tremble clef

Friday, April 28, 2006

Shiny Grey, "Why (Rob Wilder and Wes Clark Twisted Disco Mix)" (2006)

This is a cock tease of a song. For clumsy, generic foreplay, we begin with huge thumping drums, primed for mixing. All too soon, these give way to the main event: a big, tough squelchy electro floor-filler that's perfect for the weekend. A minute and a half into the track, something familiar rises up, only to be yanked away from us. That whiff of a riff pops up again thirty seconds later, but just as quickly goes away. So tantalizing. Finally finally, three minutes into the track, it returns as a crowd-pleasing breakdown. Ah, it's a sample from The Apprentice: Martha Stewart theme song, otherwise known as "Sweet Dreams."

Cheeky monkey. I like it when you work me like that.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Polly Brown, "So Much In Love" (1973)

Gather round, children. Let me tell you about my own singing career.

Yes, my singing career. It's not just a case of "those who can't, write," you know. Granted, said career was very short, very abbreviated. Over before it began, really. But those who shone briefest, shone brightest.

It started with my being in the school choir during the equivalent of fifth and sixth grades. Of course I was in the choir; have you met me? It was either that or being an altar boy, and I chose the path of least incense. The memory's not what it used to be, so I now don't recall that much about those early singing days. I know we did enter a nation-wide interschool competition on at least one occasion. For the performance, I had to have blush liberally applied to my cheeks, which I'll have you know I fought valiantly against. Yes I did. And I had to wear a red bowtie. I felt pretty, and witty, and gay. I think we sang several numbers, one of which was "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler On The Roof. I'm so grateful for that. Nowadays, whenever I see my friend Cristina Garcia Perez Maria Conchita Sanchez, as I do only every few years, she always dramatically moans about how I get more handsome each time (untrue), how I've grown since we first met each other sixteen years ago (true, in the sideways sense). And then, together, we duet on a few choice verses: "Is this the little boy I carried? Is this the little girl at play? I don't remember getting older, when did they?" I wouldn't be able to carry on without the benefit of my choir training.

Realizing that the red bowtie only brought out the color of my eyes, I retired from my showbiz career after primary school. But my adoring public forced me back into the limelight, albeit by a circuituous route. I became a boy scout. Yes: I was a boy scout. I keep unfolding like a flower, don't I?

You wouldn't think that Baden Powell's teachings allowed for much singing, but you would be wrong. Each year, during the troop's annual camp -- that's "camp" as in "roughing it in tents" -- there would be a Talentime competition. Are you excited yet? Patrol was pitted against patrol in two segments: there was first a music quiz, and then an actual singing competition.

Needless to say, I always ruled so hard on the quiz. As for the singing portion, my patrol didn't just do well, but, children, we revolutionized it in 1983. Before we came along, group after group would get up on the makeshift stage, and mumble embarrassedly through some folk ditty. Well, we were tired of this decidedly amateurish approach. We made a bold decision. We were going to incorporate hand gestures into our performance. Oh my god, etc.. We didn't even care if it resulted in us being beaten to death the next day for high faggotry. We were in it to win it.

We had a stunning rendition of "Bright Eyes (Theme From Watership Down)" lined up. All we needed was some pointy poses. We weren't going to be literal; we only wanted to evoke just the slightest hint of animated bunnies. Under the glare of a lonely torchlight, we sang our little hearts out, pondering how the light that burned so brightly could suddenly burn so pale. And we raised our hands in unison, up to the heavens. Then we lowered them. Then raised them again. It was tres professional and uber moving, if I may say so myself.

Of course we won. More importantly, we raised the bar. The game, it was broughtened. In subsequent years, the other patrols could not help but grudgingly buy in if they wanted to hang with us. They too were going to throw some shapes. But we were ready. Oh, were we ready. The next year, we started planning early, spending months musing over song choice. Uneasy the head that wears the tacky crown. This must have been 1984, so I was obsessed with Culture Club and Colour By Numbers. Perhaps, I thought, we could sing "Black Money," and do an interpretative dance to portray the filthiness of capitalism? But it was too difficult; as hard as I wailed while the other members of the patrol sang the main melody line, I was no Helen Terry. Defeated, we settled for "Changing Every Day," a dubious choice at best, even though we did it well.

Our closest competitor, however, were gaining on us. In a bold masterstroke of evil genius, they sang "So Much In Love." This is a doo-wop, almost acapella number, and thus exactly the right thing to perform. Before that fateful evening, I had never heard it before, and didn't know then that it was originally done by The Tymes, and topped the US charts in 1963. My guess, however, is that our competitors heard the song as a cover version by Art Garfunkel. For some inexplicable reason, Poodlehead's cassette was a hot favorite in the scout troop in those years, and of course where we got "Bright Eyes" from the year before. Furthermore, "So Much In Love" allowed our rivals some supremely naff choreography that crossed the line into sheer genius. As they sang the lyric about being in love, they turned their backs to the audience and wrapped their arms around themselves, as if locked in lovers' embraces. Peter Paul and Mary, this was -- it still hurts to admit this -- even gayer than anything I could dream up. I had been hoist with my own petard at every turn! CURSES!

The results were close; our rivals ended up edging us slightly on the singing portion of the evening. (Frankly, I also blame the biased Russian judge.) Thankfully, I kicked their asses in the quiz segment, and my patrol did end up retaining our overall champion status on Talentime night. Bittersweet, my dears, bittersweet.

Years later, I heard "So Much In Love" again, this time as covered by Polly Brown in a wonderful girlgroup style. It's still brilliant, even if it reminds me of my own failure. And just last week, I ran into a member of that rival patrol, someone who was in fact the mastermind of their performance, the Nomi to my Cristal. In a record store, no less. We could have conquered the world together. Instead, we exchanged pleasantries, circled each other warily, and retreated to plan our next face off. Someday I will have my revenge.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

BWO, "Chariots Of Fire" (2006)

What makes this new Bodies Without Organs song good: the classic bouncy, rubbery disco bassline that dares you not to punch the air in time with it. The lyric, which is joyously inspirational in a completely empty and meaningless way (we're going up, up, up, in a winged chariot! Where? Heaven? Are we dead? Feels good if we are, woo!). And, of course, that poptastic chorus: "Oh, oh, chariots of fire, higher and higher, ascending above!/Oh, oh, chariots of fire, share my desire, creation of love!" Like all naggingly catchy tunes, part of its charm is that it sounds vaguely like some other song -- in this case, the disco chestnut "Everlasting Love" -- while persuading you to forget that fact.

What makes it unspeakably great: the chorus is always sung twice. Whenever we go from the first to the second iteration, Martin does something very simple but mindbendingly amazing: he sings the "Oh, oh" just an octave higher. Other than illustrating the whole "higher and higher" conceit, this little trick inexplicably but completely lifts the song into a whole other stratosphere of brilliance. And then there's that short burst of pizzicato strings in the middle of the second verse, and, finally, when we get the chorus again at the end, the band throws in a counter-melody to accompany us as the song fades out: "It's a brand new day/Things will go my way/Every night I pray/Everytime I say..." As if they hadn't already done enough for us.

And what makes it a bit hilarious: at the 1:34 mark, it sounds like Martin is singing "If anus sirree/To call Virgin Mary."

Monday, April 24, 2006

Le Sport, "If Neil Tennant Was My Lover" (2006)

"If Neil Tennant was my lover": the title phrase leads one to expect this song, by Swedish electropop duo Le Sport (née Eurosport, until a TV channel with the same name cracked their knuckles menacingly), to be a massive, sustained knee-slapper of a joke. Surely there would be lines that go, "Would he beg for release with every rough kiss/And ask me what he had done to deserve this?" or at the very least a "so hard" gag?

And yes, there are a few moments in the track when Le Sport get their little digs in, like when they shall I put this delicately? Well, they wonder: when you put a Swede in front of an Englishman, does the latter turn, um, aggressively French? "If Neil Tennant was my lover, would he copy his keys? Would he stand on his knees?"

But such nudging winks are few. The song, surprisingly, turns out to be a fairly somber meditation, I think -- or, since its lyric is quite sparse, "allows us to read it as being" -- about fame, privacy, homosexuality, and, finally, power differences in relationships. "If Neil Tennant was my lover, would he meet my friends? Would he call my name, while out on the dancefloors, or would he" As those first lines suggest, Le Sport is quite seriously thinking about what it might mean to date someone famous and gay. Would dancing with Neil Tennant be any different from dancing alone? Would dating him be as good as dating no one, if all you two do is stay home together in a bubble, away from your pals? If these things are happening, what's the reason for them anyway? Neil's technically out: surely his refusal to meet your friends isn't because of the closet? Is it just because he is openly gay but still desirous of privacy? Does his hesitation about giving you a set of his housekeys just stem from his nervousness about having you around the antiques, or does he just not love you? Does his fame just mean that he wants to be extra-careful about who he's seen with? Can all these reasons be disentangled from each other? Ultimately: can such a relationship ever be one between equals? "If Neil Tennant was my lover, would he do me no harm? Would he put on his charm?" Would the relationship ever escape the dynamic that comes from having one person be so powerful and famous, such that the other has to be "one of his puppets," whether or not that was his intention, or the other's desire?

As the song goes on, the rhyme scheme and questions fall apart: "If Neil Tennant was my lover, would, no. I don't think he would do that to me." The vocals get increasingly processed and autotuned, and more and more voices join in, creating a jumble that perhaps approximates the confused internal debate that's going on. One line does finally emerge from the chaos: "Oh, would he be my man, and stand up and fight for me?" In the end, that's the only thing you can do to stop the doubting: you have to stop asking the questions that drive you crazy ("no, no"), and just have the sort of faith and hope ("I don't think he would do that to me") that can be reduced to a simple plea (stand up, and fight for me).

This may not be the best track on Le Sport's new debut album Euro Deluxe Dance Party. (That would be, in my view, "Every Lovesong," a deceptively simple and bouncy track that, in its second half, opens up into a glorious cascade of synth riffs and harmonies.) But by imagining what it might be like if Neil actually lives out the scenarios of Pet Shop Boys songs like "Rent," "In Private," or "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk" -- not, disingenously, as he tends to do, as the kept one, but as the more powerful keeper -- this track really pays tribute to a band that obviously has inspired Le Sport tremendously. This might seem like a banal conclusion to reach. Of course it's a tribute; you only have to look at the title (or also consider the title of another track from the album, "It's Not The End Of The World," or, really, the spirit of any of their titles), or listen to the synthpop production and melodies that come straight from Chris Lowe's book! But, I've been suggesting, the tribute runs deeper: not simply a song that namechecks Neil, or even makes him the target of a cheeky joke, "If Neil Tennant Was My Lover" asks questions that are very Pet Shop Boys in nature, and thus turns out to be a more unpredictable, and therefore interesting, kind of homage.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Little Birdy, "Six Months In A Leaky Boat" (2005)

I was never much for air guitar. But then again I didn't meet this song until recently.

"This song" being: Australian band Little Birdy -- of which I know very little, and therefore will lazily compare to Garbage, just because they're a rock band fronted by a cool sneery woman -- covering Split Enz's "Six Months In A Leaky Boat." Covering it by adding a more propulsive beat that relies on electric guitars, rather than the acoustic ones (and new wavy synth sounds) on the original, in a manner that will recall, in this day and age, The Veronicas or Kelly as produced by Max Martin. But smartly retaining those divine handclaps: six months in a leaky boat, plap-plap, plap-plap! And with a sneaky middle bit where you think it's all over, only to find that we're coming back for an encore.

Taken from She Will Have Her Way: The Songs of Tim and Neil Finn, a compilation that finds "Australian and New Zealand's finest female singer/songwriters paying tribute" to the Finn Brothers. I'm not sure why that condition was imposed, but it means that the majority of the songs get reinterpreted as slightly wet and overly-sensitive ballads. On the plus side, that just means that this energetic track stands out even more.

Now I'm off to smash a hotel room. Air smash, that is.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Herbert, "Those Feelings" (2006)

Giirrrrrl, there's trouble in the Herbert/Siliciano household, I tell you. Why, the other night Dani was all pouty and yelling at the same time, if that's even possible, because she had finally heard the almost finished version of Matthew's Scale album. (Warning: link contains big giant head.) Yeah, I know, right, you'd think that she would have heard it, what with singing on most of the tracks and all that, but apparently, and I stress apparently, Matthew was putting it together in bits and pieces so it's like she hadn't really heard heard it in all one piece. Suspicious? You tell me.

So anyway, Dani's all upset because the album is sooo totally Ruby Blue Part 2, like...Oh, you know, it just sounds like the sequel to the Roisin Murphy album that Matthew produced last year. Keep up, dear. So she's all like, hey assface, because she's volatile like that, and all, what the hell, this is just like Ruby Blue Part 2. Like I said, right? And Matthew is like, baby, why you fretting? He's like, I love how the nujazz style turned out with Roisin and all the critics loved it, so it seems right to continue in that vein, and in fact people are all like, hey, here at last is a Herbert record I dig. And he goes on, all, sweetie, finally it's an album where I'm not covering for my lack of melodic sense by walking round the house recording the sound of sizzling bacon or my own farts, so babe, why can't you be happy for me? And I know he was going to say that writing with Roisin had rubbed off on him, but then thought better of that phrasing.

And Dani is all, like, you little shit, you're just making me feel like you have another woman. Like I'm totally wife #2. I know! She did so say that too! And Matthew is all, c'mon, we actually made your solo album Likes... first, so it's more like Ruby Blue was following your template, right? Right. And Dani is all shrieky now, all I-don't-care and shit. Like what's the world gonna think? Can people even tell us apart? Here's a clue, world: Me, Dani, she, fucking Roisin bag. Matthew is all calm down, but Dani's on a roll, saying bastard, you do "If We're In Love" with Roisin, and then on this album you now have this other song called "We're In Love"? And Matthew is all clever, pointing out, yeah, but you see, how with Roisin there was a "if," but with this song it's the two of us and there's totally no "if," cause we're totally in love, right? Do you see?! But Dani is all fuck you, it doesn't change the fact that you're treating me and Roisin like we're fucking interchangeable, like, what are we, just two models in your line of, erm, models? Like disposable sex dolls in your goddamn harem? And Matthew is getting freaked and irritated, like, babe, be reasonable, you're not even making sense. So god, you can imagine, Dani is now furious, all I'm unreasonable? Bitch, you did not just say that, why don't you fuck off to Roisin's side, which I'm sure is oh so reasonable. So there're doors slamming, and Matthew has to slink off back to the studio to finish the album's last track -- called "Wrong," ha ha -- by doing the vocals himself for the first time ever. And then when he got home, of course it was the couch, ooh!

Sigh. Poor things. So upsetting. Let's think of happier things, shall we? "Those Feelings": from Scale, a gentle, plaintive ballad backed by Matthew's glitchy, gurgling beats. "You're the best idea I ever had, never had, never had/Now we're strangers on each other's photographs/Used to write your name there in the dark, inside my heart, in my heart/Now my head can't even spell." Erm, maybe not so happy after all. And it's a bit like Roisin's "Through Time" or "The Closing Of The Doors," but you totally didn't hear that from me.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Ark, "One Of Us Is Gonna Die Young" (2004)

When The Ark -- Swedish purveyors of stomping glampop-rock -- are mediocre, they are just about comparable to a band that they've supported on tour: The Darkness. But when they're on, they're bloody brilliant, and can give Scissor Sisters a glittery run for their money. (Of course, having released their first album in 2000, The Ark actually predates both of these bands.)

Two of my three favorite Ark songs are slow builders: "It Takes A Fool To Remain Sane," and "This Piece Of Poetry Is Meant To Do Harm" both keep us on the edge of our seats as, respectively, synths and guitars build and build, making us wait for the full-on gallop to begin. (Sadly, "Piece Of Poetry" fades out way too soon.) Hitting you much more quickly is the third: "One Of Us Is Gonna Die Young," a single off of the band's third album State Of The Ark, which was released in Europe four days before 2004 expired, but just now hitting American shores. The track begins with a drum beat and an urgent keyboard run that might put you in mind of Madonna's "Jimmy Jimmy." And when Ola Salo sings, you could almost swear that he's swiping the tune of his verses from "Teenage Kicks." That's right: this sounds like a melodic punk anthem sung to a 80s synthpop beat, topped with a song title that, like many of the band's other efforts, Jim Steinman would be proud of. I'll so there (*makes devil horns*).

Monday, April 17, 2006

Skye Edwards, "Tell Me About Your Day" (2006)

I remember how, in 1988, when I bought the cassette of Everything But The Girl's Idlewild, I was strangely intrigued by the way the lyrics were printed in the inset. The songs, instead of being presented like poems, with appropriate line breaks, were written out as if they were little stories. "When I was ten, I thought my brother was God. He'd lie in bed and turn out the light with a fishing rod. I learned the names of all his football team, and I still remembered them when I was nineteen." Even when a line was repeated in the song, as it invariably would be if it were part of a chorus, the lyric sheet didn't represent this. "When I was seventeen, London meant Oxford Street."

In retrospect, of course, it's a pretty banal thing to be impressed by. It's not as if Ben and Tracey were the first or only band to have done this. But somehow, the way they reimagined the Idlewild songs as, essentially, little prose poems, made them feel much more intimate to me. They seemed like private conversations, whispered by Tracey and Ben, to a teenage me.

That conversational quality is much harder to achieve in song than it might seem. In "Tell Me About Your Day," Skye Edwards -- now away from Morcheeba, and her voice no longer dragged down by their often ponderous triphoppy textures -- sings a song to her lover. They are apart: "I'm so far, so far away from you. All this distance spoils the view." So they talk. She tells him about her mundane day-to-day adventures, and this brings them closer. "I'm in New Orleans. It's just like you'd imagine, places selling jambalaya and cheap voodoo dolls. Old guys busking, little black boys dancing. They've got beer bottle tops on the bottom of their shoes. Everyone is drinking but me. It's St Patrick's Day. Drunken people on the streets, faces painted grassy green. In the French Quarter, a blonde in a red bra waves from the window. It's like a slow motion movie."

In real life, nobody speaks in rhymes. Our lines never scan perfectly, fit exactly into a meter. Those things have to go; indeed, they are nowhere in Skye's song. "As I was walking around, I came across a thrift store. I found a cute dress in there, hanging on the damp brick wall. It's a little bit old but glitzy. I like it. I'm gonna wear it at the show tonight for sure." So there are no real rhymes, just near ones (store/wall). A phrase like "I like it" gets thrown out casually: it hardly fits the meter, but it feels right, because instinctive. Some of the singing is almost scat-like. The instrumentation help tremendously: there is a slinky clarinet motif, playing hazily, and the drums skitter lightly, softly across the surface of the song.

All the touches are so light, so deft, that it's easy to feel that the song is being spontaneously sung. We can barely sense the tranquil recollection that must have come later. For these three minutes, it really just seems like she's simply speaking to us. "Tell me all about your day. So good to hear from you." Tell me bout your day. Feels good to speak to you.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Busface featuring Sophie Ellis Bextor, "Circles" (2004)

Sorry. Been swamped with work. Service will resume soon. In the meantime:


There's no need to "keep me IN THE LOOP." I don't especially want to be IN THE LOOP. I don't like being IN THE LOOP. Indeed, please stop saying IN THE LOOP LOOP THE LOOP LOOPY LOOP LOOP LOOP ARGH. A loop just goes round and around in circles. At some point a loop becomes a noose -- as in, the kind of thing you hang yourself with. So, no, no thanks.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Erasure, "Spiralling" (Acoustic Version, 2006)/(Orchestral Version, 1987)

This is the back cover of Erasure's new album Union Street.

I would like to think I have an elegant way with words, so: What. The. Fuck?

The artist, who I would estimate is five and neither left- nor right-handed, is certainly doing Andy Bell no favors. He gave the singer these weirdly upturned eyebrows, and a half-opened drooling idiot mouth that exposes no lower teeth, all of which seems to say, "Hi, I'm special like the Olympics, and in my biopic, I'd like to be played by Rosie O'Donnell as she rides the bus with her sister."

But that's nothing compared to the way poor Vince Clark has been rendered. He's no stunner in real life, but here he looks like a midget Gollum with Down's Syndrome, dressed in a sailor suit. Or Michael Stipe. Seriously, what in the name of flying monkeys is going on? Why is Vince so tiny? Is this some sort of comment about who's the top in the relationship? But it's not just that fetus Vince is small next to Andy, but he's apparently wee compared to the guitar. Maybe it's just that he's "all about the music." And where are the eyebrows? Did Andy use them all up? Shouldn't he see someone about the odd shape of his noggin? Do Mulder and Scully know that The Flukeman is terrorizing the world again?

(Now watch me find out that Vince has some crippling disease in real life, and I'll feel like a yooge asshole.)

Perhaps I shouldn't be kicking Erasure at this point. The band is clearly on a career downswing, with neither their last few releases nor Andy's recent solo album doing especially well. This causes me some pain, because they used to be good. Indeed, I was recently trying to pinpoint exactly when the band started to decline, and I think I have it scientifically narrowed down to 1998. 2005's Nightbird had its moments, but for the most part it's been steadily downhill since Cowboy (1997). That had obviously rousing tracks like "Rain" and "Don't Say Your Love Is Killing Me," and buried gems like "How Can I Say," with its lovely whispered backing vocals. (Tellingly, the new single is an acoustic reworking of "Boy," which debuted on Cowboy.) But he next record was the truly atrocious Loveboat (2000), and then came Other People's Songs (2003). It's never a good sign when a band issues an album of covers, even as a stop-gap record, and particularly when these are done in plinky-ponk karaoke fashion, but...Wait. There is no "but" to that sentence. My bad.

And now, in 2006, we have Union Street, an album of self-covers, in which old songs are acoustically reworked, or redone as vaguely country numbers. Mmm, that hand job sure feels good. This project puts Erasure in the fine company of Simply Red and Bon Jovi. And like with those bands, the predictable rhetoric justifying such a project won't startle anybody. So Andy says that the new stripped down arrangements "show the songs in a different light...that they could work on whatever instrument, synthesisers or guitars," while Vince feels that "there were songs on our albums that had been missed as songs."

I'm never a big fan of this line of thinking, for a couple of reasons. First, it's incredibly clichéd. Second, I'm not even sure it's true, or a needed recontextualization in Erasure's case. I know that the band has been accused of many things in their career, but has "a lack of songcraft" really been a persistent theme? In this day and age, are there still people who think of synth- or electropop as inherently unconcerned with song? It's not like Andy and Vince make chopped and screwed hip-hop, for god's sake. If anything, the opposite is true, and Erasure has often been deemed not well-produced enough. I would wager that there are more reviews talking about their teeny, toy-like, and dated 80s synthpop sound than there are articles about them not focusing on songs and melodies. (Sure, there's probably press saying that these songs aren't good songs, but that's different. And there are also troubling assumptions in play here about what kinds of songs sound "teeny" [synthpop] and what sounds "butch" [electro], but that's also a different matter for another post.) Finally, the idea that turning a song acoustic will reveal its "songness" seems rather insulting to the audience. I can hear a song "through" the production; I'm not dense. This idea further assumes that "song" can really be separated from "production", which is in many ways a rockist assumption, as if a song is always the basic unit, written on guitar or piano, which the production then "dresses up." To subscribe to -- to make an entire album predicated on -- the notion that "stripping" a song down to guitar will reveal its songcraft therefore bows down before, rather than challenges, one tenet of rockism.

(That's possibly one crucial difference between Erasure and Pet Shop Boys: the latter is more likely to mock this rockist idea and release an album called Plugged, in which they take acoustic songs and hi-NRGizes them, than they would strip down originally elaborate tracks. Indeed, maybe that's what the Liza Minnelli album was, or their cover of U2. PS: Neil and Chris, please don't prove me wrong.)

But when we get right down to it, I'm not even sure that Union Street does that great of a job of subscribing to and buttressing such problematic assumptions about "songcraft." In other words, it doesn't even succeed on the flawed terms it sets itself. The album, puzzlingly, selects "Piano Song" for "acousticization," though the original is already quite sparsely arranged, as its name suggests, on Wild! Likewise, the album includes "Spiralling," previously from The Circus. It remains a lovely song, and the new acoustic version is pretty enough. But is it any more revealing of "songcraft" than the orchestral version of the song that already appeared in 1987, on The Two Ring Circus, or even the original? I say no, and ultimately Union Street just comes across as unilluminating.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Saint Etienne, "Burnt Out Car (Original Version)" (2006)

I've walked around for years declaring that "Burnt Out Car" is one of my favorite Saint Etienne songs, if not my absolute favorite; given how special the group is in my heart, that's saying something. And yet I only realized over the weekend that maybe I never fully misunderstood the song.

As many followers of the group know, the song first appeared in 1996: first as a fanclub-only promo single, then on the remix collection Casino Classics, and a year later on the Japan-only compilation Continental. In an amusing (but not isolated) quirk, the "first" and "original" version that most of us heard was already a remix (and denoted as such), since the version on all of these formats was the "Balearico mix." Balearico was, of course, Brain Higgins and Matt Gray, who would later go on to become part of the pop-producing collective known as Xenomania. But now, ten years later, the original version of "Burnt Out Car" is finally seeing the light of day, on the fanclub-only anthology Nice Price! (probably still order-able from, so I'm sure I don't know what you're waiting for).

I can't say I prefer the original, but it's definitely a revelation. The Balearico mix was a perfect slice of Europop: bouncy beat; a gurgling bass; a couple of keyboard riffs, including one that is almost the real chorus, that are insistent without being annoying. The original, in contrast, is slower, and backed mostly by a solemn and initially minimal synth wash, and a thudding and almost dissonant beat that picks up only in the chorus. And above it all, Sarah's voice seems somewhat disembodied, like she is singing from another room.

Or beyond the grave. Listening to this new (or old) arrangement, I heard a few lines from the lyric, which I've always loved, in a totally new way: "A change of hair color/Clairol baby blonde/I'm not quite used to it/It never takes too long/No make-up, no earrings/Nothing to identify me." I've always thought that this was a breezy verse; in the remix, Sarah sounds like she's running away somewhere, and shedding her identity -- dyeing her hair, removing all accessories -- to make the process easier. But now, with the ghostlier arrangement, I wonder if the narrator of the song is actually dead.

It would make a certain amount of sense. The title of the song, after all, is "Burnt Out Car," which I'd never pondered fully before. What gets pulled out of such vehicles are bodies -- one of which, in this case may be unidentifiable. Some of the other parts of the lyric begin to look different in this light: "The papers/ the photos/Things were found in the fire," for one, now seems much creepier. This reading would also fit with the band's themes from the era. Speaking to Record Collector, Bob and Pete agreed that Tiger Bay, their 1994 album, was obsessed with death, mostly because it was meant as "folk meets techno," which "needs a bit of death." (We might add that the b-sides from this period, logically enough, were as well: "Hate Your Drug.") Although "Burnt Out Car" appeared two years after Tiger Bay, it may have been recorded in the same period; regardless, it possibly continues the band's morbid interest. "Burnt Out Car," I now think, is the band's "Leader Of The Pack," or at least part 2 of "Like A Motorway," perhaps the same story retold from a dead lover's perspective.

That it took me ten years to alight on this possibility might make me a bad, inattentive fan. And yet, I now listen to the Balearico mix again, and it sounds every bit as breezy and carefree as I remember it being. Even the new light shed has somehow not taken away from one way of experiencing "Burnt Out Car." It's not surprising. Two sides -- one dark, one light -- of the same coin. Both versions, ultimately, speak of a desire for escape, for a new Clairol baby blonde start. In the remix, that new start is escapist, almost utopian; in the original, the escape may be death itself.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Marie Serneholt, "I Love Making Love In The Morning" (2006)

I'm eleven, and Sheena Easton seems like the greatest pop star ever. I walk around the house shrieking out "9 To 5 (Morning Train)" at the top of my lungs. "Night time is the right time, we make love," I crow. "That is his and my time, we take off!" Probably around the time of my nineteenth rendition of the song, my sister gets completely fed up. Turning to me, she sneeringly demands, with all the weight of being five years older: "Do you even know what 'making love' means?" Well, sure. Technically. Even at that tender age. But I hadn't really made the connection that that's what Sheena was saying. Surely she didn' Gross. To my sister's great satisfaction, I was completely mortified into changing my tune.

"I love making love in the morning!" There is much less shame now in me walking around belting out such a sentiment. (Untrue as it may be. I'm more of a nightime lover, baby.) This is especially because Marie, the former A*Teen, sings the song with a kind of pure innocence, and you barely notice the more sexual references ("I feel you deep within," ahem). The old-fashioned production -- typical of a lot of the tracks on the album -- helps in this regard: the string arrangement recalls somewhat The Love Unlimited Orchestra's "Love Theme," while the "la la las" in the background come across as weirdly asexual, perhaps like something from one of Kylie's 50s-influenced records from her more USO days, or even better, Olivia Newton-John. "I can't help myself! I love making love in the morning! Let the sunshine in!" Marie might as well be declaring what she's having for breakfast. "I love chocolate milk! And some cheerios!"

Marie's whole album, Enjoy The Ride, is really quite disposably fantastic pop. If there is indeed, as Into The Groove cheekily implies, a Celebrity Death Match between "girls from successful Scandinavian pop acts with 'Mari' in their name[s]," then I'm definitely voting for Marie Serneholt, although this is not the place to express my bewilderment at why Marit Larsen, whom I find totally boring, is getting so much love. (Oops. Just did.) Marie's record starts with quite a punch: there's the title track, which is underpinned by a hilariously apt horse-galloping beat that mutates into a faux drum-and-bass rhythm; a surprisingly unkitschy use of the "Good, The Bad, And The Ugly" motif, continuing the Western theme, in "Wasted Love"; the earwormy "That's The Way My Heart Goes" single, of course, and the equally catchy "I Need A House." The middle of the record is totally 90s pop: aside from "I Love...", we also get the Britneyesque "The Boy I Used To Know," which has a Brother Beyond-cy title and glorious shouty backing vocals straight out of an S Club 7 track (specifically, this one). There's also the so-straightfaced-that-it's-almost-not-cheesy "Calling All Detectives," which takes a metaphor and extends it to death, a la Rachel Stevens' "Negotiate With Love": "Calling all detectives, calling FBI! You can say what you want, the evidence never lies. Calling all detectives, calling CSI! You can say what you want, the evidence never lies....You do the crime, you gotta do the time. Case closed!" And the slushy closing track, "Oxygen," develops the whole you-are-the-thing-that-makes-me-grasp-for-air trope better, much as it pains me to say this, than Alexis Strum's clumsy "It Could Be You." I'll be sick of it next week, but for now this is a fab pop album.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Skin, "Movin'"/"Falling For You" (2006)

Much to my own surprise, one of my favorite albums of 2003 turned out to be Skin's Fleshwounds.

Skin (real name: Deborah. Hee!) is best known as the former lead singer of Skunk Anansie, the British punk-rock band that sold quite a fair amount of records in the 90s. Just not to me. In theory I liked them fine: it was a band led by a skinhead woman with a really great voice! As long as I never ran into Skin in a dark alley, or even a chichi party, I was "down" with "that." But in practice: no. First of all, I was too busy listening to handbag house in the 90s, and pretty averse to rock music except, possibly, when it showed up on my Now That's What I Call Music compilations. Second: that band name. I know that "Anansie" is a West African god and folk hero, and "'Skunk' added to make the name nastier." But mostly it just makes me think of a poor Dalmatian I used to know who had an uncanny knack for always getting skunked; thus, no matter how many tomato-juice baths his beleaguered dad gave him, he always smelled adorably foul. And he seemed to know it too, or at least that was why, by my interpretation, he always seemed vaguely depressed. Oh, Jeffrey.

Um, anyway, given that history, I was thus pretty startled to discover how much I loved Fleshwounds. (I've posted a song from the album before, but that was for the sake of making some sad pun, and I'm not even sure the Electronic cover is one of the album's highlights.) But then again, Fleshwounds is quite different from anything Skunk Anansie put out, being a largely bruised and vulnerable-sounding record. This was even true of the loud rock numbers, like the singles "Trashed" and "Faithfulness" (which received a trance mix from Tiesto, for chrissakes); a close listen to them confirmed the rumor that Skin was going through a breakup while making the album.

And it was certainly true of the quiet ballads, of which my favorite is "Burnt Like You." With an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, Skin sings a bewitching lyric that appears to be from the point of view of a faghag who watches her "swollen-in-the-gut" gay friend destroy himself, and who herself is perhaps no stranger to the same tendency: "No, I can't watch the same mistake/Waiting for the boys to turn out straight/No, I can't run the same dog race/And get burnt like you." If you can listen to the way Skin's voice dextrously skim the high notes on the chorus without feeling all the hairs on your body stand up, you're a better man, or a slightly less hirsute woman, than I am. (Memo to Will Young: forget "Don't Cha." This is the song you should be covering.)

The new album, Fake Chemical State, is a return to Skunk Anansie's sound: harder, spikier, more raging. It's thus less my cup of tea than Fleshwounds is, but it still offers some delights. The soaring, anthemic "Movin,'" with its rousing drumming, is one of the loud rock tracks I like -- if U2 came up with it critics would be creaming in their pants -- and lyrically also serves as Skin's declaration that she's left whatever anguish she's suffered behind. "That's where I'm going to/Some place that's far from you/I'm movin' on." And predictably, I'm partial to the simple slow burner that closes the record. "I'm falling for you," Skin croons; a guitar chimes behind her, a phrase behind, and everything's beautifully swirly. In that moment, I can even block out the uncomfortable Celine Dionesque echoes -- falling into, falling for, whatever, it's too close -- of the song title.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Permer, "Summerdays Attract The Pain" (2002)

For too long, the humble sticker that gets slapped on album covers has toiled in obscurity. It gets no credit, it gets no love. Today is the day that we break the silence, and right the injustice. Via a rambling ode, no less.

The neglect of the sticker contrasts with the attention that has been paid to all the other components of the album package (by now "album" is mostly synonymous with "CD"; no doubt at some point in the future, the album and thus its package will even cease to exist, but that's another post). The sleeve and its artwork, is of course carefully pored over. Certainly by the designers and artists themselves (well, unless you're a band intent on seeing if you can get away with smearing literal shit on construction paper and calling it "sleeve artwork," or Bon Jovi), and oftentimes by critics and fans too ("Paul, he dead!"). Even leaving aside physical changes -- the way a CD used to sit in a case which then nestles inside a longbox, for instance -- the jewel case itself has been deconstructed, its possibilities thoroughly explored. I think, for example, of how Sandy Lam and many other Chinese artists turned the back of the case into the front, or how Pet Shop Boys transformed one case into an orange Lego brick and sandblasted another.

But that sticker on the jewel case? Where are the expensive Taschen books devoted to 1001 Jewel Case Stickers (Now With Scratch 'n' Sniff Properties)?

The reason why the sticker tends to be overlooked is that it is both a part, and yet not a part, of the CD packaging. It's like a Derridean supplément! (Sorry. Not sure what came over me.) We're usually encouraged to think of the sticker as something that the artist doesn't fully endorse -- or is indifferent to, or even vaguely ashamed of. Yet, at the same time, the sticker is something that, of course, record companies use, but even artists and designers contend with.

Artists sometimes would like us to ignore that sticker because it carries information that range from the boring to the crass, all of which performers usually need to put out there, and yet also want to disavow. In the category of "boring": "Pay No More Than £2." "With the #1 hit 'We Belong Together'!" But then again, to many fans, no information is ever boring. We scour stickers for hints, clues, further information. When Madonna's Confessions was about to be released, some people waited with bated breath to see what songs the label would list the CD as "including," since this would be one indication of what singles had been picked. It's not always accurate, of course: some copies of the Sugababes' Taller In More Ways said the album "features Push the Button, Ugly, and Obsession," but the last looks unlikely to be a single.

And the crass? I remember that my vinyl copy of The Banderas' Ripe had an utterly shameless sticker that, I swear, said something like:

Produced by
stephen hague, who's worked with

That's vulgar enough to be hysterically funny. I mean, I love that Banderas album, but it's like they were targeting fans of the Pet Shop Boys...who are also myopic, or even more preferably, legally blind.

A little less embarrassing is the CD cover of my (promo) copy of Permer's Summerdays Attract The Pain, which boasts a sticker proclaiming that the Swedish musician makes "addictive, minor-key, electro-dance-pop for fans for fans of St. Etienne, Stars, Pet Shop Boys, and The Notwist from leader of Swedish duo WALTZ FOR DEBBIE." And he does: the title track is a perfectly lovely slice of Europop that could come before "Burnt Out Car" in a mixtape. Given that the bottom of the the label lists contact information, this sticker is clearly a record company deed. I don't know if Martin Permer would blanche at being promoted in such a blatant way, but perhaps he wouldn't be too ashamed to wear his influences on his album sleeve. He is Swedish. I would like to be able to say that the sticker did its job and was the sole thing that hooked me on the CD (because, c'mon, PetShopBoysSaintEtienneandStars? It's like whoever wrote that sticker was out to make me his bitch. And I even have that Waltz for Debbie CD). But the truth is more banal: I first heard a Permer track on a Parasol compilation CD, and was already intrigued when I found the CD. (The price sticker, which is a whole other kettle of fish, on the back of the CD reminds me where: at Encore Records in Ann Arbor, for $7.55.)

Anyway, because stickers often convey information that's either blah or nakedly PRish -- they are like mini press releases, really, except harder to scrap off, more not too different from PR agents after all, HA! -- artists don't often embrace them officially. But I think they would be disingenous to claim that such stickers are always record company additions after-the-fact. The artwork published on the net for Pet Shop Boys' "I'm With Stupid" already includes the sticker -- which, like any good fan, I immediately squinted at until I could determine that the b-side is called "The Resurrectionist." And when the sleeve for Girls Aloud's Chemistry was revealed, one disappointed fan at the Popjustice boards pointed out how it almost looks like there's a missing girl in the top right hand corner. To which another wag suggested that the empty space was probably just for the inevitable "features three Top 10 hits" sticker. Funny, and probably true. It at least raises the possibility that the sticker is more a part of an album cover design than the official position might suggest.

Seriously: supplément.

If it's not apparent by now: I like those stickers. In countries that put out CDs in shrinkwrap, the sticker is usually stuck on the plastic. I can tell you that some people will actually rip the shrinkwrap off, and then cut around the edges of the sticker and save it. Perhaps he needs them in order to remember exactly what the album "features," how many of its hits were "#1!", or who to contact at the record company should he want his money back. All he knows is that he needs that sticker.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Husky Rescue, "Sleep Tight Tiger" (2004)

Welcome to the world, which you've been in for, what, three days now, and it must seem very wondrous to you, as it did to me then, and for the most part it is indeed so. I wish I could write you a poem, one to wish you, say, "a skilled/Vigilant, flexible/Unemphasised, enthralled/Catching of happiness," but I don't have that way with words. Resigned to being a borrower, and if I were closer, I would try something more modest, perhaps sing you a lullaby: sleep tight tiger, sweet dreams till tomorrow, I love you love you love you first thing in the morning, the day time, the night time, when the angels are calling, they whisper, whisper in the top of my tongue, the tiny little words that tickle your ear drum. Because I'm sure your mommies need sleep as much as you do, and you're like them too in that, when you wake, each and every time, you wake to love.