It’s taken this writer two months and countless listening sessions to put pen to paper on the subject of Is That So?.
But, as the cliché goes, it’s a lot easier to write about something you hate than something you love.
Six years in the making, this spellbinding album may just be the most cohesive musical – not just guitar – statement from the 78-year-old McLaughlin since 1979’s Electric Dreams.
In the live sphere, his ongoing band project Remember Shakti – also featuring vocalist Shankar Mahadevan and tabla player Zakir Hussain – has at times approached this fusion of Eastern melody/rhythm and Western harmony (see below), but from beginning to end this studio album maintains its unique, beguiling mood.
McLaughlin lays down gorgeously dark, rich chord beds, over which Mahadevan unwinds soaring, affecting vocals. Hussain enters on tabla in many mid sections alongside the guitarist’s instantly recognisable melodic lines, exploring all the nuances of the chord using a tone familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the ’80s Mahavishnu Orchestra albums (try ‘Nostalgia’ from 1984).
However, this new lead sound for McLaughlin is certainly not ‘straight out of the box’ – it’s the result of six years’ research into synth plugins, and it gives him the flexibility and horn-like phrasing so beloved of the guitarist.
Is That So? is not just an interesting and original album, but maybe an important one too, conjuring joy and pain in equal measure. Is it Jazz, World, New Age, Fusion? What matters is that this landmark project from McLaughlin, Mahadevan and Hussain may even transport one from the most stressful earthbound situation.
Crank it up.
Read more about McLaughlin and the making of Is That So? here.