tremble clef

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Dina Carroll, "The Perfect Year" (1993)

I've always liked that episode of Friends in which Phoebe first meets David, the geeky physicist played by Hank Azaria. Sitcom time, of course, is compressed time, so they fall in love immediately, and are clearly meant for each other. But David has to go to Minsk, as geeky physicists are wont to. At the gang's New Year Eve's party, therefore, Phoebe tells him that he has to break up with her for the sake of his career. He says he can't do it, but Phoebe, heartbreakingly, teaches him how, because it is so much easier doing this to yourself in the second person: "And then you put your arms around me. And then you tell me that you love me and you'll never forget me." At this point something usually flies into my eye. "And then you say," she further directs David, "that it's almost midnight, and you have to go because you don't want to start the new year with me if you can't finish it."

"The Perfect Year" details, essentially, the same moment. "It's New Year's Eve, and hopes are high/Dance one year in, kiss one goodbye/Another chance, another start/So many dreams to tease the heart." It is, again, the moment when we cross from one year to another, an arbitrary point of time that is no less powerful for that arbitrariness. The song began life as a big, manipulative ballad from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of Sunset Boulevard. First Patti LuPone, and then of course Glenn Close sang it as Norma Desmond, but it was Dina Carroll, sensing an opportunity, who covered the song quickly at the end of 1993 and released it as a single (and, with it going top 5 in the UK, topped off what would be her most -- and perhaps only -- successful year, with preceding big hits like "Special Kind Of Love" and "Don't Be A Stranger"). "We don't need a crowded ballroom/Everything we need is here/If you're with me/Next year will be, the perfect year."

That this sentiment recurs in at least these two places makes it a cheap sentiment. And "The Perfect Year," in all its versions, is cheap music. There is, for one, a sappy sax solo in the middle. But there is also a perfectly-timed pause right before Dina sings "the perfect year," as if she is just a little hesitant, that tells us that she is wishing for, rather than fully believing in, what she is singing. But I am one for cheap sentiments and cheap music, as you'll already have been already to tell from the paraphrase of Noel Coward over to your right, and never more so than at the end of a year.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Mari Wilson, "The Love Thing" (2005)

"So lift me up, let me spin/I know it's not really the done thing/I'm ready to dance, I'm ready to sing/But I'm not sure I'm ready for the love thing."

Oh, Mari. Of course you (and your "brand new pair of Jimmy Choos") are not ready for a serious relationship -- you tell us this by your inability to call it anything more specific than that "love thing." And even though the music is sassy and full of swooning strings, like something Swing Out Sister might have done in their prime, inviting us to fall into it, we back off and respect you when you tell us: "Take me out, take me home/But baby take a hike when I want to be alone." On your terms, baby, on your terms.

After all, Mari, you've been away too long. We loved you in the 80s when you had your deliberately anachronistic beehive hairdo and your girlgroup aesthetic. And now you're back with your first new album in yonks, even if it's a mostly smooth-jazz affair that won't make too many other people sit up and take notice. On your terms, baby, on your terms.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Sugababes, "Killer" (2002)

These few weeks, while I'm traveling, Beardsley is staying in my apartment. Since he is moving to England at the start of the new year, he had the shippers come and get his stuff a couple of weeks ago. His apartment is thus empty save for a suitcase or two, and, imagining how depressing that must be, I said to him that he could just crash at my apartment. "The timing is perfect," I said. "I'll be out of the country anyway."

Of course, after I had this fit of uncharacteristic generosity, I was all, like, oh no, now I have to clean the place before I leave and put away the embarrassing sex toys. But I did and I kid, and was glad that I offered. Beardsley came over the day before I left on my travels for me to show him the workings of my apartment. He was visibly grateful to be out of his own vacant flat, a reminder of the limbo he was in. I took him through all the quirks of the place in precise, technical language ("you have to, like, jiggle the thingamajug on the toilet").

There was one thing I forgot to mention, though. The air in my place, it would appear, is in a delicate, precarious balance. If you open one door, another one literally closes. Indeed, if a slight breeze swells, it's often enough to slam a door, or at least make it open and creak. I guess the apartment is some sort of sucking black hole vacuum. Apt, really.

When I first moved in, this was rather disconcerting. Especially the day when I was in the shower. Perhaps the hot water made the air rise and, I dunno, created a little tornado, but the effect was that the bathroom door, which was slightly ajar, creaked ominously and then swung ever more open. "Oh God, mother, blood!" Under the hot jets, soap in my eyes, I was convinced that someone had broken into my apartment was now ready to stab me into a bloody pulp. And then I would be found without clean underwear on, at that.

You think I should have warned Beardsley?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Eric Kupper presents Xenon featuring Bonnie Bailey, "Cocoon" (2005)

One of the bad things about winter, of course, is how cold it gets in bed. Yet the situation offers its own perverse pleasures. If you're stationary long enough, you can usually warm up a spot such that you create a cocoon of warmth amidst all the freezing cold. That space is pretty damn close to heaven. You never quite want to move, even when you know it's time to turn over so that your arm doesn't go any deader, or, in the light, when you know you have to get up.

Xenon's "Cocoon" is a dance track that I've loved for a few months now. I adore the whoosing sounds, and the relentless, pulsating rhythm. Almost relentless: in the second verse, at around the two-twenty mark, the rhythm does stutter. Turning over in bed. Trying to break out of that which provides warmth and security, but which you need to leave behind in order to grow.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Ballad Jones, "Father Christmas Believes In Me" (2004)

Last year Baxendale, whose "Music For Girls" is, or should be, an anthem for poptimists everywhere, recorded this warped Christmas song using the name "Ballad Jones" and made it available for download on their website. It incorporates snippets of Christmas numbers ones past, thereby proving that the Spice Girls sound better speeded up and looped.

Happy Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Marvin Gaye, "I Want To Come Home For Christmas" (1972)

"I'd give anything to see/A little Christmas tree/And to hear, hear the laughter of children playing in the snow/To kiss my baby under the mistletoe."

Marvin's narrator, it is quickly apparent, is indisposed for Christmas. But not held back by anything as mundane as, say, holiday traffic: "But I can't promise my eyes this sight/Unless they stop the fight." Sung from the point of a view of a "prisoner of war," Marvin's Christmas song has a kind of guttural anguish. Even if you don't listen to the lyric closely, it would be hard not to appreciate how the chorus takes what seems like simple, universal, child-like sentiments -- "I want to see snowflakes fall/I want to see Santa Claus" -- and transforms them into the almost primal howls of an unwilling soldier.

At the two minute mark, the tune comes to an almost complete stop, and then restarts with a much jollier air -- sleigh bells, a jaunty tempo, a spoken bit -- before we return to another round of the heartfelt chorus. Is this a temporary uplift in hope? An optimistic belief that he will indeed be free by Christmas? A war-wrought hallucination of better times?

If I had a music blog this time last year, I would have posted this song. That I can still do so now is sad.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

David McAlmont, "Saving All My Love For You" (2005)

David McAlmont has one of my favorite voices: yes, it spans three and half octaves, blah blah blah, but as far as I'm concerned, it ain't the octave size, but what he does with it, that makes it so inviting.

When I heard, a few months ago, that he was releasing an album filled with covers of jazz and vocal standards, I was guardedly excited. On the one hand, it's about time he got some songs worthy of his voice. Like, say, k. d. lang or Alison Moyet, David isn't as gifted a songwriter as he is a vocal interpreter. Although both his solo albums, Unworthy and A Little Communication, have some breathtaking moments, they are also, for the most part, uneven. David has occasionally found worthy partners, like David Arnold and Craig Armstrong, but his most sustained collaborative work, with Bernard Butler, is likewise spotty: I think "Bring It Back," and especially the Spectatorish "Falling," from the second album are astounding, but -- controversial opinion alert! -- I never thought "Yes" or "You Do" were that good. On the other hand, an album of old standards could see David enter either the boring zone, or the desperate "I'm having so much fun swinging, baby!" realm (see: Cullum, Jamie; Williams, Robbie).

The press I read about the album got me especially thrilled about one track: a cover of Whitney's "Saving All My Love For You." I mean: hello. David told interviewers that he was doing the song, um, straight, without changing the lyric, and thereby hope to recontextualize the song as one sung by a gay man to his black married lover who's on the down low. (To carry this off, he does omit one part of the song: the "no other woman is gonna love you more" bit has been completely cut.) Genius.

In the few months it took me to find the CD, the song took shape in my head: I imagined a perfomance that out-divaed Whitney, with David hitting high notes that the former can maybe reach with the help of her husband's dookie bubble seeking finger. Perhaps I was influenced by the fact that many of these interviews I read were in things like Gay Times or Attitude; they might have spurred me into imagining a vocal performance that less singer, more drag queen.

Well, I was wrong, and I'm glad. David's version of "Saving All My Love For You" is surprisingly low-key. He sings the entire song in one of his lower octaves, and a pretty hushed manner, with his lips no doubt caressing the old time micrcophone, a la Julie London. The lack of histrionics is particularly obvious on the line "But that's just an old fantasy." Whitney's voice, you no doubt recall, goes up, and the line ends with a high, glory note in her version. Here, David instead lets the note trail off: his is not the hysteria of the kept part-time lover, but the almost private sadness of a man who knows that this compromised relationship is totally unfair to him, and yet is unable and unwilling to break free.

When David therefore sings "It’s not very easy, living all alone/My friends always tell me, find a man of my own/But each time I try, I just break down and cry/Cause I’d rather be home feeling blue," he conveys more deeply the kind of addiction, or even masochism, that this kind of deadend relationship demands. I think too of the moment in Brokeback Mountain when the Jack Twist character cries, both in frustration and resignation: "I wish I knew how to quit you."

Since 'tis the season, here, as a bonus, is David's lovely version, with David Arnold, of "Have Yourself A Merry Christmas."

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Blue Mercedes, "I Hate New York" (1988)

I haven't seen Memoirs Of A Geisha, mostly because it seems like it might be Orientalist claptrap. But I haven't been able to escape the trailer on TV. It features a scene of Michelle Yeoh intoning, to Zhang Ziyi, that she "isn't a geisha until she can stop a man in his tracks," over which footage plays of the latter batting her eyelashes at a man passing by on a bicycle. This of course causes his...spokes to spin out of control, and he crashes. (Although, since this is a serious art movie, there is no huge explosive ball of fire. More's the pity.)

I was in New York City for the past couple of days, where I did some (but not a lot of) shopping, music and otherwise, and ate a fabulous Italian dinner. The transit strike, as you may know, kicked in yesterday, when I was trying to get back here to DC. It affected me only insofar as I decided not to take the el cheapo bus, which was how I got to the city, and instead switched to the train for the trip back, mostly because it was easier to get from where I was staying to Penn Station. But I plan to walk around today claiming that I brought traffic in New York City to a standstill. Which would make me a geisha, but you already knew that.

New York was great, so today's song is, you know, not meant literally. I've joked elsewhere that if Madonna releases "I Love New York" from Confessions as a single -- a song that she too claims is meant tongue-in-cheek, what with living in England and all -- she should cover this for the b-side. For the balance, you see.

Blue Mercedes was a late 80s English group who were really, really open about wanting to be the second coming of ABC, and weren't afraid to have the vocalist sing exactly like Martin Fry. They weren't, but the ambition, and resulting press coverage -- I remember Smash Hits devoted quite a lot of column inches to them -- intrigued me enough to check out their one and only album, Rich And Famous. Also interesting: one of the two members was gay (they're an 80s Junior Senior!), although I certainly can't remember which one. I think the fact that I found the vinyl record for no money at the Princeton Record Exchange helped. (Their single "I Want To Be Your Property" reached #88 in the US charts: enough to get them a American release, but not enough for the album not to be bargain-binned almost immediately.) It wasn't a bad album, and some of the ABCesque wordplay, while reeking a little of desperation, worked fine. "I hate New York! When you're not around, that is. Ha ha!" Years later, I was walking around in Boston's Back Bay, and stumbled upon a yardsale where I bought three CDs: a Chinese one by Sandy Lam, a gay hi NRG disc by Man Parrish, and Rich And Famous. You don't have to tell me what a weird mixed bag that was.

To make up for my silence over the past few days, some new music, including a couple of New York purchases, later.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Eliot J, "Fade" (2002)

Some reasons why this may be the bone-chillingly coldest sounding song I know:

1. The triphoppy beat, with added reverb.
2. The jittery, echoey effect on the vocal, which makes it sound as if the singer is trembling as she sings.
3. The "cold as ice...cold as ice..." lyric. Duh.

I don't know anything about Eliot J, and perhaps there isn't that much to know. This is from one of Rob Da Bank's Sunday Best compilations (specifically, the third). Now excuse me while I go find some wooly socks.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Skin, "Getting Away With It" (2003)

I'm off to the US for the Christmas vacation, and so, apparently, is everyone. The plane is a flying sardine can.

There are always a good twenty to thirty minutes before we land, when they turn off the movies on the inflight entertainment system, but the games remain functional. On one flight I play, almost mindlessly, about twenty games of Reversi. I have the option of competing against some equally bored fellow passenger, or against "the computer." Although I was hoping to figuratively kick the ass of the person sitting behind me, to repay him for the way he literally kept kicking mine, he -- and, for that matter, everyone else on the flight -- disappointingly wasn't logged on.

So I play against "the computer." Effortlessly, I win every single game, including three in a row when I totally wipe the computer off the board before we are even halfway through.

I think: I hope this isn’t the same genius “computer” which is flying the plane.

Upon landing, I have to undergo the increasingly complicated procedure of clearing customs. In addition to scrutinizing your passport and papers, for the past year or so they've also been taking your fingerprints and your photo. The latter is of course traumatic, because, seriously, the hair, after 20 hours on the plane?

This time, though, it's the fingerprints that present a problem. I place my left index finger on the little screen. "Hmm. Nothing's showing up,” the customs officer tells me.

“Well, I have fingerprints, last I check,” I think. What I say is: “Maybe my skin is dry. Should I moisturize?” Immediately I felt a little dirty saying it, but at least I didn’t choose the word “lubricate.”

He concurs, and so I reached into my travel bag and locate the hand lotion, rubbing some on my fingers. That did the trick, and I had an identity again. “Good call on the moisturizer,” the agent congratulates me. I don't trust myself to say anything else.

Today's music is Skin covering Electronic. There's a pun in there somewhere, but I'm too jetlagged to put my finger on it.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Kylie Minogue, "Enjoy Yourself"/"Telltale Signs" (1989)

Over the weekend I got around to watching my DVD of Kylie's Showgirl. (All the more belated because I had tickets for the actual tour, which was supposed to swing this way in the middle of the year, but of course Kylie had to cancel because of her illness. I can't believe she dared to inconvenience me that way.)

Showgirl is, surprisingly, a little camp. Not quite the five rows of tents in Lynde country that the Light Years-era Live In Sydney DVD was, but a tad more than the Fever DVD. One segment opened with a tight shot of the asses of the four men taking showers on stage, for chrisssakes. Note: The back projection film for this segment is available on the disc as a bonus feature. So it's possible to watch this first, or even only. I'm just sayin'.

Anyway, hearing (and possibly dancing in my living room to) all her greatest hits spurred me to dig up some of her old records, and add some tracks to the iPod. Because it was a slow (HA!) weekend, this evolved, or devolved, into a solitary game of POX -- as in, Pick Only Ten tracks from Kylie, with the following not-in-any-meritorious order results:

1. "Can't Get You Out Of My Head"
Why not begin with the obvious? (I realized recently that Bananarama's "Move In My Direction" has a bassline that is, at points, quite indebted to this.)

2. "Enjoy Yourself"
The title track and concluding number of her second album, "Enjoy Yourself" is, in my book, one of SAW's best achievements. First of all, any song about relishing the moment -- "Don't wait till tomorrow when you should be living today" -- is, by definition, ace. (Although, weirdly, it always sounds to me like Kylie is singing "leaving.") Secondly, this is Kylie's early-Madonna effort, having the kind of delirious disco vibe that the latter's first album had. One of my most hated Kylie songs is "Celebration": not only is it such a banal choice to cover, but it is, at seven minutes, interminable. But it's clear that Kylie was gunning, with "Celebration," for an anthemic thing she could sing at the close of her concerts, like Madonna does with "Holiday." That's not a misguided sentiment, but I never understood why she didn't realized that she had it all along in this shoulda-been-a-standard number.

3. "Step Back In Time"
Looking back to 60s/70s disco, this is in some ways Kylie's most successfully retro number, and makes me frug around the same way some of the songs it namechecks -- say, The O'Jay's "Love Train" -- do.

4. "Your Disco Needs You"
C'mon. I am gay.

5. "Telltale Signs"
I didn't like Kylie much at the beginning, finding "The Locomotion" and "I Should Be So Lucky" actively annoying. ("Got To Be Certain" intrigued, though.) The second album was quite entrancing, however; along with "Enjoy Yourself," this is the other highlight from it. A much better ballad than "Tears On My Pillow," this was also the first song that made me think that she possibly can sing. Mining the same lyrical territory as "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" or "Superwoman," it's a heartfelt ode to "love slipping away," but also features a rueful last-ditch effort to prevent that happening. When the music stops the exact same moment Kylie sings "when we see all the telltale signs, let's STOP!", it's also timed perfectly for you to burst into tears. So feel free to.

6. "If You Don't Love Me"
On the b-side of Kylie's "Confide In Me" single were not one, but two inspired covers: one of Saint Etienne's "Nothing Can Stop Us," and then this: a sparse and heartwrenching treatment of a Prefab Sprout song that, even more than "Telltale Signs," shows off Kylie's plaintive voice to great effect.

7. "Your Love"
I have a weakness for shimmery Kylie: those less frantic, slinky songs that she does really well, such as "Fragile," "Fever," "Giving You Up," or even "Please Stay." But there is none better in that genre than this overlooked track tucked away at the end of Fever.

8. "Love At First Sight"
Filter disco! Wah-wah guitars! But even if the song only consisted of that sublime moment going from the refrain to the chorus -- when "everything went from wrong to right/And the stars came out, filled up the sky/The music you were playing nearly blew my mind/It was love at first sight" POW! "Cause baby..." -- it would still be awesome.

9. "I'm So High"
Although it's de rigeur to claim, if you're any kind of Kylie fan, that her "indie phase" produced a lot of underrated songs, those songs are just...not good enough to be in a top 10. But there is a guitar-pop song, not from Impossible Princess, which is dead good, and it's Light Years' "I'm So High." On that album, to be frank, it sits uneasily: like "Kids," it's too guitary to fit well with the other tracks, but listened to on its own, its ecstastic poppiness refuses to be hidden.

10. "Tightrope/Better The Devil You Know/Shocked/Disco Down/Hand On Your Heart"
What, you've never heard of this song with the long title?

My comment box is lovingly open to your POX, of course, should you be so inclined.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Everything But The Girl, "Apron Strings" (1988/1992)

About five months ago, Fava Bean stuck his head into my office to tell me that something good had happened to friends of ours. "Their baby came," he announced.

For a moment, I was completely flummoxed. I had coincidentally just seen the mother in question one or two days before; we had all gone out for dinner, and she certainly didn't look pregnant. But then my Fog Of Stupidity lifted, and I recalled that she and I, while waiting for the rest to arrive, had in fact talked about how she and her husband have been trying to adopt. Her initial mention of this was almost in passing: they had their name on such-and-such a list, but it didn't seemed like it was happening soon. "Well, it happened," Fava Bean said. "It was sudden -- they got the call and the baby followed a day or so later. They didn't even have any of the baby stuff ready."

The complication was that they were doing this open adoption style, which meant the birth mother has the right to change her mind for up to six months. I hadn't known about the long time frame. "Wow. That has to be tough," I said to Fava Bean. "Yes," he agreed. We mulled, and let this sink in for a moment. Then, since we're insensitive brutes, we immediately started in with the inappropriate joshing.

"Should we send gifts?" I wondered.

"At this point, nah," Fava Bean replied. "I don't think they are even announcing it properly, given the uncertainty."

"That does make it hard to shop. I doubt that Hallmark makes such cards."

"'Congratulations -- Maybe!'"

"'Hope This One's A Keeper!'"

"Ha ha ha ha HA!"

To my surprise, six months have since passed (well, more like five: the couple told me that they "have a good lawyer"). This weekend they throw a party for Baby Girl A., whom I've met and whose devastating cuteness I can therefore attest to, and to celebrate their status as new parents. I couldn't be happier for them.

Which doesn't mean that I will have time to pick up a gift, though. Um, so here's a song? Most people who know this Everything But The Girl song may know it from its appearance on the group's 1988 album Idlewild. But, that same year, the track also popped up on the soundtrack to the John Hughes' film She's Having A Baby, in a different version. Since the latter is quite rare, I offer it. But the best version, as far as I'm concerned, is the live performance preserved on their 1992 Acoustic record. Here, as the album title suggests, the song is set to a sparse guitar arrangement, but what really makes the track are the harmonies: Ben joins in on the backing vocals, while Tracey sings the chorus with a slightly different melody, one in a higher key. It gives the tune, a complicated one that acknowledges the various reasons for that biological yearning, a breathtakingly fragile beauty, and kills me every time I hear it. (However, no: I don't need a baby of my own. Wouldn't mind meeting the potential father, though.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Lisa Shaw, "Grown Apart" (2005)

Five years is a looong time in dance music. More so when you were the sound of five years ago.

Beginning in 1999, the San Francisco-based label Naked Music, which had basically broken off from Om records, started releasing a series of 12"s that sounded like extensions of each other, while at the same time distinct from a lot of other dance music.They were deep house records, but each had a kind of slinky sleekness and late night sheen, often on top of, or in contrast to, a herky-jerky bump-n-grind rhythm, that was unique. It no doubt helped that almost all these records were made by the same team -- Jay Denes, Miguel Migs, Gabriel René, albeit under a bunch of different names (Lovetronic, Blue Six, Petalpusher, Aquanote, Florathrust [one of those names, I made up]) -- but there was just a kind of ethos that these records formed. One listen, and you just knew that it was Naked Music.

The danger of having such a recognizable sound, of course, is that at some point you might suddenly find yourself predictable, out-of-fashion. (Just ask Soul 2 Soul. If you can find 'em.) It doesn't aid your cause when that distinctive sound becomes adopted by a million wine bars and swanky restaurants looking to pipe some "inoffensive" dance music into its premises.

There is thus a lot working against Lisa Shaw, one of Naked Music's in-house vocalists, who lent her creamy voice most memorably to "Always". What's more, she's been beaten to the punch in terms of being the first Naked Music chanteuse to come out with a full-length: both Aya, who put out Strange Flower last year, as well as Gaelle, who released the sneakily great Transient, got there first.

But from the album Cherry, a track called "Grown Apart" -- a meta name, in light of the above? Probably not -- makes a good effort to save Lisa (and Naked Music) from irrelevance. The production on this is expectedly polished, but (or maybe that's why) I like how it also begins with solitary handclaps that sound oddly imperfect. When the rhythm finally kicks in -- initially for the first chorus, and then, more beatastically, for the second verse -- the effect is more lovely for that build-up. A little spiralling keyboard riff also enters around this time, and the pretty counter-melody that Lisa sings in the last 30 seconds likewise help to add more layers to the track. It's one, if you let me be a little Project Runaway for a minute, to swathe yourself in.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Alison Moyet, "Steal Me Blind" (1984)

(We interrupt this programme.)

You guys, I totally found my soulmate. The song featured today, which you're welcome to steal, will be the one we slow-dance to at our wedding...except that I don't even think we need a wedding since we are already mind-meldingly one. She -- and it is a "she," but don't judge me -- and I are so alike that it's spooky.

Some, although probably not many, of you may know that before I started writing about music here, I wrote a personal journal that was titled, logically enough, Brittle Lemon. (In many ways Tremble Clef is still a personal journal, except with music, but I digress.) It was, like this one, a small little blog that I wrote for my, and maybe a few friends' enjoyment.

But, apparently, also for the benefit of someone named "Resplendent." I don't really want to write about this and link from here, so you should instead head over to the old journal for the rest of the story, if you're interested.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Girls Aloud, "Wild Horses" (2005)

For a few days, I was afraid that Girls Aloud had disappeared up their own backsides. They're very comely backsides, to be sure, but still, it was worrying.

Because the first few times I played Chemistry, which gets its official release today, I was a little dubious. The songs are very clever, as you would expect of Xenomania productions -- Multiple choruses! Sonic experiments! Bridges to nowhere! A prickly hedgehog in the middle eight! -- but after a few listens, I wasn't sure there was much there there. It sounded fantastic, like repeated stabs of adrenaline-filled syringes to the heart, but without some traditional songcraft anchoring the sound, I found myself unable to remember much of the album after the iPod stopped playing. It's an album, I thought, to which you sing along when it's on, but not something that you hum on your own.

But then it clicked. It took a week, and -- who knew? -- turning the volume up, but a few days ago, while waiting for the bus, I suddenly knew every note and could remember the complicated structure of each song. That's possibly a slight exaggeration, but when my bus came and it was fuller than I liked, I was happy to let it go by and wait for the next one. I'm still not sure I like "It's Magic," and the most conventional number remains my favorite ("Whole Lotta History"), but the album as a whole now sounds very, very good and durable. And with "Racey Lacey," about a girl who's a "Ph.D. with her legs apart," it's like the Aloud know me.

Chemistry is still an album that's mostly carried along by the force of the Girls' personalities -- in this, it's the flipside of Come And Get It, on which the songs drag Rachel along for the ride -- but what a force. At points it seems as if the Aloud themselves can hardly stand it.

There's a fantastic moment on "Wild Horses" when this is clearest. The song is already vaguely famous as The One On Which The Girls Make Train Noises (as well as The One That Starts With The Weird Christmas Caroling), but the brilliant thing is that they only eventually become train noises. After the opening choirgirl bit, we go straight into the chorus, of which the first two lines are: "It's taken a long time (woo-woo!)/Wild horses wouldn't take me back to you (woo-woo!)" At this point, the "woo-woo" bit is sung in a muted way, and in a fairly low key. It might as well be a perfunctory backing vocal bit, no more than an "ah-ah" or a "doo-doo." (Heh. "Doo-doo.")

But then the next line of the lyric hits: "Get out of town and take your lazy dog with you!/Your train is running late and overdue!" And, suddenly, the backing vocals shoot up a key and in volume, as if newly and delightfully giddy: "WOO-WOO!" What I love about this is the way a prosiac, run-of-the-mill backing bit -- a mere "woo-woo" -- practically gets goaded, by the steamrolling beat and the inspired lyric about the overdue train, into aping the noise of a train whistle. The chorus isn't just "infectious," but performs the act of being infected. In moments like this, it feels like the Girls are themselves having fun, getting carried away, and so it would surely be churlish if we didn't join in. (Wait for it.) (WOO-WOO!)

Saturday, December 03, 2005

k. d. lang, "Leavin' On Your Mind" (2003)

Beardsley has a new job, in a new country. That makes him, by my count, the seventh friend who's taking off in the past two, three years. Since he is moving in a few weeks, to a place where he thinks things will be more expensive, and since he's booked part of a shipping container, he's been shopping like mad.

"I decided not to buy the expensive stereo system, by the way," he tells me.

"Just as well. You don't play that much music."

"And the old one will do. I thought I would spend the money on the bed instead. I saw one which might be right -- nice weathered wood."

"Plus, the bed will bring more joy to more people more times than a stereo."

"You bitch."

"Only wishing you well. Plus, you said 'nice weathered wood.'"

Our mutual friend, Petal, thinks that Beardsley will need those wishes. When the job was a mere possibility, she and I had speculated about whether he would jump. She was convinced he wouldn't. "He has it so good here socially, being the kind of person he is, in the kind of place this is." She said this matter-of-factly, without malice. It's true, probably. As a joke, I later said to Beardsley that he should watch the British Queer As Folk. He hadn't even heard of it, but was keen, so I loaned him the complete series. I couldn't imagine him on Canal Street; I'm not sure he can, either.

Petal herself took off to California a few months ago, although it looks like she'll come back in another six months or so. "Just thinking of this as a very expensive vacation," she jokes in an email. When she left, Beardsley took charge of throwing the going-away party. It went off smashingly, despite the fact that, to my horror, Petal invited her insurance agent. If there's ever a party guest who promises to be all up in your grill all the goddamned night, an insurance agent would be it. But surprisingly, she was fine, and even seemed vaguely aware that people would avoid her like the plague if she so much threatened to whip out a card. Maybe they're now properly socialized.

In turn, I have to organize Beardsley's farewell this weekend. Fair enough: he's been quite a good friend, although he talks a lot and listens to me very little. So, like many of my friends, really. If only I had an avenue on which I could ramble on to an invisible but captive audience. Anyway, I'll know about half the guest list; the other half is the riff-raff he's leaving behind. My game plan: lots of alcohol.

To close the circle, or triangle, it would be apt if Petal came back and threw me a going-away shindig, but I don't think that's happening. I feel a little like the Last Girl Standing, that feisty virginal blonde in horror movies who sees her friends gruesomely killed off one by one by a hook-clawed psycho killer. That's me. Except, you know, in this movie everyone wants to be decapitated by the garage door.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Shara Nelson, "Uptight (Uno Perfecto Mix)" (1994)

Oh, to be a singer with a big voice but supposedly not much else deemed ready for prime time. You toil for years doing backing vocals for talents lesser than yourself. You get a credit on the inner sleeve, the standard pittance, and, hey, crafts services on the day of the recording. If you're lucky, you might eventually get a credit on the front of the record itself, even if it was only after many hours of exhausting debate (partly with yourself) about whether a "featuring" is better than a "presents" which might trump an "and." In the midst of that debate, you kinda forgot to ensure that the group itself didn't have a name which wasn't anonymous and banal. Ah, well.

But one day, you get really lucky: your vocals are such a feature of the song that you more or less become considered part of the group. On top of it all, your vocals are on two tracks that -- unbeknownst to you at the time, but you had your suspicions -- are so mindbendingly great that phrases like "epochal" get tossed around.

This is your time, then. Seize the opportunity and go solo. Although you hope it does, your star may never get brighter. People are falling over themselves to write for you -- P. M. Dawn, those guys out of Saint Etienne -- so it's almost easy to come up with a solo album that people receive warmly. They murmur "new Aretha Franklin," give you award nominations. (M People -- M People! -- win.) The record company throws its weight behind you, getting your already-good, neo-Motown singles further snazzed up by the likes of Steve Osborne. He's almost Paul Oakenfold, you know.

But then the second record doesn't do much, despite -- or maybe because -- it hews quite closely to the formula of the first. The speed at which the album unfairly hits the bargain bins is a little alarming. The record deal runs out. So you go back to doing session work. Every now and then another song hits enough for your name to resurface, but it's back to being a "featured voice." Perhaps the merry-go-round will start up again, or perhaps, even better, this time it will be less of a go-round than a go-up. You still have your voice, so you wait.