The Groovebox Jukebox: From Semwal's Elephant In The Room to Anthropocene by Rafoo, music for the new year
Semwal's Elephant in The Room has a warmth that is ideal for winter, while Rafoo's musical output is informed by her career in sustainability and policy research.
This monthly column of recommendations of new Indian independent music releases is usually accompanied by a playlist of the same name that includes all the tracks written about. As the year has just begun, I’ve yet to create one for 2021, so this time, it comes with another Best Music of 2020 playlist.
I put it together after polling almost two dozen Indian music writers about what they considered the best album or EP of the year gone by. There was a clear winner: blues-rock band Soulmate’s fourth studio album Give Love, which was also my top pick. But there was also a lot of variety; the 22 journalists surveyed, including myself, chose 15 different albums and EPs belonging to a wide range of genres, as their favourite.
Check them out, and if you feel like it, tweet your selection to me. If I get enough replies, I can make a Readers’ Poll version of the playlist.
Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been listening to over the last few weeks, which appropriately for a new year is mostly new artists whose impressive efforts add to the sense of (cautious) optimism I’m feeling right now.
Album/EP: Elephant In The Room, Semwal
Pretty much every singer-songwriter on the planet sings about the subject of love, so it’s increasingly rare for any of them to really stand out. Dehradun and New Delhi-based Shubham Semwal is among the few new artists who manages to make a mark thanks to his laidback vocal style, layered instrumentation, smooth production and pop sensibility.
Semwal counts among his influences 1970s melody mavens such as ABBA, Bee Gees and Boney M. but also more contemporary musicians like John Mayer, Charlie Puth and Tom Misch. But these influences aren’t obvious and there are no overt elements of nostalgia on his debut EP, the four-song Elephant In The Room.
The warmth in his sound is ideal for the wintry weather we’re experiencing. 'By Your Side' is a sweet campfire-side ballad about being as much of a friend as a lover, 'Through These Years' is simultaneously anthemic and mellow. In other words, Semwal is the type of artist who can make grand romantic statements without seeming melodramatic, also a rare ability. Perhaps to prove he’s not a one trick pony, Semwal — who has already followed up this EP with his first Hindi single, the mid-tempo 'Tishnagi' — throws in an electric guitar solo on the set’s largely instrumental, funky closing cut 'Indian Summer '. He’s one to watch over the next few months.
Single: 'Anthropocene', Rafoo
Singer-songwriter Rafoo, whose real name is Tarang, was among the handful of female composer-producers to debut last year. It was a small group, but they covered a range of genres. Bengaluru’s Rudy Mukta could arguably be described as an R&B artist, and Mumbai’s pb as a purveyor of bedroom pop. Delhi-based Rafoo makes a unique mix of experimental electronica and industrial rock from which emerges a sound that could loosely be classified as goth-pop.
All three are blessed with euphonious voices that belie the wryness of their material. That Rafoo doesn’t do ‘happy’ is evident from her lyrics and brief descriptions of her songs on her Bandcamp page. Her debut single 'Gaia', she shares, “is a commentary on capitalism and its exploitative consumption of nature and the proletariat. And also on my relationships.” Sonically, the sparse track is still a touch lighter than 'Anthropocene', a companion piece that’s “one part an expression of my exasperation with the status quo and one part, a slice of my turbulent mind”. She may specialise in dark matter, but the future is clearly bright for Rafoo whose musical output is informed by her career in sustainability and policy research.
The music video for the new single by Apartment Upstairs, the Bengaluru-residing duo of singer and multi-instrumentalist Rohan Pai and drummer Shourjo Chatterjee, checks off two recent trends among MVs in the Indian indie music scene. It’s an illustrated video of which we’ve had a surfeit since the lockdown (I wrote about a few that I’ve loved the most here) and it normalises same-sex relationships (two other examples can be viewed here and here). 'I’ll Be With You', they state on its YouTube page, “narrates the story of a homosexual couple that is equal parts excited as they are anxious to be with each other”. The sense of tentativeness it talks of is universally relatable, the sort experienced by everyone at the start of a new romance. Musically, it checks off a third box of current Indian indie trends: much like the sound of acts like Ape Echoes and T.ill Apes, it brings together the genres of jazz, pop, R&B and hip-hop. It’s a vibrant tune brought to life by illustrator and animator Varshini Krishnakumar whose style is characterised by bright blocks of colour and giant-bodied people that lend her drawings the look of children’s storybooks.
Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox
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