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The National – I Am Easy To Find

24 Jul

The National is the band for whom consistency is a curse as much as a blessing. There is no other band in indie rock, and possibly all music, quite as dependable as The National. They are very good at what they do and it’s always worth listening to what they put out, but their albums have a way of blending together, at least until I Am Easy To Find.

The National have clearly defined their space over their time making music. They are the feeling of looking out a grey, rainy day from inside a warm house. There’s melancholy but there’s also enough coziness to let you fully wallow in it. This album has all of the melancholy and intimacy and gentleness that The National have always evoked, but this is also their first album to feature guest vocalists to such a degree.

The guests take away the major fault of The National to date, the self-centeredness. Making it so that Berninger is no longer the only perspective is a massive, fundamental shift to the way the album feels and this jolt is exactly what The National has needed for some time.

“I Am Easy To Find”, for instance, does really well for adding a female vocalist. What would have been a rather typical song about yearning becomes something much stronger by twinning singers. There’s much more depth and subtlety than before, especially when one voice fades in or out. It’s simple and understated in the way that the best songs of The National have always been, but much more mature than their previous work.

It’s the same, but slightly more so for “The Pull of You”, which most completely delivers on the album’s premise. From the start with a few seconds free of vocals before Lisa Hannigan to Matt Berninger allowing power to come into his voice in the chorus to the tautness of “I know I can get attached and then unattached / To my own versions of others / My view of you comes back and drops away,” there’s a lot in this song that works in a way very familiar and yet new and better.

The more skewed “Oblivions” is also a stand-out. Berninger puts down the base of the song, but it is Mina Tindle who does all of the work to elevate it. Berniger’s staging of the song is hugely important, but Tindle is absolutely excellent. As is “Roman Holiday”, which conjures quick image after quick image. However, there is still a lot in the album that never quite breaches the haze that The National so expertly sets up. There’s a lot of music that just fades into the rest.

The National basically started fully formed. Their aesthetic of cinematic, but shot in a soft and quiet black and white, has been there from day one. With I Am Easy To Find though, they’ve pushed it somewhere that feels completely novel and in doing so made one of their best albums to date.

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Tyler, The Creator – Igor

13 Jul

It was always clear that Tyler, the Creator was talented. Out of the old Odd Future gang, despite his sort-of leadership of the crew, it was others like Earl Sweatshirt and Syd tha Kid and of course, the incomparable Frank Ocean that seemed to be the people to listen to. His first albums had enough in them to make you take notice, but their unfocused nature held them back, despite that being such a strong part of Tyler’s charm. His following was devoted, but you had to not only have a tolerance, but a desire, for the random.

Maturity has changed him though. His music is now much more fully developed and honestly much more interesting. Both lyrically and in the musical themes, he’s taken the sparseness of the old OFWGKTA days, fleshed it out fully and pruned some of the weirder things and the result is much stronger for it.

He still goes hard with songs like the excellent “NEW MAGIC WAND” but he’s also able to put in the much softer, but still wonderful, “GONE GONE / THANK YOU.” He’s still Tyler through and through. “EARFQUAKE” is unquestionably his and shows you why people have always been excited about what he makes, but “A BOY IS A GUN?” is also singular and exciting, but wholly different and being able to take that level of versatility and yet make music of this sustained quality is a major achievement.

Tyler, the Creator is still a misfit. The final song here is the winsome “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?” It’s just that between this and Flower Boy, he’s developed it to the next stage. Now, he’s no longer the smart-but-weird kid at your school. He’s fully stepped into being the idiosyncratic genius instead.

Monthly Playlist: Jun. 2019

2 Jul

And just like that, we’re halfway through 2019. So far, the year has given us some great music already. There have been some fantastic albums from well-established bands (Vampire Weekend, Foals) and break-out debuts from true diamonds-in-the-rough (see: slowthai). Read on for our picks this month – spanning old-school indie rock, beautiful folk-pop, and two of the best tracks all year from the Indian subcontinent.

Read on below for the goods:

5. “No Bullets Spent” by Spoon

As our readers know well, we at Top Five Records are huge fans of Austin-based indie rock veterans Spoon. Their 2017 album, Hot Thoughts, made it onto our year-end list that year, and “No Bullets Spent” perfectly espouses all we love about this band. In spades are the laid-back vibes undeniably sourced from their hometown of Austin, TX; lead singer Britt Daniel’s lackadaisical lyrics; the unmistakably subtle-yet-groovy Spoon chorus; and so much more. “No Bullets Spent” was released to hype up the release of the band’s greatest hits album (Everything Hits at Once) on July 26th. Whether you’re already a Spoon fan or not, we encourage you to check out this track, and of course the greatest-hits compilation when it’s out.

4. “Love Yourself” by Sufjan Stevens

Love Yourself” is an electronic-tinged slowjam that works in two ways: one, as a plea to your lover to appreciate themselves more (“Love, can you love yourself”); two, as a note-to-self with the same message. Either way, it’s a gorgeous, lushly-produced song that perfectly features Sufjan’s emotive pipes. Sufjan Stevens has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity, in part due to the vital inclusion of a couple of his songs on Call Me By Your Name, 2017’s sleeper art film hit. With “Love Yourself” – released as part of a four-song Pride Month EP – Sufjan fans both new and old are likely to be more than satisfied. We sure are!

3. “My Baby’s Beak” by the F16s

In the early part of this decade, something magical was happening in Chennai’s indie music scene. There were suddenly a swathe of very good, very unique and very closely-knit artists coming out of the southern port city. Everyone seemed to know each other. Everyone wanted everyone else to succeed. Everyone came out to each other’s shows. Was there something in the Chennai water?

Over the years, we’ve spoken to and closely covered several of these bands, and what we’ve gleaned is the following. The city’s strong musical streak, combined with the centering of the Indian indie music away from Chennai to other metros (Mumbai, Bangalore) and the piteous lack of venues in town, meant that Chennai’s independent musicians had a truly DIY approach to their craft. People practiced in home spaces. Bands shared band members. And there was a strong support system that helped bands thrive and maintain their wholly unique sounds.

One of these bands is the F16s. For many of us at Top Five Records, songs like “Light Bulbs” and “Avalanche” (from 2013’s Kaleidoscope) exemplified the careful balance between restraint and decadence of our millennial existences back in the day. The band’s follow-up album, 2016’s Triggerpunkte, had a few stand-out tracks, but it felt like a stepping stone to the F16s’ next great output: and WKND FRNDS is it.

All four of the songs on this crisp new EP are great, but “My Baby’s Beak” really clicked with us. We can best describe the song as the soundtrack one might choose while writing desperate love letters, from a tropical island, pina colada in hand – in the 1980s. “Oh mama, can you tell me if I made it / My ego gets inflated with you,” croons lead singer Josh Fernandes, complementing the luxurious sounds from the rest of the band. The song’s a true treat for fans eagerly awaiting new F16s music, and for new listeners alike. P.S. If you liked this one, we’ll also take this time to recommend the EP’s eponymous track as a follow-up.

2. “Speedway” by black midi

The four young members of black midi met at BRIT School, the UK’s premier music school that has produced legends such as Amy Winehouse and Adele. Centered somewhere between the Foals’ math-rock and Animal Collective’s asymmetric ethos, black midi enthralls with a ridiculously ready-out-of-the-gate sound. Our favorite track off their debut album Schlagenheim is “Speedway” – a pulsing, hypnotic song filled with feverish stops and starts. Slightly nerve-wracking and more than slightly ominous, “Speedway” is testament to what the lads can pull off in a mere three minutes. If you like this song, check out “953” from the same album for some bewilderingly good punk rock.

1. “Floated By” by Peter Cat Recording Co

There is no other way to say this: Peter Cat Recording Co is one of the best bands to ever come out of the Indian subcontinent. With meticulous detailing and inimitable style, the Delhi-based gypsy / jazz band has long excited us here at Top Five Records. The band’s new album, Bismillah, dropped earlier this month, and suffice it to say, we cannot get enough of it.

Bismillah’s stand-out, in our opinion, is “Floated By”; a song so good that we wrote the rest of this list with it in a firm #1. “Floated By” finds the band in their element – a melancholic wedding band letting loose after a drink too many in hand and an hour too long on stage. (The twist here, as seen in the song’s music video, is that the wedding in question is lead singer Suryakant Sawhney’s own, real nuptials.)

As with most Peter Cat songs, the real star of the song is Sawhney’s powerful voice. In between the wedding-procession drums and slightly off-kilter horns, his voice rings out: true, wistful and imbued with astonishing range. A simple line (“I know that I should / I know that I would”) takes him ages to enunciate, as his voice floats across the vocal spectrum.

Simply put, “Floated By” is one of the best songs we’ve heard all year. Look for a full review of Bismillah soon – and until then, please give the album a listen.

Lil Skies – Shelby

20 Jun

I picked up this album off the strength of the single “i”. You can immediately see Lil Skies’ ear for sounds in it and he plays very cleverly around the foundation. I can never be quite sure when the shift will come and his stuttering keeps you off balance while staying on beat. He takes the same i and stutters and drags it in a way that stays unexpected. It’s very catchy and very sharp. 

The rest of the album is unfortunately fairly generic SoundCloud rap however. It ranges from fair to good, but feels purposeless. “When I’m Wasted” does nothing, “Bad Girls” does nothing despite a Gucci Mane feature, but it does at least have a good hook. Even the hook is bland on “Through The Motions” though. It just cannot live up to its promise. “Stop the Madness” is nothing new. You just need to have something more to say if you want to stand out from what is quite the packed crowd.

“Nowadays Pt. 2” is quite good though, if brought down a bit by the guest spot. The twin central phrases of “Blue Strips” are excellent, but the song could have used a few more ideas in it. “Flooded” is unreservedly very good though. The hook of “they say I got next / nigga, I got now” is very strong and the song mixes itself up constantly. It’s a catchy earworm of a song. 

It is true that there’s not enough here to really distinguish this album from the deluge of SoundCloud rap available now. As a whole, it is a little store-brand. However, between his clearly sharp ear for sounds and his now-proven ability to make top tier music, I’m sure that Lil Skies will put out something unmissable soon.

slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain

16 Jun

This is what I imagine it must have felt like when Never Mind The Bollocks… came out. Grime, that spectacularly and uniquely British style of rap, has had a couple of small coming out parties. Stormzy is picking up award after award and Big Shaq achieved ubiquity with “Man’s Not Hot”, but Nothing Great About Britain is the album that deserves to make the full breakthrough.

It’s also just the most punk album that I’ve heard in a long time. It’s aggressive and unapologetically in-your-face. It’s an intense album, both musically and lyrically. The heavy slice of life and the personal nature of the album all feed in to this redefined aesthetic. This is the natural evolution of punk for the late 2010s. This is the only thing that it could be.

It’s a lot more than three chords to make a band though. There is no shortage of technical skill here, either in the engaging flow or the compelling production and both of them change things up to a dizzying degree. Standout track “Northampton’s Child” showcases tremendous control as slowthai changes speeds, cadence and even speech patterns for emphasis and different impact. The key couplet of “You’re lucky I’m not as big as you/I would punch you till my hands turn blue.” hits like a sledgehammer. The autobiographical nature of the song and the thanking of his mother are sincere and real and raw and the sum of all of these parts is a completely unmissable track.

With his politics, with his soul and with his skill, slowthai has put together one of the most remarkable albums of the year and of the subgenre. Grime has arrived and it is Nothing Great About Britain that has opened the doors.

@murthynikhil

Jamie Cullum – Taller

14 Jun

When I first discovered Jamie Cullum in the late 2000s, he had already recorded five studio albums, and was playing in jazz festivals around the world. And while he was the kind of musician who brought his grandmother’s carpet to lay out on the stage at Blenheim Palace, he was also full of irreverent energy: stomping his feet on the keys of the piano, slapping his palms all over and underneath it, jumping on top of it and leaping off. His vigour was electrifying, and even deeply moving for a reserved person such as myself.

The Pursuit (2009) marks a neat halfway point between the start of his career and now, and it was in the album that followed in 2013 that I first began to hear creeping hints of self-doubt and insecurity:

As I sit and wait for some answers
The questions go round like a kamikaze pilot
Enlightenment’s just a romancer
I wish it were here burning brightly through the skylight .

Family life seemed to bring a new introspective quality to Cullum’s music. It’s not easy to slow down and take stock, to critically examine the costs and rewards of a glamorous profession in the arts, and to confront the fear of failure.

“Innocence is nice, but the world offers us more and it’s wrong not to take it.” As we grow older, so many of us feel that we have irrevocably lost our access to uninhibited creativity and joy. But the complications of being an adult unlock an unfamiliar kind of happiness, and an emotional depth we could never have imagined in innocence. The chords behind the crescendo of “Drink” conjure up with great accuracy the vertiginous relief and fear that accompany the first sensation of joy after a long unhappiness.

But the cheeky musician we’ve known is still around, and he announces it in the title of his latest album. Taller marks a milestone in a twenty-year-long career in jazz music. A bold, effervescent, and unceasingly fun artist now stands at the sobering brink of his forties; and the music inspired at this juncture is nothing short of a gift to everyone who has followed his work over the years.

Jamie Cullum is a small, if dynamic, man, and there has been no dearth of leg-pulling in the tabloids and on the internet about his height, and about his marriage to a substantially taller woman. The fact that he addresses this perceived deficiency head-on indicates that he hasn’t lost his sense of humour, and also that the discontent that has been simmering in the previous two albums will be explored more fully in this one.

“Usher”, the fourth track on the album, is a full-blown sonic party reminiscent in the best way of James Brown and the golden age of Soul. It’s crunchy and granular in a way that is profoundly satisfying (especially if you, like me, have been unable to avoid Trap and American R&B, the slickness of which, though often soothing, can quickly lose your interest). But the lyrics are not quite as cheerful as the music. And it’s a similar story with “You Can’t Hide Away From Love”, another favourite from the album: its lush orchestral arrangement recalls Audrey Hepburn movies, but with menace.

It’ll give you two black eyes
And discolour all your skies

It’ll have you on your back
And break into your flat

So reel me in
Till I’m gasping for air;
There’s no love without despair

It’ll shake you to your core
And leave you crying on the floor
But I’m telling you you can’t hide away from love.

This album examines not only personal demons, but also shared anxieties. Volume 2 of The Eighty-Eight, “an adventurous magazine for the occasional thinker” (or “an occasional magazine for the adventurous thinker”), which Cullum puts together with his friends and family, features a poignant essay about his Indian and Burmese heritage. More than one song on Taller references Brexit, the refugee crisis, British imperialism, and perhaps even the Me Too movement.

Cullum dwells on the unease of living in these times. There’s a stripped down version of “Mankind” on his YouTube channel well worth a listen. The irony of this composition is that it combines gospel music with lyrics that say “so long to sacred,” but there is a refusal to give up on people and the idea that love will conquer all. As Kristin Scott Thomas’ character in Fleabag puts it, “people are all we’ve got.”

This album is an exploration of fundamentals, and Cullum sings repeatedly of digging and searching deep within the earth. One cannot help but think of Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging, and the hope and doubt it expresses about writing and creative work as activities that productively uncover and reveal. “The Age of Anxiety” quotes WH Auden (“only love is what survives of us”), and imbues the song with its apprehension of mortality.

Age of Anxiety, Live from Craxton Studios

Cullum’s interest literature and great works of poetry (his favourite writers are Virginia Woolf and Paul Auster) is perhaps what gives his lyrics their unusual and beguiling quality.

The fact that he has always been an expressive vocalist only makes this better; and speaking of vocals, “Monster” showcases a falsetto range we’ve never heard from him before.

Literary inspirations aside, Cullum draws from an eclectic range of musical sources. For a few years now he has been reverse-engineering pop music on his YouTube playlist The Song Society, and curating more challenging compositions for his program “The Jazz Show” on BBC Radio 2. It’s fascinating to see these influences coming together to form an album that sounds — fittingly for a crossover artist — unique, and one that does not sit comfortably in either the pop or the jazz genre.

The great thing about the songs on this album is that they’re more than just tunes. Each song develops; it meanders into different moods and colours and tones. If you were to leave a song midway, you’d probably miss the best part, and definitely miss the whole story. The album requires, and rewards, patience. This is the kind of art I find myself most grateful for these days.

Taller is an invitation to revisit Jamie Cullum’s oeuvre; because the seeds of inventiveness and thoughtfulness were always there. I’ve been rediscovering the deluxe version of Catching Tales, for instance, with its cover of “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”, which is a youthful, groovier expression of “Drink”, the backbone of the new album. I am so excited to dip back in to this amazing body of work. There is no doubt about it: Jamie Cullum is a peerless and towering talent.

By Eesha Kumar

Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, Pt. 1

10 Jun

It’s 2008. The indie rock world is on a multi-year high – after the Strokes’ game-changing debut in 2001, there is a virtually non-stop stream of buzzy indie rock bands: Franz Ferdinand, the Libertines, Kaiser Chiefs, the Arctic Monkeys and so on. Many wonder: will there ever be a need for yet another indie rock band?

Through all that noise, Foals managed to prick up the world’s collective ears with their blistering math rock debut album, Antidotes. Math rock – with its frenetic arrangements and asymmetrical time signatures – had of course been around for a couple of decades (see: Slint, Polvo), but Foals served to bring it to the forefront of the ’00s resurgent indie rock scene.

Over the years, Foals released three more albums; but for many fans from the original Antidotes era, the band has strayed from its trademark sound into a slightly different tone. “Spanish Sahara” from 2009’s Total Life Forever featured on that era’s edgy prestige TV shows (Skins, Entourage). “Mountain at My Gates” from 2015’s What Went Down starred on the FIFA 2016 soundtrack. There’s nothing wrong with these things, of course; but the new material didn’t capture your undivided attention in the first two seconds – as did, say, Antidotes’ “Balloons” or “Red Socks Pugie”.

The fifth album, 2019’s Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt. 1, changes that trajectory. Here, the band seems to have finally figured out how to piece together the irrepressible energy of the first album – jagged riffs and sing-shouted lyrics – with the more mainstream, polished feel of the latter albums.

There are several stand-outs on this album. We already wrote about “Exits” – a slithering majesty of a track that moves seamlessly from the dramatic to the psychedelic over the course of a showstopping six minutes. (Do also check out the music video, featuring Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead-Wright.) Another must-listen is “Café D’Athens” – a fascinating juxtaposition of aloof vocals layered over nerve-wracking, tinny beats; think Radiohead meets Hercules & Love Affair.

What we really love about Foals is their ability to conjure up abstract feelings within decidedly non-abstract music. “White Onions” summons a claustrophobic feel with its repetitive riffs and non-stop drums; aptly, the lyrics reference lairs, mazes, cages, and fighting for air. “Syrups” is sexier: a thick bassline leads into heady guitars and steady drums, eliciting perhaps a mysterious road-trip into the clear night sky (“’Cause I’m about to take flight / Please don’t ask me why,” chime in the prescient lyrics).

This is the reason that Foals are featured on so many soundtracks: they are exceptionally gifted at pinning down moods and feelings within the confines of their spindly guitars and relentless beats. The band’s first four outings tended to focus on one part of that two-part puzzle: either the feelings or the music.

With Everything, the band has finally put it together. Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt. 1 is one of the best albums of 2019 – and, as luck would have it, we are still due for Pt. 2. We can’t wait.

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