Music News

Sheila Chandra

Back in 1982, the group Monsoon had a British top 20 hit with the charming "Ever So Lonely," a then-novel reinvestigation of the '60s phenomenon known as "raga rock," a fusion of Western pop/rock sensibilities with the folk and classical music of India. The best-known exponents of this genre were the Beatles' own "Love You To" and "Within You Without You." (For more recent examples, hear Cornershop.)

Eventually, Monsoon's singer, Sheila Chandra, felt pressured by the record label to be supercommercial, so she went and did her own thing by founding the Indipop label with musical/marriage partner Steve Coe. This Retrospective presents a cross section of her music from 1984 to 2003, chronicling her evolution from the aforementioned East/West fusion to far more experimental, harder-to-pigeonhole approaches to minimalism and drone explorations. The one constant factor is Chandra's singularly beautiful voice, whether she's singing English or Hindi in a haunting fashion (somewhat akin to more earthbound Elizabeth Fraser) or using her voice purely as a wordless instrument.

Early tracks like 1984's "Village Girl" feature a winsome folk-rock melody with synthpop electro-dance beats, vocals sung in English, and sitar used in decorative fashion. The gentle, Enya-like meditations of "One" and "Quiet 9" provide a stark contrast to Chandra's earlier work, as well as the far more traditional raga-like "This," where her wordless singing takes on the soaring, sighing tonal quality of a violin. The hypnotic "Mecca" features Arabic-influenced melismatic singing over a layered chorus of droning oohs, and by far the most experimental piece here is "Mien," a truly disconcerting soundscape of record scratches, played-backward vocals, and glottal croaks, recalling industrial music pioneers Psychic TV and Cabaret Voltaire.

True, this collection isn't what one would call consistent, but then again, consistency is way overrated (just listen to any commercial radio station). The splendor of Chandra's voice and the imagination and integrity of her methodology are enough to recommend this.

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Mark Keresman