The enduring persistence of blues music is extraordinary. Its roots date back to the turn of the twentieth century, and since then there have been an incalculable number of musicians who have pushed the genre in new directions and refined its sound. When playing music in any genre with about a century of history behind it, there are really just two ways to approach it: experiment and innovate, or play it straight, being careful not to deviate from the established rules that define the genre. In today’s scene, the Shillong-based band Soulmate is one recent band to carry the banner of blues music, and while they fall squarely in the latter category, on their newest album Ten Stories Up, they have honed in on the classic electric blues style to create something truly wonderful.
The core of the band is the duo Rudy Wallang and Tipriti “Tips” Kharbangar who both sing, play guitar, and handle the songwriting. This is their third album after playing together for over a decade and they have gained significant acclamation in the process. It’s not difficult to see why; before getting into anything else, it needs to be said that these two are incredible musicians. Wallang’s guitar leads and solos are sharp and fluid, and Kharbangar’s singing is stunningly powerful. Only one of them will sing on each song, and while Kharbangar is clearly the better singer of the two, it’s unfair to say that Wallang’s voice is bad; he’s a good singer in his own right, but his more straightforward voice is out-shined by her strong vibrato, powerful belting, and dizzying melismatic melodies. That’s fine though, because Wallang’s guitar is just as emotive; on one song, he will make his instrument slowly weep (‘Sadness’) and on another it beckons you to come and dance (‘I Will Be Around’). Because of the difference in singing however, the songs where Kharbangar takes the lead tend to be more interesting. Ten Stories Up is at its best and most masterful when her voice and Wallang’s guitar go back and forth, challenging each other to be more stirring, more impressive, more striking. At these points on the album, such as those on ‘Lie’ and ‘Tell Me’, you’re just fortunate to be along for the ride as each passage continually reaches deeper into your soul to grip you tighter.
While these moments are no doubt impressive, the repetitive song structures across the album unfortunately dampen the impact. Each song follows more or less the same pattern: while a foundation chord progression or riff is repeated, sung verses and instrumental solos alternate until the song ends. It’s a bit too straightforward and lacking surprises, and while this may be the nature of Soulmate’s brand of blues, it still feels like the album didn’t quite earn its one-hour run time. Because the album dedicates so much time to guitar solos, there aren’t any that really stand out as exceptional. None are bad, but at times the sheer number of solos sprinkled throughout the album feels a little like over-indulgence.
However, that’s not to say that these songs grow tiresome– there are some brilliant arrangements and dynamic choices that give a lot of the tracks enough personality and variation to keep them from all sounding identical. The main overdrive-coated riff on the opening track ‘Sunshine’, for example, is surprisingly hard-hitting for blues, but it transitions half-way through to a mellow chord progression with much cleaner and soulful guitar. On ‘Hear Me Woman’, Wallang utilizes a much grittier guitar tone that, along with fast licks and rapid, aggressive strumming, punctuate the slower, rounder organ and bass patterns that form the basis of the track.
Near the end of the album, the two faster-paced songs, ‘I Will Be Around’ and ‘Keep the Blues’, feature loud, quick riffs and rolling drums that offer a nice break from the other slower tracks. One such song, ‘Lie’, though it plods along, is perfectly smooth and pensive for most of its run time; it’s the type of song that makes you want to just sit down after a long day and sip a cup of chai (or maybe scotch, depending on the day). It’s meditative and melancholy until it explodes with Wallang hammering on the guitar and Kharbangar almost yelling in the final minute. ‘Tell Me’ is likewise just as sleek and gentle, but it is more wistful than somber, and it combines some marvelous electric piano jamming with temperate guitar leads and lively scat singing. In contrast with ‘Lie’ however, the band wraps all these elements in a subtle decrescendo, and though all the different melodies still sound like they are meandering around as they play, the final dynamic shift invokes a sense of delicately letting go.
On the production side of things, Ten Stories Up is crisp and clean; all the instruments sound like they have plenty of space to breathe. This greatly contributes to Soulmate’s sound– every note on the solos comes through clearly, and it only adds to the emotion conveyed. You can hear the pick hitting the strings, fingers sliding across the fretboard, and feedback bleeding through the chords. While these things can sometimes be viewed as unwanted sound artifacts to be eliminated, here they grant another layer of soul to the playing, and it reminds you that this music is very much human– unsynthesized and exquisitely imperfect.
While Ten Stories Up doesn’t offer anything particularly innovative for blues music, it doesn’t seriously suffer because of it. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Soulmate seems much more interested in crafting a thoroughly solid blues album, and in this regard they achieve great success. This album is steeped in the blues tradition, and it is here that the band flourishes by striving to play the best blues possible. Perhaps the best track on the album is their rendition of ‘Nobody But You Lord’. Previously sung by the legendary American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, their intense and impassioned interpretation of the song links Soulmate with not only the blues tradition but the gospel music tradition also. Both of these musical streams have their roots in African American culture, and those who first began the styles poured their beliefs about God, themselves, and their struggles into their music. It’s honestly astonishing how well the band is able to embody the spirit of this old music form, and that is something that needs to be praised. Soulmate succeeds in continuing to carry the torch of blues music in India, and the fact of its international popularity points to something beautiful. In creating a tightly performed blues album, they have given another example of how beliefs and modes of artistic expression still have relevance to people displaced by time, distance, and culture.