tremble clef

Monday, October 31, 2005

Future Bible Heroes, "I'm A Vampire" (2002)

I've been invited to a grand total of zero Halloween parties this year. Living in a country where the occasion is not really celebrated might have something to do with that.

Just as well. Even when I was living in the trick-n-treat-obsessed US of A, I was never much for Halloween. In particular, I wasn't a big fan of the dressing up. Many of my friends loved it, of course, what with it being the unoffical Gay Holiday and all. A friend once wanted to go to a party wearing a French beret, and with a bunch of tampons, dyed blue, taped all over his body, until we pointed out that the whole Picasso's Blue Period look was already approaching the status of urban legend and certainly too clichéd by then. Another pal always goes clubbing with his five friends, all of them dressed in identical skimpy gold lamé shorts and angel wings. Given how cold Boston is by the end of October, it's surprising none of them ever put an eye out on an adjoining nipple.

I myself was always one of those annoying people at Halloween parties who wouldn't dress up, and instead stood in the kitchen trying to give off the whole too-cool-for-school vibe. One time I did deign to wear something. Outwardly I was in my regular clothes. When someone called me on it, though, I would announce that I was in fact dressed as a closet transvestite -- and I would lift my pant leg, à la Michael Jackson, to reveal the fishnet stockings I had on underneath. I also lied that I had on women's silk panties, but people, while backing away with vaguely horrified expressions, never asked me to prove it.

"I'm A Vampire": an electropop track from the great Future Bible Heroes album, Eternal Youth, which I still think is the best thing, despite stiff competition from i or 69 Love Songs, Stephin Merritt has ever put out. I love the way the ascending melody makes it seem as if Claudia is singing every line to end in exclamation points. "I'll! Never age and I'll never die! Unlike all the stars in the sky! I'll be young forever, and why! Cause I'm a vampire!" She's a cheery vampire! And why not -- she's survived the Inquisition, and she still looks seventeen. And that spoken bit is too cute. "I have all the love I need, it's your blood I crave! I am a bitch goddess from beyond your grave!"

Friday, October 28, 2005

Fountains of Wayne, "Trains and Boats and Planes" (2005)

My friend Daniel is an aviation whore. Because he travels quite a bit on business, in both senses of that phrase, he is a fanatic about keeping up with all matters flying. He's on a bunch of mailing lists that keeps him abreast of the latest mileage offers. He knows the hell out of blackout dates. He has all manners of passwords that enable him to get onto sites that only travel agents access. Do the odd curves of a particular plane mean that certain seats give you the extra inch of legroom? Are there any secret buttons on the remote you can press to allow you to skip over the annoying ads on your personal monitor before your chosen film starts? Which airline includes the best moisturiser in their business-class toiletries pack? Hanging out with him is a hoot. I love baiting him to talk about such stuff, although I sometimes have to back away a few inches in case he has an accident while gushing about cabin pressure.

Not that I don't understand how he feels. Returning home from Nottingham via Amsterdam last week, I am in line for the boarding area. The man in front of me expressly turns around and gives me A Look. Oh, hello there, cute, probably Dutch guy. He smiles, and passes through the ticketing point. I make a mental note, and it's my turn to hand the gate agent my ticket. "Oh. I think they've moved your seat, sir," she tells me ominously. But then: "Yes, yes. You've been upgraded, sir."

I've been in business class before, but never for free. Internal elation (external cool). I thank her, pass through to the crowded seating area (but hey, I would soon have a good seat, suckers). And completely forget about seeking out the man. Free upgrades: better than sex.

Postscript: Once on the plane, I settle in (the immediate of champagne help) and adopt the done-it-all "air." Over to my left, two young gay men seem all a-titter about being in business. Philistines, I think. They were probably upgraded for free, unlike me. Out of the corner of my eye I watch them as they, already giddy, sip the sparkling wine. But then one of the men backs his ass into the flute, tipping it over onto his partner's seat. I think I gasped audibly. I mean, god, don't waste all that champagne, even if it's free.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Cagedbaby, "Disco Biscuit" (2005)

And what is a "disco biscuit," you ask? Is it:

a. the street name for methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, a hallucinogenic drug that makes you feel euphoric?

b. what results when enough McVities crumbs get caught in John Travolta's chest hair that they reconstitute back into a biscuit which attacks and ironically now digests his entire body -- as google-images seems to think, and, you know, fair enough?

c. a slinky Cagedbaby dance track whose lyric has no actual drug references, but in all entices with its silky smooth, slightly Morgan Geist-esque, body-popping bassline that somehow makes me want to use lots of "s" adjectives?

d. a delicious cookie shaped like a mirrorball?

It's not (d), but I'm thinking that such a snack would be awesome, actually.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Ashby, "Anyone Anywhere" (2005)

Ashby is most often compared to Saint Etienne -- specifically the Saint Etienne of the Good Humor era -- and that was indeed the context in which I first heard of them. Made up of Evelyn Pope and Bill Cowie, who are partners in real life, the duo was discussed quite heavily on the Saint Etienne mailing list around 2001. People kept saying that their music had the same kind of loungey, modern bossa novaish, martini-accompanying feel that Tore Johanson brought out of Saint Etienne by sequestering them in Sweden and feeding them American ice-cream. (Etienne fans weren't at all resentful or non-plussed about Ashby sounding like their heroes. It's interesting how fans react very differently to soundalikes: some welcome it, while others seem threatened and annoyed. Why the variance exists fascinates me, but that's a subject for another blog post.)

Although Ashby are based in Boston, they have almost no American profile. (Although, hell, maybe they have no profile, period.) They are signed to Marina, the German record company that mostly specializes in slightly twee, 60s/70s AOR sounds; The Aluminum Group and The Free Design have put out records through them, for instance. The Boston Phoenix has long championed the group, though, naming the band's debut album the best by a Boston group in 2001.

That seems like faint praise -- I mean, I love Boston, but beating out, I dunno, the Dropkick Murphys or the other bands on the list doesn't seem especially tough to me. But that debut album, Power Ballads, is indeed quite a little gem. Melodically, its twelve songs do sound like their writers spent their lives listening to the Carpenters, Bacharach, and Jobim. "Horizon" is probably my favorite track off the album, and fairly representative: some electronic squiggles, a gentle beat, and a lyric about nothing in particular except a mood, makes the song a snazzy grower.

Early this year the band resurfaced with their second album, Looks Like You've Already Won, which I finally found and picked up in Nottingham. I'm not exactly disappointed by it, but it does feel like a lesser effort than Power Ballads. Most of the electronic textures are gone, while more horns have entered the mix. The latter is a nice development, but without the more modern beats, some of the tension -- between old and new, of course, but also between propulsiveness and melancholy -- that made the first album interesting has disappeared. As a further result, Evelyn's voice also sounds weaker, not having to rise to meet the electronica. The first track on the album, "Anyone Anywhere," is the most immediate: the ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-baaa bit that kicks off the song and recurs throughout is instantly memorable, and won't leave your head despite, or perhaps due to its, sounding vaguely like a million other things. Report card thus says: "Not bad, but could do better. PS: Your album covers are pretty horrible. Buck up in art class!"

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Benjamin Diamond, "Let's Get High" (2005)

When the possibility of my going to Nottingham for some business first arose, the first thing I did, naturally enough, was get on the interwebs to google the city...'s CD stores. Why, they have a Select-A-Disc, and a Fopp. That's good enough; I'm a cheap date. One more glass of wine and even the city's HMVs and Virgins will look fetching.

I got to Nottingham on Tuesday morning. It was a little too early to check in, so I dropped my bags off at the hotel and went for a walkabout. Right around the corner were the SAD-Fopp; this was entirely a coincidence and not at all the result of careful planning when I was selecting my accommodations.

The stores were fine. Not unexpectedly, neither was quite as good as their counterparts in London, but SAD did have a used CD branch down the street called Was that turned out to be pretty solid. One of the most desired things on my shopping list, the new Ashby (something from them tomorrow, maybe), turned up there. Many of their promos were coverless, though, which was annoying -- I passed on the bare-bones Late Night Alumni but did pick up Afrique C'est Chic 3 for about two quid. Fopp provided a reasonably-priced copy of Annie's DJ Kicks, while SAD persuaded me to pick up some back catalogue stuff like Jane Birkin's Arabesque CD for three pounds. Still, none of these stores had the two new Dreambabes collections, let alone, say, advance copies of Alexis Strum (damn the record company for pushing the release back to February) or David McAlmont or, um, Mari Wilson (release dates for both: Oct 24. So close), so I was slightly disappointed.

Of course this meant that I was basically done with the record shopping within five hours of my arrival in Nottingham. Damn. Surely this can't mean that I would have to spend the next few days visting tourist attractions (or, you know, working)? Robin Hood never did much for me. I did find myself in the Broadmash Shopping Centre one day, where the entrance to the "City of Caves" was located. That's one of my favorite sights from this trip, one which I wished I had a camera for: a sign that calmly said "Shops • Restaurants • Caves." Beat that, Mall of America. I also have to tell you, apropos of nothing, that Nottingham strikes me as having a lot of wig shops. Yeah, I don't know.

But I'm nothing if not resourceful, so I set out over the next few days for some of the more obscure CD stores in Nottingham. All three of them. And some of the more well-known -- the Virgins and the HMVs indeed. In the former category is Pendulum, a cute little stall in Victoria Market that reminds me a little of Steve's Sounds in London. Perhaps targeting the slightly older demographic that shopped in that area, the place was full of CDs by, I dunno, Engelbert Humperdinck, but also tons of Northern Soul collections. It had good prices on contemporary stuff though -- here was where I did my pop duty and picked up the Rachel Stevens for a good price. (Good for now. Everyone is expecting poor Rachel to be selling for a pack of peanuts in a few months' time, sigh.)

And in the Hockley area was a CD store specializing in dance that I'll call, um, Munky Fonkey. I saw it a little after six one evening, my attention attracted by the banner over the door that said "Under New Management." Oooh. That's always a promising sign, because it alludes to some mysterious scandal in the past that it is now struggling to overcome. We used to suck and steal your money, but now we've turned over a new leaf! Possibly! So I stuck my head in, said "hi," and headed past the vinyl for the CDs.

The guy behind the counter piped up. "Hey mate," he said, "sorry, but I was just about to close up."

I turned to face him. Dude was rolling a spliff. "No problem," I said, backing slowly towards the exit. "I'll just come back tomorrow."

In honor of our friend at Munky Fonkey, then, here is some music purchased on my trip. Not at Munky Fonkey itself, you understand, because I was prevented from shopping by ALL THE DRUG-TAKING DEBAUCHERY, but a purchase from Fopp. Benjamin Diamond is the Frenchman who's best known as the voice on Stardust's "Music Sounds Better With You." His new (and second) album on K7, Out Of Myself, has mostly flown under the radar, although the Alan Braxe remix of "I Get High" did get blogged about some months ago. That version made the song a bit trancey, Braxe taking out most of the guitars and replacing them with persistent synths. The original is quite good in its own right, though; there are heavenly multi-tracked vocals, and the Hooky bassline (also apparent on several other tracks on the album) is where you can really hear why Benjamin lists New Order as an influence.

As music-for-robots noted, the album is more guitar-pop than the French filter disco you might have been expecting, but "These Emotions" is the other great track (yay, bonus!). Like "I Get High," this also has some lovely harmonies. The song floats by, no doubt bidding its time until the Daft Punk remix that will loop that vocal bit in the breakdown ("I thought that I could never fall in love again") over a tough Gallic electro beat. Can't wait.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Hard-Fi, "Help Me Please" (2005)

I don't wear it very much, for obvious reasons, but I do have a sweatshirt that I like quite a bit. A nice shade of green, it's a hoodie that zips up the front. It's more of a long-sleeved T-shirt than a sweatshirt, really, since the cotton material is thin and the whole thing quite form-fitting. The seams of the shirt are ragged and unfinished-looking; reports are that this is the current, trendy look. Or perhaps those goddamned children making two cents an hour in sweatshops just need to improve their sewing skills, preferably via tougher whippings.

Because it's not too heavy and zips up the way it does, it's a perfect sweatshirt to take with me when I'm traveling. It's always a good idea to have something that you can layer, of course, given those unpredictable plane temperatures. When it's warm, you don't want to have to lug around a sweater that weighs as much as a mink, though. And plane hair is bad enough without the further aggravation that would come from pulling a sweatshirt on and off, on and off.

When I was packing last week for my trip, therefore, I naturally grabbed this shirt. But then I realized the potential problem. The design of the shirt includes these words, stenciled across the front: NOTTINGHAM 1973. I bought the thing in the USA and have always worn it happily in various places, but this time, well, I was actually going to Nottingham.

"Will this do?" I wondered. Because, really, wearing a hoodie with the words NOTTINGHAM when you are anywhere but Nottingham = slightly cool. Wearing said shirt while in Nottingham? Why, it might be as bad as walking around in a tacky souvenir T-shirt, or going into a Hard Rock Café wearing a Hard Rock Café T-shirt. (We may also need to talk about why you're even going to the Hard Rock Café.)

Fine. I'll wear the thing on the plane, but when I get to Nottingham it can come off. Cunning! I could even tie it across my waist. Dashing! Or possibly around my neck. Girly!

But last Tuesday at Schiphol airport, as I am waiting for the last plane ("BMI: Our Logo Is A Baby. How Cute Are We?!") that would whisk me to Nottingham, I suddenly felt very self-conscious, and just this side of retarded. There I was, about to get to Nottingham, and my chest announced that fact.

I felt like one of those refugees going to the UK for the first time but who don't speak English, and therefore wander around airports with a note tremulously clutched in my hands ("Hello. I don't speak English. If I am lost, please help me get to where I need to go.") and a sign around my neck with the name of my honkin' destination.

Well, at least I wasn't also time-traveling to 1973.

But welcome back, me. This week: reports of CD shopping in Nottingham, and possibly more stories about the trip.

Monday, October 17, 2005

OK Go, "Oh Lately It's So Quiet" (2005)

Maybe it's just the strained male falsetto, but this sounds like it could be ELO. The band name even rhymes with ELO! Am I straining? OK Go are generally quite rubbish, being a power-rock band who is usually too noisy for my taste. Nevertheless, they did set five blogs alight a few months ago with the hilarious video for their song "A Million Ways," which features them dorkily doing a synchronized water ballet routine in their backyard. Except without the water, and, also, not so balletic. Ross and Monica would be pro-ooo-ud.

It was enough, in any case, to get me to give the album Oh No a listen, whereupon I concluded that there were maybe two, three okay songs on it, and one brilliant one. This mid-tempo track, built on a insistently grinding but gentle guitar riff, also has a surprisingly effective lyric. He's working himself up into a complete lather thinking about his ex and who she is now sleeping with ("Whose sheets you twist? Whose face you kiss?"), but the great lyrical hook that is the repeated line (with some very pregnant pauses) "Whose house, are you haunting, tonight?" also gives the track a kind of spooky melancholy. It's really quite fantastic.

Things will indeed be a little quiet here the rest of the week, as I have some travelin' to do. That's why I blogged over the weekend, the better to keep you entertained, my lovelies. Be back next week.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Sugababes, "Ace Reject" (2005)

When, a month or so ago, Popjustice started listing a Sugababes song called "Ace Reject" on their Chart of Truth, I thought: bitches, not only do you have to remind us that you're privy to The Hot Pop ages before the rest of us mortals, but you have to rub our faces in how you also get to hear the outtakes, the songs deemed by the girls to be not good enough for the album but which you think are terrific?

Um, yeah. As it turns out, I was stupid: "Ace Reject" is an actual song on the new Taller In More Ways album. (So I'm now thinking that "Something We Might Never Be Able To Tell You About" must be a new song by the Pet Shop Boys.) But perhaps I could be forgiven my stupidity, and it was all an intentional joke on the 'Babes part, hard as it is to imagine any of the surly girls cracking a smile. The phrase doesn't even appear in the song, so was probably put there to bait idiots like me. It's like they think they're New Order. Speaking of, there is another song on the album called "Joy Division," in which the girls discuss the horrors of sexual slavery via the medium of light-hearted comic strips. (Lying!) And what about that album title, which is either absurd (how many ways are there to be taller?...) or brilliant (...well, I guess literal and figurative, and that's the point), I can't decide.

But half-the-song-title does win the truth in advertising award, because the song is indeed ace. (I'm sure I'm the first to make that pun.) The whole album didn't really pop for me on the first few listens. Aside from the obvious monsters ("Push The Button" and "Red Dress," and perhaps the album title-spawning "Ugly"), the rest seemed rather lackadaiscal. Again, I was stupid. Well, somewhat stupid, because they are still a number of stinkers on there. But two of the other songs have, upon further listens, revealed themselves to be the absolute gems they are.

"2 Hearts" is one -- it begins by fooling you into thinking it'll be a crap ballad, but then a rush of words come at you, and the ending swells and swells with the intricate strings rising and rising and getting more entangled, and just when you think it can't get more beautiful, the horns come in to rip your heart right out just in time for the album to end.

"Ace Reject" is the other. It's in some ways made up of bits from other songs, so perhaps the title is appropriate after all. It starts with a wocka-wocka rhythm that is like a slowed-down version of the one backing Moonbaby's/Lene Nystrom's/Girls Aloud's "Here We Go," and the synthesizer riff of the chorus is somewhat reminiscent of the beep-beep-beep bit in the chorus of Saint Etienne's "Burnt Out Car." Since these are all Xenomania productions, they're not stealing (BAD!), just quoting themselves (POMO!).

Even the chorus of "Ace Reject," with the by now patentable Sugababes style in which they sing a rushed jumble of words, harkens back to "Angels With Dirty Faces." That chorus is a thing of beauty, made more so because it takes forever to announce itself as a chorus. (Apparently an earlier version of the track that was leaked has a different structure; I wouldn't know, since I only listen to official releases.) After the first verse, the song goes into two iterations of something ("wasting time..."), and at first we can't at first tell if it's a refrain or a chorus. When we get through with them, we don't in fact get a proper chorus, just a catchy but fairly buried synthesizer riff. Oh. I guess that "wasting time" bit was the chorus then. Meh.

The song next turns back around and heads into another verse, and then into what we at this point are resigned to considering as the chorus. But finally, finally, this time when these bits end, the 'Babes start singing along with the keyboard riff: "We break up and make it up/Back and forth we never stop/Every time a change of heart/I can’t keep up." It's sung rapid-fire, as if the melody can barely contain the girls' emotions. Because we waited so long for this glorious chorus, we are rewarded with another round: "You say yes and I say no/When it turns hot we make it cold/And still something between us holds us together." And if all this weren't enough, everything then slows down for a refrain which has the song's more poetic lines ("Ain't it funny how sweet I dream, but the bed keeps on getting colder/Sometimes when I close my eyes, it feels like I'm living by numbers"). It's another example of Xenomania experimenting with the structure of the pop song, so for god's sake, keep up.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Phyllis Hyman, "Living All Alone" (1986)

I once took a class which was organized around three American poets: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman. What do they have in common? Ding ding ding! That's right: they were all confessional poets who killed themselves. The seminar was Party Central. We engaged in deep intellectual conversations while scarfing down pizza and drinking beer laced with arsenic. Week after week we obsessed over the question of how far one should read biographically -- or, to be more precise, the question was really how one could not read that way. The shadow of suicide hung over each rhyme, each broken meter. Every word felt like a predictor of the end that we knew had come.

It is of course likewise impossible to listen to any recording by Phyllis Hyman without similar thoughts. The soul singer killed herself about ten years ago. Possibly bi-polar, she struggled with depression all her life. The posthumous release of the album that she was working on before she died, I Refuse To Be Lonely, was the most explicit of these addresses, intentional or otherwise, to her problems and her contemplation of a possible solution.

This song came earlier, but is no less tinged with a kind of primal sadness. It's the title track of a 1985 album, which was produced by the legendary Gamble and Huff for the Philadelphia International label. Phyllis's performance on this tale of the aftermath of a broken relationship is incredibly raw and moving. It's like listening to an open wound, and, a few nights ago, lying in bed while this came on the iPod, I didn't know whether to look away or stare it in the face. So I played it again and again, but am still none the wiser.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Texas, "Just Hold On" (2005)

"If I see that it's eleven, I'll say it's seven, to spend more time with you."

Shar -- can I call you Shar? I get how you like this guy, and how much you want to be around him. (I mean, this slinky song is pleasant if rather rote, as the generic title suggests, but it does convey your sentiments. Sorta kinda. Nice ending, though, with the guitar strumming over the electronic bits.) But telling him it's seven when it's really eleven? No good can come of this.

1. He might have another appointment. You never know. We can hope it's not with another girl, of course, but whatever it is, he may have places to go, people to see. He'll end up late, and think: stupid cow.

2. He might think that you're illiterate, or incapable of telling time. (And he'll think: wow, stupid cow.) You're not, are you? Just in case you're really Fantasia:

This is eleven o'clock.

This is seven.

Eleven. (The clock is a minute fast. Don't worry about it.)


One more time. Eleven.

Seven. (Possibly.)

Good luck, okay?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Ben Watt featuring Estelle, "Pop A Cap In Yo' Ass (Full Mix)" (2005)

Whatever, pron. and a.
[Orig. two words, WHAT A., B. and EVER adv. 8e.]

int. colloq. (orig. U.S.). Usually as a response, suggesting the speaker's reluctance to engage or argue, and hence often implying passive acceptance or tacit acquiescence; also used more pointedly to express indifference, indecision, impatience, scepticism, etc.: 'as you wish'; 'if you say so'; 'it makes no difference to me'; 'have it your own way’; 'fine'.

1973 To our Returned Prisoners of War (U.S. Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs) 10 Whatever, equivalent to 'that's what I meant'. Usually implies boredom with topic or lack of concern for a precise definition of meaning. 1982 San Francisco Examiner 7 May A3 When someone responds 'whatever', he or she seems to be saying 'I'm amenable to anything. I'll defer to you.' But in my experience, when a person says 'whatever', he or she is really saying, 'I don't want to take any responsibility. You do all of the deciding and then I'll pass judgment.' 1995 New Yorker 16 Oct. 131/2 You get to the point where it would be foolish to be surprised at anything. A sports bar opens. Then it closes. Whatever. 2000 D. WAUGH in J. Adams et al. Girls' Night In 529 The secretary admitted that the list had been 'temporarily mislaid'. Whatever.

2005 ESTELLE in B. Watt Pop A Cap In Yo' Ass. The rapped lyric of this arresting house record with the gurgling bassline and a earworm of a synthesized string riff tells a tale of a man named Mikey, who in "the old days" (alerting us immediately to the retrospective nature of the narration) used to shoplift. Small time stuff. He and his accomplices would take "expensive linens and towels," but bring them back the next day, claiming that the receipt had been lost, and use the credit for CD players or watches. This was before the days of iPods, you see.

"Things are different now." The narrator doesn't say how, immediately. She hasn't even said who she is. The neighborhood seems different, certainly, filled as it is with boys who posture and pose like the tough guys they're not. Pop a cap in yo' ass. But the boy she and Mikey had? He'll be eleven months soon, and he's got his dad's eyes. "I haven't seen Mikey for weeks. I don't really listen when people say the things they say about him. He's not a bad man. I want him back whatever. I want him back whatever." Here, while acceptance, acquiescence, indifference are implicitly professed, they don't seem real, or are at least only defensive. Resigned. Hopeful. Hopeless. "I want him back. Whatever."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Lisa Stansfield, "Takes A Woman To Know" (2004)

It takes a woman to know...what, exactly?

As usual, in my hour of befuddlement I turn to google. And my little googlie wooglie tells me that, first of all, of course, it takes a woman to know a woman. Sometimes, ahem, we mean that biblically. Further, it takes a woman to know what the REAL Y2K issues are. But also, men apparently can't moo worth a shit -- it takes a woman to know how to moo. And that, my friends, answers that.

The other puzzle associated with this song is why it wasn't released as a single and a big hit. Poor Lisa seems resolutely out-of-fashion; towards the end of last year she put out her album The Moment, produced by Trevor Horn and on the ZTT label. Commercially it did, as far as I can tell, absolutely nothing (and in fact news is that she has now left ZTT).

I'm not too narked by the failure of the album. Trevor's production is slick but unremarkable, and despite there being a few good songs (the understated "Easier" and the bouncy "If I Hadn't Got You" singles, as well as a reasonable cover of Prefab Sprout's "When Love Breaks Down" for which Paddy wrote a new verse), the album was a little too chockful of snoozesome ballads and the kind of smooth soul numbers for which Lisa (and, by now, no one else) has always had a bit of weakness for.

But right at the end of The Moment is this rather fabulous song. And by "fabulous" I mean "somewhere a drag queen is having wet dreams thinking about how to go to town on this baby." Lyrically it's a variation on "All Woman," all "you don't appreciate my bitchin' womanhood nearly enough, hear me roar." We start with some electronic squiggles, Lisa sings the verse in a low, near-monotone, but then, BAM! Everything goes up a notch as Lisa lets loose on the huge chorus and the chugging electronic bits are replaced by strings that swoop in and caress everything in damned sight. There's even a nice little bridge near the end that's a bit poignant, ending with the requisite high "good-BYE!!!" glory note.

I'm sure this will be all too cabaret for many, but frankly I feel like a little drama today. And god knows we all need to see drag queens move beyond covers of The Weather Girls and Shania Twain.

Monday, October 10, 2005

HAL, "Plays The Hits" (2005)

Castanets! RAT CLACK CLACK! They aren't enough castanets in pop music! Except in a million castanetastic Phil Spector records! But this is the best use of castanets since Thompson Twins' "Hold Me Now"! Maybe not, but at the moment I can't think of another well-known use of castanets! I can't seem to stop saying "castanets"!

Armed with a stupidly googleproof name (the band site is at, HAL is an Irish band which has been unfairly lumped in, at least in the UK, with The Magic Numbers. "Unfair," because they're not as consistently good. [RAT CLACK CLACK!] They certainly don't have a Mercury Prize nomination (ooh: snap). But their harmonic sound would probably lead the New York Times to include them in the "retro-rock" movement. That term does strike me as rather redundant [RAT CLACK CLACK!], since rock, as probably the least forward-looking genre of music (again: snap), is almost always retro, but we'll let that go. The Times appears to be using the label to denote bands that evoke the sounds of 60s and 70s soft-rock [RAT CLACK CLACK!], and indeed HAL counts The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Spector, and Nilsson among their biggest influences. Sometimes the emulation is a bit too straightfaced for my taste, but on this track, for example, there is a certain cheekiness that I enjoy. "Take a look at those guys/When they play the hits [RAT CLACK CLACK!] on the radio/And the pretty young girls/When they shake their hips [RAT CLACK CLACK!] on the television show." It could have been in the soundtrack for That Thing You Do! It'll make you shake your castanets!

At least I think they're castanets. Maybe you're just happy to see me.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Inga Humpe, "Do I Have To" (1990)

Tis true, what Edward said over at Umlauts: there aren't nearly enough good covers of Pet Shop Boys songs.

The Dubstar version of "Jealousy," with the mournful oboe, is quite nice -- despite how Sarah manages to get the very first word of the lyric wrong -- as is, surprisingly enough, Paul Anka's take on "It's A Sin" this year. But Ben Lee's cover of "I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Anymore" sounds like death not even warmed over, and Merril Bainbridge's acoustic version of "Being Boring," in which she seems to be singing "I came across some casual photos," "Now I sit in different faces," and "My shoes were high and I had spores"? Girl, maybe the reason you have spores is because you go around nonchalantly sitting in faces.

Hopes are therefore high (while the bar is low) for West End Girls, two Swedish lasses who, according to Popjustice, will be doing nothing but PSB covers. Incidentally, other names considered for the group but rejected were: Go Westies, Donna Juan A Cat, and Disco Potential. (I'm sort of regretful about that last one.) (Actually I'm sorry about all three.) The photo of them, pretending to be all glum while updating the Go West helmets ("Let's make them...silver! Because...shiny!!!") is unfortunately rather better than their take on "Domino Dancing." But it's the thought (and stylish thinking caps) that count. Because, let's face it, it's hard to improve upon perfection.

Inga Humpe, frankly, doesn't even try, and that has its own kind of charm. Nowadays Inga is best known, if she's known at all, for being half of 2raumwohnung. She would be the one that plays the Alison Goldfrapp part. But before 2raumworraloadofetcetc, Inga was in...well, a million groups, apparently. I remember one of them -- Humpe Humpe, the one she was in with her sister Annette -- quite well, because Smash Hits talked about them, and because, c'mon, they were called Humpe Humpe.

In 1990, Inga went solo and covered the PSB b-side "Do I Have To" for a single. It's a pretty faithful version. It came about because she was working with their programmer Andy Richards, who asked the Boys to suggest a song to do. Neil and Chris went with "Jack The Lad" (which I agree might have been a better choice), but Inga preferred this. I bought the 12" while I was in college -- it has a lovely b-side of its own called "Falling (Forward)" -- and then years later found the full album, Planet Oz, on CD in a used store. It certainly calls on some big hitters: Trevor Horn wrote and produced the album's first single, "Riding Into Blue (Cowboy Song)," a little electronic jaunt that sounds like a horseride, and Andy worked on a few songs, including a cover of "Something Stupid." (The other producer is someone named "Fischerman's Friend." Who knew lozenges even had opposable thumbs?) But it made no impact and is not finally a great album, despite some nice floaty electronic numbers, but inga pinch it'll do. (Ha ha, etc.)

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Pet Shop Boys, "Decadence (Unplugged Mix)" (1994)

Last weekend I didn't much feel like going out, even though the Madge party was on, so I had Neil and Chris over to mine for a bit of a do. Nothing over the top, you understand; just a relaxing evening of lolling about. I had my manservant make us a nice fresh batch of Bellinis, and just some beluga and smoked salmon and nibbly things to nosh on. Very civilized. Neil brought some classical and ambient music for the stereo, though Chris was all grumbly about that. "Not bloody Shostakovich again," he groused. To distract him I repeated some scandalous gossip about Robbie and how he came up that new title, who it seems the Boys are re-obsessed with nowadays.

Though I thought the evening was low-key and the caviar decidedly subpar, Neil declared it "quite decadent." "Hardly," I demurred, tossing back my curly blonde locks as if I didn't care. "We should write a song about decadence," Chris hooted.

"In my opinion, possibly our best b-side. I remember..." Neil began, a little bit worse for wear.

"Oh no," Chris groaned. "Hey," I said, "you got him started."

"As I was saying," Neil said in his most imperial voice, "before I was so rudely interrupted, 'Decadence' is our best b-side." "It should be -- it cost a bloody fortune," Chris interjected. Neil ignored him. "I remember Barney saying to me, 'that track's too good to be on a b-side,' and it is. This came about because we were asked to write the title song for Stephen Berkoff's film of his own play, Decadence, which starred Joan Collins. We liked the idea of Stephen Berkoff and Joan Collins, so we wrote this. It was the same period we were doing the 'Absolutely Fabulous' record."

"Did that film even get made?" I asked. Neil and Chris shrugged in unison. Beside the point.

"I only had a vague idea of what the film was about, anyway," Neil said. "My words are actually about a former friend, saying that he doesn't care about anyone, he just cares about money."

"Ha ha! No one in particular!" Chris guffawed. "Certainly not Tom," I jested.

"Decadence often prefigures the end of something," Neil barrelled on, "like the Roman Empire. So the song is comparing someone's personal behaviour to the end of an era. In this instance, the friendship crumbles. You can't have a relationship with someone because they can't tell the truth, they lie, their behaviour's just totally selfish."

"We bloody recorded it with a full orchestra and strings arranged by Richard Niles, and got Johnny in to play guitar, and then decided we didn't like it enough to have it as an a-side. Typical," Chris fretted. "Does anyone spend as much money on b-sides as we insanely do?"

"Quite," I said, "you were practising decadence."

"Don't forget we even did a second, unplugged mix," Neil pointed out.

"More money down the drain," Chris moaned, by now completely reliving the despair that comes from waste.

"Frankly, I prefer the unplugged version," I said. That wasn't true, since the full version is so lush, but it just seemed like the thing to say then. "Well," Neil says, "it was less obvious. The easy thing is always to have a song called 'Decadence' be all overdone, but the simpler unplugged mix goes against that. An interesting contrast. It performs what it advocates, you could say."

"Right," I said. "Because the song actually advocates the opposite of decadence. Frugality. Frugalness? Everybody do the fru!"

"I'm still not happy with that," Chris remarked. "I'm all about hedonism."

"Yes. Yes, you are," Neil said, and with that we each drank another Bellini.

Sources and inspirations: a lifetime of fandom, the Alternative and Very/Further Listening 1992-1994 booklets, An American Boy [RIP], and delusions of grandeur.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Martin Solveig, "Rejection" (2005)

It's not too surprising to hear that the Sugababes have covered Animotion's "Obsession" for their forthcoming album. (Check out Greenpea-ness for their "Red Dress.") It seems right for them -- lyrically (although after a hilariously faboo line like "Push The Button"'s "My sexy ass has got him in a new dimension," the infamous "What do you want me to be/To make you sleep with me" bit will seem delightfully quaint by comparison), but also sonically. The 80s track has the big-slashing-guitar-put-to-dance-pop-use that is beginning to look more and more prescient, given its recent revival, or at least prominence, in everything from numerous Girls Aloud records (but especially "Wake Me Up") to Rinocerose's "Bitch."

This is another current track that has that kind of crunchy guitar riff, and therefore immediately sounds quite monstrous. Its debt to "Obsession" is especially strong, although maybe it's just the possession/rejection/obsession echo that's gotten me thinking that way. (I am the bitch of simple "-sion" rhymes.) Like the Rinocerose song, this track is by someone who's known more as a dance act. This probably says something either about (1) the way the lines between pop and dance continue to erode partly because they are both borrowing from a particular kind of rock, or, (2) if you think that such dance acts are borrowing from rock only through pop acts like Girls Aloud or Sugababes, the way dance music is nowadays following rather than leading.

If any case, "Rejection" sounds like it would be perfectly at home if done by one of those girl groups, and likely a bigger hit. (Hypothetical hit: this is from Martin Solveig's Hedonist album, and right now not a single.) And maybe a better one too: the rap in the middle ("Feel like such a geek/I sound corny," "Try to dance like Travolta") is pretty cringeworthy here, but might come across as charmingly goofy if a Mutya or a Cheryl had a stab at it. I'm giving this one points for trying, though, and for allowing me to say "a Mutya."

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Depeche Mode, "Suffer Well" (2005)

If the pop career ever goes bust,* Depeche Mode can always rely on their lucrative sideline of writing Hallmark cards.

*Probably won't. However, I do find the new album Playing the Angel not very interesting, aside from the understated single "Precious," the poppy "Lilian," the Gore-sung but rather-too-familiar "Damaged People," and, best of all, this almost-twangy track. (I wish its explosive chorus came sooner, though.)

Monday, October 03, 2005

Late Night Alumni, "Empty Streets" (2003)

Years ago, a friend wanted to bring a copy of Thoreau to read when we visited Walden Pond, and was annoyed when I pointed out what a cliché that would have been. You wouldn't think that a 300-page paperback would hurt, but I'm here to tell you it can be painful when hurled with enough force at your noggin.

However: should your iPod's shuffle function decide to play "Empty Streets" while you're walking home at dead of night, you can forgive the gadget (or yourself, since we all know that the iPod can read its owner's mind) for the obviousness. It would in fact be eerily effective, since, aside from its lyric, the song sounds like a deserted 3 am street. I'm not sure why the shuffling syncopated beat, the beautifully echoing keyboard notes, the drowsy slurred vocals, or the rueful lyric ("If this love's not meant to be/If a heart's not ready to open," and perhaps even better, "It's a quiet time before the dawn/And I'm half-past making sense of it") perfectly soundtrack that scene, but they do.

Although this Late Night Alumni track is just now getting released as a single, to promote the album of the same name, it's been knocking around for a couple of years. I first heard it on the 2003 edition of Hedkandi's Beach House series, on which it was a clear standout. It was certainly a great introduction to the band, which comprises the two guys from Kaskade (Ryan Raddon and Finn Bjarnson), along with John Hancock (yes, really) and vocalist Becky Jean Williams. Over the past two years, more tracks have nepotistically appeared on Hedkandi compilations, and most have been great. ("Seemingly Sleepy" especially.) Of course, one problem is that as a result I now have 7 of the 12 album tracks, and am thus slightly discouraged from buying the album itself. If only there was a way to just get the other 5 tracks, *cough*.