Strings' latest album "Dhaani" proves two points about the band: One, that Faisal has an utterly awesome deep basso voice (too many people sing much too high) and two, that Bilal has a gift for a memorable melody that is second to none. "Dhaani" amply showcases both and by playing to the band's strengths manages to come through with flying colours.
The odds were previously stacked highly against the duo. "Duur," the album before "Dhaani" was a tough act to follow. It had taken them long years to come up with "Duur" and the album had garnered almost universal critical and commercial acclaim.
The band made the PR faux pas of ominously claiming that they had been jaded (on their website www.stringsonline.net): "We were tired and we needed a break - so we created "Dhaani" around us." Admitting tiredness did not augur well for the band or the album they were going to release. Admittedly they tried to spin it positively by adding that "'Dhaani' gave [the band] the ability to transcend. To see what was not there...to experience what was not possible...to break free. Believe. 'Dhaani' was our escape."
While the album does not have the transcendent ability so grandiosely claimed (this music is not passionate enough to transcend) in the above blurb, "Dhaani" really is quite a great pop album. Actually what the band possibly and somewhat clumsily was referring to was the rejuvenating joyous quality of pure pop music. That is certainly in evidence on several of Dhaani's tracks, and nowhere more so than on the utterly brilliant "Sohniyae." The song is an utter joy and coupled with Junoon's funky and awesome 'Pappu Yaar' provides the crank-up-loud-and-drive-fast-in-your-car soundtrack of the year.
That being said, I have come across a number of people already who utterly hate "Sohniyae." Their prime beef with the song, they claim, is that it is rather silly. How could Mr. Anwar Maqsood who wrote most of the words on the album come up with such juvenilia, they ask. I think they miss the point: when they say that the song is silly they miss that that is precisely the point. A song that goes "Na na na na na na na na meri sohniye" is not to be taken seriously. "Sohniyae" actually reminds me of the exuberance of "Strings II" or Haroon's "Raat Khait Main" for their joyous qualities and lightweightedness. The truth of the matter is that such songs are not to be taken too seriously.
In effect, there are a number of other songs on the album which also achieve pop perfection through similar joyfulness and relative lack of substance. The title track is another case on point. Dhaani? Chunarya? A green chunarya? And the point is? It is not through the lyrics that "Dhaani," the song scores: it actually scores several points through its fun music and its cultivated use of language (Bilal's aunt Zehra Nigah wrote this). Plus Faisal sounds really good in this one. The same is the case with "Chaaye Chaaye," the first single. It is more or less in the same vein and more or less the same arguments apply. I mean look at the video. Bilal is being interrogated therein and tortured. You can either take it seriously or just laugh and enjoy its silliness.
The most memorable feature of the album and its saving grace at times against the lyrics is clearly its music and more particularly the album's melodies. Bilal's talent is stupendous: Few would have dared play with the single word of 'Duur' and stretch it into 'Duuu-uuu-uuu-uuur' in the manner Bilal did to mould the same into one of the most memorable melodies in recent memory. "Dhaani" too is shot through with memorable melodies and infectious melodic phrases: This infectiousness makes pop music made by Strings stands head and shoulders above any other pop band in the land.
Beyond the melodies too, this is an excellently musical album and demonstrates a broadening of style. It shows musical growth on part of the band and varied instrumentation. However, it is certainly not experimental, groundbreaking, innovative or even groovy, as Bilal claimed in a recent interview. Admittedly the songs are more rhythm-oriented (foot-tapping) now but they really are not groove and dance-oriented like the bhangra boys (Abrar, Jawad) or say Haroon and Fakhir. The emphasis on rhythm is increased but the melody still remains prime and this is a very good thing.
This increased emphasis on rhythm is achieved in part through increased use of loops and programmed drums, but it is most evident in the guitars. The guitars in fact are a revelation. Shallum was somewhat involved in the album but by most accounts most of the guitar duties fell to the multitalented Shuja Haider and Bilal himself. These two manage quite nicely. There is a marked shift in emphasis from solos in songs and the guitars seem to take on the role of driving the rhythm more and more. Funky little riffs (often on nicely recorded acoustic guitars) now either drive or underpin the songs and the guitar fills added also continue to be tasteful. One must salute them on that count.
The compositions in themselves are excellent: "Pal" and "Bolo Bolo" are musically excellent. "Pal" particularly is another highlight to the album. The song is a duet featuring Indian singer Sagarika. It has an ominous intro and then nicely explodes into life. There are a number of disparate elements (Suresh Lalwani's outstanding violin, Shallumesque delay guitars, throbbing bass, tastefully mixed down strings, Faisal's deep voice, Sagarika's vocal gymnastics on the outro) and all of these come together quite brilliantly. The vocal interaction works a charm.
The compositions do however show the sequenced studio recording mentality. They are more along the lines of tracks being stacked on top of each other, rather than linear organic recording. One wonders how several of these songs would be reproduced live and whether they would work as well. Moreover, there are times on the album that one feels live drums would have been a better option than drum machines and loops. Sequenced music and metronomic drums can convey only so much passion. Moreover, the loops and programmed drums feel will put Strings at a disadvantage too I imagine in the rural markets. Despite using some eastern elements in their music, Strings' music is modern music. So it seems that the band will still remain popular in the urban centres with this album but one does not see this album breaking them in the rural heartland of the country.
The vocal duties on the albums are shared. This provides a good contrast throughout the album. Furthermore when the two share lead singing duties on a song ("Chaaye Chaaye") their voices play off each other quite well. Admittedly, compared to Faisal's hugely deep voice, Bilal's voice is rather insubstantial (most voices would suffer this fate in comparison). Yet Bilal comes up trumps on "Sohniyae" precisely due to lighter voice. Faisal's heavy, at times monotone voice would have killed "Sohniyae." That being said, I must also add that "Mera Bichra Yaar" would have sounded better and would have had more gravitas with Faisal singing it. Bilal unfortunately with his vocal limitations struggles to sound convincing or substantial enough on the said song.
With this we come to back to the lyrics. Earlier I had mentioned that the some of the songs on the album are joyous. One must also add that "Dhaani" is not a through and through happy-happy album. Actually, far from it, it seems to bear a quite discernible shift in mood. It might be due to the onset of artistic maturity with the boys or a concerted effort on part of Anwar Maqsood that despite the generally joyous music on the album, some of the words and topics now have a more world weary and jaded edge. Whereas on "Duur" the band sang of joyous arrival (Duur sai koi aaye), on "Dhaani" there are songs about people leaving or having left. "Kahani Mohabat Ki" is lyrically desolate and shot through with loss: 'Gaya dil se / Phir woh na aya idhar.' "Mera Bichra Yaar" may well be more abstractly about a dead loved one or more literally about the yearnings of someone who moved to the city and is missing all those that he left behind in the village. In this the album has also lyrically somewhat broadened Strings' horizon.
In general, Anwar Maqsood's lyrics are effective and often simplicity incarnate. Strength is demonstrated in the ambiguity contained in the lyrics. For example, this precise feature saves "Mera Bichra Yaar." One wonders what is the singer singing about? What starts off sounding like a straight love song is more about loss and longing and pretty soon one gets the feeling that it may even be perversely be about someone who lost a lover and is now waiting to die and join him.
Secondly, the lyrics work well as at least in "Mitti" they demonstrate a move away from the topic of amour and problems involved therewith. What may seem like your standard patriotic song has a deeper message, a plea to people thinking of immigrating to stay on perhaps?
Yet the simplicity and lightness that is also effective in the lighter pop songs also become the Achilles heel of the album on the more serious songs. The flipside of the more lightweight lyrics is that when put in a more serious context they appear pedestrian and therefore bad. "Kahani Mohabat Ki" is an example of this. Moreover, what is often missing from the lyrics is deeper insight, something one expects from Anwar Maqsood. This has rather consistently been the case with Strings' music. This was the case with "Duur." This is the case here. The video for "Anjane" I maintain gave the song the substance which the lyrics never really had in the first place. What substance is present in this album is yet to be pointed out. My prime objection therefore is that Anwar Maqsood is after all Anwar Maqsood Sahab. His pen is one of the mightiest and wittiest around in other genres of writing. Here too he should make a bit more of an effort lyrically and use themes other than the same old well-worn one of amour. For now it seems he turns in lyrics that are in the final reckoning more or less tossed off. "Kahani Mohabat Ki" is poor on this count. "Najanay Kyoun" is similarly so. Lastly, while he does generally keep it simple Anwar Maqsood's vocabulary sometimes tends to move towards the more cultured words. Sometimes this cultured use of language sits uneasily on the bed of uncultured modern pop-rock music Bilal puts together. Words like 'ghata', 'jhonka', 'panchi', and other formal Urdu words sometimes do not gel with the music's feel.
Strings now also seem to have developed an irritating reliance on repetition of trite phrases: "Bolo Bolo" the classical number with Hari Harran is the chief example of this. Despite its excellent music, I hated the song. 'Bolo bolo bolo bolo na' repeated time and again is irritating rather than anything else. Faisal's voice which sometimes leans towards a monotone almost becomes monotonous here. Sung in concert the song is sure to get crank-ups and catcalls from the audience: 'Bol wi chuk' in Lahore and 'Abay kya bolain' in Karachi.
It is interesting to note that Strings too have released this album through Sadaf Stereo. Khalid Sadaf seems to have cornered the market on great artists. First he released Noori, now Strings and soon to be followed, one hears, EP and Mizrab albums. One just wishes that he would afford these latest releases a more lavish production a'la Karavan's "Gardish" on VJ Gold.
The "Dhaani" package is competently put together. The lyrics to "Dhaani" are provided and the sleeve has been proofread well, which is saying a lot. The logos are tastefully small on the cover. The cover picture however is not all that impressive. For a band that proffers a boys-next-door appeal, the band with a faraway look on the cover is not appropriate. The rest of the sleeve is nicely shot though.
"Dhaani" also shows studio mastery and inspiration in equal measure. The mixing is sonically brilliant and so a tip of the head to Shahzad Hassan on that count. However, the recording at times seems to lack edge or overt passion. The climax of "Pal," for example, goes up to a safe high and no higher. No over-the-top pyrotechnics here, which means it is all elegantly tasteful. I guess that is something inherent to the band. They are tasteful and nice (unlike the braver and more passionate Junoon).
The upside of the band taking pains in the studio has also been that there is really no filler on the album. There are a few weak tracks, but none of the tracks qualify as filler. The downside of working hard on tracks is that this album from Strings who were never really prolific is also on the short side with only ten tracks, not very great value for money.
In conclusion, just a general point: there are many who have already concluded that this album is not as good as "Duur." I do not agree with that. What most of the detractors are primarily saying is that this album is not "Duur." True. The point is that this album is "Dhaani." Moreover, it is more about consolidation. This is album that assures us that Strings will stay the course. In short, "Dhaani" is a solid effort and heartily recommended, to paraphrase another mature artists, to be listened (and enjoyed) without prejudice.Mohammad A. Qayyum