Raspy Notes From Berlin
Ever since iTunes opened up its store to customers in India, it has been bliss for me. I can now buy music at very reasonable prices – songs for as low as R12 and in some cases, even full albums for a dirt cheap R30. The opening up of the iTunes Store was the best thing to have happened for Indian music lovers but some of us, especially of the grey-haired (or, no-haired) vintage, the real deal is often all about buying the album in its physical, touchable form. There is a certain something about peeling off the plastic and opening up the jewel case of a new CD that digitally downloaded albums just can’t match.
Or, at other times, it is an album that you want and the iTunes Store doesn’t have, at least not in its Indian store. That’s what happened when I went looking for Grizzly Bear’s 2012 release, Shields. It’s the wonderful latest effort by the talented Brooklyn-based
band whose previous three albums, Horn of Plenty, Yellow House, and Veckatimest, I loved. Veckatimest earned its popularity on a scale that is uncharacteristic for an indie band whose music hops and mixes up genres such as baroque pop, psychedelic rock and folk music. I’d heard downloaded and ‘lossy’ versions of songs from Shields but that, as many will agree, never does it for you.
I went about looking for the Shields CD in Indian brick and mortar stores but couldn’t find them. In fact, it was tough enough looking for standalone record stores, which seem to be disappearing in Delhi and that’s a real pity.
Then, luck struck, many, many miles away in Berlin. On a short break last week in the middle of winter (snow, icy sub-zero temperatures, heady mugs of spiced-up Glühwein and so on, but I would be digressing if I took you down that route) in the German capital, I wandered into a tiny indie music shop whose name was what made me head inside. It was called Mr Dead & Mrs Free and when I walked in, Calexico’s Algiers was playing. The store had classic vinyls, some cassettes (yes), and loads of music by new bands. I found Shields, of course, in the new albums’ section, and ogled at many, many albums that I wanted to buy. But to do that would be to fly in the face of practicality.
I saw the New Jersey band, The Gaslight Anthem’s new release, Handwritten, and although I had the bits and bytes version of it, I fell for British writer and music lover Nick Hornby’s liner notes in the physical album’s sleeve. Says Hornby: “Anyone who has ever been frustrated by anything – a girl, a boy, a job, a self (especially that) – can listen to this music and feel understood and energised. (And if I feel energised, Lord knows what they’re going to do to you).” Yes, I picked that CD up.
Mr Dead & Mrs Free is a 30-year-old store that took its name from a New York theatre collective’s play in the 1970s. The centerpiece in that play was an “acoustically stoned” papier mâché sculpture of an infant (all this I read about after the store’s affable German lady who spoke English with an American twang told me about their inspiration). Years later, she said, the excitement still in her voice, the New York troupe members came to the store in Berlin.
The Gaslight Anthem’s Handwritten is an album quite unlike the band’s earlier Bruce Springsteen-inspired works. The group adores Springsteen (it could have something to do with their provenance, New Jersey) and their new album has the loud power chords that the group’s trademarked short songs have always had but also references to Allen Ginsberg (in a song called Howl) and a hat-tip to Van Morrison (in Here Comes My Man). I found it more literate than their earlier albums.
As for Shields, what can I say? The album is on so many people’s best album lists for 2012 that you just have to get it and put it on. You’ll probably put it on repeat.
At Mr Dead & Mrs Free, I also learnt that the talented American singer-songwriter, Ben Harper, has collaborated with one of my all-time favourite blues harpist, Charlie Musselwhite, and their album will be out on January 29. Now, how am I going to lay my hands on a physical copy of that one?
Psst… Want some North Indian wedding procession music that is laced with Bhangra and garnished with funk? Try New York’s Red Baraat. Songs from their soon to be releases new album, Shruggy Ji, can be previewed on the Net and you can be guaranteed that your spirits will be buoyed up when you hear them.