Bitter:Sweet and United by Sound

At Stateside, Saturday, July 19.

Los Angeles trip-hop duo Bitter:Sweet are Kiran Shahani (left) and Shana Halligan (right).

In Bitter:Sweet’s recent interview with the Indy, there was lots of talk about struggling to survive in the industry. Ten years ago, the Los Angeles-based trip-hop duo probably would have felt right at home alongside emerging downtempo artists like Air, Zero 7, and Morcheeba, but these days the industry plays to a faster (and louder) beat. Downtempo music, once a prominent movement that put Bristol, England, on the map, has mostly been reduced to background noise for advertisements and soundtracks for indie flicks. From the looks of it, downtempo just can’t keep pace.

But looks can be deceiving. Surviving the downtempo game requires a degree of silky-smoothness that cannot be faked. Lucky for them, Bitter:Sweet wielded a sexiness through both Shana Halligan‘s smokey jazz vocals and Kiran Shahani‘s arrangements that kept a crowd on its feet at the Stateside last Saturday. Selections from their recent full-length release, Drama, sounded lush and teeming with energy alongside singles from the first album like “Dirty Laundry” and “Salty Air.” Ably backed by supporting rhythm and brass sections, Halligan and her band displayed a lightheartedness on stage that suggested that sometimes even survival shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

But while onstage capers are fun and certainly interesting to watch, staying afloat in the scene takes work, and, to be sure, this band seems intent on sticking around. As a result, Bitter:Sweet have attached their name to a number of advertisements and TV shows, and have shown an eagerness for commercial success that is, at times, off-putting to fans of trip-hop artists. Not to mention that their label, Quango, specializes in branding and licensing its clients. Staying energetic and lighthearted is important, but for a band that draws frequent comparisons to artists like Portishead and Bjork, one must wonder if artistic integrity is really a factor for Bitter:Sweet.

Electronica, downtempo, trip-hop – there are many names, but all these types of music share the same history. Bitter:Sweet’s sound falls on a timeline that began in Bristol during the ’90s and involves many unlikely characters (including Thom Yorke and Madonna). The tempo of the industry may not slow down for them, but that’s alright-because Bitter:Sweet marches to a beat all their own.


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