Categories
Reviews

Anoushka Shankar’s “Traces of You” India tour

I found out that Anoushka Shankar was performing in Delhi yesterday quite fortuitously, during a conversation with Ishan on Friday. I hastily formed plans with a couple of friends to attend the gig, including Ishan. I’ve been a fan of Anoushka Shankar’s sister Norah Jones for a long time, but I hadn’t paid much attention to Shankar herself till now.

The venue was Talkatora Stadium, which brought back memories of going there so many years during high school for HT’s InQuizitive Quiz. Shankar’s gig was breathtaking. It was a medley of her centerpiece sitar play, with shehnai, tabla, piano, cello, drums / hang drums. The set list primarily drew upon her 2013 album Traces of You, with a song called In Jyoti’s Name dedicated to the 2012 Delhi gangrape victim. Something that clearly touched Anoushka Shankar, because she got quite choked up when introducing the premise of the song. An emotional moment for the audience.

My favourite track out of the entire show was her opening track (also, the opening track for the same album) called The Sun Won’t Set, featuring Norah Jones.

Categories
Tech Takes

Music discovery is broken, and Spotify Radio is part of the problem

I love discovering new music to listen to, but what I don’t like is reading reviews on music blogs or magazines to find them. Reading through reviews rather than listening to discover new stuff feels so 20th century to me. Music is emotional for me – as it is with many people – and I’d rather get a feel for something new myself to find whether I like it, rather than just reading words on a page.

(After I find an artist I like, though, I do read up about their history and creative process on music blogs. That’s what they are good for: no matter how obscure an artist, you’re likely to find someone who has interviewed them.)

My go-to source for music recommendations used to be Last.fm. I still scrobble to my profile – partly for keeping track of my music tastes over time, mostly in the vain hope that some day I will be able to unlock this data in a usable form.

Last.fm Spotify app
Last.fm Spotify app

Last.fm remains a one-of-a-kind service for archiving music tastes; there simply hasn’t been any replacement over the years for a service like this. Ever since they stopped on-demand playback of tracks though (due to licensing issues; it was simply financially unviable for them to offer it) the platform has been less than worthless for new music discovery. Using Last.fm radio – while good at making automated recommendations based on listening history – is quite cumbersome to use as a standalone application. As it stands now, Last.fm’s discovery mechanism is primarily focussed around surfacing recommendations based on similar tracks / albums…which makes the process of going through all of them a chore.

***

I have been a Spotify customer for four years now (first, Spotify Unlimited, and now Spotify Premium). It’s every music fanatic’s wet dream – an almost-limitless library of songs, available on desktop, web, mobile, offline that syncs everywhere, and for the artists holding out from adding their works to their library, it’s easy to add local MP3s to your collection.

We Are Hunted's automated playlists
We Are Hunted’s automated playlists

For over a year now, I was using the We Are Hunted Spotify app to source my music recommendations from. The neat idea behind We Are Hunted was that it scoured the web for signals of what music people were listening to – rather than relying merely on charts such as Billboard – and automatically created digests of what the hottest tracks in each genre were. I loved it, because for people like me who are into indie / alternative emerging music, it surfaced finds that may not even yet be climbing on any official charts yet…but thanks to Spotify’s vast tie-ups with independent labels could still be found in its library. There were times when I discovered music so underground that they weren’t available anywhere other than Spotify, or perhaps, Soundcloud (not even YouTube!). Many of my “What I Have Been Listening To” recommendations came about this way. Every month, We Are Hunted would publish an automatically-generated playlist of the hottest music and make it available through Spotify. I looked forward to this day every month with the same kind of excitement one would for a magazine issue.

Twitter Music charts
Twitter Music charts

Then, it all ended when We Are Hunted was acquired by Twitter. Functionally, it does the same thing that it used to – in a far more cumbersome interface. Now, I need to login to Twitter Music using my Twitter and Spotify accounts, and play the tracks through that interface. There’s no easy way to export the list as a playlist any more, as the obvious intention here is to lock people in to playing music through Twitter’s own interface and / or music apps.

Herein lies the problem with every other music discovery service I have ever seen: they expect the user to play part of the curation process either by selecting ‘channels’ or ‘users’ to follow (such as Hype Machine, 8tracks, and others), or by basing recommendations on individual albums / tracks / artists / playlists (such as Last.fm and countless Spotify apps). The downside, as I see it, is that either way it requires effort on part of the user to constantly prune lists of whom to follow, or in the second scenario to refresh the recommendations manually. This is a cumbersome process! We Are Hunted was doing something extremely unique with the service they were offering. It’s a service useful enough for me that I’d pay for something like it on top of my Spotify subscription fees. (The closest replacement that I have (recently) stumbled upon is Tunigo. It’s still not a perfect replacement though for We Are Hunted as its top-of-genre lists count absolutes rather than ‘rising’ tracks like WAH used to.)

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Spotify's new Discover feature in its web player
Spotify’s new Discover feature in its web player

The need for such a service or an app would be obviated if Spotify itself offered an equivalent. It has moved somewhat in this direction with the launch of its new Discover feature.

Spotify Radio

Apps such as We Are Hunted and Tunigo are good, but what I really want is a leanback, interaction-free music recommendation engine – much like Last.fm’s radio feature – that simply melts into the background and throws up one new track after another. Spotify does something similar with its Radio feature, on the surface, but in my experience it isn’t truly a radio service. Instead of having a native recommendation engine, Spotify integrates with The Echo Nest’s music discovery APIs to power its radio functionality – and the way this seems to work is that it generates a static playlist based on a genre, artist, track, or playlist that is queued for playback. The reason why I say this is that whenever I play Spotify radio, it seems to continue repeating the same tracks over and over again. Supposedly, using the thumbs up / down buttons is meant to help its recommendation engine ‘get better’ but all a thumbs down seems to do is to skip to next track, and the thumbs up button to add the track to a ‘Liked from radio’ playlist.

Spotify’s API primarily seems to revolve around playlists – and I can see how for people whose music experience revolves around playlists, e.g., many friends I have on Spotify, this is the perfect model of curation for them. However, for anyone – like me – who wants more robust and automated tools for an interaction-free music experience, it falls short of expectations.

My point is that without a good recommendation engine backing up its radio feature, Spotify is leaving money on the table in terms of user experience. It has such a deep library of music, and yet, discovering it is still primarily driven by last-decade methods such as collecting albums and playlists. I expected much better from a service that is supposedly the future of music.

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UPDATE: Twitter launched a Spotify app that allows playlists to be exported. Solves many of the problems I listed here! I’m glad Twitter realised its #music feature was crippled without supporting an external ecosystem.

UPDATE 2: Twitter Music is dead.

Categories
On A Whim

Top 10 Unusual Sexy Songs

The Stag did a special edition this time on sex. One of the features we did for the music section was on the ‘perfect’ sexy song. On which I had to say…

People obsesses about what song to set the mood for or during sex. What’s more important for me is what song to play after sex, because it influences the way that I look back at it. In that regard, my favourite sexy song of all time is What A Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong. I fell in love with this song ever since I heard it in the last episode of the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio show. It’s a song that is so close to me emotionally that I only ever play it post-sex for someone that I feel I truly connected with. Armstrong’s gravelly voice makes the moment tres romantique.

I couldn’t resist coming up with a ‘fun’ list of unusual sexy songs though after writing that. Here’s my top 10:

  1. Best this-room-is-way-too-dark-and-I-can’t-see-what-I’m-doing song: No Light, No Light by Florence + The Machine
  2. Best make-her-give-consent song: Just Say Yes by Snow Patrol
  3. Best we-are-gonna-do-some-seriously-fucked-up-shit song: Use Your Fist And Not Your Mouth by Marilyn Manson
  4. Best this-sex-tape-is-going-to-end-up-on-some-porn-site song: Kiss & Tell by Selena Gomez
  5. Best get-that-Twilight-fan-chick-interested-in-you song: If I Was Your Vampire by Marilyn Manson
  6. Best well-this-was-disappointing song: I Can’t Get No Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones
  7. Best you-really-need-deodorant song: Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana
  8. Best I’m-never-going-to-sleep-with-this-person-and-I-will-play-this-as-I-kick-them-out: One Night Stand by Fanzine
  9. Best I-don’t-want-to-fuck-you song: Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth by The Dandy Warhols
  10. Best I-want-you-to-scratch-and-bite-me-nudge-nudge-wink-wink song: I Like It Rough by Lady Gaga
Categories
Reviews

Why I love…Linkin Park

Linkin Park

I can almost imagine the sound of readers clucking in disgust at the words “Linkin Park”. But wait! Hear me out.

My first exposure to Linkin Park was, funnily enough, through the TV channel Cartoon Network at the age of 12: they used to show cartoon music videos in the commercial breaks, some from their own in-house cartoons; or, in the case of Linkin Park, Pts.OF.Athrty from their album Reanimation. The video was a wondrous love-child of Star Wars (with its giant walking robots akin to those on ice planet Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back), The Matrix (with flying Sentinel-like robots), and Halo. The 12-year-old in me loved it!

That age, when we are tweenagers, is when children start making conscious choices about the music that we listen to. Linkin Park’s angsty, screaming lyrics in their first two album releases Hybrid Theory and Meteora appealed to the teenager-me immensely. Talking to friends, they often tell me they went through a similar phase of loving their music at that age. Meteora was undoubtedly the high point in the band’s discography, with all-time classics such as Faint and Numb that have an insanely addictive head-banging energy to them. Their next release, Minutes To Midnight, is perhaps when most people lost interest since they cranked out an album with “more of the same” vibe. Then, with A Thousand Suns and LIVING THINGS, Linkin Park has moved even further away from their core fan-base of nu-metal lovers.

To me, however, it is this very evolution in their style that endears them so much to me. Over the years, I fell in love with many great rock bands – Nine Inch Nails, The Dandy Warhols, Foo Fighters, Rage Against The Machine, Limp Bizkit, Muse, A Perfect Circle – to present day, when my music taste decidedly skews towards indie music. But in none of those cases did the bands start and grow along with me. Much like Harry Potter fans reminisce about how it was such a huge part of their life while growing up – and still is – I feel the same way about Linkin Park. And they do throw in food for thought in their later albums to show how they have grown à la the track The Radiance which makes a political statement by quoting Robert Oppenheimer’s opinion on the Trinity test (the first atom bomb explosion ever).

Credit: Mike Shinoda
Credit: Mike Shinoda

Part of the allure of the band for me is that I have a huge man-crush on Mike Shinoda. This primarily stems from the fact that he’s an accomplished graphic designer to boot and I have a keen interest in that field. Shinoda has designed most of the cover artwork for Linkin Park albums, as well as private artwork that he’s exhibited. One of the lesser-known gems of his career is a side project hip-hop band called Fort Minor, and if you haven’t heard them already I highly recommend you to check it out. (My favourite is Petrified.)

Linkin Park isn’t a “cool” choice: it’s mainstream, it’s not that path-breaking in the rock genre, it’s not a classic choice like The Beatles nor is it a quirky, lesser-known band with hipster cred. But it’s still my choice for an all-time favourite band.

Categories
Reviews

What I’ve Been Listening To #4: PSY; James Blake; Scott & Brendo; Jackie Onassis; Gorgon City

PSY

False South Korean superstar PSY is back with a new single released globally titled Gentleman. The new-found global marketing push comes after PSY was signed on by Scooter Braun, best known as the manager for pop sensations Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepson. At first look, the popular reaction to the new song seems to be that it appears to be lacking the genuineness that made his first worldwide hit Gangnam Style so famous. Yet, a scratch under the surface reveals how clever the song is: if you read the translation of the Korean lyrics, you’ll find that Gentleman is an incredibly dirty song! The lyrics allude to PSY’s quest for that part of a woman’s body which he desires to be “hot, clean, shaven, sexy, soft”, then goes on to big himself up as a crazy and spontaneous “party mafia” person who would make the girl “gasp, scream, and wet” leaving no doubt for what his intentions are. The nonsensical refrain of “mother father gentleman” is also a clever way of making a radio-edit friendly song when the intention is clearly to say “motherfucking gentleman”. When you watch the music video in this context, the contrast between PSY calling himself a “gentleman” and being a dick towards girls (until he meets a girl who pranks him back) shows that he means it not in the sense of chivalry but in raw sexual exploits. What a player!

The chorus of the song is inspired by Abracadabra, a song released in 2009 by K-Pop girl band Brown Eyed Girls. (Singer Ga-In from the same band is the chosen “PSY girl” in this video, the same one who pranks him in the video.) Unlike that song though, Gentleman has a distinct lack of punchy bass lines and oversynthesised vocals, sticking to Psy’s tried-and-tested formula of “dress classy, dance cheesy”. This time the dance routine is a far simpler hip-swinging routine borrowed from earlier K-Pop acts, that should hopefully help combat the epidemic of clubgoers jerking random limbs trying to enact the “horse dance”. Gentleman ends on a blooper reel that with behind-the-scenes footage that demonstrates the raw and manic energy that went into filming it (something that comes through so clearly in the making-of video of Gangnam Style too). Apparently, he went two days without sleeping when working on the video!

The backstory behind the new song shows how passionate and clever PSY is at taking K-Pop to a global audience. Time will tell whether he’s truly cracked the formula for success.

Rating: 5 / 5

***

James Blake

James Blake Overgrown album cover

Melancholy is how I’d describe James Blake’s second album Overgrown. Deviating vastly from his dubstep roots, Ovegrown adopts a slower tempo throughout. Much of the tracks feature warm vocals interspersed with tantalising pauses that allow layered electro beats to snatch the listener’s attention. The lyrics are often repetitive with haunting refrains, but this gives the album a simplicity that makes it so endearing. The centrepiece of the show is Retrograde, which starts off with a quivering hum and then segues into a soulful refrain with clapping beats. Also featuring a collaboration with rapper RZA in the track Take A Fall For Me, that has a slightly different feel to it. Blake apparently worked with Drake, Bjork, and Bon Iver on this album and their influence clearly shows.

Rating: 5 / 5

***

Scott & Brendo

Scott and Brendo

Scott & Brendo are a hip-hop duo consisting of Scott Winn and Brenden Bytheway from Salt Lake City, Utah. They are fairly underground at the moment, although they have enjoyed fifteen seconds of Internet fame through their music being featured as soundtrack on a popular extreme sports channel on YouTube. And Away We Go, their first album release, has the kind of easy listening quality that you expect from tracks that would perfectly suit as soundtrack for a family home video of a day out at the beach. It’s a peppy fusion of hip-hop with dubstep; the best example of this are the tracks Kitten Air and Deep Blue, both with lyrics inspired by pop-rock. Yet another standout track is Little Voices, which mixes the use of an acoustic guitar with hip-hop lyrics.  The vocals in the album also feature Justin Williams, another underground artist, whose personal life story as a cancer survivor itself is inspiring.

Rating: 3 / 5

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Jackie Onassis

Jackie Onassis

With an obsession about Jacqueline Onassis (John F. Kennedy’s wife) in their publicity material bordering on the quirky, Sydney-based hip-hop band Jackie Onassis have a self-released EP titled Holiday (although it’s almost as long as a full album) out now. Beats from Raph Dixon and rap by Kai Tan is supposedly influenced by Australian West Coast hip-hop culture, giving rise to an immensely earworm-worthy track Crystal Balling. Seriously, this is one track you can listen to over-and-over again, with its la-da-da chorus and horn samples. Sadly, the rest of the EP is nothing to write home about.

Rating: 3 / 5

***

Gorgon City

Gorgon City

British duo Foamo and RackNRuin collaborate to form Gorgon City’s first EP release Real. You may have already heard of their eponymous track Real if you follow the house music scene in the UK, as it has been rising in emerging music charts. The track melds vocals from fellow British DJ Yasmin (famous for supporting Example, Devlin, and Ellie Goulding) with punchy and powerful bass. Real has that tinge of mainstream appeal that will undoubtedly see it being added to DJ sets in coming months. The overall vibe of the EP is a mix of house and garage, and Athena with its 2-step beat stands out too.

Rating: 4 / 5