tremble clef

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Owen Paul, "My Favourite Waste Of Time" (1986)

The last time we saw Owen Paul, he was...well, he was having meat flung at his house, actually. But let's remember happier times, shall we? Well, a happier year. Okay, perhaps just a mildly pleasant week, since Mr. Paul was the proverbial one-hit wonder.

(Actually, for some reason, I also remember his first-single-that-later-got-rereleased-as-the-third-single, "Pleased To Meet You." With that, I may have just become the world's foremost expert on all matters Owen Paul.)

That week was in 1986, and oh, what a glorious one hit that was. "My Favourite Waste Of Time" made it all the way up to #3 on the UK charts, but it should have been #1 for two months. Owen himself was a little tragic; he had a mullet, and a limp one at that. (I mean, if you are going to try to rock that cut [although, really: don't], at least condition and feather.) He in all looked a little like Richard Marx after someone had beaten a bat to his face (and let's face it, we've all had to resist the urge to do that to Richard).

The original version of the song was by Marshall Crenshaw, the hard-luck power-pop singer-songwriter who never really made it. Owen wasn't even the first to cover the song; Bette Midler did a version in 1983 for her album No Frills. But Owen made the song poptastic. For one thing, it's much faster than Crenshaw's original, and a beat ahead of Bette's; when the drums go "BOOM!" and the beat kicks in after Owen sings the first few lines, it's quite a sublime moment. From there, it sounds like it could be a Spector production, with the big drums and the backing vocals. At the same time, the little clickety-clack sounds that run through the track always did remind me of Tears For Fears' "Mad World." Sure, there is a dubious breakdown right in the middle of the song, consisting of an awful guitar and a sax solo (which comes back in the outro), as if in a desperate bid to make a very short song into a longer one. And the cymbal (?) crashes that occur twice will hurt your ears, at least on this mp3 (sorry), as might Owen's anguished "You're wasting MY TIIIMEEE!!" warble going into the breakdown.

But I still dig the way Owen drops from the highs of the chorus into the more sedate verses ("Here I am/I'm playing daydreaming fool again"), before building up again. The way he sings a little counter-melody in the outro. Even the "And the bells gonna RIIINGGG!" has a kind of shambolic charm. And of course, the lyric remains one of the best things about the song: I love how the whole thing is about an object of desire about whom the singer basically doesn't really have a single good thing to say. Being with her is "meaningless and ridiculous," and she's withholding ("Even though/the love you give to me never shows"). But he loves her, that fool. Ain't that always the way?

In related news, my new laptop got here yesterday. To it, and to all of my previous computers -- including Lyon Burke, the old Powerbook who's about to retire -- I dedicate this post, mes bébés.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Will Young, "All Time Love" (2005)

Will Young is fine. I have never disliked him. I have never loved him. I like the idea of him. He is fine.

He does good work here. It's a new song from his Keep On album. He tries hard on the record. He covers Shawn Lee's "Happiness." He works with Nitin Sawhney. He tries.

This song is supposed to be the new "Leave Right Now." I don't know about that. But it's a good song. You know what I like about it? Will's phrasing on the title line. I like the way he sings "Till an all, time, love. Nothing else. Is. Good enough. Want an all, time, love." It's good. It's staccato phrasing. He doesn't let each syllable run over. Each one is distinct. Discrete. All. Time. Love. The end of the line is less staccato. "To fiiind mee-eeee." But that's for contrast. The clipped part hints at reticence. Maybe he's been bruised before. He hopes for an all time love. But he is also measured. He won't completely let go. He's not over dramatic. That's girly. He tempers his hopes. He keeps something inside. He's like Hemingway. A man's man.

The strings are beautiful too.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Sandy Lam (林忆莲), "Original Colors (本色)" (2005)

Sandy Lam's new album is produced by Mark Lui! That's sort of exciting! And probably zero of you know what the hell I'm talking about!

So let's back up. Nowadays I don't listen to much Chinese pop, but I retain a soft spot for Sandy Lam. For a time Sandy was one of the undisputed queens of Cantopop; although her first few albums didn't cause many ripples, beginning in the late 80s she released a series of records -- all loosely revolving around a "life in the big city" theme, and containing lightly r 'n' b-influenced songs that she danced the hell out of in performance -- that launched her into the Cantopop stratosphere. In 1990 she came out with a Chinese album, Loving Someone Who Never Comes Home, which extended that popularity into Chinese-speaking territories like Taiwan. These were her commercial glory years, but they were artistically also quite adventurous: her 1991 Cantonese album Wildflower, for example, was an unusual jazzy record that's now often regarded as her artistic peak.

As the 90s wore on, Sandy concentrated more on the Chinese market, joining Rock Records and releasing a number of huge selling albums on which she downplayed her funky Canto dance numbers in favor of Chinese ballads. In 1995, you couldn't budge without hearing her huge hit "Scars," for instance. But I lapped it up, why? Because I'm a huge sentimental sap. To this day, a couple of the songs on It Doesn't Matter Who I Am (1993) -- the title track, on which she's totally bruised about how incompatible fame and love are, or "Bygone Love," a dramatic tearjerker of a song that was used in the end credits of Farewell, My Concubine -- still kill me dead (listen to how the music stops at the end of "Bygone Love," and Sandy hits that high note -- if you can hear it over THE SOUND OF MY HEART BREAKING). The man with whom she duets on the latter song, Jonathan Li, a uber-record producer who practically ran Rock Records, would become her husband at the end of the 90s. Aww, fairy tale! (Bitches meaner than I would say a specific tale: Beauty and the Beast, since he's rather a lumbering hulk of a man.)

Of course, there are never happy endings. Although after a few years of silence Sandy stormed back in 2000-1 with more Chinese hits (like "At Least There's Still You," still routinely murdered in karaoke joints) and some quite interesting covers (she's sung Chinese versions of Robbie Williams' "Better Man" and Lene Marlin's "Sitting Down Here"), albeit less-fine voice, her star was never as bright as it was in the 90s. And last year she and Jonathan got divorced after six years of marriage.

While she's often included some Cantonese numbers on her Chinese records, Sandy has actually not released an all-Cantonese record for nine years. So this month's new Original Colors album is being seen as a bit of comeback, which is especially understandable given that she has in fact moved back to Hong Kong after some years living in Vancouver and elsewhere. And the new album is produced by Mark Lui -- by most estimates, Cantopop's most interesting producer. His records tend to have little experimental touches that lift them above the norm.

Given that, the album is a little more ballad-heavy and slightly more conventional than I expected. But don't take that as my final verdict, and instead sample the title track and first single, which, while not composed by Mark, is fabulously produced and arranged by him. The most immediate feature of this upbeat ditty is the riff you hear right at the start, which is played alternately by synthesized strings, and as a funky bassline. It reminds me a little of "Out Of My System," the Pet Shop Boys composition that was in their Closer To Heaven stage show, and which they obviously meant as a kind of Destiny's Child pastiche. While listening to this you should also feel free to peruse this site: though it's largely in Chinese, you'll get to see the album sleeves, as well as pretty pictures -- including a photo from the inner sleeve, where Sandy is totally rocking a Christian Dior leather coat that I crave. Crave. I don't care if it's cut for hips more womanly than mine.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Tahiti 80, "Cherry Pie" (2005)

If you are that way inclined (i.e., American and/or gluttonous), happy Thanksgiving.

PS: I'm back for another go-round on Umlauts' Cross-Europe Chart Challenge of Death, where my tastebuds are out of synch with almost everyone else's on at least one song, but only because I'm right and they're wrong. HA!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

East Village, "Shipwrecked" (1993)

Welcome to today's episode of "Which Brother Would You Rather Be?!" Contestants, are you ready? I said, ARE? YOU? READY!? Then let's begin!

OPTION 1! In the early 80s, you form a band with your brother and a few other blokes, and call it Episode Four. You press a 12" which no one actually owns, and then in 1988 change the band's name to East Village. Your band toils away, releasing some singles, but then the record label you're on folds. Rats!

Luckily, you're friends with Bob Stanley, who is messing around with his own band Saint Etienne at this time, and he sweetly puts up some money so that East Village can "lay" "down" some "tracks." Those ten songs form an album you called Drop Out, which years later would prove to be a bit of a cult item. But record company interest in the album isn't immediate -- FOOLS! -- and East Village calls it quits. Aww! By this time you have moved more into the business side of the music industry anyway, helping run Heavenly with a nice man named Jeff Barrett. Jeff in fact is the one who buys Drop Out and releases it on Heavenly in 1993.

At Heavenly, you manage bands like Saint Etienne. Lucky you! Especially because you become quite taken with the band's singer, one Sarah Cracknell. (When she stopped fancying Tim Burgess, perhaps.) She's foxy! Yes, she has a little flaw with her eyes which she doesn't seem to like talking about, but: foxy! In 2002, you break the hearts of a million men and knock Sarah up; she gives birth to a lovely baby boy you two christened "Spencer" (although not, you would say, after your old bandmate Spencer Smith, who may or may not be a Lord by now), and at the end of 2004, you finally make an honest woman of her. Ding-ding-ding-ding, ding-ding-ding-ding!

OPTION 2! Your path begins by being pretty intertwined with your brother's. You're in Episode Four with him, and then later, East Village. But he's the bassist, and you're the guitarist, and everyone knows guitarists gets the chicks! Suck that, Liam.

When East Village breaks up, however, you don't go the business route like your brother, but more towards art and design. You've always been an ace photographer, and your shots end up on the sleeves for bands like Primal Scream, Doves, and Death In Vegas. Quite naturally, you also design album sleeves for people like Beth Orton and the Vines, and recently is practically the house designer for Saint Etienne. You also shoot some music videos -- HAL's "Plays The Hits," Blue States' "Across The Wires," as well as clips for The Magic Numbers, The Go! Team, and, of course, more Saint Etienne. Indeed, it is with the last that you become a feature-length filmmaker, lensing their musical documentary Finisterre, as well as this year's What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? Ooh, arty!

After East Village, you didn't give up on music totally, though. You tour with Saint Etienne as a backing musician, and it is then that you meet Deborah Wykes, better known as Debsy. She is a mini-legend in her own right, having been in Dolly Mixture and later providing some of the most distinctive backing vocals for Saint Etienne. But more importantly: what a cute bob-cut! And what a honeyed voice! You've got to marry her! And you do. As husband and wife, you form a dreamy group in the late 90s called Birdie, who, despite being much loved by certain bloggers, only releases two albums and a compilation. On the b-side of one of your singles you and Debsy even cover an old East Village song called "Shipwrecked." Both versions are wonderful! Yay!

Got that? Okay, fingers on the buttons now! And: Make! Your! Choices!

Tick-tick-tick, rin-rin-rinnng!!

Drumroll! If you went with option 1, then you are...Martin Kelly! Congratulations! If you chose option 2, you are...Paul Kelly! Congratulations! There are no losers in this game!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Jenny Wilson, "Let My Shoes Lead Me Forward (The Knife Remix)" (2005)

Walking through the mall yesterday, barely tolerating the pre-Christmas crowds, I noticed an impressively musclebound guy hanging around, presumably waiting for someone. He was in a wheelchair, a double amputee.

And all I could think was: he' the shoes department.

I'm going to hell in a turbo-powered handbasket. Whee!!!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Saint Etienne, "Dream Lover" (2005)

I'm always surprised to remember that "languid" has, according to the dictionary, almost entirely negative connotations. Faint. Weak. Inert. Dull. Sluggish. Wanting in vigor or vitality. Slow in movement. Showing an indisposition -- natural (bad enough...) or affected (...but then it gets worse) -- to physical exertion. Not easily roused to emotion. Of ideas, style, language: wanting in force, vividness, or interest.

So when I say that almost all of the pleasure in this song, a forthcoming bonus track, which I played a million times over the weekend, on the US version of Saint Etienne's Tales From Turnpike House, comes from the way Sarah sings the words at the end of each line -- languidly -- I better clarify that I find it, not just not negative, but incredibly sexy. "You're a dream, love-er-eeer-ver. It's a deep rive-ee-ee-ver." The clock in the hallway may go tick-tick-ticking away, but it hardly seems to matter. Time stands still, it hesitates, we wait. But we don't mind. Those who run don't always have all the fun. Baby we can do it, take the time, do it right. We can do it, baby.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Stephen Tintin Duffy, "But Is It Art?" (1985)

I always find it strange, not to mention a wee bit insulting, when artists disown parts of their creative pasts.

In the sleeve notes to They Called Him Tintin, a compilation that 10 Records released in 1998, Stephen Duffy is positively snitty about his beginnings. Stephen's career has had, of course, several lives -- being the Pete Best of Duran Duran, the Tintin years, the Lilac Time, the single-monikered Duffy incarnation, The Devils, etc. -- but he first emerged with two solo albums in 1985 and 86: The Ups And Downs, and Because We Love You. Those are the two albums that the compilation chiefly documents, but Stephen, it seems, isn't his own biggest fan. "I was nineteen when I wrote 'Kiss Me With Your Mouth'," he begins, thereby already casting his biggest hit as a sort of youthful indiscretion. He ends by calling the mid-80s "the years [he] tried to forget," and considers 1987, when he released the first Lilac Time album, as "where the story starts as far as [he] is concerned." All else is prelude.

I'm all for honesty, and Stephen is certainly within his rights to consider the mid-80s as spawning only musical juvenilia. Except that, to this day, not only are The Ups And Downs and Because We Love You my favorite Duffy products, but I consider them to still be marvellous records. And while I hardly need someone else's validation -- even the artist's -- it nevertheless was a little irritating to pay good money for the compilation, as I did in 98 or 99, rush home, break open the shrink wrap, only to read the view that maybe I was a sucker for having done so.

Stephen says that much less explicitly than some artists have (hi, Jane Fonda), but the implication lingers. Who's to say, then, that if I support his current songwriting work with Robbie Williams, he won't turn around in five years' time to tell me it's shit and I was stupid? Thankfully, there's no chance of that happening, because I already think that Robbie's Intensive Care is pretty crap.

But when I read in the sleeve notes that Stephen thinks of "Icing On The Cake" as "the only decent thing on the [first] album," I find myself a little embarrassed that I still love songs like "But Is It Art?", with its funny jaunty sound effect and catchy chorus, or "The World At Large Alone," a heartfelt ballad that begins like it badly wants to be "New York, New York."

And I wonder what's wrong with me for still wishing, after all these years, for a rerelease of Because We Love You -- an album, in my collection only as vinyl, that I think is almost perfect. "A Lot Of Ink," for example, combines a twittering synth riff with some brassy trumpets, a hilariously cynical lyric ("I"ll get a lot of ink, out of our affair"), and in the middle, even turns vaguely French, with flugel horns and an accordian. Yes, there is a very expensive Japanese reissue of this second album floating around, and some songs made it to the They Called Him Tintin compilation. But not enough: "Love Station," an immensely danceable tune with even more rousing trumpets, for one, is missing, and missed.

Oh well. I sometimes like to imagine that an unheralded album is a secret that only the artist and I share. In this case, I guess I'll simply have to be happy being a fanclub, if not of one, then at least one that doesn't include, of all people, the artist himself.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Shortwave Set, "Yr Room" (2005)

If I didn't have a love-hate relationship with the expression "love-hate relationships" (hate: bit of a cliché, love: it is fairly descriptive), I would tell you that I have a love-hate relationship with The Shortwave Set.

First things first: despite the oft-repeated line that the band is a "South East London Saint Etienne," I just don't hear it. Maaaaybe if you close your eyes while listening to "Is It Any Wonder," concentrating especially on the fab ascending keyboard bit, you could imagine it as the second track of Foxbase Alpha. Otherwise, as good friend and reader of this blog esque put it to me, "I guess that it could be like Saint Etienne, if Bob and Pete were more interested in wobblywiggly synthesizer noizes than in poptimism, and if Sarah couldn't sing..." A bit harsh, perhaps, but also: indeed.

Several tracks on The Debt Collection are just too determined to be tweely eclectic to not provoke a smidgen of hate: "Better Than Bad," with its ukelele, or the way "Roadside" aspires to sound like something a monkey organ grinder is cranking out. But then again, there are some truly genius tracks as well: "Is It Any Wonder" may well turn out to be one of the singles of the year, and "Repeat To Fade," largely shorn of gimmicks, has a beautiful and catchy melody that brings out the yearning desperation of the lyric. If I were trying to illustrate either the "hate" or "love" parts of my relationship with the band, I would post one of these tracks.

But instead, here is the closer: a quiet, lo-fi ballad called "Yr Room." It's a really pretty song which Ulrika Bjorsne begins singing in a poignantly fragile way. "Oh, the things that will be-ee-eee/All the places we'll see/From your room, where we'll plan what will be soon/We'll be the king and the queen/Of all your rooms." The lines are instant, vivid, immediately capturing the way love can make even the smallest spaces seem sufficient as long as the lovers are both in it. But then Ulrika has to accidentally "crack up," and make a "mistake" singing the song, which the band then quibbles about keeping in. I guess breaking the fourth wall is cool. "I give up, I give up, it's not working!" Ulrika finally says, emitting a little shriek of frustration that's very pleasant on the ears, especially through headphones. Oh, Shortwave Set -- you almost had me. Couldn't you do the song straight and leave the "outtakes" that show your "honesty" and warts for the career boxed set?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Birdie, "I Can't Let Go" (1999)

"When I felt so cold/I could reach out to hold/Your coat is so warm/And now I can't let go." When he looks back on that relationship, he's a little surprised to realize that one of the most enduring images he has, in fact, is of Robert standing, in his brown leather jacket, at, of all places, a CVS counter. They had stopped off at the pharmacy because Robert was diabetic, and needed to pick up his insulin. It was one of several errands they were running in Robert's neighborhood. Video store, take-out place, insulin. Ingredients for an already very domestic evening.

As he watched, Robert spoke to the pharmacist, saying something funny, or at least cordial. Then Robert put on his reading glasses to read his prescription; since he always found that appealing, the combination of that gesture, and the friendliness, and the jacket, made something in his heart swell. He thought, oddly, of how good Robert looked in profile, as if he had never seen Robert in profile before. And maybe he hadn't. Things were new.

The brown leather jacket, he knew, either then or later, was something that Robert still thought he spent too much money on. Robert had stated that fact with equal amounts of ruefulness and glee. He loved it, and thought he shouldn't.

Who can ever say what happened? "Wished I had never seen/What I, what I couldn't dream to keep." Ultimately, it was only as brief as a song, sometimes as beautiful, but, now, always as wistful. "Now if we should meet on some dusty street/I'll move on my way, keep the sand from my feet/Because it's not for me." For many reasons, it seems unlikely that their paths will ever cross again. "Some things are just never meant to be."

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

P. J. Proby and Marc Almond featuring the My Life Story Orchestra, "Yesterday Has Gone (Balearico Mix)" (1996)

So, what have you brought in for us today?
It's a CD single called "Yesterday Has Gone." Credited to P.J. Proby and Marc Almond featuring the My Life Story Orchestra, to give the troop its full title.

I guess that's Mr. Proby and Almond on the cover.
They do look a bit tragic. Marc was probably trying to repeat the unconventional "duet-with-an-old-codger" magic he experienced in 1989 with "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart."

Interesting lace-up shirt on Mr. Proby.
When Marc Almond looks demure next to you, then...

I see it's part 1 of a 2 CD set. Do you have the second half?
'Fraid not. It does come in a double CD case, so if anyone finds CD2, which features P.J. singing Christmas songs, it'll slide right in.

Yes, quite. Tell us how you came to be in possession of this. Found it in your grandma's attic?
No. I bought it from a CD store called Record Hog, near Boston. This was maybe five, seven years ago? I'm a bit hazy.

And how much did you pay for it?
I don't remember for sure. I think four, five US dollars. It wasn't that cheap; I remember because I saw it in the racks, and didn't buy it immediately. So it wasn't like, a quarter. But when I went back the next time, it was still there, so I gave in.

What attracted you to it?
The song on the b-side. It's called "Pain In My Heart," and it was co-written and produced by Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs from Saint Etienne. It was one of several songs they produced for Proby's Legend album. It's a retro, soulful-sounding thing, and I --

Interesting. So it wasn't the a-side you wanted.
Though the a-side ended up being significant. Or rather, the mix did -- it's by Balearico. At that time I think I heard of Balearico because they had remixed Saint Etienne's "Burnt Out Car." I eventually realized that Balearico is, as it says on the sleeve, Brian Higgins and Matt Gray, who are now the movers and shakers behind uber-producing team Xenomania.

If you say so. I'm not sure they have enough fans for the mix and the CD to be that coveted.
I see.

This is in quite mint condition, which is good news.
Oh, yes.

So, how much do you think this is worth?
Oh, I don't know. I brought it in just out of curiosity, really.

Care to venture a guess?
Um, eighty US dollars?

Probably not. I would say maybe six pounds, or maybe twelve, fourteen US dollars tops.

Are you disappointed?
No, no, I had no expectations. As I said, I was just curious. That CD has been in my family, a few years, so I wouldn't think of selling it and making a killing anyway, and --

Okay. By the way, there's no need to speak with an English accent, you know. You're not Madonna.
I -- I just -- It just seemed more antiquey with an English accent.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Roisin Murphy, "If We're In Love (Ashley Beedle Remix)" (2005)

When Lamb released their second album in 1999, they titled it Fear of Fours: in order, they announced, to signal their desire to stay away from four-to-the-floor beats, which to them had become a cliché. "There's a whole lot more that can be done that hasn't necessarily got a kick drum on every beat," Louise Rhodes said. "It's not that we're forsaking it...we just feel there's a lot more that can be done." The result was an album full of skittering rhythms that you would have looked pretty stupid trying to dance to.

It's true, of course, that four-to-the-floor is overused. And it was nice to see Lamb try to move away from typical beats and rhythms; who cares that it resulted in their worst album? But, have I mentioned? Spazzy dancing. Perhaps it's best, then, to think of four-to-the-floor not as a cliché, but as primal: it moves your (i.e., "my") ass without making you (i.e., "me") look too ridiculous.

Ashley Beedle's remix of Roisin Murphy's "If We're In Love" isn't especially innovative -- certainly not as innovative as his transformative mix of, say, of Bent's "Always" -- since all it really does is add a four-four beat, a funky bassline, some synthesized strings, and play up the delirious trumpets. And Roisin's album, with the original version of "If We're In Love," is fascinating in part because of its squiggly nujazz stylings. But sometimes it's just nice to dance without looking like Elaine Benes, you know?

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Ocean Blue, "Drifting, Falling" (1989)

I've only had two sets of roommates in my entire life. (That may explain why I'm so unsocialized, but let's not digress so soon.)

About ten years ago, I lived in a house with two people, but the first roommate is from before that, when I was in my first year at college. I shared a shoebox of a dorm room with a guy who I'll call Ross, mostly because that's his name. He was a perfectly nice person; his family was pretty well-to-do, and would send him these care packages that he was always ready to generously share with me. Well, not the Lord & Taylor sweaters, which I wouldn't have wanted to inhabit anyway (Him: "Look at this blue sweater my mom sent." Me: "Nice." Me [to myself]: "Even if it looks exactly like the other twelve you have."). But I was happy to tuck into the huge bucket of caramel popcorn that came with. Hilariously, so were the squirrels on campus; one day we both came home to find popcorn just strewn all over the floor, and the window ajar. I hope the damned creatures' little fingers remained sticky throughout the rest of their natural lives.

Our relationship did get off on the wrong foot. I arrived at the dorm room before he did, and picked the bottom bunk bed. He was off on one of those adventure orientation activities. About two days' after my arrival, I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sounds of someone coming into the room. I was too jetlagged and groggy to be startled; maybe I knew that Ross was getting back from his adventure then anyway. Sleepily I said "hi," and may have even tried sitting up in bed. But Ross whispered to me to go back to sleep, and I dutifully tried as he stumbled around and climbed into the top bunk. At which point I suddenly was overcomed by a horrible, gawdawful stench. Bad eggs mixed in with shavings of fish innards, or something. "Wha -," I mumbled only half-consciously, "what is that smell?" There was a moment of silence, before Ross confessed, in an embarrassed whisper, that he had an ingrown toenail. I was of course instantly mortified to have brought it up.

I don't think that problem ever went away.

Ultimately Ross and I didn't have that much in common, aside from our mutual pretense, after that night, that why, no, the room really doesn't smell like feet. I don't think he knew how to talk to this strange kid from this faraway country who was just beginning to learn the ways of these crazy Americans. He was seventeen. Music didn't draw us that much closer, but at least it didn't drive us apart either. His record collection was fairly typical of a college kid's: lots of American indie, with some nods to English pop. And The Smiths, so obviously it wasn't dire. At least he never made fun of my tastes (not to my face anyway), and, for some reason, when we went our separate ways at the end of that year, he gave me his 12" of New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle." (Thanks, Ross!) I was introduced to some stuff through him -- like The Washington Squares, I think -- which is not to say that any of them became my interests. I associate this lovely indie pop song, which I still enjoy, with him, though: "Drifting, Falling," from The Ocean Blue. That was a Ross CD I used to play. To this day the saxophone riff, madeleine-like, still transports me to that in so many ways formative year.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Freemasons, "Love On My Mind (Radio Edit)" (2005)

I've been thinking about filter disco recently, even digging up this old compilation, which presents the genre in its most mainstream, cheesiest incarnation, to play. No doubt this is chiefly because parts of Madonna's new record -- "Get Together," especially, which is probably my favorite track -- so obviously draws on that sound.

Although dance music fans more fanatical than I might argue for there being minute differences between each, the label "filter disco" is sometimes used interchangeably with "filter house," "neo-disco," or "disco house" (or even "French house," but that seems unnecessarily restrictive to me, even though it does remind us of the nationality of the genre's more celebrated practitioners). But all the terms refer to those dance tracks, which had their heyday in the mid- to late-90s, built on samples of disco, funk, or pop hooks, usually from 70s records. Those samples are processed, put through filters, and then often layered, looped over and over. For many people, it's an arresting (or more literally, arrested) effect: because of the filters, the hook sounds a little muffled, as if someone forgot to equalize it in the studio, or like it's coming from another room, or recorded underwater. There's usually a common moment in every filtered record, when the muffled hook loops and loops and loops, as if the needle is stuck in the groove, and then, BAM! It bursts forth with a new clarity, or reaches a crescendo and the tune goes off into a new direction (frequently into the chorus). Done right -- for instance, on Chili Hi-Fly's "Is It Love?", one of the most soulfully joyous filter disco tracks I know -- it's a fantastically exhilarating moment, and often cause for some embarrassing arms-akimbo actions on a dance floor.

How frantic this moment is, for me, a distinguishing feature of the various strains of filter disco. Much French house, for example, is breezier, more relaxed. Stardust's "Music Sounds Better With You," along with most Alan Braxe filter records or those of his compatriots (Cassius, Daft Punk, Etienne de Crecy), have less of that kind of climax; instead they often amble along unhurriedly, the loop acting as rhythm rather than build-up. Dance artists of a less Gallic disposition tend to ride the loop harder, more excitedly -- someone like The Tamperer (if we get past the fact that their records are actually not that filtered) practically apply, um, a hammer to your ears and heart. When I listen to their "Feel It," for example, which of course samples alludes to the same record that Madonna's "Sorry" does (The Jacksons' "Can You Feel It"), I almost feel like they are using hammers and tongs to unrelentingly strike at the chimes that I hadn't known were located right inside my head. As we move to this end of the filter disco spectrum, the tempo of the records also speeds up, until we arrive at something like Souvlaki's "Inferno," or various tracks by Stretch 'n' Vern, all of which zoom by at breakneck paces musically and lyrically.

In one version of the story, filter disco left as quickly as it came. You can see why: the very qualities that make filter effects heart-stopping also make them wearing. Every record was repeating the same trick of repetition. In another version of the story, filter disco never went away; it's not like Daft Punk had one moment in the sun, after all. Indeed, the French version of filter disco has had more staying power; their more excitable cousins, it seems, burnt out quicker, perhaps because there was nowhere to go after you've looped something at 280 bpm and put a screaming diva on top of it.

The past few years, filter disco, it seems, has made a bit of a return/reasserted its presence. I think, for example, of a couple of tracks that Umlauts introduced me to: Dimension-X's "Why'd I Have To Fall In Love With You?" and Iraklij's "Kaplia Absenta", both gentle, lulling filter disco records. One thing that's arguably different about these recent examples of the genre is that they are more melancholic, a development that I heartily approve of. Lyrically, this is evident, as it would be in songs lamenting wrong choices in love, or absent baseball kaps. (I made that last bit up.) But musically too. The filtered loops have always stuck me as having massive Sad Potential; as I implied above, it's essentially the sound of being stuck in a groove. On an older filter disco record, the (high) point of the track usually came when it broke free of the loop. On recent versions of the sound, I'm not sure that liberation ever comes, although they also don't sound like the relaxed rhythms of French house. A Gay Times review of Madonna's album said something about how the melancholic lyrics work (well) against the filter house beats, but I would have considered the two aspects never in conflict in the first place.

On Freemasons' "Love On My Mind," a filter house record that has come closest to being a cross-over hit, the fit is pretty seamless. (Freemasons includes Russell Small, formerly one half of Phats and Small, who were making filter disco records in the 90s. Leopard, spots, etc..) The song has the requisite sample, Jackie Moore's "This Time Baby," around which it spins a lyric of self-denial. "Oh, live without you/Oh, I can live without you," the singer asserts, opening the song with what is already clearly -- clear from the emotional catch in her voice -- a lie. "I've got love on my mind/Ain't no use in wasting time." Meanwhile, the filtered loop swirls and builds, but ultimately goes nowhere. Even when the track reaches its Stretch 'n' Vern moment -- a stuttering breakdown at the 2:40 mark as the music comes to a head -- it does so only to pave the way for the song, and the loops, to essentially restart. But there's nowhere to go, so after another minute, we can only bring the breakdown back, herking and jerking the song to an end, spent and defeated, which will have to be as good as any.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

S Club 7, "Ass Club Party" (2000)

Just how many songs about bum-lovin' has Rachel Stevens been a part of?

I count at least two. Sure, by now we all know about "I Said Never Again (But Here We Are)." How it's all about going in the out door. Strolling down Cadbury Road. Dancing with Bubba. Playing my new guitar.

But I'm here to remind you of the song she did with her old mates in S Club 7, in which they hide a dark tale of depraved group anal sex orgies behind a bright, cheesy, infectious goofball melody. Tina's doing her dance, Jon's looking for romance, Paul's getting down on the floor, and Hannah's screaming out for more! I'll bet. Meanwhile, we wanna see Bradley swing, and Rachel do her thing! Poor Jo, however, has got the flow (eewww!), so she is excusing herself from the proceedings. The proceedings being: Ass club party! Ain't no party like an ass club party! Ooh-ooh! Ooh-ooh! Throw your hands in the air! (So that I can see 'em.) Like you just don't care! Ass club party! Wooo!!

We must inform the church elders.

["Um. I think the lyric (and title) is 'S Club Party.' It's not really about...butts, is it? I it?" - Ed.]

["Also: Hello, googlers." - Ed.]

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Aluminum Group, "L'Amour Looks Something Like You" (1998)

Brittle-Lemon: I woke up this morning with a pressing question on my mind. Namely, does Kate Bush have a sense of humor?

Bird #1: At least that's a more interesting question than "Is she bonkers?"

Bird #2: What was your answer?

Brittle-Lemon: I don't have one. I wonder if there is one.

Bird #1: I don't think she talks to human beings enough for us to know for sure. At least not while she isn't Macy Grayed out.

Brittle-Lemon: It would be nice to know if she's laughing with us. When I saw the "Running Up That Hill" video for the first time as a kid, I actually laughed out loud. Spontaneously. Not saying that just because we're on the internet.

Bird #1: Sure, "as a kid." But she does sing the phone book on the new album.

Bird #2: Not the phone book -- a mathematical figure.

Bird #1: Same diff.

Bird #2: Mmmm, pie.

Bird #1: Stop it. Have you forgotten what happened to our friends, the blackbirds? Four and twenty young lives, wasted.

Bird #2: Let it go.

Bird #1: Anyway. Surely you don't find her new album funny.

Bird #2: I don't know about funny, but it's a bit dull. Yeah yeah yeah, beautiful, moving blah blah blah sea and sky of honeycakes, but a leeetle dull.

Brittle-Lemon: And bonkers? Is it bonkers?

Bird #2: You're the one talking to birds.

Brittle-Lemon: Only in homage to her.

Bird #2: As is the fact that you're obviously writing this while you're Macy Grayed out.

Bird #1: The album is bonkers. There is that washing machine song.

Brittle-Lemon: That's really the least bonkers song, though, innit? I mean, surely we've all sat in front of the washing machine watching the spin cycle.

Bird #2: Only when there's nothing good on TV.

Bird #1: So, all the time then.

Brittle-Lemon: I had a conversation with someone who was over at my apartment one time, and he was inordinately happy to see that I had a top-loading washer. "Is that good?" I asked him. "Yes," he said. "It allows you to throw in that pair of dirty boxers you forgot even after you've started the cycle." Quietly I thought: (a) don't talk about my dirty boxers, and (b) sure, but with top-loaders there's nothing to watch.

Bird #2: No soap operas! Ha ha ha, I kill myself.

Bird #1: I wish. But you know, there's always the oven.

Brittle-Lemon: I don't roast poultry enough for that to be exciting viewing. Maybe I should start.

Bird #1 and #2: ...

Bird #1: So, washing machines.

Brittle-Lemon: Well, that track is great. It should be Martha Stewart's theme song. There's mud on this shirt! It's driving me nuts! Must get it out! Out, out, damned spot! Washy washy! Singy singy! ARRGGGHHH!!!

Bird #2: Yes, you're right, Serial Mom, we can all identify with domestic madness.


Bird #1: Copies of Aerial should come with packs of detergent.

Bird #2: And some tranquilizers for certain listeners. Perhaps of the horse variety.

Bird #1: Don't you have some music to supply?

Brittle-Lemon: How about a cover of Ms. Bush? Let's see how possible madness translates.

Bird #1: Only seems right. But nothing predictable, please.

Bird #2: Oh-oh-oh! Oh oh oh oh oh! How about Hue and Cry's version of "The Man With The Child In His Eyes"?

Bird #1: Soon to show up as the b-side of Charlotte Church's new single! The a-side of which is co-written by Boy George. That's demented.

Brittle-Lemon: I like Hue and Cry's version, but it's not that different from the original. How 'bout The Aluminum Group's cover of "L'Amour Looks Something Like You," done in their 70s soft rock loungey style? This must have been done around the same time as their album Plano, which I love dearly.

Bird #1: It's a little defanged for my taste.

Bird #2. And mine. Because, unlike you, we're not 57 years old.

Brittle-Lemon: I love the "were you only passing through?" bit, where the music slows down...And then the whispered "something!" in the background, and you get those orchestral stabs. And the third time he sings that line he varies it in this really swoonsome way. And those high-pitched mild vocal runs at the end.

Bird #1: No. Mad! Mad! We want mad covers!

Bird #2: This one's loungey! Too coffee-tablesque!

Bird #1: Wait. That might make it appropriate. Like, "domestic bliss at last."

Bird #2: Ooh, yes. The washing's done. The kettle's on. Sit down, Kate; relax, put on some loungey music.

Brittle-Lemon: Don't you cackling crows have a window to fly into?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Saint Etienne, "Missing Persons Bureau (Live on Mark Radcliffe)" (2005)

Saint Etienne's latest single, "A Good Thing," has stormed into the UK charts at #70. STORMED! IN! AT 70! With a...RUBBER PELLET USED TO DISPERSE MILDLY ILL-BEHAVED CROWDS!

Actually, 70 is not too bad considering how you can't buy the single. The screwup is probably well-known by now (even Popbitch picked up the story): the marketing wasabipeabrain at Sanctuary took the band's wish that the 7" be limited as meaning that all three formats, including the two CD singles, should be similiarly restricted to 1000 copies (each, I think, although you never know). Eee gawds. To be honest, I'm not sure why this is such an irrevocable error: couldn't the band have busted Sanctuary's ass, held back the release, and increased the print run? Whatever it is, the damage is done, and fans are reporting that the single is definitely hard to get a hold of.

Shame: the track should have been all-conquering, and the four b-sides, and new mix of the song, sound fantastic. One of the new songs is a cover of Womack and Womack's "MPB (Missing Persons Bureau)" from 1988, and this is a live version that the band performed on Mark Radcliffe's Radio 2 show a week ago. This sounds very Birdie-like -- i.e., gentle, lulling, organic, and a bit bossa novaish -- which is appropriate given the prominence of Debsey's backing vocals. Sarah herself sounds great: her voice can, how you say, sometimes be a bit off on live performances, but here she sounds carefree and yet still melancholic. I had never heard the original before, but in retrospect the lyric likely had some influence on Everything but the Girl's "Missing": both songs paranoidly imagine that an absent (or errant) lover may actually be missing in the more tragic (kidnapped, disappeared) sense. I also like to think that the song is addressed to -- or rather, upon singing it, as if it's a bat signal, you will be able to summon Anthony LaPaglia's brooding, soulful Jack Malone from Without A Trace. These are a few of my favorite things.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Richard Hawley, "Coles Corner" (2005)

Cold city lights glowing: stories about places are makeshift things. They are composed with the world's debris. Coles Corner -- now no more, replaced by a John Lewis -- was where Sheffield’s couples, lovers, friends, mums and dads or whatever, would meet. "I'll meet you at Coles Corner…" People still say it, even though it hasn’t existed for years. It only exists, really, in the ether.

The traffic of life is flowing: the walking of passers-by offers a series of turns (tours) and detours that can be compared to "turns of phrases" or "stylistic figures." There is a rhetoric of walking. A friend who lives in the city of Sèvres drifts, when he is in Paris, towards the rue des Saints-Pères and the rues de Sèvres, even though he is going to see his mother in another part of town: these names articulate a sentence that his steps compose without his knowing it. Numbered streets and street numbers (112th St., or 9 rue Saint-Charles) orient the magnetic field of trajectories just as they can haunt dreams. Another friend unconsciously represses the streets which have names and, by this fact, transmit her -- orders or identities in the same way as summonses and classifications; she goes instead along paths that have no name or signature. But her walking is thus still controlled negatively by proper names.

What is it then that they spell out? These names make themselves available to the diverse meanings given them by passers-by; they detach themselves from the places they were supposed to define and serve as imaginary meeting-points on itineraries which, as metaphors, they determine for reasons that are foreign to their original value but may be recognized or not by passers-by. A whole series of comparisons would be necessary to account for the magical powers proper names enjoy. They seem to be carried as emblems by the travellers they direct and simultaneously decorate.

Walking follows them: "I fill this great empty space with a beautiful name." I'm going downtown where there's music. I'm going where voices fill the air. Maybe there's someone waiting for me, with a smile and a flower in her hair. I'm going downtown where there's people. The loneliness hangs in the air, with no-one there real waiting for me. No smile, no flower, nowhere.

Every sentence in today's post is a quotation. The opening phrases of the first two paragraphs, as well as the last six sentences of the post, are part of the lyric to "Coles Corner," while the end of the first paragraph paraphrases Richard's comments in an interview. Everything else is from our guest blogger, Michel de Certeau: "Walking in the City," from his The Practice of Everyday Life.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Infernal, "From Paris to Berlin (Radio Edit)" (2004)

Having two choruses, none at all, or delaying it are all innovative approaches to the pop song, but sometimes all you need is one good idea that you repeat the hell out of. This track, a monstrous Europop hit by a Danish group, is basically one bit done over and over. There's no real difference, tune-wise, between verse and chorus. But that one bit pounds away, hammering itself into our heads, while the producers do unspeakable things to it. One moment they turn the vocals down; then they mutate it; another second later, the vocalist is growling like a demented tiger in heat. All the while the music warps in and out. And all this is a perfect fit for the despairing lyric: going from disco to disco, our heroine finds that everything is different yet the same, as she searches for someone, anyone.

What is a chorus if not a repetition of the catchiest bit of a song? And if so, a song with pretty much nothing but chorus must be bloody fantastic. Sure, technically, this has a couple of verses, but even they are sung to more-or-less the same melody as the chorus. And what a chorus. It's insanely catchy -- but then again it would be, since it's pretty much all we hear. But to keep things from getting stale, the vocals and production keep changing from moment to moment. The voice is processed at points, and untouched at others; but even when the latter occurs, the vocals still sound defamiliarized, alien. In the background the beats and sounds hardly ever stand still: now plonk plonk plonk, then beep beep beep. Each night a disco awaits. It might be the same one, or a different one, but, as the lyric suggests, it hardly matters.

Sometimes all you need is one simple idea. Then: repeat ad nauseam. "From Paris to Berlin" takes one infectious bit, and throws it at us, over and over and over, then again, some more. From Paris to Berlin, and every disco I get in, my heart is pumping for love, pumping for love. Meanwhile, the producers throw the kitchen sink at the song. Frrrrrrom Paris to Berlin, and every disco I get in, my heart is pumping for love, pumping for love. FROM! Paris to Berlin, and every disco I get in, my heart is pumping for love, pumping for love. Stuck in a groove, stuck in a rut. Stuck in a groove, stuck in a rut. Woah-oh, whoa-oh, whoa-oh. Massive.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Alex Parks, "Out Of Touch" (2005)

Alex Parks wishes she could shed BBC

"I am grateful for Fame Academy, I really am," says talent contest winner Alex Parks of the second-tier reality show that brought her, well, fame [in 2003]. "There is no way I would be here if it was not for it, but now the BBC feel that they own me, and that is not the case.'' What does the 19-year-old fear most? She takes a deep breath. "I fear that I am going to go to cheesy pop world," she says, "and that I will never come back....And since Fame Academy, people always use the same words to try to label me.'' Which are? "Spiky-haired Cornish lesbian," she says.

I had the best Cornish pasties when I was in Nottingham. Without either confirming nor denying that I had that many, I can tell you that the lamb and mint one was good, as was the cheesy pop and bacon, but ultimately you just can't beat the Cornish steak version.

In other, unrelated news, this is a track from the new Alex Parks album Honesty. It's a serious album. You can tell because it has a serious title, and lyrics like "too much emotion makes me too aware" (from "Get Out"). With its emo guitary songs, it sounds like Siobhan Donaghy...were the latter a bit more soporific, and sophomoric. But I quite enjoy this track. I like the way Alex barely raises her voice above a whisper to tremulously sing, over an equally quiet shuffling drum beat, about her lover being too far away. Endearingly simple and effective.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Burt Bacharach with Rufus Wainwright, "Go Ask Shakespeare" (2005)

Rufus Wainwright, also, is a bit of a whore. He always seems ready, at the drop of a hat, to contribute to soundtracks and compilations, duet or provide guest vocals, or record a new song for your second cousin's bar mitzvah tape. Thankfully, many of these extra-curricular activities result in some gems: his cover of "Hallelujah," for example, is where he gives one of his best vocal performances; I love his version of "I Eat Dinner" with Dido to pieces; and his attempt to set a Shakespearean sonnet to music was, if nothing else, interesting. This does make it tough to be a Rufus completist, or even just a fan. About two years ago I was already able to make a compilation for a friend of most of Rufus's non-album tracks. I called it "A Secret Chord." (Good, eh?) It's probably time to do a Volume 2.

Here Rufus shows up to sing on a track from Burt Bacharach's At This Time. This new album has gotten a bit of attention because Burt worked with Dr. Dre in the prep stage; supposedly much of their work isn't seeing the light of day, but Dre did end up "providing drum loops" for a few tracks, including this one. They are...not remarkable drum loops, and I feel as if I could have done as well with the right Casiotone. In all, the whole disc is pretty awful: another collaborator is trumpeter Chris Botti, so a lot of the record sounds like terrible smooth jazz, or something off of the Kenny G CD that's currently available from Hell's Mall. (Except, you know, with trumpets.) Seriously, don't bother with the album. Sometimes I listen to crap so you don't have to, and this is one of those times.

But this track with Rufus is alright. It's probably best to ignore the lyric, despite the intriguing title: the whole album is tritely about how the world has gone wrong, and won't someone think of the children? "Is Love Enough?" Burt asks on one of the tracks, because he is No Longer Convinced that what the world needs now is love, and it's all kind of horrifying. Apparently Shakespeare has the answer, though. I myself suspect that the Bard will tell you that there is nothing that the comic relief afforded by a bear chasing an actor off the stage won't fix, but I know nothing. Musically, this track seems quite unusual: we get an instrumental bit -- some nice strings, and someone blows something -- for three and a half minutes before Rufus even begins to sing. Except that many of the songs on the album are structured that way. But you don't know that, so maybe just listen to this track in itself and try to pretend I haven't spoilt it for you? It is Rufus, after all, and we like him.