Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

13 Dec

In many ways, the Arctic Monkeys’ sixth studio album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is the antithesis of their break-out debut (Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not).

For starters, Tranquility is much slower-paced, relying heavily on dreamy piano bits and understated bass-lines, while the debut practically rewrote the book on fast-paced guitar riffs. Lyrically, Tranquility has lead singer Alex Turner making circuitous, often self-important statements, differing vastly from the sharp observations on “From the Ritz to the Rubble” or on “A Certain Romance” – and ironically becoming the same person he lambasted on “Fake Tales of San Francisco”.

And that isn’t the biggest irony. The Monkeys’ debut propelled to instant fame partly because it was precisely at the right point in music history to become one of the Internet’s first “viral” hits – but Alex Turner, in an unfortunate turn toward the geriatric, devotes many lines on Tranquility to the supposed evils of a connected world.

It isn’t all bad news, though. “Four Out of Five”, with its bass-laden brilliance, details Turner’s fascinating album concept. Apparently, the very real Tranquility Base now houses a hotel and casino on the moon, complete with a house band (Arctic Monkeys as the Martini Police) and a taqueria on the roof. There’s also a hint of a futuristic dystopia (“Since the exodus, [the moon’s] all getting gentrified”), which the music video builds upon with intrigue.

Batphone” is another stand-out track, with a subtly sexy bass and an old-school thriller vibe that perhaps makes the Monkeys great contenders to soundtrack the next Bond movie. The title song also shines through O’Malley’s bass-line, and a dollop of magical realism (“Jesus in the day spa / filling out the information form”). By the time you get to the chorus, you almost feel like you are, indeed, at the Monkeys’ hotel and casino complex.

However, the album betrays a steep decline in Turner’s lyrics. “Technological advances / Really bloody get me in the mood”, he complains on the title song, and seconds later beseeches his lady love, “Pull me in close on a crisp eve, baby / Kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob”. Yuck, on both counts. On “She Looks Like Fun”, he descends into simply yelling out non-sequiturs (“Good morning” / “Cheeseburger” / “Snowboarding”) – apparently, they are all references to his now-ex-girlfriend Taylor Bagley’s Instagram feed, but that knowledge cannot excuse these lyrics (and somehow makes them worse). On “Batphone”, he talks about using “the search engine” and the time he “got sucked into a hand-held device”. Perhaps the technological ignorance is meant to be quaint?

Apart from the lyrics, the album’s other big travesty is the criminal under-use of Matt Helders’ drums. Other than Turner’s (erstwhile) quick wit, Helders’ drumming was perhaps the key reason to be a Monkeys fan. On Tranquility, he is relegated to simple beats that a drum machine could have probably provided, while Turner takes front stage with an often-rambling persona. On the music front, the silver lining is that Nick O’Malley really outdid himself on the bass, practically carrying otherwise-unmemorable songs.

With Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, the once-cool Arctic Monkeys have taken a worryingly avuncular turn. Hopefully, Alex and co. will be able to take the best parts of this album for a livelier seventh output. This one, though, is a dud.

Best songs: “Four Out of Five”, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, “Batphone”

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The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

9 Dec

For an institution to survive, it must adapt. IBM doesn’t sell hardware anymore, Sony makes its money through life insurance, and the grand old genre that is Britpop looked like it was heading due The 1975. This album came in with a lot of hype as the next big thing of the once big genre and I’m not sure if it has pulled it off. As an album, it skews good if not great, but some of the songs here are nothing short of magnificent and that may be enough.

Both “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” and “Love It If We Made It” are excellent singles with great music videos that I’m sure have already seen heavy rotation. However, the rest of the album is blameless, lacking both in major defects and in memorable qualities. It’s solid music and has some decent points, but lacks any elevating factor. It’s unfortunately tame.

The singles are very solid though. They skew hard to pop, even for a band that was already on that side of the pop-rock spectrum. “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” is catchy and infectious and “Love It If We Made It” is anthemic and relevant. Its grab-bag of current events is blazed through at a hectic pace and its recasting of the Trump tweet on Kanye deserves awards.

There’s a few other points here that stick out. I like “Give Yourself A Try” and while I find “The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme” terrible, it at least fits into the album. It’s dumb and self-important and pretentious but an occasional moment like this was always the price of admission for an album like this. Something like “Surrounded By Heads and Bodies” is pleasant, but lacking in ideas, and the album lets a few too many slower songs like that in near the end. This gets to the point where “I Couldn’t Be More In Love” is bland enough to be an actual misfire.

However, the album has defined a different, more eclectic direction for the genre, even if only off the back of a couple of singles, and that’s noteworthy in itself. Now it’s on everyone else to catch up.

@murthynikhil

Sheck Wes – MUDBOY

3 Dec

This is an absolute monster of an album. First of all, it goes hard. It’s actually punishing to listen to. I wouldn’t call it refreshing, but it is excellent to see an album so unwilling to compromise.

The result is something that is unquestionably unique. MUDBOY barrages you with ideas and inventions. Sheck Wes’ flow is constantly surprising and the production is endlessly clever and somehow he manages all of this genius in the most unpretentious of albums.

The other factor to this uniqueness is how much of Sheck Wes comes through on the album. It’s unquestionably him on every track. Some rappers are defined by their equivocation and by how much of their style feels like it has come from someone else. You cannot confuse a Sheck Wes song with anyone else. He even takes a moment to rap in Wolof in “Jiggy On The Shits” and there’s just so much of the real NBA in here.

On top of everything else, this is just good rap. His flow is strong, if still a little raw and, as I said before, the album just goes hard. “Mo Bamba” is a huge hit and most deservedly so. Those elongated vowels are primal in their resonance. You can’t help but respond to them and then he switches the song on you. It’s just excellent music.

This was a massively hyped debut and it delivers. This is the start of something important and you should be part of it.

@murthynikhil

Jorja Smith – Lost and Found

26 Nov

Jorja Smith’s debut is the kind that has it all. She has a strong, emotive voice, a clever R&B fusion sound and an absolute stand-out single in “Blue Lights.”

There’s a little rawness in her singing and a little too much looseness in the album as a whole, but those are minor faults and only serve to make the prospect of her follow-up all the more exciting. This isn’t a singer that you need to watch out for, this is a singer that you should listen to now.

Second Sight – The Violet Hour Tour

24 Nov

I’ve always been apprehensive of house gigs. My earliest memories of living room shows in high school have been of parents and relatives mixed in with friends, and a whole lot of “wait hang on let me start over”s. Until recently I hadn’t exactly been convinced by the most recent wave of professional house gigs put on by Indian bands looking to find an escape from the festival and pub circuits. I understand the motivation (pubs are exploitative and no one likes playing over the dinner rush, festivals are exploitative and no one wants a Saturday 3PM slot), but it seemed like more of a fad trying to stem the stagnation in the non-electronic Indie circuit. My opinions have radically changed in the past 48 hours, however, thanks to Second Sight’s The Violet Hour Tour, organised by LVNG.

Anusha Ramasubramoney and Pushkar Srivatsal are a Civil Wars-inspired duo that have put together a 45 minute acoustic set that makes the house gig concept work on a level I’ve not seen before. It’s magical, it’s captivating, and (based on my experience at their tour’s first leg in Delhi) definitely worth your time. The show was organised by LVNG, an indie-r version of Sofar Sounds. They’re young and hungry (their Delhi gig was their 43rd overall and 6th in the city), but that only works in their favour. The lack of distance between the organisation and the audience/performers made the whole process that much more authentic and less corporatised, and the limited resources they used to set up the space arguably upped their creativity. The first 15 minutes of the evening weren’t exactly convincing, of course. The Vasant Kunj apartment that served as the makeshift venue was nice enough, but the combination of me being late, sober, and a complete stranger to the mostly friends-and-family crowd meant a lot of awkward standing around and trying to think of interesting answers to the question “so how did you end up here?” Then the music started, and everything fell into place.

Andrew Sabu, the founder of LVNG, served as the singer-songwriter opening act. He’s a more-than-competent singer, with a strong voice that was underserved by his constant self-deprecating commentary on his music. I’m a fan of less-is-more guitarists, but that sort of performance requires you to really lean into and accept it for what it is, which didn’t happen. There are enough elements that hint at greatness, though, so here’s hoping that his eventual musical output matches the promise I could see. As an opening act though, it was pretty much spot on: enough to whet our appetites and set the mood for the music to come.

A short break later, and Second Sight took to the “stage” (read: two stools, a guitar and some mic stands). And then the magic happened. Second Sight normally play with drums and a bass but their absence in this gig only strengthened their performance. Melodies and rhythms were instead provided throughout the night by guitar (played by both Pushkar and Anusha alternately) and finger clicking (provided by the audience), with additional support on occasion by electric guitar stand-in Vignesh. This stripped down set-up meant that their best assets (harmonies, strong songcraft, and live performing energy) could be displayed to full effect.

Take their first song of the night, “Little Plastic Raincoats.” I first heard the song as part of Patio Unplugged’s video series, but this stripped down version worked so much better in the DIY aesthetic of the living room gig. You couldn’t help but be drawn into the story Anusha and Pushkar were trying to tell.

“Blood,” the first song they played from the Violet Hour EP (and incidentally my favourite from the list) is an even better example. The EP version is haunting enough, but taking away the strings and ambient sounds really helped to highlight the fact that the duo have substance to back the style they’re pushing. They keep talking about their Civil Wars influences, but I could (consciously or unconsciously) detect some hints of Beirut and Kings of Convenience creeping in too.

Strong writing and music is just one part of a good live performance, though; thankfully, Anusha seems to be a master at the second part, i.e. audience engagement. They owned that audience, letting us peek behind the curtain with anecdotes about the songwriting process and their influences, and infusing us with an energy that you don’t often see in live gigs. I’m still humming the little back-and-forth they had us singing for their last song, the bolero-style “La Hermoza Tristeza” (I’ll let you Google the double- entendre).

One of the best aspects of the night, ironically, were the little flubs and mistakes and sound issues that crept in. A perfectly orchestrated live show is fine enough, but often the best moments come when something goes wrong and performers have to adapt. The same held true here: every little hiccup served to highlight just how amazing it was to be so close to a performance. At one point Vignesh’s switchboard shorted, but you could still hear the twangs from his electric guitar at the back of the room. That was the moment that sold me entirely on this whole format.

It’s always gratifying to get in on the ground floor of something that you just know is going to explode and that’s what I felt at the end of the night.

Second Sight have two more nights left in their tour (one in Pune and one in Bombay), so go see them if you can still score tickets. Also buy their CD, which has some beautiful artwork, inserts, and stickers: I’m a sucker for bands that go that little extra mile with stuff like these.

– Karthik

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Yves Tumor – Safe In The Hands of Love

22 Nov

Safe In The Hands of Love is the most interesting album of 2018. It’s boldly experimental and absolutely undefinable. There are parts that could be a standard R&B track and parts that are straight rap, but then there are parts that are electronic and parts that are dream pop and a lot that is just noise and the whole set bounce off each other as though Brownian.

It actually reminds me a lot of some of the newer rap coming out. It shares something of the same 90s alt-rock roots and a song like “Noid” with its story about mistrusting 911 could have conceivably fit in any of those albums. In other places though, there’s music far too experimental for even that fringe. The distortion to break up the otherwise smooth “Licking An Orchid” is excellent, but then the unexpected bass lick is as well and the whole thing plays well against the love story too.

It is an album of tremendous variety. The opening of “Lifetime” is clear dream pop and even when the vocals shift it into something harder, the production stays dreamy. The closer “Let The Lioness In You Flow Freely” however is industrial and punishing and yet still works.

There are points that don’t do as well though. While “Economy of Freedom” is an interesting sound and compelling listen, the pace of ideas is a little too slow. These stretches of slowness show up much more often than would be ideal and are the one real complaint to be had with the album.

It is an excellent album however and well worth the time and effort it asks for. There’s a lot here to reward you for them.

@murthynikhil

Miles Davis & John Coltrane – The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6

26 Oct

This tour came at a pivotal time for both the people named above and jazz as a whole. Miles’ magnum opus Kind of Blue was still fresh, but Coltrane had also just released his blueprint for the future, Giant Steps. Trane was already bucking to leave the first great Miles Davis quintet and further explore the new strain of jazz that he pioneered. Soon, Miles would also reinvent himself to fully incorporate this new sound, but this tour found him still firmly in the thinking of Kind of Blue and the tension between the two artists makes for a fascinating listen.

Coltrane is clearly just not in the same headspace as the rest of the quintet and his solos are fiery and bursting with ideas. You can see the early sheets of sound that would later be his calling card. His pace of new ideas is inhumanly fast and yet somehow still seems slower than he would have liked. He was accelerating into the future and it just could not come quickly enough for him.

Miles on the other hand was still in the present. His solos were much more traditional. They seem to be exactly of the style that Coltrane was trying to upend. That in no way diminishes their brilliance though. He runs a slower, purer sound than Trane, and hits the most unexpected notes and pulls them out wonderfully.

On top of that, the rest of the quintet does really great work. It wasn’t a great quintet just because of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, the whole group was amazingly talented. In particular, I really like the piano solos in Copenhagen. They’re nice and understated and yet so clever.

Seeing the contrast between Trane and the rest of the quintet is fascinating in itself. It’s almost fusion in how the two forms of jazz but highly individualistic in sound and approach.

This album would be worth the listen just for its historical value as a transitional piece, but it is also just excellent jazz from an all-time great group of musicians at the height of their powers.

@murthynikhil
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