Up Dharma Down’s ‘Fragmented’: 10 years later

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Ten years since its release, Up Dharma Down's debut album "Fragmented" endures and still sounds as fresh, with the band subverting “Oo” with their new songs. Illustration by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Learn the tricks of fire and wash yourself in it.” (“We Give in Sometimes,” Up Dharma Down)

The names you rattle off in your head the first time you hear Armi Millare sing are the names of women whose first names alone evoke what they sound like: Nina, Erykah, Alicia, Etta, Janis. Jazz women and soul women and blues women, a sisterhood of old souls that makes all the sense in the world to place within her purview. At some point in the last ten years, she’s invoked all their names as her paragons anyway.

It’s Joplin I stuck with back then. See, it’s Joplin I heard in Up Dharma Down’s first record. Joplin without the damage was my blurb-baiting sum-up of the way she sang on “Fragmented,” not so much the timbre of her voice but the weary melancholia in its supple gravel, the contained turmoil in her phrasing.

The first time I heard “Fragmented,” a decade ago now, I blithely called it a girl and her piano and the sounds she hears every time she mistakes breaking up with the end of the world, slightly doubting the ferocity of the demons that beset her, but given over to the burn of her anguish. Listening to it again after all these years — and perhaps because I now tend to mistake breaking up with the end of the world, too — not only do no doubts linger, but the push and pull of her confusions have become familiar. There are new sheens of nuance in the way the odd-ish jazz-hop syncopations echo them.

The title “Fragmented” obviously describes the record’s emotional state. As songwriters, then and even more so now, Up Dharma Down has rarely veered their orbit away from the many permutations of heartbreak. Theirs is a repertoire of unrequited ache, of romantic frailty.

But that title also feels like it’s describing the record’s dense mosaic-like sonic swirl, made as it is from shards of many disparate things: Dave Brubeck, Roy Ayers Ubiquity, Odette Quesada, Jill Scott, Sneaker Pimps, Wah Wah Watson. Emerging as if full-blown in the midst of a soul-jazz boomlet with varying credibilities, a few years after the excesses of trip-hop and acid-jazz have leached their mash-up imperatives of vigor and color and futurism, Up Dharma Down came off surprisingly fresh without necessarily breaking new ground.

Then and even more so now, Up Dharma Down has rarely veered their orbit away from the many permutations of heartbreak. Theirs is a repertoire of unrequited ache, of romantic frailty.

Even when they detour into the neo-soul smolder of “Lazy Daisy,” not to mention the indie-pop gauze of “We Give in Sometimes,” jazz was always the bedrock of “Fragmented.” Or rather it was jazz fusion, which may have been grossly misrepresented over the last few decades by the unholy hordes of smooth jazz but in its most fundamental form, remains as forward-thinking and musically exciting a platform for cross-pollination as hip-hop. The collapse into retro was never going to happen, if only because the band’s fidelity was never to a minted template but rather to a tendency. It helped, too, that they had the songs to back it up.

On the record’s three strongest numbers (“Pag-agos,” “Hiwaga,” “Malikmata”) the bedrock cohered all the trace elements of their diverse palette into a cross-pollinated whole that could have sustained another record, but which they discarded right after for oblique, moody electronica (“Bipolar”) then later, shimmering synth-pop (“Capacities”). It all makes organic sense, of course. And if you listened hard enough you could almost hear it coming even back then.

Much as the wistful “Oo” was the album’s odd song out, the way it aspired to and nailed the pop immediacy — which the band seemed to be gleefully subverting for the rest of the record — was a harbinger of their inevitable sonic future, a biomarker almost for what Up Dharma Down evolved into: a pop band restless and pliable enough to perpetually be on the juncture of anything goes.