Jal Pari - Atif Aslam (2004)

As much as the success of their debut single "Aadat" was instantaneous, the break-up of the original line-up of the band Jal has been long drawn out and quite sordid. There were public and rather brutal recriminations between Atif and Gohar (the two members of the band) and their respective fans. Legal suits, threats, a lot of heartburn and pointless mudslinging followed in the papers and indeed all over the Net. In all of this, the band seems to have come out for the worse and pretty much become a public joke - a punchline, sort of like the band in Alan Parker's The Commitments which breaks up right at the verge of breaking out. In all, one was almost convinced that the whole affair marked the death knell for Jal, an epitaph for them as a one-hit wonder. So initially, it was with some sense of relief that one saw the two members of the band perform separately and premiere some new songs.

Notwithstanding rumours that "Aadat" owed more of its success to producer Mekaal Hassan than the band itself, a couple of live performances certainly seemed to indicate the presence of a fair bit of talent with each of the two members of the band. Thereafter, when news surfaced that each of the two had started work on full-fledged albums of their own, one was even interested to see what they would come up with after all the petulance. Could they out of their demise give us excellent albums like, say, the ones that resulted from Awaz falling apart?

In Jal's case, Atif Aslam the lead singer of the band seems to have stolen a march on musician-in-chief Gohar who legally acquired the right to the Jal name before Atif could and rushed his (that is Atif's) debut album "Jal Pari" into the market. The album "Jal Pari," much as the name suggests and indeed as the bitter liner notes confirm, is an album haunted by the ghost of Jal. Call it canny marketing or an attempt to wind up Gohar but there are two versions of the band's hit debut song "Aadat" here. The cover of the album even bears lyrics to the song. Marketing aside, having listened to the two versions, it appears there is one version too many on the album.

"Ab to Aadat Si Hai," the standard version of "Aadat," sounds somewhat re-recorded and has already been played to death on most radio stations. It is the one song that will make this album sell like hotcakes. The song itself is interestingly put together and highlights Atif Aslam's powerful vocals - his greatest asset - to quite a memorable effect: the melody, effective lyrics and excellent music all gel to form the mega hit loved by many. However, it is possibly tampering with this magic formula that lets the other version of the song, the "Deep Blue Version," fall flat.

"Aadat (Said Song) Deep Blue Version" [sic] is a stripped and slowed down version of the song. It so appears to have been done to make the song sound more soulful and highlight Atif's vocals. Unfortunately, tampering with the song kills it: the song loses momentum but somehow does not gain any pathos from being slowed down. The mix, in fact, seems somewhat off. The vocals and production of guitars (too bright) are just too clean for the moodier version to work. Plus Atif is not as expressive as one would have expected on a stripped down arrangement of the song.

As for the rest of the album, most of the songs therein appear to have been put together in a rush. More crucially it feels like the album was pulled together by a host of hired hands. The songs remind me of those 'by the number' colouring books I used to play with as a kid. The pictures were already drawn out and various portions of the pictures contained various numbers the corresponding colours to which were supposed to be filled in. And no matter how well I coloured in, at the end of the day, there was little or no scope for creativity. That is possibly the amount of creativity Atif manages when singing on the album.

Admittedly, there are a few good songs here. The best song here has got to be "Mahi Ve." This is so, despite it being a faux-Punjabi number reminiscent of "Dobara Phir Se" (Noori), only a bit more melodic. It starts off as a mid-tempo acoustic guitar ballad but turns up-tempo after the first verse. It also shows what a bit of drums can do to a song, in sharp contrast to the dismal "Aadat" (Deep Blue version) which precedes it and dies due to lack of drums. "Mahi Ve" itself gels together quite effectively and there is a fair bit of joy (despite the lost-love lyrics) to the up tempo bits of it.

"Jal Pari," the title song is possibly the most ambitious song here and, in fact, works well in parts too. It starts off moodily, with slowly strummed guitars. Evocative singing over the top of this bed of guitars by Atif follows. However, then the drums come in along with some tasteful guitar playing and the song takes off in another direction. Farhad Humayun is the star here, much to the extent of obscuring Atif. The influence of Pappu Saeen's collaboration with Farhad certainly shines through and his tribal drumming overwhelms the song. The guitar solos and fills are short and effective but it is Farhad's song by the end with Atif singing his standard Aaaas" over the top. The song just ends too abruptly for its own good (weak production and arrangement).

In fact Atif's vocals on "Jal Pari" point to one of the main problems with the album. When Atif sings his alaaps and long sustained Aaaas, he is certainly often in key (more than most others, at least) and he does have a great voice, but he overdoes it. He uses his voice as almost another instrument which would have been acceptable had he not just taken to singing similar and pointless Aaaas in almost every other song. Several of the songs here are fatally wounded midway through when Atif just takes to his standard Aaaa-ing just because. One is aware that certain Jal fans who consider Atif's alaaps and such vocal styling as extremely original, but in all actuality this is not much of a style. In the very least, restraint is certainly advised.

Other songs on the album work mostly in parts to various different extents. "Ehsaas" is mostly a successful song with clean production. It even has some substance to it (is not only about love as with other songs). That being said, lyrically most of what is being said here has lyrically been done before and better. There are the Junoon keywords and the angst-ridden confusion of Noori or EP here. Some good lines do slip in ("kabhi main amal hoon / kabhi bai amal hoon"). The music in its better moments evokes KD Lang's "Constant Craving" or REM's "Losing My Religion."

"Dil Haray" (or "Ankhon Se," as it is called here) is a song Atif has been playing quite a bit live. It is a tad too slow and does not have the celebratory feel of the live performances. Still it works, even if it is a bit too close to the Jal formula. Gohar's Jal has a slightly better "Dil Haray" version of its own out as well.

"Tehzeeb" has better lyrics than most of the others in the album. It sounds and feels like a ghazal (only, Ahmed Jehanzeb does it better) but its moodiness is just not carried along well enough. The bass, the drums do their own thing but add nothing to the song. The lesser songs on the album are unfortunately several. Most of them are lesser because they appear to be derivative or just do not fit Atif's style. The prime among these is "Gall Sun Ja" which opens like a heavy rock beat. The drum intro is straight out of EP, the guitars are great (particularly the rhythm for verses and the earlier solo) and one's ears immediately perk up until Atif comes in to ruin the song. Atif's vocal lines are horrid in the song. The chorus turns into a lame Noori parody. "Andar jawan / bahar jawan" is straight out of Junoon ("Na main aabi / na main khaki"). Ultimately this is a truly disjointed song in search for an identity, much like most of this album and the way it ends with a sudden fade out indicates lack of thought too.

And that perhaps is the main thing about this album. The unfortunate thing is that "Jal Pari" really does have an incomplete feel to it. The songs are through and through rush jobs. Songs don't fade out, they just end abruptly as if the band ran out of ideas. It happens in "Jal Pari," it happens somewhat again on "Bheegi Yadein." The weak production and arrangement is however most of all obvious on "Gall Sun Ja," which heads towards a crescendo and then suddenly just ends. No fadeout, no resolution, just a plain and simple cutout. Now if any of the previous material had shown forethought, one would have imagined this to have been a tongue-in-cheek irritant. What it actually is, is just irritating.

"Bheegi Yadein" sticks to formula. Farhad Humayun drums and the acoustic guitars are out of "Aadat." There is little or no momentum here as with a lot of the other songs. This is more so the case with the breaks in the middle of the song. "Zindagi" is a funk-rock mess and shows up the limitations of Atif's singing. The voice just does not gel with the urgent music.

"Yaqeen" might have been one of the better songs had it not gone back to the standard Jal formula again. It starts as a Call/Creed song and turns into a mid-tempo ballad following the formula which seems to have been: 'Aaaas' + some 'Hey hey' or 'Hmmm' + some acoustic rhythm guitar = song. Plus some more 'Aaaas' or 'Hmmms' to impress fans. One song too many in the same mould perhaps. The 'Hmmm hmmm Aaaa Aaaa' followed by 'Ho Ho' are hilarious rather than soulful.

Lyrically as alluded as the earlier one there is nothing really new in this album. The major theme of the album is love and more legendary love ("Jal Pari") There is however a fair bit of poetic elegance to some of the lyrics (bits of "Tehzeeb," "Aadat," etc.) and that is worth appreciating.

As mentioned earlier, the album is certainly a rush job, possibly an effort to regain the momentum the band lost with failing to consolidate on the success of "Aadat." All of this might have made commercial sense but the songs do suffer. This is also reflected in the packaging of the album. The liner notes and lyric sheet are both awkward. Song details are not given and certainly Gohar merited a mention somewhere in the credits. The CD I picked from the market was not well put together. Still, one must say it is unintentionally entertaining. The liner notes are somewhat hilarious and laced with mistakes. Atif hilariously thanks his fans for their unconditional love and 'hold up' [sic]. The bitterness is certainly there with jibes at friend's past whose lack of faith 'pulled [Atif] to explore [himself] in a meticulous fashion.'

Overall, there is little that is really memorable here. The "Aadat" magic has by now worn thin. Some of the other songs are pleasant, some are passable, and some not even that. All in all, "Jal Pari" is a disappointing album - much too rushed a piece of work - from a talented singer whose singing voice may be there but who has still some way to go before he find his voice as an artist and his feet as a songwriter.

Mohammad A. Qayyum
The News International, Pakistan