tremble clef

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.


  • Excellent review, though I have to say I love the new version of "Rock Me Gently." It's all a bit of a cash cow though, isn't it?

    PS: Does Vince have eyebrows in real life? I think the problem is that those drawings look TOO real. I say that lovingingly, of course.

    By Blogger xolondon, at 7:31 PM  

  • Ha. We should send Vince some eyebrow pencils. Lovingly, of course.

    "Rock Me Gently" is pretty good, although at some points the vocals are a bit too earnest (Andy, emoting: "with a hole IN MY HEAD!"). The track I'm iffiest about is "Stay With Me." Some times I think it's quite lovely. Other times the new Celticesque arrangement makes me want to laugh out loud, because I picture Andy dancing around like a radical fairie at a Lilith Fair.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 11:54 PM  

  • Totally in agreement on the Stay With Me -- it's gorgeous until the Uillean pipes (or whatever they are) come in. Then I feel that Andy's trying to bed a Riverdancer.

    By Anonymous esque, at 12:15 AM  

  • All this being said, I do believe that _Other People's Songs_ outsold _Disco 3_ -- at least in the US.

    By Anonymous esque, at 12:18 AM  

  • "Andy's trying to bed a Riverdancer"

    ...which we all know is inadvisable, on account of their crazy flailing legs.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 12:26 AM  

  • But the PSB had an 'acoustic' phase too, didn't they? Although fortunately, it constisted mostly in them performing some songs live with Neil playing a guitar (I remember they did this with Rent and Always On My Mind.) And if I remember correctly, Neil even went on with the same tired, clichéd "we want to prove that our songs work..." argument. That and well, Release.

    I pretty much share your irritation with this tendency some pop groups have to prove they write 'good' songs that stand up by themselves as stripped-down melodic/harmonic structures. As if a good production job wasn't enough to make a song great. For instance, I hated Frente's Bizzarre Love Triangle. Sorry but without the phenomenal synth strings right before the chorus and Hook's baseline the song just sucks.

    By Blogger daavid, at 12:47 AM  

  • If I remember right, PSB have done "Rent" and "Was It Worth It" acoustically on tour, and a verse of "Always OMM" that way (before having it burst forth with technicolor goodness). And they do have one "unplugged version" -- of "Decadence." But I don't think they have explicitly talked about these arrangements as their way of bringing the "song" out; with Release's "Home and Dry," for example, I think Chris has talked more about it being an attempt at a different songwriting structure (having a riff that basically just repeats and repeats and writing a song over that), without really implying that this was a more authentic or better structure. Maybe I'm indulging in some wishful thinking here, but I do think that PSB have talked about their acoustic/more rockish songs in more sophisticated ways than Erasure have. That's my story and I'm sticking to it, heh.

    One recent song that I worry about being overpraised simply because it got "acousticized" is "Heartbeats," which you've written about, daavid. I like Jose Gonzalez, and his version is nice, but I have a sneaking feeling that some critics overvalue him precisely because, in their eyes (though maybe not in Jose's since, after all, he sings all his songs that way), he is taking these "disposable pop songs" ("Heartbeats," but also "Hand On Your Heart") and showing that they can "work on their own," etc. To which I have to say: if you listen to Kylie's original or The Knife's version and never realize that these are "songs that could work on a guitar," than you're really not a very astute "rock critic."

    By Blogger Brittle, at 3:41 PM  

  • hahahahaha -- ERASURE DRAWING! So funny. xo C

    By Anonymous colleen, at 9:49 AM  

  • erasure drawing will give me nightmares, thanks. why am i having such a hard time liking vince clarke these days, it's time to retire i think.

    By Anonymous PopMuse, at 11:37 AM  

  • Thank your lucky stars that they weren't nude drawings. No eyebrows there, either.*

    *I don't even know what this means.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 5:11 PM  

  • By Blogger Xu千禧, at 3:57 PM  

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