Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator

18 Nov

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The Navigator is a breathtakingly ambitious album. It draws from a dizzying number of influences, to produce a distinctly New York Puerto Rican rock album. This is lively and unexpected at every point and deftly weaves in a tremendous amount of emotion, especially in the slower steamroller of a song “Pa’lante.”

The music is deeply varied, to the point where even a single song cannot be pinned down to even a family of ideas. The crooning in “Finale” shifts to percussion in a way that should feel abrupt but somehow works flawlessly. “Rican Beach” somehow melds together what feels like fifteen different layers, all of which are interesting enough to carry it alone, into a single juggernaut of a song.

This is one of the most intriguing albums that I’ve heard this year simply due to how far out of left-field it is from. In addition, it’s just eminently listenable. I cannot imagine the person who would not benefit from trying it out.

@murthynikhil

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Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid

14 Nov

The Kid is an astonishing album across a whole slew of axes. The most striking thing about it is just how much of nature is present in an electronic synth album. At points, it evokes the stillness of a Walden-like lake and the movement of a brook. Mostly though, it evokes more active organisms. A point in “Who I Am and Why I Am Where I Am” brings a strong image of a jungle waking up to mind. Like the world it draws from, the result is an ever-fascinating panorama filled with things worth examining. You should try it out.

@murthynikhil

Lil Uzi Vert – Luv Is Rage 2

4 Nov

First of all, “XO TOUR Llif3” is one of the greatest songs that I have ever heard. It is a revelation in every sense and a song what I don’t know when I will ever stop listening to. You should listen to it right now.

That song is the reason that I’m reviewing this album, but there is the remainder to cover as well. Unfortunately, nothing else here matches the brilliance of the single. The album as a whole has other interesting points, but also holds a fair number of misfires and is too indulgent of some uninteresting ideas. For instance, “UnFazed” is too repetitive to take advantage of all that it has. The Weeknd sounds great in it but needs more space than he’s given. It is still a highlight of the album, but does not fulfill the promise it first seemed to hold. Songs like “Malfunction” and “How To Talk” just don’t do anything and while “X” has some fun points, it’s just not that interesting.

“XO TOUR Llif3” however is brilliant and thus complicated to take apart. This is the song that proved mumble rap to me. The new Atlanta rap scene has had a lot of great music come from it, as anyone who reads this blog can see, but this song pushes it beyond merely being promising, good new music. This is the song that actually cashes the checks.

When I first saw mumble rap, it seemed to be punk rock all over again. In the same way that punk rebelled against the crushing formalism of stadium rock and their 20 minute guitar solos, mumble rap seemed the Dionysian answer to the Apollonian values of lyricism and flow. Again, just like punk rock, it’s not that mumble rap lacks the ability, some of Thugger’s lines still make me laugh and I can’t see a single rapper with a questionable flow, it’s that the medium shouldn’t be defined by that. It’s unsatisfying to define this movement with nothing more than abjuration. Punk rock was much, much more than simple chords. Other songs have proven that you can make great music with mumble rap, it took “XO TOUR Llif3” to show why you should try.

The greatest thing that this song does is a moment in the middle. The couplet “Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead” is the spine of the song. It’s a wonderfully succinct and condensed piece of songwriting that is repeated over and over again to add weight. The first verse ends with the anguished plea “Xanny, help the pain, yeah/Please, Xanny, make it go away” before dropping into the chorus and that repeated couplet again. This time however, instead of actually saying the words, Lil Uzi’s voice slurs it to incomprehensibility so as to give it even more space for emotion.

That was my moment of clarity. That is what this music can do. You cannot communicate that feeling with traditional rap. I’ve never heard that feeling pushed so clearly. Even now, after hundreds and hundreds of listens, that moment astounds me.

In all of my time listening to music, I’ve only had my eyes opened like that once before. Quite a few years ago, I was trying out jazz to see if I would like it and while the first things that I heard were all excellent, I didn’t really get what it was about. Naturally, I started with the most famous albums and so I ended up picking up Coltrane’s My Favorite Things quickly enough. The title track is still my favorite individual piece of music. The first minute hews fairly close to the Rodgers and Hammerstein original, but then Coltrane’s solo goes to a place that I had never heard before. What makes this special though is how that diversion is fully informed by the original. He takes the ideas of the musical version and pushes them somewhere entirely unexpected and that surprise is what defines the feeling of listening to the music. Then, just when you have a feel for where he now is, the song seamlessly returns to the original tune and so once again catches you off-balance. That moment changed how I listened to jazz and for that matter, music as a whole. That taught me to participate, to try to see where the song is going so that you can be surprised when the musicians do something clever and end up somewhere else instead. It’s the pleasure of seeing familiar ideas put together in a way that’s completely novel. It’s like the best puzzle games. It’s also something that I would never have understood had it not been for this ‘Trane song.

Formalism and jazz comparisons are well and good, but they are not what makes a song great. “XO TOUR Llif3” is just visceral to hear. I feel like I should be too old for this to hit me as hard as it does, but his honesty takes his story of heartbreak and depression beyond mere teen drama. Besides, when he hits the bridge of “She say: “You’re the worst, you’re the worst.”/I cannot die because this my universe”, that’s too close to home to deny. It’s not like I’m that mature either.

It’s also just a great song. I still haven’t figured all of its pieces. That little pause at the end of “Shoulda saw the way she looked me in my eyes/She said: Baby, I am not afraid to die.” tripped me up dozens of times and so punctuates the verse perfectly. The production is unceasingly clever and contrasts with Uzi’s flow to add layer upon layer of meaning.

This song is now a part of me. You should give it a try.

@murthynikhil

Brand New – Science Fiction

19 Oct

Brand New returns eight years after their last album and 11 years after their masterpiece The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Of Me to produce Science Fiction. This is a quieter, more mature album than their previous work, resulting in a sound more like the Afghan Whigs than anything else. While it lacks the the brilliance of The Devil and God, it’s still a very good rock album. In particular, “Batter Up”, “Desert”, and “Could Never Be Heaven” are all terrific music. You really should listen to this album.

@murthynikhil

Lorde – Melodrama

12 Oct

Melodrama

On her debut album Pure Heroine (2013), Lorde spent her time sneering at everything outside her clique, literally a living embodiment of Nirvana’s thoughts on the matter. On Melodrama (2017), Lorde is 20 – just far enough outside her teenage years to realize that a) teenagers act like naïve idiots most of the time, b) that her days of being a naïve idiot have now been replaced with the horrible self-doubt of adulthood.

Moreover, the normal horrors of growing up are exacerbated by the fact that she did so at the peak of her fame. The clique has been replaced with random guys at parties and the nonchalance is powered by drugs and alcohol. She has all the makings of a drug-fueled pop star, but unfortunately for her (and fortunately for us) she’s too intelligent to let it all pass by without documentation. And so, her struggle continues, untethered and drowning in feelings.

A main point of inspiration for the entire album is her break-up with longtime boyfriend James Lowe. Over the course of the album, she dissects this relationship from every angle. “Green Light” takes place right after the breakup, with Lorde still in a state of incredulity that she’s single. First she sneers at her ex for telling some other girl that he likes the beach (he doesn’t), then she feels optimistic about the “new sounds” in her life – and all of a sudden, the post-break-up song sounds almost joyous.

Her rebound state-of-mind continues on the misleadingly titled “Sober”, where she paints a picture of “liquor-wet limes” amidst a raucous brass section. And on “Homemade Dynamite”, she fools around at a party with a guy she just met. It’s an immensely listenable song, made only better by Lorde’s vocal quirks – from the way she beatbox-stresses the word “dynamite” to the way she childishly imitates a dynamite boom.

But the parties are just a mask to the sadness that lurks skin-deep. On “Perfect Places”, Lorde realizes that she’s using sex and drugs to reach a “perfect place” of contentment while wondering what perfection is, anyway. Sweeping strings and piano amplify her sadness on “Writer in the Dark”, turning a dead relationship into obsessive, one-sided love. Apparently, her immortalization of the relationship through song makes it impossible for her to move on (“I’ll love you til you call the cops on me,” she wails in all seriousness), and the raw emotion in her voice makes it completely believable.

The standout track is “Liability”, a haunting ballad about Lorde’s transition from drama-queen teen to melodramatic adult just at the peak of her fame. The piano adds support, but it’s her voice that completely carries this song. A note of vulnerable tenderness when she accepts that her fame is a burden to those closest to her; a hint of peace when she realizes that she still likes who she is; a burst of excitement that stops dead in its tracks when she realizes that every perfect summer ends badly for her. It’s a whirlwind of emotions, just like Lorde herself.

Of course, Melodrama wouldn’t be where it is without the great production values of Jack Antonoff, best known for being the lead guitarist of indie rock band Fun. His use of deliberate beats and lilting piano really pushes Lorde to grow past the minimalist sounds on her debut.

There’s so much to love about Melodrama. Lorde’s writing summarizes short stories in a few words (“Half of my wardrobe is on your bedroom floor”) and her vocal range is pitch-perfect from the lowest growl to the highest wail. Her stories are intimate and heavy, and she has the grace (and irony) to tell them through genuine party songs. Check out Melodrama – for the highs, the lows, and everything in between.

Best tracks: “Liability”, “Homemade Dynamite”, “Perfect Places”

Fresh Voice: A Conversation with Srijit Bhowmick

6 Oct

Sri My Indie Playlist With Sri Vol01 Image 01_Srijit Bhowmick_PC Jyotirmoy Gupta

Srijit Bhowmick is a promising young singer-songwriter from Mumbai. In August 2017, he released his three-track EP Sri, a lilting mix of solid songwriting and good musical instincts. Bhowmick has a unique voice and wields it bravely. Although his tone itself is pleasant enough, his distinction lies in the way he makes his voice glide, shorten, elongate and stretch around the music.

Barely a month after his EP release, Bhowmick was featured on an Apple Music playlist celebrating Indian pop for “Am I Here”, an elliptical, wistful track that showcases his vocals – he makes a growl mutate into an echoing shout and a falsetto transform into a haunting whisper with seeming ease. (Funnily enough, we found “Am I Here” to be the least likely contender of the three songs for a pop music list, but what do we know about lists?)

“Yesterday’s Child” is a short but well-written ode to the growing pains associated with a disappointing middle age – bills, mortgages, all of that fun stuff. Bhowmick’s soothing guitar melody is supported well by piano, played by his associate Hrushabh Talapadatur. “Helpless” is our favorite track, though. The guitar work is deft and well-arranged, and Bhowmick’s voice is tethered within ranges that most people would consider pleasant. The lyrics are pretty good too, with clever lines that easily bring to mind a lost love. Maybe it’s the Dylan-tinged nostalgia that set it off, but we definitely got a whiff of Jake Bugg here.

We recently caught up with Sri for his take on his eponymous EP, his musical influences, and more. Check it out below!

So, let’s start at the beginning. Tell us a bit about yourself! 

I’m an indie singer-songwriter and I write songs about life. I was born in Calcutta but grew up in Bombay from the age of seven. Studying for Engineering/Medical was the stereotypical middle-class expectation, so I picked up the guitar as a replacement in high school. I always liked music and could always sing. And so, it began.

I have been writing for almost eight years now. It wasn’t until 2014 that I felt my solo material was taking some form and shape, something I could be really proud of. By 2016, I felt I finally had good enough material to go live with and so, I’ve been at it ever since.

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We listened through your three-track EP Sri a few times already, and we love it! To us, your music seems to draw influences from Dylan-era sounds as well as newer artists like Alex Turner – but we’d love to hear from you. What would you count as your greatest influences, musical or otherwise?

That feels great, thank you! Dylan-era sounds have influenced me quite a bit in terms of songwriting. Such a defining period in the history of music – I believe the 60s influenced almost everyone directly or indirectly. Having said that, it’s always a difficult thing to answer, because I’ve had a so many different sets of musical influences over time in phases that they must have consciously or otherwise become a part of my “musicality”.

Growing up, I had the stereotypical Indian mainstream influences coupled with what my Bengali roots provided. I picked up the guitar in high school, and so that became such an important time for discovering more music. Since then, my biggest influences have been Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Dire Straits, Guns ‘n Roses, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Cat Stevens, Oasis, Iron Maiden and various others, alongside some Bangla rock acts and a lot of urban Indian indie music. As for my writing, many movies have played a huge part. I was lucky enough to have enjoyed Satyajit Ray’s films since a young age; Rashomon, Hazaroon Khwaishein Aisi and Schindler’s List have also touched me deeply.

I would always sing at home, but with the introduction of guitar in life, I could improvise and jam with myself and I think that was a turning point. All of it was self-learned. I did the same with words, experimenting, pouring out whatever that came to my mind, and I think together those things sort of synced sometime around 2014.

I think tastes and attitudes are partly affected by our surroundings. As we know more, we are able to choose the ones we’d like to keep, and discard the rest, and figure out where to look for new ones. That is how the evolution of my musical influences has been, and I think my music reflects that. For example, “Yesterday’s Child” has got a little bit of a folksy vibe, almost like American folk music, but “Am I Here” and “Helpless” have maybe a bit of rock ‘n roll seeped in. Of course, it’s up to the listeners.

Tell us a little about your songwriting process. What comes first – the music, the lyrics, or something else altogether?

Usually, it’s a bit of this and a bit of that. I may have a musical idea and then try scribbling something down. And then I add some more musical ideas. Or the other way around – it really depends on the mood, or what’s on my mind. Did I read something that affected me or observed something or someone or pondered over things or just imagined situations? There’s a lot of to and fro to it. You arrive at a moment, or you try to go back to that musical idea you wrote months and years back as well. There are songs I have written in 10 minutes and there are songs I have literally worked at for days. The whole thing is almost maddening to the outside world but there’s an underlying process I’ve chalked out over the years.

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Your song was recently featured on an Apple Music list celebrating fresh new voices in Indian independent pop. That must have felt awesome! What do you have lined up to promote your EP and spread the word going forward?

It felt really great! I think “Am I Here” is still on there and that’s amazing, given that it’s from my first-ever EP and that it’s alongside such stellar Indian indie acts.

Most importantly, I’d love to play as many gigs as I can, take my music to new places, and hopefully plan a tour. My music is best experienced in the quiet embrace of a listening audience as it allows for my art to flow. Having said that, I’m an indie musician and if you pay me to play to your dog and cat, I will. Plus, cats and dogs are such amazing creatures, so why not!

I would also like to interact more with people on the business side of music. It always helps for an artist to stick to music and grow as a musician, while having better choices and help when it comes to handling the business side of it. I would also love to work on a music video or two. And if there are musicians who really like my music and are interested to work with me, I’d be glad to explore those possibilities as well.

And finally, let’s do a couple of rapid-fire questions!

  • Favorite album of all time? 

I am not much of an album person – when I was younger, I would listen to a song continuously for days and months even, until the shine wore off, before moving on. I believe that each song has got a universe of its own. That being said, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska was an album that has had a huge influence on me and on my singer-songwriter craftsmanship.

  • Last song that you heard (that wasn’t your own)? 

Warfaze’s “Purnota”, Dire Straits’ “Why Worry”, and Parvaaz’s “Ghaib”

  • Dream venue to play your music, anywhere in the world? 

Nowhere in particular. Wherever I get paid with a good listening audience is perfect for me.

You can check out Sri on SoundCloud and Apple Music

 

Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

24 Sep

 

On the face of it, Big Fish Theory sounds great. On his second full-length album, Long Beach-native Vince Staples layers his poised and confident flow over reworked techno-house beats, and interludes these gems with often bizarre but invariably interesting spoken-word segments and collaborations. There are enough references to oceans and marine life to make the album title seem reasonable, and you’re left with a tidy hip-hop album, with a bow on top.

But dig a little deeper, and Big Fish Theory shines blackly with grimness and desolation. After the break-out success of his debut Summertime ’06 (2015) and his follow-up EP Prima Donna (2016), Staples has gotten really famous really quickly. With a rough past in the mean streets of North Long Beach, this is exactly what Staples should want – enough money, fame and women to catapult him into a different life. But the new life didn’t quite cut it. Staples is left with aching loneliness, and is often met with money-grubbing groupies and fair-weather friends when he tries to reach out for help. So he works on his music, harder and more focused, to exorcise his demons, all the while knowing that the “goal” he’s set himself won’t bring him happiness in the end.

It is this ominous pendulum of emotions that drives the entire album.

“Alyssa’s Interlude” sets the tone for the darker side of things, with a snippet of Amy Winehouse talking about her self-destructive nature being a major source of material for her music. On “Party People”, Vince shows his own streak of self-destruction – his fame pushes him into the spotlight, where he can’t hide his suicidal thoughts (“Please don’t look at me in my face, everybody might see my pain”). The fruit of his success threatens to undo him and, as Vince is finding out the hard way, money doesn’t fix everything anyway (“Couple problems my cash can’t help, human issues too strong for tissues”).

But it’s not just self-sabotage pushing him to the edge. On “745”, Vince is sitting in a swanky car with a beautiful woman – what he’s wanted all his life – but the dream cracks from the inside. His lady friend heads straight to the oyster bar, without regard to poor Vince who’s still out parking the car. “This thing called love’s hard for me,” he confesses, “This thing called love is a God to me.” Pity that he seems so far from it.

But the grim moods don’t last forever. Vince seems to pull himself out of depression by vowing to stay away from demons, within and without. Album opener “Crabs in a Bucket” uses house beats over an Azalea Banks-like off-kilter flow, to draw a mental image of Vince struggling to make it out of the “bucket” of his old neighborhood. (The song also marks the first appearance of Kilo Kish, who often adds a velvety, ethereal gloss over Vince’s hard-to-swallow bullets of truth throughout the album.)

“Crabs” is followed by the club-ready beats of the first single, “Big Fish” – the part where the intro melds into Vince’s almost taunt-like drawl still gives us chills after half a hundred listens. It’s fair to say that Vince doesn’t fit the mold of the typical hip-hop star – he’s a teetotaler and has never done drugs. We also find out from “Big Fish” that he’s really into saving his cash, wielding his bank balance as a protective float from his past misfortunes. “I was up late night ballin’, counting up hundreds by the thousands,” he boasts repeatedly, and it’s not tough to believe him when he says he’s taken the smart route out of his Ramona Park childhood. “Homage” gives us the same message, relayed over neat Gorillaz-style megaphone vocals – no doubt a nod to his recent collaborator Damon Albarn.

Beyond the pendulum between his self-destructive introspection and his drive to succeed, Big Fish Theory displays another overarching theme: Vince’s cynicism with the hip-hop game. He has repeatedly stated on interviews that he considers rapping to be his job, not a side hobby (“Last time I checked, my job was to make songs. All the other stuff is extra,” he stated bluntly in a recent Vulture interview). Over sludgy beats and tinny drums on “Yeah Right”, Vince sardonically questions the order of importance for many of today’s hip-hop stars. “Is your house big?”, “Is your girl fine?”, and almost as an after-thought, “If your song played, would they know that?” And of course, we would be remiss to not mention that the song also features a stand-out verse dropped by rap’s current king, Kendrick Lamar.

All in all, Big Fish Theory works on two levels. It is a great album to hear from start to finish even if you aren’t paying attention to the words; if you are paying attention, that’s a whole different level.

Best tracks: “Big Fish”, “Yeah Right”, “745”

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