One quality that I admire in music is integrity. There are times when the music may only be average, the lyrics though not pedestrian may only be above average, but what lifts an album is the honesty that shines through. An artist trying really hard to make something worthwhile very rarely bombs completely, and it is tough not to appreciate that effort. In an era where pocketbooks and not talent determines what albums are made and who gets the big contracts, being true to your craft is increasingly an anachronism in mainstream music - be it rock, pop, Bollywood or the genre derisively called Indi-pop.
Notable exceptions abound, and one of my favorites in the past season has to be Strings. Strings will be remembered fondly by early MTV veterans as the young Pakistani band who crooned Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar on some scraggly mountain-top outside Lahore or Karachi. The silken-voiced Bilal and the clowning guitarist Faisal re-grouped many years later to give us the U2-esque Duur - one of the best pop/rock singles to come out of the pop-rock firmament in the sub-continent.
I haven't heard the album Duur in a while, but a chance listening to Dhaani left me wanting more. The CD was duly purchased.
As I said earlier, a certain lack of guile permeating through the album makes it very attractive for me. The duo don't seem out to try any manipulation. None of the songs except Hai Koi.. have any kind of annoying DJ rapping nonsense or arbitrary English choruses having no relation to any of the lyrics. This is an album by a duo intent on doing their own thing and they pull it off very well.
The more serious songs have Faisal's heaver, classical-style voice adding a touch of gravitas to the proceedings. Dhaani, Najaane Kyun, and Kahani Mohabbat Ki fit well in this mould. The other songs in the album including the playful Sohniyae and the pensive Mera Bichhra Yaar benefit from Bilal's lighter touch, and Chhaye Chhaye is a lovely combination of their singing styles, playing off their distinctively different voices.
There are two notable collaborations on the album - Bolo bolo with Hariharan which left me cold for some reason, while Pal with Sagarika, which was part of the Channel V Jammin' series suffers from a "Duur" hangover - though the violin and Sagarika's dreamy vocals still make it eminently listenable.
The album ends on a bit of a limp note with both Jadoo and Hai Koi Hum Jaisa (apparently the Pakistan World Cup theme song) failing to impress.
The songwriting doesn't quite take off, but except for the last song, it's never abysmally bad. The Urdu makes it arguably sound better than it deserves to, but some of the songs - notably Kahani Mohabbat Ki and Najaane Kyon do stand by themselves as reasonably good pieces of song-writing.
All in all, it is a good advertisement for non-Bollywood Hindi music. It's Indi-pop (or rather Pak-pop, if there's such a term) as it should be. As I understand it, Strings have enjoyed success either side of the border, and deservedly so.
Update: At the Indian store here yesterday, I saw Najaane Kyon interspersed with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst mooning over each other. Turns out the track was on the Spiderman 2 soundtrack when the movie was dubbed in Hindi. The visuals and the song were so jarringly incongruous that it threw me off for a while.