The summer may be drawing to a close, but it’s not too late to find a soundtrack for it. Ajay Mathur’s 9 to 3 is that soundtrack: rough without being harsh, peppy without being saccharine, and brimming with warmth regardless of lyrical content. Indian-born, Switzerland-based, and California-flavored, Mathur is no stranger to diversity, and his style reflects that. He cartwheels from Americana (‘Walking On the Water’) to Latin-y jazz (‘Latin Lover’) to Western-tinged variations on his native India (‘Oh Angel’, ‘I Mantra’). You wouldn’t expect great American driving music to come out of Lucerne, but here we are.
Hit up Mathur’s website and you’ll see that 9 to 3 carries a disclaimer: “No autotune technology was used on this album. All music composed, played and sung by real people.” It’s the sort of artistic decision one could easily squander for its own sake, and it’s a relief that Mathur brings more to the table than a sense of superiority. The inaugural track, ‘Sitting By Your Cradle’, is practically engineered to prove his authenticity: it hits the ground running with a commanding riff right out of ‘Stairway to Heaven’, pulling the listener through an infectious ode to the vacation season backed by the School Choir Schwyz.
The nods to Led Zeppelin and accompaniment by children’s voices are deliberate on Mathur’s part; he’s sampling from a range of 60s-80s nostalgia, as with the grungy ‘Nothing Really Matters’. There’s a lot of familiar genre themes on this album, and Mathur deftly retells a season’s worth of stories with his lyrics. One immediately seizes on the ‘easy stride of confidence’ in every word of ‘Latin Lover’, the trance-like admonition to ‘take life as a joke’ in ‘Oh Angel’, and the ‘desperate hours of insanity’ that produce the sleepy ‘My World (SOS to the Universe)’, which incidentally feel like progressive snapshots of an increasingly unhinged bender. The common denominator is humidity; Mathur fills his pieces with layers of airtight harmony that wrap the listener like a muggy August evening.
With the album’s consistent emphasis on nostalgia, if there’s an odd piece out on 9 to 3, it’s a song that’s explicitly tied to the present. ‘Surfing Girl (Cyber Monday Mix)’ follows the classic-rock throwback ‘Password Love’, chasing a distinctly Journey-esque ballad with a catchy yet aggressively insipid social media anthem. The pun is obvious, using bouncy surf-rock to daydream about ‘setting up a home page’ with a girl who ‘knows what she’s posting’. Lyrics like ‘I hope you like my comment on your page’ are downright goofy, but the rapid-fire name-drops of Twitter and Facebook over the beach-scented guitar licks push this song into satirical territory. “Look what’s become of us,” Mathur seems to say. “We used to go out and party, and now we’re poking each other online.” The lyrics might be a tad grating, but I’m convinced that their crisp delivery comes in spite of Mathur’s tongue planted firmly in his cheek.
But he’s more than willing to poke fun at the good old days. Lyrics like “I’ll be your love soldier / I’ll end all the wars for you” sound laughable, and even a song like the psychedelic ‘Love Madness’ crosses the line from sultry to screwy. But it’s backed up by an intentionally purring parody of a Miami lounge lizard’s pickup attempt, and kept afloat on some genuinely groovy electric funk. We laugh at dated styles while simultaneously remembering what drew us to them in the first place.
In other words, Ajay Mathur’s just plain fun. He skips from mood to mood – from disaffection (‘Nothing Really Matters’) to flirtation (‘Love Madness’) to introspection (‘I Mantra’) – and never lets up on the gas pedal. It takes a learned and unique perspective to break down established styles and rebuild them so effectively; while adding some flavor of his own, 9 to 3 proves that Mathur knows the rules well enough not just to break them, but to follow them – and to sound fresh doing so.