Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale
Breathing under Water
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2008, Volume 15, #1
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Tue January 15, 2008, 07:15 AM CST
Anoushka Shankar needs to do some soul searching. After repeatedly listening to her new album Breathing under Water, a collaboration with electronica artist Karsh Kale, it becomes apparent that she’s not sure what she wants to communicate musically. As the undeniably gifted daughter of sitarist Ravi Shankar, she has graced concert stages around the world, playing traditional Indian music with her father. Hearing the two of them perform together is a rapturous experience. She plays the sitar with the sorts of poise, grace, and fluidity that speak of a lifetime spent in rigorous practice. Her intuitive understanding of the various raga forms is evident in the gorgeous melodies she seems to coax effortlessly from her instrument. If she had contented herself with continuing to explore traditional sitar music, she undoubtedly would continue to expand upon her reputation as a serious musician who is worth following and hearing in concert. From the beginning of her career as a recording artist, however, she has let the world know that she has other things on her mind.
Breathing under Water is Shankar’s third solo album of non-traditional material, and like her previous efforts, it is a schizophrenic mixed bag. There are moments of brilliance on all of her records, but too often they are bogged down when she reaches in a multitude of directions with no discernable purpose in mind. The poise and assurance that she demonstrates on stage when playing traditional music is rarely in evidence on Breathing under Water. Nevertheless, there certainly is nothing wrong with her playing. She is so comfortable with the complexities of Indian classical music that one suspects she is simplifying her approach when she plays her own compositions. Like Pavarotti’s attempts at recording pop material, there is a sense of discomfort when listening to most of Shankar’s original songs. It is often the aural equivalent of running in shoes that are too tight. Throughout Breathing under Water, Shankar often sounds like she wants to take off and dazzle her audience, but the constricted length and modest reach of the selections give the impression that she is holding something back. One wishes that she had granted herself the room to stretch out and improvise in the manner that Indian raga allows. In fact, one wishes that she had given herself permission to follow any direction at all.
The overriding problem with Breathing under Water is that Shankar has thrown too many irons in too many different fires, and as a result, all of her ideas have come back sounding half-baked. The most troubling selections are those in which she attempts to walk down the middle-of-the-road, such as her duets with Sting as well as with Norah Jones, her half-sister. Both of these songs — Sea Dreamer and Easy, respectively — are pale and underdeveloped, yet they contain enough of an aura of Indian music that they also aren’t terribly effective forays into attracting Celine Dion’s audience. The pieces that sound the most like true collaborations with Kale — Slither and Ghost Story — are by far the most interesting tracks on the endeavor.
Some of the best modern electronic music being recorded these days comes from the Indian diaspora. The raga form and electronic trance music share many of the same sensibilities. One would have thought that, given his collaborations with artists like dub pioneer Bill Laswell, Kale would have been able to coax a beautiful dance album out of Shankar. He almost succeeds. The loops and sped-up sitar layered over tabla and electronic drums on Slither are guaranteed to make anyone’s feet move. The complexity of the beats and the fluidity of the overlain sitar are breathtakingly gorgeous. Nevertheless, it’s all over too soon, and by the next track, Shankar is struggling again with whether to embrace the electronic rhythms with which she obviously is having fun performing or to retreat into a neo-Bollywood orchestral ballad.
It is this indecision combined with the timid sequencing of the songs that makes Breathing under Water so frustrating to hear. Each individual composition demonstrates musicianship and performance of the highest caliber. However, as the set moves from track to track, there is no consistency, and there is no flow. By positioning syrupy love ballads between dance tunes, any momentum that Shankar and Kale had hoped to build is lost before it can make an impression.
Shankar is without a doubt one of the greatest, young, traditional musicians performing in the world today. She is not the first classically trained artist to want to branch out into other forms of music, and there is no reason why she couldn’t do this and achieve a high level of artistic success. Whatever a person’s musical taste, one must admit that Shankar’s ability to write across genres is formidable. At this point, though, she lacks the ability to sequence an album in such a way that her diverse influences can be heard in a sympathetic light. If Breathing under Water had stuck to the challenging Raga-driven electronica pieces that Shankar and Kale obviously enjoyed recording, it could have been an epic and enduring endeavor. Conversely, if Shankar had composed an album of Bollywood film-style ballads, she would have found a large, albeit different audience.
As it stands, there is a great album lurking just beneath the surface of Breathing under Water. Shankar, however, is in a difficult position. Her musical choices demonstrate that she isn’t completely satisfied with being a classical musician like her father. Yet, her training and upbringing haven’t allowed her to completely let go and embrace becoming a populist musician in the manner of her more famous sister. In truth, she probably wants to make music that falls on both sides of the family’s musical spectrum as well as a lot of places that lie in between. If Shankar can take control of her muse and if she follows her heart, the brilliant outing that so far has eluded her will reveal itself. If it does, the world will be all the richer for it.
Breathing under Water is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box