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Review: STD – Sridhar/Thayil

Bhanuj Kappal comes off impressed by STD, citing it as one of Indian indie’s first truly experimental albums.

8 Feb, 2013

Bhanuj Kappal

Contributing Writer

So much of our most transgressive, genre-bending pop music has come from the application of art school (and art world) sensibilities to popular music forms. The rise of post-modernism and the resulting breakdown of barriers between high art and mass culture played an important part in this process. The egalitarian atmosphere of the ’60s, accelerated the process as art students, invaded the cultural mainstream – Pete Townshend, Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, the list goes on. By the time punk came around, the historical divide between art and popular music was already collapsing on itself and the art punk and no wave movement introduced a new generation to the notions of avant-garde, conceptualist performance art, and socio-political art theory. What I’m trying to say is that the musical aesthetics of modern rock and indie have deep roots in art theory and ideology.

Unfortunately, the nascent Indian indie scene came about too late to benefit from this. I’ve argued earlier that Indian indie suffers due to its lack of engagement with the Indian mainstream. This is equally true of its relationship (or lack of) with the broader world of art (both Indian and global). Our rock musicians dismiss the art scene as elitist and pretentious, not entirely without cause, but this dismissal deprives them of a rich source of inspiration and ideas. We might hear occasional references to popular literature and cinema (Albatross, Scribe), but the little bubble our scene lives in deprives it of exposure to important ideas from conceptual and performance art. Which is why a band like Sridhar/Thayil is so exciting. It’s also probably why the band is dismissed by so many (including a younger, more ignorant me) as a novelty act or pretentious experimentation for the sake of experimentation.

A collaboration between Suman Sridhar (vocalist, actor, producer) and Jeet Thayil (guitarist, poet, novelist), S/T draw as much inspiration from theatre and performance art as they do from jazz, blues and Indian classical music. Apart from the S/T project, they’ve written and staged an opera-noir production ‘The Flying Wallas’ and founded the Art of Noise series of multi-media collaborative performances, one of the few meeting points between Indian indie and performance art. After a spate of gigs across the country perfecting their occasionally chaotic, occasionally provocative, always theatrical stage act, they released their debut album STD last year.

On the record, the duo string together disparate genres and sounds, drawing from Indian classical, spoken word, blues, jazz, ’60s rock and roll, psychedelia and electro-pop, many times within the same track. A healthy sense of humour keeps these experimental musical hybrids from becoming too self-indulgent, while the duo’s unique artistic vision ensures that the music doesn’t devolve into an exercise in kitsch. But what really sets this album apart is the duo’s mastery of lyrical wordplay. Each song is a carefully constructed theatrical tale, told through a cast of articulate characters who mouth such delightful lines as, “Your cunt, my country” (‘City of Sisters’) or, “I’m single, single and preying/ On anything that moves” (‘Single and Preying’).

On ‘Here In The Morning’ Sridhar’s classy jazz croon is the velvet glove covering the iron fist of the character’s feminist rage, complemented by guitar work that bears an uncanny resemblance to ancient war chants. On ‘Bring Me The Rain’, the ghatam and bass provide a languid, melancholy backdrop to Sridhar’s ghazal-tinged vocals. “Minutes turn to hours / Hours turn to days / Where are my desires / Did you take them away,” she sings, depicting a woman’s wait for the monsoons which will bring her lover back to her.

Sridhar’s vocal gymnastics are a treat to observe as she shifts from Indian classical to jazz and blues to opera to maniacal demonspawn (‘Single and Preying’). But Thayil’s contribution is not just limited to his blues-drenched guitar playing. His gruff, raspy voice adds a sense of leering menace to a number of tracks on the album. Like on ‘Time Is A Bomb’, where his sneering protagonist is both unlikable and vulnerable as he talks about the scars of time, while what sounds like a pulsing, dark and twisted take on Iggy Pop’s ‘Nightclubbing’ plays in the background. Or the spoken word/alt-rap track ‘This Be The Beat’ where he gleefully spits out lines like. “Gotta hit an E, and a couple lines of krunk / Got three petis and a bellyful of spunk.”

Not every track on the album manages to achieve what it sets out to do. The mournful ‘Rumours of Light’ in particular, is a weak link that the album could have done without. Apart from a couple of duds (‘Her Hymn’ is another track that doesn’t quite work), STD is a clever, insightful work that shows off the duo’s considerable songwriting and compositional skills. It’s a bold album that rewards listeners who have the patience for music that pushes them out of their comfort zones. It’s also one of Indian indie’s truly experimental albums. A little more provocation and transgressive intent would be nice, but they’ve got to save some for future releases, right?

Indiecision: B 

Stream Sridhar/Thayil’s STD here.

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