Aadat - Jal (2004)

Atif Aslam, ex-member of Jal may have slyly stolen a march on him by releasing his debut album "Jal Pari" first but Gohar Mumtaz, the other talented member of the band that was Jal has, fast on Atif's heels, released his own debut album, "Aadat." Curiously, while both ex-band mates seem intent on capitalising on glories past of the mega hit song "Aadat" (Gohar calls his album that; Atif had various versions of the song on his album), Gohar has just released his album as a band but not under the Jal name. In fact, the liner notes to the album mention that the matter of the ownership of the band name is before a court of law and thus Gohar and his fellow musicians (the newcomer Farhan Saeed on vocals and the excellent Shazi on Bass) shall not be using the moniker. All of that adds an additional tinge of intrigue and fascination when listening to the album .

To a certain extent, the album needs it as well in order to generate a degree of excitement to it. At first listen, this appears to be an excellent album of middle of the road pop. Or maybe a middle of the road album of excellent pop. On subsequent listens, one is never quite sure which. While this album wants to be pop, it is shot through with a fair bit of melancholy and trite lyrics that brings it down to a 'middle of the road' piece. At other moments, it wants to be rock or anything but pop, but fails to be that. Almost half of the time though it is something less than all of that.

The opening song "Rangon Mein" is representative of the failings of the album. Gohar and company try to start the album with a hard rocking tune which really is not all that hard. It is melodic and really done in by debutant Farhan's singing. His warbling in the beginning shows off the weakness of his vocals rather than his strengths. Not a good way to start your debut. He tries to do an Atif and falls, literally, flat.

Yet, he recovers fast and well. Farhan's niche in fact seems to be the mid tempo, mid range songs like the excellent "Ik Din Aye Ga." He infuses the song with expression and passion and provides one of the highlights of the album. Among the other stronger tracks there are "Woh Lamhey" with both Farhan and Gohar trading off vocals, the extremely catchy "Dil Harey" and the soulful "Teri Yaad." "Teri Yaad" is actually a very effective piece of fusion mixing soulful lines by flute maestro Pappu (out of the Mekaal Hasan Band) with some quite effective singing by Farhan. "Koi Manchala" manages to rock out more convincingly than "Rangon Mein" but fades out when it ought to climax. Notwithstanding that all of these also mark the arrival of Shazi as a bass player of promise.

For each of these great songs, there are unfortunately some truly weak songs on the album as well: "Aadat," the title track unfortunately is the weakest of them all. Effectively Farhan finds his Waterloo here. Atif had previously sung excellently on the song. Farhan tries his hand at it and ends up proving that he just does not have the pipes to do so. He is young and he may well develop into a vocalist of note (Ali Azmat sure did) but for now his version of "Aadat" is a mess. He could have made the song his own by singing it bereft of Atif–like histrionics; instead he labours under the shadow of Atif. On "Bikhra Hoon" he is more restrained and quite good for a bit. But come the chorus even Pappu's earthy flute colorings and Xulfi on keyboards (recycling his own riff from "Hamesha") cannot save the song which in final reckoning is noting more than a generally poor recasting of "Aadat." To a certain extent actually, most songs on the album feel like "Aadat" rewrites.

In fact, Jal should, on the evidence of the performance here, seek to run as far away from this version of "Aadat"; notwithstanding who really wrote it. They should not seek to embrace it time and again and in various forms. It might be difficult considering they chose to title the album "Aadat" and most people identify the band with the song but this is a habit (pun intended) they would be well–advised to break. Or Farhan had better get better at doing the song in a real hurry.

Overall, "Aadat" the album is a strange sort of an album. As mentioned earlier, even in its harder moments it is a soft album. Perhaps the reason lies in the vocals (a tad too restrained, within the safety zone), the melodies (sterling and pleasant) or the production (not raw enough to be rock, not polished enough to be pop) but even when it is angry it is restrained. Even when the songs call for a celebration, it seems a tad down. It basically reminds one of the band Strings in the level of pleasant restraint and fun with the only difference being that Strings can sometimes become super fun ("Sohniyae"). One has seen Jal let their hair down live (recently at Sozo World, Lahore – excellent performance), but none of that is in evidence on record.

Actually the comparison with Strings is all the more apt since Gohar seems to have a fair bit of Bilal Maqsood about him. The guitar bits at times resemble Strings (yes, I know Bilal does not play guitar on their albums and Strings (Shallum actually) seem to get a lot of their cues from U2, but the guitar work is often Strings influenced. Further, the reliance of Gohar on acoustic guitar (excellent rhythms, weak leads) is really welcome. Yet more than the guitars, there is a lot of Bilal Maqsood's breezy vocal quality in Gohar's vocals. To me the songs sung by Gohar are the ones that truly shine. "Dil Harey" and "Panchi" benefit greatly from his airy timbre and work excellently because of it. The only reservation one has is that from someone so youthful one misses the joyous pop abandon that ought to be there in most of his songs. One just hopes Gohar can write up some more joyous songs to go along with the breezy vocals. This album so screams out for a simple joyous pop song to give a break from the melancholy. But then again, perhaps it is not fair to judge the album for what it is not instead of judging it for what it is.

The one thing Jal's "Aadat" is, is an album containing a gem of a song that is "Dil Harey." The song is catchy in the extreme and one finds oneself humming it at the oddest moments. A truly winning melody with a foot-tapping rhythm, the song is a winner through and through. The version on record misses out on the exuberance Gohar brings to the song in live performance but it is still better than Atif's version. The reason perhaps as mentioned already is Gohar's winning voice.

As a composer, Gohar too certainly has the talent. His talent for melody is outstanding, his chord changes effective. The melodies are all spit–polished and really remarkable. The soloing however needs to develop a little more.

Of the other songs on the album, "Har Jaga Hai Jal" is certainly creditable in what the band tries to do i.e. expand its sonic palette but ultimately, it is more of a half a song than a complete song and is just simply not long enough. The vocals are weak on the verses but notwithstanding that, the title of the song is most pun–like.

The two instrumental tracks to end the album are just fillers, and poor ones at that, with poor instrumental interplay and really there is no point for them to exist other than to just fill space to please the record company. Overall actually, the side B of the album is quite weak and reveals that this album was more of a rush job than Atif's. One did not really think that was possible but at least Atif had songs of varied quality and did not put out 8 minutes of really weak instrumentals on an album that totals around 48 minutes. If one were to take the instrumentals and four and a half minutes of the weak "Aadat" and its sister track "Bikhra Hoon Main" (another 4 minutes) there is really only half an hour's worth of middling music.

As among the other songs, most trawl the middle ground, there is the song titled "Panchi" (yet another song; Mizraab had an atrocious one on theirs). Gohar's "Panchi" fares better here. It is a free-spirited song with a meandering feel to it. "Panchi hoon / Urnai Do / Fizaaon main." Nice and moody. Another memorable hummable tune. But once again melancholic.

Curiously for someone so young, the lyrics have a mostly melancholic touch. All yearn for things in the past. "Woh Lamhey," "Teri Yaad," and "Aadat." The lyrics are elegantly done but still trite. The themes are common with most of the songs around, "bheegi yaadein, lamhey, rangon mein khona, teri yaad aana, baarish main bheegna, raastay mitna, khwaab parona, the language and lyrics are at best sophomoric.

One can help not but wish and live in expectation that some kid like Gohar would just one day get up and write something more explosive. Of a jet fighter. A spaceship. Something more fun or exuberant rather than of a lost panchi (Mizraab) or a free flying one (Gohar). When Springsteen started out he wrote of wanting to strafe his school in a jetfighter: "I pushed B-52 and bombed 'em with the blues with my gear / set stubborn on standing / I broke all the rules strafed my old high school never / once gave thought about landing." Our kids, if Gohar is a true representation of them, it seems just want to be melancholic. Just dumb rock would not have been amiss.

Production–wise the album is not as excellent as expected from Xulfi of EP, who helms the production board. He produces the album as a rock album when it really feels more like a pop album. Moreover, it sounds like it was mixed and mastered on worn out speakers. There is little top end to the album and the low end suffers from lack of definition too. It seems to exist mostly in the mid range. Perhaps apt with the whole middle of the road theme.

Nevertheless, the acoustic guitars certainly sound nice. I am not however sure about how great the acoustic drums sound. The drumming by session musicians (mostly Salman Albert) is consistently fine. The album sleeve is tastefully designed and conveniently gives the lyrics and an interesting list of acknowledgements.

Ultimately, one feels while there are moments in which the album can cut loose to be something superlative, it does not. Rather than heading for the sky always seems to head for the middle of the road, to pun, Gohar and Co. has "a middling habit." The ghost of "Aadat" haunts this album too in that it too relies heavily on the song and perhaps was rushed out to capitalize on the song buzz. Ultimately, what we end up getting is half an album worth of music, some of which is memorable.

Mohammad A. Qayyum
The News International, Pakistan