Now we get to the real purpose of Critter Jams, to spotlight albums like this one, from bands that aren’t on the blogosphere’s radar. Colonial Cousins are not really a group you’d hear much of outside of India, especially as we don’t really have the sort of pop culture exchange with them that we do among other parts of the world. This was a group that nearly became a crossover success, but instead wound up more known in the English-speaking world as “those guys that did that one song”. But man oh man, did they make a hell of a debut record.
The Cousins are Leslie Lewis, a jingle writer and soundtrack composer, and Hari Haran, the man with the golden voice, and one of India’s most famous playback singers (meaning, the guys that sing the musical numbers in movies in place of the less talented actors). Together, they have sort of an “East meets West” vibe – Leslie’s voice is pop-ready and accent-free, while Hari’s comes from a long Carnatic tradition, having released two dozen albums worth of Ghazals to date. So typically Leslie takes the lead in a song, with Hari doing the harmonies or his own vocalizations on the side. There’s a big Indian flavor to everything that the group does, but this is pop music first and foremost, as the intent is to introduce these sounds to a wider audience.
And really, it should have succeeded. The thing about good pop music is that it should sound effortless, which Colonial Cousins definitely is. I mean that – it really is the most palatable record I own, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who appreciates pop taking any issue with it. The vocals are smooth, the hooks are plentiful, the playing is professional, and the production is rich. And then you have the songs, which are nearly all excellent; the thing plays as though it were a greatest hits album, or at least something like Thriller. Even at their worst, there’s something undeniable about it; “Forever Yours Forever Mine” is about as sappy and dull of a love ballad as I can imagine, but it has such an enveloping and pleasant sound to it that I can’t help but enjoy it. If I’m alone in the car and it comes on, I’m belting it at the top of my lungs, despite the self-loathing that comes afterward. These songs run about six minutes on average – quite long for what is essentially pure pop, but when they sound this good, who cares?
The subject matter reflects this; it’s about as dull as a butter knife, but it fits these songs well. The exception is “Krishna”, which laments the way wars are fought over organized religion – but even then, the song’s two big statements are “all religions should be about in peace” and “let’s think about the children”. And who can disagree with either one of those? Otherwise, outside of a song about watching the rain, these are all your standard love songs, with lines that feel like they were pulled straight out of the Max Martin phrasebook, awkward phrasing and all (“tell me baby do you really want my love and to feel alright?”).
To be sure, Leslie’s background as a jingle writer is all over this album. Writing music for ads means knowing what kind of chord changes and what type of instrumentation is the most naturally pleasing to the ear. It means not doing anything subversive; maybe I could Klostermann the hell out of this article and say it’s subversive by virtue of not being subversive, but who wants to read that? Suffice to say, there’s a sense of flawlessness to this album that’s both striking and unsettling. This is as pure as it gets.
As far as the songs go, they range from somewhat upbeat (“Adrian’s Angel”), to relaxing (“It’s Gonna Be Alright”), to really relaxing (“Indian Rain”). There really isn’t a duffer in the bunch – the only nonessential track is the final one, a Hindi language version of “Forever Yours Forever Mine”. They’re generally free of surprises; most of the songs here are rather repetitive, but they’re built for the long haul. I’d say the most striking ones are the droney and wonderfully chill “Indian Rain” and “Feel Alright”, plus the slice of pop perfection that is “Sa Ni Dha Pa”. The more lively numbers are also incredible – “Let Me See the Love” hinges on Hari Haran’s vocal acrobatics, while “Adrian’s Angel” is like a raga based around the Seinfeld slap bass.
Why these guys didn’t wind up conquering the world is anyone’s guess; it’s as though they were sent from God to be ambassadors of Indian music. This group was a big deal in India, quickly going platinum and garnering all sorts of music industry awards. America predictably ignored them, though both “Krishna” and “Sa Ni Dha Pa” were minor crossover hits. “Sa Ni Dha Pa” in particular was known as “that one song”, that goes “something in the way you smile, I may never know the reason why”. Perhaps a more banal couplet has never been uttered, but these guys mean every word. They followed it up with two more albums – one in 1998 and one in 2001, before their return last year with Once More. These albums all have their moments, but as they say, it’s hard to capture lightning in a bottle twice.
So, for now, I can only do what I’ve been doing all week; looping this album over and over, wondering both how the hell they did it, and why we don’t get albums like this more often. It’s too easy to get snarky about pop music, especially if you’re the kind of person who is constantly writing about it. This is exactly the kind of album I should be cynical about, but instead it quickly became a favorite of mine. Unwind your life and get lost in the magic of the Colonial Cousins.