Finders Keepers can seemingly do little wrong with this latest collection of music from “Kollywood,” a cinema hub based in Chennai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Fans of film music from India who focus disproportionately on music from Mumbai’s Hindi-language Bollywood (and this reviewer is no exception) miss out on the joyous experimentalism and ecstatic lack of restraint of composers like Illayairaaja, whose work was previously compiled on Finders Keepers’s Solla Solla.
Illayairaaja appears again on this compilation, but the star is vocalist K.S. Chithra. She isn’t known as “Little Nightingale” for nothing — her absolute command over her warbling upper register is as awe-inspiring as the hyperbolic tracks that back it. She floats gossamer-like over the lush orchestral bed of “Vandadha,” which flirts with a far-eastern pentatonic melody. (Its oddly syncopated midsection features the pleasantly saccharine tones of the Yamaha DX-7 keyboard, which listeners of a certain age will recognize instantly as the go-to leitmotif from “Doogie Howser, M.D.”) The pounding woodblocks and water splashes that lead into “Chhithirai Masaatthu” give way to a lopsided groove and a collage of phase-shifted guitar, gypsy violin and a repeating cascade of tuned drums. “Manjhai Ndhi” is an unusual but perfectly tasteful hybrid of orchestral elements, effected violin, electric guitar and indigenous instrumentation like the santoor (hammered dulcimer) and venu (carnatic flute). (The string arrangement is vaguely reminiscent of Glenn Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman.”)
“Kaiyoudo Ennai” starts the real fun, with a dip into 1980s pop, albeit appropriately skewed and rife with cinematic dynamics. The sax solo suggests an AM gold broadcast from somewhere near nirvana, while the rest of the tune is driven by a punchy synth bassline locked to programmed beat, layered with keyboards in lieu of strings. “Hey Maina” continues that tack, offering a stomping masterpiece of electro-jazz funk, highlighted by a robotic lead synth sequence and an in-kind rapid-fire vocal response from Chithra.
Legendary vocalist S.P. Balasubramaniyam joins Chithra for “Vaa Veliye,” a darker, musical cyborg of a number in which dramatic string swells crest atop a relentless synth bass pulse and a clockwork drumkit/synthesized handclap rhythm. A pair of carnatic-influenced vocal interludes heighten the unsettling atmosphere, providing one of the compilation’s standout tracks. More raga melodies, which to western ears ring of tight, minor-keyed intervals, lend an ethereal mood to “Oru Pooncholai” and “Velli Kizhamai,” offset by electronic toms and handclaps and more of those shimmering digital pads from the DX-7.
The beauty and uniqueness of these songs transcends the dated sound of much of the 1980s digital technology — state-of-the-art at its time — that was used in its rendering. These elements are incorporated so seamlessly and in such an original, throw-out-the-rulebook fashion as to keep this music vital beyond its original air-date and context. And, in this day of fair-trade consciousness, it’s refreshing to see that the worldly lot at Finders Keepers presents these recordings through a licensing agreement with Illaiyaraaja himself. Rest assured that your LP dollar finds its way eastward to compensate the involved talents for the wonder they bring us.