tremble clef

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."


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