What must it be like, I wonder, to discover that American musicians think your religion is trippy? To discover your most closely held beliefs about life and death and right and wrong have been reduced to a handful of stylized gestures to establish a singular “sound” and “look”? These questions cross my mind as I listen to Prince Rama’s latest, hearing their ululations in Sanskrit and taking in the disco-opium-den cover art. But I don’t want to write that kind of review. Those types of questions turn me into an authenticity cop: Nothing to hear here. Never mind whether it would be possible to find anything authentic and uncalculated in the MP3 blog-houseparty-DIY-artshow-Styles-section trendpiece matrix Prince Rama inhabit. A more interesting question might be: what’s going on here?
Western musicians, composers, and philosophers have long pillaged images and ideas from India, from vegetarianism to new musical scales. At least since The Beatles, rock ‘n’ roll has gone to the classical music of India for trippy textures and instrumentation. More recently, we’ve begun going through their trash, too: From Sublime Frequencies pressing fleeting snippets of pop radio to vinyl and presenting wedding singers like Omar Souleyman before festival audiences to Awesome Tapes From Africa’s listen-to-this approach, the internet underground has reached the point where it is digging up the ephemera and low culture of other countries, and finding there a weird reflection of its own discarded memories. Years ago, I picked up a box of old Bollywood cassettes from a Berkeley Indian grocery store that doubles as a record shop. Whether much-played and weathered, or ripped to the internet, these unearthed recordings bring an odd sense of familiarity and borrowed nostalgia. One hears dated production tropes from the pop of one’s own childhood, as translated by third-world producers on a shoestring budget: Madonna and Michael Jackson reflected back to the West in the form of compressed percussion, cheap keyboards, and pure enthusiasm. This long-delayed but reciprocal influence between Indian and American mega-pop can be seen in “Jeena Bhi Kya Hain Jeena,” from 1984’s Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki—, which ransacks Thriller for the melody of “Billie Jean,” the bassline of “Thriller,” and numerous dance and video tropes to create a hallucinatory bizarro-MTV.
These tapes starting to make their way back to a Western pop audience give a contemporary hypnagogic view of the 1980s — rushed recording, cheap tape, and poor storage resulting in a tape-hiss fog not unlike the lo-fi cassette boom of noise musicians today. But these degraded sounds emerging out of that fog have a different meaning for having traveled so far across cultural space and time. The very sound field is exoticized: Tape hiss becomes heart of darkness, in which reviewers sees their own corruption acted out in the most naked fashion; maybe this is not just nostalgia for the age of childhood innocence, but for a vigorous national youth of unfettered imperialism and its hauntological return over the blogosphere’s seven seas.
Prince Rama’s early releases combined a dippy acoustic singalong vibe with a cluttered freak-out compositional approach, but with the departure of third member Michael Collins, sisters Taraka and Nimai Larson have gained a new (pop) directness. Trust Now actually begins with a chesty diva wail that would not be out of place on a house 12-inch, and the increased attention to vocals gives Trust Now a chanting, ritual vibe with a pop feel, uniting the two in a way that suggests a defamiliarized take on global corporate-pop. Prince Rama have focused their sound while broadening their sonic references. Opener “Rest In Peace” combines Mortal Kombat rave-synth stabs shadowed with bass drums and a loping rhythm of pounded toms, hissing steam, and struck bells. “Summer of Love” is a trippy Moody Blues suite that cycles through chants without repeating them, climaxing in a pogoing hardcore bark. “Portalling” incorporates some major-key guitar strumming that, alongside the sisters’ aerial harmonies, really lets the song ascend as Nimai does her tom-tom pounding thing.
I love the sisters’ vocals on this album: they taunt and intone in a nonsense language halfway between Sanskrit chants and Buffalax’s “Benny Lava”; they hiccup like Kate Bush and howl like Siouxsie Sioux. On “Trust,” they sing as if they were Glee cast members covering Cocteau Twins songs, which is pretty much a bad thing; however, “Golden Silence” takes that pop spark and ignites a small blaze. Although played at a crawl, it speeds up and gains in intensity as an English-language hook emerges out of the incense-choked atmosphere of the previous five songs.
Prince Rama recently put out a VHS tape that features the sisters experimenting with jack-yo-body house beats. The cover shows the two wearing headbands and legwarmers instead of hippy robes. This “15 Minute Exorcize” brings out the witch-house tendencies of the group that present such a problem for reviewers who want to make something of the group’s Hare Krishna connection. To those who relate Prince Rama’s sonic similarities to the neo-Siouxsie goth of Warpaint, Zola Jesus, etc. with their biographical upbringing in a Hare Krishna house: um, Hinduism ≠ witchcraft! It’s not cool to conflate two religions. But it’s understandable. Witch house musicians dabbling with a Jerry Springer image of the occult are so ridiculous that critics are reaching for any glimmers of authenticity, and until a witch house remixer with the surname Crowley emerges, Hare Krishna is going to be the closest that the internet underground gets to the scent of something occult. It’s a little crazy that the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is even taken to be a source of authenticity, because it is itself such a hybrid culture, profoundly shaped by 1960s hippy idealism, 70s new age, and even 80s straight-edge hardcore (see: Krishna-core). (Take a look at this video of SF’s Golden Gate Park from 1967, in which the Hare Krishnas’ eponymous chant drifts into the tune of “You Are My Sunshine,” and this video, in which the mantra is rendered into a Scott Stapp-style power ballad, and tell me you aren’t reminded of the strange mix of exotic and familiar, half-remembered and never-experienced, in that Michael Jackson goes Bollywood video. )
Ultimately, I fear Prince Rama’s flirtation with suspect signifiers of deep, trippy spirituality is undone not by their lack of authenticity but simply by their own artistic project. The lyrical and the ritual just don’t square. If there is any transcendence here, it is of the pop kind: ever-hybrid, ever-inauthentic, ever-mistranslated — lyrics misheard, race and sexuality misread. Trust Now’s pop defamiliarization is like the Hare Krishnas themselves, this strangely hybrid religious gathering dancing and clapping through our neo-bohemian shopping corridors. The true source of these echoing sounds — these preset keyboards and nonsense chants — is unclear, but whether it is authentic belief or mistranslated revisionist pop, this uncanny sound field suggests a different set of priorities from the usual transcendentalist rock seekers, and Trust Now is all the better for it.