Shankar/Caroline: The Epidemics (ECM 1308)

The Epidemics

The Epidemics

Shankar vocals, violin, synthesizer, drum machine
Caroline vocals, synthesizer, tamboura
Steve Vai guitar
Gilbert Kaufman synthesizer
Percy Jones bass
Recorded February 1985 at Stickwork Studios, New York
Engineer: Chris Richards
Produced by Shankar/Caroline

Full moon on Friday
watch out for the werewolf

Who’s next – who’s next
who’s next
Close the windows – pull the curtains
who knows – what may happen

When I first slid this CD into my computer, the Gracenote Media Database upped my anticipation by filling in its genre as “Traditional.” Which is exactly what this album is not. But if you’re looking for a quirky lollipop that has baffled ECM and Shankar enthusiasts for decades, by all means lick away. With endearing vocals by Caroline, not to mention the collaborative edge of having guitar legend Steve Vai and bassist Percy Jones (of Brand X fame) in the same studio, one can only imagine the possibilities of throwing Shankar’s astounding virtuosity into such a milieu.

On that note, the musicianship is healthy and the record not without its charm, which may or may not convince you by the third track, “Situations.” I just find myself yearning for Shankar’s violin, which only makes a few lilting, if fiery, appearances on tracks like “Don’t I Know You.” Vai also has his moments in the sun (check his solo in “You Don’t Love Me Anymore”). I imagine this music may have nostalgic value for some, and far be it from me to criticize what might for them be a very real attachment. All I can say is that I’m jealous they can see what I cannot. With inane lyrics like those from the last song (“Full Moon”) quoted above and a lackluster mix that all but drowns Jones’s snaking lines, it’s difficult to gauge the artists’ intentions. Tongue-in-cheek experiment? Worldly statement? Either way, I feel lost, and welcome anyone who knows better to help me find my way.

Although the album is quite beyond me, I surmise that the artists were jumping at what was then an exciting opportunity for musical crossovers. Yet not even the crossover potential is there, as Jones himself notes in a 2004 interview:

It’s very different from most other things you’ve played on. I was expecting something maybe a little Eastern sounding.

Well that’s what I was expecting. He kept saying that he was going to be doing some Indian music, and maybe doing some gigs in India, and I was really up for that, because I love Indian music and it would’ve been a good chance to learn. But it never happened, it just continued in this sort of Western pop format, and that never went anywhere.

Interesting musicians on that record, he had Steve Vai….

Steve Vai played on the record but another guy did all the gigs. It was an unusual record for ECM I thought. I haven’t heard anything else on ECM even approaching that. I was disappointed that I never got to do any Indian stuff with him.

I don’t see myself returning to this one anytime soon, if ever. It’s simply not for me. An intriguing detour on the label’s path through a sonic territory as vast as it is varied, it is the only ECM album I would never recommend. And out of a catalogue of well over 1000 releases, that’s saying a lot more about the quality of the label than about the substandard cumulations of this single outlier.

Endearing cover, though.

Incidentally, a rare promotional single of “Give An Inch” released that same year (1986) includes a remix of the song. Heavier on the drum machine and electronic framing than its album mix, this iteration has the quality of background music to some lost 80s film about teenagers on the run. For extra frustration, we get some phenomenal violin playing from Shankar, but only during the fadeout, leaving us to wonder what might have been had his bow been the point of an album otherwise without one. Listening to it again now, I can’t help approaching it like an alien encountering our planet for the first time and wondering what it is about our own creations that holds our attention.

<< First House: Eréndira (ECM 1307)
>> Dino Saluzzi: Once upon a time – Far away in the south (ECM 1309)

2 thoughts on “Shankar/Caroline: The Epidemics (ECM 1308)

  1. Unfortunately, this album is a precursor to the albums “Shenkar” makes today. (He changed his name at some point). At least the name change protects the legacy of the great music he used to make.

  2. I’d heard this was a ‘contractual obligation’ album, after ME got pissed off that Shankar had done some stuff with Frank Zappa without letting him know. Shankar deliberately did it as un-ECM-like as possible, and ME contracted his artists on an album-by-album basis only after this embarrassingly trite offering. Not sure exactly how much of this is verifiable, but it kind of makes sense.

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