Archive | April, 2020

Monthly Playlist – Apr. 2020

28 Apr

We say this almost every month, but April 2020 was truly one of the best months of music that we’ve ever been through. There was, of course, Fiona Apple’s universally-lauded Fetch the Bolt Cutters; on the very same day, English pop star Rina Sawayama released what is easily the best debut album since Invasion of Privacy (2018). We even got new tracks from reclusive acts like The Strokes and Jamie xx. Read on for a round-up of the best five songs from this month.

5. “Young and Beautiful” by Glass Animals

This is technically not a new song, but we love Glass Animals’ gauzy cover of Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful”, released as part of a growing collection called, fittingly, Quarantine Covers. Dave Bayley’s spindly, whispery voice and bare production lends itself perfectly to the track – the result being a fresh yet respectful cover of a truly classic song.

As a bonus, check out another song in Quarantine Covers – a hypnotic take on Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”.

4. “Shameika” by Fiona Apple

 Fiona Apple has had a sparse but monumental career, spanning five increasingly unrestrained albums from her debut Tidal (1995) to Fetch the Bolt Cutters (2020). This latest album currently enjoys an unprecedented perfect score on Metacritic. Is it worth the fawning all-round praise? Somewhat – but not entirely (see our in-depth review here).

Perhaps the most widely-shareable song on the album is “Shameika”, a rollicking tale about schoolgirl Fiona getting some tough love from a slightly older girl. The eponymous Shameika tells Fiona that she has potential, and Fiona uses that mantra to get through the bullying and boredom of middle-school life. We particularly love the rolling piano and Fiona’s jazzy storytelling on this track. Fiona recently shared that Shameika, indeed, turned out to be a real person (and not a figment of her imagination as she initially thought), so that’s cool too.

3. “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” by The Strokes

On April 10th, the Strokes released their much-awaited sixth album and thankfully, it lived up to expectations. The presciently-named The New Abnormal (in-depth review here) certainly featured some new direction for the band, but there were also some classic, old-school Strokes tracks. The fun and catchy “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” falls squarely in the later category. Kicked off by a bouncy, synth-heavy riff, the song features Julian Casablancas singing about the good old days over feel-good guitar work from Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi. It’s just a great tune.

2. “Idontknow” by Jamie xx

Idontknow”, a new single from English producer and DJ Jamie Smith (and one-half of The xx), is a revelation in its sheer use of beats. The track starts off with almost African-like beats that are sure to get you tapping along with some part of your body. Just when you think that’s all there is to it, the track ramps up into overdrive at approximately the 78-second mark. And when we say overdrive, we are not joking. The beats double in speed, and Jamie Smith expertly overlays mysterious vocals snippets, with the effect being a frenetic, craze-inducing romper of a track. It’s addictive in its simplicity, and we highly recommend it.

1. “XS” by Rina Sawayama

It may seem like Japanese-British pop singer Rina Sawayama comes to us fully-formed, but the 29-year-old has been working on her sound for some time. She had a couple of well-received tracks between 2013 and 2016, followed by a self-produced mini-album in 2017. This month, she finally released her official debut album – the eponymous SAWAYAMA – and it was well worth the build-up.

Sawayama’s sound is a beguiling mix of late-90s pop (think Britney and Mariah) and early 2000s moody rock (think Evanescence): nostalgic in its components parts but wholly original in its combination. The best song this month was definitely “XS”, a commentary on late-stage capitalism with a killer pop hook (we told you it’s original). “Luxury and opulence, Cartiers and Tesla X’s / Calabasas, I deserve it,” says Rina, before begging for “just a little bit more, little bit of excess”. Even if you don’t listen to the words in detail, you just can’t miss the pop sounds from the millennial Rina’s 90s / early 00s childhood.

Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters

25 Apr

It has been a long time since we’ve seen an album release like Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Acclaim this universal comes by only about once a decade. The combination of storytelling and challenging, clever music is powerful and the album is unquestionably brilliant, but it lands just a little short of being a full fledged masterpiece for me.

Firstly, this is an album that rewards attention, even if it doesn’t do that much to force it upon itself. It’s a largely understated album but right underneath the surface are all kinds of interesting currents. It’s heavily layered, but delicately so. Despite all of the flirtations with noise pop, the album only rarely pushes at you. It’s content to just be itself. Should you spend the effort to focus on it then it is generous with its rewards, but should you not, it’s not going to make the first move.

For instance, in the excellent title track, there are beautiful little musical sparkles running below her already muted voice and percussion. You can spend the whole song chasing any one of them happily and then come back to do it again with a completely different strain. Small touches like the chimes and the barking dogs at the end substantially elevate the song as a whole. A trend through the album is ˙letting each song fade with the band noodling and Apple vocalizing and this both highlights and expands the music. They like messing with noise here, but instead of the tortured guitars of 90s alternative, this is gentle, gossamer noise. It’s the sound between radio stations at night. Instead of breaking the song down, it builds upon the foundation that it set.

“Fetch The Bolt Cutters” also has fantastic storytelling and sharp lines through it. “And you maim when you’re on offense / But you kill when you’re on defense” is a great couplet. The quiet, but determined, music works excellently against the dark humanity of the lyrics. It finds exactly the right tone to communicate a very specific feeling, that of understanding that it’s time to cut the links with a person. This is a very understated song in an already understated album and quietly one of the best in here.

The writing here can often be excellent. The album is exceptionally coherent and so the storytelling comes through strong. “Rack of His” is a clever and honest song built around a sublime pun and ”Newspaper” is sharp story. “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me / To make sure that we’ll never be friends” is lean and yet complete. There’s nothing more that needs to be said after a line like that. On top of that, the music is inventive and unexpected. It’s pinned well by the percussion, but it’s very pleasingly jagged. It’s never quite where you expect it to be.

The album then takes a turn for the softer with “Ladies.” It’s softer and simpler than the rest of the album, but it makes for a lovely break because it’s a lovely song. She’s able to belt out vocals when she needs to and the bravery of the repeated “ladies” in the song is amazing to see. Also, having the song be a plea for cooperation and then ending it with the garbled, mumbled refrain of “Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through” is a body blow.

Unfortunately, from here we get to much of my issue with the album. “Heavy Balloon” is just too simple a song, especially right after “Ladies.” The blues in it should work well, but it just compounds the problem. The metaphor here is too weak to carry the song and so the whole song breaks down. It’s almost rescued by the instrumental ending. Deemphasizing the lyrics allows the music to really speak and it’s foot-stomping fun. The ending is one of the best parts of the album, but the core of the song is just too weak. Similarly, the following song “Cosmonauts” is great to listen to, especially once it takes off and just goes hard into the chant. However, the core simile, though clever at first glance, is just nonsense.

This problem is even worse with a few of the opening songs. “Shameika” has a kindergartner stomping around in it. It’s a heavy pace that’s childish and fun and the Alice-down-the-rabbithole bridge is excellent. However, the bullying just doesn’t have any heft to it. There’s too much comfort in the song. Similarly, “Relay” has a catchy chorus that’s anthemic, which is amazing given the meaning in it. That Apple wrote it at fifteen should be amazing, but the couplet of “Evil is a relay sport / where the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch” sounds like it was written by a fifteen-year old and that takes a lot away from the song. It’s just too naive for me.

This is still all strong music though. “Under The Table” is too privileged in its politics for me, but the music is incredible. The couplet of “I would beg to disagree / But begging disagrees with me” is too wealthy a couplet for my taste with the dinner parties that it evokes, but the song fades it repeatedly into the background near the end and that’s excellent. Also, when she sings “I’d like to buy you a pair of pillow-soled hiking boots / to help you with your climb / Or rather, to help the bodies that you step over along your route / So they won’t hurt like mine”, the lyrics finally match the cleverness of the music and it’s sublime. I just wish that the album was more able to consistently line the two sides up. The songs with the best music tend to weak lyrics and those with the sharpest lyrics have music that, while extremely good, is not quite as great as the best here and the result is that there’s no single here that sticks with me.

These flaws are the exception, not the rule though. This is a stellar album. The opener “I Want You To Love Me” has a nice, arboreal sound to it. It’s a country song, but the country is a woodland. “For Her” places a nice summer pop sound against harsh lyrics, including the memorable “Well, good morning / Good morning / You raped me in the bed your daughter was born in.” That’s the kind of thing that wakes you right up. “Drumset” is the same kind of brutal in the lyrics, but manages to be healing nonetheless. Finally, the closer “On I Go” is a very intelligent set of variations on a repeated chorus that gives the album a good, open-ended sound. It leaves you with the feeling that the album hasn’t ended, it has just left space for you to fill in with your life.

This is an exceptional album all told. This is some of the best music that I’ve heard in a long while. There are enough issues here to hold it back from being a true masterpiece, but it’s still an astonishing accomplishment. This is the best album of Fiona Apple’s career and a highlight of the year. You should definitely check it out.

Fresh New Voice: An Interview with Navya Sharma

22 Apr

Navya Sharma is a Bombay-based musician who’s all set to take the indie music scene by storm. His indie-folk style and his percussive guitar work give him a distinctive and unmistakeably fresh sound that has kept us hooked. Not to mention his lyrical prowess, a skill he’s honed over years of listening, writing and performing. 

See for yourself, with his track “New Routine”, in which Navya’s penchant for rhythm is clear. His excellent lyrical work (“I was just guessing when you left me with this doubt / Holding the stars for you in case you let me out”) has a sort of wistful beauty to it that only adds to the replay value that this track has.

We caught up with Navya earlier this week for a quick conversation about his musical style, influences and upcoming plans!

Top Five Records: We’d love to get to know your story! To begin with, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Navya Sharma: I’m 25, I write songs and I’m currently based out of Bombay. 

TFR: Let’s start with a picture of what makes you into the artist you are today: What got you into music, and when did you first start getting into it?

NS: This is a question I love answering. I have this very specific memory of being around ten years old and holding in my hands the vinyl record, Walk Don’t Run by The Ventures from 1964. My dad had this big collection of vinyls and I remember him putting The Ventures on one night when he got home from work. That was the first time I’d heard the tone of a beefy heavy-duty American Fender through some powerful tube amplifiers. Vinyls were these very physical objects too, almost as if you could touch the music. I remember picking up a toy cricket bat and riffing crazy pretend-guitar to the song as my mum looked on laughing. My dad had successfully introduced me to rock ‘n roll.

TFR: We at TFR hear a touch of retro and a bit of Bob Dylan in your tunes! What would you say are your biggest musical influences? Not just other musicians; what’s influenced you as a musician?

NS: That’s a very accurate guess, maybe I ought to work on making it a little less obvious.

I’ve always been keen on the expression aspect of a song; the story it tells. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Damien Rice would probably be the Holy Trinity for me. John Prine, Mark Knopfler, Tom Waits, Mick Flannery would be some others. I learnt to believe that my contribution to music would strictly be songwriting as a medium for honest expression. How my songs resonate with people is none of my business. 

I learnt to believe that my contribution to music would strictly be songwriting as a medium for honest expression.

TFR: We can’t stop listening to your debut single, “Freedom Town”! The upbeat tune and the slightly darker subject matter create an interesting juxtaposition that has us intrigued. Can you tell us more about this track? What’s the story behind it, and what was the songwriting process like for you?

NS: I’m still half-trying to figure out where that song came out of, which is probably why I’m so proud of my work on Freedom Town, haha! I think it’s mostly about feeling a certain disconnect. The three verses talk about three different characters: a young person fighting vanity and feeling like a fake, another guy fantasizing about shooting up a movie theater and Juliet, the cut away lover. All of these characters concur on that mutual feeling of disconnect: how mainstream music on the radio doesn’t make sense to them and how they fail to relate with their friends’ conversations. At the end of the day, they just find themselves restless thinking love can save them. Or something like that, heck if I know.

Oh and shout out to Rounak Chawla for playing the best solo I could have asked for on the track too.

TFR: What’s on the horizon for you? Any new music coming out? Perhaps a debut album soon? Or something else entirely?

NS: An EP soon! I’ve been writing so much we just have to pick the songs that sound minimally shitty and put the record out. We were just testing the waters with this release and now I can’t hardly wait to be honest.

Thanks, Navya! And now, let’s get a few quick answers out of you with our Rapid-Fire Round. Ready?

TFR: What are your Top Five Desert Island Records?  (i.e., five albums that you would be fine listening to, without access to any other music, for the rest of your life?)

NS: Golden Heart by Mark Knopfler; Use Your Illusion I & II, Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan; O by Damien Rice

TFR: What about recent times? What albums or songs have been on repeat for you lately?

NS: Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent by Lewis Capaldi! Such refreshing honesty in Pop music

TFR: What’s been your favourite gig so far (and why)?

NS: Been a few. I’ve lately enjoyed solo intimate sets a little more than getting the boys and bringing a whole band behind me. (Which is awesome fun too, don’t get me wrong.) Getting a bunch of strangers to enjoy mostly fresh stuff on the first listen is a neat challenge and I love it.

TFR: Your dream collab? (Indian or International)

NS: Can we bring back Janis Joplin from the dead if we’re dreaming anyway?

TFR: Haha, nice one. And an Indian artist you’re really digging right now?

NS: Karshni Nair and Meera Desai.

You can find Navya’s music on Spotify, Soundcloud, YouTube and pretty much wherever else you get your music.

The Strokes – The New Abnormal

19 Apr

We last saw the Strokes with the three-song Future Present Past EP in summer 2016. The rather on-the-nose concept was that each song represented the eponymous phases of the Strokes, from futuristic “Drag Queen” to stylish “OBLIVIUS” to old-school “Threat of Joy”. With their sixth album The New Abnormal, it feels like the Strokes don’t think of themselves in quite so discrete terms – and the result is an inventive, cool and highly-listenable sixth album.

Famously, there is such a thing as “the Strokes sound”. Most songs on their first two records followed a precise formula: Interlocked guitars from Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi precisely sync with Fab Moretti’s machine-like beats and Nikolai Fraiture’s basslines, with Julian Casablancas’ unstructured vocals adding an exactly asynchronous vocal texture. It’s a carefully free-spirited aesthetic – the sonic equivalent of a get-the-bedhead-look hairspray or a tailored leather jacket (both of which were no doubt in their early wardrobes).

On The New Abnormal, there are certainly songs like these, but they’re often layered with more innovative elements that we first saw in Angles (2011) and Comedown Machine (2013). “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” is a traditional Strokes song – Velvet Underground-esque vocals set to crystal-clear beats – but there’s a pulsing, hypnotic underline that adds unusual heft to the humdrum. Album opener “The Adults are Talking” is as Strokes-y as they come, with a crisp riff that instantly pulls you in, but its latter portions involve jagged zingers from Hammond and Valensi, and, improbably, a Chris Martin-style falsetto half-verse from Casablancas.

And it’s not just the Strokes’ own repertoire that seems to have provided inspiration. In the album-free wilderness years from 2013’s Comedown Machine, every one of the Strokes embarked on a solo career – some successful and some not. As the rock-star cliché goes, these side projects were the result of a growing schism between the band members; but on The New Abnormal, these fractured elements have been successfully pulled into the main act.

For example, Casablancas definitely had his Voidz hat on when he wrote the magnificent “At the Door” –the dense, palpable sadness in his voice contrasted only against sludgy synths. The lyrics (“Use me like an oar / get yourself to shore”) are stark and chilling – a bit unusual coming from the erstwhile kings of nonchalance. “Selfless”, a simple, pretty ditty, is cut from a similar cloth as Fab Moretti’s too-shortlived Little Joy project, while “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” is filled with the sort of irrepressible Hammond riffs last seen on his well-received Francis Trouble (2018).

The overall sonic cohesion on the album, despite so many disparate pieces, is due in large part to Rick Rubin. The master producer has produced for a vast and varied list, from Run-DMC to Metallica to Justin Timberlake, and that genre-bending prowess has left its mark on The New Abnormal. For example, dance-pop track “Bad Decisions” is smoothly segued into the moody Childish Gambino-meets-the-Weeknd “Eternal Summer” – not an easy feat. The production on “Ode to the Mets” is startlingly beautiful – a kaleidoscope of quiet fury, nostalgia, wistfulness and everything in between (per the band, it’s an ode to the idea of a perennial failure).

And finally – the name. When the Strokes announced the album on February 10th at a Bernie Sanders rally, the world was unimaginably different. There was a mysterious virus in China, but they seemed to have controlled it; Bernie was leading the race for President in a bid to finally lift America out of modern-day feudalism; and so on. Exactly two months later, on April 10th – the day of their album release: that mysterious virus had taken more than 18,000 lives in America; Bernie had thrown in the towel two days prior; and a global recession now looms on the horizon. The New Abnormal, the Calpurnia of our times, couldn’t have been more perfectly titled.

Honestly, the only thing the Strokes had to do on their sixth record was to sound like the Strokes. Happily, they’ve overdelivered: a congruent Strokes-plus-plus. The New Abnormal is not the best thing they’ve ever done – Casablancas himself rates it his fourth-favorite output – but it’s proven that there’s more to the Strokes.

Best tracks: The Adults are Talking, Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus, Ode to the Mets

Empress Of – I’m Your Empress Of

17 Apr

As albums go, there are far harder ones to sell someone on than I’m Your Empress Of. It’s frothy, compelling pop led by the skill of Empress Of herself. “Bit of Rain” starts the album with a great synth beat that’s elevated by her voice and it’s got sex both poetic and fleshy. “Not The One” is similarly a highlight both for the honesty in the sex and honesty in the singing.

It’s a very consistent album, there’s no bad music here. However, there are also just not enough highlights either. Something like “Love Is A Drug” is very well crafted, but lacks a little inspiration. There’s a lot of good music in this album, but not quite enough that sticks to you. I’m Your Empress Of is a good pop diversion and it doesn’t need to be anything more.

Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

13 Apr

If you were still wondering whether disco has truly made a comeback in 2020, look no further than Dua Lipa’s sophomore album, Future Nostalgia . With a stark departure from the dance-pop sensibilities of her eponymous debut album, Dua Lipa brings her modern spin on retro-fabulous to the table. Yet somehow, it’s not all disco. Lipa has managed to concoct a dance album that simultaneously draws inspiration from three decades of pop music – yet feels fresh, fun and timeless.

Dua Lipa has always been a Cool Girl™. She’s suave, she’s a sharp dresser, and she’s seemingly stolen Lady Gaga’s spot as a pop queer icon (at least until Chromatica drops later this year). Future Nostalgia feels like the first time that she’s dropped the image and just had fun with it, for a change.

If you’re looking for deep lyrical content on this album, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. Most tracks on this album are sexually-charged love songs or radio-pop anthems peppered with cookie-cutter feminist slogans. But there’s no denying that Dua Lipa knows how to make a good pop banger that gets you moving.

The album opens strong with “Future Nostalgia”, a song that clearly spells out Lipa’s thesis statement for the album (“You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game”). “Don’t Start Now” is an upbeat heartbreak anthem, a strange juxtaposition of themes that shouldn’t work, but somehow does – and incredibly well, too. With “Physical”, a dancercise-style synth-pop track, Dua Lipa embraces the retro sound to her advantage. The chorus is a direct reference to Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 hit “Let’s Get Physical”, and she employs a classic 80s song structure, complete with a hand-clapping bridge section. Yet somehow, the track feels modern and light, all while giving you the intense urge to throw on a pair of spandex and (poorly) follow along with a Jazzercise VHS tape.

Out of the eleven tracks on the album, the first ten of them could be individually released as successful lead singles- it’s just one frenetic synth-pop disco dream after the next. The stand-out pieces, though, are neatly nestled in the middle of the tracklist. “Levitating”, an interstellar-themed track with deceptively simple vocal work, sounds like it was copped straight from The Weeknd’s repertoire. Not surprising, since Lipa herself names Daft Punk (along with Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Kylie Minogue to name a few) as one of her muses for her new “retro-futuristic” sound. With the heavy pounding choruses and dreamy verses on “Hallucinate”, Dua Lipa explores Europop, a frequently overlooked relic of the 80s and 90s that hasn’t seen much traction since the Spice Girls era of pop.

That isn’t to say that this album is perfect. “Good in Bed”, a Lily Allen-style bop, has some of the worst rhymes we’ve seen (- bad – sad – mad -), and will incessantly annoy you with how catchy this objectively trashy track is. That’s another bone to pick with Dua Lipa’s work: the vacant lyrical content.  Sure, most pop stars have always stuck to a handful of topics – usually love, romance and heartbreak – but you’d expect something more, thematically speaking, from a modern feminist pop icon like Dua Lipa. However, the one time she does try to explore a different subject matter on “Boys Will Be Boys”, it falls entirely flat. Dua Lipa means well with this number as she attempts to speak up about women’s rights and gender roles, but she ends up putting a sudden and final damper on an otherwise fun, upbeat and perfect pop album.

But maybe, given the state of the world in April 2020, a groovy dance-your-way-through-the-decades style pop album is what we need right now. There’s a reason disco makes a comeback every few years- it’s fun, it’s uplifting, and most importantly it’s infectious! Dua Lipa has truly perfected the art of a perfect pop album. You can throw it on, dance it out and take her advice to heart: “Don’t take yourself too seriously and just have fun with it!”

Lil Wayne – Funeral

9 Apr

At this point, it’s nothing short of ridiculous to argue against Lil Wayne’s importance. Music today has his fingerprints all over it and his absence has been nothing short of criminal. Weezy’s singularity, his energy, his unexpectedness and creativity, and the fact that he has prodigious enough skill to pull off his more absurd tricks with all of the above are things that rap has sorely missed.

Funeral has Wayne return to something more of a mixtape sensibility and the return to mixtape Weezy is welcome, even if it’s not 2006 anymore. He’s loose and having fun here and there’s some quite good music that comes from it. Right at the beginning of the album he goes hard in “Mahogany.” He has a velocity with his raps that always feels breathless, but he’s in such control throughout.

When he goes hard here, he does really well. “Ball Hard” really stands out for what he can just do as a rapper. He just drops a stream of consciousness on the listener, but he’s so good a rapper that it grabs you the whole way. Throughout, when he just lets go and raps, the album shines. “Bing James” and “Not Me” showcase him as just a rapper and are highlights.

His experiments are more of a mixed bag though. “Dreams” is interesting and it’s a very Lil Wayne song. This is the kind of thing that we’ve been missing without him. However, while “Sights and Silencers” might be interesting for its inclusion as a slow R&B jam, it’s just not good enough to warrant that inclusion. “I Don’t Sleep” has a solid flow, but the venture into pop-trap with Offset ends up forgettable overall. “Trust Nobody” with Adam Levine is just unfortunate.

There is undoubtedly some air in this album, but it still has a lot of solid music. It doesn’t really have anything that’s a must-listen and that’s what really holds it back from being a full return to Weezy’s peak, but it’s still fun and a good reminder of who exactly Lil Wayne can be.

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