It's an album with its heart firmly in the right place
Chris Jones 2008
Inspired by the tragic events surrounding the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on the London Underground in 2005, Nitin Sawhney has called on a host of talent to piece together an album that celebrates and comments on present-day London and its cultural diversity. Wrapped in a sleeve by former collaborator Anthony Gormley (with whom Nitin worked on Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's dance piece, Zero Degrees in 2006); it's a bold, passionate and worthy venture which often falls as much as rises under the weight of expectation.
Of course, Nitin's a supreme musician, so the highlights are plenty. Imogen heap's Bring It Home is a delicate foray into drum and bass, Distant Dreams with Roxanne Tataei is a luxuriously laid back jazzy trip, and in keeping with the subject alluded to in the album's conception there's latin flavour provided by Ojos De Brujo. The requisite Asian flavas come courtesy of people as diverse as classical sitarist Anoushka Shankar (on the gorgeous closing Charu keshi rain) and regular co-worker, singer Reena Bhardwaj (Ek Jaan).
Yet, despite the proficiency on display, the phrase that springs to mind here is 'curate's egg'. For younger Londoners certainly one gets the feeling that this cultural smorgasbord may be a little too smooth to really 'represent'. You won't find grime creeping in here. Musically, Sawhney is a polymath, but his brew sometimes seems too safe for such times. Such a huge city contains far more than his blend of flamenco, beats and Asian signifiers. The production is bejewelled and intricate but one longs for some grit; the album's first half in particular leaving a lot to be desired. Natty's opening commentary on the shooting is impassioned but his Marley-lite voice can't convey the true horror. Likewise Tina Grace's October Daze is too coffee table friendly to push the message of alienation. Worst of all, Paul Mccartney, with whom Sawhney worked on his experimental The Fireman project, turns in the anti-tabloid My Soul; something so saccharine as to make one's teeth ache.
Too often London Undersound is too polite to convey the anger, tension, sense of betrayal and essentially contradictory nature of living in the nation's capital in 2008. It's an album with its heart firmly in the right place, but lacking in bite.