Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has a soundtrack to be proud of. Music hand-picked by Olivia and Dan The Automator, featuring the likes of Alanis Morrissette, Sofi Tukker, LCD Soundsystem, and Perfume Genius. But the one track that blew my mind was a song by Fata Boom, called ‘Double Rum Cola’. You see, it features a sample from a very, very familiar song from this 90s Indian boy’s childhood.
The song plays in an insane slow-mo last-day-of-high-school sequence, which is perfect.
You gotta go watch Booksmart. It’s phenomenal, and not just because of the music.
I heard a song while having dinner in an Indian restaurant in Toronto. It’s surprising I paid attention to it because I was in wonderful company and the conversation was sublime. But the melody felt…familiar. It’s an infuriating feeling to not recognize a song immediately, and I knew that later, it would come back to haunt me. So I switched on Soundhound, and the track that showed up was something I had never heard before. It was called ‘I Wanna Know’, by NOTD, featuring Bea Miller on vocals. Decent 6-out-of-10 summer dance track, but I could not understand why it felt so familiar.
It was only later, after I had hummed the main verse a few times, that I realized I had heard it after all. Well, not the original, but the version that appears on Ark Patrol’s ‘Entropy’.
I came across the music of Ark Patrol by pure happenstance earlier this year, when he released his first full-length album. It’s one of the best downtempo/chill LPs I have heard in 2019, and has been on repeat for the better part of the last quarter. The way he samples Bea Miller’s vocals for ‘Entropy’ is magical; the voice lowers an octave, the refrain becomes a plaintive wail, the beats and drone slither hypnotically. Electronic music at its finest.
The sheer joy of Michel Gondry’s video for the Chemical Brothers song ‘Gotta Keep On’ keeps on making me high. (hyuk!) But Gondry being Gondry, I love the turn the visuals take towards the middle. Just the subtle tweaking of reality that modern-day CGI brings to the director’s toolbox. MG, most known for directing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was the director of choice for some of Bjork’s greatest songs.
Bonus: Michel Gondry’s video for Metronomy’s ‘Love Letters’ (2014)
This is a good time to mention that Susheela Raman has a new album that came out last year, called Ghost Gamelan.
In case you didn’t know, Gamelan is a form of traditional music from Indonesia, primarily the islands of Bali and Java. The music is percussive, and its origins lie in Javanese mythology, from the story of a king who summoned the gods by playing on three gongs. So while gamelan incorporates a variety of musical instruments, the majority of the world identifies it via the distinctive sound of the metallic and bamboo gongs, xylophones, and cymbals that are used in the ensemble.
The first time I heard the sound of gamelan was, even though I did not know it then, the soundtrack of Akira. The layered, propulsive beats that underscored the violent motorcycle chase sequence in the opening moments of the film was all bamboo and metal gongs. The sound captures the frantic energy onscreen with perfection, and still manages to pump me up every time the beats kick in. For a movie that released in 1988, the music does not sound the least bit dated. (Contrast this to another sci-fi anime epic that released in the same time period -– I adore Joe Hisaishi, but the Nausicaa OST screams its time-period from the first synth-note)
Raman’s album, in contrast to Akira, fluctuates between percussion-heavy pieces (‘Tanpa Nama’) and slow, meditative pieces (‘Beautiful Moon’, ‘Spoons’) that accentuate the moodiness the musical form is capable of. Sometimes, her lyrics and the main melody dance around the traditional music elegantly, yin and yang (‘Ghost Child’); in others, voice and gong echo in unison. ‘Annabel’ is probably the only track that is old-school Susheela, and is a wonder unto itself. Oh, and the last song ‘Rose’ features lyrics by William Blake. While I don’t like quoting promotional material from album releases, the official text describes the music far better than I can:
Javanese music evokes the invisible; ancestral presences, old religions, volcanic rumblings, and court intrigues. A sensuality of appearances, decorum, ritual and procession runs to trance and possession. Meanwhile, Raman’s songs here are meditations on change, transformation and mortality. Lyrics reflect on uncertainties cast by memory, desire and the ephemeral. In this album, tonality and rhythm are questioned and de-centred, just as much as they are asserted. Some records achieve a fixed quality but this record is very ‘alive’, or volatile, both in the performances but also in the way it shifts as you hear it. The vitality of the interactions, of the musical cultures misbehaving with each other, result in a sound more ‘unearthly’ than ‘world’.
A major part of the album depends on the skills of Raman’s collaborator, Javanese musician Godrang Gunarto and his ensemble. You can see them live here (apparently, they have been touring together since 2017) , wait for 3:42.
One of my favorite experiences with gamelan was a Hammer museum exhibit called The Gamelatron, from two years ago. This was an open-air installation featuring a five-piece kinetic sculpture that used robotics, metal gongs, and timers to play gamelan-inspired music. Viewers were encouraged to lounge around in seating areas and soak in the harmonies that played throughout the day. It was a blissful hour, and I remember coming out of the exhibit feeling rejuvenated.
I loved revisiting the music of Susheela Raman. It’s been 13-odd years since I heard Love Trap for the first time (and forged a life-long friendship in part because of a mutual love for her album). I hadn’t listened to her in years; a Whatsapp message earlier this year brought her again into my periphery, and this apparently is what I missed since 2011:
a 2011 album called Vel, which I never listened to
a cover of a Naushad song called ‘Mohabbat Ki Jhoothi Kahaani’ for a 2013 movie called Kajarya (which strays into familiar territory as ‘Yeh Mera Deewanapan Hai’ from Love Trap)
a strange 2014 album called Queen Between, which features Raman collaborating with neither available on Spotify in the US, nor via any online music stores. Amazon has a (used) CD for sale, so it looks like this was never released in the US. So here we are, in 2019, unable to listen to an album with a few keystrokes and minimal latency. What is this world coming to?
At this point, our intrepid music explorer remembers this little-known site called Youtube, and he blushes at his tirade against digital tyranny. “I recant”, he exclaims, as his senses are filled with chocolate and chiffon, marshmallow and clouds. Behold, unbelievers, the joys of ‘Sharabi’, by Susheela Raman and Rizwan Muazzam.
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.