tremble clef

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tyler James, "Procrastination" (2005)

Like Natasha Bedingfield's "These Words," Tyler James's "Procrastination" is a song about trying to write a song. "Got to get this song down before I leave tonight," Tyler sings in the middle eight. "But my head just does its own thing/And I gotta feel alright/I gotta write this chorus/But words elude me now/I have to get this done before I get dressed somehow." How nakedly pomo.

The difficulty with such meta-songs is that they practically have a "kick me" sign around their necks. A snarky retort, should you be inclined towards one, is ready-made and never too far away. "Well, you didn't do a particularly good job overcoming that writer's block, didja? Oh yes I did too! Snap!" Etc.

In Natasha's case, that sign seems a little more prominent: though "These Words" a solid pop-hop single, its beat is a bit too thudding (at least in the hit Manny Marroquin remixed version), and the lyrical punchline -- I'm having trouble writing these words, but then I realized that I only need to speak from the heart and say "I love you" ad nauseam! -- disappointingly banal. (Contrary to the Wikipedia entry -- there is a Wiki entry devoted just to Natasha's song! All hail democratic editing! -- which claims that "Bedingfield breaks some new ground by having one of the few songs of popular music in recent history to deal with a very sensitive subject that is not about sex or relationships," the song turns out to be exactly about relationships.)

"Procrastination" mostly avoids these pitfalls. Though it's not entirely clear -- his delivery isn't mush-mouthed, but he's not exactly Rex Harrison either -- any sense that Tyler's adventures in songwriting is due to some obstacle in love only lurks as a faint whisper, and the song is better for it. More crucially, the track sounds effortless. It thus belies the lyric, as all such songs aim to, in a way that "These Words" doesn't manage. In particular, despite his claims that he's having trouble finding a hook -- a claim about which Tyler sounds utterly sincere, as opposed to smirkily self-reflexive -- the track hits you with one straightaway. Well, almost. The first thing you hear in the song is a muted voice going, "Uh-woo-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah." It's a placeholder, for when the chorus comes around, horns take over the playing of that line, blaring gloriously. They weave in and out of the song: slinky, hypnotic, breezy. [This part needs fleshing out. Maybe later? "But right now I've got stuff to do."]

Monday, February 27, 2006

Kimberley Locke, "8th World Wonder (Hi-Bas Radio Edit)" (2004)

The thing that most chaps my ass about American Idol -- though I'm sure mine is not the only ass thus affected, but it might be the fattest comeliest -- is how un- or even anti-pop it is. The most. Yes, even more than Ryan's penetrating questions ("How're you feeling?" "Excited!"), even more than Randy's stupid dawg references, even more than Paula's seal-claps and constant interruptions of Simon, whom she then has the gall to call "rude," and I'm already getting too worked up, God.

Detractors talk about how AI deals in manufactured pop, but really, the show doesn't traffick in it enough. The anti-popism is pretty remarkable, even if it's totally explainable. It's remarkable because the show did begin, of course, in the UK as Pop Idol, and, as far as I can tell, in many countries has remained committed, in its own little warped way, to finding pop stars. But it's explainable because America, as we all know by now, currently has very little use for pop.

With the curious result that AI is a show sets up pop as a kind of imaginary construct from which contestants are expected to depart, even though we've hardly ever seen any actual examples of pop. Instead, singer after singer style themselves as "soul" or "r 'n' b"; we also get the odd "crooner," while some go for "country," and starting last season, of course, there are the nauseating "rockers." If we take the position that "pop" simply means "popular," and since r 'n' b or soul or country are what sells in the US now, then, sure, the show is about pop singers. But as for "pop" the way most poptimists mean it -- say, music that is unconcerned with "authenticity" -- it's in short supply on the show. Really, by this point, if someone came on and sang "Hollaback Girl" or "Hung Up," it would look positively revolutionary. I have no beef with soul, or country, or even rock per se. I simply find it amusing or infuriating, depending on what kind of mood I'm in, that the show praises these genres as "real," as "different," which is possible only by imagining that the phantom pop music we never actually hear is the enemy.

My current mortal enemy, it will not surprise you to know, is therefore Taylor. You know Taylor. The guy who's got "soul," or the "blues," or something equally venereal. He walked into one verdict round playing a harmonica, because he loves real music, maaan, and you know if the auditions went any further he would start smashing those evil inorganic synthesizers. He's the guy whose favorite judge is Randy, "because he plays an instrument." And, of course, he's the guy who sings like he needs his sister to ride the bus with him. He knows it's looks absurd, but he can't help it, because he FEELS IT, HE FEELS IT, YEAH! Whatever, ass. I know you're aiming for "Joe Cocker," but you're just landing on "Cock."

(Deep breath.)

The popular opinion is that the best single to have come out of the AI franchise is Kelly's "Since U Been Gone." And yeah, it's very good, it's propulsive, it's a shot of adrenaline, awesome empowerment-pop. But on certain days I actually think of Kimberley Locke's "8th World Wonder" as the competition's finest outcome -- partly, though not solely, because it is, I might argue with some reservation, its poppiest one.

It's true that the lyric of "8th World Wonder," as a friend pointed out, is inferior to "Since U Been Gone," because it lobs such overwrought clichés at us. But that's one of its charms for me. The potent thing about love is how melodramatic it makes you feel, how it bends every change in the weather to your pathetically fallacious whim. "Seven days and seven nights of thunder/The water's rising and I'm slipping under/I think I fell in love with the 8th world wonder." The song refuses, I think, to be embarrassed by this -- it even acknowledges that "it's only been a week" -- which is one thing that makes it unabashedly pop. In its original incarnation, the song is a little more of a grinding rock number, but that can be -- is -- easily fixed with a remix. One, in particular: the Hi-Bas radio edit speeds things up a smidgeon, infusing the song with a bouncy, rubbery "Believe" beat that makes Kimberley's voice sound freer, less anguished. That voice is also electronically treated more on the remix. There's a whiff of an Autotune effect on "amazing" and "wonder," and the vocals are more prominently multi-tracked ("But the way that I'm feeling") than on the original. She sounds giddier, like the force of love is practically shattering her into a hundred thousand happy little splinters. "It's coming over me/It's making me believe/You're the one for me -- yeah, yeah, yeah." Close your eyes, listen, and tell me those "yeahs" are not every bit as wondrous as Kelly's more celebrated ones.

Postscript: Apparently Rich at Four Four would like to be the Vice-President of my Taylor fanclub. Huzzah.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Pipettes, "ABC" (2005)

Oooh, the Pipettes! (Sha-la-la-la-la!) A girl group of today, yet it sounds like yesterday. (Tell me more, tell me more!) Is it done with irony? (Irony!) Or sincere, straight-facedly? (Do you care, care, care?)

Cause when I listen (Listen!), to this song, it makes me happy (Happy!), so sing along! It tells of loving a nerd (A nerd!), whose head is buried in the dirt! While he knows his ABCs (I see, I see!), he don't know bout XTC. As far as rhymes go (it's a crime!), it pales next to the time-o, when they paired "sexually impertinent," with "colliding like the elements" (Ooh-ah, ooh-ah!). But when I listen (Listen!), to this song, it makes me happy (Happy!), so sing along!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Jane Birkin and Alain Chamfort, "T'as Pas Le Droit D'avoir Moins Mal" (2004)

"If equal affection cannot be/Let the more loving one be me." W. H. Auden's poem has a spirit so generous that it's practically unreal. Affections never are equal. Never can be: how, after all, do you quantify or measure love? Unable to do so, you're left suspecting that the love you give is not commensurate with the love you receive. "However I look it's clear to see," a broken Neil Tennant sings for Electronic, "that I love you more than you love me." And the more you worry about it, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Auden's attitude therefore seems healthy, helpful. If love never flows equally, then be the one who gives more, who loves extravagantly, selflessly. It's something to aspire to: which is to say, something that's hardly ever attained in real life.

Real life, alas, seems much more painfully present in "T'as Pas Le Droit D'avoir Moins Mal." As far as I can tell -- and that's not far, given how non-existent my French is -- this shimmeringly beautiful rendez-vous places itself at almost the exact opposite end of the spectrum from Auden. Mental hostilities have escalated: far from assuming the role of being the more loving one, Jane and Alain both want the other to suffer as much as they each think they do. "Ta douleur à ma douleur se doit d'être égale." And yet, the song has less of an air of vitriolic bitterness, than one of remorse, regret, sadness. Alain sings a verse, a chorus; Jane takes the second, and then gets her chorus. They circle each other, barely interacting, singing a duet that's not really a duet. Briefly, they come together in harmony: "T'as pas le droit d'avoir moins mal; t'as pas le droit d'avoir moins mal. Moins mal, que moi." They are perhaps talking at last; in the final moments they trade lines instead of entire verses, and sing the last stanza together. "On a toujours partagé tout/Mon angoisse prends-en une tasse, tea for two/T'as pas le droit, alors que j' déprime/D'être ailleurs qu'au bord de l'abîme." My French fails me. I no longer know what they say, but I think I hear what they want to.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Lizards' Convention, "The Goat That Haunted Me"/"Rock The Boat" (1995)

Readers, if you've ever found yourself wondering, "But which is the best modern Singaporean pop album?" then wonder no more. It is, of course, The Lizards' Convention's Here's A Funny Fish, Hurrah! Sure, the competition is not especially fierce in this category. I say this not because there is no musical talent in Singapore, but that talent tends not to be channelled towards smart English pop. In the mid- to late 90s, there was in fact a slew of quite good bands -- The Padres, The Oddfellows, Humpback Oak -- but most of them made indie rock music. The Lizards' Convention, which at that time had four band members in their late teens, in contrast had a much poppier sensibility.

It was a quirky sensibility as well, as you might already have guessed from that album title. The record included tracks called "Gribbit The Frog," "If Cows Grew On Trees," and most awesomely, "The Goat That Haunted Me." Not only did that last song have an arresting title -- and relevant, since I can't tell you how many fucking evil goats I've been stalked by -- but the song itself didn't disappoint, being an eccentric pop number whose main hook comes from, believe it or not, what sounds like a fiddle.

Here's A Funny Fish, Hurrah! also had several very imaginative covers: a upbeat yet plaintive version of "Wooden Heart," which is most associated with Elvis, plus a couple of 70s disco-rock songs in "Stuck In The Middle With You" and "Rock The Boat." I especially love the latter, despite having very little use for the Hues Corporation original. The band tweaks the song in small, but noticeable and effective ways. The original, you may remember, has a short three-note horn section that appears at the beginning, which is then pretty much buried in the mix for the rest of the song. The Lizards' Convention builds on and expands that passage, playing it on chiming guitars and making it into much more of a hook. The tempo is a little faster, less shuffling than the original. At the end of the song they interpellate a snippet of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," which is, frankly, genius, especially since it allows them to end on the slightly ominous line " but a dream." The vocalist, Kristine Oehlers, has a high-pitched, fragile, and somewhat thin voice that, at moments on the record, comes close to being off-pitch. But she's great at using that voice, with all its limitations. Here, for example, the way she goes up an octave on "our love is like a ship on the ocean" is quite spine-tingling.

The band did well with the album, having radio hits with "Pleasant Song," "The Goat..," and "Wooden Heart" (which was apparently also very popular in Thailand). The band, now down to three members, then recorded a follow-up album called Quarkstar, which was unfortunately shelved after their original label folded and the company who took over found the new album -- apparently an acoustic affair -- too uncommercial. It's not entirely clear if the band is still going, since their website (on Geocities! Quaint! Kids, ask your parents to explain) hasn't been updated in about five years. However, some of the links on the "Downloads" page are still working, and I especially recommend "Pleasant Song" in addition to the two I've posted.

One final, funny story: when the album was first released, I picked it up on cassette (again, younger readers, ask your 'rents) on a trip back to Singapore. About four or five years later, I was still living in the Boston area, and one day found the CD at a second-hand store for a buck. It's not totally strange, since the guitarist/lead songwriter of the group at that time lived (and still does, I believe) in Boston, but it was still amusing that I went thousands of miles away from "home" only to come -- in a welcomed manner, which isn't always the case -- face-to-face with it again.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Andy Bell, "Electric Blue" (2005)

The verses on this, frankly, are a little boring. "Eyes wide electric baby/All dyed in cobalt blue/Stole from the Army-Navy store." The lines plod, heavy. The thumping but bassy synth only serves to drag things down further, and Andy's use of his never-stellar lower register doesn't help. The stanza ends with Andy repeating that last phrase, "Army-Navy store," holding the low note on "store." The effect is faintly absurd, for he just sounds like a fat bass opera singer emoting about a thrift store purchase.

But then, suddenly, the oppressiveness lifts. The chord changes, and we go into a bridge that's arrestingly uplifting. "When we dance to 'Supernature'/Hold your hands in space/Come on darling/I won't hate you..." It's but a moment. What comes next, which in name is the chorus, is back to being not especially memorable: some banter about dying for you and having painful feet, as the synth line kicks into, first, an electroclashy riff, and then a spiralling passage that's trying earnestly to be delirious. But that Cerrone-namechecking bit in in the bridge is nicely ecstatic -- a good bit surrounded by bad bits, enough in itself to make this the third best song on the album (behind "Crazy," of course, and "Shaking My Soul"). It's even enough to make me consider if the verses are intentionally boring, and the chorus purposefully non-descript, the better to set off the brilliance of the bridge. Nah. But for making me consider it, just for a second: well-played, Mr. Bell, well-played.

Elsewhere: I help Edward over at Enthusiastic But Mediocre review the surprisingly stodgy French Top 10, in two parts.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Kiki Kokova, "Love To Love You Baby (Pet Shop Boys Vocal Mix)" (2003)

Last weekend I was woken up by a phone call from Fava Bean, calling to ensure that I was indeed going over to his apartment for brunch. Since I had already said I would, when he asked me a million times at work on Friday, I wasn't sure the call was necessary. Especially not early on a slightly hungover Sunday.

Since I was up, I turned on the TV and tried to drift back to sleep. At some point an episode of Everwood comes on (no, I don't know why they screen it on Sunday mornings; you would think that the wholesome family drama shouldn't conflict with church-going). We're only in the third season here, and the episode that was on was the one where Amy is trying to be friends with Hannah, except going about it in a totally obnoxious way. Hannah is allegedly the social outfit -- "allegedly," because, c'mon, if this was real life, then even self-involved blind high school students can tell that she only needs to get rid of the glasses and let down her hair in order to become Homecoming Queen instantly. So Amy tries to integrate Hannah into Everwood High, steamrolling over all objections and generally treating Hannah less like a friend and more like a social work project, which made me want to punch Amy in the mouth. More than usual.

Fava Bean has been a colleague for just a little over a year; he's perfectly nice, as is his lovely wife Emu. But, frankly, it's one of those situations where they want to be BFF more than I do. For the most part, I've always been cautious about being friends with colleagues. Yes, some of it has to do with not shitting where one eats (especially since, in some circuitous way, I could be considered Fava's boss), but it's more that I quite like keeping my personal and professional lives separate. I spend so much time and psychic energy at work that I just don't really want to be around anyone work-related when I don't have to be. Granted, I don't have much of a personal life nowadays, but that's neither here nor there.

But I guess my reservation goes a little deeper than that. Fava and Emu are in their late 40s and 30s respectively; married about five years, childless and uninterested in being childful. Emu is the woman who once, on holiday, tried to relax at a spa but was so irritated by a boisterous kid being a public nuisance that she turned to him and, in full view and hearing of the kid's parents, screamed, in her slightly wonky Japanese-inflected English, "SHAAADDUP!" Heh. I mean, I love her for that.

Emu is a great cook, and part of our friendship revolves around her intense desire to cook for me. All the time. There was a point when Fava and I had a hectic period at work. Emu called him to see if he was going home for dinner, and, learning that I was also still in the office, then calmly ringed me to badger me to also go over for dinner. I was on the verge of lunacy, desperate to be done with work so that I could go home, so I truly didn't need to be harrassed about how, really, I could drop everything, go eat her delicious dinner, and then return to the office after. As Fava thankfully told her, "Honey, you can pester me to go home for dinner, but [Brittle], on the other hand, isn't actually married to you."

The role I felt like I was being cast in, however, wasn't that of (another) husband, but as child -- though not necessarily their child. I'm not that much younger than Emu, but it does sometimes feel that I'm being treated as some sort of weird baby substitute. It's not straightforward. As I said above, on many levels, Fava and Emu have zero interest in being parents. Further, it's not as if they have no self-awareness. We've certainly joked among ourselves -- even as I tried to make clear that it wasn't entirely a joke to me -- about me being so.

But still. I have often wondered if part of what is happening is that they have a certain view of gay men, per se, as infantile, possibly unable to take care of ourselves. At one point last year, Gibb, a friend of theirs, visited. I ended up being his tour guide to the local gay clubs, where over several drinks we, in not so many words, commiserated with each other. Gibb had a story about how one time Emu flipped when she found out that Gibb went to, gasp, Subway for dinner. Distressed, she made it clear the he should have dropped -- no, was morally obligated to drop in on them for dinner instead, and that in fact he was always welcome to do so, and ohmygawd Subway scream scream scream horror horror. It didn't seem to occur to her that Gibb actually wanted a Subway sandwich. He wasn't eating one because he was incapable of cooking or fixing himself something "better," or unable to invite himself over.

Again, none of this was particularly occluded to everyone concerned. We've even joked about me being the new Gibb. Also, at this moment I really want a tuna sub.

But still. I'm not a child. I don't want to be a child. I'm not a child just by virtue of being a gay man. Gay men are not children.

Well, okay, some are. Some gay men have always seemed a little immature to me. And, yeah, the fact that I actually am hopeless at cooking, and sometimes at taking care of myself, does diminish the force of my assertions a little. But still.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Moby, "Dream About Me (Booka Shade Remix)" (2005)

"Electro-house bobbins": what a great label. If I made music I would adopt the moniker of DJ Christopher Bobbins, and create a monster anthem filled with people grunting "Eeyore! Eeyore! Eeyore!" But I digress.

ILM would probably like to say that it invented a lot of things, but the coining of this phrase would be a more genuine claim than others. Of course, this is not to say that the message board offers any definition of the term. Just as well: it leaves us free to invent some. In common English parlance, "bobbins" does suggest rubbishness -- as in, "this is bobbins," or, my personal favorite, "you have such a bobbins face" -- but none of that negativity adheres when the word is applied to the genre of house. To me, it's most descriptive of the kind of dancing the genre induces: a kind of bouncing and gentle bobbing that can be done without your arms ever crossing the Homosexual Line.* Because of that, I think of electro-house bobbins as removed from, or even opposed to gay diva house music. Funnily for dance music, it's quite reserved and sexless in some ways.

Which is not to say it can't be good. At the very least it improves Moby. This Booka Shade remix of the latter's "Dream About Me" is less startling than their reworking of Tahiti 80's "Big Day," which was filled with squelchy effects, some great strings, and a dirty vibe that was particularly evident in the breakdown. The remix of "Dream About Me" is more unabashedly bouncy and round-sounding, in an effort, perhaps, to stay true to Moby's new-agey persona. Moby's voice gets a bit of distortion near the beginning, and there are some fedback guitar sounds, but for the most part the song is more finger-snapping than groin-thrusting. But I for one am okay with Moby getting a remix in a sexless genre; he should be bouncing around in a room filled with, um, big balls, not subjected (and subjecting us) to a dirty vibe.

*Quentin Tarantino, in an interview with Playboy magazine: "Can I tell you another definitely nonguy thing? When you're dancing and you put your hands way above your head -- that's very nonguy. There's a kind of homosexual line that exists right above your shoulders. You can dance like this (waves his fists at rib-cage level) all day, but the minute you start going like this (waves his hands above his head), that's very nonguy."

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Holly Johnson, "The Great Love Story" (1991)

"Who knows when the great love story ends?/It's been told since time began."

Probably without intending it, the chorus of "The Great Love Story" expresses a curious paradox about love. The great love story, presumably, is great because it's been told since time began. It is a tale for all ages; perhaps it even transcends time. And yet: if this story has been continually told and retold, doesn't it lose the uniqueness that would make it great? Or is it great precisely because it is by no means unique, but, rather, pedestrian?

We recognize love because it conforms to certain narratives. Every gesture of love that we perform links us to other lovers, and derives its meaning from this link. But, by the same token, love is by necessity a cliché. Every declaration of love has in fact already been declared, every kiss already planted. We wouldn't be able to conceive and make sense of them, as love, otherwise. All we can do is transmit the narratives, as if we're stuck in a plot right out of The Ring.

Moulin Rouge details a love that, "come what may," is a great love. Therefore -- not "despite" -- its lovers can only speak of love to each other using borrowed, second hand declarations: a line from "Your Song" here, a couplet from "One Day I'll Fly Away" there. But, in a necessary illusion, they also have to act like these claims are original, as if no one has ever said them before.

"Who knows when the great love story ends?" Holly's plaintive electropop song, from his badly slept-on second solo album Dreams That Money Can't Buy, almost ends: "take it all now while you can." The lyric concludes, a synth washes over it. But then the recurring keyboard passage, playing each note of the chorus, starts up again. One last grasp, inviting us to imagine what never-endingness sounds like, telling it again.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Nelly Furtado, "Maneater" (2006)

1. No, it's not a cover of Hall and Oates.

2. It's on the same subject matter, though. Of course. It's not like there's much room for a song called "Maneater" to be about something else. Ricky Martin would be very jealous of the lyric: he is, after all, the torchbearer for the canon of songs about voracious women. She looks like a flower but she stings like a bee. Like every girl in history. When sung by men, the sentiment is oftentimes either misogynistic, or perhaps just offers a clever way out for a male singer who may not want to sing about women, but can this way appear to be doing so. I'm just sayin'.

3. Moving between first and third person pronouns, Nelly either owns or disavows the identity. And invites us to: much of the song is an invitation for us to dance like we eat men. "Move your body around like a nympho." Well, just try and stop me.

4. The video will undoubtedly include a dance to learn and love.

5. Ohmilord, the guitar riff, etc. And the Timba-beat, suitable even for multiple left feet. And the hi-hat. Bsst! Bsst! Bsst! It might be an actual piston steam engine.

6. On the one hand, it does need a middle eight. On the other hand, there is no rap in the middle. Lose some, win some.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Mint Royale, "The Effect On Me" (2005)

At this point in time, it's hard to use samples of old soul songs without raising the specter of Moby, and I think we all agree that he's ghoulish enough as is.

It's thus tempting to pay no attention to Mint Royale's "The Effect On Me," since the formula is familiar. The formula being: pick a bluesy lament, preferably obscure. Say, Jean Wells' "Have A Little Mercy," found on a cultish but canonical collection like one of Dave Godin's. Sample from it, not the obvious hook that is the chorus, but a line or two from a verse. It's a good trick. Selected properly, such a line can turn from a supporting bit to the main hook, and all without making you appear like you took the obvious way out. Plus, a decontextualized line has the added effect of making it seem as if we've joined something in progress, but in which the singer seems mired. Why does my heart feel so bad? Why does my heart feel so bad? Why does my heart feel so bad?

Although "The Effect On Me" ventures further afield and takes an entire verse from Jean's original -- "I never, ever thought I would live to see the day/That I'd be running out on a man this way/Baby, you don't know the effect you have on me/You got my mind all twisted and I can't wiggle free" -- it, too, nevertheless seems as if it's stuck in a groove. The song begins with what sounds like a record being played backwards, or tape being rewound; then, a piano pounds gently and a guitar strums along. After the first use of the Wells sample, the big, crashing drums and synths comes in. On one level, that's it for the song, structure-wise. But, on another level, the song also mutates with each iteration. The drums get louder, more intense, and are eventually joined by more and more instruments: a riff played on guitar; some nervous, taut strings; and the increasing prominence of that record-played-backward effect. As the song continues, the whole thing in fact becomes shockingly dissonant. At one point the intrumental passage starts up before the sample stops, for instance, and at the penulitmate moment (before calm is restored), the record almost seems at a breaking point, on the verge of dissolving into a kind of atonal chaos. Of course, from one perspective this is a clichéd way to express "tumultuousness" -- and the effort to "wiggle free" from it -- but, for a pop record, this is at least a little unusual, if not downright brave.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Sara Jorge, "Beautiful World" (2006)

The following are notes from an A&R meeting at a certain record company. (Apologies to Fametracker.)

A&R Exec #1: Okay, gentlemen, what are we going to do about Sara Jorge? "Dirty Business" didn't really do what we wanted. Of course, maybe we should have released it properly rather than just made it a digital thing. We have to relaunch her somehow.

A&R Exec #2: Again? I can't keep up with the number of relaunches. Didn't we already try once with "Shock To The System" before "Dirty Business"?

A&R Exec #3: Aw yeah! I'm always willing to launch and then relaunch her, if you know what I mean.

A&R Exec #4: I think we all do.

#1: In retrospect, "Dirty Business" was probably a mistake. It was too electro, and electropop babes aren't doing too well.

#2: No, we don't want her to be the next Rachel Stevens. Also, the song was shit.

#3: Whachu talkin' about, Willis? I totally would want Sara and Rachel, together, if you know wha --

#2: One Rachel is apparently already one too many, as far as the British recording public is concerned.

#4: Alison Goldfrapp is doing okay, though.

#2: Well, Sara ain't enough of a real-life bitch to make the ice queen persona work.

#1: I think when you release a song called "Dirty Business," you need to convince people you're a little naughty --

#3: I'd totally teach her how to be naug --

#1: -- but that image never came through convincingly. She's way too toothy and had too much lip gloss on her website pics, for one thing.

#3: Yeah! Lip gloss smears! Ha ha ha!

#2: Maybe we should have revamped the website to bring it more in line with that image.

#1: That would've been too logical.

#4: It's easier to remake a real life singer than a website, anyway.

#3: Ho ho ho! I'm very capable of rewriting Sara's html code!

#4: Aren't we ignoring the most obvious angle here, though? Sara's hot. It should be easy to make her a star. Can't we stick her in FHM and let male hormones do the rest?

#3: I'd sap her!

#4: The expression is "tap," you moron.

#3: I'd tap that! And sap her!

#4: Already tapped it.

#3: I tapped yo' mama.

#2: Guys! God.

#1: I think we should forget about the dirtiness schtick, pretend it never happened. I said "dirty schtick," not "dirty stick." Move on. Please. Let's go with "Beautiful World" as the new single. And then she can be styled as a sweet, happy zombie, I mean girl.

#4: Kittens. We should have kittens at the photoshoot.

#2: Maybe we should even retitle the album. Electro Cute would only fit one side of that plan.

#4: Fluffy Cute?

#1: No, just trash the whole Electro Cute thing, go with naming the album after the single.

#2: But then, if the single sinks...

#1: It's not going to sink. Think positive.

#3: I like the switch, guys. She used to be dirty -- she was a WHORE! Now she's clean. A babe in a beautiful new world. She's a VIRGIN!

#4: Yes, we know: you'd tap both.

#2: Are we going to have the Kylie problem, though?

#1: No, we won't have people constantly calling her a weak-ass Kylie clone.

#2: ...

#4: ...

#1: ...

#3: What?

#4: We were just leaving a pause in the conversation for you to jump in to say that you'd tap Kylie.

#3: Sheesh, are you kidding? With all the chemo --

#1: Okay, that's enough. Have some decency, man.

#2: You know we won't be able to control the comparisons. "Dirty Business" really sounded Kyliesque, and "Beautiful World" is pretty close to something like "I Know."

#1: I should hope so. If I'm going to have to blow -- I mean, pay Rob Davis to write Sara a song, it should bloody well sound a little like a good pop song.

#4: It is, it's good. The multi-tracked voices on the chorus are quite nice.

#1: Please. No talk about actual music. This is an A&R meeting.

#4: Um, yeah, anyway, "I Know" was never released, just leaked. People won't immediately make the connection to Kylie.

#3: Someone should have asked me to plug that leak. Then I'd turn her tap on.

#4: There is obviously no end to your plumbing talents.

#3: You don't know the half of it. You should see my nuts and washers.

#4: Washer? I hardly know her!

#3: Hey. Shouldn't I be the one saying the tasteless things?

#4: Yeah, sorry, I got a little confused about my role.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Bic Runga, "If I Had You" (2005)

I can be easily gotten, and, as I've said before and elsewhere, there's probably no surer-fire way to get me than to write a song in the conditional. If. If A is true, then we can talk about B. And C, and D. But you and I know, in our heart of hearts, that A really isn't true. Everything that follows is simply fantasy. A wish.

"If I had you." A deep breath, and the first word you hear, a beat before anything else happens in the song, is exactly that conditional. "What in the world could be better?/A crazy love that waits for you/Why must it wait forever?"

A second verse, a second "if." It's more dramatic this time, the enunication of the word seeming to sap all of Bic's energies. She bites down on the sole syllable, then has to take a breath that's almost a gasp. "IF -- I had you/Key to a hidden treasure/A ruby heart that hides from view/Don't hide for long."

If the third verse seems to simply repeat the first -- and it does have the same lyric -- it's nevertheless being read differently. This time it's harder to distinguish between "If' and "I"; the words run together, inching us further along in the fantasy, as if we're finally past the stumbling block that is "If." But any victory is but temporary: we only return to being stuck on that qualifier. "IF -- I had you/To be ever so close together/One safe love to shelter you/In tender loving arms."

"Oh, oh, oh, darling/In the night/I ask the good lord in heaven/Please show me what love can do/I couldn't care for more." On the chorus, Bic seems almost restrained, shackled. The "Oh, oh, oh" would seem to demand a certain amount of soulful anguish, and some might say that Bic doesn't quite burst forth here. But the lesson of the preceding verses, perhaps, is that she can't burst forth. There's so little -- one small word -- and yet so much -- one small word -- in the way. You can barely hear the "love" in the chorus, so softly is the word whispered. Please show me (what love) can do.

I've been listening to the album Birds, which is full of beautiful wooziness -- you hear it here in the vaguely off-kilter "ba-la-ba-la-ba" backing vocals -- since the middle of December, and I love it very much. Each time I listen to this particular song, I almost expect to hear yet another way of saying "If," and, even more foolishly, I almost expect to hear the word, love, more clearly next time. But of course, if one exists, the other one won't. If I had you, then there would be love. Foolish indeed.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Saint Etienne, "Stars Above Us (Eric Kupper Club Mix)" (2006)

Look, America, this is your chance. I won't say "your last chance," though you never know. But an opportunity is knocking, and it's asking you to make Saint Etienne the stars they deserve to be. The band has signed to Savoy Jazz, and Tales From Turnpike House has gotten its long overdue US release. Sure, the company insisted on dicking around with the running order, so the album now doesn't begin with the inhabitants of Turnpike House waking up, nor end with them turning in for the night. Which is confusing for all our bodily clocks.

But we'll overlook that, because Savoy Jazz seems to be working to break the band. They placed "A Good Thing" on a recent episode of Grey's Anatomy, for crissakes, even though Sandra Oh is the only remotely interesting thing about that show whose central character is the most self-involved self that ever selved. They're even releasing the album's most intuitive song as a single, and commissioned mixes. Commerical mixes, to boot. We're not talking about a slow-growing Luomo deep house rework or a subtle Tiefschwarz rerub. We're talking about things like a discolicious Eric Kupper mix that keeps the song mostly intact while adding an almost "Bizarre Love Triangle" beat. It's tailored made for you to dance your head off to, and then wake up the next morning and call in to your radio stations to request. It's too late for the UK to embrace the album, but you still have a shot. Do it. Don't make me come down there. I don't want to spank your ass, but I will if I have to.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Viola Wills, "Gonna Get Along Without You Now" (1979)

Randy Quaid. Chris Penn (RIP). Sofia Coppola circa The Godfather, Part 3. It's hard being the lesser part -- or, let's face it, sometimes fatter or uglier part -- of a famous pair or family, eh? Viola Wills may not have a famous relative, but "Gonna Get Along Without You Now" is clearly the lesser cousin of "I Will Survive." Released a year after Gloria's big hit -- although "I Will Survive" didn't hit #1 in the US until 1979, the song first appeared as the b-side to "Substitute," a 12" issued the year before. Poor "Substitute." Talk about being the lesser side, and about having an ironic name -- Viola's song is very much in the same lyrical vein. You dumped me, but I don't need you anyway. Asshole.

While "Gonna Get Along" is usually thought of as a disco track, it really lacks the frantic energy that's typical of the genre. No doubt that's why it's become the lesser cousin: the song doesn't quite have the fierceness that would endear it to people looking for something to blast from the gay pride float full of embittered lovers. Nor, since it trundles along fixated on the same message, does it have enough of a narrative -- first I was afraid, then I grew strong; I used to cry, now I hold my head up high -- that would allow the drag queens to exhibit their full! Dramatic! Range!

But think of that lack as its charm, rather than its drawback. Certainly one way to deal with being dumped is to come across all rabbit chef. I'll tell you where to put those fucking keys. But perhaps this is the other coping mechanism. Of course, much of the song is performative, designed to convince herself that she will do fine (it's "gonna get along," not "I get along without you very well"). But the attitude we're trying for is blasé indifference. But breezy ain't easy, as that Friends episode, in which Monica calls up her ex Richard and leaves a "casual" message only to blow it by saying that she's being breezy, taught us. Best then to not risk conveying breeziness through something as dangerous as actual words. Ah-ha, um-hm. Ah-ha, um-um.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Kate and Anna McGarrigle/Rufus Wainwright featuring Dido, "I Eat Dinner (When The Hunger's Gone)" (1990/2004)

Chinese New Year in my family consists of -- no, is a series of intricate eating rituals. And I know you want nothing more than to get to know me and my family rituals better. So here is a cultural quiz for you to answer true/false to:

1. New Year's Eve
This is the day of the reunion meal. It's a little akin to Thanksgiving, with the common idea being that the family must come together to dine. We usually have steamboat, which is like fondue, except with drain water instead of cheese or chocolate. The reasons for steamboating are many. One: it saves my mom from too much cooking. Two: the act of everyone dipping their uncooked food into a pool of communal broth brings everyone closer together. Together via a case of salmonella, that is.

2. New Year's Day
The first meal, lunch, consists of a relatively spartan spread. Apparently it's best to start the year off on an austere note, the better not to anger the gods or something. We have vegetarian stew with precisely fourteen ingredients, which is the cosmic number for eternal happiness, as well as Chinese wax sausages. Important: everyone has to be sure to have a second bowl of rice. Failure to do so will definitely lead to poverty and starvation the rest of the year.

3. Second Day of the New Year
The biggest meal to "open the new year." Woo! Every life form is represented: fish, meat, shrimp, anguished dolphins (via shark's fin soup), abalone, vegetables. Fish is especially crucial, because that animal had the fortune to be named with a Chinese word that sounds exactly like "excess." Wait -- I think that should read "misfortune."

4. Third Day of the New Year
At dinner on this evening, the meal starts with a serving of monkfish, because it has connotations of both austerity and abundance. It's a oxymoron in animal form, and it's weird the universe hasn't imploded because of it. Twenty courses later, the meal ends, rather surprisingly, with a food fight, to symbolize your willingness to give as well as receive. Taking a monkfish smack in the face is considered especially auspicious.

5. Seventh Day of the New Year
The day is colloquially known as "human day" -- as in, everybody's birthday. This is why the eighth day is a nightmare for stores with a gift return policy. The correct meal for the day is raw fish salad: a big plate of seaweed, shredded carrots, crispy wanton skin, pomelo bits, and, if the restaurant is savvy, several slices of fish so sheer that that they might as well not exist. Each and every ingredient is pun-licious: the reddish carrots symbolize the flowers of fortune blooming forever, or something like that. Everyone has to gather around to toss the salad, which sounds dirty but isn't, all the while shrieking the phrase for "toss!" which happens to sound like "prosper." The Chinese are big on hononyms, obviously.

Let's check your answers.

1 = True. Well, except for the "drain water" part, which was a slight editorial comment. No, I don't especially enjoy steamboating. Could you tell?

2 = All true. Although by "all," I mean "except for that part about fourteeen being a cosmic number." We all know it's fifteen.

3 = True. You can't make this shit up.

4 = False. I made this shit up. Especially the part about the food fight. This ain't Animal House.

5 = Honest, guv, all true, although I guess we don't buy each other presents. Would be nice if we did, though.

Since I've been eating so many meals -- and each loaded not just with calories, but also with equally fattening symbolism -- it's only right that we have not one, but two versions of "I Eat Dinner" today. The first is the original version by Kate and Anna McGarrigle (though it's really only Kate's song), while the second is the cover by Kate's son and Anna's nephew, Rufus Wainwright, with an assist from Dido. From another perspective, it's not an appropriate song for the occasion. Chinese New Year meals are all about togetherness, but "I Eat Dinner" uses the metaphor of a lonely meal as a sign of the absence thereof.

What's absent, predominantly, is romance: in both, the central, heartbreaking lament is "No more candlelight/No more romance/No more smalltalk/When the hunger's gone." In Kate's version, she is eating leftovers "at the kitchen table/With [her] daughter who's thirteen." But far from assuaging her quiet grief, her daughter seems to emphasize it more. It's a courageous thing to admit to, the notion that, finally, her family, or what's left of it, isn't necessarily enough. Indeed, the spectre of the son (let alone the husband) who's not there is a reminder that, someday, that thirteen-year old daughter will grow up and also leave, and Kate will be even more alone.

In Rufus's rendition, the line about the daughter is omitted. Its poignance comes, therefore, from a slightly different place: midway through the song, Rufus, it seems, is no longer alone, as Dido takes over and sings a verse and a chorus. But it quickly becomes apparent, given how she sings the same lines, that they are not alone with each other. I don't know how the song is used in Bridget Jones' Diary (and I don't really care to), but if this was a play, the characters would be both on stage singing together but not share the same space, as if on split screens. The effect only compounds the tragedy: the song in this moment generalizes Rufus's condition, and he becomes one of many lonely souls.

At the end of both songs, a new line to the chorus: "No more candlelight/No more romance/No more small talk/When the plate is clean." The word "clean" echoes with devastating irony: what is usually a pure, pristine word here instead sounds cruelly stark; it ricochets and leaves in its wake only the cold reality of a meal you don't therefore want to finish.