Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Shreya Ghoshal live in Shanmukhananda Hall, Mumbai – 2016 – clips – pt2 to 5

July 3, 2021

I had initially wanted to ‘roll out’ these clips one per week. But I couldn’t post any at all the week after and couldn’t all of this week either.

So…I just unleashed the rest all at once.

See pt1 for what this is about.

You can view pt 2 here – a performance of Lag Ja Gale, also magical.

pt3 here – a medley of Rafi/Kishore/Mukesh.

pt4 here – her hit solo Yeh Ishq Haaye.

pt5 here – a Marathi song Atach Baya Ka Bavarla.

Shreya Ghoshal live in Shanmukhananda Hall, Mumbai – 2016 – clips – pt1

June 14, 2021

I had written about my experience of attending a Shreya Ghoshal concert in 2016.

As it happened, a musician friend of mine was doing a workshop on Shreya Ghoshal’s vocals and as he usually does when he does workshops on Indian film music, he discussed with me and asked me what I thought were her best songs. We agreed that the songs actually recorded by her (as in written for her by Bollywood composers) often didn’t do justice to her talent while her covers, especially of Lata Mangeshkar songs, were sensational.

I mentioned the above experience and of particularly loving her Lata medley. I had recorded a part of the medley (among other songs) on my phone and wanted to share it with him. But I couldn’t find it. I panicked, thinking I must have lost it.

At last, I did find them on a removable disk (remember those things?).

So what I have decided is I will upload all of these clips through the next few weeks, without judgment. Because I truly believe this concert was extra-special and any memories of it that survive (it was not televised or offered as video/DVD to fans as we don’t have that ‘culture’ in India sadly) should preserved for posterity’s sake.

Mind you, the video is bad (you can see a ghostly impression of Ghoshal on the giant screen at best) because I was seated in the upper stall (which also let me record slightly longish clips rather than 30 seconds or a minute). But the audio came out pretty well for a mobile phone recording (especially one done on a Lumia (!) back in 2016) thanks to the superb acoustics of Shanmukhananda Hall and the fact that a hall, unlike a pub, has plenty of speakers so you don’t get a noisy soundboard effect and instead get something close to the audio actually going into the speakers from the mics.

The first of these uploads is a Lata medley where she sang Aapki Nazron Ne Samjha-Ab Toh Hai Tumse-Kya Jaanu Sajjan. She also sang Aa Jaane Ja after this which I didn’t record. Kya Jaanu Sajjan in particular was absolutely spell binding (you can hear the audience whistle and exclaim just as she sings the first lyric line, so beautiful was her entrance).

I also saw her a month later in an open air show in Borivli where she was very good and did a highly professional job but which didn’t rise to the sheer magical heights of the Shanmukhananda Hall show. Where it seemed like the spirits of the yesteryear greats who had once performed at this storied venue were watching from above and willing her on as they would surely have looked upon her affectionately as the guardian of the mantle after the Lata-Asha-Kishore-Rafi generation.

I had gone out of sheer curiosity to see how playback singers fared live and as a moderate, ‘casual’ fan of Ghoshal who ‘appreciated’ rather than admired her singing. Boy did she convert me! It’s an evening I’ll never forget and I am sure most of us who attended that show would agree.

There’s more to come…

Let’s Chill Out to Swing Out Sister

May 23, 2021

If I have a guilty pleasure at all in Western music, that would be Swing Out Sister.

When it comes to Indian film music, I am perfectly capable of liking something as long as it has a good melody and good vocals. I may or may not fall head over heels in love with it but if somebody says they really like a song like, idk, Saara Pyaar Tumhara, I am certainly not going to have to suppress my inner snark from coming out and in fact I will join in the appreciation even if I don’t particularly need to listen to the song anymore.

But when it comes to Western, I become like Steve Carrell in Crazy Stupid Love loudly exclaiming BORING as Marisa Tomei reels off a perfectly respectable set of accomplishments. It isn’t that there is anything particularly wrong with stuff like Eagles, George Michael, Celine Dion, Michael Buble, etc. It’s just that I find them, for want of a better word, BORING. Why, even while I can well abide by stuff like AC DC, I would struggle to name more than a few hit songs of theirs. Yes, progressive rock snob, I am. Guilty as charged.

It becomes difficult to admit, having occupied such a lofty perch, that I like a band seemingly as square as Swing Out Sister, hehe.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with the band. The melodies are nice and pleasant, the arrangements (at least after the first album) are quite tasteful and the vocals, again, are quite pleasant. But they too share the same ‘flaw’ that I might bash pop music for – of being too predictable. So…what gives?

If I had to hit upon one thing that clinches it, it would be that Swing Out Sister somewhere appeal to the Bollywood buff in me. Wait, hear me out on this.

If you, dear reader, are in your twenties and of Indian origin but live stateside or somewhere abroad or you are not Indian but have Indian colleagues in that age group, you could be forgiven for assuming this is what Bollywood sounds like/has always sounded like. I, uh, don’t mind that song barring how loudly everything is mixed and it’s still not as loud as a Taylor Swift product. See, I warned you, snarky snark.

Anyhow, that is not at all how Bollywood used to sound. Bollywood used to be many things and sometimes it could be like this:

Or this:

Ah, so you see the connection now! Back in the day when Indians were more of Anglophiles or Europhiles than Americophiles, there was a niche of Bollywood music that was drenched in class. And yours truly loves those songs (such as the ones above).

It’s easy to see why Swing Out Sister reminds me of the ‘glory days’ of Bollywood when you see their video for Forever Blue:

Or the one for You On My Mind:

This is not a coincidence. Corinne Drewery (the singer) and Andy Connell (keyboardist and composer) do say they were going for a soundtrack music like feeling and the above video was inspired by (or meant to accompany) the film Thomas Crown Affair. Uh, yeah, Thomas Crown Affair was first made in 1968, starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway (though if you’re my age, you probably remember the Pierce Brosnan starrer that was a remake of the ’68 film).

The video for Waiting Game is no longer up on Youtube and it’s also a lot of fun (on the other hand, should you ever stumble upon their performance of that song at the David Letterman Show, run a mile away from it – trust me on this one).

But…post the album that these songs were a part of (1989’s Kaleidoscope World), Swing Out Sister’s commercial success began to dwindle and they made fewer and fewer videos. So…what was it that STILL kept me invested?

From 1992’s Get In Touch With Yourself onwards, they moved into a sound that I would essentially call as soulful smooth jazz. I know, sounds like an oxymoron, right? But that’s exactly why it works for me. It’s not so drenched in saccharine overproduction as smooth jazz (especially of that period) could be. And yet, it has enough of a connection to jazz to hold my interest. Let’s just say that if I have to listen to fairly predictable music with pleasant vocals, I am much more comfortable when the music evokes jazz rather than country or folk. Hey, that’s just me and my biased tastes, what do I do.

They briefly experimented a LOT and came right up to speed with going trip hop trends on their 1999 album Filth And Dreams. As a reward for their labours, the album was only released in Japan. But it has my absolute favourite track of theirs, World Out of Control.

What they have typically sounded like, though, would be on the lines of this (wish there was a better quality print of the video!):

Or this:

Or this:

Lastly, this one from their last release to date:

I also highly recommend the album Live At The Jazz Cafe which features wonderful re-arrangements of their songs.

Singer Corinne Drewery doesn’t have the most amazing technique. While I am not discussing that here as this is an appreciation post, suffice it to say it is sub optimal and limits her range. But she does have a knack for exuding charisma and that you can’t teach. Listen here and tell me this doesn’t ‘remind’ you of Chandralekha (I mean, this song came first by a six year margin):

On that note, I have to make the obligatory mention of THE hit song with which they’re associated, to the point where those who have not followed their career since may believe they are a one hit wonder. That wondrous ‘one hit’ is the song Breakout:

The album both songs come from is titled It’s Better To Travel. I could not agree more with the sentiment, as we continue to stay cooped up at home to avoid contracting a certain, a certain virus.

Dee Dee Belson and the story of unsung singers/artists/sportspersons etc

April 2, 2021

I heard Dee Dee Belson for the first time today while going through Linda Eder’s Star Search performances. If you’re coming at this from an Indian vantage point, you may not be familiar with Linda Eder but she is a well known Broadway singer and was married to songwriter Frank Wildhorn for a few years. She’s fairly bigtime, so to speak.

But Dee Dee Belson? Let’s get to her. The fact that I haven’t posted a URL for her name probably gives you a hint…

First up, she contested the finals of Star Search in 1988, up against Linda Eder.

Linda Eder sang Looking Through The Eyes of Love, a song originally performed by Melissa Manchester. Linda kept it simple on the surface but added a high section probably sung in whistle register that isn’t there in Melissa’s rendition and also brought forth more warmth. I would suggest you to listen to her renditions of Bring On The Men or Don’t Rain On My Parade to get an idea of how much Linda is singing within herself here. Linda carefully chose a song that would be a walk in the park for her and did full justice to it.

Dee Dee sang Since I Fell For You and performed it with lots of gusto, adding high scat. Perhaps, though, this out of the box and adventurous rendition wasn’t ‘fit to size’ for the platform. Linda’s more accessible approach won the day and she won the finals.

However, as you can tell, Dee Dee’s own performance was brilliant in its own right. The nature of a contest forces judges to pick winners and losers but, really, music isn’t a competition. Dee Dee was expressing herself in her own voice just as Linda was. We can have space for both in this planet. Or can we?

For have a look at their trajectories since then.

Linda’s undefeated run in Star Search caught the attention of Frank Wildhorn, who was then writing songs for famous artists like Patti LaBelle and, yup, Whitney Houston. If you’ve ever heard Where Do Broken Hearts Go, that’s his song. And as the songwriter, I can bet he made more money when the song charted #1 than Whitney did for recording it. But that’s another topic.

Frank had been writing a musical based on the R L Stevenson novel Jekyll & Hyde. He was enchanted by Linda’s voice and cast her in it. From thereon, began a musical collaboration that morphed into a romantic relationship and, eventually, a marriage. He wrote two other plays – Scarlet Pimpernel and Civil War – in which he, again, gave her songs. By and by, Linda became a Broadway star and the play Jekyll and Hyde received Tony Award nominations though it didn’t win any of them. Through this time, Linda appeared on the Rosie O’Donnell show as well as on David Letterman. Told ya, she was fairly big time for a while. She decided, though, that she had had her fill of the fame game and settled down in Upstate New York to raise her son (as well as dogs and horses), performing a more limited schedule for the consumption of fans as opposed to high profile televised events. She wouldn’t have known then, of course, that televising music shows other than the Grammys would become increasingly a thing of the past in the US. She had had her own PBS concert in 1999 anyway (from which the Bring On The Men performance is taken).

So that’s for Linda. As for Dee Dee, she sang songs on the 1990 TV series Cop Rock. One look at its IMDB page should tell you how that worked out.

But that wasn’t her fault, she wasn’t directing the show. She also sang a song on the movie Don’t Tell Her It’s Me.

The movie tanked and the song was never released. But you can hear it here:

As you can tell, she had a beautiful voice. If a song of hers were slipped into the radio in the middle of Celine Dion hits, you wouldn’t think something was remiss. It would fit right in (and note I am not saying she SOUNDS like Celine).

Dee Dee had minor repute as a jazz singer but, as said above, there’s no wikipedia page about her. All I could glean about her work was she made an album named after her on little known Impact Records. According to discogs, the album, made in 1992, was only ever released on cassette.

She died of a heart attack in 2009. She was 49. Yeah.

That’s the long and short of it when it comes to Dee Dee Belson, a Star Search finalist. Star Search was basically a drab and unglamorous version of American Idol (though its format was more like the Sa Re Ga Ma Pa show of old). So, lots of people would have watched the show in 1988. Lots of people would have known her name. Some parents and grandparents would have been telling kids to remember Dee Dee’s name. And yet, she wound up but a mere footnote.

And here’s the kicker. She was the daughter of actress Pearl Bailey. She wasn’t a nobody. She had privilege, she must have had a network. All that isn’t always enough, though.

There was a Tamil movie 12B that imagined two alternative stories that hinge on the protagonist being able to catch the bus (route no. 12B, hence the name). What would the counter history where Dee Dee won Star Search have looked like? Would it have opened more doors for her? And would it have necessarily hurt Linda or would she have still been spotted by Frank Wildhorn? There’s no guarantee. Sunil Gavaskar used to urge rookie players in the Indian cricket team to get a century and not get out in the 80s or 90s. His rationale was that selectors only focused on the centuries and forgot about the near-centuries. Likewise, somewhere, a news article mentioning Linda as the Star Search winner probably impressed Frank enough to pay attention.

So…this is a long winded way of saying that, basically, the world of music doesn’t just revolve around Whitney, Celine, Mariah, Christina or Beyonce. There are so many, oh so many singers out there. And there are many more like Dee Dee that you may never hear of. Many like her of whom you cannot find much to listen to even if you wanted to (as I want to). It’s show business and they show us merely the very tip of the iceberg. They funnel out, often arbitrarily, the stack and select a prized few offerings for our consumption. While this has changed a tad in the streaming era, chances are that unless you are a voracious music nerd like me, you basically think of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande or Katy Perry when you think about contemporary female pop singers. Oh, and Billie Ellish. Sorry.

And it’s that way just about everywhere. You’ll never hear about wonderful theater actors who never made it to the big time unless YOU were personally there marvelling at their performances.

It’s that way in sport too. I have once watched two women slug it out ferociously in the finals of a $25000 tennis event held here in Navi Mumbai. It was absolutely fantastic to watch. Amateur players in the city (like myself) gathered to watch it and we marvelled at how hard they were hitting the ball, harder than we could ever hope to. It was like they were from a different planet.

And YET, both players were ranked between 200 and 300. I cannot remember their names anymore though I think one was from Serbia and the other from Russia. And no, neither of them made it, neither of them could break through to the big league.

But at least there is a semblance of fairness in sports. Their ranking was a true reflection of where they stood. Had either player come up against Serena Williams, she would have won without lifting a finger, that’s how good SHE is. We can, of course, debate how some players enjoy privileges and facilities in their formative years that others don’t (though the Williams sisters grew up in Compton so…). But other things being equal, the sporting world simply rewards who is the best on the day, in the match. That’s more objective than the best corporate performance appraisal systems you’ll find.

That can’t be said of the art world. Who makes the cut and who doesn’t can depend on extremely subjective factors and even just plain dumb luck. Being at the right place at the right time counts for more than talent. Which sounds fair enough but the thing is even the artist may not realize they are at the right place at the right time. They may often simply tap serendipitously into the zeitgeist. One can, again, find exceptions to this rule. Stevie Wonder made it through sheer force of talent as did Ilayaraja, as did Rahman and so on.

But what is more frequently observed is the 12B syndrome. Where a single event and its outcome may perhaps define your future and to a disproportionate extent. And where it may not even be necessarily something you did wrong. Dee Dee Belson poured her heart out that evening on Star Search. And it wasn’t enough. Yet, who can hold it against Linda Eder either – a consummate mistress of technique who has proved herself more than worthy of the prize? Yes, it’s complicated. I mean, it’s complicated for me, a huge Linda Eder fanboy, so imagine what those who may not have been so fond of her singing and who knew Dee Dee well would feel about it.

What happened to Ilayaraja’s mixing?

February 6, 2021

Yesterday, as I was returning home and listening to music, I noticed how much fuller the sound is on newer (late 90s and onwards) recordings of Ilayaraja songs compared to the 80s ones (which, for understandable reasons, have a super compressed sound). I wondered why then do we complain about the recording quality of his later releases.

If you don’t believe me that the sound is fuller in new recordings, you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s Vaanaviley. You simply won’t hear such a full sound on the 80s recordings.

But if you’re paying attention, you have already noticed something is off here too.

I felt likewise. To find out what, I thought let me check out Oru Poongavanam:

Listen to the first interlude and you can feel the music coming through different places in your headphone set (oh yes, you absolutely need to use headphones to get this effect). Bass in the middle with the respective lead instruments – flute/keyboard/violin – on top and drums on left and right.

Cut to the charanam and you will see that there are two different percussion layers in the left and the right channels respectively. So each time they play, your mind darts to the sound to find out where it’s coming from. Vocals right in the middle anchoring the song throughout.

At 2:45 there is a very soft hi-hat stroke on drums that is lurking in the left corner. And when the big fill comes on at 2:48, it’s in the middle. This darting of the percussion tells your mind that something is about to happen and builds up excitement.

Now what is all this business of sound darting from one channel to another or feeling like it’s right in the middle called? Mixing. While there are many, many other things going into the mixing than what I described (and which would take an actual professional musician to describe, unlike yours truly), the above are very noticeable ways in which you can tell that there is a lot of creative input going on into the mixing.

A common argument put forth to explain why Raja ceded space to Rahman in the 90s (because Raja fans can’t simply accept that after a decade and a half of avalanche of Raja goodies, the audience simply wanted something different and great in its own right) is that Raja was weak with the sound engineering aspect of the music.

But this is not strictly true when it comes to the 80s, the period when he truly lorded over Tamil and Telugu music. As the Oru Poongavanam example shows, within the constraints of whatever technology he had to work with then, he was in fact striving to create a dynamic experience for the listener. So it’s not as if Raja’s role was after writing the notes and teaching the singers what to sing and the musicians what to play. He was dictating how the mix shaped up in a way that made the song engaging from start to finish.

Oru Poongavanam – and Agni Natchatram as such – is the high watermark of creative mixing on Raja albums. But you can hear it elsewhere in that period (say 1985 to 88/89).

Try listening to Vaa Vaa Vaa Kanna Vaa with the headphone/earphone over just one ear and you will find that the keyboard intro sounds weird. That’s because there are actually two keyboard parts playing simultaneously and they are in different channels.

Similar is the case with the intro of Sangeetha Megam or Vaan Megam.

The mixing is often so good you can feel the effect of it even in bad mono versions of the songs like Oho Meham Vandhadho:

For a better version of what the song should sound like, try this:

This is not a coincidence because the mid-late 80s period was his most productive, with many of his most memorable songs and soundtracks figuring in this period. While comparisons become difficult with his maddening prolificity and some connoisseurs may make an argument for the more experimental, adventurous early 80s phase or for the more world music/heavy symphonic turn of the early 90s, the mid 80s phase is from where the maximum must have songs of Raja get picked from. And while the mixing alone doesn’t explain his success during this period by any means, it is a significant part of the, uh, mix.

Now cut to the mid 90s and the mixing starts to suffer. Mastana, for example:

The recording itself isn’t bad but the mixing is devoid of flavour and as a result, instruments seem to come and go in a procession without stamping their authority as they seemed to in Oru Poongavanam.

This procession like effect would become an annoying feature of his music over these later years.

Take Khajiraho, a stylish yet poignant duet that would have benefited from a better mix.

Or Antha Naal Nyabagam. It has often been said that in later years, the singers let down Raja but this is one instance where Vijay Yesudas and Shreya Ghoshal’s soulful singing went in vain.

And here’s the more confounding part. On the odd occasion when a Raja song broke through the clutter in recent years and made an impression, the mix was good, if not great.

Here’s Ilankaathu. Listen at 0:25 how beautifully the bass is recorded, as if underneath the guitar:

Sayndhu Sayndhu, recorded and mixed abroad. And you can tell:

While Unna Nenachu is not perfect, it is a major improvement over the Dhoni/Chithiraiyil Nila Choru/Ulavacharu Biryani efforts. Listen at 3:03 and the reverb from the violin part splits into the channels. These are the things that give us chills when we listen even when we cannot put on a finger on the reason for it.

So just why, why did he stop investing effort in the mix? Beats me.

And here’s a last befuddling aspect of it. In the 80s, when Raja did all this creative sound darting from one channel to the other stuff, not many people at all in India had walkmans. Not many had good stereo systems either. Most listened to music on tiny 2 in 1 decks, transistors or on clunky and primitive television sets. Or in cinema halls that did not have Dolby sound. So was he putting all this effort for his own satisfaction when he listened to the output on headphones before OKing it? 😀 AND when the audience did start to have the equipment that would let them hear these things, he stopped paying attention to it.

I think this should go down as an only Raja fossible (but this time in a dubious sense).

The incredible Annie Haslam – an analysis

December 16, 2020

As some of you may know, I am a huge, huge fan of Annie Haslam, the singer of Renaissance, a progressive rock band that achieved some popularity in the 1970s. While their sad collapse in the 80s resulted in their disappearing out of public view for nearly a couple of decades, Annie’s perseverance in keeping the 2010s incarnation of the band going and her miraculous longevity as a singer has brought her name back in circulation at least in prog rock circles (which, to begin with, are admittedly small).

But there has not been any new material from the band in a long, long time and as far as my listening preferences go, I have kept moving on. This year, I spent some time on Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters, then Tyler’s Igor (last year’s release, I know) and Lianne La Havas’ eponymous album (a gorgeous, gorgeous masterpiece). I skimmed through Nightwish’s release for the year too but I am long past my symphonic-metal phase and not even Floor Jansen could get me interested enough.

Speaking of….Floor Jansen is pretty much one of the best singers today in rock/pop. Note I say singer with no gender qualifier. She really is that great. I will separately do a piece on her one of these days but in short, just imagine the same singer performing Shallow AND Phantom of the Opera for a TV show…and also producing death-growls for the band ReVamp (which she was in before Nightwish). She combines unbelievable versatility (especially for a – sorry – metal singer) with amazing power and a massive range.

It is in this context that I stumbled upon a video of a live performance in which Floor joined Epica for the song Sancta Terra.

As I watched both Simone Simons (Epica’s vocalist) and Floor switch to a low larynx-y head voice for the fifth octave notes, I suddenly recalled Annie Haslam and decided to check out a live performance of Ashes Are Burning. Here it is :

Unbelievable as it may be, the note Annie hits at 0:50 (not sure how you can) is just as high as the one Simone hits at 0:30 in the Sancta Terra performance.

Notice how effortlessly and smoothly Annie glides up to that note, while still maintaining astounding resonance. How does she do it? Wish we knew!

So…that is the purpose of this article. To discuss a little more in depth about Annie’s voice.

Now…I am not somebody who says it’s ONLY Annie’s huge range that makes her an incredible singer. It’s also her emotional resonance, her ability to interpret lyrics imaginatively and yet with understatement and, hand in hand, her brilliant phrasing. But that doesn’t mean her voice itself doesn’t need to be analysed because it’s a big part of what makes her so special.

For quick reference, I am posting below range compilations of Annie as well as of Floor Jansen. This is not to compare both but to make observations about Annie’s marvellous strength in the fifth octave.

As you can tell, Floor actually belts all the way up to G5. Annie doesn’t. Belting in general isn’t as much of a forte of Annie as you may think. She CAN sing a mighty E5 (which she does most notably on Ashes Are Burning) but as an operatically trained soprano, she doesn’t try to pull and maintain chest resonance high up.

Basically, Annie doesn’t in fact sing in chest register, then mixed, then head, then whistle. She more or less sings in ONE register, switching to a whistle only from E6 and above (yes she has range that high up, coming up to a G6). Even that whistle register is unlike Mariah Carey’s or Minnie Riperton’s. Annie’s super-high sixth octave notes are not flutey or airy and are packed with resonance. In a recent chat with Roger Dean, she called herself a coloratura soprano and her prowess that high up does evoke opera singers like Joan Sutherland or Natalie Dessay, more so than it does other soprano sirens in the pop/rock world.

So…let’s climb down back to the FIFTH octave. In what way does having one register (which is to say all the registers are blended almost to perfection) differentiate Annie from a singer like Floor?

It means there are no ‘gaps’ in Annie’s range.

When you listen to Floor’s high notes, what you see is that, as said before, she belts all the way up to a G5. But above G5, her head voice dramatically lightens and she sounds as if she is mixing falsetto/whistle right away. That is, the quality of her head voice does not match that of her chest/mixed voice. This is bound to happen, by the way, when you are a belter. Because you then amplify your chest voice power as far high up as you can and treat head voice as more of a bonus.

Whereas, Annie starts gradually ‘lightening’ as she goes higher and higher up the fifth octave. Such that as she moves to G5 and above, the transition from her lower fifth range (D-F5) is seamless. She is clearly not singing in a chesty voice and YET, her tone has more resonance that high up than you hear from Floor.

You’re going to complain I didn’t include the very impressive Beste Zanger high notes (where Floor performed Phantom of the Opera). I am going to, in fact, to make a point about what I wrote above.

Towards the end of this video, you see Floor hitting a Bb5. It’s clearly captioned so you will be able to find it easily.

NOW compare that Bb5 to Annie’s Bb5 at the end of Song of Scheherazade. At 27:50.

The main difference you can tell is – and this is a paradox – Annie doesn’t seem to need to round out her sound to get that operatic ‘O’ effect. She is retaining an ‘Aa’ syllable in that Bb5 which adds an effect of greater resonance to it. It’s also harder to sing that way but she is able to pull it off.

It is even more amazing when she sings a B5 the same way on Prologue (at 1:39:02 in this video):

Ashes Are Burning is the last track they performed in this show and there you can hear at 1:57:38 and 1:59:53 again that her E6 barely sounds different at all from her B5. How is this accomplished? In fact, at this point, she WAS singing in one register from the lowest to highest note in her range. That would change in the 80s as she would start making a distinct switch to the whistle register when hitting the E6 (you can hear this in the 1979 performance of Ashes Are Burning too, where she had already made this change).

But before I get to the heart of this paradox, I will touch on another way in which Annie utilises this one register quality. As you can tell in the Ashes Are Burning opening verse-chorus, she is able to sing in a very melodic way almost all through the fifth octave. Note the word sing, not belt. It is counter intuitive but it is harder to keep your voice up in the fifth octave and sing in a gentle but strong tone than it is to belt out ONE big money note in the fifth octave. Annie is able to sound relaxed and yet powerful at the same time through the fifth octave. Best exemplified by this wondrous performance of Carpet of the Sun.

The last “See The Carpet of the Sun” trill gets everyone’s attention but the trill she sings in the main chorus “The Green Grass Soft and Sweet/Of Oceans Mountains Deep” is also equally as incredible. The effect sounds relaxed and breezy to the listener but it’s incredibly tough to maintain that kind of power WITHOUT sounding like Whitney Houston belting out I Will Always Love You.

This well blended and balanced voice production also gives her many options in terms of how she can sing the same note. For example, the Carpet…note above is quite powerful while the high note (the same as Carpet, F#5) on Forever Changing (Forever Gone…) is much, much lighter. Her attack on the C#6 of Wishing On A Star is hard but the Rockalise C6 is like a songbird cooing. Annie is a wonderful example of a singer utilizing her gifts, her skills to enhance her expression as opposed to mere range showboating. Don’t get me wrong, she showboats on almost every song in terms of finding a way to accommodate a high note in it (note how she transposed down Wishing On A Star so that she could conclude it with that massive C#6). But she always does it in a subtle and artistic way. She was already painting the soundscapes with her voice long before she picked up the brush to paint on canvas.

With that said, let’s get back to what I said about not-so-low-larynx singing. Yes, the paradox is even though Annie did learn singing from an opera singer, she didn’t always let the larynx drop right down. Whether she actively resisted it I can’t tell as I wasn’t there in that moment nor am I a pedagogue.

By not getting into the operatic O, Annie could emphasise an Aa syllable and retain a powerful sound way, way high into her range. She could also retain an attractive brightness and sweetness that you’d lose if you dropped the larynx.

But…this is not necessarily the soundest technique if we go strictly by the coaching manual. This makes sense in a way. Annie stood out in the 70s in a way other wonderful sopranos like Sally Olfield did not because she was taking a risk. She tried to manage a balance of expression and technique. Either she consciously took this risk or this is how she unconsciously adapted what she had learnt to Renaissance material.

But the risk taking did not come without a price. Even as early as 1975, the tourbook mentions Annie’s voice suffering after too many concerts in a row.

In 1977, she experienced these difficulties for the first time in a high profile concert (as opposed to a regular one of which no recordings may exist today). At the BBC Sight & Sound show.

At 1:45 when she sings “The Green Grass Soft and Sweet”, you can detect the hint of effort and strain to have to get to the note. Don’t get me wrong, she still sings it beautifully, more beautifully than lesser mortals could hope to but she is not comfortable. She is managing it.

On the whole, that show was heavy going for her though she managed her difficulties well and didn’t drift too far below her ‘normal’ level. Nevertheless, that show changed how she would sing Carpet of the Sun.

Listen here to the Albert Hall performance:

NOW, she is singing green GRAAS, not GRAEZ (American) and OSHAAN and not OSHAEN. Even the AND is more of an AAND sound. In other words, she is letting the larynx drop a little more now.

She was evidently bothered enough by the Sight & Sound performance that she felt the need to make adjustments to this song.

The late 70s to early-mid 80s period was a peculiar one where Annie delivered some of the most stunning vocal pyrotechnics of her career. Particularly on Ashes Are Burning but also Touching Once and Camera Camera. And don’t forget Jigsaw, the song about which she remarked, “That one does tire me out a little”.

She was only half joking. It was a reference to the increasing difficulties she faced during this period as her voice acted up on some songs or maybe entire shows. In a 1979 interview, she mentions having had to return to UK for 10 days in the middle of a tour due to laryngitis.

Annie doesn’t reflect on the past, particularly not the bad memories. So she has never talked about what may have bothered her during this period. She did make a very veiled reference to it when she said part of the reason her voice has aged well is that she simply wasn’t singing all the time anymore starting with the mid 80s (an acknowledgment that the hiatus, painful as it was, was also a boon in another sense) and that she couldn’t say if things would have still been the same had she had to. We will never know the full extent of her difficulties and we don’t particularly need to know.

What we do know is on Still Life, she debuted the ‘modern Annie’ sound, the sound we have heard ever since on her recordings and the sound that’s barely aged since then.

A classical crossover album was a perfect vehicle for her to move to a more, yes, low larynx sound.

On this and the next album, entitled Annie Haslam, there was more of a link to how her voice sounded in the 70s.

But by the 90s, she had fully transitioned to this new sound.

Note the syllable on the chorus “SEASHAALL Eyes”. And the change isn’t only audible in the high notes. Consider the quality of tone on “Graceful and alluring”. It’s a heavier and more majestic tone than in the 70s but it is also a tone that clearly belongs to an older woman. Yes, you could say that is age-appropriate too. But that tone is obtained owing to the adjustment she made and not necessarily because she got older.

This, I think, is what she is referring to when she says her voice is stronger than ever. That is not what we are necessarily hearing. We feel that while her voice is still incredibly powerful and capable of reaching astonishingly high notes for her age, it is surely not the wondrous instrument it was in the 70s.

But what she means is likely that she doesn’t have to watch out anymore. When she does have problems, it’s more due to bouts of sickness that she has to deal with due to her age. But it’s not the technique anymore. By moving to a more mature and darker sound, indeed a sound that somewhat resembles Floor’s, Annie was able to prolong her career all the way into her seventh decade on this planet.

And with that, I will conclude with the finest exhibit of the ‘new’ Annie Haslam. The brilliant Mystic and the Muse, the most progressive song Michael Dunford wrote after Camera Camera (or even after Song For All Seasons). It’s a very technically challenging track and ends with a sustained D6. Until the last time that she performed this track, Annie was still able to execute that D6 with zero problems. Unbelievable? Yes. One way or the other, Annie’s singing still defies what is possible to this day.

Raja-ranjani – The maestro’s experiments in Sivaranjani

November 29, 2020

For lovers of Indian film music, Sivaranjani/Shivaranjani is associated strongly with Shankar Jaikishan. Especially so for their immortal Mukesh-rendered number Jaane Kahan Gaye Woh Din. O Mere Sanam from Sangam is another brilliant Shivaranjani number. Those of a later generation would also think of Laxmikant Pyarelal’s Tere Mere Beech Mein from Ek Duje Ke Liye. Come to the 90s and Dhak Dhak Karne Laga is a classic Shivaranjani.

It also happens to be ripped off note for note from Ilayaraja’s Abbani Teeyani Debba!

Not one of my own favourite Raja moments but it’s a good gateway into his own experiments with Sivaranjani.

To be clear, some of his most popular Sivaranjani songs are those where he has handled it the conventional way.

O Priya Priya (also copied into Hindi) comes immediately to mind.

Adi Athadi from Kadalora Kavithaigal

Or Kuyil Paatu from En Rasavin Manasule

But I am more interested in two relatively less heralded songs where he goes off the beaten path.

There is another ragam that Raja is fond of – Hamsanandi.

Look at their notes and there is little overlap between Sivaranjani and Hamsanandi.

And yet, Raja manages to find ways to blend the two ragams! If I had to guess, this is achieved because when you use notes from a ragam without following the sequence, you can still retain its flavour. And then, you change a note or two and hey presto! The ragam has changed.

The first is a song that is very much in Sivaranjani but its treatment is unconventional and evokes a Hamsanandi flavour in places.

The song is Manjal Poosum Manjal Poosum from Sakkarai Devan.

First, the line “Vaasa Poovin Thene” in the pallavi. It overlaps a little with Raathiriyil Poothirukkum, a timeless Hamsanandi from Thanga Mahan.

Come to the first line of the charanam: “Nee illadha nithirai yedhu” and it evokes “Veenai Yennum Meniyilae”, the first line of the Raathiriyil charanam.

Other than these lines, the song stays in Sivaranjani but the phrase most strongly evocative of the ragam is the first line of the song, “Manjal Poosum Manjal Poosum…”. The leitmotif etches the ragam in your mind, allowing him to proceed to take you a long way away from it.

The other song I am going to take up here is Adhikalai Neram Kanavil from Naan Sonnathey Sattam.

Rendered by SPB and Asha, this is a lost classic. I confess for a long time, I never gave this song a fair shake because the intro put me off and I wrongly assumed it was an overly sentimental pathos number. Had I only stayed till the flute portion in the intro, I would have realised how wrong I was.

The interlude stays with flute and proceeds to beautifully elucidate patterns you expect in Sivaranjani. And THEN, from nowhere comes a santoor part that is in Hamsanandi. Which still somehow resolves such that the charanam gets back to Sivaranjani. As far as I can tell, the vocal portions never drift into Hamsanandi.

But in the second interlude, the maestro again orchestrates the proceedings (pun intended) such that he can pursue these experiments. An expansive string section first opens up the horizon and then proceeds into Hamsanandi territory with the last phrase almost getting into chromaticism. This potential for chromaticism in both Pantuvarali and Hamsanandi is no doubt what fascinated Raja.

The thing that’s special about this song is he doesn’t really get into fusion (Indo-Western) territory. Even when the violins come in, they sound maybe Hindustani at times but rarely Western.

It’s another noteworthy aspect of Raja. The master of harmony, the king of walking basslines could completely shut off harmonic development in songs like these and compose just Indian melody, both for vocals and for instruments. And he could still conjure up the space to innovate in these very conventional, traditional Indian settings.

Raja-Naatai v/s Rahman-Naatai

November 22, 2020

Listening to an amateur singer deliver a really good rendition of Narumugaye set off this train of thought in my mind.

Narumugaye is based off Naatai raagam and rendered by Unnikrishnan and Bombay Jayashree.

As Unnikrishnan had already done on Ennavale (or on the Raja-composed Maharajanodu), he does not adjust his singing style for film music and sings as you would expect in a Carnatic recital.

But in this song, there is another layer to this. The melody itself is composed in a Carnatic manner (pokku, you could call it in Tamil). It’s not just that the melody has a lot of gamakam. Aesthetically too, it is expected to be rendered in a Carnatic style.

In 1997, I consumed Rahman and Raja soundtracks as they came along and only fleetingly paid attention to contemporary Hindi film music, finding most of it mediocre. By 97, I had already heard my dad’s OP Nayyar-Asha compilation a million times. In 97, I was all ears for Minsara Kanavu/Kadhal Desam. I didn’t particularly notice the soundtrack of Iruvar.

I can see why in hindsight.

I guess I have never liked the idea of transferring Carnatic style vocals to film music where the situation didn’t specifically demand it. That is, I obviously don’t have a problem with this approach being used in Sindhu Bhairavi or the parody of Sundari Neeyum/Madathile. Rahman’s own Minsara Kanna for that matter.

In Rahman’s early years, he too tended to not to do this. You don’t get this in the very Carnatic based tune of Malargaley. The singing is still filmi, in a good way. But in songs like the above one from Iruvar and others in the years to come, this strain became more and more dominant. At least until Bollywood became a priority in the noughties and it seemed to influence Rahman to return to a more minimalist direction in melody.

As a contrast, let’s take an iconic Ilayaraja Naatai.

The song is rocking with Hendrix-like riffs and fusion violin that evokes Jean Luc Ponty/Mahavishnu Orchestra. But the melody itself is very Carnatic (while SPB’s rendition is not). Just try singing it in a Carnatic pokku and you’ll see.

Raja understood that myriad possibilities lay in marrying the rich melodic traditions of India with Western harmony writing.

I am sure Rahman understood it too. But Rahman had to succeed Raja and therefore had no choice but to tread new ground that Raja hadn’t. Sometimes that new ground simply meant returning to old ways. One of those being returning to age-old bifurcations between Carnatic and film. Where a Carnatic based song is meant to be sung in a particular way.

Not FTBC, Lianne La Havas’ s/t is this year’s singer-songwriter masterpiece

October 12, 2020

Two of my favourite singer-songwriters, both wondrously talented ladies, Fiona Apple and Lianne La Havas, released albums this year, both after long gaps. In Apple’s case, it was nine years after the previous one, Idler Wheel. In Havas’ case, five years after Blood. Apple’s instrument of choice is the piano while Havas plays guitar. They are both amazing players…not in a Wakeman/Satch way but in terms of making the instrument virtually another arm of their body and fusing it seamlessly with their voice, vocally and compositionally.

Confession: I am a much bigger fan of Blood than Is Your Love Big Enough. Some critics seemed to slightly diss Blood as over-arranged. Not me, I loved every bit of these arrangements drenched in richness and style. I also loved the sparseness of Idler Wheel. Unlike critics and like a regular musophile, I don’t take absolute positions. It’s contextual: a great arranger can make a million instruments sing in one voice and likewise deliver the impact of a symphony with a sparse set up too.

I mention over-arranging because one of the ‘landmark’ points of critique in favour of Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Apple’s release this year) was how sparse it was, how DIY it was. I love both. As I have ‘confessed’ earlier, I love Tyler’s Igor album from last year. But this is 2020 and United States so any appreciation or criticism has to be political/ideological and here the case was that the earlier albums being supposedly over-arranged was men interfering with Apple’s vision and not letting her make the album she had deserved to (what a thing to say, ‘deserved to make’).

Unsurprisingly, this line of argument was conspicuously missing when Havas’ self/titled album came around a few months later. It was widely lauded…with no mention of the fact that this was, instead, recorded in three different locations in professional studios with male musicians playing on the album. I ain’t complaining – it testifies to the power of music to make these SJW critics completely forget their nonsensical arguments and simply enjoy what they are hearing.

And how can you not! I heard Paper Thin and Can’t Fight on Youtube and thereafter wasted no time in getting the full album. Gonna get the CD, if I can, when the covid situation clears up. For now, the sound is great even on the Youtube Music stream.

If I loved Paper Thin and Can’t Fight, I was simply blown away by Bittersweet. And Read My Mind…wow, the chorus is as good as any you will find on a vintage Stevie Wonder album. But as much as I love and admire the work of Wonder, one of my all time favourite artists, Havas has a more gorgeous and supple voice and I am not sure I would get the same emotions from a Wonder-rendition of Read My Mind.

Havas has a way of singing in the uber-staccato Amy Winehouse-influenced style that pervades all of contemporary pop and still sounding more legato than she really is. I normally find that Winehouse-y phrasing super annoying but Havas brings a combination of languid duskiness and raw soul to her vocals that make me overlook such considerations. Again, the power of music to make you forget about your ‘rules’.

This album is neither the raw sparseness of Is Your Love Big Enough or the dazzling lushness of Blood. It’s, simply, accomplished. The arrangements do in fact lean towards the sparse side…BUT they don’t SOUND sparse. The singing, playing, production all put together are so, so beautiful it doesn’t sound lo-fi in any way. A cliche comparison coming from me, but it is sort of like Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Not in terms of any musical similarities but in the way that the songs sound rich even with a limited instrumental palate because they are so beautifully performed and recorded, so dynamic even when they stick to the softer side of things (or because of that!).

That comparison sums up in another sense what this album sounds like. There is a seamless melange of influences current and past such that the album sounds, in essence, timeless. It’s an incredibly soulful set of songs recorded by a black Brit who likes to avoid being slotted in ‘soul’ but whose work reflects the spirit of R&B legends, living and dead. And not just R&B – Bittersweet evoked Erykah Badu for me.

But an even more stunning demonstration of both the range of Havas’ influences as well as the level at which her artistry operates is her cover of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes. Not every day that you hear somebody take a Radiohead track and make it absolutely her own.

Havas says the session where she and her band recorded Weird Fishes inspired her as to the direction of the new album. It’s not hard to see why, that’s how magical her cover is.

What follows continues to be wonderful though, if you’re like me, you have already found everything up to Weird Fishes so sumptuous you can hardly believe there is still more album to feast on. Problems of plenty. Stick around, though, and Sour Flower is the perfect closer.

In stark contrast to the media narrative around FTBC, Havas stands in quiet defiance of ongoing trends in music. They say the album format is dead and yet, she has delivered something that is not just an assortment of songs lumped together for no apparent reason but one that works together as one cohesive experience. They say arrangements is just too much dress and DIY yada yada, but she has recorded her album with loving crafts(wo)manship. They say it’s more about the sound and melodies and harmonies don’t really matter anymore (an argument intended to make musophiles like me shut up about the relative lack of those in FTBC), but Havas serves up generous portions of both. In a time when the media implore you, me, everyone to pick a side so that they can scream more hysteria about it and boost their ratings, Havas defiantly gives us an intensely personal perspective. And why not! When Nixon was being impeached, maybe Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd both had plenty to say about it but Genesis didn’t, nor did Yes, nor Renaissance. Are their albums regarded as less worthy today for not talking about the things the media told you to talk about?

Don’t get me wrong; I am not one of those who goes, “I loved you until you said XYZ political stuff” on artists. I have remained a fan of Kangana Ranaut the actress (or Clint Eastwood the filmmaker) even as I disagreed more and more with their politics. If you want to go political, do so by all means. And even if it’s an award bait, I don’t care. Your album, your choice. But…likewise, my choice to like it or not which will have nothing to do with which side of the aisle you fall on.

In fact, in releasing this wonderful, wonderful album named, simply, after herself, in a mad, mad year like 2020, Lianne La Havas underlines a simple truth that musicians and musophiles know too well (and which can never get through the brains of the media talking heads) – music is much, much bigger than the moment we live in, bigger than the artists who make it or us the listeners who appreciate it. It was there before you or I emerged from the darkness and it will be there when we are gone there.

So why indeed should music have to remind us of CNN, Fox, Times Now etc? While all this stuff happens – what Annie Haslam described as a bad movie to me – let there be gorgeous, heartfelt music to nourish our souls and help us get through these times. Never stop playing, Lianne, pretty please!

Tribute to SPB: A banyan tree falls

September 27, 2020

I was maybe 5 or 6 when I first heard SPB’s voice. It was the song Rakkamma Kaiya Thathu. Though it didn’t register as an SPB song and more as a hit Tamil song.

Likewise, I didn’t quite realize how SPB was making his presence felt in large chunks of the Singaravelan soundtrack, though I loved every song:

But it was because of the above sad version that the name SPB registered when a year later, my father, talking about the Kalaignan title track mentioned how beautiful SPB’s singing in the sad portion was:

AND a year or so later, the songs of Paatu Paadavaa (which had SPB in one of the lead roles) were all over Jain TV/Sun TV. I can’t say for sure if we did have a Sun TV feed in Kalyan yet at the time but it was one of the two channels for sure. The presence of Janakaraj made this song memorable for me as a kid, but in later years I have realized what a tour de force this was for the SPB-Raja combo and (though we obviously didn’t know it then) one of the last times that it scaled these heights.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Hindi yet. To be honest, I never completely warmed up to his Hindi songs in spite of growing up in Mumbai. Because I was being exposed to the unbelievable things he was still doing in Tamil (he was ALREADY a veteran then, in the 90s) and his Hindi work seemed to pale in comparison.

But as the Raja-SPB combo began to fade away, Rahman and SPB stepped in. Where Raja wasn’t much interested in making SPB sing very high, Rahman did make SPB sing so high it at times got challenging for him to reproduce live:

And also exploited his ability to belt with the big hulk of a tone he really had. Yes, SPB was often thought of a soft voice but really, it was his singing that is soft. The timber was in fact powerful and huge.

Azhagana Ratchasiye was another highlight of the combination:

But by now, with the advent of mp3 and my growing interest in Ilayaraja’s 80s work (the work I HADN’T grown up listening to), I was moving away from contemporary Tamil music and digging into the archives.

And that is where I discovered beauties like Seer Kondu Vaa. But also this less heralded track from the same film (Naan Paadum Paadal).

Or this song, where the S Janaki-rendered charanam is a bit of a letdown (the tune, not her singing) but the SPB pallavi is magnificent.

As social media and wiki blossomed (in the early part of the noughties, you couldn’t yet count on wiki to get details of all soundtracks), tracking down songs I had missed out became easier. Either somebody on Raja fan networks would recommend a song:

or I would hear it on TV and get the name on the internet :

or I would look up the listing of songs on the soundtrack and listen to songs I had not noticed/heard before:

And BR’s article on old Tamil music introduced me to this magnificent solo SPB rendered under MSV’s baton:

And when it wasn’t tracking down ‘new’ SPB songs I hadn’t heard before, it was listening to new amazing performances from this ageless wonder of a singer:

In the last year, a new addition to this list of activities was…listening to SPB’s reminiscences on Youtube hosted by himself.

And then…I heard he was diagnosed with covid-19 and joined millions in praying for his recovery.

But he died…

All of a sudden, the musical banyan tree that had remained virtually unchanged and ageless all these years, a comforting shelter for any weather, had fallen.

It will not be hard to retain the memories because he left so many of them, a treasure trove that cannot be enumerated or assigned a value. But it will be hard to live with the reality that he is no more. Because it still feels like he was going to come back and resume singing in concert once we got back to normal. Wonder what else we’re going to lose as we wait for normal to return….Will it?

RIP, Om Shanti to the legend, the one and only.

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