tremble clef

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Legends, "Play It For Today" (2006)

I am a synth pattern, and I have been arpeggiated for your pleasure. Bow down before me. My song is siren. My followers are legion.

You, Johan Angergård, will now discover my joys. You are a prolific Swedish songster, with your fingers in pies from Acid House Kings to Club 8 to the eight-person strong Legends. A few years ago you startled some when Club 8 left their usual twee-pop stylings behind for a ravey electroclash sound for a single called "Saturday Night Engine," but the synths on that were not me enough.

But now, now you will submit to me and come into my loving embrace. I will transform The Legends' previously catchy garage pop-rock into something a little more stomping and really quite fabulous. "Play It For Today," for some reason, is not included on your group's current album Public Radio, but it is a matter of time before I get a hold of ALL your songs. Then I will go on to Moroderize even Acid House Kings' Belle and Sebastianesque pop. BEHOLD MY AWESOME POWER.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Moloko, "Bankrupt Emotionally" (2003/2006)

There're not many bands that go out at the top of their game, in a blaze of glory. If 2003's Statues does indeed turn out to be Moloko's last studio album, which indeed looks to be the case, then Róisín Murphy and Mark Brydon, in my book, would have achieved just that. It's tough to know how to react to this unusual phenomenon, of course: on the one hand, you have to be happy for any band that doesn't start a slow gradual decline into being just shells of themselves, but, on the other, that blaze of glory clearly leaves you wanting more, interested to see what else they would have done.

In 1995, I was visiting London, and reading Time Out. The magazine profiles a new band Moloko, which the writer compares to Portishead and categorizes as a triphop band. The analogy sure proved prescient, eh? But it was enough to intrigue me, and since these were the days when print music journalism actually had some influence, I bought Do You Like My Tight Sweater? when I saw it for six or eight pounds. It was a disappointment: although it boasted the terrific single "Fun For Me," the rest of the album, filled as it was with ditties about monkeys, bunnies, horseys, and weirdoes, was too self-indulgent for me. The pattern would repeat itself over the next few years. I Am Not A Doctor was likewise picked up in a used store, but aside from "Sing It Back" (on the album in its original downtempo form), the rest of the album was almost actively annoying. And while Things To Make And Do had a higher batting average -- there were actually non-singles on that record I like! -- it was still severely uneven.

Burnt thrice, I would have been forgiven for passing on the band's fourth outing. For some reason, I didn't, and am I ever glad for my inability to learn from my mistakes. For Statues, my favorite album of 2003, finally did what I've always wanted Moloko to do: make a record that was filled, from start to finish, with the kind of killer pop songs that they were obviously capable of. In addition, it was surprisingly emotional. Recorded, as it's well-known by now, when Róisín and Mark were at the end of their relationship, Statues included enough devastating lyrics to make it possibly the best breakup album ever: from the plaintive "Got to find me somebody/But there's nobody to love me" refrain of "Forever More," to the entirety of "Statues" (still one of the saddest songs ever written: while some people may find the conceit about weeping statues too fanciful and precious, it slays me), to the way the last song on the album, "Over And Over," both acknowledged the end of a relationship and yet, at nine-plus minutes, including a fake ending, in an anguished display of denial, keeps refusing to end, to finish, to die. Apt: in retrospect, "Over And Over" likewise expressed the way certain listeners didn't especially want the album, or the band's output, to conclude either. "Can we meet and talk it over?/Would you be kind enough to call?/Over and over/It's over all over/And over and over and over and over..."

Given the way their first three records were built around strong singles and little else, the band's greatest hits collection was always going to be one of their best efforts. Catalogue (the title scooping the next Pet Shop Boys book), which will come out at the end of summer, makes clear just how tremendous a run of singles Moloko put together. In the middle of the greatest hits record is a song called "Bankrupt Emotionally." This track was actually recorded in 2003 -- a result of the Statues sessions, apparently -- and unofficially issued, under the (wrong?) title "Emotional Bankruptcy," as a one-track promo CD in the US. Three years later, it finally makes its official appearance on Catalogue. You can tell that it emerged from the same set of circumstances as the rest of Statues: aside from its lyric, the track features a vaguely flamenco guitar much like the one on "Familiar Feelings," and horns that recall "Forever More." There's also a slightly ominous big rumbling synth riff that sounds like "Are 'Friends' Electric," which Moloko covered for the Gary Numan tribute album Random. In some ways, then, the track sums up Moloko's career. Perhaps it's better that it is only coming out now, when I am at least, and at last, willing to see the end of the chapter (chapter eleven, it would seem).

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Colourfield, "Miss Texas 1967" (1987)

For years I thought I was alone, the only one in the world with such feelings. Really, I don't know when I started understanding this wasn't the case, that there were others like me.

Maybe it wasn't until 1997 and that episode of Seinfeld that I came to terms with myself, and saw: to numerous other people, Raquel Welch was a joke too. Such a spectacularly awful actress. I love her. When I get to recast Valley Of The Dolls, she would totally play Helen Lawson. "Get your hands off of me! Gimme back MY HAIR!!!"

Should that come to pass, she would apparently have no trouble singing "I'll Plant My Own Tree." There are many pieces of knowledge I'm sad I didn't gain earlier, but I weep most about the fact that I went thirty plus years before I found out that Raquel had a band. A band, y'all. This must mean that she had a music career? And, oh my god, she did. She covered "Age Of Aquarius," and even more amazingly, issued a disco single in 1987 called "This Girl's Back In Town" -- and there is a video to go with it, one that's, as a youtube user puts it, utterly "tranny-tastic." It is the most awesome thing in the history of the world, though I nearly put an eye out just looking at the shoulderpads. Someone needs to send me an mp3 of this, stat.

But I'm getting carried away, sidetracked, and humiliated. The way I found out about Raquel's singing career, oddly, is via The Colourfield. One of his many short-lived bands, The Colourfield was actually what got me interested in Terry Hall in the first place: I didn't have much truck with The Specials or Fun Boy Three, but I loved the Bacharachish bossa nova stylings of Colourfield singles like "Thinking Of You" and "Castles In The Air" (here extended, with extra-dramatic castanets, for your pleasure), and indeed, much of their 1985 album Virgins and Philistines.

The group put out a completely-ignored second album Deception in 1987, and here's the most interesting factoid about it: the band had lots of problems while recording, and as a result the album had to be finished with the help "of Raquel Welch's band and session players." If it's them on this song, they did a great job. "Miss Texas 1967" has a drum pattern that's very reminiscient of Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors," and is, in general, beautifully arranged: listen, for example, to the acoustic guitar and the halting wind instrument (a harmonium?) in the background. They together conjure up a deep sense of remorse and regret that absolutely fits the lyric, which seems to be about Terry looking for the son he never took responsibility for. It's as gently moving and beautiful as, well, Raquel is not.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Jane Birkin, "Waterloo Station"/"Living In Limbo" (2006)

When I first learned about Jane Birkin's new album, Fictions, for which she had corralled people like The Divine Comedy, The Magic Numbers, and Beth Gibbons to write, I was most excited to hear the number penned by Rufus Wainwright. And "Waterloo Station" is a pretty good effort. Rufus has written a lyric that is not just in Jane's voice -- referring as it does to the narrative arc of her life ("Many years ago I upped and left my homeland/To make my fortune far from England/Had to go far away, the furthest place/Paris, France"), often in punny ways ("Whistling a melody fit for Nelson") -- but one that fits the overall theme of the album, in which Jane thinks of her relationship to the idea of "home." And of course, it's always nice to hear The Kinks hummed in any track, even if Rufus and Jane have to diss a superior group in the process ("And of course I'll sing the song by The Kinks/And not the one by ABBA"). But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they just mean that "Waterloo Sunset" is more relevant for the context.

The main weakness of "Waterloo Station," however, is in its melody. As anyone who has listened to Rufus knows, he has a tendency to stretch words out. It's one reason why his critics call him "overly theatrical," or, even more harshly, "whiney," since he often sounds like he stays on one word forever and takes it, with his voice, through a million wailing banshee turns. He's written "Waterloo Station" to be sung in the same fashion, but Jane's weary voice isn't especially suited for this style: she seems unsure of how exactly to phrase "so, soon" for example, or listen to the way she struggles to reconcile the fact that "ABBA" has too few syllables with which to fill all the notes of that melodic line.

Partly because of that, although "Waterloo Station" had a headstart, I've come to enjoy the preceding track "Living In Limbo" a little more. Written by Gonzales, the song, quite remarkably, seems to be a bookend to Rufus's track. Maybe this isn't suprising: as the arranger and coproducer of the album, Gonzales presumably had an overview of the whole record, and perhaps wrote "Living In Limbo" as a companion piece. It likewise refers, during a typically Birkin "cinematic" spoken bit, to rail stations. Furthermore, even though Rufus's track is the one that namechecks and interpolates a few bars of "Waterloo Sunset," the guitar line in "Living In Limbo" (at the end of the first couplets of every verse -- you can hear it at the 20 second mark, for instance) sounds like it too could segue into The Kinks' classic. And like "Waterloo Station" (and the Neil Hannon-composed "Home," which starts the album), "Living In Limbo" is likewise about home and the effects of never being there: "Packing, unpacking/Talking on skyphones/Meaningful contact is strained over time zones."

"Living In Limbo" additionally has a kind of unspoken tension that, for me, makes it even more intriguing. Although the song is ostensibly about the tedium of travelling, of always going places and never knowing home, it curiously has what feels like an undercurrent of joy. While the verses enumerate, with purposeful monotony ("Packing, unpacking...Packing, unpacking") and tautological pointlessness ("Waiting for waiters"), the exhaustion of being on the road and never belonging, on the chorus -- when she bursts into melodically-ascending lines about "Living in limbo/living in limbo/La la la la/Watching through the window" -- Jane sounds, if not happy, then at least content. If you're always stuck being away from home, or not even knowing where it is, then you can at least try to come to terms with the situation ("Living In Limbo") or dream, via a snippet of a melody that brings you back, in mind and spirit if not in body, of home ("Waterloo Station"). La la la la la, la la la la la, we are in paradise.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Mr. Suitcase, "Ours Is A Time For Falling In Love" (2006)

Since I haven't posted about the Pet Shop Boys in a while, I figured I would today begin an intricately-plotted ten-part...

WAIT! Come back!

I'm kidding. Today's post isn't about Neil and Chris, although it's Pet Shop Boyesque. Mr. Suitcase, from what I can tell, is a Swedish band, consisting of either one or two men, who make electropop that inevitably recall another duo. I think this no-longer active blog may have been written by someone from the group -- judging from the fact that the last entry anounces that its successor would be, which is however not yet working -- and in fact, features a rather marvellous interview with Neil and Chris. I don't know. I can't figure it all out. If only my Swedish extended beyond the bits I picked up from The Muppet Show.

I first heard of Mr. Suitcase when they remixed "It's Not The End Of The World" by Le Sport, another Swedish electropop duo that I've written about, with whom they also recorded a cover of "Last Christmas." (Those tracks are available at Le Sport's page.) In fact, I'm not sure they're not the same group. I certainly have never seen both in the same room.

Mr. Suitcase further resembles Le Sport -- as well as Permer, another Swedish etc etc -- in the sense that they write bouncy europop numbers with slightly melancholic lyrics that are somewhat let down by (1) production that isn't as shiny as it could be, and (2) rather weedy vocals by their lead singers. To wit: "Ours Is A Time For Falling In Love," which sounds a bit like a Jay-Jay Johanson song (specifically "Because Of You" from Rush); has a lyric imbued with a deep sense of regret and hesitation ("Ours is a time for falling in love/But ours is a mind that was never made up/Hours go by while we're waiting for love/But ours is the time, this is our time"); features, in its breakdown, an ecstatic keyboard bit that makes a concerted effort to actually ascend to heaven; but is not quite sung and produced well enough to be truly perfect. But it's still damned good. After all, if they had it all, they would be the Pet Shop Boys.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Pet Shop Boys, Fundamental (2006): Part 5

I've been very old-fashioned the past four days, not just because I've been serializing like the Dickens. Despite writing about Fundamental on various levels -- thinking about its place within the entire Pet Shop Boys oeuvre; as an album; individual songs; a specific line of lyric -- I've always treat it as a cohesive record. In this shuffled iDay-and-Age, of course, that's almost a weird approach. Who listens to -- and indeed, who makes -- albums as albums anymore? Furthermore, in thinking about Fundamental this way, I have of course only followed certain narratives, plots, and threads. This album is -- any album would be -- much more.

Here, then, by way of conclusion, are ten more random things about Fundamental:

The special edition of the album comes with a bonus CD of remixes called Fundamentalism, which is kicked off by an exclusive Richard X-produced track called "Fugitive." I'm not that thrilled by the production, frankly, which is a bit pedestrian: the bassline, for example, comes across as just a variation on the one Richard used for his remix of Gwen Stefani's "Cool," which was in turn swiped from Heaven 17's "Let Me Go."

But it's the lyric of the song that has drawn more attention, and justifiably so, since it appears to be written from the point of view of terrorists, or even more specifically, suicide bombers. What fascinates Neil most about the mindsets of such men, as the insistent "you are/were my brother" chorus suggests, is the fraternity on which they depend. In many ways, this is a love song between terrorists. The lyric has a kind of purposeful ambiguity, and in some ways could apply just as much to a pair of gay lovers -- one of whom has died, or is going to die, and the other wishing to follow. So, while a line like "clean, and prepared to be led" could definitely refer to the "ritual cleansing and body-shaving" that the 911 terrorists engaged in, as Wayne Studer suggests, it could secondarily allude to the way dead bodies are generally prepared for the afterlife. Furthermore, in the breakdown, the Boys, in a slightly self-quoting moment, interpolates a stuttering vocoderized effect, and what it conjures up is the catchy hook of "Heart." Perhaps that's another way the track assumes, through association, the aura of a love song.

This isn't to suggest that "Fugitive" is a snickering track that paints terrorism as secretly homoerotic, nudge nudge wink wink. But I do think that Neil, rather, is intrigued by the continuum -- the homosocial continuum, if you will -- between two same-sex male lovers and two political brothers prepared to die for, and with, each other. "Fugitive," in a sense, is cut from the same cloth as the main disc's "I'm With Stupid" (and Release's "I Get Along"): except, tellingly, where Neil mocks the Bush-and-Blair relationship, he is here much more circumspect about the love that binds these fugitives. I would have said that one track is the dark side of the other, but I'm not sure which belongs in which column.

(Subsequent note: the album booklet reveals that the whole album is dedicated to Mahmound Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, the two Iranian teenagers hanged in July 2005; "Fugitive" now seems to me to be possibly written from their perspective.)

No, I don't know about the cover either. I like the neon. I reserve final judgment until I have a physical copy in my hands, since it probably pops more in the flesh, and I'm sure the inner sleeve will contain all kinds of delicious goodness. But it's like it should come with night vision goggles, you know? I would've plumped for another shot, like this one with the lovely wallpaper. Also, Chris=Fun, Neil=Mental, and so there's comedy gold to be had.

I fully accept that many people find or will find "Luna Park" a bit snooze-worthy. That's largely because it's written in a rock ballad idiom: listen to it with that in mind, and you'll see that it's essentially a kind of sequel, melodically speaking, to "Love Is A Catastrophe," and indeed, would have fitted well on Release. It doesn't help that the lyric is a bit nebulous: we can tell that it is another song about the culture of fear, but the specifics are elusive, though the pictures it paints ("Somebody's eating fire we're happy") have the same kind of surreal (or laughable, if you prefer) quality as the Boys' Liza Minnelli song "I Want You Now" ("The men from the circus are juggling with knives").

But I forget and forgive all when Neil's voice splits into two on the chorus: "Thunder, I wonder/A storm will come one day," and especially when the self-harmonies become most sharply anguished on the next lines, "To blow us all away/Like dust on the moon." And later at the 4:10 mark, they take those harmonies apart and present them separately, and it's quite spectacularly bleak. My spine, it is tingled.

He leads, they follow: on the gorgeous middle eight of "Indefinite Leave To Remain," Neil sings a line ("Tell me where I stand? What do you envision?"), and behind him, a beat later, the horn picks up and plays the melody. It's awesome. In the running for "best moment in this song," this is a smidgeon ahead of the beautiful harmony on the line "It may sound superficial."

A song about the "Twentieth Century" that uses an electroclash riff. Is that a joke about how last century that sound is? Heh. While I'm not sure where I fall on the lyric, which I've said lacks a bit of dramatic tension, I'm enamored of how gentle and lulling the song is. It's a somewhat Kings Of Convenience melody. And the song has the kind of funny spikiness that makes me want to declare it this album's "Miserablism." However, I do feel that it could have done with some handclaps, ironic or otherwise. Imagine it.

When I make it onto American Idol, and they have a Diane Warren night again, I can now at least sing "Numb" as my big showstopping number.

Because I am twelve, I giggled when reading the Amazon blurb about how the album includes a "song written by backroom legend Diane Warren." Hee. "Backroom legend." Hee hee HEEE. I've known some backroom legends in my time. Ahem. Anyway, I am today feeling a bit shamed about how this alleged mp3 blog has offered you nothing to sample this past week, but then again I don't want to incur any high profile wrath. But here is Diane Warren's original demo of "Numb." Listen, and then, of course, delete. You'll want to.

The correct answer to the question I posed at the end of my "Resurrectionist" entry is "yes." That song should replace "God Willing." "Psychological" has been struggling to establish a firm foothold in my affections, but it is thematically key to the album. And I love all the ballads, as the above items have established. "The Resurrectionist," in addition to being catchy as all hell, gives the album another pumping track, and if included, would have had us furiously trying to figure out if the Victorian situation it describes is meant as an allegory of some modern-day scenario. (Is Bush...a body snatcher? It obviously seems more like he's the snatchee, or just a snatch, with his mind being the thing they've taken, but, hey, I would have considered it.) Most importantly, "God Willing" is only an instrumental interlude; replacing it with "The Resurrectionist" would more truly give Fundamental twelve tracks, and keep up the Boys' record of issuing albums with an even number of songs. Crucial. Okay, actually that record was already marred when Please opted to constitute "Opportunites (Reprise)" as a stand-alone track on CD, but don't remind me.

"I Made My Excuses And Left" demonstrates how, in the wake of scoring Closer To Heaven and Battleship Potemkin, Neil and Chris know how to use musical motifs to tell a story. I've already suggested that the 2-minute opening, in which Chris apparently sings "I'm all alone again" into his handphone, has a kind of thematic "voices-in-the-head" relevance, but it does more. Notice how the six-note passage recurs at the 3:22 mark. In a chapter straight out of a Henry James novel, Neil has stumbled upon a scene of non-verbal intimacy ("Each of you looked up, but no one said a word"), and understood. He makes his excuses, and he leaves. Then, at this precise point, we hear the passage again, replayed by strings. And so we understand, because the musical passage, via its prior associations, tells us, purely through music, and equally without words: now he will be alone again. It's a moment in which we are emphatically, and empathetically, put in the narrator's place.

Thank you to everyone who has commented on the entries thus far, including those who did so on the earlier "Resurrectionist" post. Many of my thoughts have been inspired by yours, and in the case of esque, with whom I've talked about the Pet Shop Boys for about a decade now, sometimes stolen.

Fundamental is out in the UK this Monday, May 22, and an American release on Rhino will supposedly follow on June 27. Go buy it. It is, after all, the bloody Pet Shop Boys, darlings.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Pet Shop Boys, Fundamental (2006): Part 4

(Here's the story so far, because lord knows we need a scorecard for the ramblings. I started this essay on the Pet Shop Boys by noting how we're invited by the album title to consider at least three things: the idea that the record is about political or cultural fundamentalism; that it sees the Boys returning to their distinctive sound; and therefore, the implicit question of how the two things relate. In assessing the first issue, of the political tone of the album, I have suggested that we need to suspend any kneejerk reactions we might have to a pop band doing "political commentary," especially since Neil and Chris do it in fascinating ways: by allowing the overall context to open up possible new meanings in individual songs, or by refusing to reduce issues to black-or-white options. Going on to think about the question of a "Pet Shop Boys sound," I elaborated on my opening contention that this pulls in a different direction from the theme of political fundamentalism: not just because it is portrayed as a "good" direction (opposed to the negativity of political irrationality), but also because the "Pet Shop Boys sound" is not necessarily the best medium by which to mount the kind of critique that the Boys presumably desire. But the Boys surprise us, precisely by recognizing, on some level, the uncomfortably close alignment between political and musical bombast, and embracing it.)

It might be more accurate to characterize Fundamental, not just as a record about our "current political climate," but also about the things we do to deal with such insanity. The album to some extent offers a short catalogue of coping mechanisms. "Numb," I've already implied, could be read as a tale of self-zombification: only by withdrawing from the world, numbing oneself, can the narrator cope with fear and terror. If "Casanova In Hell" is about aging, or political decline, then it might be counselling, simply speaking, a kind of patience: you can't stay hard forever, and all empires fall. But look at us: we're prematurely talking about losing the erection before getting it up. What of sex? What of pleasure? What of fun? We've already noticed how the album is made up of the "fun" and the "mental" (much like DiscoVery, or PopArt). Does one offer a salve for the other? Can sun, sex, sin help us deal with this world?

Perhaps befitting Neil's Catholic upbringing, the Pet Shop Boys have always had an ambivalent relationship to pleasure. Despite their employment of musical genres that are typically (if wrongheadedly) thought of as mindlessly pleasureable (disco, Hi-NRG, dance, pop), it's hard to think of a Pet moment that is unreservedly hedonistic. Please may start with tracks advocating escape, and move through songs that express unbridled desire -- although even "I Want A Lover" is haunted by the things one needs to navigate on the way to having a lover: drinking, fighting -- but it ends with the mature resignation of "Why Don't We Live Together?" (one of their most underappreciated tracks ever). "Go West" of course has that melancholic French horn (not to mention a death postscript), while "Saturday Night Forever" is unable to reverse the ominous anxiety collected over the previous eleven tracks on Bilingual. Heck, even Closer To Heaven's "Hedonism": if it seems to cast its lot with pleasure, it would only be because it's unencumbered by a lyric, and in the context of the show, in which lives are mostly destroyed or disillusioned by and in clubland, it's certainly a mere bittersweet manifesto.

On Fundamental, the designated track about hedonism is "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show," the most melodically dextrous track, and one which recalls Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Welcome To The Pleasure Dome" (not just because Trevor Horn of course produced both, but because of its topic). A gloriously over-the-top stomper in which our narrator hero experiences a transformative moment when he is invited to the tantalizing title show, one obvious way to read the lyric is as a coming-out narrative. And with Proustian and Forsterian references like "I lived a quiet life, a stranger to champagne/I never dared to venture out to cities of the plain," and "You've got to love to learn to live/Where angels fear to tread," it's pretty inevitable. But Neil is also right to protest, as he has done in the press, that the relevance and context of the song is larger, arguing as it does for the value of refusing to be sheltered, to go out and live life. In the framework of the album, therefore, "Sodom" is the polar opposite of "Numb," and embodifies a resistance to the culture of fear. Go out and play. Or else the terrorists win.

And yet, the song is not completely unreserved about making that recommendation. It's interesting, first of all, to note that the track is the second on the album. In immediately following the table-setting "Psychological," the solution suggested by "Sodom" thereby comes across, not as the final solution to political fundamentalism, but merely as the first line of defense. (And like many first lines, inadequate or likely to fail.)

Although this initial step is nothing to sneeze at: one of the heartening things about the Pet Shop Boys is the way they've increasingly moved away from seeing "coming out" as the end of the narrative. At the start, and through the middle, of their career, it almost always was: think, for example, of Please, which takes ten tracks to get its comely ass to the gay bar ("Later Tonight"), or the way Behaviour needs eight songs before it gets its courage up to make cruisy eyes at a guy ("Nervously"); the film It Couldn't Happen Here, or its stage version, the Performance tour (they die? No: Neil and Chris acquire the kind of bitchin' angel wings that gay boys kill for on Halloween, and go to bed together); and how Very only makes it to San Francisco at the very end. But on Bilingual, not only was the coming-out song ("Metamorphosis") the least coy it had ever been, but, as track 3, it came close to kicking off the story (which, unfortunately, was partly a story of AIDS and death). On Fundamental, if "Sodom" presents pleasure -- attaintable only by coming-, or going-out -- as a coping mechanism, it is one that is the be-all, but not the end-all. In other words: come out. Embrace life. Be alive with pleasure. But it won't be enough: the problems of the world won't be solved by this. But still, come out. It is still a necessary first step in your "politicization."

The pleasures of "Sodom" (hello, googlers!) don't therefore provide a definitive hedge against fundamentalism, and its place in the running order reflects this. And within the song, there are more indications that, for Chris and Neil, hedonism and "fun" can't fully help us. As the song goes on, it becomes clearer that we're dealing with a retrospective narration: "I did it and I don't regret the day/Even now I think of how you turned to me to say/Are you gonna go, to the Sodom and Gomorrah show?" There is nothing explicit in these lines to suggest that a loss has occurred, but it's hard for me to shake the feeling that they do commemorate a moment when the show has vanished, or become irretrievable in some way. It's only a "once-in-a-lifetime production." (And of course, in an age where gay or even just sexual establishments continue to get shut down or zoned into submission, the concept is hardly without a real world counterpart.) In fact, what is lost may not even be the "show" itself, but the act -- named twice in the song, and therefore revealed as the true act the song loves and memoralizes -- when "you call," or "turned to me to say." Lately, you haven't been able to turn to me very much. For me, it's very much like the devastating moment in "Being Boring," wherein Neil confesses: "I never dreamt that I would get to be, the creature that I always meant to be/But I thought in spite of dreams you'd be sitting somewhere here with me." There's no direct denotation that "you" have died, but the spooky connotation lingers. Likewise, although "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show" offers sex, pleasure, hedonism as ways of escaping the pressures of the world, it is nevertheless a song that carries just a hint that such an escape -- or more importantly, the moment when your friend or lover holds your hand and enfolds you with the graceful offer of such an opportunity -- is no longer tenable.

And what of love? If "fun" -- in the form of sex, pleasure, hedonism -- only offers us partial refuge against the "mental," what of love? Does peace of mind lie in love? We shouldn't confuse sex with love, you know. At least that's what my mom told me.

I don't know about love. Fundamental, perhaps, doesn't know about love. Its two love songs, when all is said and done, aren't unequivocal love songs. In "I Made My Excuses And Left," the narrator loves but isn't loved in return: in a deft stroke, the entire dynamic of the relationship is made clear (that love object has a "crowded court," and therefore not wanting of suitors, so the narrator can only be a "supplicant"). He can only leave. On "Indefinite Leave To Remain," our narrator is another supplicant, asking, either a nation that doesn't seem to love him, or a lover who is ambivalent, to decide on love. But even if that decision should come, it would only be one riddled with internal contradictions: he would only get "indefinite leave to remain." A stay to not go. Indefinitely: which is good, right, since it's neverending? Unless it's just open-ended and uncertain, and therefore bad. The solution -- to paraphrase "Twentieth Century," another track that might be considered a love song -- may or may not be worse than the problem. Stay. Go. Leave. Remain. Indefinitely. Permanently. Indeterminately. Love, as usual, gives us everything and nothing.

Tomorrow, on "Oh my God, is he still talking?!": Closing thoughts on everything else, from "Fugitive" to Diane Warren to the musical moments that constrict the heart...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Pet Shop Boys, Fundamental (2006): Part 3

(Although this post, about a key "sound" of the album and the problems associated with it, probably makes sense on its own, it is part of a multi-post review of Fundamental, of which part 1 is here, and part 2 here.)

There is a school of thought, though a minority one, that says that the worst thing to have happened to the Pet Shop Boys was the huge success of, firstly, "It's A Sin," and, subsequently, "Go West." These two songs embody what many -- including, I would suggest, Neil and Chris themselves -- have come to think of, in a very specific sense, as the fundamental Pet Shop Boys sound.

"It's A Sin" marked that sound's inaugural appearance: a gargantuan slab of Gothic Eurodisco, the song threw everything and the kitchen sink at listeners, from a space launch countdown to Catholic Latin mutterings. It's easy to forget that, for a distinctive sound, this one arrived reasonably late, featured only on the duo's second album Actually. (It's easy to forget, furthermore, that the Boys' first hit, "West End Girls," is a sleek, moody number that isn't in this mold, and something they haven't really attempted to replicate, except maybe in "DJ Culture.")

But what makes "It's A Sin" the fundamental Pet sound is that it seems to serve as a bit of a crutch for Neil and Chris. When 1990's Behaviour flopped commercially -- of course, it has come to be regarded by hardcore fans as the Boys' finest album -- what Neil and Chris did was, first, to add a stomping (but hasty: to this day it bothers me to hear Neil's pronunciation of "can't" oscillate from British to American from verse to verse) cover of "Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can't Take My Eyes Off You)." And then, more concertedly, to regroup and storm back with an album that was nakedly "Very Pet Shop Boys," and apply the "It's A Sin" sonic template -- albeit with a bit less Gothic and a bit more gay Hi-NRG camp -- to an old Village People track. It did the trick, creating as it did a #2 UK hit and what is undoubtedly the most recognizable hit of the Boys' post-imperial phase. Since then, the Boys have called on that Hi-NRG sound each time they've felt in need of commercial rejuvenation. So, when Bilingual disappointed sales-wise, they tried, first of all, with "A Red Letter Day" (complete with rousing Russian choir), and then again with a busy cover of "Somewhere." When neither had the desired effect, they made another energetic album whose conquering track was supposed to be "New York City Boy" (in which the Hi-NRG was transposed, or pushed forwards, onto late 70s disco).

There are some people -- the minority viewpoint I referred to at the start, though I'm not telling you if I'm in that group -- who wish, abstractly, that the Boys would stop relying on this tactic, especially since it has increasingly become less and less fail-safe, but let's stay on topic: when Fundamental and its musical direction was announced, therefore, it appeared to fit this pattern. Release had been a "departure" from the Pet sound; people mumbled that it felt old, autumnal, tired (often ignoring the fact that it was in fact an album about aging; if the Boys had added the b-side "Always," the theme would have been even more obvious. It's also no surprise that the new album's very moving "Casanova In Hell," about mortal and perhaps political decline -- although it's best not to think about the Viagra-needing Casanova as a proxy for Blair -- seems to have been written shortly after). Fundamental, the story went, would show us there's life yet.

This of course meant that we've been primed to expect the return of the thundering stomper: as I noted in part 1, this has been presented, like Very, as one meaning of the album title. It therefore comes as a bit of surprise to find that five of the album's twelve tracks are ballads -- six if you include the mid-tempo "Twentieth Century," which, sung and arranged with a remarkable gentleness, feels like a ballad. The true blue Hi-NRG stompers only number three -- "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show," "I'm With Stupid," "Integral" -- while the remaining two tracks ("Psychological" and "Minimal") are what Popjustice called "sort of vibey electro things."

But from another perspective, it makes sense that the fun and mentalist stompers are quite few in number. Once the album was conceived as a political one, the "fundamental Pet Shop Boys sound" came up against a problem. The problem isn't even that it's a crutch of a sound, as I began by suggesting, but that this sound might be too "up" to serve as a vehicle for political commentary, or, to put it even more bluntly, has a beat that can be almost fascistic. We are of course speaking with some degree of generality here, and it's always dangerous to characterize a "sound" as having any intrinsic qualities (let alone moral ones). But perhaps we only have to think about "Go West," and how it lent itself so easily to a video that featured strapping marching men carrying flags, and to backing vocals by an army of them, to understand how much that kind of thundering beat walks a line, on the other side of which lies something like the anthems for marching Hitler youth.

It's therefore interesting to read the Sunday Times article that a reader unearthed (in yesterday's comment box, thereby proving how awesomely interactive blogging about music can be). "Reunited with the producer Trevor Horn for the first time since 1988's magisterial 'Left to My Own Devices,'" Dan Cairns writes, "Pet Shop Boys encountered an unexpected problem. The man responsible for overblown epics such as 'Relax' and 'Poison Arrow' wasn't giving them the Horn they were looking for. So they didn't have to rein him in? 'Au contraire,' answers Neil Tennant. 'We were trying to rein him out.'" What I find most fascinating about that opening paragraph is Cairns' assumption, which remains unexplicated, that Horn needed to be "reined in." Why would Cairns think so? Perhaps he recognizes precisely what I have suggested above: on an album about politics, grandiose productions such as Horn's have the potential to come across as aligned, not with protest or critique; they have the potential, instead, to sound like they are the sound of power. It is after all no accident that "bombast" -- a word that perfectly describes the sound of Pet Shop Boys songs ranging from "It's A Sin" to "Go West" to "Delusions Of Grandeur" -- makes as much sense when prefaced by either the adjective "musical" or "political." Don't drop sonic bombs, baby.

Neil, the Times article goes on to suggest, was archly unworried. For good reason: even though the fundamental Pet sound, I've argued, walks a fine line, the Boys, however, have always been remarkably canny about walking it. On "It's A Sin," they fully embrace the fascistic beat, turning Neil into a kind of sinner-supplicant before the sound of the apocalypse that is Judgment Day. On "Go West," they masterfully add a French horn, as many have recognized, in order to suggest a kind of regretful recognition that the (gay) utopia which the song dreams of is now unattainable. And on "Delusions Of Grandeur" and "Shameless," the lyrics allows them precisely to assume, and even revel in, such delusions and shamelessness.

That same canniness is on show in the thundering songs off of Fundamental. "I'm With Stupid" and "Integral," most obviously, are both sung in character (Predictable Critics: "Oh, the Pet Shop Boys are being ironic again!"). In the case of the latter, the narrator is clearly aligned with power, singing as he does from the viewpoint of the bureaucrat hellbent on convincing the populace of the necessity of ID cards: "If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to fear/If you've something to hide, you shouldn't even be here." Neil's vocals are slightly vocoderized on the refrain -- "One world/One life/One chance/One reason" -- but the menace is of course totally apt: seductive, but scary in that seductiveness. The song, in other words, is not -- would have worked less well as -- a hectoring critique of the way our lives are increasing converted to "information" and the resulting loss of privacy. It instead dramatizes, to exaggerate a little, what fascistic power sounds like, and in doing so reminds us of why it must be avoided. (All that awaits this brilliant song is only a video treatment along the lines of the "1984" ad Ridley Scott did for Apple, or, if Madonna hadn't gotten in there first, one based on Metropolis.) In "Integral," the Boys silence critics who indeed thought that their "fundamental" Hi-NRG sound was overused, by finding a(nother) perfect --- "puuurrfect" -- conceit with which to exploit that sound.

Tomorrow: Returning to the question of whether music can save us, and why it matters that "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show" is track #2...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Pet Shop Boys, Fundamental (2006): Part 2

(Part 1 of the review is here. There are still no mp3s in this post, but Into The Groove, Enthusiastic But Mediocre, and Homoecletic, in various posts, all offer tracks.)

But let's go back to the (first of) two most obvious "themes" of the album, beginning with the idea that Fundamental is largely about our current political climate. For longtime fans of the Boys, the fact that Neil and Chris have now made "a political album" must sit uncomfortably. For much of the 80s and 90s, the band heaped scorn -- in their songs ("How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?") and beyond -- on pop stars, *cough*Bono*cough*, who would deign to lecture listeners about the state of the world; not only are such proclamations, they have suggested, usually vapid, but they are also self-important and self-serving.

Neil and Chris have defended their subsequent turn towards the political (and relatedly, towards being part of the rock establishment) only in broad, general strokes. Regarding "It's Alright," which they covered despite once mocking songs with mindlessly optimistic sentiments ("Our songs say that it's not going to be alright," I remember Chris once asserting, presciently but wrongly), they have suggested that it was a surprising thing to do precisely because we didn't expect it of them. They are, the claim goes, reacting against themselves and their own orthodoxies. This is, of course, not that convincing.

Fundamental, in contrast, implicitly mounts a much more persuasive line of defense. To begin with, much of the album's political targets are at least somewhat novel: an amazing song about ID cards ("Integral"), one about love and nationality, and specifically how immigration laws often disadvantage gay couples ("Indefinite Leave To Remain"), and most pervasively, about the culture of fear ("Luna Park," "Psychological"). In some ways, the album recognizes, with a lot more nuance, where the realm of the political lies, and actually makes arguments about politics. It's not, to put it most bluntly, simply a record filled with platitudes how politicians are evil, or that we just need to get along.

The lead single, "I'm With Stupid," is in fact the least interesting in the way it stretches the definition of the political. A song that reimagines the relationship between Blair and Bush as a gay affair, the track, while amusing, is essentially an illustration that the personal is the political (and further lacks the kind of melancholic remorse that infuses the similarly-themed “I Get Along” from Release). By this point, that does seem like too old of an adage to be interesting, and the fact that George Michael covered similar territory with "Shoot The Dog" -- albeit with more smarm and way less humor -- doesn't help. Also, it's been scientifically proven that songs with the word "stupid" in their choruses are never completely brilliant (see: Culture Club's "The War Song").

However, the politicization of the personal does occur in more intriguing ways across the album as a whole. Since the theme of Fundamental, we keep getting told, is "politics today," we can't help but regard many of the other songs in that light, even when they don't appear immediately to be so. This happens most obviously with the dramatic orchestral ballad "Numb." Composed by Diane Warren (a revelation that I admit I was appalled by), the song first comes across as a straightforward song of heartbreak. (It would have seemed even more so had it appeared, as was the original plan, on PopArt.) But in the context of the new album, its opening lines -- "Don't wanna hear the news/What's going on, what's coming through/I don't wanna know" -- reminds us that it's now a song about the desire or even need to zombify oneself as a way of coping with a world gone mad. It's easy to imagine it being sung by a 911 survivor, for example. Less obviously, this kind of "infection" -- whereby songs that don't seem, or are not, political become so by virtue of being on this album -- happens as well with "Minimal." The song, a clear highlight of the album and the next scheduled single, resists interpretation by virtue of its elliptical lyric, which presents a series of minimal, haikuesque lines much in the style of Release's "The Samurai In Autumn." But some of these lines certainly carry a kind of dark foreboding. "Subliminal/The void is clean/A silver knot for a criminal A cell but not for a criminal." [Edit: The album booklet tells me what the real lyric is, and the correct line in fact supports a little more the following interpretation.] When Neil sings "An empty box/An open space/A single thought/Leaves a trace," I may or may not be the only one paranoid enough to wonder if we're in some sort of torture room where a prisoner's mind is systematically being studied and then washed.

The album therefore enjoys mixed success with respect to the theme of the personal being political, of politics lying in places where we may not always look: it elaborates perhaps a bit too much on the cliché ("I'm With Stupid"), but at least allows it to change the way we consider some of the other songs ("Numb," "Minimal"). In contrast, the notion that fear itself is a political tactic is much less clichéd; here, the Pet Shop Boys demonstrate that what they have to say about "politics today" transcend the tired ramblings of a Bono. While not a particularly shocking revelation to anyone who's read, say, Foucault, the examination of the vested interest our culture has in promoting anxiety at least conveys what might be a relatively new idea to pop listeners.

In fact, a key song on this theme -- the opening track "Psychological" -- turns out to be remarkably complex, and in fact doesn't simply argue for fear as a political tactic. The song, I will admit, is not a particular favorite of mine: while I recognize that its melody is deliberately pounding and monotonous, it doesn't change the fact that it is, well, somewhat pounding and monotonous. (On Fundamentalism, the remix CD that accompanies the special edition of the album, Alter Ego shows that you can keep the thematically-apt thumping while introducing some variation in the arrangement to keep things interesting.) But lyrically, the song might be the sharpest and most fascinating excursus on the topic of fear.

"Psychological" is in some ways direct, concerned as it is with the mental: fear, paranoia, anxiety, psychological warfare. ("I Made My Excuses And Left" begins with almost two full minutes of a musical passage and a distorted voice going "I'm all alone again," which has already puzzled or bored listeners, but in the context of the album, may be just continuing the "voices in my head" trope.) "Psychological" also may or may not be referencing, or addressed to, A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, who is one character I think of when I hear about someone with an "asymmetric haircut and a painted eye."

But something strange happens in the middle eight. In the verse right before, Neil sings: "What's that spilt on the kitchen floor/Who's that knocking on the cellar door/It's psychological." The implication here, as it is on the other verses, is that our paranoid narrator is (over-)interpreting things, seeing dangers where they may be none. The song, after all, is set in a house -- with attics, cellars, kitchens, and a cemetery outside -- that easily map onto, and can be seen as, a metaphor for the human mind or consciousness. But when the middle eight comes, the lyric goes: "Or is it only your imagination/Driving me crazy, crazy, baby, baby, please." That "or" is intensely odd: the song already seems to be suggesting that the bad smell in the air, the knocking on the door, are "psychological" and in your mind. But, just when it seems like we are going to get an alternative explanation ("or"), we instead end up with something that sounds equally psychological: is it just your imagination? It's as if, as one of this blog's brilliant readers already commented to me, reality is no longer an option in this world of ours. Furthermore, the pronouns in the refrain are weirdly mixed: is it your imagination, driving me crazy? Is that even possible? "Psychological" is therefore much less straightfroward than it appears: where we expect a song about how, on one side of the line, there is such a thing as reality, and then, on the other, imagination, psychological drama and warfare, and paranoia, the song instead deconstructs those neat binaries and suggest a much more messed up world. It might be psychological or your imagination; it might be your imagination or my craziness. Roll the dice and choose a side, but there is no safe inside, and no scary outside.

Tomorrow: On the "fundamental" Pet Shop Boys sound, political and musical bombast, and introspection...

Monday, May 15, 2006

Pet Shop Boys, Fundamental (2006): Part 1

(NB: There are no mp3s in this post.)

In his recent The Word feature on the Pet Shop Boys, Andrew Harrison helpfully reminds us of the two meanings in the title of their new album. The word "fundamental," he notes, "concerns society's retreat into entrenched, irrational beliefs and the Pet Shop Boys' own return to their sonic roots. Handily it also has 'fun' and 'mental' in it." Those two themes -- the album as concerned with fundamentalism, and especially with the culture of fear, and Fundamental as distilling some sort of Pet Shop Boys quintessence -- are as good ways as any to consider, as I will over the next few days, the ninth studio album by one of my favorite groups.

Further, we might notice two more related tidbits about the wordplay. First, the two meanings of the title actually pull in different directions: while "entrenched, irrational beliefs" are presumably negative things that the album observes and implicitly warns against, the "return to sonic roots" is just as clearly, but conversely, figured as a positive trait. The latter is especially so because Fundamental -- if we don't count the Disco 3 or PopArt compilations, or the Battleship Potemkin soundtrack (to which it owes something, but we'll come to that) -- follows on the heels of 2002's Release, which was widely (if unfairly) seen as a dud because its rock textures strayed from the "Pet Shop Boys sound." It would appear that there are good fundamentalisms, and bad fundamentalisms. A question that might arise, therefore, has to do precisely with the relationship between "fundamentalist irrational beliefs" and "the fundamental Pet Shop Boys sound" -- or, to put it another way, between the crazy "mental" state of the world, and the typical "fun" Pet sound. In other words, here's one implicit query posed by the dual meaning of the title, or, really, by the album tout court: to what extent can music save us?

It's an old chestnut of a question, and one that the Pet Shop Boys have previously pondered. Fundamental completes that question mostly with the phrase "…from politics?", a move the Boys have made before (most nakedly on "It's Alright" -- "The year 3000 may still come to pass/But the music shall last/I can hear it on a timeless wavelength/Never dissipating but giving us strength/I hope it's gonna be alright" -- although that's tellingly a song they didn't themselves write, and in some ways were always a bit ambivalent about having recorded). But that question, in its general form, really underwrites much of their work; think, for example, of "Saturday Night Forever," where all the troubles of the preceding songs are forgotten in an orgy of dancing that the song's narrator pretends or hopes will never end. Indeed, on a larger level, the gesture that controls Fundamental -- in which two things exist in some sort of creative tension, and the album is a way to work that out, through music -- is one that's arguably present on many Pet Shop Boys albums: Please (wanting to escape and be free vs. agreeing to be tied down); Very (being in the closet vs. being out); Bilingual (death, especially stemming from AIDS vs. the new life afforded by love); Nightlife (the exhilaration of clubbing vs. its emotional ravages).

But to say that Fundamental formulates a question that has been asked before (or is built around a dynamic that we've seen before), of course, is not to say that it's not a question worth asking, nor to say it won't be asked in different ways this go-round, and certainly not that its answers won't be interestingly different this time.

Tomorrow: But let's go back to the two most obvious "themes" of the album, beginning with the idea that Fundamental is largely about our current political climate...

Friday, May 12, 2006

Anja Garbarek, "The Last Trick" (2005)

Here is the handy Brittle-Lemon guide to frosty, spooky Scandinavian songstresses.

BjörkStina NordenstamAnja Garbarek
Place of originReykjavík, IcelandStockholm, SwedenOslo, Norway
Year of birth196519691970
Channeling Kim Novak?No.No.And how.
Famous parent?No. Because she sprang fully formed from a swan's egg.No. What is family but a breeding ground for tragedy?Yes. her father is jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek.
Degree of fame, scale of 1-101062
Degree of weirdness1191
Nails-on-chalkboard quality of voice864
Suggested prozac dosage100 mg/day80 mg/day10 mg/day
Go on, then. Recommend me a song."Joga" marks her high point, of course.Pick anything from the last album The World Is Saved."The Last Trick," from the current album Briefly Shaking, featuring a toy piano, a galloping horse to keep time, handclaps, and a lyric about packing it all in.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Weepies, "Gotta Have You" (2005)

One way to explain why this song is so affecting is to simply point to some of its objective qualities: it's a song about lost love. It's an acoustic track with a country air to it, thereby alluding to a genre that does heartbreak especially well. It's beautifully sung by Deb Talan, shifting between a voice filled with raw, gruff hurt (on the first verse) and one that's more angelic, fragile, yet still tremendously weary (on the chorus and subsequent verses, which are also lightly and sadly suffused with Steve Tannen's harmonies).

But to fully get why "Gotta Have You" is so moving -- why, to put things in context, I played it about ten times in a row when I first laid my hands on it -- we have to understand how the song anticipates a particular kind of comfort, and then negates it. The song doesn't explicitly set a scene. But with its twangy air, it positions itself as a song that you listen to at a dive bar, as you stare into your cheap watered-down beer and watch your sorrows float to the top. But even as the song implies this scene, it also reminds you that such a setting will also do you absolutely no good. "No amount of coffee, no amount of crying/No amount of whiskey, no amount of wine/No, no, no, no, no, nothing else will do/I've gotta have you, I've gotta have you." In this quiet bar, you may -- have to -- drink all you want, but you already know it's going to offer you no solace. At every turn, only a hopelessness.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Styrofoam, "A Heart Without A Mind (Radio Mix)" (2004)

Shop window. Stockholm, Sweden. 2004.

When I try to imagine how this glitchpop record was made, I think of a room filled only with thousands of wind-up toys. Arne van Petegem of Styrofoam enters, methodically winds up each one in turn, and sets them down on the floor. One by one they start to whirl, their gears clicking, rattling, hissing, or humming. Two or three stuffed monkeys keep time on their miniature cymbals as they waddle around in hopeless circles. Some of the toys wind down and stop, but no one notices since there're always new ones to take their place. It should therefore be a cacophony, but as each mechanical sound overlaps and comes together, it's instead closer to a symphony. Arne himself sings above it all, his voice always already processed, increasingly split, broken, and multiple, and oddly affecting despite its affectlessness. Each word he utters only postpones its meaning to the next one, in an infinite chain of deferral and regression. "'Meaningless' means 'empty,' 'empty' means 'no sound.'" So he fills the room with sounds. Until, finally, Arne himself winds down, whirring to a stop after four and a half inexplicably beautiful minutes.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Kiley Dean, "So Caught Up" (2003/Unreleased)

Although many pop-lovers are enamored of Rihanna's "S.O.S.," declaring it one of the year's best singles, I'm not especially smitten.

I think the problem begins with how the song isn't so much built on a "sample" of "Tainted Love" -- as many commentators have styled it -- as it is, straight-up, a mash-up: the rhythm track is completely lifted from Soft Cell, and Rihanna essentially sings a new melody on top. I've nothing against mash-ups; for me, however, a successful one makes me forget both original sources, or at least pushes them into the background. I just can't quite do this with "S.O.S."

Why not? The Sugababes' "Freak Like Me" provides a good point of contrast, since it likewise appropriates a highly recognizable electro riff. But that Gary Numan riff is very layered and varied: the verses have these quivering synth lines that are drawn-out and rolling, but when the chorus hits, these synth lines shrink, transforming into staccato stabs. Deployed by the Sugababes (and Richard X), the Numan riff therefore never distracts during the verses -- it kind of just rumbles under the Babes' singing -- and as such, when the "freak in the morning" chorus comes around, the shortened riff pushes its way to the front and bursts forth gloriously.

With "S.O.S.," there is no such subtle variation. The Soft Cell track, after all, is pretty much nothing but the "dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum, dum-rum!" riff. This doesn't make it a lesser song than "Are 'Friends' Electric" -- indeed, it makes it a more relentless stomper, and of course in its real original incarnation as a Northern soul classic this was natural -- but it does make it a tougher song to mash-up. Since those "dum-dums" soundtrack all of Marc Almond's anguish, the specter of the original never recedes throughout "S.O.S."; when I listen to the latter, it's impossible not to sing the melodically superior "Tainted Love" all throughout Rihanna's yelps. Indeed, despite hearing it many times, I'll be hard-pressed to sing the Rihanna tune on its own. It's pretty much nothing but "sample," in large part because the Soft Cell track was nothing but that riff.

Rihanna is not the only one to battle -- and batter -- Soft Cell in recent years. Kiley Dean was supposed to have a great career: after touring with Britney and looking like Courtney Love crossbred with Jessica Simpson, she signed to the Beat Club label, where she had much of her debut album produced by that label's boss, one Timbaland. But when the singles did nothing, Simple Girl was shelved, and now seems unlikely to see the light of day (though a new album, Changes, is allegedly forthcoming). One of the tracks from the Simple Girl sessions was "So Caught Up," which features, yes, the strains of "Tainted Love."

In some ways, Kiley's song should work less well than Rihanna's. While Rihanna sings a new tune, Kiley takes, not just the riff, but snippets of the "Tainted Love" melody: the refrain leading up to the chorus, and even the very instinctive "Oh!" that leads into it, before the song swerves away, almost in embarrassment. It seems, therefore, less original. But she and her producer -- I'm not sure if this track is Timba-led -- screws around with the riff in interesting ways, so that it doesn't exactly follow the four-four Motownesque beat. They don't chop it up, exactly, but they do "fill in" the riff with more notes, so that it stutters and in some ways circles the tune. (You can almost imagine Kiley's producer with a finger on the special effects button that would make the bleepy synth riff bounce from one ear to the other.) It fits the mood of the song: there is a kind of hesitancy now in the riff, which no longer has the brash pounding confidence it did in the original, and this hesitancy matches well the lyrical tale of being regretfully over-involved. "So Caught Up" is not quite a great track, but it at least represents a much more intriguing use of the canonical synthpop record that is "Tainted Love."

Friday, May 05, 2006

Massive Attack featuring Elizabeth Fraser, "Silent Spring" (2006)

Total camp classicZgathiu us ze råck ghøgh eh Gehöragtt gyu, ta hujkü hjyøü hamra eh kilhte fog haujy on eh ghu juhty hiti!onhj fog Moohyht, Htbkolpgh Ujtedwga justfgy ühjøji. Zet hteatugs Bghoajuyh "Googoogaga" Hyîø hjuionga over ze hujø, hjafeg bum btear, abzcfs hjyo jthafgi, ghat jut!hj, aght ximhs fecta. Ghat hjyhu lpo mü, juœhy!h, hajokwt ü ohljuyfeta. Go justgh, gog and thei oui oui hjystg!ghü.

(Translation: This is a track from the Mezzanine era, but only now seeing the light of day on the two-disc edition of Collected, Massive Attack's greatest hits compilation. It features Elizabeth "Nell" Fraser singing over a taut, spring-loaded drum beat, what sounds like an oboe, and an icy, lonely piano, for maximum triphop effect. And she's singing, apparently, in a made-up language. If she can do it, I don't see why I can't.)

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Pet Shop Boys, "The Resurrectionist (Goetz B. Extended Mix)" (2006)

"Actually the whole b-sides collection," Chris Lowe has said of Alternative, "is kind of a historical record of contemporary dance music..." "...often of us trying to copy things," Neil finished. The more recent Pet Shop Boys b-sides have taken their inspiration from current pop and rock, but the sentiment remains true: thus, "The Ghost Of Myself" is an obvious homage to "...Baby One More Time," while "I Didn't Get Where I Am Today" is the Boys' attempt to do a kind of Strokes pastiche. Sometimes it doesn't work (the clunky former); sometimes it does so brilliantly (the rollicking latter, which, despite what Neil and Chris have claimed, would have fitted perfectly on Release -- say, between "I Get Along" and "Birthday Boy" -- and given it the jolt of energy it needed).

"Does anybody need a body/From a resurrectionist?" This is blindingly brilliant. A bonus track on the forthcoming "I'm With Stupid" DVD single, "The Resurrectionist" take a leaf from The Killers' book -- which of course was itself completely written in, and by, the 80s. There is the classic 80s bassline ("Into the Groove"/"Loves Come Quickly"), and the big, big drums that Trevor Horn is clearly still in love with, but most Killerish of all, a new wavy synth riff that sounds like a rejiggled version of the one on "Smile Like You Mean It." Even lyrically, the song touches on a favorite Killers topic -- but in a wittier and more erudite fashion -- and one that a friend has unfortunately had to think about these few days. As with many of Neil's words, this set apparently arose from his reading, specifically of Sarah Wise's The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London, which is about pre-Victorian criminals who supplied medical schools with cadavers, first by robbing graves, and then eventually by creating the supply themselves. "We all gotta earn ourselves a living/All it takes is a little bit of digging." "We don't bring them back to life/But we do bring them back from the dead."

Should this have been on the new album, which some people are already grousing is too ballad-heavy? Discuss. At some point, probably closer to the release date, I'll write about Fundamental, if I don't decide there's way too much to say. (Oh, and this one is just up for three days.)

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Shola Ama, "You Might Need Somebody (Acoustic Version)" (1997)

"You might need somebody/You might need somebody too."

The real story, of course, lies in that "too." Although much of the song affects to be objective advice -- "When somebody reaches for your heart/Open up and let them through/Cause everybody, needs someone around/Things can tumble down on you" -- the way the chorus takes the basic imploration and adds a "too" every other line makes it clear that the singer is the foremost candidate seeking love. It's hardly impersonal advice, but one coming out of a deeply vested interest.

At the end of Shola Ama's cover version, she ad libs a confession to that effect: "I know I do." In that, it is somewhat less subtle than the Randy Crawford original, on which that phrase doesn't appear (in general, Shola doesn't seem to know how best to end the track). But on all other counts Shola's treatment -- specifically the acoustic version, as opposed to the more r'n'b version she had a hit with as her debut -- is more poignant than Randy's soft-jazz-rock original. Sung in a more clipped, urgent manner, to just a strummed guitar, this is terrifically plaintive. "You'll discover, when you look around, you don't have to be alone." On that line, heartstoppingly so.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Jimmy Somerville, "But Not Tonight"/"Under A Lover's Sky" (2004)

At the end of 2004, Jimmy Somerville released his fourth solo studio album, and pretty much no one cared.

Some of this was due to the fact that the record, called Home Again, was done for a small label (Jinx Music) and released in only a few countries. I've only seen it in two shops: one here, and the other in DC, in a store that partly caters to Teh Gays (I know it's a bit quaint, in this day and age, to talk about real live breathing record stores). The other reason for the indifference, perhaps, is that the quality of Jimmy's work has deteriorated. I enjoyed his first two solo albums: Read My Lips was a great debut in 1989, and 1995's Dare To Love, though containing a few duds, was a pretty solid album. But Manage The Damage was a listless affair, and the US-only b-sides and remix collection that followed, Root Beer, bit long and hard. Given the time Jimmy takes to put out albums -- though I don't begrudge his stated desire to have a personal life -- this meant that it has been almost ten years since his last good record. That's a long time to expect the public to keep caring, Jim.

Home Again is a bit of a mixed bag, and as a whole isn't as good as the first two albums, but probably better than Manage. Still mindful of the way his biggest hits have been Motown covers, there is the obligatory dance version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." There are a couple of obvious "big" tracks: the single "Come On," which you can hear at Jimmy's website, uses a rubbery electroclashy bassline that recalls "Can't Get You Out Of My Head." And were it not for the useless lyric (platitudes about how "you're gonna reach for gold" -- was this written for the Olympics? -- and, generally, a declaration of love that comes across more threateningly than it should), and the way the track fails to soar like it should in the final few minutes, it could have been a contender.

And then there's "But Not Tonight." Yes, It's a cover of one of Depeche Mode's finest moments. But it is Not Good, folks. Although it's possibly so bad that it ends up lapping itself to become good again. Things start promisingly enough, with the keyboard riff of the original getting punched up to 10 on the Eurodisco scale (possibly even to an "11" -- it's a bit Crazy Frog). Jimmy starts singing in his natural, lower voice, which is well and fine; he's done that to good effect on several older tracks. But perhaps feeling too unadorned in that lower key, Jimmy over-caresses some words, placing too much stress on the end of lines like "my pleasure at being SO WET!" or "I'll get away from this constant DEBAUCHERY!" with the result that he sounds like a perv wraggling his eyebrows at you. More inexplicably, at several points in the song Jimmy shifts without warning into his falsetto. Not a bad idea in itself, but they are such random moments (is "the moon is shining in the sky" an especially ecstatic line which needs such emphasis?) to make it seem like he was merrily singing along, and then someone grabbed his balls and squeezed too hard.

But the lovely moments on the album are quite lovely. The bleepy and dancetastic opener, "Could It Be Love"; the simple but sublime "It Still Hurts." But the best song for me is "Under A Lover's Sky." Sung right by Jimmy: with a growl in exactly the right place ("roars like thunder"), and a kind of stretched tremulousness in others ("We live to live our lives/Satisfied that the risssssiiing"). Most wondrously, each chorus is backed by an ascending pizzicato string passage (synthesized -- we're on a production budget here) that keep tugging at the melody and lyric, urging them to go higher and higher; indeed, after the second chorus, the passage stays around for the middle eight, as if unable to be contained. "So tonight let freedom play/With our hearts till break of day/And forever stay a part of me." In moments like this, old Potato Head doesn't need to coast on the goodwill he's engendered from his Bronski Beat and Communards days, but just seems like an old friend who's a friend again.