When an album starts referencing issues of race, nationality, politics, the 7/7 bombings and the De Menezes shooting, and how ‘London’s heartbeat has changed’, surely the first action of any sane music fan would be to cover their ears and run for the hills with Fucked Up playing as loudly as possible on the iPod.
This would be a completely understandable reaction but, be warned: it would also result in you missing out on a genuinely compelling album that manages to rise above its pretensions and have far more musical merit that its Guardian-reading, art collective, organic dinner party-hosting intended audience deserves. Yes, this is music for the sort of people who buy you sponsorship of a Tanzanian goat instead of a Christmas present, but it’s bloody good music nonetheless.
If you can get past the fact that Nitin Sawhney‘s London Undersound is a concept album built around a response to 7/7 and De Menezes (and even if that’s what dragged you in), you’ll find an eclectic mix of hauntingly beautiful world-folk inspired music that has the kind of genuine melting pot identity lovers of goat-presents can only dream of. Opening with hip-hop vocals by DJ Natty over folksy guitars and background samples that mimic half-heard train announcements, Days Of Fire is the kind of first track that makes you both want to smack Sawhney for being so clever and bow down before the fact that he is, as he deftly mixes English and international influences in achingly modern protest songs for the 21st century.
Second track October Daze, with vocals from Tina Grace takes a more ethereal, trip-hop turn and is followed by the wonderfully haunting Bring It Home, featuring Imogen Heap. From here on in, the music weaves gently between ethereal folk and world rhythms that soothe and heal. There’s a North African desert influence on the middle tracks, such as Distant Dreams (featuring Roxanne Tataei), mariachi sitars on Interlude III, and always the sense of something underneath it all that has been lifted from a more racially harmonised dream of The Libertines‘ Albion.
With a host of vocal collaborators taking their turn, from Heap and Paul McCartney to the lesser known talents of Tina Grace and Reena Bhardwaj, the singers are well chosen, giving each song its own identity and genuinely enhancing the sense of diversity amid a coherent whole, which one assumes is what Sawhney wanted and what he has certainly succeeded in achieving.
All of this is packaged up in black and white watercolours commissioned for the album and lyrics booklet from Antony Gormley. The music is just as beautiful. Sawhney would no doubt like to think that London Underground will infuse you with a sense of peace and love for your fellow man so pervasive that if only it had been piped through the tube train tannoy systems in July 2005 several men might just have put down their bombs and their guns and walked away. It’s not that good of course, but over a glass of red wine and some expensive chocolates, it’ll certainly do.