Sunday, June 24, 2012

John Mayer grows up

album review

On his new record, the contemplative Born and Raised, John Mayer effectively infuses soft rock, folk,
country, and blues into his songs

Artist: John Mayer
Album: Born and Raised

We first met John Mayer in 2001 when his major label debut album, Room for Squares, earned him both critical and commercial success. Three subsequent albums further showcased his talent and ensured his presence on the airwaves for nearly a decade. But not content with just being known and celebrated for his soulful music, Mayer then decided to make a career out of saying inappropriate things. That, shockingly, didn't go too well. Public contrition (and supposedly a considerable amount of soul searching) followed. Now, the musician is back in form and (wisely) choosing to let his music do the talking through his fifth album, Born and Raised.

His first new release in nearly three years, Born and Raised is a contemplative set that sees the Grammy winner effectively infuse soft rock, folk, country, and blues into his songs. The singer-songwriter has teamed up with producer Don Was to create twelve tracks that revel in their rustic appeal. “Looking for the song that Neil Young hummed, after the gold rush in 1971,” Mayer sings on 'Queen of California', hinting towards the '70s retro sound he is yearning for.

The album is shrouded in an air of introspection, and the gentle musical touches are effective from start to finish. Its deceptively laid back vibe conceals richness and variety, while the lyrics variously lean towards contrite, defensive, and redemptive. “It sucks to be honest, and it hurts to be real,” he confesses on lead single, 'Shadow Days', which deals with overcoming mistakes and moving on. The melodious 'The Age of Worry' dispenses hope and advice; “don't be scared to walk alone, don't be scared to like it,” the song counsels. 'Speak for Me' laments the state of the musical landscape. The title track, 'Born and Raised', sees Mayer harmonise with David Crosby and Graham Nash. And the touching 'Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967' tells the story of a man who “took a homemade, fan-blade, one-man submarine ride” in one of the most different and interesting songs of the album.

Both the musician and the producer admirably showcase restraint on the record; the songs are understated, and the production doesn't overwhelm the material. The album comes off as gentle and sincere, making good use of Mayer's warm vocals, and employing instruments like the guitar, harmonica, and trumpet to layer the record with diverse sonic touches. The vintage, mellow tunes convincingly display growth and elegance, and prove that his new makeover suits him. Somewhat misplaced amidst the efforts at sincerity, though, is a playful come-on directed towards House star Olivia Wilde in the form of 'Something Like Olivia'; albeit musically interesting, the inclusion of the song seems to dispel the image the rest of the record is trying to create.

Still, on the whole, Born and Raised does not disappoint. It is one of those records that aren't weathered with repeated listens; instead, the more you listen to it, the more you see its charm. John Mayer has used these tracks to simultaneously looks at the past and the future, which is why, based on the incidents that gave the singer infamy, there are plenty of chances to read into the songs and connect them to his personal life; that, however, does not do justice to the material, and the songs feel most compelling if they are encountered on their own merit and not under the light of the singer's past activities. Just allow yourself to enjoy the music, and you will discover some of John Mayer's most impressive work on this record. He might have made headlines for saying all the wrong things, but Born and Raised is proof positive that his musical capabilities and talent still have the power to impress, and are, therefore, the only things we should now be concerned with. 

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 24th June, 2012

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Back to basics for Keane

album review

On Strangeland, Keane return to the familiar territory of piano-led anthems. Instep lends an ear

Band: Keane
Album: Strangeland

Not many artists get to see their debut album top the charts. Fewer still know what it’s like to have five consecutive number one records. Keane, though, are lucky enough to be a part of this select group. Ever since they first stormed the music scene with Hopes and Fears in 2004, the band has consistently earned both success and praise, but the group has, quite predictably, also had to face perhaps a tad more than their fair share of criticism. Many appreciate Keane’s melodic pop sensibilities and enjoy their sublime tunes; others have labelled them Coldplay-lite and dismissed their efforts as middle of the road and dull. But while their sound might have been critically divisive, all of the band’s studio releases so far have conquered the UK charts and collectively sold millions of copies along the way. So it’s safe to say that as far as the mainstream audience goes, Keane is clearly doing something right, and their fans will be pleased to know that the band has chosen to stick to their strengths on their new album, Strangeland.

Best known for their piano driven pop rock tunes, Keane decided to take a detour into synthpop with their previous album. Now, with the electronic experimentations of Perfect Symmetry behind them, the group returns to the familiar territory of piano-led anthems in their first new full-length studio album in nearly four years. Produced by Dan Grech-Marguerat, Strangeland includes twelve songs (sixteen on the deluxe edition), and sees the quartet from East Sussex focus on anthemic ballads, with Tom Chaplin’s smooth vocals shining on a canvas of Tim Rice-Oxley’s twinkling piano.

There are shades of yearning, longing, and hope in Strangeland, as the band offers maudlin reflections on life. The vocals and instrumentation are in harmony and complement each other throughout the record. As far as the sound goes, it is still inherently the same as their earlier releases, and the stronger material is revealed as the album progresses. The lead single ‘Silenced by the Night’ is a crowd pleaser bound to satisfy fans; the nostalgic ‘Sovereign Light Cafe’ reminisces on times gone by, conjuring up a Springsteen-esque reveries; the uplifting ‘On the Road’ promises better things ahead; ‘Neon River’ deals with being left behind; ‘Black Rain’ brings Radiohead to mind; while the stripped album closer ‘Sea Fog’ brings the record to a sombre yet beautiful end.

Strangeland is an enjoyable album, despite some trite lyrics and occasional overload of schmaltz. It is a safe record that makes no effort to offer any dramatic switches or subject the listeners to  drastic changes; the group go back to the melodic sound that initially won them fame. The song structures are somewhat predictable, and at times the standard wistful piano ballads seem a little monochrome, but there aren’t any major missteps as far as the songs go. As such there isn’t much wrong with the tracks individually; however, put together the set might be pleasant but it isn’t very inventive or imaginative. It lacks the edge of their previous studio release, and it isn’t a daring experimental record, but then again, it doesn’t necessarily need to be. There are plenty of beautiful melodies, wistful sentiments, and tunes that make you want to sing along on the album. And while it might not be able to compete with Hopes and Fears in terms of immediacy and charm, Strangeland is very likely to remind fans why they fell in love with Keane in the first place.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 10th June, 2012

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Looking ahead to 2012: Is the Atif Aslam year about to begin?

interview: catching up

Instep has a tête à tête with Atif Aslam who keeps his answers short and sweet and lets his journey speak for itself…

His fashion choices are controversial, his out and out commercial attitude has the hoity toity getting their knickers in a twist and Atif Aslam couldn't care less. There is a tide in the affairs of men and Atif Aslam is all about riding the wave. He follows up his Bollywood smash hits with soulful appearances on Coke Studio, moves on from there to pack the O2, one of the hippest arenas in London, and at a time when the Aman Ki Asha between India and Pakistan is gaining momentum, he will be seen on television screens on both sides of the border and around the world leading the Pakistani team against Himesh Reshammiya's Indian team in the ultimate desi style battle of the pop idols, Sur Kshetra. After that, he will think about releasing his next album. Love him or loathe him, you cannot be immune to this pop icon of the 21st century who puts the “roll” in rolling stone. Over to Atif about where he's been and where he's going…

Coke Studio

Instep: Tell us about your collaboration with Qayaas. 'Charka Nolakha' has quickly become a favourite?
Atif Aslam: I believe in supporting and promoting the youngsters and upcoming artists and if I feel I can help them in anyway which benefits them and their music, I would never say no. So when Sarmad approached me to collaborate with Qayaas, I decided to give it a try as I found the band really passionate and enthusiastic about their music. We initially wanted to do a rendition of 'Sun charkhe di mithi mithi kook' so we worked on the song and shared our version of the song with Rohail Hyatt who suggested to perform 'Charkha Nolakha' by Ustaad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sahib instead as he felt it was much better suited to what we had in mind in terms of our music collaboration for Coke Studio. So we decided to re-work 'Charkha Nolakha' and fused it with sufi, folk and progressive rock elements which you all saw and heard in the first episode. Like Bilal Khan, Umair (Jaswal) has done well for his first time in Coke Studio.

Instep: What can you tell us about your new song on Coke Studio, 'Rabba Sacheya'?
Atif Aslam: 'Rabba Sacheya' is a question-answer session between your inner self and your thoughts about the purpose of mankind's existence. Also I wanted to introduce the beautiful poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Khawaja Ghulam Farid to this generation. There is nothing better in this world other than having an association with Kaa'ba, Qibla, Masjid Mimbar and Mushaf Tay Quran. In other words, bringing my fans and myself back to reality of the existence of Allah.

Instep: Can you tell us about the outfits you're wearing during Coke Studio recordings. The turban and frock coat had everyone talking…
Atif Aslam: Well, the first one was designed by my brother Shahbaz Aslam but I always wanted a turban with that so I had to tie it myself before the shoot and it took me 30 minutes to wrap that piece. For the second episode, the churidar was made by Shahbaz again and then I added the jacket and traditional khussa with it. For the rest of the episodes, wait and see…

Instep: How was it working with Rohail Hyatt?
Atif Aslam: The best thing about Coke Studio is Rohail Hyatt! He is open to all the ideas we share with him - even on the actual recording days. He has done so much for the country and a lot of credit goes to him for bringing in some really good talent and rediscovering the old gems in our country.

Instep: Your appearance on the second season of Coke Studio reinvented you as a musician. Tell us what to expect from your appearance on the fifth season?
Atif Aslam: I wanted to show a different side of me, which is a complete reflection of my music as can be seen in my performance, both in Coke Studio Season Two and Season Five, as that is the kind of music I've always wanted to do ever since I started my career. I feel this time it was much smoother - perhaps the video could have been different, I liked the audio mix this year.

O2 Arena performance

Instep: You recently performed at the O2 Arena in London. How was the experience?
Atif Aslam: Alhamdulillah, it was amazing. I was surfing the high wave of love and energy of the crowd from the start to the end of the concert. I loved every bit of it. It was one of my most memorable concerts.

Instep: How did the performance go?
Atif Aslam: I was enjoying the acoustics of the arena a lot and the crowd responded brilliantly, which gave me more passion to perform for them in a unique way, dedicated to the O2 Arena and its audience.

Instep: How did the chance to perform at the O2 come up?
Atif Aslam: Flex Effects always choose nice venues. Last time they arranged my concert at the Royal Albert Hall on the 14th of April 2007, and I was glad to perform there as the first Pakistani after Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sahib. This time they planned to go even bigger and booked the O2, which is the highest rated, famous, and finest venue in the world to perform at. It's like a dream of every international artist to perform there. I am glad I am, Alhamdulillah, the first Pakistani, or you can even say the first South Asian singer to perform there. It was covered hugely by the Asian and British media in the UK. I am really happy Allah gave me this opportunity to present a positive image of Pakistan to the world.

Instep: Was Sonu Nigam set to headline the event? Why did he pull out? And how did that impact your performance/setlist?
Atif Aslam: I don't know the reasons and it didn't affect our set list. We performed all our songs that we planned, and seeing the unstoppable energy in the crowd, a few experiments and improvisations were done too, which they loved on the spot.

Instep: Which other artists and performers were part of the event?
Atif Aslam: There was a 10 minutes dance performance by the dance group Bolly Flex. Alhamdulillah, the huge success of O2 was shown by the houseful audiences at the Manchester and Glasgow concerts. Loved the tour.

'Juro Gey to Jano Gey'

Instep: Please tell us about your new song, 'Juro Gey to Jano Gey'.
Atif Aslam: It's a commercial advertisement song shot for a cellular company. The song has the right energy of a rock number and the cellular company wanted to connect their brand with the youth of the country, inspiring them with my career's hurdles and success which Allah has bestowed upon me. The advertisement was shot in Bangkok.

Instep: Why did you choose to work with Mobilink/Jazz Jazba?
Atif Aslam: I chose the project as it is related to young people who need to redirect their misguided passions in a right and fruitful direction, and I'll be glad I can be an inspiration to someone.

Sur Kshetra

Instep: How is Sur Kshetra coming along?
Atif Aslam: Most of the episodes are recorded already, and it'll be on air soon, Insha'Allah. It was a great experience, a test of physical stamina - 18 hours a day, 4 days a week, back to back shooting - and a lot of learning from the senior judges, Abida Parveen, Asha Bhosle, and Runa Laila on the show. I am satisfied that I tried my best to support my team.

Instep: How promising is Team Pakistan? And what can you tell us about the team?
Atif Aslam: If the results are decided on talent merit, then I am pretty sure the Pakistan team will win.

Instep: How soon is the show set to air?
Atif Aslam: In about a month's time.

Other projects

Instep: You recently made an appearance in a video for the Bollywood film Tere Naal Love Ho Gaya. Why did you choose to be a part of this project? And are you satisfied with the choice and how it turned out?
Atif Aslam: It was just a promotional video which was done to advertise the film's music. I was not very satisfied with my get up in that video, as the whole video was done on an ultra short notice. But my song is being liked by a lot of people, and has about 3 million views on YouTube already, so I am happy.

Instep: Do you have any other Bollywood films/ performances in the pipeline?
Atif Aslam: Yeah, some new songs will be coming, Insha'Allah.

Instep: You have been working on a project of collaborations with international musicians. How is that coming along?
Atif Aslam: The album is being prepared, and it will be released in due course of time, Insha'Allah.

Instep: What other projects are you working on right now? What can we expect from you in the coming weeks? And is there a new album on the horizon?
Atif Aslam: There's Coke Studio; Sur Kshetra will be on air soon. My album is already complete, so let people enjoy Coke Studio and Sur Kshetra first, and then I will think of releasing the album.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 3rd June, 2012