Apropos of my earlier post on the popularity of ‘Selfie Pulla’ in Romania, here is one more example of cross-cultural pollination. A Romanian song called ‘Condimente’, by Nosfe and featuring Ruby wears its Indian influences on its sleeve. The song lyrics have the singers using funky spice metaphors to talk about their relationship. (‘You’re spicy, like chili or paprika/I just eat more light, be my soy sauce/me basil, you mint/This ain’t perfect but it has a tint’) The video features India-influenced background dancers, and the setting is totes obvs Bollywood. If we lived in the 90s, this song would already have made an appearance in an Anu Malik album — or four — by now.
If you are a connoisseur of the comment section on YouTube, you will be surprised to see the number of Romanians commenting on this particular video. As it turns out, “Pula” is Romanian slang for the male member/dick/cock/prick/insert (giggle) your synonym here. The video was featured on an entertainment show in the country, and suddenly went viral there. My Romanian friends have been sending me the link for expert commentary, and it’s hard to keep a straight face. Not since ‘Kolaveri Di’ (which was popular enough to be included in zumba classes in Cluj) has an Indian song made such an impact on Romanian internet circles.
But then, I have my own arsenal of pop culture artifacts to make the most hardened Romanian patriot blush, or at least back away slowly, eager to deny all association with these gold-encrusted nuggets.
Exhibit B: (NOT work-safe, hellz no)
But to be fair, Romania has its share of good music. The most obsequious, and often reviled, genre is dance-pop, and it even has a special name for the country — ‘popcorn’. O-zone’s ‘Dragostea din tei‘ (if you don’t remember it, maybe you recognize it as the ‘Numa Numa’ song) was a legit hit in the early 2000s, and by the end of the decade, artists like Alexandra Stan, Inna, and Andreea Banica had broken through, making frothy, catchy pop music that is easy on the ears and quite the rage in night-clubs around Europe. Synthesized accordion and brass melodies are occasional hallmarks in these songs, and most feature English lyrics that sound like afterthoughts on top of the production, suffering from a lack of depth. (Hey, who are we to complain, we purveyors of Ishqwala Love/Selfie Pulla/Hai Hukku?) Overall, popcorn is very distinctive, drawing influences from trance, house and dub-step into a sound that is uniquely Romanian. The videos are rife with pretty people; the artistes themselves are usually gorgeous, and are consequently mainstays on /r/sexymusicvideos. Here’s an extended, albeit, outdated popcorn playlist:
Of all the popcorn artistes I know, I tend to favor Inna and DJ Andi the most. I heard the latter for the first time in 2009, when his ‘Freedom’ was playing in every bar and nightclub and radio station during my visit. Inna is dear to my heart because I heard some unplugged songs by her, and I simply could not resist.
I can’t stand Romanian rock. With very few exceptions, most local bands have an 80s hair-metal hangover that turns me off. I suspect it is both my taste and my lack of context for the lyrics that contribute to my lack of interest in them.
My favorite sub-genre in Romanian music happens to be ‘etno’, which mixes traditional instruments, rhythms, voices and melodies with sleek production values. It is folk meets turn-tablism, hip-hop, D&B and dub-step loops. Subcarpati is a band I keep an eye on, and they feature outstanding work on their tracks, the language barrier hardly a factor in bopping along with their songs.
If you want to keep an eye on new Romanian pop, /r/RomanianHouse is the sub-reddit to follow.
And if you really want the dregs of Romanian music, don’t look further than Manele. Local critics have used terms like “pseudo music”, “pure stupidity, inculture and blah-blah”, “the genre for the mentally challenged”, and my personal favorite: “society’s bed-wetter”. I am not morally equipped to point you to manele videos, proceed at your own peril. Please do not come asking for a life refund once you are done, okay?
Just in time for April, another selection of songs that makes my head bop, my toes curl and my fingers fly on the keyboard.
I have had Grimes’ new album, Art Angels on heavy rotation the last few weeks. My love for this album has been bolstered by a long interview with the artiste that I read recently, and a book called Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. It’s a stunning collection of tracks — accessible and complex at the same time, and self-aware, in a strange way. Grimes has appeared on my older playlists, obviously, but I have never been as completely blown away by the totality of her earlier albums. ‘Kill v Maim’ is here because it’s one of the weirdest songs on Art Angels: the video is all glitter and J-pop, and her voice takes on textures that . What makes the song really special is the concept — it is sung from the point of view of Al Pacino in Godfather II, except ‘except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space’. Um, yeah. Fuck.
Klimeks is a British producer that falls squarely into the ambient/synthpop genre, much like Burial and even Mura Masa, both of whom are artistes I love. In fact, if ‘Tokyo Train’, a track from 2013, had pitch-shifted vocals, I would probably think it was Mura Masa. Though that’s kind of doing Klimeks injustice, he has a very distinctive sound that makes for great listening both at home and at work. Calm yet filled with nervous tension.
Moderat’s new album Moderat III is out already, and this was one of the first singles that I heard from it. The video features a sci-fi story with teenagers harvesting crystals in a dystopian world, and it feels like an avant garde video game someone else is playing when you get high. The song is so distinctively Moderat – the sharp synth wail, the repeating 5-beat snare pattern at 16 bar intervals, the layered vocals.
Julietta’s ‘Conquest’ is a catchy pop song about heartbreak. It has this unsettling tremolo synth loop going on at first, which is kind of distracting, but the song ultimately wins it with her voice and the main hook.
Early Winters is one of my favorite bands, and their second album ‘Vanishing Act’ is my album of choice on silent, meditative nights. Their third album has been forthcoming, but what we got was a 2:13 minute song that proves that they have not lost a little bit of the wonderful sound and the unique mood of their collaborative act. Justin, Carina, Dan and Zach, please finish your album.
Shadow and Light are a Delhi-based band that caught my attention through a random link that someone shared. Pavithra Chari and Anindo Bose make for a wonderful collaboration; she is the vocalist and lyricist, while he works on the music production and provides harmonies. Oh, the harmonies. ‘Dua’ makes me very happy indeed, with its nimble mix of the jazz piano and a mellifluous ghazal.
Synthwave is a genre inspired by 80s film, video and TV soundtracks, mostly driven by non-American bands. You can hear the sound in the OST of Drive, or in the music of Com Truise. This Carpenter Brut track needs no endorsement. The video is batshit insane, and the propulsive synth-driven beat puts you square in the center of B-movie action.
What is it with young British electronic musicians? Feint is 22, and his Drum and Bass songs burrow their way into my brain like nothing else. Veela’s vocals work beautifully on this song.
Thomas Vent is electro-funk with a dollop of dubstep. You better have your dancing shoes on.
I had included Sir Sly’s ‘You Haunt Me’ in an earlier playlist, but my preference was for the remix of the song, rather than the original. This song drove me crazy, with its hypnotic beat and Landon Jacobs’ whisky-smooth voice and the throbbing, glitchy arpeggiator that comes in somewhere in the middle. The video’s wonderful too, makes you want to not blink at all.
It’s funny how artistes take on new meaning with a bit of context. I heard Mr Oizo one fine day, thanks to a random online recommendation. Two days later, while in conversation about weird cinema with a bunch o’ fellow-nerds at a signing, the name Quentin Depeaux came up, who is a French film-maker that has made some surreal films. Turns out Mr Oizo is Depeaux’s side-project as a DJ/musician. And his music is as sufficiently weird as his filmography, according to people in the know.
A New Zealand-based band that has settled in LA, BRÅVES has had its share of crazy videos — including one with full frontal male nudity. This video is tamer, but the song is a crisp crowdpleaser.
I stumbled across the work of the pianist/multi-instrumentalist Lambert while looking for more artistes like Deaf Center and Nils Frohm. German artiste who has recently performed at the Hotel Cafe, and I wish I had known of him before his act. Must have been fun to see him live.
Ibeyi means ‘twins’ in Yoruba (a language spoken in Nigeria), and true to their name, the band is made up on twin sisters Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz, whose music combines Cuban, French and Nigerian influences. I paid attention to their music from a remix of ‘River’, which removed their vocals altogether, focusing on the thumping percussive beat of the track. A waste, if you ask me, because their voices give you goose-bumps, and the video leaves you holding your breath, literally. I love how the song ends with Yoruban lyrics. These sisters are incredible.
Nombe is Noah McBeth, a musician from Germany who now lives in Los Angeles. The lead guitar riff in the song ‘California Girls’ reminds me of ‘Finally Moving’ by Pretty Lights — the song that Avicii and Flo Rida made huge hits of. But that resemblance is just enough for you to pay attention to it, the song stands up well on its own.
The first thing that gets me about Tom Misch’s ‘Memory’ is its use of steel drums. The song weaves its layers around this single bar loop, which changes only when the vocals come in, almost 2 minutes into the song. It takes off with a crunchy guitar solo, and a drum-and-clap beat that glides in and out. Beautiful, beautiful track.
OH SHIT! This Four Tet remix of Jon Hopkins gut-punched me when I heard it the first time. The piano, if I may, is like moonlight peeping in through the trees as you drive through a dark forest late at night. Not your normal moonlight, more like moonlight in high contrast and embroidered with gold and fairydust. And then there’s stars going supernova as you suddenly begin flying into the sky, and there are colors everywhere and you can barely feel your own body. The closest you may get to this experience is if you are sitting on a window seat and your plane is about to land in LA late in the night. Or something like that. The video is insane on its own, but with the song, whoof!
Umm, yeah, Hans Zimmer’s theme for Batman v Superman featured heavily in my listening all of last month. “Day of the Dead’ particularly, because it goes from tenderness to dread to melancholy to bombast in the space of a few minutes, weaving layers over the four note Kal El theme from Man of Steel. Especially with the pizzicato strings ticking along like a time bomb.
That would have been the last song on the playlist, but for the fact that I noticed that Hana had released the video for her exquisite ‘Clay’. There’s also the added connection of her opening for Grimes in her last tour. My favorite moment on the song, the point when I knew it was going to be on constant rotation, is when the beat comes in at 0:56. Love the use of echo in her voice, and the warbly violin-sound that creeps into the track.
Pal William handed me a DVD of Under The Skin last week, a movie that we had talked about before and which he recommended with such enthusiasm that I bumped it up my queue. Took me a while to finally pop the disc in, but glad I did. The movie is bizarre and unsettling and wonderful, and Scarlett Johansson’s character makes me afraid and aroused at the same time. In the beginning, it is a strange mix of what feels like candid, unscripted moments of Ms Johansson driving around a strange land and picking up strangers. Scenes of seduction that make you hold your breath while waiting for the pay-off. When it ended, two-odd hours later, I found myself tingling with excitement, the kind that comes from consuming something that is beyond what you expected. 1
Nowadays, I prefer to go into movies without the burden of expectations that the publicity machine brings along. Oh, I am not talking about the big-budget franchises. That’s an infinite hype train subway where the exit doors lead to yet another platform and yet another ride. But it’s films like this, that come sans trailing numbers or colon-separated sub-phrase in the title, that bring me the most joy. Not just the way they play with the monotony of the three-act structure, but the way they give an actor like Johansson a role beyond the mundane.
But therein lies the problem – not boarding the hype train also makes it hard to pick a journey, and sometimes the ones you pick prove unworthy of your time. My criteria for this is simple – if I pause or get distracted while watching a 2-hour movie, I rethink whether it’s really worth my time. One of the ways to get around that is to watch movies only in someone else’s company, but that brings down the opportunity to watch a film at home by a large degree. I realized, after having finished Under the Skin in one non-stop sitting, how rare it had become for me to switch on my TV after I get home.
What also got me about that movie was the judicious use of music throughout the nearly-wordless sequences. Violins that play like cancerous lungs gasping for breath; creepy pitch-bends that make me feel as if there are glitches in my audio-spatial perception; the steady thump of a muted drum. This is music that truly lives up to the idea of the movie, the musical accompaniment to an anomalous entity exploring herself (itself?). The composer is a British lady named Mica Levi, stage name Micachu, and this is the first time she has worked on a soundtrack, can you believe that?
Parts of the music reminds me of both classic horror scores – mostly Bernard Hermann’s flamboyant use of the violin and Morricone’s intense giallo works. But the album that I had to go revisit, after the movie, was Wojkiech Kilar’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula; at first glance, there isn’t much of a similarity between Skin and Dracula, but my brain somehow established a connection between Levi’s keening violin scrapes and Kilar’s old-school orchestral maneuvers. In case you are wondering, there isn’t much of a resemblance. It was probably a resonance of the feeling in my gut when I watched Dracula for the first time as a kid.
- I have yet to watch Her and Lucy – two very unlike films, I know, but part of ScaJo’s recent filmography that convinces me that this lady is one of the finest actors in the business today both in terms of skills and the choices she makes. I loved the short appearance in Chef, for example, and her New York Jewish girl in Don Jon. ↩
What is it about the notes of a solitary piano that appeal to me so much, I wonder? This 2 minute 10 second piece passed my cardinal test for new music – which is that it made me pause in my work and give it my undivided attention. I expected the piano pattern to lead into some sort of aural explosion at the end, because this is how music of this sort conditions you; and it’s great at building tension, this track. The bass notes buzzes into existence around the 1:19 mark, but that is about all the variance you get.
The album, though, is more adventurous. A blend of cello-scrapes and breathy flute notes make up the bulk of the initial track ‘Divided’; it feels like a conductor raising his hands and waking an orchestra from a dream of centuries, a single note that is sustained over 4 minutes and 23 seconds. ‘Close Forever Watching’ is a sister track to ‘Divided’, going through a similar cycle of build-up of drone sounds that scream and whisper and sigh one after the other. Similarly, ‘Fiction Dawn’ is a sister track to ‘Time Spent’, a lone piano wandering through tense passages of full of promise. ‘The Day I would Never Have’ is a 10 minute track that marks the mid-point of the album, and combines the tinkle of the piano and the hum of the pads. Beautiful.
The problem with this kind of moody, creep-down-your-ears-into-your-spine music is how limited a window of opportunity I have to enjoy it. The bulk of my music-listening happens in the car, and what really goes well with driving is up-tempo beats and melodies. I have tried listening to Nils Frahm in the car, and I find myself slowing down on the freeway, or holding my breath in anticipation; the low-register subtleties of the music do not lend themselves to listening while on the move. At home, music gets put on in the background when I am cooking, or reading; the former brings in the same objections, and the latter makes it hard for me to focus on the reading.
This is also not the kind of music you want to listen to with others, not unless everyone’s willing to cut down on conversation and give a song like this their full-fledged attention. That is something that rarely happens in a group, and also, it is hard to get a bunch of people together that like the same things about a piece of music, or even that same piece, for that matter.
Similar to this genre are the weird, out-there sensibilities of Toru Takematsu or John Zorn, for example. Zorn’s music, in particular, would drive apartment-mates, my girlfriend and other assorted animals in the vicinity out of their minds. It’s hard to take this kind of music in for more than 2 or 3 tracks at a time, for sure.
Deaf Center would make for great meditation music, or walking-in-nature music. I don’t do much of the former, but I should definitely get around to indulging more in the latter. If only to listen to more space-hippie music.