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Peter Cat Recording Company – Bismillah

21 Oct

Over the past decade and a half, India has seen a remarkable growth in the sheer number of independent, non-Bollywood music. From electronica to indie rock to hip-hop, we now have it all. But as the scene develops, many homegrown artists understandably sound a lot like the global artists they’re trying to emulate. There are a few exceptions, of course – artists who are truly, unmistakably, confidently homegrown; and Peter Cat Recording Company easily rules over them all.

Delhi-based quintet Peter Cat have been a beloved part of the Indian music scene for nearly a decade; Sinema (2011) especially was all the rage for a particular cross-section of indie fans that came of age in that era. They’ve always been ahead of the curve, but perhaps by too much – fully-formed and original in a nascent and sometimes derivative industry. In many people’s opinions (including ours), they deserved so much more than the tiny listening audience and a four-city gig circuit that the country could afford them.

Luckily for all of us, Peter Cat seemed to have been thinking along the same lines. Recently, they signed on to French label Panache Records, which promptly released a nine-song anthology of the band’s greatest hits (Portrait of a Time, 2018). Happier still was the news this year that the band would be releasing a full-length album – the official “debut” – with Panache. Peter Cat were finally getting the management and international exposure that their brilliance deserved. Would they live up to it?

The short answer is: yes.

Peter Cat Recording Company is not just a great band; they’re a great Indian band. Their sound blends easily across jazz, gypsy, disco, you name it – but at their core, Peter Cat is undeniably desi. On Bismillah, that thankfully doesn’t change.

Take, for example, “Where the Money Flows”, which opens the album with diegetic sounds of the homeland – the birds, the distant honks, a spluttering engine. Between gentle guitar strums and handclaps, the lyrics paint a picture of trade-offs between money (bad) and love (good). But the music video makes their intent much more explicit: they’re talking specifically about that great Indian experiment, demonetization. The fact that the music video was released days before the final stretch of India’s historical general election made the link even clearer.

Other songs on Bismillah reference India in decidedly less political terms. With its Technicolor throwback and old-world croon, “Heera” could be an erstwhile filmi hit (barring the English-language lyrics). Disco jam “Memory Box” is would fit right in on a best-of-Bappi-Lahiri special issue with the busy guitars and dramatic violins. “Floated By” is a nod to the celebrated big-brass sounds of Indian weddings; you could almost imagine the trumpets and the melancholy vocals serenading the wee hours of a wedding reception somewhere. Indeed, the music video is set in a real wedding – Sawhney’s own, in fact.

Of course, the brilliance of Peter Cat lies in their ability to seamlessly fuse their Indian sensibilities with great music from elsewhere. One touch-point, especially, is the minimalist vibe espoused by the likes of the xx. “Remain in Me” is built mostly on the Sawhney’s lilting voice and a sparse drum-guitar line, joined by forlorn horns in the chorus. “Vishnu ❤” is a hypnotic, chillwave gem, interspersed again by Peter Cat’s signature brass. Moody psychedelia, a la Tame Impala, is another key influence, especially on the expansive album closer “Shit I’m Dreaming”.

Peter Cat’s strongest suit, however, is Sawhney’s rich, emotive voice. He is fully in control of his considerable talent: perfectly complementary to the instruments in one moment, a sublime falsetto on the next, and maybe a quick aalap here and there. His voice sways, croons, reaches and swoons; but always adding to that iconic Peter Cat sound.

Bismillah is a kaleidoscopic journey through genres and time periods; experimental, creative but always on brand. It’s their best work yet and, honestly, one of the best albums we’ve heard all year (Indian or otherwise).

Best tracks: “Where the Money Flows”, “Heera”, “Floated By”

Check out Peter Cat Recording Company’s website for more information.

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