May 3, 2021. Depending on what you’re most susceptible to, Sachal Vasandani’s Midnight Shelter will either break your heart or rock you to sleep. If you stay with it through all 11 singer-songwriterly tunes, chances are you’ll experience both.
Unlike the swinging jazz records Vasandani’s previously released, this one seems meant to put you through the emotional wringer only to reassuringly tuck you into bed and assure you you’ve somehow gained strength from the experience.
Midnight Shelter tracks allegorically with the emotional experience of 2020; it was that experience that led Vasandani and pianist Romain Collin to make the record in the first place. Except, it wasn’t a record they set out to make; the whole thing’s more a story about two friends feeling lonely and isolated who wanted to get out of their respective quarantine bunkers and play some music.
“After sharing our stories, we agreed we should play—just get together and play,” Vasandani says in the album’s press release. “We didn’t set out to make a record, but getting together in the studio gave me a chance to work through the anxiety and anger I’d kept inside throughout the spring and summer.”
Instead of hiding these emotions in affectation or theatricality, Vasandani puts them to work. His vocals aren’t just understated and flourish-free, they’re almost jarringly direct and so minimally airbrushed that Vasandani’s audible breaths and the extraneous mouth sounds inevitably caught by a hot mic have been left in the mix, for authenticity’s sake.
It’s no stunt; it really works, pairing with a sparing, often edgy vocal presentation to convey a vulnerability that feels real and a resultant intimacy that feels earned.
The set here comprises a grab-bag of delightfully mismatched covers that at first glance present as the musical equivalent of leaving a kindergartner to his own devices to dress for the first day of school…in the dark. Covers of timeless anthems of folk balladry—from Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, and Lennon and McCartney— cohabitate with selections from Gen-Z pop-rockers like Harry Styles and Lewis Capaldi that have been refashioned here to maximize tear shedding.
Vasandani’s take on Capaldi’s “Before You Go” might be the most emotionally eviscerating. Stripping away the slightly manic poppiness of the original, Vasandani exposes the bared heart of these lyrics about the tortured psychological fallout that follows the suicide of a loved one. The combination of music, lyrics, and emo-nerd aesthetic are reminiscent of Pasek and Paul’s repertoire; if Vasandani’s voice weren’t quite so weathered and mature, you’d think this one was plucked straight from the Dear Evan Hansen songbook.
Styles’ “Adore You” is the cover that undergoes the most drastic makeover; Vasandani and Collin combine to produce a version much darker and contemplative of the fine line between love and infatuation. Is there something sweet or sinister happening here? It’s tough to tell; all I know is that I’m concerned for both the narrator and the object of his affection.
Meanwhile, the take on Drake’s “River Man” is foreboding and fatalistic, possessed of both feathery lightness and a clenched jaw, as though Vasandani’s wading through something thick with great resolve but little progress, something Sisyphean—which, of course, tracks with what we know about Drake.
The halftime sorbet is Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice,” presented thick with the muted brightness of wistfulness. It’s difficult to reconcile Dylan’s approach to this tune with Vasandani’s; Dylan’s is raspy and angular, while Vasandani’s is open-throated and round, more monochromatic and less emotionally ambivalent—a more simplistic take on Dylan’s classic. And that’s okay; it’s just no match for the original in terms of sophistication. To be fair, Bob Dylan’s a Nobel Prize winner for a reason; he’s not easily imitated.
Vasandani’s take on “Blackbird” meets with similarly mixed results. It’s another one where the bar is set so high because of the singular greatness of the original and the surfeit of underwhelming covers.
With Vasandani singing in a lower key than is his custom, some pitch problems make it seem almost too low, and the accompaniment’s not doing him any favors on that front. Even if it’s the case where they’re going for the slightly-out-of-tune-for-effect thing, I don’t quite get it. Still, the whole album’s an experiment with a new atmosphere and aesthetic for Vasandani; there are bound to be risks taken that aren’t rewarded.
For the most part, though, Vasandani seems perfectly comfortable in these darker environs. His take on Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw it Away” is legitimately haunting, chill-inducing even. And Collin’s accompaniment here amplifies that, channeling Radiohead and then, chillingly, at the piece’s conclusion, the first few chords of Chopin’s “Chord Prelude” (aka Prelude, Op. 28, No. 20 in C minor, aka “Could it Be Magic”).
Lincoln isn’t the lone jazz great covered here; there’s also a take on Wayne Shorter’s “Dance Cadaverous,” an out-of-left-field selection—even for an eclectic album—that validates all the time Vasandani spent studying jazz’s great improvisors. With lyrics that reveal a perceptive interpretation of Shorter’s composition and an eminently controlled, sensitive rendering, this is an affecting, lyrical, and incredibly challenging piece of vocal jazz that’s executed expertly and elegantly. Technically and artistically, it’s the album’s high-water mark.
But it’s too complex to be the one you’ll walk away humming. For that, see “Love Away,” a brooding piano-pop ballad with turn-key crossover potential, ripe for plug-and-play in any cerebral, fashionably quirky coming-of-age cinematic romance—Zach Braff, are you hearing me?
Though Midnight Shelter sports a couple ambitious near misses, Vasandani has proven himself a vocalist of staggering range, with the potential to place multiple tunes in heavy rotation across radio formats.