At the launch of Up Dharma Down’s third album in November last year, the most impressive sight was the people. Hours before the show started, the premises of One Esplanade, a sizeable venue for a local band, were filled with fans of various ages, from college students sporting stylish clothes and high heels to thirty- and forty-something office workers in long sleeves and tie, all of whom had waited four years for the album’s release. Most of them had reserved a limited edition copy of the record, which came with two passes, a band shirt, a poster, and a CD with a special album art and bonus track, stuff that devoted followers of the band would go to great lengths to have.
Up Dharma Down’s fan base is possibly the strongest and steadiest in the local music scene—a crowd that willingly pays for music easily explains the jam-packed gigs and out-of-print discs—but what makes it distinct is its diversity, an assortment of people whose tastes and sensibilities exist harmoniously despite their differences. “We’re blessed to have a tight community,” vocalist Armi Millare says, “as though every one of them felt obliged to convert their friends and ask them to attend our gigs.” After the release of Fragmented in 2006 and Bipolar in 2008, she, bassist Paul Yap, drummer Ean Mayor, and guitarist Carlos Tañada decided to adopt another one-word title: Capacities.
Halfway through the launch, Millare introduced a cut from the album. It’s a collaboration with a foreign artist, who unfortunately couldn’t come because he was on tour in support of his own record. That person was Paul Buchanan, the vocalist of the Scottish band The Blue Nile, and the song was called “Feelings.” There was silence as the audience waited in anticipation. When Buchanan’s bruised voice delivered the opening verse, the quietness became telling, as though the band had landed safely on a distant territory. Millare shared the vocal duties in deep thought, relishing the first time to sing the track before a large crowd of people, Buchanan in the background holding her steady.
The 27-year-old songwriter and keyboardist said the collaboration was a dream come true. “The Blue Nile is one of our inspirations, especially in its philosophies as a group. Its members released albums only when they were ready.” Like Up Dharma Down, The Blue Nile might not be as famous as its contemporaries but the band was intensely popular among people who knew its music. Its fans were patient followers, as the trio would put out an album almost seven or eight years after the last. In the duration of its career the band released four albums, two of which in the 80s, and had been low-profile since the mid-2000s. Mid Air, Buchanan’s first solo record, was released in 2012.
The first version of “Feelings” features Millare’s vocals alone. It’s a solid track, its emotions bottled and sealed, making it an even more potent heartbreaker, but it lacks the vulnerability and defenselessness that the duet has. On the surface Millare and Buchanan are merely exchanging words—a conversation without being a dialogue—but the inflections say something else; between the cadence of the words and the pitch in which they are expressed are yearnings of a different kind, having a faraway look with the eyes closed.
The candidness in the recording of “Feelings” shows in the result. There is distance between Millare and Buchanan’s voices, not because they have been recorded separately but because of each singer’s own relationship with melancholy, the warmth seeping out when the two meet for the first time. It’s the kind of collaboration that can come about only naturally, nothing fancy or planned, all aided by the wonders of modern technology.
“Paul (Buchanan) helped me write the music but the idea of collaborating with him hadn’t occurred to us yet then. After I finished the lyrics, the band decided to include it in the album. At that time Paul and I were in touch and he jokingly asked when we would be singing together. So I grabbed the opportunity and sent him the demo. In a way it seemed like it was meant to be for him since he was part of making it,” Millare recounts. This exchange of e-mails and online messages started in 2007. Sometime after that Buchanan got to listen to Bipolar and liked it.
But the presence of The Blue Nile singer isn’t the only thing that makes Capacities a nostalgic record. Harking back to 80s synth pop and new wave, with textured spatters of techno and disco, the album has allowed the band to reach back to a once-glorious era without losing touch with the contemporary. It’s an old sound made current using the same novelty and allure, music being a time machine of lonely artists.
Millare cites Tears for Fears, Gene, Hall and Oates, and Todd Rundgren as her influences, and their vibe is present in a number of songs on the album. Whereas their previous hits “Maybe,” “Pag-agos,” and “Oo” lean on conventional pop triggers—strong hooks, affectionate lyrics, and torch singing—the tracks on Capacities spill onto each other and achieve their utmost strength when listened to as a whole. As Terno Recordings owner and the band’s longtime producer Toti Dalmacion says, “Up Dharma Down is able to make people appreciate and love a full album. And that’s something new and unusual in the local scene.”
Despite the noticeable change in sound, the songwriting remains ace. Millare is particular about songwriters because “they are not often given enough credit, like when Paul (McCartney) is always regarded as Paul the bassist instead of Paul the songwriter.” She’s the kind of composer who’s completely inseparable from her work, every unspoken note or misplaced punctuation connoting a portion of her emotional state. Her lyrics are sharp and suggestive, expressive but not cloying, succinct but thorough in effect, and it’s not surprising that they resonate to many listeners who aren’t shy of singing along during gigs.
Clearly the band has stayed on for a decade because of this fixation on creating composite material, enabling the songs to linger after multiple spins, the words becoming indelible through repetitions and the melodies finding a way to undergo some settling. Millare’s long years of musical training, finishing with a degree in Asian Music, and the boys’ insistence on having a perfect live setup to avoid any audio feedback are primarily formative, two important things that work best for the band.
The maturity on Capacities is a revelation, but there are risks involved in allowing oneself to elaborate. For some reason there’s wisdom in refusing to overthink its virtues. Its beauty is not tiring, its beauty allows itself to be consumed without losing its soul, its beauty turns the listener into a connoisseur of good music. It’s no longer the sound of Up Dharma Down on Fragmented and Bipolar, as it has managed to redefine an aspect of the group that often finds itself in the hem of fruitless weariness, but by all means it’s a huge step in a humble direction. Frankly, the burden of making an articulate assessment of Capacities is proportional to how painstaking its production has been; and in hindsight it’s the distinct mark of a record ravaged by troubles and prevailing over them. When its last song fades out, it walks away bearing a shadow bigger than itself.
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