There’s something about a vinyl record and some of you will already know my predilection, an appetite that finds me with a roomful of them. So when I received a copy of Sheema, the new vinyl album by Sheema Mukherjee to review, I was a very happy boy indeed. It heralded a new label, ECC100, with plans for vinyl only releases, which seems a bold, although not entirely unprecedented move in 2014. As their website says, “Taking inspiration from the golden age of music in Britain, ECC100 releases vinyl records of the finest quality. Harkening back to a time when albums were eagerly anticipated, rushed straight home to the record player and listened to in one delicious sitting. A time when each and every element of the music, art, sleeve notes and lyrics were dissected, digested, discussed and enjoyed.” It’s with delight, therefore that I can confirm Sheema fulfils all of these ambitions and more it’s a truly lovely artefact, but more importantly, musically it’s full of surprises and left me grinning from ear to ear as it packs a hell of a lot into its grooves, running to almost an hour in length and sounding absolutely fabulous.
Sheema is a wonderful player and a natural collaborator, always willing to push at the limits of her instrument. She has been part of world music dance band Transglobal Underground since 1997 and also, probably more notable here, a member of The Imagined Village from the start in 2005. That celebration of our island’s multiculturalism has produced three exceptional albums and of course the band also includes Martin and Eliza Carthy. Given that pair’s illustrious history, it’s of special note that they chose Sheema as one of a couple of very special guests when they played the Queen Elizabeth Hall back in June of this year. The imagined Village also brought Sheema together with Simon Emmerson, who is the E in ECC and ECC100 Records, with a co-producers credit for this album, although he doesn’t feature as a musician.
The above is of course only a fraction of what Sheema has achieved musically and she has composed and worked alongside many esteemed artists and organisations including Sir John Tavener, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Bobby McFerrin and Courtney Pine. She featured on two of the Latter’s albums, Back In The Day and Devotion, also touring with Pine’s On Track band celebrating the UK Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002. In one way or another Sheema has toured all over the world, playing major festivals and concert venues, supporting Page & Plant on the European leg of their 1998 Walking Into Clarkesdale tour and has been a regular at Womad down the years.
At the heart of all this success is her excellent musicianship. Sheema started playing the sitar at the age of eight, she was trained in Hindustani classical music by her beloved uncle, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee and later also came under the wing of both Ali Akbar Khan and later Aashish Khan. Growing up, her childhood was split between India and England and she took full advantage exploring any musical avenues open to her.
Her eclectic and exotic East meets Western pop, far-reaching musical influences and journey create rich palette of sounds with which to work and Sheema is not afraid to daub a bright and vivid sonic rainbow of different hues, sometimes within the course of one track. Different styles are playfully and skilfully juxtaposed into a truly unique musical arc with a pot of gold at either end.
Having set the scene, I should say that the package is excellent as well. It arrived in an impressively robust cardboard mailer and as it slipped clear, firstly the weight and then stunning visuals took hold. It’s a matt gatefold sleeve, with Sheema, naturally enough occupying the front. Inside and also on the back of the insert, which is also a gatefold, are various pictures, telling of global travels and perhaps personal highlights. Inside the insert are the well written sleeve notes, which add a few clues to what you’ll hear, even if it doesn’t all make sense until the disc itself is spun. That disc is of course 180gm and comes housed in a brightly coloured inner, which is stiff board so adds to the luxuriant feel, but does require the immediate use of an antistatic inner, so as not to add stress to the precious record’s surface.
(As a note to any budding vinyl-ophiles, I’ve had the habit of decanting records to the excellent Mobile Fidelity inner bags for a while, regardless of original packaging. They ain’t cheap and other brands will pass muster, but they are the best I’ve used.)
In the bottom right corner of the insert is a pocket that holds a small, cellophane wrapped facsimile of the album. Miniaturised down to a 40mil square, this has a clever usb connection. In truth it took me a few seconds to work out it’s release mechanism, but once done, it revealed the album as WAV files. For the review I listened to the vinyl several times through, but having the music on my computer did allow for pause and rewind as I tried to home in on a detail or two. It’s also a welcome addition to my library stored on hard drive and easy to convert down for iPod, etc. This one is a banker, believe me.
With the record on the deck and the needle in the groove the final part of this immersive experience and elements of ritual reach their fulfilment and the fun really begins. Slash Sitar is amped up, drums pound, strings swoop and fuzzed up sitar sets up a nagging cyclical riff, about two and a half minutes in, you’re wondering whether the legacy of the Page & Plant tour isn’t making a comeback.
Sikkim Girls is huge and boldly orchestral having the fullness of a movie score. It has a sultry heat and slyly seductive perfume, as the sleeve notes reveal, “It’s not in the face, but the swing of the hips.” There’s a heady whiff of the exotica fusions of the late 60s and early 70s that might have made this a good fit for the salacious end of the arthouse movie business.
The album’s first vocal is not what you expect and an altogether darker moment, in fact so dark that it troubles its author. Street Spirit is from Radiohead’s The Bends and Thom Yorke has described the fractured imagery as being absolutely without hope, looking the devil in the eye and knowing he’s going to win. Jackie Oates joins Sheema and the combination of their voices takes on some of the haunted quality of The Unthanks, adding to the enveloping mist.
Lucid And Just seems to carry some of the weight over, especially in the floorboard troubling whoom in the lower registers. It perhaps borrows a little of Transglobal’s gift for otherworldly collage and also their trance state agenda. The piece is apparently built around an Indian classical piece bequeathed by Sheema’s uncle.
In some ways it serves as a bridge to the circling groove of Little Dragon, which in one of my more fanciful moments had me imagining Daevid Allan and Gilli Smyth joining the party. But if that is ripe for some sort of Gong mash-up, then SitSka should be the excuse for Terry Hall and Jerry Dammers to be reunited. Bolly-Skank as Sheema would have it, is an absolute winner and almost impossible to sit still too.
But there’s one more surprise, and much as that first vocal was unexpected, Sheema tackles the bittersweet world of Francois Hardy, proving surprisingly able to capture the tenderness and inherent poetry in the French language, while the sitar and swelling strings are perfectly arranged. L’amite is, I believe, a Gallic take on the theme of You’ve Got A Friend, with just a little, unavoidable curl of the blue smoke of a smouldering Gitanes thrown in.
Side two in some ways is more expansive, if that’s possible, but the music certainly stretches out. Morning Celeste is just gorgeous. An exploration of the stages of love, wistful and flirtatious, tender and aching. That opener clocks in at seven minutes, as does the following A Thousand Layer Cake as it examines unbearable grief and healing. It’s complex piece of many moods, yet no less beautiful for it.
Mrs Moo introduces a bit more swagger with a flavour of Swinging London and perhaps a little of Ananda Shankar’s experiments in fusion, although also given a 2014 sensibility and a pumping horn section. Mind you there’s also a wryly humorous sleeve note to go with the title, which sounds a bit more Reggie Perrin than Michael Caine. But sticking with the filmic theme, the second side continues to play out like an imaginary soundtrack with yet more gorgeousness in store.
Saraswati Waltz is a beguiling blend of European and Indian classical influences that threatens to explode with passion. It’s barely contained by the strictures of the tempo, yet that simply serves to make the broiling Morning Reprise into an even headier release and an exhibition of virtuosic playing and swirling intensity. But we’re not quite done and if Bit God, doesn’t get you on yer feet in a frenzied knees up with a beaming grin, then well…
There’s so much to enjoy about this record and it unquestionably matches the philosophy behind its conception, both as a lovely thing to own, but crucially as some of great music, unique, passionate, complex, even challenging in part. But Like all great records, Sheema sets its own rules, making you think and charging your emotions in a way that will keep you coming back for more. This is also a record of great charm, sophistication and grace. Mind you, finishing off with a stupid, big smile on your face… Now that’s priceless.
Review by: Simon Holland
Sheema is Out Now on ECC100. Order it here: eccrecords.co.uk/shop/sheema/