Tag Archives: pop

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!

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!

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.

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.

Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure

14 Aug

Pop singer-songwriter Jessie Ware is familiar to most English audiences. Her debut album Devotion (2012) straight away bagged a nomination for the Mercury Prize, won that year by fellow Brit pop act alt-J. That album introduced listeners to Ware’s powerful voice, typically set against hefty drums and assertive synths. Subsequent albums Tough Love (2014) and Glasshouse (2017) followed the same theme, resulting in fantastic singles such as “Tough Love” and “Midnight”.

This June, Ware released What’s Your Pleasure, her fourth album – and undoubtedly her best. Over 53 minutes, Jessie Ware takes us on a journey back in time to the peak-disco world of late 70s, as epitomized by dance clubs like Studio 54. What’s Your Pleasure finds Ware at her freest – less bound by the rules of commercial pop music – and the result is a bold, highly enjoyable dance-pop extravaganza for the ages.

When we say dance-pop, we aren’t kidding. What’s Your Pleasure is filled to the brim with 70s-inspired dancefloor gems. Disco is, of course, the theme du jour among pop stars, but Jessie’s interpretation is slinkier than Dua Lipa, more refined than Lady Gaga and more inspired than Doja Cat.

From start to end, the album centers along the same few years – perhaps 1972 to 1978 – but manages to capture all the subtle nuances of that era. The album kicks off with “Spotlight”, which opens with a dreamy, vocal-heavy section in line with Jessie Ware of old – but then jumps right into the unmistakable disco synths that color the rest of the album. “Ooh La La” opens with a fat bassline that could soundtrack the entrance of a glamorous socialite into a plush dancefloor. A couple of songs later, “Save A Kiss” goes into the house music arena with a head-spinning beat, tempered by electronic blips and dramatic violins. “Read My Lips”, with its electric-guitar licks and distant synths, is pure flirty fun all the way through.

Lyrically, much of the album deals with obsession in all its facets – longing, lust, sex and sometimes just romance. Ware introduces the theme right at the start with “Spotlight”: “If only I could let you go, If only I could be alone / I just wanna stay, In the moonlight, this is our time in the spotlight”. “Adore You”, the first single off the album, is sweeter. “Stay ’cause I want you / We can tell everybody, tell everybody,” she suggests, perhaps the starting notes of what will soon become an unhealthy obsession. “Mirage (Don’t Stop)” is her paean for the morning-after: “Last night we danced, and I thought you were saving my life,” she confesses.

Both musically and lyrically, the album really hits its peak on the eponymous “What’s Your Pleasure”: a fast-paced, riveting, instant-classic disco hit that’s honestly one of the best songs of the year.

Recently, fashion godfather and Vogue legend Andre Leon Talley released an auto-biography entitled Chiffon Trenches. In the book, Talley describes his life through the fashion world in the past half-century, especially underlining the carefree, lascivious few years in the 70s between the sexual revolution and the AIDS wildfire. Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure is the perfect soundtrack to this era: confident yet vulnerable, joyous yet filled with longing, but above all – free.

What’s Your Pleasure is an audacious, glittery antidote to this godforsaken year, and we couldn’t be happier that Jessie has bequeathed us with this gift.

Best songs: “What’s Your Pleasure”, “Read My Mind”, “Spotlight”

Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off The Floor

29 Jun

There’s nothing extraneous in Pick Me Up Off The Floor. It’s stripped down in the way of lo-fi rock, but has sort of come to it from the other side. There’s just a sublime confidence in this music. It never overwhelms. It just takes things out one at a time, gives you time to examine it and then puts it away so that you can see what’s next. It knows that everything it has for you is worth your consideration and so there’s no need to hurry you along.

It has the cleverness to justify that confidence too. Right from the opener of “How I Weep” which draws out the first two words into a hurried “weep” at the jump and then draws out that same “weep” on the next go-around. Norah Jones’ singing is impressive as ever. Her voice has the strength to pull off all her gambits and fluid enough to work as well in the barnstorming blues of “Flame Twin” as in the country / gospel ballad of “To Live.” It’s clever and jagged in “Say No More” and yet filled with personality and irresistibly seductive. She dances across genres with very light feet and never stumbles once. There’s not a single point here where she feels less than completely in control.

Furthermore, it’s a sharp enough tool to need little else. The stark structure of “Were You Watching” would have been repetitive with a lesser musician, but between her voice and the clean piano, there’s just no need for anything else. This is a delicate, understated album and an achievement as one. In a turbulent time, it is a respite to have this album playing. It might have benefitted from delving deeper into the current moment than it does. There are references to the world right now studded throughout the album, but there’s also a lot that floats context free. Still, it floats so beautifully that it’s hard to complain.

It is very satisfying that Pick Me Up Off The Floor is the perfect sound to get up to after a fall. It’s always the dream that you build something from an experience that helps others with the same one. I’m listening to the soft, noodling instrumental piece at the end of the final song “Heaven Above” as I write this and it has been a hard and disappointing day and this is the gentleness that I’ve forgotten I need. This is a deep breath and a quick stroke on the back before I get up and now, I get up.

Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now

26 May

Pop is the medium of the present. Other genres can try to make an album that future generations will love or something that speaks to the older generation of established critics or just to be something their parents would listen to. Pop is about the now. Sometimes, like photos of ourselves from the nineties, we can only look back in bemusement, but that’s missing the point. how i’m feeling now is about just that, how I’m feeling right here and right now.

Make no mistake though, this is music of the present done very well. “claws” is a propulsive stream-of-consciousness with a chorus that extends exactly one beat longer than expected and is perfect for doing so. It forces the listener to pay attention and pulling out the phrase “I like” into the conclusion of “everything about you” is cute and yet intense in the way feelings are when you’re young. It’s some of the best pop that she has ever made.

She’s got that aesthetic down pat by now. “7 years” and “party 4 u” are good pop and very cute for that feeling of young love. Similarly, “i finally understand” puts a smile on your face for how well it expresses the feeling of being understood yourself. It’s upbeat and energetic and just feels happy. For an album about living in a pandemic, this is mostly a joyful album and it achieves that through just being honest. There is still a lot to celebrate in the now.

That’s one of the biggest strengths of how i’m feeling now, Charli brings the sincerity that great pop needs. It feels raw, it feels unpolished and it even feels a little rushed, but none of these detract. It’s not sloppy, it’s authentic. It’s straight from the feelings. It’s not an album to study, it’s one to experience in the moment. “pink diamond” opens the album strongly with just how uncompromising it is. The harsh noise and unforgiving beats hit you from the jump. It’s a very aggressive sound.

It’s also just masterful pop. Charli has been one of the most interesting musicians in pop for quite a while now and how i’m feeling now continues to prove how good an ear she has for pop. “detonate” is proper club pop in an age of no clubs and the breakdown at the end is genius for how it reminds you of that. “c2.0” has her at her most playful with her sounds. She lets pieces bubble into each other and burst through and it’s very clever. “enemy” has bright, blinding synths and while the lyrics never deliver on the promise, it doesn’t matter. It’s a shimmering, not a textbook.

This is an album of the moment and it’s transient in the way all pop must be. I don’t know if it will hold up at the end of the year or if it’s the kind of thing that I’ll ever come back to, but right here and right now, it’s perfect.

@murthynikhil

Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA

23 May

Nostalgia in pop is having a moment. The Weeknd and Dua Lipa, for instance, have mined this vein heavily, but no one has done it with the intelligence of Rina Sawayama. The trick to nostalgia is not to sound like what music used to sound like, but to sound like what you remember things to feel like. It’s not about the sound. It’s about the feel. I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t the most sophisticated of listeners in the early nineties and much of what I was listening to wasn’t that sophisticated either. Sawayama draws from wells like Korn, Evasnescence and above all Britney for the album, but through an astonishing alchemy serves something as sharp as any of the most experimental pop today.

The best tracks, “XS” and “Comme Des Garcons” have all of the energy of Britney, but with a complexity that it’s hard to imagine Britney bringing. “STFU!” is as hard and as fun as any Korn track, but it’s not dumb and that’s a pretty big difference. Her upbringing further sharpens the album. “Akasaka Sad” and “Dynasty” both layer in her personal story and in doing so further evolve the music. The pop she draws from never thought to speak of the immigrant experience. She astutely and cuttingly speaks of tourists in “Tokyo Love Hotel” and the storytelling there is made better for the earlier contrast of “Bad Friend.”

It does occasionally slip too close to the well and so “Paradisin” has nothing interesting. The sax there almost sticks it, but is just too cheesy and her voice is not enough to carry the song through. Similarly, “Chosen Family” is just a traditional pop ballad and can’t hold up to the more interesting music here.

At its best though, this is absolutely incredible pop. It’s whip-smart and yet highly approachable from its sources. Outgrowing old tastes has never been this fun.

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.

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.

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