Release Date: April 7, 2017
Label: Domino Recording Company
My friend Dennis is a composer. He has a theory that the most interesting innovations in music happen in those spaces where genres and traditions smash together to recombine in new, unexpected ways. There was a period when music was brimming with innovation. New genres and forms sprang up as quickly as instruments were invented and cultures evolved. Every culture has its own musical languages, its own lexicons. Different tonal systems, harmony structures, rhythmic devices, and more give the musics of the world their distinct flavors. The industrial revolution and technological advancements of the 20th century spurred a great acceleration in the birthing of new genres. The shrinking world meant that types of music could cross-pollinate in ways that otherwise never would have been possible.
It’s also during this period that we had genre taken to its logical end across the art world–the genre of absence (i.e. blank canvases, Warhol’s “Invisible Sculpture”), the genre of silence (i.e. John Cage’s 4’33”). And as the tautology goes, once nothing comes to signify something, then that something may as well be representative of everything. (I’ve butchered this, I’m aware, but I needed a transition sentence.) In other words, when silence and ambient sound became genres of music, music’s generic boundaries lost some of their heft. Yes, we still have rock, country, jazz, classical, and all of their various sub-genres. But what we don’t have is a frontier to explore. The boundaries have been defined to their fullest extent–the game now is simply recombining what exists within the defined framework and transmuting it into something new. Spontaneous generation of the musical sort.
All of this is a rambling introduction to my review of Yorkston/Thorne/Khan’s Neuk Wight Dehli All-Stars. This collaboration between Scottish folkster James Yorkston, jazz bassist Jon Thorne, and sangari player/Indian classical singer Suhail Yusuf Khan has already produced one well-received album, Everything Sacred, that fused those distinct musical traditions together. Neuk Wight Dehli All-Stars follows a similar template to its predecessor: it mixes folk songs, covers, and originals that take the format of one tradition and overlay sounds from the other traditions to produce unexpected results. Sometimes the music sounds very much in the wheelhouse of James Yorkston’s Scottish folk songs, but then it veers away into longform, droning explorations (or, dare I say it, “jams”). Sometimes these are overlayed with Hindi lyrics and singing from Khan, other times, the musicians let their instruments have the conversation.
Ostensibly, a record like Neuk Wight Dehli All-Stars could be lumped into the “world music” category–with all of the dancing, swirling hippies, and macrame that implies. But that would be a disservice. Some purists operating within the three respective genres that Yorkston/Thorne/Khan draw upon may pooh-pooh my praise for this record. Like any scene, the deeper-in and more familiar you get, the more nuanced the music becomes. Often times, our entry points into new genres seem outmoded, simplistic, or hokey when we look back on them. Sometimes, they hold-up. I feel like Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars is one of those that will. What’s more, I’m not really aware of any music quite like this–so a broader “scene” there might not be. In the press release for the album, Khan even goes so far as to say that: “The combination of a singer-songwriter, a jazz bassist and an Indian classical sarangi player is totally unheard of.”
Music like this is hard to write about. I’m comfortable with the trappings and traditions of the indie rock world. I know some about classic country, early hip-hop, jazz, and various forms of western instrumental music. But as we venture beyond that, my knowledge falters. I really know next to nothing about Indian classical forms. My entry-point into this record is James Yorkston–someone whose records I have long enjoyed. The problem is I lack the vocabulary to adequately describe the Yorkston/Thorne/Khan fusion. If you’ve read any of my album reviews, you know I tend to focus much of my analysis on the lyrics. I’m a songwriter myself, so this is where I feel like I have the most experience for direct engagement. With, Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars, many of the lyrics are in Hindi (which I don’t understand), and those that are in English so often feel transitory or tertiary. In listening to this album, it feels like the purpose is the spontaneity of the performance–the meaning arises organically therein (that the songs were tracked live to tape without the “clean” possibilities of digital editing underscores this).
Some of the songs like “Bales” or “Chori, Chori” or “One More Day” are fairly straight-ahead–and feel driven by a specific member of the group (Yorkston, Khan, and Thorne respectively for these tracks). Others, like “False True Piya” and “Recruited Collier” feel more like joint compositions where each of the members plays an equal role in its genesis. Thorne’s bass playing is a propulsive backbone to many of the tracks. All three take turns singing at various points, so the album really sounds like a cohesive collaboration, as opposed to many of the other disjointed “collaborations” I’ve heard.
In the end, there are some things I do know about Neuk Wight Delhi All-Stars and Yorkston/Thorne/Khan. I know that their albums are a pleasure to listen to. I know there are parts that feel familiar, parts that feel foreign, and a mixture of the two that move me. My failing words and insufficient knowledge be damned–I don’t need much more than those two things to say an album is worthy of your time.