5 Jun 2021

The Sampler: Flamingo Pier, Louisa Nicklin, Arooj Aftab

From The Sampler, 1:30 pm on 5 June 2021

Tony Stamp peruses a dancefloor stonker from tropical, Waiheke by-way-of Hackney Wick dance trio Flamingo Pier, the debut album by icy Auckland singer-songwriter Louisa Nicklin, and a sparse, soothing offering from Brooklyn neo-classical artist Arooj Aftab.

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Flamingo Pier by Flamingo Pier

Flamingo Pier

Flamingo Pier Photo: supplied

Since 2002, British label Soundway has been a marker of quality, serving up archival compilations of African, Caribbean, Latin and Asian music from the fifties to eighties. In 2012 they started to sign artists from around the globe, encompassing genres like Afrobeat and funk, with a focus on the dancefloor.

Those include some local names, like the genre-spanning Wellington musician Lord Echo, and producer and drummer Julien Dyne, who’s worked with Ladi6, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Avantdale Bowling Club and plenty more.

Soundway is also home to a local trio called Flamingo Pier who, after releasing a string of singles since 2015, have just put out their debut album.

Some years ago, Brad, Dominic and Luke were three expat Kiwis staying in a warehouse in Hackney Wick, London. There was a DJ booth in the lounge, and the group started putting on dance parties. 

Soon they began producing their own music, and so Flamingo Pier became both a Club Night, and a band. There was a period when Dom stayed in London, the other two came home and started throwing parties on Waiheke island, and music-making happened between continents. 

But in 2020 the whole band was hunkered down in South Auckland while the world sheltered from COVID, and they put their minds to making something that is, they say, about the power of shared joy. That mission statement led them to channel the sound of disco, and classic house music. 

'Last Call' features KÉDU on vocals, and none other than Nathan Haines blowing his distinctive sax. It’s instantly transportive, taking me back to numerous dancefloors with its classic house shuffle, but there’s a lot of seventies and eighties disco fruitiness in there too. So much in fact that on first listen, I was worried it might tip over into cliché. But I think there’s a carefully calibrated tongue in cheek here, particularly in Brad’s vocals, that keeps everything on track. 

The band’s previous EPs were based around slower grooves and more of a focus on percussion. In the latter half of this album they stray into more diverse territory. Leaning into chicken scratch guitar funk and tropical vibes on 'Make You Wonder', over a hearty synth bass.

There’s a track near the end of the album called 'Cosmic Sunset', a name that I think encapsulates the feel of the whole project. There’s a Latin rhythm to that one, until it reaches a synth-powered riff and heads back to a bygone era.

Soundway labelmate Julien Dyne is credited with drums on the album, and it’s hard to tell what’s what with all the sequencing going on, but I think I hear him occasionally delivering some nimble fills.

Flamingo Pier make music tailored to a specific mood, and I wonder if that mood best fits the parties they throw on Waiheke Island. When I think of them I picture Hawaiian shirts, and I imagine they’d be pretty happy with that.

On the track 'Deeper Soul' you can feel the lights start to dim, things get more psychedelic as the reverbs get bigger, and there’s even a cheeky bit of distorted guitar. If your hips aren’t quite swaying, you’ll be hard pressed not to nod your head.

Louisa Nicklin by Louisa Nicklin

Louisa Nicklin upcoming self titled debut album coverr

Louisa Nicklin upcoming self titled debut album coverr Photo: supplied

Maybe this is just me, but I feel like we’re living through a boom time for local, gothic-tinged singer songwriters.

Aldous Harding springs to mind, and some of Nadia Reid’s darker moments. But more recently, three albums have been circling this area of my brain - The Licking of a Tangerine by Jazmine Mary, Happy to Perform by Kane Strang, and the self titled debut from Auckland musician Louisa Nicklin.

The self-descriptive opening track 'Moving Slow' is an immediate curveball with an atypical 7/4 time signature. Nicklin sings “Outside was cold and so was I”, and there’s definitely an icy sheen to her slightly haunted vocal, with an exposed quality I find very listenable. 

She also has a way of changing her cadence and making unpredictable choices that I suspect comes from her classical background. 

Nicklin has an honours in composition from Victoria University’s Te Koki School of Music, studying under contemporary composers Michael Norris and John Psathas. She’s had her classical works performed by orchestras, and recorded by RNZ Concert. 

Her solo project is maybe a good counterbalance to that, as it’s thoroughly stripped back, leaving plenty of room for her voice to roam down unexpected melodic alleyways. 

Nicklin's sparse guitar playing is joined by permanent fixtures Mason Fairey on drums and Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass. Their interplay feels exploratory in a way that perhaps speaks to Nicklin’s classical training. 

That’s not to say these songs are off-putting, but it seems deliberate that the album’s halfway point is marked by a four chord pop song. 'There Will Be Times' feels intentionally straightforward - lose Nicklin's mournful vocal and it could fit any number of bands. But her warbling voice makes it something special, and the ethereal choir that enters  lifts the entire song. Lyrically Nicklin seems to be talking about privilege, pointing out that even people living good lives can fall victim to things like depression.

On the next track 'Next To Myself', there’s a semitonal creeping dread that blossoms outward, thanks to a spooky string section from Antonia Barnett-McIntosh.

The album was produced by Steven Marr, and it’s worth pointing out his involvement in the other two albums I mentioned at the start of this review - he also produced Kane Strang’s and mixed Jazmine Mary’s. Marr was formerly in the band Doprah, and clearly has an ear for talent. 

Louisa Nicklin’s album is one that recreates guitar music tropes in her image -it’s fitting the cover has her head lopsided on a marble plinth. What keeps striking me is the minimalism of the music - there aren’t layers of guitars for example, and not too many effects. Instead she focuses on interesting note clusters, and lets her voice cut through, itself as unique and distinct as these fascinating songs.  

Vulture Prince by Arooj Aftab

Arooj Aftab

Arooj Aftab Photo: supplied

One thing musicians have to deal with in the age of streaming is seeing their own metrics. For example, the first song on an album will get the most listens, the second track less, and so on. It must be quite stressful, and for some reason, this sprang to mind when I listened to Vulture Prince, the new album by Brooklyn musician Arooj Aftab. 

Maybe because it’s the kind of deeply personal project that’s unconcerned with metrics, or any concessions to modern musical constrictions. When you’re ingesting a lot of tunes in the space of a week, something like this can feel supremely refreshing. 

Aftab was born in Saudi Arabia, and moved to Pakistan aged eleven. In her teens she started recording acoustic cover versions of popular songs. Her version of Leonard Cohen’s 'Hallelujah' started doing the rounds on file sharing apps, and was, according to Aftab, the first song to go viral in Lahore. At nineteen she moved to America, studying at Berklee College of Music. 

Vulture Prince is her third album, and while it retains some of the more ambient environments of her second, Siren Islands, she’s more focused on instruments like acoustic guitar, harp and double bass. It’s unhurried and allows big gaps between notes, and I think that’s the key to its many beautiful moments.

This is an album you need to let wash over you - every song is over five minutes, but more than that it feels designed to be ingested in one sitting. There's sparse percussion on a few tracks, but drums only show up on one called 'Last Night'. The arrangement of that song nods to reggae and jazz, but still feels removed from a specific time or place. 

There’s a heartbreaking subtext to this album - Aftab’s younger brother died while she was writing it, and Vulture Prince is dedicated to his memory. 

Lyrically it’s based around Urdu ghazals, a South Asian form of poetry. I read that these are the closest thing South Asia has to the blues, which seems appropriate. There’s a lot of grief in Aftab’s singing, but solace too. If you’re as unfamiliar with Sufi style singing as I am, just hearing her roam around some distinctly non-western melodies is itself an adventure.

Vulture Prince is an album that effortlessly merges global influences, and ends up with something all its own. You can buy a perfume oil created especially to accompany it, and that feels perfect - something I’d never heard of but which makes complete sense. 

On the track 'Mohabbat', Arooj Aftab sings “this sadness equals all the sadness in the world”, and it’s a strangely lovely idea that speaks to her personal grief, but also ties it to the rest of the planet. This is an album that suffers, but also soothes.