Fresh New Voice: A Chat with Arham Fulfagar

22 Sep

“Make It Alright” by young singer-songwriter Arham Fulfagar really caught our eyes and ears this August. The gentle, lilting guitar melody syncs well with Arham’s mellow voice, from the stark chorus into the jangly verses. We took a spin through the rest of his discography, and couldn’t wait to find out more about him. Read on for a short interview with the Guwahati musician about his influences, his musical awakening, and his upcoming EP!

Top Five Records: Hi Arham! Thanks for meeting with us. Tell us a little bit about yourself?

Arham Fulfagar: I am a singer-songwriter born and brought up in Guwahati, and I also have been working as a freelancer video editor during this lockdown. I have been writing this way for about a couple of years, and I also write poetry and make spoken-word videos besides making music. I love to travel and explore just as much as I love to explore new and underrated music from the corners of YouTube and Spotify.

I also love to show magic tricks to people and I’m also quite good at it! I love doing and learning new things. I’m not really a “talker” in a group, but I love to talk about things like the universe, life, popular conspiracy theories, and of course, music. I’m a believer of “everything happens for a reason” and that every little decision I’ve made has lead me here – and I’m proud of it!

I believe that sometimes things fall apart, but it’s only to make way for better things. I’ve come a long way when I look back and I have a long way to go, but I’m more excited than scared, as the universe works in its magical ways.

TFR: Quite multi-faceted! You mentioned you’re from Guwahati… How much does the North East shape your music and your art?

AF: The North East defines who I am and how I’ve grown over the years. But on the other hand, traveling and moving cities is what has given me experiences of a lifetime without which my art wouldn’t exist the way it does. There are obviously more than one influence that has lead me here. My music and my art has absolutely a lot to do with my life most of which I’ve spent here in Guwahati, Assam.

The North East is a beautiful place with lots of positive vibes and people who have an incredible love for things like music and art; and thus it has a major role in shaping me as a musician, too. At the same time, living away from my parents and family, on my own and blending in with people from different cities has also influenced my art and my style of music.

TFR: We loved your recent jangly, poppy new single “Make It Alright”. Talk to us about the story behind the song! What’s the idea behind it?

AF: “Make it Alright” is an experiment to make a sad song sort of groovy (or poppy). When I was writing it for the first time, I had a thousand things messing with my head, and I had recently started having some anxiety attacks. This was when I was in college back in Bangalore, and I was living with my friends. I remember sitting in my bed and just strumming these basic four chords until I had this image in my head of a boy sitting in the corner of my room, sobbing. That’s when these words came out of my mouth, “I know what you’re crying about, just hold my hand let me make it alright” – and that’s how the song started! Later, I just started sort of blabbering and throwing out random words and recorded them on my phone’s recorder.

TFR: Very interesting. Coming to your musical influences: We hear snippets of everything from Jason Mraz to Ed Sheeran in your vocal and instrumental style. Who are your big influences, musically or otherwise?

AF: There’s this one musician that I look up to the most and want to be able to write and perform like some day. His name is Damien Rice and he is a major influence to the way I write my songs and perform them. Besides that I am also inspired by lots of underrated musicians like Anson Seabra, Roo Panes, Ray LaMontagne, Gert Taberner, and more. I listen to a lot of artists including Ed Sheeran and Jason Mraz, and keep looking to get inspired. Besides these, there are artists that I see around me who also influence me as an artist, such as Raghav Meatle, Anuv Jain, Osho Jain, and my artist friends – most of whom I’ve met in this lockdown.

TFR: Another track we love is “Waiting For You / Intezaar”, especially in the seamless way you switch between English and Hindi. Do you have a preference in either language? Do you relate different emotions or feelings to the two languages?

AF:Waiting for You / Intezaar” was a beautiful experience for me. It was the second single that I put out and the only single as of now to have crossed 10,000 and even 25,000 streams on Spotify. The lyrics are very honest and simple, and there’s no instruments in the song other than an acoustic guitar and very light keyboard.

Talking about language and what I prefer, I think it’s a lot easier for me to write in English but my listeners and even I love it when I write something in Hindi. I’m liking this mix that I have and I’m grateful to be able to use both the languages for my songs. Lately I’ve been trying to write more in Hindi as well. A song I wrote during the lockdown called “The Kabootar Song” is a Hindi song that has received the most love compared to all other songs, even though it hasn’t even been released.

I don’t always relate different emotions to the two languages, although I must say that lately I’ve been finding it easier to write happier songs in Hindi. But these are only phases and I’m pretty sure it’s all in my head.

TFR: It looks like you’ve been steadily releasing new songs all year, with “Red Wine” in February, “Waiting for You” in April, “Victim in Love” in June, and now this latest song in August. What are you leading up to? Is there an album in the works?

AF: I performed for the first time in October 2019 and it was the performance that changed my life. It was a DIY festival called The Yellow Festival and it took place in a place called Pulga in Himachal Pradesh. None of my songs were out and I performed my songs for the first time and it was so beautiful that I decided to start releasing music in 2020, which I did. I was living in Mumbai and I found an amazing studio and producer who helped me.

Thus, indeed I’ve been steadily releasing new songs this year and I am releasing my last single this year (in September) before I start working on my debut EP. The single is called “A Little More” and is one of the songs that I recorded back in November 2019 in Mumbai. I think it’s also one of the best tracks from that time!

The EP is going to be called Ham Chalein and it’ll be a Hindi EP with about five songs, and I’m super excited about it! I can’t wait to record them and get them produced and release them. I still have lots of original songs that I’m yet to record and put out. Moreover I’m writing new stuff almost regularly.

TFR: As a young, upcoming artist, how have you worked on building your fanbase at a time when the entire world is on lockdown?

AF: As you keep putting out newer stuff, you also build an audience for your past stuff, which is sort of what I’ve been doing. Moreover, I have been making friends by attending live events and shows. I have also been putting out poetry related content and even videos to reach more people. I have also joined some popular IG Lives such as that of Ehsaan Noorani, Armaan Malik and Remo D’Souza to reach more people with my talent. Staying connected with people who support you is also very important so it’s important to show my followers that I really am grateful for them, time to time.

TFR: If there’s one Indian musical artist you’d like to collaborate with, who would it be? And what about one non-Indian musical artist?

AF: I would love to collaborate with a lot of Indie musicians in the future and it’s really tough to pick one but if I had to, I’d go with Prateek Kuhad. As clichéd as it might sound, Prateek Kuhad is someone that has taken the independent music scene to another level, and a lot of us artist do look up to him. Moreover, his songwriting is so honest and simple and relatable.

If I’m to choose one non-Indian musical artists that I would like to collaborate with, it has to be Damien Rice. My admiration for Damien Rice is on another level, it’s almost like a crush. My friends have even started calling me “the long lost son of Damien Rice” because of how much I’m inspired by his style of writing and performing.

TFR: Haha, that’s funny. Thanks so much, Arham, for chatting with us! And best of luck for the release of your new track and the upcoming EP, too!

Listen to Arham wherever you get your music. And be sure to keep your eyes open for his new single this week!

Aminé – Limbo

19 Sep

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how likable Aminé can be and how much that adds to his music. I’m always happy to see what he’s up to. He’s not the only rapper to be this upbeat or this insouciant, but he’s easily the one that I like the most.

Sometimes, this is exactly right. He has a talent for catchiness and so songs like “Compensating” really take off. He has fun, his personality gets to shine and Thugger is a good complement for him. When he gets into his flow, like in “Woodlawn,” he’s a lot of fun. “Riri” is him in his comfort zone, but better than he’s ever been before. That hook in particular is a top-tier earworm.

There’s a fair bit of air in the album though, as is unfortunately common for Aminé. “Pressure In My Palms” tries his standard formula but isn’t catchy or interesting enough. It doesn’t show him off at all and sort of feels like a Vince Staples outtake. Similarly, “Roots” reminds me of Saba and Kendrick, but I’d rather listen to them than this.

“Mama” has him trying sincerity, but it’s not a strong move. He doesn’t have the toughness for the move to feel like a softening and he’s too ironic for a straight-edge song. “Fetus” is slow and thoughtful and quite well done. It’s not innovative, but it is good and the grapefruit line hits.

You have to take Aminé for who he is. This isn’t the kind of album that’s going to stick to you long after it’s done. Instead, it’s an effervescent album with fun lines and catchy hooks and one that you’ll feel good for having heard.

Back with a Bang: The Lightyears Explode

13 Sep
Photo Credit: Omar Iyer

The Lightyears Explode are an indie dance-pop / rock band from Mumbai, India. The band was formed in 2009 and quickly developed a following with an early win at the Channel[V] Launchpad in 2011. A short eponymous EP followed later that year, and later a full-length album – The Revenge of Kalicharan (2013). We at Top Five Records are great fans of this album, especially the unmistakeable Franz Ferdinand vibes on the dance-rock gem “I Am A Disco Dancer” and the debut-era Arctic Monkeys feels on “Diet Coke“.

After a long hiatus (save for the much poppier “Drunk Loser” in 2018), the Lightyears Explode are, thankfully, back. Their funk-drenched single “Satire” was released on September 4th, and has been on our daily playlists since. Our writer Madhoo took the opportunity to chat with the band about their origin story, influences, newfound appreciation for pop, and much more. Read on below!

Top Five Records: Tell me about the band! How did you guys start off? What’s your story?

Saurabh: We started around 2010 when we were still in college. At that point, we were more of a fast rock sort of band.

Jeremy: Yeah, like kind of punk, you know?

Saurabh: I’d say like more of an Arctic Monkeys-punk sound. And then we played a bunch of shows, released an album, The Revenge Of Kalicharan, and then we took a bit of a break for a while. I went to England for a while to study music production. When we came back, Jeremy joined us and here we are now!

Jeremy: 2015 was when we started up again, and now we’re working on new music.

TFR: Tell me about the name of your band. What’s behind the name?

Saurabh: First we were just called the Lightyears. I was a huge Toy Story fan. But it turns out that there was a band in England using that name already, and they sent us a message on MySpace.

Shalom: Haha, and it wasn’t a very polite message at that, it was very firm.

Saurabh: Yeah it was a British-polite. Like, it wasn’t an option, it was “Just change it!” If we’d known about them, we wouldn’t have tried to nick their name, you know? So we added in the ‘explode’ and it just sounded cool to us.

Jeremy: There was another option though. We considered being called The Mighty Scoundrels for a bit!

Saurabh: It’s good that we didn’t go with that. Actually, for just for a moment there, I was really into a genre of rock called psychobilly and I thought we should lean into that, and go with a gothic sort of name.

Shalom: Yeah, we even wore eyeliner for a day… but it was just for a shoot. (laughs)

Saurabh: Yeah, for a shoot, we tried to portray the whole look. You did the clown look, right?

Shalom: Yeah, I had the orange wig and makeup all over. The only good thing is that no one could tell it was me, unless I told them. It was a good disguise.

TFR: What would you guys say are your major influences? What were you guys listening to around the time you started the band?

Saurabh: Well, when we started the band, our influences were pretty different. I was really into Arctic Monkeys and Green Day mainly.

TFR: Yeah I definitely hear that in your early stuff!

Shalom: And Operation Ivy!

Saurabh: And the Fratellis, and the Beatles, obviously. Recently though, we’ve been really into HAIM, Jack Antonoff and his band the Bleachers, some Fleetwood Mac (especially Tango In The Night). And Jackson 5, stuff like that. I’d say we’ve really mellowed out recently.

TFR: We’re really obsessed with your first album, and we’ve always got a strong Franz Ferdinand vibe from it!

Shalom: Yeah definitely, we always did listen to a lot of Franz Ferdinand.

Saurabh: Yeah, we all grew up listening to a lot of this stuff – bands like the White Stripes, the Fratellis and all that. I guess you can really hear that.

TFR: So you mentioned that your music has become mellower over time. Any particular trigger?

Saurabh: So we were always playing, except for that brief hiatus. The new sound… it just sort of happened.

Jeremy: I’d say we kind of worked our way towards a more pop sound.

Shalom: Also, all of us really started listening to a lot more pop than we used to.

Saurabh: We started to re-establish music that we grew up listening to. For example, growing up, I personally really liked the Backstreet Boys.

Jeremy: Come on, everyone liked the Backstreet Boys!

Saurabh: But there was a point where we kind of had to stop and say “Uhh, no… we’re punk now.” But now, we’re just going back to it that stuff and we’re thinking, “Man, this is just awesome!” Amazing songwriting, well-produced, well-sung. And I see those songs in a different light now. Like Shania Twain, for example. (Proceeds to sing a snippet of “That Don’t Impress Me Much“)

TFR: With this pivot to a new sound, how has your process of songwriting changed? Compared to your process of making music for your last album, I mean.

Saurabh: [On the first album,] I’d write songs all over the place, sometimes in college, even. There was one song I wrote in class which was about me being in class and wanting it to just end already. That was really early on, though. So there was no process as such. This time, too, there wasn’t really a process in terms of songwriting. We worked until it sounded good to us and sent it off for mixing and the next steps.

Jeremy: This time, though, I’d say there’s a lot more production that’s done before we get into the jam room. It’s a bit more planned out- there’s an idea that we work out together. I wasn’t around for the first album, but I think it sounded a little like it was worked out together in the jam room.

Shalom: We also did a lot of demos for the newer stuff. We demoed it at Saurabh’s place and really thought about how it’d sound on an album, and how we’d replicate that song when we play it live. We paid more attention to that aspect of it, and I think it helped us look at our songwriting with a slightly different perspective. We really had to think of how the end product of this song would sound, while we were writing it.

Saurabh: I mean, we also demoed our first album, but it’s definitely different this time.

Shalom: Yeah, there’s definitely more production this time, and we’ve been a lot more serious with the demos as well.

Saurabh: Well, I had to get my money’s worth out of production school. It was so expensive!

Teaser for “Satire” released in early September 2020

TFR: Can you tell me about the direction you guys are taking with the new album?

Saurabh: So we’ve been separately writing a lot during lockdown. It sounds really saccharine, kind of retro. I feel like the more I write and the more we perform live, we get more and more comfortable with pop. It’s really easy for all of us – at least for me, growing up, it was – to make fun of pop music. But once you start doing it, it’s really not easy! The people who do it are really good at what they do. The appreciation of pop songwriting that we gained while writing this album is something we’re working towards. We’re trying to get more comfortable with being there.

TFR: You’re onto something there! I think pop has always been dismissed as something exclusively for teenage girls, and isn’t taken seriously much. I think it’s quite interesting to see this sort of reclamation of the pop genre, in a way.

Saurabh: I don’t know if pop needed reclamation, but for us personally, it definitely did.

TFR: How’s the coordination been during this pandemic? Has it been tough to work around that?

Saurabh: We were talking about that just now, about how difficult but adventurous it’s been to get a photo for our release. We’ve had to do a lot of stuff like this.

Jeremy: There’s definitely a lot more planning involved. Less trial-and-error when it comes to organisation!

Saurabh: Our album was mixed in Australia though. Since their lockdown rules were a bit more toned down, they were able to work on it while we were in lockdown. The writing took place over two years, but we’ve been finishing up now.

TFR: In a usual album release cycle, you’d probably go on tour and do shows. How does this work out for you in a situation like this?

Saurabh: So we’re working on putting out some videos. We’re also working on doing some live-streamed gigs, especially from some smaller studios around the city.

Shalom: There are a bunch of musicians doing that, right now.

Saurabh: I think artists are getting better at adapting to this new medium and we just have to get the hang of it.

TFR: Sounds great! I’ve seen a lot more artists adapting to Instagram for this age, and it feels like a lot of live music has become more accessible. What are your thoughts on this?

Saurabh: I’ve definitely seen a lot more shows and artists that I wouldn’t have been able to. I’d obviously have liked to see them in a gig, but now i can check these artists out at a later date. It’s easy to knock it because it might not sound or look as good as a live show. But something is better than nothing at all, you know?

I myself have discovered at least three or four new artists in this lockdown, just through their live streams. Though it’s not a physical gig, you still get to hear their work and interact with them. They’re putting their content out there for new people to enjoy, so I personally like it.

Shalom: Yeah, like Saurabh said, if you end up stumbling upon a new artist through live streams, you kind of go on a whole journey of looking them up, following them, checking them out on Spotify. Another cool thing is that you end up looking at an artist’s older work in this process, stuff you probably would’ve missed out on otherwise.

Jeremy: That brings in the feeling of a gig, in a way.

Shalom: Obviously I love live music, but this is the best we can do right now, you know?

Jeremy: There’s also something really nice about being able to attend gigs from all over the world, right on your couch. (laughs)

TFR: Speaking of gigs, what’s the best gig you guys have done?

Jeremy: Ooh, that’s a hard one.

Saurabh: Every gig is slightly different. In our most recent one, we got to play a lot of our newer stuff so that was fun!

Jeremy: But I think the gig we did at The Habitat was possibly the most fun.

Saurabh: The Koniac Net album release one!

Album art by Harmeet Rahal

TFR: What’s the next month looking like for you guys, in terms of releases and content?

Saurabh: We’re releasing our new song “Satire” on Sept 4th. [Ed. Note: This interview was conducted just before the song release.] We’re also working on some videos right now!

Shalom: We’re trying to put out songs consistently. As things start to open up, we’re also working on some videos and new content.

Saurabh: That’s something we’ve actually really enjoyed this time: working with other people. We were very insular before. Now with the artwork, the videos, and everything, we’ve really enjoyed this collaborative aspect.

TFR: Anyone you want to shout out from your team?

Saurabh: Our whole team: Achyint for producing, Ganesh for mixing, Richard for mastering, Harmeet for doing the artwork, Deepthi and Saket for working on the video!

Rapid Fire Round

TFR: Dream collab?

Saurabh: Danger Mouse

Shalom: Jack Antonoff

TFR: What are you listening to right now?

Saurabh: The last solo Brandon Flowers album, the new Killers album, and the new Taylor Swift album.

Shalom: The new HAIM album, King Princess and the first Yuck album – that’s a really good one. [Ed. Note: It is, indeed.]

Jeremy: I listen to a lot of electronic- jungle drum, bass, footwork. So SqaurePusher, Aphex Twin, that sort of stuff. They were way ahead of their time.

TFR: Desert island record?

Saurabh: In the Airplane Over the Sea [Neutral Milk Hotel]

Shalom: Any Beatles album – can’t go wrong with that!

Jeremy: Ultravisitor by SquarePusher

TFR: Describe your sound in three words!

Saurabh: Saccharine, dancey, poppy

Shalom: Poppy, jumpy, energetic

Jeremy: You guys pretty much covered it!

Listen to “Satire” by the Lightyears Explode wherever you get your music. And do give The Revenge of Kalicharan a spin – you won’t regret it!

Top Five Deep Cuts: Arctic Monkeys Edition

11 Sep

In the fifteen years since Arctic Monkeys emerged on the music scene, they’ve donned a dozen different hats. From their garage rock-style energetic debut album to their most recent space-themed lounge rock album, their sound is incredibly hard to pin down.

They’ve been described as the distilled-down sounds of the Strokes, The Killers and Franz Ferdinand (arguably, three of the most influential rock outfits of the 2000s), but they’re somehow much more than that. With frontman Alex Turner’s expertly written and clever lyrics, and the band’s undeniable musical prowess, the Arctic Monkeys have rightfully dominated the rock scene for years now.

They hit mainstream fame with their 2013 album AM and became a household name, with tracks like “R U Mine” and “Arabella”. These tracks are, no doubt, incredible (and make you feel cool and suave for listening to them), but there are some truly hidden gems in their body of work that showcase a different side of the Arctic Monkeys.

If you’re keeping score, it’s been almost exactly seven years to the day since the release of AM in September 2013. (Note: We at TFR prefer to forget the existence of Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino.) Given the hellscape that is 2020, we thought it was a good time to take a quick, refreshing flashback into the early aughts. Without further ado, here are our picks for the top five Arctic Monkeys deep cuts!

5. “Piledriver Waltz” from the Submarine soundtrack

If anyone should be commissioned to write the soundtrack to a British coming-of-age drama, it’s Alex Turner. He’s incredibly skilled at finding the balance between deeply poignant and casually whimsical: which about sums up the teenage experience for most, we suppose. And how many musicians can write an upbeat heartbreak song with references to Elvis, circuses, Jesus and traffic lights, all while adhering to the incredibly difficult ¾ time signature?

Piledriver Waltz is the least mopey breakup song. It’s certainly wistful in tone, but has a warm fuzziness that leaves you hopeful for the future. The layered instrumental production on this version adds more depth to a starkly three-dimensional portrait of a broken relationship. Though a slightly different version was later released on Suck It and See, this version holds a special place in our hearts and in those of other true-blue Turner fans. Nothing changed too considerably between the two versions: the lyrics and the melody are identical, yet somehow, this one is just a little more cinematic and melancholic than the album version.

4. “Mad Sounds” from AM

Somewhere in the early 2010s, Alex Turner seemingly dropped his Suck It and See-era softboy persona and dove headfirst into a vat of hair gel and leather jackets. The band emerged fully reinvented, as a Proper Rock Band™ that played heavier rock with the catchiest riffs and hooks. It’s no surprise that they blew up with AM; it appealed to fans of rock, hip-hop, pop and R&B all at once. Tracks like “Do I Wanna Know” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” have permanently changed the face of the 2010s indie rock landscape and have quickly become modern classics.

“Mad Sounds”, though, is a sharp deviation from the rest of the album’s British-James-Dean feel. Nestled right in the middle of the album, the track is a gentle, lilting reminder that the Arctic Monkeys are more than a rock and roll band that writes about one night stands and pub culture. “Mad Sounds” feels, instead, like a spiritual sequel to Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes”. If the Velvet Underground were still together, this is what they’d have sounded like in 2012.

Turner’s vocals ring sharp and crystal-clear, and though the lyrics aren’t saying much, it’s a much-needed respite from the verbal barrage of the rest of the album. The lines “And out of nowhere, somebody comes and hits you with an ‘ooh-la-la-la-la’” essentially sum up this track’s place in the album, and in their discography.

3. “Temptation Greets You Like Your Naughty Friend” feat. Dizzee Rascal

Possibly the deepest of deep cuts; even most hardcore fans don’t know about this B-Side to “Brianstorm”. The track features British rapper Dizzee Rascal who, at the time, was at the peak of his rap career. Arctic Monkeys have always cited rap and hip-hop as one of their primary influences growing up, but that’s usually a very subtle contextual layer to their music. This track is unique for a number of reasons. The band almost never features any other artist on their tracks, and they never mix genres to this degree. But somehow, they did it for this track, and somehow, it works.

It’s tough to produce art that transports the listener to an exact time and place, but this track does exactly that. The raw energy of the song makes you feel like you’re a frustrated British teen in the 2000s, which is probably exactly what they were going for (and until recently, were themselves). Turner’s lyrics are, of course, beautifully minimal (“The only roads are cul-de-sacs/ The only ends are dead”) and his voice still has the boyish charm of the band’s early work. The strong riff line and the syncopated drums are a perfect match to Dizzee Rascal’s grime-style rap bridge. “Temptation” might be an anomaly as far as AM’s music goes, but it’s a refreshing reminder that the band can dominate in just about any genre.

Bonus: Amazing live version with Dizzee from Glastonbury 2007. Ah, 2007.

2. “Secret Door” from Humbug

Humbug is, in many ways, a transition album for the Arctic Monkeys’ sound, where the line blurs between upbeat post-punk and romantic indie rock. Consequently, it’s one of their most divisive albums. “Secret Door” is the perfect example of this in-between space. While the verses have that classic high-energy style of the older Arctic Monkeys, the chorus and the outro are haunting,  cinematic and beautiful.

Alex Turner’s lyrics have always been good, but with Humbug, he began to write what was essentially poetry set to music (“Fools on parade cavort and carry on / For waiting eyes” ), yet somehow he manages to avoid sounding cloying in the process.

‘Secret Door” is probably frequently overlooked because it’s just such a shock to the system. As the opening track on Humbug, fans expected a huge, over-the-top audio explosion, like “Brianstorm” on Favourite Worst Nightmare. What they got, instead, was this mish-mash track that sounded like the background score to a sentimental scene in a John Hughes movie. But still, the raw talent of Turner’s vocals, combined with drummer Matt Helders’ impressive percussion make this one of the most engaging and musically interesting tracks on Humbug.

1. “She’s Thunderstorms” from Suck It And See

Alex Turner knows how to write a love song. He knows how to turn a phrase that’s romantic but never cheesy, and it shows on this track. Nobody in human history has ever described their love interest as “thunderstorms”, and yet, you know exactly what he’s talking about.

Suck It And See, Arctic Monkeys’ fourth studio album, is another one that’s heavily debated amongst fans: they either hate it with a burning passion or think it’s their best work. There’s no in-between. SIAS, the incredibly stripped down, softpop follow-up to Humbug, begins with the minor-key sinister opening riff on “She’s Thunderstorms”. Immediately, though, the warm vocals and lead guitars kick in, and you immediately feel cheery and comfortable; like you’re in 500 Days Of Summer.

The track showcases an amount of restraint that the band had never demonstrated before. The lyrics are minimalist, the production isn’t heavy-handed, and the instrumental arrangement is just enough. It’s clear that this is a grown-up version of the angry teenage Arctic Monkeys from the first two albums, but it’s mature in a quiet, self-confident way. They’re comfortable enough to tone it down a notch and still get their point across.

Honorable mentions:

Cornerstone” from Humbug

This may be a personal bias, but it’s our opinion at TFR that this is the best love song ever written. Paired with a hilariously low budget music video, this track really shows the Arctic Monkeys at their best.

Mardy Bum” from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

This is a simple song from their debut about a tiff between a couple, narrated in a ridiculously strong Sheffield accent. The band comes through with a surprisingly strong guitar solo, about midway, that changes the tone of the song entirely.

Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” by Tame Impala (cover)

It’s tough to improve on a Tame Impala track, but if anyone can do it, it’s Alex Turner. The band has a way to make the song sound soulful and complex, seemingly effortlessly.

The Bakery“, B-Side to “Fluorescent Adolescent”

Very similar in theme to “Cornerstone”, but relayed in a British dialect so strong that you probably don’t know what they’re talking about, exactly. (What is a “tatty settee”?) Turner’s voice is delightfully laid back, and the production is so sparse that it feels like you’re watching your college band run through a practice. Its simplicity is what wins you over. 

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!

Nubya Garcia – SOURCE

7 Sep

It’s on the title track that you can really feel the talent that Nubya Garcia brings to the table. It’s the longest track on the album at 12 minutes, but it packs those twelve minutes full of action. There’s an excellent solo from Nubya Garcia there and it’s followed by an equally spectacular keyboard solo. It’s a fiery track and absolutely top level jazz.

She has the same quality in “Pace,” where the music has a good, frenetic energy. “Before Us” keeps that fast pace and takes the sound close to noise and benefits greatly from that. The jagged horns are an absolute treat, even if the opening veered a little easy listening for my taste.

However, there a couple of places where it takes things too slow for its own good. “Stand With Each Other” takes too long to get where it’s going. While “Inner Game” and “Together Is A Beautiful Place to Be” both have a nice tone to them, they lack brilliance. They’re satisfactory, but they don’t do anything interesting.

“La Cumbia Me Esta Llamando” has genius to spare though. The Latin sound that pops in and out through the album comes to the forefront here and its melding with the jazz is fantastic. Nubya Garcia has the talent to pull off any kind of jazz she chooses, but it’s in this style that she is most exciting.

SOURCE has a little more air than I would prefer, but there’s plenty here to reward jazz aficionados of any level. This is a very impressive debut and completely justifies the anticipation it commanded. I’m excited to see what Nubya Garcia does next.

Monthly Playlist: Aug. 2020

2 Sep

We certainly had an overload of great tunes this month, with new releases from the likes of Cardi B, billie eilish and more. Below is a run-down of our top five picks for the month that was. Take a look and let us know if you agree!

5. “30 People” by Token

Clocking in at #5 is “30 People” from Boston rapper Token. The song features deep, mysterious bass tones that syncs perfectly with Token’s confident flow. Although he’s just 21, Token (born Ben Goldberg) has had literally a decade of experience, having started writing raps at age 10. It’s impossible to downplay the smoothness of his non-stop, clear lyrics – and he writes well, too. The entire song is essentially a diss track for all those who secretly wish for the talented rapper to fail. “Congratulation messages always blowing my cell / But I can name you thirty people who hoping I fail,” he says on the main hook, and you don’t doubt it for a second.

4. “my future” by billie eilish

Technically, this was released at the very end of July, and we missed it in that month’s playlist – but we absolutely couldn’t let this song pass by. Vibe-wise, “my future” differs greatly from billie’s chart-busting debut album, with notable focus on the vulnerable side of billie’s angelic voice. The song starts off bare, with just her ethereal notes floating across gentle guitar strums. Halfway though, a smartly-produced beat changes the pace to a lovely, light pop song. The pace change is symbolic too, with the poppier back half featuring some rare self-love from the gothic billie (“I’m in love with my future / and you don’t know her”). Props to billie’s brother (and multi-Grammy-award-winner) Finneas for pulling off yet another seamless production.

3. “Vampire” by Dominic Fike

“Vampire” sounds like the Song of the Summer™ had this been a normal summer. Creating such content isn’t new to 24-year-old singer-songwriter-rapper Dominic Fike, who was the subject of a bidding war after six-song EP a few years ago. What those labels saw in him then can be seen on “Vampire”; essentially, Fike innately understands how to mix the best bits of genres together into a catchy track. The track meshes pleasant guitar strums with Fike’s easy-going bars and chorus, with tons of little lilts and details that make it surprisingly repeatable.

2. “Tangerine” by Glass Animals

As our readers know, we didn’t rate the new Glass Animals too highly (and we certainly heard from some of you about that!). Overall, Dreamland is made up of fantastic singles that have been out in the public eye for months (think “Tokyo Drifting” or “Your Love”), interspersed between so-so new tracks. However, one of the great new tracks that came out with the August release of the album was “Tangerine”, a light, summery track that’s as well-produced as anything in the Glass Animals repertoire. And no, you’re not the only one who thought the beach-y intro sounds like Drake’s “Hotline Bling”.

1. “WAP” by Cardi B feat. Megan thee Stallion

In truth, the August 2020 Monthly Playlist was really an exercise in figuring out positions 5 through 2, because it was unlikely that anything could beat the phenomenon that is “WAP”. Not a full month has passed since this Cardi B / Megan thee Stallion collab landed, but the song has already cemented an iconic status in the annals of female rap (and really, rap in general). In case you have been living in an Internet-free deep quarantine, here’s a quick rundown. Cardi and Megan (arguably the two biggest female rappers of our times; sorry, Nicki) trade line after line of raunchy boasts and sexual requirements, all in their signature whip-smart rap styles. In that way, they completely flip the script on the sexual power equation, especially in rap, simply by specifying exactly what they want as women.

Naturally, the song has drawn the ire of sexually-repressed right-wing halfwits everywhere, but Cardi and Megan are not writing this song for any man’s pleasure, sexual or otherwise. Men will mansplain to you that “WAP” isn’t about female empowerment, but take it from women everywhere: “WAP” is fun, powerful, and just a damn good track.

Burna Boy – Twice As Tall

1 Sep

I’ve gone through a lot of anti-colonial stuff in my time, but I don’t think anyone ever comes anywhere close to making it as much fun as Burna Boy does. The Nigerian afro-fusion artist is just absurdly talented as a musician. His music is as infectious as you could ask for, but clever to go with it. There’s an easy and deeply unfair critique of world music often made, that it’s a shallow gimmick to go to cultural roots for sounds, but Burna Boy’s music fully puts lie to that.

He has some top tier work in this album. The opener “Level Up” is strong music and his talk about the Grammys is disarmingly honest in an album that goes so hard. “Way Too Big” is impeccable stunting and aggressively anti-colonial. “Wettin Dey Sup” is maybe the catchiest song of the year. Also, I really appreciate getting the embodiment of White music, Chris Martin, in for the hook of the angrily anti-colonial “Monsters You Made.”

However, there’s a lot of air in Twice As Tall. “Naughty By Nature” is fun and upbeat, but also forgettable and not particularly interesting. The afro-fusion and pidgin do something, but not quite enough. “Real Life” doesn’t deliver on the promise of the Stormzy collaboration. I’m sure though that I would get more from the album if I knew Yoruba. His lyrics just add so much to the sound.

Overall, it’s not quite the statement of arrival that African Giant was, but Twice As Tall is still a strong entry in the burgeoning afro-fusion scene. It’s fun, it’s intelligent and it knows its history to boot.

SERA – When I Wake Up

27 Aug

SERA (a.k.a. Sera Zyborska) is a Welsh-English singer-songwriter with strong roots in North Wales. Her brand of cinematic, Americana-tinged folk music has been making some noise recently, with a mention in BBC’s coveted Horizons list for 2019-2020 and a performance at the world-famous Maida Vale recording studio. Her August 2020 album – entitled When I Wake Up – certainly does just that, with jangly guitar tunes and SERA’s powerful voice that will jolt even the most casual of listeners out of a reverie.

The album starts off with “Rabbit Hole”, a three-minute blitz that summarizes the touchstone elements of SERA’s sound. There’s the theatrical string flourishes, the fast-paced guitar, and SERA’s strong, emotive voice – almost similar to fellow countrywoman Nadine Shah.

Several songs on the album are set in nature, especially on the mystical side. Apart from the aforementioned “Rabbit Hole”, the more hard-hitting “Into the Woods” and the jangly “Ghosts and the Past” play on the same theme. And there’s a good reason too – SERA’s hometown of Caernarfon is a Technicolor Welsh setting with rolling green hills, breathtaking views of the Irish Sea and a majestic castle to boot.

Things to do while visiting Caernarfon | North Wales Holiday ...
SERA’s hometown. Photo Credit

She also does well on songs that spotlight her crystal clear vocals. For example, on “Atlantis”, her voice sparkles and shines against folksy strings and tambourine-tinged handclaps. “Old Soul” slows things down; here, SERA’s vulnerable, soft vocals are set against gentle instrumentation, in a way that’s quite reminiscent of Norah Jones.

We also loved the rollicky side of her on songs like “Boudicca” and “Switch”. The former is a real foot-tapper that sounds like it could soundtrack an old-timey campfire jig. Fittingly, the lyrics detail a quick folksy biography of Welsh queen Boudicca, who beat back the Roman Empire way back in the first century AD. “Switch” features dramatic violins and SERA’s singular voice that lull you into thinking it’s going to be just a folk song, before breaking into genre-busting drums-and-guitar chorus.

Despite a few weaker tracks that don’t quite pull together, When I Wake Up is definitely a high-powered folk album that’s worth a listen all the way through. SERA is one of those artists that sounds like she’s just about to make it big. She clearly has the vocal goods; she has the song-writing talent; and she also has a unique upbringing in dreamy North Wales that can prove to be fertile ground for endless albums to come. Take a spin on When I Wake Up and see for yourself!

Rating: 7/10

Best songs: “Boudicca”, “Old Soul”, “Rabbit Hole”

Glass Animals – Dreamland

24 Aug

British psychedelic pop act Glass Animals recently released their third studio album, Dreamland, earlier this month. The band’s previous outputs – debut Zaba (2014) and How to Be a Human Being (2016) – were fairly well-received, resulting in break-out single “Gooey” in addition to a Mercury Prize nod. With Dreamland, the band digs deep into deeply personal stories for a record that’s nostalgic, expertly produced and as dreamy as the name suggests. However, it remains to be seen whether this is the best that Glass Animals are capable of.

According to lead singer Dave Bayley, Dreamland has a grisly and quite recent origin story. In 2018, the band’s drummer Joe Seaward (and Bayley’s childhood friend, as are all the band members) got into a horrendous traffic accident that left his future uncertain. Although Seaward eventually recovered, Bayley’s experiences at his bedside got him thinking about their past, and then even before that: although Bayley is English now, he is actually American by birth and moved to the UK only in his early teens. This mishmash of trans-Atlantic experiences went on to provide the content for much of Dreamland’s lyrics.

Bayley’s date of birth – in June 1989 – forms another key piece of the album’s lyrics. Dreamland is consciously and explicitly centered on the specific lived experiences of Bayley’s cohort of Americans millennials. Peppered throughout the album are touchstones from the childhood of someone born in the 1989-1992 period – watching “The Price is Right” after-school; seeing school shootings; playing Pokemon; and much more.

Unfortunately, the hyper-specific focus on the personal past sometimes works; but more often than not, makes the songs trite and a little childish. If you are listening as someone born in that exact country and time period, great – chances are, you’ll love it purely out of your own emotional connections. If not – well, it does come across a little vapid.

Lyrics aside, though, the album is quite well-produced and diverse in terms of vocals, drums and beats. Dreamland starts off with the eponymous track and third single, which touches upon the key stories and emotions that will be brought up in the rest of the album. The song also sets the album’s dreamy (duh) tone, from the gentle xylophone to Bayley’s whispery falsetto. The last lines on “Dreamland” literally segue us into the rest of the album: “Oh, it’s 2020 so it’s time to change that / So you go make an album and call it Dreamland”.

Say what you will about Glass Animals, but they sure know how to pick their singles. The fantastic Denzel Curry collab “Tokyo Drifting” was released all the way back in November 2019 (remember 2019?); as regular Top Five Records readers know, it was one of the best tracks in 2019 period. Second single “Your Love (Déjà Vu)” from this February was and continues to be a Timberlake/Timberland-esque banger. Perhaps the most interesting track on this album is final single “It’s All So Incredibly Loud”, where the band trade in their hip-hop beats for an intense, Radiohead-like slow-burner. In line with the title, the song gets progressively louder as Bayley’s vocals paint a picture of the split-second after you’ve said something you oughtn’t have.

Among the non-singles, “Tangerine” stands out with catchy beats and a calypso beat that’s instantly reminiscent of Drake’s “Hotline Bling”. “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” deals with the quintessentially American topic of school shootings, and is apparently based off of a real-life friend who became a school shooter. Musically, the song features a wide array of blips, beat drops and droning synths that make for a snappy, crisp listen (despite its content).

But beyond these stand-out tracks, the album starts to falter. It’s not that the rest of the songs aren’t good tunes – on the contrary, the beats and production remain top-notch fairly throughout. However, they don’t quite break out of the casual-listen orbit. “Melon and the Coconut” is as forgettable as the name suggests; “Waterfalls Coming Out of Your Mouth” is just “Tangerine” without the Drake rip-off beat. “Heat Waves” is a great summer track, but you won’t probably remember it beyond the summer. In fact, the most memorable part about it is the music video (see below), which was shot entirely in quarantine. “Domestic Bliss” tackles an important subject matter – domestic violence between parents from a child’s perspective – but you could not hum a bar of it afterward if you tried.

Dreamland is a musical version of the 90s-kid meme, filled with the collective memories of 30-ish-year-olds from childhood to the present day – quinoa and online shopping included – through the filter of Dave Bayley’s personal memories. However, the autobiography theme is a little too specific, erring on the side of therapy or diary entries than the side of a meaningful creative output. Also, the chillwave-meets-Beach Boys vibe gets a little taxing and banal after a while, as does Bayley’s constant falsetto. Overall, Dreamland is a fun, crisply-produced listen – but you wouldn’t be amiss to hear the hits and skip the rest.

Best songs: “Tokyo Drifting”, “Your Love (Deja Vu)”, “It’s All So Incredibly Loud”

Rating: 7/10

Top Five Deep Cuts: Taylor Swift Edition

22 Aug

Ed. Note: This is a guest post from our good friend @Beatcritiques. Be sure to follow their Instagram page and check out their blog for more great content like this! Related: Check out our review of Taylor’s latest album folklore.

Everyone knows Taylor Swift. She’s written number one hits like “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me,” “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” and that’s just a few. Swift was also the recipient of the Artist of the Decade award at the 2019 AMAs. Safe to say, Taylor Swift has had an impressive career and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. If you’re looking to jump on the Swiftie bandwagon but don’t want to sound like you only know her greatest hits look no further. Listed below are five of my personal favorite deep cuts that she’s released.

Forever and Always (Piano Version)” from Fearless (Platinum Edition)

The piano version of the track “Forever and Always” from the deluxe version of Swift’s second studio album, Fearless, is heartbreaking. Stripping the track down to the essentials turns an upbeat track into a highly personal breakup song wondering where things went wrong. Swift sounds like she’s singing right to you asking “Baby, what happened please tell me?” and can draw tears out during the bridge telling the subject to “back up, hold on, back up.” A gorgeous track overall. 

Come Back…Be Here” from Red (Deluxe Edition)

Another deluxe edition track, “Come Back…Be Here” comes off of Red, Swift’s transition into pop. This track is deceptively sad and relies heavily on a guitar instrumental. What really makes this song stand out to me is the bridge and more specifically, the lines “This is falling in love in the cruelest way/This is falling for you when you are worlds away.” Swift’s vocals are stunning in this track as she describes the separation between her and the object of her affection. 

Sweeter Than Fiction” from One Chance

“Sweeter Than Fiction” was written by Swift herself and Jack Antonoff (a duo that has produced some of Swift’s best songs in my opinion) for the movie “One Chance.” This track describes supporting a partner on their journey through all of their ups and downs, eventually ending up in a success (“Now in this perfect weather, it’s like we don’t remember/ The rain we thought would last forever and ever”). More of a feel-good song than anything else, it never fails to get me up on my feet dancing and singing along as I remember that sometimes, life itself really can be sweeter than fiction. 

Clean” from 1989

Okay, “Clean” is one of my personal favorite Taylor Swift tracks of all time and seeing it performed in the pouring rain during the Reputation tour is one of my favorite memories. Written with Imogen Heap for the pure pop album 1989, this song is the perfect anthem of cleansing yourself and realizing that you’re better off without some people in your life. The beauty of this song is the fact that it can be applied to any relationship, not just romantic ones. This track is a must-listen Swift ballad and a classic among fans.

Cruel Summer” from Lover

Swift flexes her lyrical ability on the upbeat summer bop, “Cruel Summer.” In my top 3 of seventh-studio album, Lover, Swift describes the “glow of the vending machine,” as she talks about a secret relationship (“sneaking in the garden gate”). As many fans of Taylor Swift must know, she loves a good bridge and the bridge on this song deserves to be listened to at full volume every time. How else are you supposed to scream “he looks up grinning like a devil?” “Cruel Summer” is also a favorite among fans, and was a contender for the next single off of Lover before Swift surprised fans with her album, folklore.

Honorable Mentions (because who can choose just five?!)

  • “Picture to Burn” from Taylor Swift
  • “Beautiful Eyes” from Beautiful Eyes EP
  • “Jump Then Fall” from Fearless (Platinum Edition)
  • “Better Than Revenge” from Speak Now
  • “Getaway Car” from reputation
  • “august” from folklore 
  • “the 1” from folklore

So there you have it! Did you agree with BeatCritiques’ picks? Let us know your thoughts in the comments! And don’t forget to follow us on WordPress to hear about our new posts as soon as we hit that Publish button.

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