About Sanjoy Narayan
When you begin listening to Courtney Barnett’s first full-length album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, the first thing that strikes you is her deadpan manner of singing. There’s a bit of boredom, a bit of aimless meandering and, delightfully, the absence of hurrying of any kind. Barnett’s songs are refreshingly laidback. But soon you realise there is something else to them: the eccentricities and quirks.
Barnett, an Australian indie singer-songwriter in her late twenties with a background of being a guitarist in grunge bands, released a few solo EPs and singles in the past few years, but this – her first full album – has catapulted her into mainstream fame: the album has received widespread critical acclaim and I’d say a lot of that is because of the lyrics of her songs. They’re deep, funny and unexpected. Indeed, each one of them appears to tell a quirky little story.
Also watch: Pedestrian at best – Courtney Barnett
Album opener Elevator Operator introduces us to Oliver Paul, 20, who, half-way on his commute to work, decides not to go. He finds himself in an elevator going to the rooftop of a building in dialogue with an aging but botoxed lady who’s envious of his youthful skin and who, presuming that he probably wants to commit suicide, urges him not to jump off the roof. He tells her she’s wrong; he’s not suicidal but “just idling insignificantly” and that all he wanted to ever be was an elevator operator.
In Depreston, a couple goes house-hunting and sees a lovely bungalow in a cul-de-sac with a garden and a garage, much room for storage and it’s going cheap but then she sees a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam and the story gets dark.
In Dead Fox, the mundane activity of vegetable shopping – organic vs supermarket variety – spins into a stream of consciousness ramble about culling cars on city roads. And, in An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York), the mundane act of lying in bed and staring at the wall and the ceiling turns into a song about deep longing.
The instrumentation on Barnett’s songs is minimalist (guitars, bass and drums) but that doesn’t mean you don’t get to hear spunky riffs. The best example is on Small Poppies, which starts with an innocuous reflection on her lawn, before Barnett turns the seven-minute song into an extended guitar-driven blues track.
Barnett’s songs are dipped in wit and emotions and are delivered with a nonchalant wryness. After I heard Sometimes I Sit and Think, I went backwards to acquire her double EP from 2013. Titled A Sea of Split Peas, it has 12 songs and none of them disappoint.
But for me, the one that stood out on the EP is the cleverly titled Avant Gardener, a story about gardening plans that take a twisted journey into something else – unpredictability is a trait that is typical of Barnett’s songs.
Down memory lane:
My favourite Fleetwood Mac albums are the really early ones, the ones that date back to the time when the band had a line-up of Peter Green (guitar, vocals), Jeremy Spencer (vocals, slide guitar and piano), John McVie (bass guitar) and Mick Fleetwood (drums).
Green, alum of British blues band, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, is a wizard on the guitar, considered among the best in the world. They were then a pure blues band. Fleetwood Mac, their eponymous 1968 debut album is still one of my favourites as is 1969’s The Pious Bird of Good Omen, which has on it Green’s brilliant composition Black Magic Woman (What? You thought it was a Santana song? Well, it’s not!).
But the real deal of the early Fleetwood Mac’s music is the live recordings, circa the late 1960s. But they’re not easy to come by. On a blues podcast I recently heard a 14-minute live version of their song, Underway, from a gig in 1969 and I’ve been looking for a recording of that concert ever since.
No luck yet on that but during the search I found another gem: a 1968 concert by the band, the album cover of which says Live ‘68 One Nite Only. It’s unremastered and raw but the band is at its best.
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Himanshu Suri is a name that should roll quite easily off Indian tongues but if Himanshu Suri is the name of a New York-based rapper, it could be a good idea to have a stage name that is more rap friendly.
So Suri, once part of the erstwhile hip-hop group, Das Racist, raps under the name Heems. Das Racist was a short-lived group and has to its credit a discography of three releases: two freely downloadable mixtapes (Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man) and a studio album (Relax).
Humour was a big part of Das Racist, which was essentially a duo plus a backup singer, and, especially after one of their infectious early compositions, Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, went viral, they began getting labelled as a joke rap band.
After Das Racist disbanded, Heems, whose talents by all accounts are multi-faceted (besides rap he’s into art, activism and has his own recording label), launched his solo career and recently released his debut album, Eat Pray Thug, which was, by the way, recorded in India – in Mumbai’s Bandra, to be precise.
Eat Pray Thug is no jokey album. It’s serious. It’s political and introspective. Issues of identity (Suri’s a second generation Indian American) appear in many of the songs, particularly on a few that describe the experience of being young and of Indian origin in New York City in the days and months after 9/11.
Suri was in school when that attack happened and its aftermath affected him profoundly and the one track that stands out is Flag Shopping.
It’s about how Indians and South Asians were targeted after the World Trade Center attacks and how they tried to demonstrate their oneness with the USA: We’re going flag shopping for American flags/They’re staring at our turbans/ They’re calling them rags/ They’re calling them towels/ They’re calling them diapers/ They’re more like crowns/ Let’s strike them like vipers… Politics recurs in some of Heems’s other tracks as well – in the one titled Patriot Act; and in the cleverly titled AlQ8a.
But Eat Pray Thug also has its lighter moments. Pop Song (Games), is a fun, danceable tune; Home and Damn, Girl are about relationships; and Sometimes, the album opener, is almost schizophrenic.
Like all good rap albums, what makes Eat Pray Thug a compelling listen are its lyrics – intelligent, emotional and evocative. Heems has a background that is unconventional for a rapper: he attended New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School and Wesleyan University and then worked on Wall Street before becoming a rap artist.
I’d heard both the Das Racist mix-tapes and their only album, Relax, which, besides a dose of Punjabi in the form of a bhangra-pop song, featured the rock band Yeasayers’ brilliant multi-instrumentalist Anand Wilder, and hip-hop artists, El-P and Danny Brown.
But Heems’s Eat Pray Thug is different from those Das Racist releases. There’s the seriousness, of course, but there’s also the unmistakably deep politics that tinges much of his work. This is a rapper that deserves to be watched.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
In 1969, when The Beatles were releasing Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road, a band originally called Chicago Transit Authority released their self-titled debut album. It was a double album by a new band – not a format that a rock band normally chooses to debut with, but they did.
Chicago Transit Authority had to change its name to just Chicago shortly after that – when the real Chicago Transit Authority, the city’s mass transit operator, threatened to sue. But not before the debut album racked up sales of over a million.
That double album, which I consider a rock epic, is an early example of experimental rock; of a jazz-influenced big band playing tracks that stretched to seven, eight and even 14 minutes.
In an era when rock bands usually had four or five members, Chicago had seven, including, besides the very talented Terry Kath on guitars, Peter Cetera on bass and vocals and Robert Lamm on piano, a trumpeter and a trombonist. It was, as a band member once put it, a rock band “with horns”.
Chicago’s music lost a bit of its edge in its later years (the band, incidentally, is still in existence) but in their heady early years, their music created a huge impression on their peers, including the legendary Jimi Hendrix who is believed to have once said that Terry Kath (who died of a self-inflicted gunshot) was a better guitarist than himself. To check that out, give Chicago Transit Authority a listen.
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A pile of books, unread and semi-read, sits on my bedside table and grows steadily and embarrassingly. I have intentions of reading all of them.
Last week I even read nearly a sixth of David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, which is a collection of very funny essays; I finished the entire foreword to A Girl and Her Pig: Recipes and Stories, which is a fascinating book by the reputed chef April Bloomfield, co-written with JJ Goode; I read half of Teju Cole’s Open City about a Nigerian immigrant who walks the streets of Manhattan – it is just 260 pages but I still managed to read only half; and I keep gazing at the nine other books that I have not even found the time to open. It’s, as I said, embarrassing. [Read more]
Of the albums that are on heavy-duty rotation on my playlist now, one is called I Love You, Honeybear. It is by American folk singer and songwriter Father John Misty (aka Joshua Tillman). [Read more]