Karsh Kale :: Broken English
Let's face it: no one likes to be pigeonholed. More and more, people are equally capable of losing their shit grinding to hip hop, rocking to pop-glossed dance beats, or crushing each other's ribs at a rock show. People are shedding off their desires to be branded to one scene or another - lest they become just another face in the hipster handbook. So many "scenes" are getting saturated and going out of style: the fashions are old, the people are homogenizing, and worst of all, musicians are running out of sounds to recycle: restyled 60s pop, cleaned-up 80s dance and covers of dated hit singles are sounding suspiciously familiar, and people are tired of chewing on the same stale gum.
And frankly, reading music reviews about a new artist or album that sounds like singer A mashed with band B with the sensibilities of group C don't excite me anymore. A discussion of a truly novel work should sputter from a lack of easy descriptive jargon, for lack of an easy comparison point.
Hear me sputter.
Since the release of Karsh Kale's 2001 debut Realize and 2003's Liberation, the producer-musician-DJ-tabla player-percussionist-remix artist has been a kind of Pied Piper for the hungry revelers of the Asian Massive scene. But Kale's latest offering, Broken English, plays the pipe to a greater audience, and maps new sonic itineraries for the cultural vagabond. Dual-language vocals, a healthy dose of pop structuring, and a wandering into hip hop and rock 'n' roll territories are the evolutionary traits of Broken English (Kale's third full-length release) that set it apart from its predecessors.
The forward-thinking attraction of the songs on Broken English is that they would be equally at home at a dive party packed with rockers and hippies as a super-club teeming with hip hop and drum 'n' bass heads. The album's swaggering opening track, "Manifest," parcels rapping from MC Napoleon together with dhol programming and classical Hindi vocals from Vishal Vaid, one of Kale's immensely talented, longtime collaborators. It is a startling but confident choice for an opener; as the only hip hop track, it would have stood out oddly anywhere else on the album.
Another unexpected creation is the awesome, female-voiced "Free Fall." Shot with glam-pop vocals from Trixie Reiss (Crystal Method) and draped with wistful bansuri and sweet vocals from Sabiha Khan, it's a track that will be equally at home on dance floors of any ilk. Meanwhile, the stunning rock epic "Dancing at Sunset" marries heavy beats with otherworldly strings from Mumbai Cinematic Strings, as newcomer Todd Michaelsen's angelic, expansive vocals soar throughout like a soulful instrument. The softer, lo-fi "City Lights" achieves a powerful synthesis between sitar and guitar as gentle rhythms and searching vocals from Michaelsen (and Kale himself) lead the track with entirely English vocals.
The skillful use of dual-language vocals throughout the record reflects a culturally criss-crossed generation, but also creates composite sense of identity. "Beautiful" juxtaposes hushed, lush English vocals from Sophie Mitchalitsianos (Sparklehorse) with vivid Hindi vocals amidst a backdrop of skittering beats and aching, lucid bansuri. The track also includes a vocal sample from the MIDIval PunditZ track "Dark Age." "Louder than Bombs" brews with dark electronic undertones as Vaid's and Michaelsen's vocals are tightly woven into a sonic protest against the unjustified madness of war. The mood of the album flips to lightness on the hopelessly gorgeous "Innocence and Power," as piano notes and Dierdre Dubois' (Ekova) pure vocals swim with Kale's broken beats and Vaid's tender vocals.
By using modern incarnations of classical elements, such as dhol programming, electric santoor, and effected ethnic vocals, Kale packs both cultural emotion and underground energy into his music. On the groovy "New Born Star," Kale's electric santoor and tabla playing is swarmed with mean, driving drum programming as tendrils of vocals vaporize out of the mix, resulting in a lilting but heavy track that nods back to the old school. The album tones down and waxes thoughtful with the electronic-raag hybrid ballad, "Drive," and Kale's masterful tabla playing is showcased on "Hole in the Sky" and the elegant "Some Things are OK." Reflecting the richness of the artists' classical training, the latter track's fertile soundscapes and layered vocals unify into a sumptuous, timeless ballad; Vaid's vocals in particular reflect a honed maturity.
Broken English is an addictive amalgam of influences present, past, and future: resulting in a work that is as timeless as it is groundbreaking. The album closes with the pulsating "Rise Up," where imposing beats make mutiny together with multi-cultured vocals into a symphonic soundtrack which-like the album itself-resists categorization. So when Kale was asked to do just that: categorize this sound, he had to coin a wholly new term (as is his habit) for this very American movement: "rocktronic organica"- try finding that pigeonhole in the annals of Wikipedia.