You notice the purple swirls first. Little eddies of Van Gogh whorls churn into dark waters. A whimsical streetlamp pours dotted light on a secret agent cartoon man sailing on an umbrella. The umbrella keeps him dry, but he is drenched in sodium vapour. Here he sways, this everyman Arthur Dent, as the ice-cream swirls threaten to engulf him.
You open that purple paper cover, get the disc out and pop it in – that is, if you’re quaint enough for compact disks, and are among the handful who managed to snag physical copies of Marbles, the debut EP by the Kolkata trio, Whale in the Pond.
The rest will have to listen to Marbles on iTunes, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Deezer or “some Russian channel called Yandex”, where they are categorised under “рок” (Russian for “rok”; in fact, Yandex, the parent company, is bigger than Google in Russia). You can also buy it on OK Listen!, which is where Marbles first appeared and went to number one for a while.
Whale in the Pond have a fondness for incongruities. The band’s members came together late last year when singer-songwriter Sourjyo Sinha – who was in the city for higher education from Silchar, Assam – bumped into axeman Deep Phoenix at a local artists’ meet-and-greet. Sinha had a bunch of songs he wanted to record, and with multi-instrumentalist Shireen Ghosh (who was a friend from college) rounding out the band, they decided to cut an EP.
Sinha insists the band is named for a recurring childhood dream, and we don’t press – murky Freudian waters are best avoided. “After this one gig, we were asked why we called ourselves Well in the Pond,” he snorted. If they ever go on tour, they have decided to call themselves Whale in the (insert nearest riverine entity).
The EP was made on next to nothing, according to the band. “All the money we spent was on travelling and food.” Microphones were borrowed, laptops cadged, guitars mooched, recording spaces shaken out of friends’ bedrooms, to say nothing of the hastily-constructed blanket forts for soundproofed studio sessions (where pillows were sent in as reinforcements). The packaging for each CD has been painstakingly put together by hand by the band and their fellow travellers, replete with a real live marble snug in a slot.
Given these constraints, Marbles sounds like a marvel of production, its cluttered atmospherics rustling out of the chaotic spaces of its recording while still letting in the light. Its pop cultural matrices are fresh, if percolated through 1990s British pop, but its ocean peals are reminiscent of an older age of dreamy reverb and paisley yearning.
Like those blanket forts, vulnerability is integral to its dialectic. The forts would keep collapsing – “sneezes and coughs would bring them down,” the band says – and much had to be re-recorded.
“Someone would operate the recording equipment (with the mic balanced on pillows because we couldn’t afford a stand), someone else would have to hold the blankets up, while the third would be inside recording their parts,” said Sinha.
Marbles came out in late June, a shimmering bagatelle of diverse sonic influences united in a watery landscape of longing and innocent desire. Indeed, water is central to the record. Images of rain and starry nights over starry Rhônes start off the title track, and by the time Ghosh’s melodica wends its way in, the moisture has entered your soul. (Note: American rock band R.E.M.’s water-obsessed Boy in the Well and Find the River both feature melodicas, as does the English rock band Supertramp’s It’s Raining Again. Who will unearth the ancient connection between melodica and aqua?).
This sogginess floats into Araby, with its lyrics: “blue days in full tidal waves” and its emotional resonances with the rainy Dublin childhood evenings of the James Joyce story after which it is named. Programmed waves of digital seas wash over both tracks, dripping reverb and bringing to mind the less jangly sounds of late-1960s psychedelia. This is British singer-songwriter Nick Garrie’s The Nightmare of JB Stanislas filtered through folk-rock musicians Bill Cooley and Alan Munson, via Australian psychedelic-rock band Tame Impala’s Lonerism. Whoever said seashore psychedelia was dead?
Ghosh, who produced the album and added various instruments in post-production, professes an abiding love for Freddie Mercury’s Queen, because “they absolutely loved doing pastiche-type things, especially in their more obscure works”. Some of that wistful sunshine pop can’t help but float to the surface.
There are more watery notes. In his short story, The Call of Cthulhu, HP Lovecraft writes: “Then, bolder than the storied Cyclops, great Cthulhu slid greasily into the water and began to pursue with vast wave-raising strokes of cosmic potency.”
In Whale’s song The Call, a happy, messy sea shanty about Cthulhu and the end of the world, the band sings: “Look here comes the Great Old One/ And he rises from the deep blue sea/ I’ve heard the legends of the sea when you’re awake/ One look at you and I’ll be dancing right away.” Overflowing with pirate voices, amplitude panning and static to make it sound like “an old battered weathered radio,” as Ghosh described it, it even slips into music hall comedy in a lo-fi homage to The Beatles classic, You Know My Name (Look Up the Number). Its form is delightfully incongruous with its content, in the same mode as American singer-songwriter Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy.
On the EP, The Call is followed by Gadha’r Baccha which translates to “child of a donkey” in Bengali, a post-punk political scream that is somewhat unsubtle and perhaps too glossy to really work, though it does highlight Deep’s layered seven-string guitar work with its vague traces of Tom Verlaine.
The album’s closer Autumn Winds is a pretty ditty that the band calls dreamfolk, and shares more than a little something with Roger Waters’s If, from Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. With flanges and phasing galore, it is English-folky and soft and silly, but some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. What’s wrong with that?
In a departure, of course, the next single the band has lined up is a dance rock number in Sylheti about the language riots that took place at the Silchar railway station in May 1961, in which 11 people were killed by the state police. If the demos are anything to go by, it’ll be as schizophrenic as The Call, and much more dance-friendly.