Brooklyn band Bombay Rickey‘s new album Cinefonia – streaming at Bandcamp – has got to be the best debut release of 2014, hands down. With twangy guitars, hypnotic grooves and frontwoman/accordionist Kamala Sankaram’s shattering five-octave vocals, the band blends surf music, psychedelic cumbias, Bollywood and southwestern gothic into a lusciously tuneful, darkly bristling mix. Bollywood is usually the root source lurking somewhere in each of the album’s ten surprise-packed, shapeshifting songs, but cumbia, spaghetti western soundtracks, and the Ventures in their border-rock moments are more-or-less constant reference points as well. Imagine a more south Asian-influenced Chicha Libre fronted by one of the most exhilarating voices in any style of music, a picture that becomes clearer considering that Sankaram got the inspiration for this project the night she teamed up with Chicha Libre for one-off Yma Sumac cover show. Bombay Rickey are venturing north from their Barbes home base to play a Manhattan album release show on Sept 8 at 8 PM at Joe’s Pub; advance tix are $12, which is the closest thing to a bargain as you’ll ever get at this shi-shi venue.
Sankaram’s voice could shatter a black hole, never mind glass. Much as she’s built a very versatile career (everybody from Philip Glass, to free jazz icon Anthony Braxton, to opera companies, keep her busy), this band seems to be a defiant attempt to resist all attempts at being pigeonholed. Then again, defiance is a familiar trait with her: when she’s not fronting other groups, she’s writing and performing her own politically transgressive operas.
Guitarist/keyboardist Drew Fleming is a connoisseur of 60s surf and psychedelic sounds. Saxophonist/clarinetist Jeff Hudgins has a fondness for Mediterranean and Balkan tonalities; bassist Gil Smuskowitz shifts effortlessly between idioms, as do drummer Sam Merrick, percussionists Timothy Quigley and Brian Adler. The album opens with a Sumac tune, Taki Rari – it sounds like Los Mirlos‘ surf-cumbia classic Sonido Amazonico going down the Ganges. The interchange of accordion, strings, a sizzling sax solo and Sankaram’s electrifying shriek at the end are a visceral thrill, and do justice to the woman who sang it first.
Bombay 5-0, by Sankaram, transcends an awkward venture into takadimi drum language, Hudgins’ uneasy sax setting the stage for a big, dramatic, arioso vocal crescendo. Promontory Summit, a Fleming tune, explores dusky, hallucinatory desert rock vistas, bookended by balmy jazz-tinged ambience. The version of the Bollywood classic Dum Maro Dum (meaning “take another toke”) here is a lot more subtle and creepily suspenseful than either the boisterous, horn-fueled original or the many covers other bands have done over the years.
Pondicherry Surf Goddess, by Hudgins, starts out as an ambling shout-out to the Ventures, then winds its way through blistering newshchool Romany funk and art-rock. Another Hudgins tune, the somewhat menacing El Final Del Pachanga evokes Peruvian psychedelic legends Los Destellos, Hudgins’ sax intertwining with Sankaram’s supersonic vocal flights, Fleming following with a deliciously spiraling surf guitar solo.
Fleming sings the Johnny Horton-ish Coyote in the Land of the Dead, which sounds suspiciously like a parody. Likewise, Sankaram’s similarly deadpan rhumba-ish arrangement of a popular Mozart theme, which might have taken its cue from Chicha Libre covering Wagner. The high point among many on this album is a Sankaram composition, Pilgram, her wickedly precise, loopy accordion winding through a misterioso, lingering, surfy stroll with ominous bass and alto sax solos, the latter building to a spine-tingling coda. The album winds up with another darkly cinematic Sankaram number, Toco’s Last Stand, blending Balkan-flavored sax, dancing accordion and terse surf guitar underneath the singer’s unearthly wail. It’s a teens counterpart to the Ventures’ classic Besame Mucho Twist. This might not just be the best debut album of the year: it might be the best album of 2014, period.