The Radiohead guitarist explores traditional Indian music, with mostly impressive results
Last year, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and Israeli musician Shye Ben Tzur set up shop in northern Indian palace Mehrangarh Fort. Long-time Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich joined them with the contents of the band’s studio. Documented by filmmaker Paul Anderson and together with The Rajasthan Express – a collective of 19 Israeli and Rajasthani-Indian musicians – they made a collaborative album of traditional Indian music. This is the story of ‘Junun’, which marks Greenwood’s fourth hook-up with Anderson and follows last year’s score for surreal stoner flick Inherent Vice.
It’s a wonder that Greenwood, who with Radiohead has been exploring Western spiritual bankruptcy as far back 1995’s ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, took this long to make his ‘world music record’. The catalyst for ‘Junun’ was the 44-year-old’s Israeli wife Sharona, who introduced him to Tzur and his music and encouraged them to collaborate. The outcome is both impeccably studied and totally opulent; such is Greenwood’s modus operandi.
‘Junun’ is a beautiful record, largely because Indian music is, generally speaking, utterly beautiful. Just marvel at ‘Hu’’s intro of sensual rehab (an Indian violin-like instrument) and Dara Khan Kamaicha’s vocals as they arch high over the percussive thrum below, redefining the meaning of romance. Equally impressive is the evocation of religious and sexual ecstasy delivered via breathless group chanting on ‘Eloah’.
The record is even more gripping when the sounds of modern malaise and creeping paranoia that made Greenwood’s name in Radiohead are pushed front and centre. Cradled in despairing post-rock arrangements and drained of the festivity elsewhere, ‘Ahuvi’ brings to mind a type of psychic turmoil, as if vocalist Asin Khan Sarangi is making sense of, shouldering even, all the pains of a world at war. On ‘Kalandar’, meanwhile, flute dances with psycho-acoustic trickery and twinkling effects to conjure a glimmering modern India.
Elsewhere Greenwood appears a tad over-respectful of the beauty on show. At times he appears reluctant to impose himself, because there’s nothing your discerning art rocker hates more than accusations of cultural appropriation. This feeling makes the token smattering of electronica on tracks like ‘Chala Vahi Des’ frustrating. It’s also unfortunate that when Greenwood’s touch is finally made blatant on ‘Allah Elohim’, his guitar part effectively regurgitates the type of rhythm heard all over his main band’s noughties’ material.
Ultimately though, ‘Junun’ is not a Greenwood solo album. The guitarist and his normally hands-on producer are facilitators, with Tzur as the star. That might upset Radiohead fans expecting a stop-gap, but shouldn’t detract from an what’s a largely immersive record.
Director: Nigel Godrich
Record label: Nonesuch
Release date: 20 Nov, 2015