbai) and, later, mp3 collections.  From around 2001 to 2005, mp3 expanded my awareness of Ilaiyaraja’s work like anything (a few I also found on raga.com and the now defunct tamilsongs.net).  After that, the mp3s I found mostly had the same songs and as I got interested in rock and other Western music, I barely added new Raja discoveries other than albums that were being released in this period (2007 onward).

And then, years later, I stumbled upon Ilaiyaraja forums and also met fellow fans on Baradwaj Rangan’s blog.  I also discovered new songs just by way of YouTube suggesting them (thanks YouTube!) to me.  Below is a list of ten such songs that most if not all Raja fans will enjoy and about which many may not be aware of for reason only that he composes humongous amounts of music and some gems unfortunately slip through the cracks and disappear.  Luckily, internet never forgets and that is a good thing in this case!

1. Nalla Neram Neram – Antha Oru Nimidam:  At the Ilaiyaraja masterclass hosted last year by director R Balki at the Goa IFFI, a fan asked about the Kannada version of the song and Raja quickly explained the concept of polymeters in lay terms.  For that reason and multiple time signature changes in just the prelude alone, this one is an absolute goldie and a must listen. Vocals by S Janaki

2. Uruginen – Anne Anne: This one I discovered at mayyam.com which you cannot access now from India at least because DoT has blocked it (don’t ask why!).  A stylish romantic duet that morphs into dance-disco by the end. The evergreen, ever reliable pair of SPB and S Janaki delivering as always on vocals.

3. Kangalukkul Unnai Ezhuthu – Thanthu Vitten Ennai: This one is from the last film of legendary director C V Sridhar (and also happens to be the first starring Vikram, a long, long time before his superstar days).  The song itself, sung by S Janaki, is picturised on Rohini and features a beautiful grahabedam overlaid on a rock-like beat.  The tension built up in the pallavi and released during the raga switch in the charanam has to be seen, or rather heard, to be believed. This and the next one I discovered on Ilayarajaforums.net

4. Adhikalai Neram Kanavil – Naan Sonnathey Sattam: This one is interesting.  Another grahabedam beauty and brought to my attention by Ilayarajaforums.net.  But I HAD heard it before on a compilation…and ignored it. It is easy to, just off the somewhat generic/standard shehnai intro.  The intro gives no indication of the magic that lies ahead.  Hence…never judge a book by its cover or a Raja song by its intro. 😀 One of the few songs where Asha Bhonsle has sung for Raja (along side SPB here) and imo her best one for Raja.

5. Niram Pirithu Parthen – Time: I had heard good things about Time album from Raja fans for a long time and not quite bought into it.  I am still not super-duper fond of Naan Thanga Roja, Thavikkiren or Kadhal Needhana.  It’s better than Kannukkul Nilavu, that I give.  BUT Niram Pirithu Parthen, this one is a gem of the sparsely populated Raja-jazz genre. The melody is beautiful, beautiful, rendered well by Sujatha and the orchestration is out of the world, Raja doing chamber-jazz.  Wish the production was better but if wishes were horses…

6. Day by Day – Honest Raj: Ravi Natarajan, who hosts the rajagenius blogspot, recommended this song during a discussion on Raja-jazz.  Certainly one of his most authentic stabs at jazz.  What is very interesting is how he reconciles the looseness of jazz (captured in the dreamy and contemplative guitar intro) with his trademark staccato approach.  That way, it isn’t really jazz at all but what else should we call it?

7. Illuthu Pothina – Honest Raj: So, the other day, while playing Day by Day, YouTube aiyya suggested this song to me.  I didn’t even realise there is this song as well on Honest Raj. Like the song coming up next in the list, it expertly blends a rural sounding melody with extremely Westernised orchestration.  I want to emphasise here…when I say orchestrate, I only mean something synonymous to arranging.  Not necessary that he is using a big orchestra with strings and woodwinds everywhere.  He’s not on this song.  In fact, the more stripped down arrangement makes the juxtaposition even more interesting.  Sung, however, in a pure Tamil mould by Mano and Janaki.

8. Kaatuley Kamba Kaatuley – Rajakumaran: Brilliant, brilliant duet with similar rustic-Western juxtaposition.  Wasted sadly in a mega flop Prabhu film. SPB rocking it along side long time collaborator Janaki. The keyboard tones make me suspect the looming presence of Karthik Raja in this recording and I miss Viji Manuel’s vintage Fender Rhodes tones but the flute work is very interesting (as on Illuthu Pothina too).

9. Poongatrile – Paatu Paadavaa: Another interesting one. I remember Paatu Paadavaa from school days. My Tamil speaking classmates in suburban Mumbai (and I am talking like 50km from Marine Drive!) knew Iniya Gaanam and Nil Nil Nil.  If you are little younger millennial than me or you were busy with the vagaries of life during the film’s release, you wouldn’t believe it but Nil Nil Nil was a hit and came on TV regularly.  And when Uma Ramanan appeared on Saptaswarangal (remember that one??), she sang this song too to lots of cheering and clapping.  I had also heard Vazhi Vidu and Chinna Kanmanikulle.  BUT, because Poongatrile played during the title credits, it hardly got played at all on TV on disappeared.  Pity because it’s one of his most interesting stabs at an almost pure synth set up and at a sound described, accurately or not, as new age.

10. Kanavil Mithakkum – Eeravizhi Kaviyangal: If you were thinking I was lucky/stud enough to have discovered Eeravizhi Kaviyangal without external assistance, nope, I just reserved the best for last. I could do a whole write up about this utter gem of an album.  And this one, rendered by Yesudas, is one of the most soulful, haunting songs of Raja’s entire, supercalafragi-prolific career.

P.S:  Where I found the song in question uploaded standalone on Ilaiyaraja’s official handle (as opposed to a jukebox of the entire album), I have used it.  For others, in view of the recent situation (needs no explanation if you have been following…), I have only used okie-dokie versions as I would not like the remaining high quality sources to get deleted because I brought them wily-nily to the attention of whoever is managing this on behalf of Ilaiyaraja.  One thing I can say…no matter how much the actions of his handlers may infuriate me or others, we will never, ever fall out with his music.  🙂 A thing of beauty is forever.

Canon? What canon? Oddball music recommendations

June 30, 2020

In this post, I am going to write briefly about a few albums that don’t rank that high up in the canon of the artist in question for a variety of reasons.  Often times, the critical and fan consensus at the time of the release is influenced by what they expected then of the artist.  Which isn’t wrong as such; it’s just that the album may hold value and interest beyond the context of those expectations.  These albums may be unexpectedly risky endeavours from usually conservative (in terms of being safe, not political ideology) artists.  Or, on the flipside, they may be thoughtful albums that didn’t rise up to their fans’ expectations of risk being otherwise adventurous artists.

1. Swing Out Sister – Filth and Dreams: Swing Out Sister are specialists in staid but melodic and pleasant sophisto-pop/jazz-pop.  They particularly love to make music that would fit right in a James Bond soundtrack or a remake of Thomas Crown Affair.  Their 1999 release, Filth and Dreams, then was a seismic shock by those standards.  In one fell swoop, Swing Out Sister embraced contemporary sounds, with the sound often hewing towards trip hop without necessarily slotting there.  Vocalist Corrine Drewery eschewed some of her trademark smoothness for more raw emotion.  Most importantly, these wizards of uber smooth jazz-pop embraced heaps of musical tension.  Nowhere more than on World Out of Control.

 

2. Rush – Snakes & Arrows: Actually, this album (released in 2007) did get a reasonably good reception at the time of its release, with the band themselves affirming they felt this was special (then again, every band says this about their latest release; even Metallica said so about St Anger!). Somewhere down the line, though, feelings about this album have mellowed. Rather apt, you could say, given the album IS mellow by Rush standards.

But mellow isn’t a bad thing here at all.  This is a very adult Rush, a far cry (no pun intended) from their Ayn Rand worship days.  Peart is still an atheist but he sounds more like a Lennon kind of atheist, preaching compassion and kindness.  He has achieved enough by now that he doesn’t have to obsess about it in the way he would have on 2112.  As a result, this is one of Rush’s most lyrically satisfying albums and also one of their most sumptuous, melodically.  There isn’t much of the back breaking pyrotechnics the band is associated with.  But that isn’t a bad thing here at all.

 

3. Radiohead – Moon Shaped Pool:  Somewhere, the fact that this 2016 release was almost entirely composed out of outtakes and songs that had long been in rotation in Radiohead’s live set seemed to cause a degree of underwhelm that has yet to be shaken off.  MAYBE my own highly favourable view (it is my third favourite after Kid A and OK Computer) is indeed shaped by the fact that I hadn’t heard these live/raw cuts before and only heard them for the first time in the finished album versions on Moon Shaped Pool.  Be that as it may…what super versions these are! Radiohead changed the world of rock twice back in the day.  They are done disrupting. Instead, they reveal themselves to be masterful orchestrators. Not to say this album is full of chamber music; rather, they orchestrate moods beautifully.  Once, I nearly missed my change station while commuting back home because I was lost in the sounds of Decks Dark.  When you listen, I am sure you will understand why. 🙂

4. Cathy Dennis – Am I The Kind of Girl:  Cathy Dennis had a sparkling debut in 1990 with the aptly named dance album Move To This, which sold a million copies worldwide.  Unfortunately, her follow up Into The Skyline (1992) got a much more lukewarm response. For her third album (Am I The Kind of Girl, 1996), then, she decided to completely change tack.  You would expect a dance-pop singer-songwriter to move into something like blue eyed soul if dance pop was no longer moving copies off the shelves.  Instead, she went for Brit pop.  At least, that’s what it’s called.  But the melodies are quite soulful and it’s almost like listening to a best of 60s British classics (she DOES cover Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset).  Here, her songwriting showcased the stunning versatility that she would put to full use in her later career as a specialist songwriter for pop artists (my previous post on this blog was about that vocation of hers). Alas, Am I The Kind of Girl fared even worse than Into The Skyline.  Whether or not this was because Polydor lost interest is not known, but she never made another solo album.  But we can still savour the beautiful Don’t Take My Heaven.

 

5. Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale: This 1974 album is sandwiched between two undeniable masterpieces of soul, Innervisions and Songs In The Key of Life.  It suffers in comparison to both, but only a little.  It is still a brilliant soul album that would make the top tier of the canon of any great soul artist.  Stevie himself performed an excerpt of They Won’t Go When I Go at the Michael Jackson tribute concert.  Please Don’t Go as well and Bird of Beauty are fun soul-rockers while Creepin’ features backing vocals by the late Minnie Riperton.  But my personal favourite is It Ain’t No Use.

 

6. Steely Dan – Katy Lied: Sometimes, a band’s over perfectionism can hurt their own cause. Steely Danners-in-chief Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were so upset about the production of Katy Lied (1975) going wrong that they haven’t lost an opportunity to mention this. As a result, it is now seen as the one to skip when you accumulate the back catalog of this prolific band.  But…truth be told, the production is NOT all that problematic on this album.  It still sounds fine and the songwriting is still fine. Nay! It’s awesome, as it usually is with Steely Dan. The solo on Your Gold Teeth II is particularly worth your consideration but my favourite is Doctor Wu.

7. Karen Carpenter – Karen Carpenter:  The first and only album released by Karen Carpenter as a solo artist (and not as part of the brother-sister duo Carpenters).  It was recorded in 1980 but released years after her death in 1996.  The reason proffered for not releasing it back then was that producer Phil Ramone had pushed Karen Carpenter to sing in unfamiliar and uncomfortable (?) ways and that the album’s inevitable failure would have dealt a severe blow to her self-esteem (fun fact: without much promotion and years after Carpenters getting dated as a pop culture phenomenon, it still sold a million copies upon release). I beg to differ with the official narrative and submit that the chief attraction of this album is indeed that you get to hear Karen shake a leg which she should have done more often.  Some experiments like Still In Love With You don’t come off so well but the Paul Simon cover Still Crazy After All These Years is a fabulous jazz-pop reworking of the original while If We Try is vintage Carpenters sans Richard.  My favourite, though, is My Body Keeps Changing My Mind for you get to hear Karen render disco with full throated and uninhibited joy.

8. Blue Oyster Cult – Spectres: The consensus is that Agents of Fortune marks BOC’s descent into toothless AOR dreck and every album from that point on needs to be avoided barring Fire Of Unknown Origin.  I do not fancy either Agents of Fortune or Mirrors (though I do appreciate both Don’t Fear The Reaper and In Thee).  But Spectres (1976)…now Spectres is different.  Spectres is enigmatic, mystical and eclectic.  Again, where there is eclecticism, there are cuts that don’t quite come together like R U Ready 2 Rock. But there are also solid numbers like Going Through The Motions.  And above all, there’s I Love The Night, the most magical, haunting Blue Oyster Cult song of all and one of the most haunting rock ballads you’ll ever hear.

9. ABBA – The Visitors:  Should you ever want to engage with one, just one, ABBA album seriously and not as guilty pleasure music, make it their last one (released in 1981). By now, ABBA were unable to fuse their marital woes into dance pop to enliven the proceedings.  Instead, here, they resorted to writing magnificent ballads of melancholy with some of their mischief remaining intact in numbers like Head Over Heels.  Soldiers, Slipping Through My Fingers are beautiful but if I had to pick one, it would be One Of Us.

 

10. Kate Bush – Lionheart:  I can only say that I find the 3.40 average score that Lionheart (1978) ‘enjoys’ on Rate Your Music to be quite inexplicable.  I would readily buy an argument that Never For Ever and The Dreaming are more accomplished successors to Lionheart but even the debut? I don’t see it.  Fullhouse and Peter Pan are delightful, Wow! is a hoot. But the opening salvo is the strongest.  And so it is that I wrap up this post with the magnificent Symphony In Blue.

Cathy Dennis – the most successful songwriter you’ve never heard of

June 29, 2020

Bill Murray says, “I always want to say to people who want to be rich and famous: ‘try being rich first’. See if that doesn’t cover most of it. There’s not much downside to being rich, other than paying taxes and having your relatives ask you for money. But when you become famous, you end up with a 24-hour job.”

In other words, if you get rich without being all that famous, you’ve pretty much scored the lottery.

One occupation that would seem to offer a pathway to that is writing songs for popstars that go on to become top 10 hits.

And the owner of a co-write on several hit singles of the last couple of decades, including Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, Britney Spears’s Toxic and Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl, is songwriter Cathy Dennis.  She is credited with 8 US top 10 hits and 17 UK top 10 hits (https://ivorsacademy.com/info_advice/perfect-pop-cathy-dennis-interview/).  For better or worse, she has had a considerable influence in shaping pop music through the noughties.  Somebody like me who is totally NOT on the pop beat knew about the above three songs, for instance.

Cathy Dennis is not from LA or London but Norfolk, UK.  Born to musical parents, she was already putting together songs in her teens.  She was pretty much destined for a musical career.  Initially, she was quite successful as a solo pop artist.  Yup, releasing albums in her name.  Her single Just Another Dream hit no.9 in the US. Here she is, performing that song on the Rick Dees Show. Notice how something she had to say there about Milli Vanilli went by with just a whoo from the host.

If such incidents had something to do with her moving out of a career as a performing artist, she doesn’t say so.  If anything, in the article I gave a link to above, she professes reluctance to get into songwriting because she would have to tailor her songwriting for somebody else’s requirements rather than writing for herself.  But, “I felt that I had been given a talent and that it would be abusing that gift if I were to just ignore it or throw it away. I also looked upon it, at the time, as [making] a living. ”

And so it is that an inventive songwriter with good keyboard playing facility, a sweet singing voice and great dance moves chose anonymity instead. Yet another reason to blame her then, if you don’t like today’s pop.  Jokes apart, so anonymous is she now that it was the magic of YouTube algorithms that brought her to my attention.  This Toxic demo with Dennis singing on it popped up in my feed and led me down a rabbit hole.

The rawness of the demo (ok, not like it’s No Life Til’ Leather, admittedly) focused my attention more on some of the quirkiness lurking underneath this earworm.  Note the chord choice at 1:04.  When I am reunited with my keyboard, I will analyse this thing but for now, suffice it to say that more conservative choices were available.  As she is the co-writer, I cannot tell if that quirk was put in there by her or her co-writer.  She mentions that the process of writing songs together often led to her focusing on the vocal melody and lyrics.  But she also adds, “. People who write with me regularly know that I do have a tendency to be quirky, and I’ve kind of had to tone that down over the years – sadly.” (https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/43991/1/cathy-dennis-pop-songwriter-britney-kylie-katy-perry-interview)

And we can see evidence of the quirkiness in some of her other songs too:

Note at 0:36 and 0:45 here, setting up the chorus:

Starts off with a very Swing Out Sister-like verse before the Disney-ish pre-chorus steers it back into more acceptable pop territory:

As she mentions above, she has had to tone down the weirdness by and by.  Perhaps, that mirrors the evolution of pop music into an increasingly risk averse machine rolling out hits that would safely, predictably find their way to the top of the charts but lack the element of risk or adventure that makes you do a double take as opposed to just nodding along absently as it plays on your car stereo. But in the meantime, she’s been laughing all the way to the bank, her net worth estimated at $14 million.

Wrapping up, I am leaving here an article that lists down some of the hits that you never knew had their songwriter in common.

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

Just why was Joker set in 1970s/80s New York?

May 21, 2020

At long last, I got to Joker, the much celebrated origins story movie starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role.  And it left me feeling baffled in some ways.  And I also found it troubling, though not for the reasons that SJWs seem to cite.

No, I did not see it as a movie that glorified or condoned violent and deplorable behaviour.  I did not see it as celebrating toxicity or creating excuses for bad behaviour by white males.  I am not saying those who feel that way are wrong.  Maybe if I lived in America, I might share that perspective, who knows.  Just that from my vantage point, no, I did not find it troubling for THOSE reasons.

Instead, what I felt was never satisfactorily explained was why did the film have to be set in 1970s/80s New York City.  See, it isn’t set in that mileu in the way Batman films usually are.  This looks very authentically like the NYC of that period, with bags of accumulated garbage lying around and the subways overrun by graffiti. Like the NYC of Taxi Driver, basically, from which this film derives a lot of inspiration.

The question again is, why.

Taxi Driver does not play to the gallery in the way this film does.  It does not cast the protagonist as the neglected and ill-treated underdog pitted against the unsympathetic powers that be.  In fact, in those respects, Joker seems to evoke and capture the pathologies of today.  MAYBE these were equally true in the 1970s too, but the fact that they are relevant now begs the question why it couldn’t be set in contemporary America.

I will get to that in a bit but let me dwell on how it evokes the America of today.  In a brilliant subversion of the Batman origin story, Thomas Wayne is revealed to be not such a nice guy behind his noble facade and his disdain for the 99% is unwittingly exposed when he makes a tone deaf comment.  That seems to evoke politicians like Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney.  The comedian Murray Franklin, whom Arthur (Joker’s birth name) idolized at one point, turns out to be rather unsympathetic in his search for the barb and to have no compunctions about punching down.  In some respects, it evokes Stephen Colbert’s disquiet with Bill Burr’s rage comedy.  When Arthur as Joker points out to Murray that they (the elite) make up the rules of what is right and wrong just as they decide what is funny and what isn’t, he could as well be talking about the political correctness imperative and the backlash to the same.

So where exactly was Todd Phillips going in painting this as a tribute to Taxi Driver AND Dark Knight at one and the same time?   I think Glenn Kenny writing for Rogerebert.com has hit upon exactly what.

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/joker-movie-review-2019

Quoting the relevant excerpts:

“In mainstream movies today, “dark” is just another flavor. Like “edgy,” it’s an option you use depending on what market you want to reach.”

“Darkness no longer has much to do with feelings of alienation the filmmaker wants to express or purge, as was the case with a film like “Taxi Driver.””

“Do you think Todd Phillips really cares about income inequality, celebrity worship, and the lack of civility in contemporary society?”

Yes, sort of this.  But to go a little further, Phillips was both playing safe and hedging his bets.  By evoking the Taxi Driver aesthetic, he appeals to those Boomers and Gen Xers who DON”T want yet another Disney remake and are sick of it.  He also appeals to millennials and Zoomers who seek a gritty tone or aesthetic (a flavour, as Kenny put it).

The rhetoric unleashed by Joker in his appearance in the Murray Franklin show appeals to those who dislike the political correctness imperative (it would verily fulfill a wild fantasy for those in his contingent to get up on the Colbert show and get him to ‘STFU’).  By going so far as to have Joker kill Franklin, Phillips slyly reduces the verisimilitude to reality and reminds us, just in the nick of time, that this is Joker we are talking about.

Speaking of which, Batman fans would most certainly have been lured into watching a Joker origins story.  Seeing as there would be overlap between this contingent and the above ones, there wouldn’t be too many angry Batman fans telling their acquaintances not to watch this film.  It was a risk, but a calculated risk.  And it clearly paid off, bigly.

There is another purpose to thus evoking the 1970s aesthetic.  It gives Phillips an alibi to deny he wanted to be political.  While at the same time, there is enough polemic that appeals in a political way without really being political.  A sly dog whistle.  In a meta moment, Joker himself denies being political when asked about it in the Murray Franklin show, moments before he will launch into his tirade.

But while this Houdini act spares Phillips the lightning rod of cancel culture (though it didn’t dissuade the SJW brigade from trying all the same), it dampens to some extent the impact of the movie.  When Bane plots an insurgency in Dark Knight Rises, it made more of an impact BECAUSE the mileu felt contemporary even if a little too hi tech and not entirely resembling the real NYC. But in Joker, we find ourselves in a period that neither corresponds to the present day nor what could roughly be the origins of Joker himself in an authentic comic book heritage sense (say the 1940s-50s).

Instead, Joker invents a crossover of mafia/Scorsese genre and superhero films.  As one review predicted, Joker could potentially change superhero films forever.  Similar to the effect the Nolan trilogy had on other superhero films, Joker could potentially make your typical high FX, super-unreal superhero films look very shallow in comparison.

The problem, as Kenny astutely observes, is what Joker leaves us with too is an aesthetic, a tone, a flavour.  Marty’s films (or Coppola’s for that matter) were so much more than that. To draw a parallel to a cultural event from earlier this year that appealed to the right wing and the non PC left alike, it’s like Ricky Gervais throwing sharp jabs at Hollywood aristocracy from the Golden Globe awards stage.  It’s just a show, end of the day.

 

 

Fetch The Bolt Cutters and the revisionist new narrative of Fiona Apple’s back catalogue

May 9, 2020

I wrote a rather long and unwieldy rant on this album, or rather, the reaction to it which I have removed from my blog. I removed it because (a) it was unwieldy and (b) I have reconsidered some of the positions I laid out in the article.  No, my view of the album itself hasn’t changed but I felt it was important to examine my own reaction to the reaction to the album.  When you go, “Guys, you’re overreacting/being premature”, it’s important to question why you feel that way.  And I concluded that my reaction stemmed less from the fellato applied to this album (which I, as an Apple fan, would hardly mind) and more from a revisionist narrative that construes her previous work as somehow inadequate in actualising her potential as a songwriter.  I will explain why I say so and why I disagree with this narrative.

First, I will quickly summarise my thoughts on the album.  By way of background, I am a huge Fiona Apple fan and have been one long enough to have anticipated the release of Idler Wheel. I have the three albums from When The Pawn-Idler Wheel on CD, could never find Tidal on CD but have heard it on Google Play.

Like many others, I did not anticipate Fetch The Bolt Cutters (FTBC from this point on), it sprung upon me all of a sudden.  I heard it couple of times on Youtube, then downloaded it on Google Play and heard it a few more times.  Maybe ten times by now.  I am somebody who doesn’t follow a ‘let it grow’ approach to music.  This is not because I am impatient but because I just tend to figure out song structures quickly (unless it’s really complex stuff like free jazz or serialism).  I don’t think I heard King Crimson’s Larks Tongue In Aspic more than five times before I ‘got’ it in terms of the song structures and musical elements.  Now whether I like these musical elements thereafter is purely down to my taste.  Which is neither good nor bad, it is just what it is.

TL DR:  I don’t think listening to FTBC some more times, having already heard it ten times by now, is going to significantly change my opinion of it.

So what were to me the discernible differences between FTBC and her previous work?

For one, she uses a bridge on only one song I Want You To Love Me (which is also the song that follows the vintage Apple template the most).  As against this, I counted five songs that had a bridge on When The Pawn.  One song had a drum solo (Limp) and another had a short guitar solo of sorts (Mistake).  Paper Bag does not have either but has a fade out.  Get Gone alternates the piano motif and the verse-chorus in a start stop way such that the momentum builds after every such iteration.

Momentum is a key word here.  I do not find a momentum I can hold to on many of the songs on FTBC.  And that makes them hard to completely bite into even if I can appreciate individual elements in most of them.  I like the unexpected move into falsetto when she sings Fruit Bats on Ladies.  But the song itself peters out to an anti-climax.  This happens on many of the songs; there is either a lack of an arc or direction or the song gets into a repetitive mode (Newspaper).  Some other songs like Under The Table or Drumset could do with more development to flesh them out.

Earlier, the strong piano chord foundation anchored the wild flights of her vocals and her lyrics so you knew that there was a method to the madness.  Now, chords come in more as a hook and less as a thread to hold the song together and because she follows asymmetric meter as she is often wont to, rhythm doesn’t anchor her songs either (in the way that it would on say hip-hop).

I understand that this is what Apple intended.  I don’t question that at all. But I as a listener have my own reaction to the intention and I cannot buy into something only because I know the composer intended it; it still has to work for me.  On For Her, I appreciate the subject, but the ad jingle-like harmonies do not work for me, especially not in that context. I understand that it well could for someone else; this is why tastes are so subjective.

Before I move on, quickly mentioning the bridge/solo stats for Idler Wheel.  Four songs have a bridge.  Valentine has a solo.  Periphery has a new chorus at the end which brings about a satisfying resolution.  Regret has a beautiful coda as she converts Leave Me Alone into a repetitive coda. Left Alone has a piano motif long enough to double up as an interlude between multiple verse-chorus iterations.

I am not getting into how many of the songs on both albums (or Extraordinary Machine for that matter) have pre-choruses.  I also did not break down how many songs on EM have a bridge but the title track for one has a lovely, lovely bridge.

Lovely.  That’s what her songwriting was through those albums.  The new narrative paints those albums as conventional which is to misunderstand what they were about. On the documentary Fiona Apple Has Wings, Apple mentions that she used to learn jazz standards off the Real Book by heart and play them by herself…as a child.  These are the tangible foundations of her precociousness and her command over jazz.  What she was doing previous to this album was, then, to reinterpret jazz standards using her own unique harmonic vocabulary and overlaying lyrics and vocals that oozed anger and rage.  Those were words that, at least in the 90s, you associated with grunge or maybe even bands like The Cranberries but not say a Steely Dan album.  Apple’s work was like overlaying grungy female vocals on a Steely Dan chord progression.  It was not only unprecedented but it was immensely rewarding.  Juxtaposed against pop music that tried hard to stay ‘happening’ all the time and thereby dated itself, Apple was singular in how comfortable she was just playing jazz on the piano, unafraid of being called traditional because the quality of her work spoke out loud and clear and the originality of her insight even more so.

All that until now.  The new narrative either attempts to argue that those albums were but stepping stones for her to get to FTBC, the album she had always wanted to make, or that she was somehow influenced or compelled to make conventional music on previous albums when left to her free will, she would much rather have made FTBC.

I wish I was making this up.  But the above is merely my summing up of what I have read in the reviews.

Here’s Rolling Stones: “FTBC is what happens when those outside influences that have crept behind her for her whole life are buried away…”

Fiona Apple’s ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ Is a Triumphant Statement of Self-Discovery and Solidarity

Vulture: “Kind of art she has been positioning herself to make all along.  It is stark and raw, absent the lush producers’ touches that seat the first two albums in the company of late 90s indie-pop cognoscenti and the radio-friendly gloss of Extraordinary Machine.”

https://www.vulture.com/2020/04/fiona-apple-fetch-the-bolt-cutters-album-review.html

Oh, the Vulture album review is entitled “The Album She Deserved To Make Along”.  Er what?

But it gets better as I move onto…you guessed it, Pitchfork.  Here we go:

“The very sound of FTBC dismantles patriarchal ideas – professionalism, smoothness, competition, perfection – aesthetic standards that are tools of capitalism, used to warp our senses of self.”

https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/fiona-apple-fetch-the-bolt-cutters/

Hoo boy, I have so much to unpack here it’s gonna be half the article pretty much.  Will try to make it fast as I can…

Firstly, er, the notion that professionalism, perfection warps your senses?  Does the author mean to say I would have somehow been better off had I listened to amateur hacks singing and playing out of tune rather than works put together by the tireless efforts of competent musicians?  Sorry, is it somehow wrong or capitalist to want to sing or play better because I can sing a little bit and I know musicians who can gig day in day out and I can tell you wanting to play better is the most natural impulse a musician has.

Moving on, though, I can accept the argument at face value as a viewpoint even if I don’t agree with it.  HOWEVER, is the reviewer under the impression that music ‘liberated’ from such conventional aesthetic standards was only born with this album?  It would appear so if we look at this sentence from the review, “No music has ever sounded quite like it.”

Er, never heard of Sex Pistols, have you?  Never heard of metal bands in the 80s recording rough demos all by themselves and making copies thereof on tapes to be distributed in shows?  Of all things, DIY is hardly new.  Not only is it not new, at this point, it is decades old.

It is also a reality struggling musicians have had to embrace long before Apple.  The very fact that a DIY set up is regarded as so revolutionary on a Fiona Apple album only shows the privilege she enjoys in the music world.  On an aside, a hilarious YouTube comment praised her use of homemade environmentally friendly percussion instruments on the album.  But if you really wanted to be eco friendly, all you had to do was use a computer to put together the drum track, which, again, is what struggling musicians have to do because they cannot afford multiple mics to record drums. Therefore, Apple choosing to make the album in a homemade ‘studio’ may have been an impressive experiment (which I am sure is at least one of the reasons why she chose to do it) but it is hardly the potent strike against capitalism that Pitchfork imagines it to be.

Lastly, this is hardly the first time Apple has broken free from a purportedly oppressive imperative to sound smooth.  She has been doing so at least going back to When The Pawn.  Get Gone has a lyric line, “Fucking Go.”  Not exactly the definition of smooth.  But going beyond lyrics too, her singing on Regret (especially that chorus) is way, way outside any reasonable connotations of smooth in music.

What if Apple simply chose a different path for this album?  Different.  Not a step up, not a step down, just another way.  What if it is that simple?  And why can’t it be that simple?  That is what highly creative songwriters do.  They either stumble upon or intentionally devise a different way of doing things and they happen to find it interesting and go with it, moving away from their earlier approach.

To conclude then, the point of this article isn’t to say it’s just a strong 6 or a light 7 (I would give FTBC an 8 minimum).  The point is it is possible to celebrate a new album from a great songwriter without pretending this is THE album that wipes out the inadequacies or lacunae of her previous albums.  There is no need, further, to brush aside the wholesome and accomplished songwriting of previous albums as merely conventional and polished when it is often not particularly polished and so much more than just conventional.  That is, one can appreciate the lack of structure opening up new possibilities (for Apple, not the music world in general) on FTBC without saying the presence of it was a handicap on previous works.

This is not politics, this is music.  We don’t need the prison of binary choices.  We can enjoy her old work just the same as her new. Fetch The Bolt Cutters.

 

 

Appointment with Annie

April 24, 2020

Before I go any further with this piece, I have to answer the question that begs to be asked: “Who the hell is Annie?”

OK, so Annie, as in Annie Haslam, the singer of Renaissance, a progressive rock band from Britain.  They had their heyday in the 1970s, notably three sold out shows at Carnegie Hall, New York (yes,  the same one as “How can I get to Carnegie Hall”) in 1975.  Yes, this band was mainly popular in the North Eastern part of US along with Pennsylvania and a smaller following in some Midwestern pockets like Chicago, with New York (the city as well as upstate New York) being its largest fanbase.  It would surprise many to know that the hip New York City that birthed hip hop in the late 70s and supported many offbeat acts like Talking Heads or Robert Fripp on his brief solo sojourn also liked this symphonic rock outfit which could be beautiful and soulful but hardly be described as unconventional or left-field or cutting-edge.  An image of the band in its classic lineup will clarify this better than my words can:

Renaissance-1976-tour

Yes, the woman in the white dress is Annie.  She trained for a few months under an opera singer but her working class family as well as her own day job together couldn’t foot the bill for a long enough education to actually cast her into a classical orbit and she resorted to singing for bands.  She auditioned for Renaissance at a time when they seemed to be rather running out of singers. Their high point was the UK top 10 single Northern Lights.  The decline came swiftly after – you can well imagine the difficulties faced by such a band in adapting to the synth laden 80s.  Annie had a long solo career (in America, where she moved to in 1988) after the band broke up seemingly for good in 1987 and even drifted fulltime into painting for a while in the noughties before bringing back the band, in a manner of speaking, in 2008.  I could dwell on why I say in a manner of speaking, but the band history isn’t the focus of this write up so you can get more details from good old wiki:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance_(band)

Anyhow…I came to know of this band in 2008.  Shortly thereafter, I fell in love with Jeff Buckley’s voice.  To the chagrin of my metalhead friends, I left metal behind for Jeff and Annie and a still growing list of, well, singer-songwriters, progressive rock bands, etc.

There was another side to this.  As you know, 2008 was the year of the meltdown.  I was fuming with rage at the capitalist class for playing everyone for suckers and obtaining a grand bailout to backstop their failures, while Billy Blow & co were put out to pasture.  This was the time I began to read dystopian fiction; 1984 and Brave New World have remained among my favourite reads since then.

But as I embraced this dark reality, I needed the light of hope too.  In this context, I found Annie’s life story very inspiring.  It is not a classic rags to riches overnight success story.  Arguably, she never got the success she should have with her voice.  Whether that is because ponderous symphonic epics placed a ceiling on their popularity, because she refused quid pro quo offers from music industry big shots, because her bandmates may at times have had difficulties dealing with the attention a singer (particularly a female singer in an otherwise all male band) tends to attract, one can endlessly speculate. But in the face of this lack of recognition and continued hardships as she tried to stay afloat in a dwindling music market, Annie has never stopped dreaming (she crowdfunded a set of concerts with an orchestra, which costs a lot for an independent band to organise).  More importantly, she has never stopped greeting the audience with her trademark full 32 teeth smile and her laugh.  What I could not glean from all the wise books I read (I know, foolish me!), I learnt from her life experience – that happiness is a state of mind and not a destination.

Now…demographically and geographically, I am a very unlikely Renaissance fan – early millennial living in Mumbai, India.  I am probably not the only one because I was able to pick up Novella and Song for All Seasons CDs from the grand Landmark store (RIP) at Phoenix, Lower Parel.  But I have never met these other Indian Renaissance fans; the only ones I know are from an online music community that we were all part of and we introduced each other to music we liked.

All of which meant seeing Renaissance live was and is a distant dream for me. I have twice been to USA on visits but both visits were either too late or too early, as applicable, for the Renaissance concert ‘season’.

So when Annie offered the option of a skype chat during her 2019 crowdfunding campaign, I bit the bullet.  Not gonna mention what it cost, but my motivation wasn’t purely just to get the chance to talk to her (as a sort of substitute to watching the band live) but also to help the campaign along.  As Renaissance fans on average (most are boomers, as you’d expect) get older, the campaigns have become more difficult and required extensions of the deadline to meet the target.

The concerts happened and went well.  By now, I would have received the DVD for one of the shows (which they shot on video) but for coronavirus but there it is.

And in December end, I gingerly pinged Annie on Facebook about the skype chat.  She politely asked for time as she was busy with the post production work in Jan and suggested Jan end/early Feb.  I reminded her as suggested and after a few back and forths as we tried to work out a date mutually convenient with this huge timezone difference, I finally got a date and time.  Let me add that during this exchange, at no point did she convey any irritation to me in spite of my repeatedly following up with her.  Not that I wouldn’t have understood and taken it in my stride; she’s in her 70s now.

Through this period, a mixture of excitement and apprehension built up in my head. I made out a list of questions to ask her and then pruned it, realising that I had way too many for the 30 minute window allotted for the chat.  I was also apprehensive about how it would go.  After all, I didn’t know her on a personal level and only knew her songs and that’s a big difference. I have largely only come across positive stories from fans of their interactions with her but there were the odd not so nice ones too.  You know the Forrest Gump dialogue about box of chocolates; I wondered which it was gonna be for me.

As it happened, my chat was on a weeknight (8:30 to be precise).  After my long, long commute back home, I had just enough time to catch some breath after dinner.  Before I knew it, it was time for the chat.  And as I looked at Annie smiling from the other end, my mind went blank, yikes!  Suddenly, the long questionnaire just disappeared and I was at a loss for words.  I honestly confessed to her that I was struggling to think of something to say because this was my first interaction (well, audio-video interaction) with her.  She simply said, “Oh, that’s alright” and began to ask me about the Hindu religion (one of her brothers is an ISCKON-ite).  I finally relaxed and began to get a conversation going with her.

Somewhat like the way her voice straddles several octaves from the mid third to the high sixth, the conversation went from surging highs to dark lows.  The hard reality was that while Annie has had the determination to see her dreams through, they have not come without a price and for a creative person (she herself says only the right side of her brain works), juggling the numbers can be an ordeal.  When I told her I work as an accountant with the usual accountant apology for working in a boring job, she said, “Oh! But you must be making money.”  Whatever else I had expected to hear from the songbird of progressive rock, it wasn’t that.  But such is life.  There’s more there which I may not want to put out here on the blog.  But she also described meeting Jon Baez.  I have read about it in interviews but it was a different experience to see the admiration in Annie’s eyes when she described it.

As we chatted on, we had crossed the half hour time limit but Annie wasn’t reminding me about it and I kept it going.  I then decided to mention an unusual experience that I had had.  One of my aunts had come down with cancer last year and been given a dire prognosis.  She was in Chennai in the care of extended family and I felt helpless sitting here more than a thousand km away in Mumbai.  Now (and I did not tell you this until this point!) Annie too had breast cancer in the 90s and has overcome it and lived to tell the tale.  Annie was in the process of recording an album called Blessing In Disguise at the time.  Somehow, these circumstances conspired to finally lift her solo career to at least a modest level of success that could sustain the effort. The title track of the album is like a prayer and sung acapella (with producer Tony Visconti providing male backing vocals). I began to sing it every day as a prayer for my aunt.  In the beginning, I would not be able to make it through without crying.  But by and by, the song seemed to give me strength to live with my grief and I was able to sing it through with renewed faith that my aunt would beat the diagnosis.

In the meantime, her relatives decided to administer Ayurveda as a last ditch effort to save her.  Whether it was Ayurveda or Blessing In Disguise or both, I don’t know, but my aunt survived and is still alive.

When I related this to Annie, she expressed surprise at the story and asked a little bit more about it.  We then moved onto other topics and eventually ended what had been an hour long chat.  I thought that was the end of it….

But when I woke up the next day, I saw that Annie had left a mail asking me for more details about my aunt.  She said she wanted to put a message on her own FB account about it because she had found my story very inspiring.  I was stunned and couldn’t thank her enough.  I composed a message and sent it to her.  She put it up on her FB and I received many messages of support from other Renaissance fans, people I have never met and may never.

There’s more.  Visconti (yes, same one I mentioned above) read the message and shared it on his own timeline too.  I tried to leave a message of thanks but I would have had to be on his list to do so.  So I conveyed my thanks to him through Annie.  For those who may not know, Visconti is a legendary producer in rock music and has produced albums for a plethora of artists including T Rex, David Bowie, Strawbs, Mary Hopkins, Elaine Page, Iggy Pop, Thin Lizzy, etc.

I had no idea, when I had told Annie about my experience, that this would snowball into something that I would never forget for the rest of my life.  Just to clarify, I had never suggested this idea to her or anything of the sort; as I said, i thought the story had ended with my recounting this to her.  I had no idea she would volunteer this tremendously generous gesture.

Interestingly (since we are living in Corona-times), Annie has long been an advocate of masks while travelling and has avoided shaking hands while touring.  She said she had on a couple of occasions fallen sick while interacting with fans and she couldn’t take the chance, both for the sake of her health and because it would disrupt her touring schedule. In early March, she put out a message with an old photo of hers wearing a mask and urged others to wear masks and stay safe.  I am guessing some dingbat (there’s always one, unfortunately) got political and nasty with her and she felt hurt and took down the post.  I wrote a message of support to her saying I appreciated her well intentioned message and that we in India had started wearing masks too.  She thanked me and urged me to wear masks (I already was) with a cute mask emoticon to go with it.

Of course, eventually, the US administration itself began to recommend masks, going back on their earlier stand and Annie put up a photo again of herself wearing a mask.  This time, it seems to have gone down well.

Yes, love and sunshine to you as well, Annie and long may you live!

 

 

Kadhal Kavithai – when music speaks a thousand words

March 10, 2020

I never knew about Kadhal Kavithai, the Prashant/Isha Koppikar starrer directed by Agathiyan, at the time of its release.  This is strange for two reasons.  One, I used to watch Tamil films a lot back then, especially afternoons after school on Sun TV.  Two, I had watched and liked Kadhal Kottai.  It’s also not like being away from Chennai (I lived then and continue to live now in Mumbai) deprived me of the chance to watch more recent films because I had watched Jeans on TV as well.

Years later, I heard the songs of the film whilst on my never ending expedition to hunt down interesting Ilayaraja songs and came away mostly underwhelmed.  I didn’t mind the tune of Kadhal Meedhu Oru Kadhal but didn’t enjoy the orchestration.  I appreciated Diana Diana best overall.  Devoid of surprises but at least melodic and sonorous.

And THEN, it happened.  About ten days back, I saw Navin’s upload of the Kadhal Kavithai BGM pop up on my Youtube recommendations (in case you don’t know, Navin has uploaded the BGM themes used in many, many Raja films, new and old). Out of curiosity and curiosity alone, I started listening and found myself riveted.

 

 

I listened to it once all the way through.  And then again.  And then again.  And then to select themes which I loved most out of a score that’s beautiful pretty much all the way through.

And NOW I was so piqued I HAD to see the visuals that accompanied this score.  That is absolutely the wrong way to listen to a background score but that’s what us Raja bhaktas do all the time anyway!  I remembered the lead cast from watching the song Kadhal Meedhu and dreaded what I would get with a Prashant-Isha pairing (much like Isha’s Jyothi dreads her first-meeting-to-be with her unknown pen lover in the film).  But I bit the bullet.  My trepidation is justified by the way;  I have previously done this with Idhayam and started speed watching less than half way through the film.

But what I found here instead was that rare film that offered a measure of sensitivity and pure emotions that rose up to the level of the music.  A film that largely steered clear of cliched plotlines of that period like a flashback where the lovers’ parents had a feud (extremely popular since QSQT) or a jealous cousin (Friends) and, amazingly, had no fight scenes.  Some of the Charlie comedy seemed forced and I did not appreciate turning Kasthuri into a loosu ponnu trope though she tries gamely to make a fist of being miscast (even so, this film shines in offering her an opportunity to air her perspective and hinting at the misogyny of the male gaze).  There is no stalking by Vishwa of Jyothi and at no point does he talk to her in regressive lingo, giving the lie to the oft-aired defence of filmmakers that this is how love is made in something-something-somewhere and they are forced to depict society in cinema.  More engaging than all of this is the conceit, which is similar to that of You’ve Got Mail (though Kadhal Kavithai released first!) but opportunistically pairs this with the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death and resorts to a more anachronistic device for the pen lovers to communicate with each other – handwritten notes appended to bouquets placed at the Diana memorial.  Without giving away too much, you can guess how this plays out – one of the two finds out who the other is and tries to say so and whether or not he/she succeeds is the crux.  OK, might as well let slip that the one who finds out is Jyothi as this will become clear from the scenes I discuss in the write up.  Here anyway is the film:

 

As you can tell from the excerpt of the BGM in the earlier clip, the score pays off towards the end as the emotions swell up to the surface like a Marina wave.  While the rest of it is beautiful too, it is deftly trying to steer clear of elevator music territory, forced into being light and pleasant as befits the movie.  But the last twenty minutes are the denouement of the film and, thereby, the score.

First, at 2:02:16,  Vishwa is asked by Jyothi (via, you guessed it, an unsigned letter) to meet his lover at a temple where in all corners is her name.  She means the divya’jyoti’s all around him.  The maestro beautifully alludes to this with a keyboard theme that evokes the tolling of bells, giving way to a variation on the main leitmotif used in the film.

Moving on to 2:06:04, Jyothi hands Vishwa (in his capacity as the head of a publishing firm owned by his father) a sample of her poems.  The poems are of course the ones she wrote for her then unseen lover at the Diana memorial. She knows but he doesn’t know.  She is teasing him in anticipation of the moment when he finds out.  The score captures the mixture of playfulness and romance in this moment.

At 2:07:10, Jyothi reaches home and is clearly incredibly excited.  She can’t hardly wait for Vishwa to call on her to declare his love to the woman he has loved but never seen until now.  The music leads with a soft keyboard (in the tone of a piano) figure.  Violins join in and soon follows what sounds like woodwind, ending in one of the few overtly baroque moments in this mostly lush and luxuriant score.

This mood continues at 2:09:10, as Jyothi has now readied a bouquet to gift to Vishwa when he calls upon her (at her residence, as she expects he will).  She rushes with great anticipation at the sound of the doorbell only to find it’s her father.  Score leads again with a soft (but slower) piano figure, moving onto a playful but questioning flute.

At 2:10:38…light has given way to dark and it’s night.  Her parents head to her room to check if she is sleeping.  A solo flute signals that she is asleep.  But wait, they close the door and she opens her eyes, looking anxious and sad that Vishwa hasn’t called yet and this is accompanied by the leitmotif, only this time played on solo violin and it oozes aching melancholy without being overwrought.

At 2:14:28, Jyothi hangs up after a heartbreaking call from Vishwa.  The leitmotif plays but with a variation that makes it gloomy and foreboding.  The music is much more in the background here to allow the dialogue to be heard but it makes its presence felt nevertheless.

Lastly, at 2:15:40, Jyothi tells the children, “Akka villaiyaatu mudinchupochu” (My game is over).  There is no music to accompany this statement.  And that is a very important quality that a great composer like Ilayaraja brings to the table.  Silence where the dialogue is enough to convey what needs to be said.  The late Balu Mahendra said he said to Raja during Moondram Pirai, “If you cannot understand my silence, you cannot understand my speech”.  Raja duly obliged then and has obliged many times over since.

I am not going to delve on the climax BGM but suffice it to say that Raja avoids conveying an overwrought sentiment and instead keeps the focus on the tension of the moment.  That takes vision and confidence too.  To understand that the BGM is not fertile ground for him to show off and instead respect the cinematic moment and tailor the score accordingly.  Of course Raja was secure enough in his legacy in 1998 but this wouldn’t change even if you looked at scores from the late 70s.

I will conclude with a cliche but as several directors have mentioned, Raja has a way of using the BGM to arrive at the heart of the cinematic moment on screen and to underscore it so well that even the director may not have known this is what he wanted until he got to see the visuals with the score.  Raja’s scores don’t just support or complement the film, they complete it.   And Kadhal Kavithai is one of the shining examples of this from his vast oeuvre.

P.S:  I did wonder after watching the film what motivated Agathiyan then to work with Raja for this film.  He had previously worked with Deva, never before with Raja.  And never after.  Understand that in 1998, in spite of the success of Kadhalukku Mariyathai, signing up Raja for a urban yuppie A List project was already seen as a risk. The soundtrack underlines why it was a risk.  So, did Agathiyan have kadhal for Raja’s music and did he want Raja’s music to embellish his lovingly rendered love poem?  Would love to know the backstory for this.

 

 

Ilayaraja and scale modulation

March 10, 2020

Much is written about Ilayaraja’s unprecedented use of counterpoint (well, at least the frequency and complexity of his usage of it while not necessarily being the first to appropriate it in an Indian music context) or fugue or other Western classical compositional devices.   It’s all to the good.

But it only accounts for the ‘visible’ (or should I say audible) aspect of his complexity.  And it plays right into the ill framed Raja detractor (may or may not be Rahman fan!) critique of his work – that Raja simply dresses up melodies with too many instruments and makes it sound rather heavy going.  But if this was the case, he would not have been giving hit after hit – whether in rural based films, city films, art projects, mass star vehicles or, well, classical based sagas (Salangai Oli, Sindhu Bhairavi, Unnal Mudiyum Thambi).  Well aware of this argument, the anti-Raja side constructs an elaborate conspiracy theory based on how he punished anybody who dared against him and manipulated people into siding with him even when these songs that continue to find listeners on the internet were actually flops, ya know!  And yes, this is an actual argument against him from a Rahman fan, not making this up, this ain’t no strawman that I am assailing.

But what if the problem is the focus on ornate complexity is incomplete in terms of accounting for what makes his music compelling?  And I have long suspected that to be the case.  I have frequently pointed to songs like Mandram Vandha Thendralukku as counter-examples to demolish the violin-tabla man argument (the song has neither violin nor tabla).  But let’s take that a step further.  With or without counterpoint, ornate orchestration was not new in Indian film music by any means.  Yes, Ilayaraja used these techniques in a much more learned and trained way (he kind of had to be able to, given the speed at which he was writing music).  But that would not have moved the needle for the audience as a whole in the 80s.   What enticed them to listen to his songs is a deep but subtle subversiveness in his music.

It had to be a subtle; with our deep grounding in melodic traditions (as opposed to harmonic in the West), we Indians are very conservative in our music tastes.  Anything too chromatic would have been dismissed out of hand.  A prominent music blogger found the modulation in Kalvane (Megha) too hot to handle, for instance.  That’s just what it is; such listeners have been pushed by Ilayaraja to embrace more complexity than they otherwise would have been prepared to but sometimes it jars (for them, from their point of view).

But at the same time, Raja was not satisfied with the way things were in Indian films or their music, as much as he revered his illustrious predecessors in Hindi and Tamil.   He has often voiced his preference for indulging in monkey business, by explaining an unusual musical choice as being driven by a need to avoid boredom.  In short, he didn’t want to sound cliched.  Hence, the need for subversion.

For this post, let me focus on modulation.  Ilayaraja is extremely fond of modulation.  He has done it in the melody itself a few times (known as grahabedam) and it’s very noticeable to Indian ears.  But his attempts at harmonic modulation are a much more pervasive part of his music and less talked about.  Let’s take one song dating to the start of his 80s juggernaut – Perai Sollava from the S P Muthuraman film Guru (starring Kamal Hassan and Sridevi).  It’s the kind of soundtrack that Raja fans do like but would likely not rank it among his top 10 works (most definitely not top 5).

But even in a happy, romantic duet where Raja doesn’t have to do much to deliver a hit (voiced by SPB and S Janaki and pictured on Kamal and Sridevi), there is much going on that’s interesting. That is how he engages your attention.  Every interlude is interesting (as usual) but I will focus specifically on the second interlude starting at 2:08.

It starts off with a guitar figure in the F# major scale (F sharp).

This is followed by a trumpet and saxophone conversation that surreptitiously slips into Bb major (B flat).

As the saxophone winds this conversation to a close (with a rush of strings as the saxophone trails off), guitar comes back (with strings still in play) and we are back in F# major.  All this happens in around 20 seconds or so.  How is all this achieved, covering so much ground so quickly and yet not sounding cluttered at all?

It is because he uses common chord modulation but in an unusual light.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modulation_(music)

A quick note.  Scale in Western music roughly corresponds to raga in Carnatic/Hindustani music.  In India, we often mistakenly use scale when we actually mean the pitch, or the note that we are singing/playing in.  A scale has a collection of pitches/notes.

Look at the notes of F# major and Bb major.  Only A#/Bb in common, right?

Wrong! Look again.  Ah, you see it now!  And no worry if you don’t, for here is the explanation.

The quirk of F# major is its E# note is actually played on the F natural.  And the Bb major has an F natural too. So, he pivots on this note into the Bb major (rather on A# itself as you would normally expect to be where the modulation happens).  We as lay listeners realize immediately that something unusual is going on but can’t put our finger on it and before long, he has returned us to the charanam.

That’s not all.  As the interlude progresses, the saxophone abruptly sustains the A#.  This is a little jarring when you play the notes standalone on an instrument.  But in the total composition, of course, there is a group of violins rushing in which smoothens the transition (and also lends it a ‘major’ as opposed to a ‘minor’ quality).

Speaking of which, notice how mysterious most of the interlude sounds?  That’s because Raja intentionally avoids using adjacent notes which would emphasise the aforesaid major quality and instead drops at least every other note while hopping onto the next one.  The first consecutive sequence, which is the last guitar figure as the interlude ends, has a very major quality and ends on the note of F#.  Flight safely landed in turbulent weather by expert captain Isaignani!

This is but one slice of the many ways in which Ilayaraja defies our expectations of film music and makes his own work unpredictable, in spite of how much music he has turned out.

 

Ilayaraja and recording quality

April 10, 2019

The below was originally written by me in the comments of a Quora answer to address a question about why recording quality in Ilayaraja songs isn’t that good/lousy/worst depending on where you’re coming from.  It was a very long and elaborate explanation and I felt I should preserve it somewhere where it can be easily retrieved for future reference rather than a comment on a Quora answer.

  1. Recording synth, drums and maybe a few other instruments is not the same thing as recording a large orchestra. Why is this? Because there is a limitation of the number of tracks the engineer can record (it has been considerably overcome in the digital age). In analog days, even Pink Floyd’s masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon (widely held to be an audiophile’s delight) was recorded on 16 track. From what I understand, IR only had access to 8 track recording which was even more constrained.

    So anyway, because there are only so many tracks available, when a lot of instruments are used, the sound gets dense. You may notice the tracks on Agni Natchatram sound better. This is because for the most part, they don’t have such dense orchestration (albeit it is still very sophisticated). I will quickly use an example from Western music. I used this in a similar discussion on Baradwaj Rangan’s blog.

    This track was recorded at the iconic Trident Studios, London by David Hentschel, a top producer of the 70s who worked with many top bands/artists like Genesis/Elton John. But see how dense the sound is:

 

Now, another track from the same album, you can hear the drums better here, because it doesn’t use heavy orchestra.

The point being that in capturing the dense orchestration, the sound becomes thin. Raja had the same problem and as mentioned earlier, he was working with 8 track. It was also not easy in pre liberalisation (1991) days to acquire anything that would have to be imported. Rahman fans dislike this being mentioned because they see it as taking away credit from him but a lot of things fell in place in the ecosystem in the 90s which weren’t there before. Be that as it may, the point is even with the best technology, because of Raja’s very style of using lots of instruments, the effect cannot be compared to the well separated sound of Rahman. Consider an album like Neethane Enthan Pon Vasantham which was recorded in Hungary and mixed and mastered in Abbey Road studios, London! Even then, I heard complaints from popular bloggers like Sureshkumar that the sound is too dense. That is just how a heavily orchestrated track sounds on a recording, as I have demonstrated with the above example, being a then state of the art production. The band, by the way, were with Warner Bros at the time so budget too would not have been a constraint.

2. There were limits to what could be done with analog. Digital recording came into being in the 80s but was still primitive at that time. It reached maturation in the 90s…just as Rahman broke through! So Rahman has to be credited for being so up to date, so quickly adapting to the possibilities of technology. But even if Raja had adapted, the 80s recordings would have remained. And I am saying nothing much could have been done to improve them significantly.

3.  Views are also coloured by the poor audio quality of the recordings played on TV whether in music channels or as part of an old film. I am guessing their print has deteriorated a lot and a result, the sound lacks resolution very badly. However, good remasters are available pretty easily on Youtube and my impression is at least from around 84–85, the mono recordings disappeared and mostly all Raja recordings were stereo and pretty good. Not as good as Rahman, but as I have explained, that’s not an apple to apple comparison. But the below recording quality is more than acceptable imo.

Just to illustrate my point, compare this to Rajshri production’s upload of the same song and see how much more grainy and disturbed the latter is:

 

4. Now only one point remains. That is, why didn’t recording improve in the 90s when the technology became available. I would say in patches, his recordings did improve. If you compare the first upload of Oru Poongavanam with the below one of Madathile Kanni, the recording has clearly improved in the latter:

 

But from the late 90s, the recordings in general went down the drain with the few exceptions where he worked with a big banner and got ample budget (in these cases the recordings were great, like Pithamagan, Virumaandi, Mumbai Express, to say nothing of films with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra like Hey Ram, NEPV). I have to assume he was not getting the kind of fees he used to and unable to retain a good sound engineer. Or the ones he had did not update themselves.

When Raja got into the field, sound engineering was a very specialised activity. It still is and Rahman was ably assisted by H Sridhar for many, many years. Anyway, because it was specialised, the musicians left the recording activity to the engineers with some guidelines for what they wanted the recording to sound like in terms of balance. By the time digital disrupted the ecosystem, he had been a pure musician for too long to now get involved in recording. Perhaps his son Karthik Raja, who anyway was involved in Raja’s scores, should have helped him out in this department. However it may be, the transition from analog to digital was bound to catch him off guard.


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