January 21, 2010

The Road – wonderful misery

The Road
4 out of 5 stars
the road

I told the boy when you dream about bad things happening, it means you’re still fighting and you’re still alive. It’s when you start to dream about good things that you should start to worry.

To say that John Hillcoat’s The Road is emotionally hard-hitting is something of an understatement. As someone who hasn’t read the Cormac McCarthy novel on which the film is based, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. The words “post-apocalyptic” have been bandied about, but contrary to immediate perceptions, this isn’t a film on a soapbox, bashing home a message about the potential near-future consequences of the way we’re living. Rather, it came across as a rather difficult examination of human nature, and what becomes of us when absolutely everything that constructs our lives is ripped away. The simplistic but all too real separation of “good guys” and “bad guys”, with the grey that lies in-between, and the terrible decisions people make when balancing survival with suffering.

The performances by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as father and son were great, drawing you in to their relationship and their individual struggles. My favourite thing about the film, however, was the cinematography. The bleakness of the landscapes seemed to bleed off the screen, the familiarity of the various settings creating unease as they were presented in a very unfamiliar context.

As long as you can handle the powerful themes of misery and futile struggles, I definitely recommend The Road. But do make sure there’s something light-hearted available to cheer you up when you get home.

V xx

Disappointingly underwhelming

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/zgwx

The Streets of Bollywood 3
1 out of 5 stars

The word remix often strikes fear into the hearts of Bollywood music fans, terrified that an unknown DJ will have destroyed their favourite film tracks. With names such as Rishi Rich and Hunterz on the credits of The Streets of Bollywood 3, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that on this occasion things were in safe hands.

Unfortunately, it is partly this presumption that makes the album so disappointingly underwhelming. It begins promisingly, with It Can Only Be Love, Rishi Rich’s take on a Bollywood love song, ably assisted by Mumzy on added vocals, but things quickly deteriorate. Kami K’s lyrical contributions are entirely devoid of any imagination, Hunterz appears to have phoned in his performances without any effort or verve, and the eight tracks which are not produced by Rishi Rich seem to be little more than thudding RnB beats rather perfunctorily employed over Bollywood melodies.

The album sleeve rather annoyingly pays no tribute to the original composers of the tracks sampled, or the films from which they are taken – a definite faux pas if they are attempting to appeal to the Bollywood market, and also a mistake if they are attempting to open up Bollywood to the urban market.

The title of this album implies that the music producers have done something new and interesting with Bollywood favourites, to make them more accessible to an urban audience perhaps. Yet one soon longs to hear the original songs in their unadulterated forms. The only positive is the opening track, thanks to Rishi Rich’s unsurpassed ability for music production alongside Mumzy’s excellent voice. But in all honesty, any listener will find plenty of that on one of Rishi or Mumzy’s own albums.

Bollywood fans should stay well away from this compilation as they will most probably despair at the treatment some old classics and modern favourites have been given. Those wanting a more urban sound should look up some of Rishi Rich’s earlier remix work, which far outshines this poor effort.

One can only hope “The Streets of Bollywood 4” is not lurking around the corner.

Pass on this unmemorable score

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/hzb6

Paa - Ilaiyaraaja
1 out of 5 stars

The film Paa was attracting attention well before the release of its soundtrack, with Bollywood fans curious to see how Amitabh Bachchan, arguably India’s biggest film star, could possibly be playing the on-screen child of his real-life son, Abhishek. It is probably no bad thing that intrigue has been drawing audiences to the cinema, as this music is unlikely to be an incentive.

The album features moments which are pleasant enough – the rather sweet vocals of Shilpa Rao on Mudhi Mudhi Ittefaq Se, for example – but disinterest begins to set in before long, and nothing quite shakes that away. Other highlights, Udhi Udhi Ittefaq Se and Gali Mudhi Ittefaq Se, follow a single, pleasant melody but are let down badly by poor arrangements which lend an air of cruise ship dinner music. Equally disappointing work is evident on the tracks Gumm Summ Gumm and Hichki Hichki, which do nothing to overcome their average qualities, and the less said about Mere Paa the better. Perhaps Amitabhji’s almost incomprehensible vocals on the track make more sense in the context of the film, but as a piece of music it is simply inane.

It seems surprising that the soundtrack to Paa is so very unimaginative, considering the pedigree of the music director, Ilaiyaraaja. With a classically trained background and over 900 scores under his belt, he is a stalwart of the Tamil film industry and a recipient of an Indian National Film Award for his compositions. His music has even crossed global divides, with samples used by M.I.A. and The Black Eyed Peas for their respective albums Kala and Elephunk.

Bollywood film soundtracks are often intended as teasers to the film, released beforehand to engage the interest of filmgoers. It is unlikely this underwhelming effort will achieve that desired effect for Paa, and it is almost certain that this collection will not remain in the minds of music lovers for very long.

January 19, 2010

Unexpectedly emotional – Maharaja at the V&A

Writing about web page http://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/future_exhibs/maharajas/index.html

maharajaMaharaja: the Splendour of India’s Royal Courts
Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington, London
Sunday 10th January 2010

A pre-Christmas attempt to head down to the Maharaja exhibition at the V&A Museum in London was thwarted by the snow, but with only a week till it closed, I decided enough was enough, and braved the icy conditions to go anyway. For those who don’t know, this was a collection of art and artefacts related to the various royal leaders of India from the 18th to mid-20th Century. The exhibition maps the changing face of India’s royalty, from the indigenous Hindu rajas to the Mughal invaders who established their own sovereign rule through to the East India Company and subsequent British Raj.

Artistically, it was fascinating, charting the development in painting styles, jewellery, clothing and decoration over the decades. From the cartoon-like but intricately detailed traditional paintings, through the oil-on-canvas works by British artists to photography of the 20th Century, it was wonderful to chart the journey of how human images were captured. Stunning silks alongside works of gold and gems placed in the context of lush interiors invoked the opulence of royal courts.

Historically, it was intriguing to see how the role of royal leaders – the “Maharajas” of the exhibition’s title – underwent a rather dramatic alteration from defenders of the country to princes by name alone. Displays of weaponry and armour in the 18th Century gave way to tailor-made furniture and Cartier-set diamonds in the 20th.

I came away from Maharaja with head over-full with confused thoughts and a heart over-full with a multitude of emotions. There’s no doubting the exhibition’s value as an artistic and historic display, but I very much doubt that anyone with any sort of connection to the Indian subcontinent will be able to view it with detached interest. I am a born and bred Brit, and my parents were born in Africa, but I left the exhibition feeling tied to India with a stronger thread than ever. I sincerely hope that a significant number of people of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan origin made it to South Kensington to take a look: this was an exhibition of pre-1947 India, and therefore part of a heritage that belongs to us all (despite the fact that a large proportion of the pieces were “on loan from Her Majesty The Queen” – something I found surprisingly unsettling). I’d be interested to know how many others came away asking themselves the same question I did: how did we go from a nation where Hindu rajas made offerings to the Prophet in honour of their Muslim subjects, and Mughal sultans consulted with Hindu courtiers, to a nation of religious violence, a most terrible division of land and the worst displacement of people in modern history?

As I went through the exhibition I wondered, somewhat sadly, what the maharajas of old would have made of their descendents, if they could have seen the route that things would take. They perhaps would have recognised nothing of themselves, of their wisdom, bravery and patriotism, in those royal leaders eventually stripped of all legal rights in the independent India of 1971.

I had assumed that travelling in freezing weather to the V&A to see Maharaja would present difficulties, but the real challenge was dealing with the emotional impact of my visit. This exhibition was beautiful, touching and undoubtedly important – and I’m very glad I had the chance to experience it.

V xx

January 17, 2010

Niraj Chag in Concert – LSO St. Luke's, 24 October 2009

I wholeheartedly admit that this review is somewhat belated, but I hope I can be forgiven as I was dealing with my thesis corrections and settling into a new job. Niraj, a personal apology for taking so long with this.

That’s disclaimer number 1 – Niraj is a friend. But I’ve tried to review as fairly as possible!

I won’t provide too much preamble regarding Niraj Chag’s musical pedigree, as it’s probably easiest to head over to his website: www.nirajchag.com. What I will say is that this whether his scores for stage and screen or his stunning albums, anything the man touches turns to gold.

That’s disclaimer number 2 – I was already a fan before I went to the concert. But bear with me!

The venue of LSO St. Luke’s was a great choice – the marriage of old and new in the architecture and design was a very apt backdrop for a concert that brought together musical styles with imagination and flair.

The opening track was The Snake Charmer, an instrumental from a bonus CD included in a special edition of Niraj’s second album, The Lost Souls. It was a resounding start: classical violin by Kumar Ragunathan, Raf White and Mike Flynn on guitar and bass, respectively, with a crashing percussion section of Nilz Gulhane on tabla and Max Hallet on drums. I mention all these individually because this relatively small group, together with Niraj himself on keyboard, were the only instrumentalists of the night, yet they created a sound big enough to fill every corner of St. Luke’s. For that alone, they deserve recognition.

I’m sure Niraj won’t mind me mentioning that the first couple of vocal-based tracks which followed were a little shaky. It seemed as though the sound levels weren’t feeding back to the singers properly, something one of them confirmed to me later. It was a shame, as the arrangements of Mori Atariya and Baavaria could have been great.
Once those technical issues were solved, however, the vocal performances were, for me, one of the highlights of the whole evening.

Japjit Kaur will be familiar to anyone who has heard The Lost Souls, and her beautiful, ethereal voice contrasted and complemented Rekha Paunrana’s equally beautiful but more earthy sound. Their jugalbandi on several tracks was mesmerising – I’m sure George Harrison was smiling down at the sweet and charming Govinda Bolo. I do hope we get to hear Japjit and Rekha together on future tracks.

The sole male vocalist was the previously mentioned Kumar Ragunathan, who was quite simply outstanding. Powerful but controlled, his performance in the closing track, Allah Hoo, was particularly moving.

Nothing makes a live show like some imagination, and that was abundant in the collaboration displayed between Niraj and a Western (I use that term in a musical sense) choir called the Wing It Singers, lead by Sally Davies. Their joint track, Monsoon Rain, was outstanding, and I eagerly await the opportunity to hear it again.

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I go to a concert I don’t expect the artist(s) to just give me a re-creation of their recorded work. I like to see something unusual, a twist on known songs or surprise arrangement. Niraj Chag’s concert provided all of these things. Tracks with which I have a personal connection still managed to put a lump in my throat, others had my toes tapping and I think I barely blinked during others.

The concert may have had a wobbly start, but it quickly found its legs and created an atmosphere that swept you away. I hope that Niraj and his whole ensemble are proud of what they achieved, because they definitely deserve to be. And from what I have heard, all the creases were ironed out in Birmingham on the 21st of November, where Niraj and Co. delivered nothing short of a marvel.

I wait with bated breath to see what this imaginative music-maker next has in store for his captive and diverse audience.

V xx

For all lovers of bhangra

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/4p28

Music front cover
Billo Rani - Malkit Singh
3 out of 5 stars

To know of Malkit Singh does not require much knowledge of bhangra music. With over 20 studio albums under his belt and over 20 years of touring in countless countries, he is the tour de force who has taken Punjabi music worldwide, and helped to cement bhangra as an internationally recognised sound.

Even those with no experience of bhangra whatsoever may recognise Singh, through the track Jind Mahi. The song was popularised by its use in the immensely successful Bend It Like Beckham soundtrack.

Even with such a colourful catalogue behind him, the opening track of Billo Rani, Nach Billo, is unexpected – it’s a duet between Singh and Mumzy Stranger. But the combination of the former’s traditional Punjabi style and the latter’s RnB leanings works surprisingly well, and the Rishi Rich-produced number is easily a highlight of this set. Things soon progress to a more recognisable bhangra sound, though, with almost all of the remainder of the album reverting to the style Singh’s most loved for. The sole exception is second collaboration with Rishi and Mumzy, final track Saari Raat Nachava.

You do not have to be a fan of bhangra or a speaker of Punjabi to appreciate that the vocal style involved requires an immense quality of tone and a high level of control. This album makes it quite apparent that Singh has both of these in spades – he possesses a superb voice that draws you in with its genuine warmth. Fan or not, it’s easy to understand his popularity and the success which lead him to receive his MBE in the Queen’s 2008 New Year Honours.

All the tracks on this album are competently put together without sounding over-produced, and showcase Singh’s voice wonderfully. It may not, however, win any converts to bhangra. While there is no doubting the high quality of what is on offer, only Nach Billo, Paundah Bhangra and Saari Raat Nachava are really accessible enough to be re-visited by those unfamiliar with the genre.

Billo Rani is sure to appeal to all lovers of bhangra, with its simple recipe of excellent vocals and effective production – but it won’t necessarily be bringing new listeners to the fold.

V xx

November 22, 2009

A class above the usual Bollywood fare.

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/g84z

London Dreams - Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy
3 out of 5 stars

LDShankar Mahadevan, Ehsan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa began composing together in the late 1990s, coming to prominence with Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai in 2001. Since then, as Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, the trio has scored dozens of films to both critical and popular acclaim. Their latest offering is the soundtrack to director Vipul Shah’s London Dreams.

There is a lack of the instant musical impact that you would expect from the composers who have given us albums as diverse as Rock On! and Kal Ho Na Ho. That said, the record endears itself on re-visiting and listeners will no doubt find themselves singing along to the pounding Barson Yaaron and smiling at the beautiful lilt of Khwab.

One of the most notable features of this album is the lack of any female vocals – unsurprising, as the film revolves around a male rock band. It is, in fact, the excellent use of strong male voices that makes each of the eight tracks a great listen. In particular, Vishal Dadlani, Roop Kumar Rathod, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Mahadevan himself all excel themselves with performances that are powerful, uplifting and soulful in turn.

The wordsmith, Prasoon Joshi, deserves a mention, not because he has penned stunning poetry, but because he has almost entirely steered clear of a growing penchant in Bollywood for the use of inane English lyrics. Other than a couple of glib references to the title of the film, all we hear is lyrical Hindi.

To the uninitiated, Bollywood music can often seem overly dramatic, due to the nature of its purpose. The true test is whether the songs stand apart from their associated film as quality pieces of music in their own right. In this case, all the tracks pass resoundingly. London Dreams may not be Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy at their best, but it still outshines many other recent Hindi film releases, and is a thoroughly enjoyable listen.

V xx

An entirely new type of sound

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/5jb6

Swami - 53431
4 out of 5 stars

swamiThe collective known as Swami was formed in 1997 by brothers Simon and Diamond Duggal. The latter is the only remaining original member, nowadays known mainly by his pseudonym of DJ Swami.

53431 – tilt the numbers to make out the name Swami – is a tagged as the Birmingham group’s greatest hits, taking tracks from previous releases such as DesiRock and Equalize. The band’s name is an abbreviation of “So Who Am I?” It’s a question the album seems to be asking itself – and one which it answers with flair.

On paper, the sheer number of genres tied together in this collection shouldn’t work – bhangra, electronica, drum and bass, dhol beats, soaring vocals and MC lyrics to name but a few. Yet to the ears it’s simply a marvel. Certain tracks stand out above others, as is often the case with compilation affairs. Electro Jugni, with its unforgiving bassline, gives the album a pounding start and the anthemic DesiRock recycles a Bollywood riff in the best possible way. Hey Hey seamlessly combines soulful female vocals in English, earthy male vocals in Punjabi, a toe-tapping beat and a jazzy horn accompaniment that Mark Ronson would do well to take a cue or two from. And if that weren’t enough, Homage marries a classical Indian undertone with the sort of dirty dance track that would make The Prodigy green with envy.

To anyone concerned that a greatest hits collection may somehow spell an ending, fear not: DJ Swami and company tease us with two brand new tracks. The bittersweet, aptly named Sugarless, is full of attitude, and Tonight features soulful vocals underpinned by electronic synth.

The line-up of Swami has undergone many changes over the years, but there’s a consistency to the quality of music despite their evolution. To call them a bhangra band doesn’t really do justice to what they’re capable of delivering; they appear to have almost invented an entirely new type of sound, rooted in India but branching far beyond with ease. And this album not only celebrates all of Swami’s musical achievements to date, but provides the promise that they still have originality to offer.

V xx

August 28, 2009

A cup half empty

TV image
Adha Cup
2 out of 5 stars

“A stylish black and white comedy in Urdu featuring Rez Kempton and Ace Bhatti as Ash and Shahid, two lazy and bored social workers who reluctantly agree to reunite the cast of a legendary amateur Bollywood musical, Pappa Kehta Hain, to be restaged at the Pakistan Centre where they work.

In their search for the old cast members, they encounter a singing barber, a villainous butcher and an over-acting taxi driver, and along way they reconnect with their enthusiasm for life, love and family.

But unless they can track down the elusive hero, Sajid Hussain, the show can’t go on…”

So says the blurb on the Channel 4 website, but before it had even aired, the short film Adha Cup (Half a Cup) was already attracting some controversy. Anyone who has listened to the BBC Asian Network this week will have heard some of the debate on Nikki Bedi and Nihal’s shows. If you haven’t, update yourself: www.bbc.co.uk/asiannetwork

Despite being put off by some of what I’d heard, I bit the bullet and watched Adha Cup on 4OD on Wednesday night. At its heart, it is a very clever piece of drama which manages to convey a lot in 24 minutes. I think that they succinctly and wittily said some very accurate things about Asian communities, the way we function and our unique love of cinema and drama, which I’m sure is unparalleled.

Unfortunately, these wonderful positives just serve to make the poor language skills of the two leads all the more apparent. My reasoning for why that failing makes such an impact on the film has nothing to do with the marketing (although I do believe it was false advertising to call it an ‘Urdu drama’). Everything about the piece wanted us to feel like we were just following these two friends as they tried to do something for their community, peeping in on family life, watching them meet everyday people.

But everything that came out of their mouths felt so unnatural that nothing really rang true. I’d like to draw a comparison that some people may find unfair (and somewhat biased) – but think about how Zainab and Masood talk to each other on EastEnders. English, accented on Zainab’s part, with some Urdu thrown in every now and again. I’m sure that many of us will associate that mix of languages as the natural way we speak in our homes – if the programme makers wanted to cast those particular actors then that’s the format they should have gone for. Otherwise they needed to cast proper Urdu speakers. I only understand Urdu because I speak Hindi as my third language: I can’t imagine what true Urdu-speakers thought of Adha Cup’s linguistic efforts.

I have to commend the premise behind this piece of work, and applaud those who commissioned it – it’s just a shame it didn’t live up to its potential.

V xx

May 06, 2009

All the world's a stage

As You Like ItI was back in Stratford last night, to see the first production of the RSC’s summer season. I didn’t really know much about As You Like It but I relish any opportunity to see Shakespeare…and the tickets were free, so it was a no-brainer. In short, it was a darkly funny exercise in Elizabethan cross-dressing with the usual criss-crossing of characters and stories that you’d expect from Shakespeare’s comedies. The play was staged in a very accessible way, although I did get a little lost in some of the more intricate dialogue. But it had some incredible lines that I didn’t even know were from this particular play (“All the world’s a stage”, “Too much of a good thing”) and the performances were just top-class, especially Katy Stephens as Rosalind and Richard Katz as Touchstone. So if anyone fancies seeing a play about a woman pretending to be a man who then pretends to be a woman (and in Shakespeare’s time women didn’t act, so it would have been a man playing a woman pretending to be a man pretending to…) Oh I give up! Pop down to Stratford if you can – this is a witty and clever play that’s very easy to watch.

V xx

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