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How to reinvent a perfect pop song

Looking back at Noori's Live at the Rock Musicarium

How to reinvent a perfect pop song

It is not much of a compliment to say that Noori’s Live at the Rock Musicarium (2012) is the best live rock album released in Pakistan. This is because it is quite probably the only live rock album yet released in Pakistan. One may even complain – as some do – that the album is not truly live or has been touched up subsequently in studio. My answer: who cares? The album is superlative and easily sets the gold standard for live Pakistani rock albums with its sense of fun, artistry and consummate performance. Sadly, it has remained an underappreciated gem due to atrocious distribution.

That this album would be better than good was to be expected.  After all, the best drummer in Pakistan (John ‘Gumby’ Louis Pinto) was onstage with the most accomplished guitar player in Pakistan (Faraz Anwar), with possibly the best pop rock songwriter in Pakistan (Ali Noor), an accomplished keyboardist to flesh out the sound (Zeeshan Parwez) and one of the purest voices in the genre (Ali Hamza). But what one gets with the album is even greater than the sum of its parts. One gets an album that is remarkably fresh and excellent.

Truth be told, it really ought not to have worked. Noori’s songs are perfectly polished pop creations; one would have expected that tampering with them would have lessened them. Changing well-loved songs like in the case of Bon Jovi (‘This Left Feels Right’) or even Led Zeppelin/ Page and Plant (‘No Quarter’) rarely works. However, perhaps borne out of necessity, Noori – who recently seemed bored with their own songs – have pulled their songs apart and recast them in a startling manner.

The best song on the album, ‘Suno Kai Main Hoon Jawan’ is the best example of this. What was once a somewhat shallow celebratory youth anthem is now slowed down to a soulful ache. It starts slowly, like an elegy to the betrayed promise of youth, and finally transforms into something affecting and exultant. The two stars on the track are Ali Noor (stunning vocals with his metal influences coming to the fore) and Faraz Anwar (epic solo); each elevating what was a catchy pop song.Noori

Not all songs are recast as drastically: some are just amped up with passion. ‘Meray Log’ was always stately and elegant. Here it is turned epic. Faraz Anwar’s almost two and a half minute long solo is majestic. When he bends the note at 3:31 one gets goose bumps. Two minutes in when you think he cannot take the solo higher, at 4:00 he does, just a mind-blowing solo in its execution and composition.

However, there are places on the album where Faraz’s presence works to the detriment of the songs. When he takes to showing off his technical chops, the songs fail under his weight. The more melodic he gets the more he shines, and the less we see of his technical virtuosity the better (though some in the audience were clearly there for just that). One also wonders how comfortable and familiar he was with the songs as at times his fireworks seem out of place with the mood of the lyrics. Be as it may, he adds way more to Noori than he takes away and takes songs to places Noori without him could not have gone.

Not all the experiments work on the album. ‘Jana Tha Humnay’ goes nowhere. I have never liked ‘Jo Meray’ for its lack of edge and I still did not like the song live.  The previous single ‘Taaron Sai Agai’ is still an uneven song. It now has a great intro, has some really great breakdowns but tablas still suck the life out of the song and there are times when the momentum just utterly drops away. Only near the end, the song comes alive as it morphs into a Bollywood singalong, but by then most people might have skipped over the track. Mind you, the video of this song was however great.gumby

‘Aik Alif’, which opens the album, showcases the soulful side of Noori and Ali Hamza. It shows that the two brothers counterbalance each other. Ali Noor, for better or for worse, is the more demonstratively emotional of the two and sings with the greater abandon and fire. He outdoes himself vocally throughout the album, as he is as feral and impassioned. Ali Hamza in contrast is all natural grace and control and shines on ‘Aik Alif’. His basslines throughout the album are steady as the anchor while others improvise around. His interaction with Ali Noor is fraternal: whereas the song ‘Kuttay’ was a hilarious, nasty song in its original version, the Noori brothers just strip it all of its anger and turn it into a hilarious vocal trade-off. The groove is infectious and the song serves as the perfect end to a truly surprising album.banner04

This being a Noori album, there has to be a lot of feel good tracks too. ‘Aik Alif’ segues into, of all the songs, the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ and into ‘Gana No. 1′ and then back. ‘Nishaan’ rocks hard. All these demonstrate that for Noori this album was also a canny release. Their overlooked musicianship and performance craft is finally on display. Few can interact or carry the crowd along as well as these boys:  they essentially play the crowd like an instrument and the crowd’s energy lifts the album much higher.

This album was Gumby’s swansong with the band. It shows why he is the greatest drummer in the land. A livewire, he drives the music with precision and much passion. In ‘Suno Kai Main Hoon’ he plays sensitively in service of the song too.  That said production on the drums is uneven. While the album does sound huge, some elements of the drums can barely be heard. Zeeshan Parwez too is heard much too rarely on the album, but when he does feature, his synth lines light a fire on tracks. He should have been featured more.

On the upside, the album demonstrates the sense of humour the band brings to the table. There are moments of utter hilarity in ‘Kuttay’ in performance (‘woof woof’) and in ‘Sari Raat Jagga’ (the heaviest Noori song morphs into a Ska song) musically. On the down side, as mentioned earlier, the album may or may not be completely live.  It is fairly processed and edited. But these are just minor gripes.

Sadly, this album marked the end of the superlative line-up. Gumby, Zeeshan and Faraz Anwar parted ways with the band. Only the brothers remain the constants. Overall, the Live at the Rock Musicarium album remains an underappreciated gem. Listened to end to end as a concert experience or taken in single sized bites; either way, this album amounts to something sumptuous.

(Most of the album is available for free on the SoundCloud nooriworld page to listen to or to rip.)

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