Blues Conscience was founded with the intent to promote the blues as a genre in todays rock and metal dominated Indian music. This Chennai-based self-described power quintet, formed in 2008, is led by guitarist Aum Janakiram and bassist Anek Ahuja, both of whom double as vocalists, along with drummer Naeil Smith. Saxophonist Maarten Visser and keyboard player Siddharth Kumar complete the line-up.
For their debut release the band pulled in Los Angeles based guitarist/producer Ed Degenaro and the resulting effort is the 14-track album Down & Dirty. The cover artwork is interesting – a young woman in maids costume leaning provocatively over a blazer she is ironing. Indeed the band claims to have been lauded for their refreshingly original style and cheeky lyrical work with songs like Kamasutra, Shaggin Ma Dog, and Obama receiving high praise from music aficionados, the press, and laymen alike. I must confess, I am not one of those aficionados.
This album left me cold. Some inspiration shines through in parts, but the overall effort is hampered by the overuse of virtually every blues-jazz cliché known to man – tenor sax interludes, cowbells and gospel-like vocal choruses. Not to mention rather uninspired lyrics delivered in a monotonous low-register voice. The opening track ‘Like What Music You Got’ epitomizes this approach – it starts off nicely enough with a Hammond organ intro and a nice keyboard solo follows later on in the track but there is a fair bit of DJ-style record-scratching that left me scratching my own head in puzzlement; it doesnt fit with the blues motif somehow. And the guitar solo is something you have heard before.
The vocals pick up a bit on ‘Morning After’ but sadly the background cacophony continues unabated -too many instruments soloing in tandem, with the tenor sax definitely playing off-key. The end-result is something akin to one of those drunken jams that sound awesome as you record them but you quietly delete from your phone the morning after.
Moving on, ‘No Life Without the Blues’ featuring the much-vaunted Ed Degenaro on guitar has a Dire Straits-like intro that is actually quite nice. But it quickly wanders off into cliché-town and even some laudable attempts at Gary Moore-style shredding cant quite salvage the song. The dull vocal delivery lets the band down yet again and when the singer tells you, The more I play the blues/ The more people will pay to hear me,one is tempted to quip: dont bet on it. It is also very annoying to hear timing slips on a studio album- it may have been forgivable on a live recording but not on a production cut.
‘Tipalo’ is an interesting melody let down by some ordinary production but at least I finally heard the guitar come into its own somewhat. The follow-up ‘Closer’ has the vocals sounding like they have been recorded in a bathroom, excessive reverb and all. The guest female vocalist does not enhance the overall effect and a misguided attempt to introduce an Indian classical twist falls flat on its face. But neither of these comes close to the disaster that is ‘Kamasutra’. In one word, it is cringe-inducing. Do sample it for yourself:
She was a kinky little girl, she came into my bedroom
She came in with a book, high up in her hand
Have you read this little book she asked and I said Ive read it many times
Ive read it upside down, and Ive read it from behind
There is a thin line between clever songwriting and being dirty for the sake of it. Later on in the album the lyrics of ‘Shaggin Ma Dog’ grossed me out outright. Lyrics apart,the band sounds tight and the music isnt too bad, not for a first record.
In between are ‘Looking For A Girl’, a nice enough country ditty but with lyrics so clunky as to make it positively impossible to sing along to and ‘Five Naked Virgins’, an instrumental made interesting by the odd-time 5/4 signature. With ‘Blues Santa’ however the band moves back to familiar territory. Only its a tad too familiar: the lyrics trying to be too clever by half and the music continues to be the same ole, same ole.
‘Obama’, far from being a political statement of any kind, is another song about sex: the only reason the US Presidents name is invoked is to convey that only his presence would make a girl stay the night.
The two high points of the album make their appearance late: ‘Perfectly Reasonable Girl’ is standard 12-bar blues set to mid-tempo that finally reveals a mature side of the band were longing to see. This song may grow to be your favourite on the record. ‘Dreamland’ is a nice instrumental to end off proceedings. In between you have ‘Janis’, a tribute to Janis Joplin but unlike who it is dedicated to, the song itself is eminently forgettable.
When I first started listening to Blues Conscience, I couldnt help but note the resemblance to Something Relevant. But unlike the Mumbai-based band who dabble brilliantly in a similar genre of music, with a pretty similar lineup of instrumentalists no less, the boys from Chennai are a relative disappointment. One hopes they will grow from this debut effort and move on to bigger and better things, for there is no shortage of talent here, only imagination.