Tyagaraja, As Is
It’s funny, but I honestly figured it’d be the other way around. I figured I’d like the first album more than this little tossed-out EP. But I apparently had things backwards.
I’d liked what I’d heard of Tyagaraja’s music in the past, and I was amazed a few years before when I saw Tyagaraja himself (the man, not the band) with his previous outfit, Million Year Dance. So when I picked up Tyagaraja’s 2010 release, Open Book, at Summerfest a couple of years ago, I expected to be over the moon about it. And I wasn’t, unfortunately. Sure, it’s good, and I do like it, but it didn’t bowl me over, not the way I’d expected it would.
It wasn’t the songs, either — I liked quite a few of them — but rather the production that didn’t quite fit right, at least not to my ears. The tracks were too busy, too orchestrated, too “full”-sounding, cramming too many disparate musical styles onto one disc: hey, here’s a jazz track, and then there’s a samba-ish thing over here. The only thing that held it all together, for me, was Tyagaraja’s always-impressive vocals, and they weren’t enough to elevate the album from “good” to “great.”
Now it’s been two years since Open Book, with some trials and tribulations and traveling in the intervening time, so I was intrigued to see what might have changed. Would As Is be Open Book II, with all those heavy arrangements, another big pile of overproduced, good-not-great songs? Heck, after Tyagaraja’s tour through India with partner/dancer Gunjen Mittal, I half expected As Is to be packed full of more distinctly “Indian” sounds, and I wasn’t sure how that’d work.
As Is, it turns out, is neither. The five-song EP is stripped-down and minimal, just Tyagaraja’s powerful, expressive voice and an ably-played acoustic guitar. Gone are all the extraneous pieces, the unnecessary sounds, and the songs, taken down to their barest form, shine all the brighter for it. As Is most definitely works; oh, yeah, does it work.
What the EP sounds like, really, is almost a musician’s road diary, his recollections and musings from his traveling through places where he’s an outsider. Opening track “Bombay Blues” — which makes me think of Simon & Garfunkel’s rendition of “Scarborough Fair,” for some reason — definitely gives that impression, at least, with Tyagaraja looking through the eyes of a seeker, a man in search of some kind of truth in a far-off, foreign land. There’s hope there, but frustration and weariness, too, like he knows the journey’s nowhere near over.
While Tyagaraja may be alone here, by the way, it feels like there’s someone else with him, at least in his thoughts. All five songs here are addressed to somebody who’s not the listener, like they’re one half of an ongoing conversation, of Tyagaraja trying to explain himself to whoever it is he’s talking to.
“End of Time” sounds that way, in particular, as does the jangly, friendly “We Will Meet Again,” which melds jaunty country-folk with Eastern mysticism in a fairly astounding way as it spins out the story of two friends who grow together and maybe become something more. Even “High Beings” comes off like it’s meant for somebody in particular, although it’s never clear who that might be.
And then, naturally, there’s that voice. More than anything else, Tyagaraja’s voice is the centerpiece of these songs, and it’s an incredible, gorgeous instrument that he’s able to wield with near-operatic skill. I’m fairly certain I could listen to the guy sing anything and be perfectly okay with it; who needs words, anyway?
Joking aside, he’s one of those singers who transcend the whole “okay, I’m singing a song so there’ll be lyrics to go along with the music I’m playing” thing; it’s bigger than that. Tyagaraja’s voice is an instrument all to itself, in the way that only a handful of astounding singers truly are.
Listening to him, I get the same chills I get when I hear Nina Simone, or Alison Moyet, or Mark Kozelek, people who can craft jaw-dropping music with their voices alone. Tyagaraja’s in that class, too, and his voice is one of the most amazing I’ve heard. I didn’t really get that when listening to Open Book, but here, when he gives himself the room to reach as far and as wide as he possibly can…well, wow.
Going back to the travel theme I mentioned, there’s also this great, great a feeling of motion to all of As Is. It’s the same kind of feeling I get when I listen to Eddie Vedder’s excellent soundtrack to Into the Wild, which happens to be about a spiritual search of sorts.
Which is truly what this is about, I think; it’s about Tyagaraja going back to the birthplace of his faith to try to find a higher meaning to it all. The answers are there, Tyagaraja seems to be saying, but they’re just out of reach, maybe right up around the next bend in the road. And you’ll never know if you don’t try to get there.
(Feature photo by Kory Bearden.)