Experimental Perverteres: A Conversation with Begum

22 Jul

Photo courtesy Anika Mehta.

New Delhi-based Begum are the most exciting band we’ve heard this year. Two members of the band, Karthik Pillai and Karan Singh, are from the gypsy/cabaret/indie act Peter Cat Recording Company. With Begum, their unmistakable Peter Cat madness is flavored with bassist Kshitij Dhyani’s masterful touch of elegance. It’s a perfect combination.

It’s no wonder, then, that their lead single “Waiting” is such a stunning debut. Karthik syncs his trance-like guitar groove perfectly with his melancholy singing. Karan’s drumming breathes inside delicate spaces as well as it drives segues between different phrases. Kshitij’s basswork is understated and moody, and all the more indispensable for it. The lyrics are poetic enough to feel the song’s melancholy and mysterious enough to add your own imagination to it.

Top Five Records had the chance to have a little chat with this promising young band from the country’s capital. What transpired next was a mad, strangely thought-provoking affair, much like the band itself. Read for yourself:

Top Five Records: Let’s start with the basics. Why Begum? What’s behind the name?

Begum: The name Begum is a tribute to the Queen Preeto, who reigned during the 5th century of Salil Ankola in Noida Sector 18. During her reign, hipsters, indie musicians and other things you can find at dollar stores were given a special place in her court. Her patronage towards Chinese artifacts and other things without a future beyond six months inspired us to come together and produce music with the shelf life of a Durian.

TFR: What pulled you together to form Begum?

Begum: Two smugglers Kshitij and Kartik were caught illegally transporting guitar riffs across the border. During interrogation, they conceded their guilt and were summoned to deliver a bribe in the court of the Begum. While presenting their bounty to the all-knowing Begum, they accidentally hit a set of sacred occult notes. One of the Begum’s guards, Karan, ran to stop them and, before anyone could notice, they were transported to an alternate universe. Now the three men have joined forces to jam until they find the correct set of notes to go back home.

TFR: When did you guys first get into music? What did you grow up listening to?

Begum: We grew up listening to Government propaganda, still our favorite when we need to kick off them blues about our future or where this country is headed. We got into music to prolong this dreamy, blissful, ignorance-fuelled state of oblivion and share the perils with our concerned friends, relatives and parents. Our music comes recommended as the best background score for an intervention by one in four psychologists in Nangloi area of Delhi.

TFR: Tell us a little bit about your single “Waiting”. What’s the story behind it?

Begum: The brain has been flooded by the discharge of the pineal gland cutting off all connections to the body and leaving the brain in complete awareness of its descent into numbness. In the song, the individual is having flashbacks and is viewing himself/herself in second person and third person as he/she slides into death and emerges as free energy, alive and malleable with a certain amount of consciousness. In one word: transcendence.

TFR: Most of your online presence features the image of a lady wading into the ocean. Does the image have any particular symbolism?

Begum: That image was artwork for our single “Waiting” and made sense somehow in context with the song. It has now been changed to the artwork for our new single “Chinbien”, which is being exclusively launched by Wild City. These are Top Secret archival images of rejected ideas for a personality makeover media campaign for one of the top Indian politico-crats, rejected on the grounds of being too nauseatingly humane.

Photo courtesy Begum.

Photo courtesy Begum.

TFR: There’s a certain dreamy melodrama in your music that few other artists in India can attempt, let alone pull off so perfectly. What inspires you to create this very unique style of music?

Begum: It’s a natural state of being, we suppose, the slow motion (as slight as it may be) effect is something we appreciate. But we think this question is best answered by the following quote by former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, delivered in 1878 while delivering a speech in reference to his liberal rival and famous orator William Ewart Gladstone in the Parliament of the United Kingdom

“You see the whole country of the system is juxtapositioned by the hemoglobin in the atmosphere because you are a sophisticated rhetorician intoxicated by the exuberance of your own verbosity.”

TFR: On a similar note: we think that the music you guys make would be best suited for a particular sort of pensive, elegant atmosphere. What would be your ideal gig venue?

Begum: Parliament of the sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic, republic of Akagarma. A Golden Pillared Opera house along with an orchestra and an immersive and subjectively responsive lighting and visual setup. Globes radiating sound and the warmth of sound pressure levels, tinted audio generators pulsing and rushing through the crowd.

TFR: The video for your new track “Chinbien” features a surreal series of imagery and video clips. How important are visuals to the end product of your music?

Begum: While browsing the Internet to solve the mystery of feline dominance, our video director Samridhi Thapliyal was stuck by a sudden and deeply saddening inquisition. What if aliens are trying to establish communication with us but their mode of communication lies outside of the aural and visual abilities of a common Honey Singh fan? So, to extend a hand of friendship and a proposal for a symbiotic relationship with the dimensions outside of human experience, the music video has been a humble attempt. It is a short catalogue of what aliens should expect to see on a vacation trip to Earth, which Samridhi expects to be picked up by the tourism department of our planet someday.

TFR: If your music had to be slotted between two albums of any language and any genre, which two would it be?

Begum: We would be forced to slot our upcoming album “Begum Bagh” between the available recordings of broadcast from “Phoney Wars” and a spoken word album of all of Alfred Jarry’s work, synchronized to free jazz and Altaf Rajas Alaaps.

TFR: Tell us one artist (Indian or international) that you’d most love to work with.

Begum: Tony Clifton

TFR: When can we expect the Begum album?

Begum: The Begum album will be out by August followed by a tour and one more music video coming up as well somewhere after that. Also we are in the process of composing an Indian Opera, hopefully debuting it sometime next year.

Phantogram – Voices

21 Jul

Voices is exactly what it appears to be, a good indie pop album. There’s a little more R&B and a little more hip-hop here than you would find on, say, the CHVRCHES album, but it still hits all the notes you expect it to and hits them well.

Sarah Barthel’s vocals are excellent throughout and shift the songs around the more static beats behind them beautifully. The beats themselves are easy to fall into. This is a hard album to tire of.

The album suffers from some inconsistency though. Songs like “Black Out Days” and “Howling at the Moon” cannot help but be stand-out tracks, but much of the rest does not bring that same level of intensity. Also, while Sarah Berthel’s vocals are amazing, the couple of times that the other half of Phantogram, Josh Carter, takes the mic are sub-par.

At the end of the day, Voices is an album with plenty of strengths, but ends up a little forgettable.

- @murthynikhil

Robyn & Röyksopp – Do It Again

5 Jul

Everything about this collaborative EP screams experimental. Certainly neither Robyn nor Röyksopp have ever been scared of doing something new. Do It Again is chock-full of ideas. Unsurprisingly though, those ideas vary in quality.

The EP opens with “Monument”, a gorgeously somber and reflective piece that is then intruded on by the mediocre electronic of “Sayit”. The title track, “Do It Again” is then a more standard Robyn track, showcasing her vocals over an exuberant beat. While not quite a Robyn classic (such as Who’s That Girl, if you wanted initiation), it is still fun. “Every Little Thing” aims for unexpected but falls a little too hard into tiresome. Finally, the closer “Inside the Idle Hour Club” brings us back into introspection and then keeps going. The wordless, synth track is undeniably self-indulgent and overlong, but nonetheless lovely.

It’s always nice to see something new, and Do It Again manages that in spades. It doesn’t reach the quality bar I’ve come to expect from Robyn, but that wasn’t its point.

- @murthynikhil

The Half-Year Mark: Top Five Albums of 2014 So Far

30 Jun

Music can be a pretty powerful thing.

We understand the pointlessness of writing this cliche on a music blog, but such is the fact of the matter. Six months of the year Two Thousand and Fourteen have passed in a flurry of work and worry, and the only demarcation in the swiftly speeding days for us – and for others, we suspect – came through the enjoyment of a great, varied mix of albums by artists old and new. So, without further ado, here are our picks for 2014’s Top Five Albums, six months in. Enjoy!

5. Singles by Future Islands

Singles by Future Islands

It takes guts to name your album Singles. Not only are you claiming that the entire album is single-ready, but you are also implying that you don’t need a kitschy album name to propel you to fame or to keep you there. But Future Islands are not being ballsy with the title of their latest album. Singles is a nod to the unattached, slight melancholia of single men and women all over the world. In short, they are just being honest-to-God, honest-to-pop-music genuine.

Led by eccentric frontman Samuel Herring, Future Islands have somehow pervaded their entire album with this sense of overwhelming genuineness. The lyrics of their break-out track “Seasons (Waiting on You)” (“Seasons change, But I’ve grown tired of trying to change for you/’Cause I’ve been waiting on you”) would incite the plummet a lesser artist. However, in Herring’s honest, old-school pipes and the band’s unapologetically throw-back synth-pop sentimentality, the song becomes larger than itself. Take, for another example, the sparse beauty of “A Dream of You and Me”, where Herring fuels lovelorn pop sentiments with a crazed realness that makes it sound like one of humankind’s first ever love songs.

All in all, Future Islands’ Singles is a collection of songs about love – lost, gained, but on the whole experienced. Like the figure on their album cover, the band has slightly got their heads in the clouds with this whole ‘love’ thing – but that very quality makes for some genuine, real and wholly enjoyable music.

Best songs: “Seasons (Waiting On You)”, “A Dream of You and Me”, “Fall from Grace”

4. Present Tense by Wild Beasts

On first listen, Wild Beasts sound like a hook-heavy (hook-aware?) version of the National, which is itself not a bad thing to be. Further listens of their stunning debut album Present Tense prove that Wild Beasts are much more, for they seethe, prowl and ravage with the most entertaining of all human inventions: drama.

On the chilling, ominous “Daughters”, Tom Fleming’s deep voice blurs the pronunciation of ‘old men’ as ‘omen’ in an ode to a destructive, fiery daughter in an apocalyptic world. On “Mecca”, the band makes a potentially controversial metaphor between to the real Mecca (“I’m a pilgrim and you’re the shrine”) on a song that’s really a beautiful, graceful sex song. The shivering pulses on “Nature Boy” seethe with self-righteous jealousy against a number of people and things.

Like we said, quite entertaining. In a way, Present Tense is almost an inadvertent homage to drama itself, unfurling, folding and twisting in all its lurid, lusty and forceful grandness.

Best songs: “Mecca”, “Wanderlust”, “A Dog’s Life”

3. Sunbathing Animals by Parquet Courts

Sunbathing Animals by Parquet Courts

Brooklyn-based Parquet Courts are widely regarded by many to be Gotham’s successor to those unbeatable indie rock gods, the Strokes. Sure, it’s an over-statement, but there’s more than a kernel of truth there: the opening riffs of several songs on the album are starkly Strokesian. But the great part about Sunbathing Animals is the fact that Parquet Courts cleverly combine this archetypal NYC indie rock sound with those of several other great bands – Pavement, Joyce Manor and Yuck, to name a few.

But Parquet Courts are not just a pastiche of well-known indie rock bands. They may seem like just a ridiculously dance-able wall of sound at first, but they’ve got a lot more up their sleeves. Frontman Andrew Savage’s non-stop flow of words are somewhat unintelligible, but listen closer and you will find that they are quite well-written. For example, between the frenetic chug of guitar and drums on “Black and White”, Savage acutely articulates the very intensity of their music (“Nothing makes my heart so wild as being in possession of a potent night/Racing down the stairs in a nude descension shedding and discarding my hide”) and tosses it up with some good old-fashioned self-doubt (“Is the solitude I seek a trap where I’ve been blindly led?/ Tell me, where then do I go instead?”).

Nor are they just a wall of sound. The mellower “Dear Ramona” and “Into the Garden” are perfect breathers between crazy-energy pieces like “Ducking and Dodging”, “Always Back in Town” and the afore-described “Black and White”.

At the moment, Parquet Courts could do with a little more self-restraint – the over-the-top rants on the eponymous “Sunbathing Animal” or the painful harmonica solo on “She’s Rollin” are a few examples in this direction. Hopefully, with time, the craziness can be reined in (just a little) to produce some truly terrific indie rock. We’re certainly looking forward to that day.

Best tracks: “Black and White”, “Dear Ramona”, “Ducking and Dodging”

2. Salad Days by Mac DeMarco

As you, the frequent reader, might have noticed, we at Top Five Records are big fans of the perfectly-chosen album cover. The image that graces an album (or, in our times, the webpage from where you’re streaming or downloading the album) is perhaps the first and strongest impression your mind forms about what your ears are about to take in.

Salad Days by Mac DeMarco

Mac DeMarco’s latest album Salad Days features the lanky, easy-going singer half-smiling at us in everyman clothes, bathed in dappled sunlight. Just from that image, you might expect laid-back guitar-based pop that could conceivably be played in someone’s backyard on a lazy Sunday afternoon – and, happily, that’s exactly what you get.

But don’t think that Salad Days is an obviously-named reflection on the passing of one’s salad days, though. On the eponymous first track, DeMarco seems to veer towards the topic (“Missing hippy Jon, salad days are gone/Remembering things just to tell ‘em so long”) before gently chiding himself: “Oh mama, actin’ like my life’s already over/Oh dear, act your age and try another year.” It’s precisely this charming, self-deprecatory manner that makes Salad Days so refreshing.

Besides, DeMarco looks exactly like Wayne from Wayne’s World. Who doesn’t love that?!

Best tracks: “Salad Days”, “Let My Baby Stay”, “Let Her Go”

1. No Mythologies to Follow by MØ

Last year, we frothed at the mouth about “Pilgrim”, a bewitching song by Danish recording artist MØ (real name: Karen Marie Ørsted). It should come as no surprise that MØ’s debut album No Mythologies to Follow is our favourite album from these past six months.

No Mythologies to Follow by MØ

Throughout the album, MØ sways and amazes with her sheer variety of intoxicating beats – and the way her talented vocals mesh with them. Seriously, nearly every song on the album stands out in its own breath-taking way. There’s the lurching pulse on the vengeful “Fire Rides”. The melodic, Haim-like “Maiden”, full of sparkly Scandinavian pop hooks, showcases MØ’s sultry-voiced avatar. “Don’t Wanna Dance”, a dance-pop gem about bad boys that make MØ want to tear her white skin apart, would suit heavy radio rotation perfectly. There’s the drunken, pop-lock confidence of “Waste of Time”. It’s enough to almost overshadow the hypnotic perfection of “Pilgrim”. (Almost.)

No Mythologies to Follow is an heady piece of art that growls, wails and croons in all the right ways and at all the right places. Yes, that sounds like a cliché, but listen to the album and you’ll see what we mean. No Mythologies to Follow is not just the best album of the last six months: it’s the album to beat in 2014.

Best songs: “Pilgrim”, “Maiden”, “Don’t Wanna Dance”

Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence

23 Jun

I enjoyed Lana Del Rey’s 2012 album Born to Die. It was over-stylized and a little too easy to digest, but nevertheless good, intriguing music. Even if it painted in cliché, the album itself made an interesting whole and the pictures it drew were unique, if not wholly novel. Additionally, it was highly consistent and coherent, both of which are necessary for something that tries to be new. Ultimately though, the album failed to live up to its breakout single “Video Games” and similarly her second album Ultraviolence fails to live up to Born to Die.

The album starts well. The title track is a wonderful trip into her world. There is all of the theater that defines her work, the sounds and imagery writ large for none to miss. When she does well, she can do very well. Her voice drifts languorously through exquisite soundscapes. It’s hard to find music quite as evocative as her best.

Sadly, that doesn’t sustain long enough and the album collapses a little on itself. Her pose starts to feel tired and the album devolves in places to mere emotional hooks instead of actual statements. Additionally, the lyrics are bad enough to break the mood in places. I don’t really need her crooning that she’s a bad girl and the ending of “Brooklyn Baby” is so painfully obvious that actually saying it is just crude.

The album does sound quite different than Born to Die. This is slower and less catchy, but more rich and atmospheric, more theatrical. This is still very clearly a Lana Del Rey album though and there are not enough of those around. No one else makes pop that sounds like hers. All told, this is a quite reasonable album and she does get points for uniqueness, but this is still nothing more than reasonable.

- @murthynikhil

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

15 Jun

Push the Sky Away is one of the most consistent albums of recent memory. It does an amazing job of setting a tone and a quality bar and sticking to both. Mildly disconcerting and quite ominous, this is the aural equivalent of walking at night in a strange forest.

The enunciated, almost groaned, vocals make for a potent atmosphere and the bass and drums push it far into the sinister. It is rare to get an album this coherent and it is quite the pleasure to listen to. The music itself is very solid. Despite a lack of true hooks or accessible entry points, it is quite easy to sink into the depths this album affords you. The songs unfold at their own leisurely pace, but carry you along the entire way. These are songs capable of grabbing you early and never letting go.

Save for lyrics that are never as clever as they seem to believe, this is an excellent album and well worth a listen.

- @murthynikhil

Kendrick Lamar – Section.80

2 Jun

Section.80 is the work of a very talented kid. This is Kendrick Lamar’s album before good kid, m.A.A.d city and before “Control.” This is back when he was just a guy with talent and not one of the biggest names in the rap industry. The inexperience shows, there some degree of searching for who exactly he is, but there is also enough identity to make a very good, very individual album.

There are some stellar cuts on this album. “A.D.H.D.” is an excellent tale of life in the poorer parts of L.A. “No Make-Up” is a positive track in the vein of Goodie Mob. “HiiiPower” is K.Dot’s take on “So Appalled” and “Keisha’s Song” is “Brenda’s Got A Baby” and both are exceptional themselves. However, the album has its share of weak points and lacks the consistency of a more experienced rapper. His flow is a pleasure to listen to, but his lyrics have moments of weakness amongst all the cleverness.

In summary, Section.80 is a little bit rough but well worth a listen, even three years and a sequel into its history.

- @murthynikhil


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