Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Heaven forbid you dance

Reflections on Sasquatch, indie music and pretentiousness

I finally went to Sasquatch this year. I've been meaning to for the last couple of years, but life gets in the way - other plans, family visiting et al. It was an immensely enjoyable day out. Gorgeous weather and lots of great bands made for a vasool day of entertainment.

Seeing a bunch of upcoming and established bands - Beirut, Ozomatli, Crudo, Modest Mouse and R.E.M. was a great experience - even with the rain that graced the ending part of the day. The only bad note was M.I.A. - a lot of people loved her act, but I was left cold (literally and figuratively) by her dancehall/ reggae/ electronica mix.

The day reminded me of the site 'Stuff white people like' (Hat Tip: India Uncut). They have an entry for 'standing still at concerts'. I quote:

The problem is that most of the music that white people like isn’t really dance-friendly. More often the songs are about pain, or love, or breaking up with someone, or not being able to date someone, or death.

So when white people go to concerts at smaller venues, what to do they do? They stand still!

It struck me forcibly when Beirut and Ozomatli performed in quick succession.

Don't get me wrong. Beirut's music is gorgeous. Ukulele, trumpets and Balkan brass band sounds all come together and the music has texture. You can feel the layers in the music combine, making it more than the sum of its parts. What got to me was the somberness of it all. I mean, Zach Condon, the guy behind Beirut is all of twenty-two years old. He's been creating music since he was 15. Isn't that too young to be so dreary? As I say to a colleague at work (who's 22 incidentally). " Aren't you too young to be so bitter?"

It's something I've been feeling for a while now and reading the blog post on 'standing still at concerts' a month back made it stick. So much of the indie music I hear (not all, but enough to make it a trend) is goddamn downbeat. Death Cab for Cutie, Fleet Foxes, The New Pornographers (all performing at Sasquatch) fall into this category. So do that indie favorite, The Shins and many others I keep hearing being hyped up on indie radio. I stopped following recommendations on popular music sites and radio stations because it was all getting so pretentious and precious.

After Beirut left, Ozomatli came on stage and changed the mood of the crowd on a dime. This Latin rock/hip-hop group from L.A. really knows how to throw a party. They had the crowd rocking in no time to their infectious mix of Latin, hip-hop, rap, dub and general joyfulness. In the defense of M.I.A, her music throws political bombs but she manages to keep the party going while doing that.

Another new group I saw, Crudo ( Dan the Automator's side project) helped you let your hair down as well. They combined hip-hop, rock and some neat work on the turntable to put out a irresistible mix that you couldn't help dance to. These three turned out IMO to be the best showcases for going to a music festival to try new music. I was really impressed by R.E.M's set as with Modest Mouse, but they are the biggies. I wouldn't expect any less from them.

To kind of reinforce my point on how annoying and insular indie rock can get, I point you to KEXP's blog post on day 1 at Sasquatch. Not even a mention of one of the smaller bands (Ozomatli and M.I.A were both on the main stage). I rest my case.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Reality TV bites

It's been an unusually busy couple of weeks - I'm preoccupied enough to not blog. I have a long book review swirling in my head (Samit Basu's Gameworld trilogy, if you must know) but that will have to wait as work on the world's biggest software project and CRY's biggest fundraiser this side of the Atlantic takes its toll.

However, the interest I've developed in a reality TV series cannot go without comment. A disinterested TV-watcher at best, my live TV watching mostly consists of infinite re-runs of Seinfeld with a dose of The Simpsons, South Park and King of the Hill thrown in for good measure. I started watching American Idol (the tuesday one, when they actually sing) because being the music junkie I am, some of the singing on display makes the series for decent viewing, especially towards the end of the season.

However, probably the very first or second episode I actually saw, I was hooked. The reason? I saw David Cook perform Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. He sang a cover version made by Chris Cornell that's on his new album. David Cook's version completely blew my mind. His version can be seen on YouTube here.

After dismissing most of American Idol winners as good singers of the mostly harmless pop type (Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood), here was someone who had balls. He was singing alternative, edgy songs, ripping the playbook apart, and doing it well. I've watched with more than passing interest as he's made his way through the rounds and reached the final two. His song choices and arrangements are out there - a rock version of the Beatles' Day Tripper and Eleanor Rigby, Switchfoot's I Dare You to Move, and a rock version of Lionel Richie's Hello. What is this guy smoking?

It's slightly freaky, but I'm actually rooting for him to win against the more clean-cut and predictable David Archuleta. Let's see what happens, but when American Idol gets record viewership for its season finale, I guess I may be one of the guilty parties involved.

And I wondered how that completely pointless talent hunt ran for 7 seasons.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Jal's Boondh

My reviews (books/music/movies) tend to be subjective and all over the place. It's about how the album/movie/book makes me feel at that point more than anything else. So usual disclaimers et al.

Second albums are always a challenge. You have your whole life to do your first album but you only have a year or two to do the second one. Plus, if you've had a reasonable modicum of success, the added weight of expectations and the likelihood of adulation going to your head are both high. So second albums in some ways are doomed. How many artists have we seen fade away after a promising debut?

Jal thankfully won't fade away at least on the basis of their second release. Aadat - their debut album had a lot going for it. Their scrappy guitar-based rock sound which sounded like a couple of friends out to have a good time was fresh and appealing. The solid songwriting on tracks like Aadat, Bikhra Hoon Main and Dil Haray Pukaray was pure bonus.

I wouldn't say that their second album Boondh is a top-notch effort in the realm of Aadat. However it shines in a few notable places and what it's not means as much as what it is.

It's not an album by a rock band deciding to go crowd-pleasing just for the heck of it. There are no hip-hop remixes, no gratuitous uh huh's, yeah yeah's and 'on the floor's  by weird sounding voices trying to sound hip but only sounding annoying. There are no female choruses going it's rocking. It's an enjoyable pop-rock album, thought at places it's a tad overambitious and tries too hard. Some notes:

- Sajni starts the album strong - with good backing vocals featuring both the vocalists and a smattering of acoustic guitar

- Chalte Chalte starts off well before adding crowd applause samples towards the end which I found annoying. Though it fits well with the music video featuring Amrita Rao

- Raatein is IMO the one solid old-school Jal track coming from Aadat-land. Enjoyable, very interesting transitions

- On Moray Piya, the vocals of Farhan Saeed Butt sound mature and you can see him ready to move on beyond teen-bop. Enjoyed this one

- Main Mustt Hoon is a fairly enjoyable track drawing on traditional Sufi music. This track threw me off because I wasn't expecting Jal to sing 'Jhule Lal Qalander' in a refrain ever

- Mahia (my favorite track on the album) features some good rock-out music. Very familiar 4x4 beat (Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze?)

- Chup Chup has a vibe to it that reminds me of Kucch to Hua Hai from Kal Ho Na Ho. Interesting vocals, liked it on further listens

The two tracks on the album I didn't care for much were Humein Itna Na Pyaar and Kia Se Kia. The slow versions of Sajni and Humain Itna Na Pyaar left me cold as well. This trend has to stop - unless you're adding something new (see Bikhra Hoon Main/Aadat), one version per album is quite enough, thank you.

While being a good album, the album suffers from less-than-stellar songwriting. An obvious culprit is Humein Itna Na Pyar Karo. While the rest of the songs aren't bad, nothing comes close to the intensity or quality of Aadat's songwriting. Maybe there is something to the sophomore jinx.

Another grouse about the album I had was its overproduced feel. It feels like the band (or rather, Goher Mumtaz who wrote and composed all the tracks on this) tried too hard to incorporate too many sounds rather than letting the sound flow organically. Incidentally, the producer on the album is Mekaal Hassan who is a remarkable composer and performer himself with his own band. His Sampooran is a lovely album, also slightly overproduced but highly recommended.

All in all, a solid but not remarkable release from the Pakistani rock stables. But Pakistani pop-rock is alive and kicking and that is good news.