A review of Susheela Raman’s 33 1/3
There’s nothing Susheela Raman can’t sing. I remember thinking this the first time I heard her first record, Salt Rain, in 2001. Raman is a British singer of Indian origin (who grew up in Australia), and 33 1/3 is her fourth album, an homage to other people’s songs, particularly album tracks from beloved vinyl records (hence the title). On her website, she describes 33 1/3 as “a kind of homage to the well-attested pleasures of the ‘long player,’ of owning some tangible artefact of music’s immaterial magic.”
Her song choices are wonderfully, almost absurdly pluralist and wide-ranging:
I’m Set Free – Velvet Underground/Lou Reed
Yoo Do Right – Can
Where Did You Sleep Last Night – Traditional (I’m wondering if it’s a Nirvana reference?)
Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan
Love Lies – Captain Beefheart
Oh My Love – John Lennon
Voodoo Chile – Jimi Hendrix
Heart and Soul – Joy Division
Persuasion – Throbbing Gristle
Ruler of My Heart – Linda Ronstadt (Norah Jones?)
Holidays in France – Michel Polnareff
What unites this material is the tasteful treatment is gets. There is reverence in these cover versions, yet – in the best ‘jazz’ tradition – they are often barely recognizable, having been re-fashioned into entirely new music. Raman’s band, led by guitar player/producer/arranger Sam Mills, is a world music powerhouse – everything pulses with a lucid life force, a deep-seated rhythm that makes even the slower numbers swing. You never lose interest: in her renditions, these songs become new again, validated by being re-imagined and entered into Raman’s repertoire, all of which sounds like a ritual, an incantation, an exploration of identity and of how music unites us easily and naturally.
As world music seems to have fallen permanently out of favour in the English-speaking world, Raman appears to tour mostly in France (the last bastion, apparently; the French appear uninterested in restricting their music consumption to white men with no rhythm). This is a shame, because I’d like to see her live and because I think her music most strongly relates to what we think of as vocal jazz – her closest musical ‘relative’ might be someone like Cassandra Wilson, who is also known for her tasty and virtually unrecognizable but beautiful cover versions.
33 1/3 is an independent release. It appears to be somewhat available on Amazon, but you can also order it from Raman’s web store. Her other three records – Salt Rain, Love Trap and Music for Crocodiles are widely available and highly recommended. They all contain some of the best singing, and downright the best and most organic sounding acoustic/world band you’ll ever hear.
Afterthought: Can’t have a review of 33 1/3 without at least mentioning the superb weirdness that is Susheela Raman’s cover of Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Persuasion.’ Wow. What a strange piece of music!