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It’s been two years since Ajay Mathur received a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song, lending great anticipation to fans and critics over his next move. Born in India, though a resident of Switzerland and inspired by the tapestry of American music, Mathur’s latest record is an attempt at expressing the intercultural blending of his varied life. Little Boat has something for everyone, but it lacks holistically – Mathur seems to have overstretched himself by mixing wildly different spices into a uniform broth, and the result is sometimes synergistic, often temperamental.
To start with triumphs, ‘Forget About Yesterday’, and ‘Here’s the Love’ are packed with charm, enthusiasm, and a successful melding of seemingly disparate musical worlds. The former hooks Bowie-style vocal cadences and pop bombast with accordions, harmonicas, and percussion from the eastern world – can you name a song with such an instrumental lineup?
Diversity is cooperative in these cases, but there are plenty others where it feels contrived. ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ and ‘Time for Deliverance’, two back-to-back tracks are a great example. The first is a hard swallow, fundamentally a pop tune with a heavy Middle Eastern vibe in the percussion and stringed instruments. The two seem to compete for prominence and leave the listener unconvinced about what to interpret, akin to two bands playing in the same room.
Contrast this with a straight up bluesy soul tune in the latter, and the listener is left baffled at the wild directions this album takes. No doubt, it was an enormous task for Mathur to conceive an album that fires off into different corners of his musical palette, but as a whole, it feels more like a set of challenges rather than a coherent artistic statement.
The crux of what’s so off-putting is arguably deeper, however – each track sounds processed through the exact same production ‘wash’, i.e. the same effects, mixing, and colour. The result is that many tracks sound diluted by an unnecessary common bond.
Little Boat is impressive from the perspective of songwriting. Despite the hit and miss nature of the record, Mathur does show genuine talent at constructing pieces in styles that are worlds apart, and sometimes, their fusion makes for an unlikely delight.