I’m digging this CD in a way that’s almost criminal. A collection of theme songs and music composed for Indian “Masala” films — their response to the influx of blaxploitation and James Bond movies in the 60s and 70s — you’ll be hardpressed to find a collection of songs that pimp harder and groove deeper than these 15 tracks.
Culled from the works of the brothers Kalyanji and Anandji, who composed up to a 100 soundtracks a year at their peak, Guns, Cars & Sitars represents a curious blend of East and West. Sitars and tablas nestle in quite nicely among swinging orchestral arrangements, funky basslines, and guitars with the wah laid on nice and thick. Traditional elements of Indian music, such as the drone, lend an exotic air to psychedelic electronic noodlings and a sense of funk so nasty it’d make Isaac Hayes blush.
I won’t lie to you, however. Much of my love for this CD lies in the fact that it’s so kitschy and fun. Many of these pieces are so whacked out, even when anchored with some booty-shaking rhythms, that I can’t help but wonder just how much opium figured into the original recording process.
“Bombay 495 Miles” kicks things off in all the right ways; picture incidental music from every Barnaby Jones episode rolled into one track and given the royal sitar treatment. “The Good, The Bad And The Chutney” is one of the album’s most potent tracks, from the opening bit of dialog to the heavy dose of analog synths, deep bassline, and layers of percussion. A trumpet adds a slight Ennio Morricone feel, but this ain’t no Clint Eastwood theme (unless he found himself staring down some mean hombres on a dusty Calcutta street).
Drone fans will find “My Guru” especially interesting, with layers of sitar shifting hypnotically over a steady base of hip-hop beats provided by Dan the Automator (who produced the album) and DJ Shadow. Several minutes into the track, a gorgeous string arrangement swoops down, and you’re suddenly struck with the thought that James Lavelle might’ve had this in mind when he started working on UNKLE. I wonder how many DJs picked this up due to the names behind its inception, and then started scouring used bins for Bollywood soundtracks to add to their sample libraries. Lord knows I would.
Anyone who thinks that noodling synth passages was the sole domain of krautrock bands and their numerous followers will find themselves schooled by “Professor Pyarelal.” And that’s before you notice the bassline, which saunters along with a gangsta limp. “Satchidananda” starts off with more solid hip-hop beats and trilling keyboards before a beautiful traditional arrangement sweeps in and sways as only Indian music can. Later in the piece, a lovely flute melody snakes right alongside a synth passage that would make Air wet themselves.
Some of the songs do come off as somewhat, well, silly, especially the swingin’ chorus of “Ganges A Go-Go” (which begs to be used by Quentin Tarantino) and the remakes of the Mission Impossible theme (“Fear Of A Brown Planet) and various surf classics (“Swami Safari”). However, “The Great Gambler” is one of the album’s more “serious” moments. With a laidback groove spiced up by big brass hits and lush keys, it probably underscored a scene detailing the stakeout of a casino/opium den/cabaret or a journey through New Delhi’s seamy underworld.
And there’s no denying that “Theme From Don” kicks ass 6 ways from Sunday, with a ragged rhythm guitar and no-nonsense horn section laying down the smack. If I could ever have theme music accompany me as I entered a room — in slow motion, natch — it’d probably be this song.
Guns, Cars & Sitars is exotic and fantastical from the start, a blend of instruments and musical styles that’s intoxicating. It’s a fascinating document of film music, which often goes unappreciated in Western movies but is absolutely essential in Indian cinema. But lest this review makes the album sound all sterile and academic (an impression I doubt you have now, but I don’t want anyone getting the wrong idea), Guns, Cars & Sitars flows with a sense of style and funk that is deeply infectious, exotic, and most importantly, bad ass.