Breathing Under Water is a different animal altogether. Karsh Kale and Anoushka Shankar co-wrote eight of these 13 cuts together. Another, "Easy," was co-written with Norah Jones -- Shankar's half sister -- and sung by her. Father Ravi wrote a two-part tune with his daughter and appearshere as well. The other big name guest is Sting (it's a payback for Shankar playing on a few tracks of his in the past). Shankar (sitar, keyboards) and Kale (guitars, keyboards, live drums) wind Indian classical music, rock, electric atmospheres, and a load of loops and beats (break and otherwise) with a host of collaborators who include the great arranger and pianist Salim Merchant (who also conducts the Bombay Cinematic Orchestra Strings on a few pieces), Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on his mohan vina, vocalists Sunidhi Chauhan, Shankar Mahadevan, and Vishal Vaid, and chamber players on bansuri, sarangi, and other traditional instruments, and programmers of various stripes. What's striking is that while one can imagine how this might sound, because of other attempts at doing the same thing, the end product would frustrate those anticipations to a large degree. Certainly electronic music is deeply rooted here, but so is the sitar, so is rock, so is Western classical music -- sometimes all in the same tune. It's exotic, but it's a another thing too, which feels like, well, coming home. The Sting track ("Sea Dreamer") may have fared better without his breathy vocals intruding. That said, the piano and vocal performance by Jones on "Easy" is what sets it apart -- no matter what one thinks about her singing, she really stretched out here and makes it seem effortless -- and makes it an inseparable part of the fabric of the album. "A Perfect Rain," with Mahadevan singing, is a thoroughly modern track in every way, but his gorgeous traditional vocal adds real depth and dimension to the other aspects of the sounds created here.
The blend of guitars, drums, sarangi, layered keyboards, loops, and live drums is gorgeous. Elsewhere, on the instrumentals such as "Little Glass Folk," Shankar's sitar work is sublime, tighter and more focused than on her other recordings. With orchestral percussion by Kale and Merchant conducting the strings in Western classical fashion, it's deeply moving, and even breathtaking in places as it emerges seemingly from the ether and travels from West to East as the two musics come together in something wonderfully cinematic and enchanting. The two-part "Oceanic," on which Ravi plays, is fantastic. It takes up a little over eight minutes, the first half with Ravi improvising over Merchant's string orchestra -- so moving and beautiful it's beyond all written language. The second part is a duet between the Shankars with accompaniment from Kale on tabla, Ajay Prassana on bansuri, and Pirashana Thevarajah on mindangam kanjira, with Merchant conducting the strings once more. The lyricism here is profound, spiritually moving (and not necessarily in a theistic sense of the term). The final cut, a brief interlude called "Reprise," is just Shankar on her sitar, Kale playing piano, and Merchant's wonderfully understated strings. As the record comes to whispering close, it begs an analysis as to why Breathing Under Water works so well. The answer is that Shankar came on far more aggressively here. Her discipline and sense of harmony and melody are very sophisticated, and she's always downplayed them on her own recordings. Kale, on the other hand, is not so heavy-handed in his writing, playing, or production work, perhaps because he is in the company of so many fine musicians, Merchant not least among them. This is lush and elegant music; it defies genres and pigeonholes. But it is also new, made from many old approaches as well as modern ones. Breathing Under Water is nothing less than delightfully -- and sometimes powerfully -- unique.