Culturedarm’s Songs of the Month (June 2015)

zhala

Zhala – ‘Aerobic Lambada’

Connecting with the label soon after the release of her debut single, ‘Slippin’ Around’, in early 2012 – opening for Robyn on several occasions across 2013 – in February 2014 Robyn confirmed Zhala as the first signing to Konichiwa Records. Robyn stated:

‘Zhala makes the most interesting music that takes you on a ride with each song. It’s so broad and has so much integrity at the same time. When Zhala sings the heavens open and the stars come down to hover over my head and I feel like anything is possible. I´m so happy to be a part of taking her music to a new audience!’

The same month, Zhala was joined by Robyn onstage at the Swedish Grammis, for a Nirvana-themed performance of her song ‘Prophet’. The song was subsequently released at the head of an EP of the same name, which also included ‘Slippin’ Around’ and ‘Efter Livet’. Zhala went on to serve as the opening act for the Röyksopp & Robyn Do It Again Tour, as it moved through the West Coast of the United States.

Zhala describes her music as ‘cosmic pop’, created with the mindset of a ‘modern day transnational’. She was born in Sweden to Kurdish parents, who remain heavily invested in politics: a source of inspiration and self-navigation for Zhala, who has performed alternately in front of the Swedish and Kurdish flag. She has described the feeling of not-quite-belonging: in a country with such a distinctive and well-cultivated national image, still relatively homogeneous, and with a stuttering response towards immigration, she feels that she has only recently been perceived as ‘Swedish’ by many of her fellow Swedes.

Zhala’s self-titled debut album was released at the end of May. While her music resembles Robyn’s in its willingness to push and experiment within the context of pop forms, in its fluttering melodies, synthetic rhythms, and jagged, crunching beats, Zhala’s sound is more dense. Where Robyn’s voice achieves a hard-edged earnestness, Zhala’s is more angular, and operates resolutely within the mix, as one facet of complex soundscapes whether she sings softly or stretches it out and shifts the pitch. Beyond the realm of electronic dance music, she has noted the influence of Middle Eastern music and Bollywood; while critics have posited the role of Kurdish dance and the genre of Halparke. This conflux is especially present on some of the earlier tracks on Zhala, ‘Aerobic Lambada’ and ‘Holy Bubbles’.

The middle of the album showcases Zhala’s biggest and boldest hits, ‘Slippin’ Around’ and ‘Prophet’. Then the pace slows with the pulsing ‘Prince In the Jungle’, and ‘Right Way’s Wrong’, the closest the album comes to a ballad. While the earlier pieces hew closer to techno, ‘Me and My Borderline Friend In Trance’ begins with a seafaring melody and castanets before embracing trance in its final third. Zhala burns to a close with ‘Efter Livet’.

Zhala learnt to produce in Ableton via tutorials on YouTube; Mattias Oldén is the album’s sole co-producer. If Robyn, Grimes, and M.I.A. in different ways comprise the obvious points of reference, Zhala shares qualities too with Frankie Rose’s Interstellar and Doldrums’ Lesser Evil.

The video for ‘Aerobic Lambada’ came out in February. Shot in and around Stockholm, and featuring clothing by This is Sweden, it was directed by documentarian Ester Martin Bergsmark, and produced by Zhala’s friends Tony Karlson and Siri Hjorton Wagner. Discussing the song, Zhala says:

‘The song describes the itchy feeling you get in your butt when you have to adjust to different social contexts but you can’t, that frustration, and also stress, when you hurry in slow motion, and I wanted to keep that feeling in the video and create a dream and reality that is fused together. We wanted the video to capture Sweden, Swedish nature and Swedish society from our perspective.’

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Robyn – ‘Bum Like You’

And on the subject of Robyn – whose music is never long from my hearing – I’ve been listening to her self-titled album lots this month, especially in the process of writing the ‘Behind the Song’ piece on ‘Be Mine!’. Here’s a fantastic acoustic version of ‘Bum Like You’, performed at Borders Hollywood on 9 February 2009: hungover, as she admits, coming the day after the Grammys.

Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique – ‘Love Is Free’ (feat. Maluca)

In late May Robyn announced La Bagatelle Magique, a project comprising her alongside keyboardist Markus Jägerstedt and the late producer Christian Falk, who died one year ago. On 18 June, ‘Love Is Free’ premiered on Annie Mac’s show on BBC Radio 1. The song features Maluca. A mini-album is scheduled to appear over the next few months.

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A$AP Rocky – ‘Excuse Me’

Still listening routinely on from last month to At.Long.Last.A$AP, this time round I’m selecting ‘Excuse Me’, the album’s fifth track. Complex have given an excellent history of the track’s genesis: a 2002 production by Vulkan the Krusader, titled ‘V I Z Z E R’. The original piece already well suits A$AP’s flow at its most casual; and with the embellishments on the chorus and second verse, the blissed-out ‘Excuse Me’ has become one of my songs of the summer.

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Ryan Adams – ‘In My Time of Need’

Ryan Adams is an artist whose music I occasionally dive into: sometimes what he offers is precisely what you need to hear, even if what he does is difficult to state. Perhaps it should be simple, for he is often conceived as something of a throwback, an authentic country rocker who, beyond the diversions and obfuscations, remains a singer-songwriter at heart. But his lyrics can be both hackneyed and slapdash – and yet there is something visceral in some of his throwaway lines, and in the tone of his voice. ‘In My Time of Need’ is one of my favourites, from his debut album Heartbreaker. The song was ostensibly written for Johnny Cash.

I haven’t listened yet, but Adams apparently gave a sterling performance at this year’s Glastonbury.

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Mas Ysa – ‘Margarita’

In the words of the artist:

‘Mas Ysa, the project of nomadic composer Thomas Arsenault, combines love songs, unabashed ecstatic pop, prayer, field recordings and techno into triumphant, danceable, melancholy folk music that pummels the heart rather than dances around it. Born in Montreal, Arsenault spent formative years in Brazil,  was a centerpiece of Brooklyn’s Kent Avenue scene and currently resides in Woodstock, NY. He has toured with Deerhunter, EMA, Hundred Waters and Delorean as well as having performed with everyone from Purity Ring to Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA.’

In May, Mas Ysa – who studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music – took part at the FORM Arcosanti festival, curated by Hundred Waters. The three-day festival also featured Skrillex, The Antlers, How To Dress Well, Majical Cloudz, Holly Herndon, Julianna Barwick, and Machinedrum; and Pitchfork published a wonderful series of photographs of the gathering by photographer Tonje Thilesen. Mas Ysa also released ‘Margarita’, which emerges beautifully from its shimmering, panpipe-highlighted opening, through an evolving horn break in the middle of the song. ‘Margarita’ will appear on Mas Ysa’s debut album Seraph, due out on 24 July on Downtown/Maple Music Recordings.

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Fiona Apple – ‘Criminal’

With CBS removing all of their David Letterman clips from YouTube by the middle of the month, I was forced to revise my piece ‘In Praise of Letterman: A Musical Top Twenty’. But that only allowed for the introduction of other exceptional performances; and there are none better than Fiona Apple’s teasing and tormenting rendition of ‘Criminal’ from the Late Show on 3 September 1997.

‘Criminal’ was released that month as the third single from Tidal. The song still stands as Apple’s biggest commercial hit, reaching number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100, and number 4 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. The following year at the 40th Annual Grammy Awards, ‘Criminal’ won Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. The music video for the song was directed by Mark Romanek, with cinematography by Harris Savides.

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June Tabor – ‘Where Are You Tonight’

A definitive vocal by one of our great singers. Written and released the previous year by Andy M. Stewart, Tabor’s version appears on 1988’s Aqaba.

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Vince Staples – ‘Señorita’

There has already been a wealth of superb rap releases this year: courtesy of Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug, A$AP Rocky and more. Vince Staples’ debut, Summertime ’06, released just a week ago, is right up there. Without some of the flourishes on other records, it excels on the careful strength of its narrative. It’s a remarkably cohesive and consistent double album, with the production dominated by No I.D., DJ Dahi, and Clams Casino. The close of the first disc is especially strong: following ‘Señorita’, the album’s first single, featuring distinctive vocals from Future and Snoh Aalegra, ‘Summertime’ showcases Clams’ sensitive production on a track that segues from stark optimism to pained rejection. ‘This could be forever, baby’ starts Staples, but he struggles to get through to his would-be love, and ends with only the request, ‘Don’t leave me alone in this cruel, cruel world’.

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Jolie Holland – ‘Dark Days’

From tomorrow, Jolie Holland is set to grace England with a tour across eight cities. Beginning in Leicester, she moves on to Bristol and Winchester; then after a brief excursion to Freiburg, returns next Monday to Norwich, then Leeds, York, Liverpool, and Ramsgate. Holland will be performing on the back of Wine Dark Sea, the unequivocal album of 2014, and one I’ve been playing on repeat ahead of her live show. Here is the video for ‘Dark Days’, with its scalding guitars, exquisitely clattering percussion, and Holland’s exuberant vocal.

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copeland – ‘Smitten’

Releasing music alongside Dean Blunt from around 2009 – sometimes under their respective titles, as on 2012’s acclaimed Black Is Beautiful; sometimes under the moniker Hype Williams – by the autumn of 2013 Inga Copeland and Blunt had wound down their partnership, although a remnant of their work was released the following year. Copeland had put out an EP earlier in 2013, Don’t Look Back, That’s Not Where You’re Going; then May 2014 saw the release of her debut solo album, under the name ‘copeland’, entitled Because I’m Worth It. A week earlier, the Smitten 7” had appeared with two tracks not featuring on the upcoming album, on vinyl in a limited-edition run of 250 copies.

More lyrical but with a similar atmosphere to Because I’m Worth It, ‘Smitten’ features incessant, looping percussion and sloping, disquieting synths. Apparently addressing the claustrophobic final phase of a relationship, Copeland opens with ‘You asked me not to lie / But I did, but I did’; coming back to the refrain, at once curious and concerned, ‘Why don’t you ask me to go my way?’. Under a new pseudonym, ‘Lolina’, Copeland released the three-song EP RELAXIN’ With Lolina this year on 10 March.

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