tremble clef

Monday, July 31, 2006

a-ha, "Driftwood" (1985)

I borrow a 12" single from a classmate: a-ha's "The Sun Always Shine On TV." I was intrigued, but not completely sold on the group. "Take On Me" was good, but already ubiquitous to the point of being annoying.

The extended version of "The Sun Shines" on the 12" is pleasant enough, but it's the b-side that's awesome. "Driftwood" has a weird elastic bassline, and the chorus melody allows Morten to really utilize his range: "And I go high over, down under, at her lady's will." I'm especially captivated by the way his vocals are double-tracked when he sings the line, "Will your hands still touch me when my face has fallen in with age?" It creates a lovely ghostly effect, as if he has already projected himself into that future. If the band had included it in the album, it might be second only to the title track in aceness.

I put the record on and make myself a taped copy.

Where the hell is that tape? I've been hunting high and etc. etc.

"A working group consisting of Leon Van de Kerkhof (The Netherlands), Gerhard Stoll (Germany), Yves-François Dehery (France), Karlheinz Brandenburg (Germany) took ideas from Musicam and ASPEC, added some of their own ideas and created MP3, which was designed to achieve the same quality at 128 kbit/s as MP2 at 192 kbit/s. All algorithms were approved in 1991, finalized in 1992 as part of MPEG-1, the first standard suite by MPEG, which resulted in the international standard ISO/IEC 11172-3, published in 1993. Further work on MPEG audio was finalized in 1994 as part of the second suite of MPEG standards, MPEG-2, more formally known as international standard ISO/IEC 13818-3, originally published in 1995."

Did "Driftwood" ever appear on CD? Feh. Apparently once, in Japan, when the single first came out, but I guess I forgot to take a weekend off to fly there in order to pick it up.


Friday, July 28, 2006

The Cardigans, "If There Is A Chance" (2003)

I was recently thinking about, of all things, the song "How Do You Keep The Music Playing?" Written by Michel Legrand, and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the song was first performed by James Ingram and Patti Austin, though a check of the iTunes store reveals that it's been covered by quite a few illustrious artists since (Bennett, Barbra, Sinatra, Mathis, and, um, Nana Mouskouri). I'm more nonplussed than embarrassed to admit that I first encountered the song as purely as one could: not just sung by the original pair, but in its original setting too. I heard it, that is, during the Burt Reynolds-Goldie Hawn movie it was written for (by Barry Levinson with his then-wife!), Best Friends. I have no idea why I went to see the movie, but I have a very specific memory of being in the theatre by myself -- I must have been thirteen, though that hardly seems right -- and can even recollect a scene of Burt Reynolds acting all anguished, and hairy, while taking a shower. Goldie may have been in there with him. That part I'm vague on.

The song, you may know, is built around a simple but evocative metaphor: a relationship is itself like a song. The problem, therefore, is that the song may get -- to use a doubly appropriate phrase -- played out. So: "How do you keep the music playing? How do you make it last? How do you keep the song from fading too fast? How do you lose yourself to someone? And never lose your way? How do you not run out of new things to say? And since we're always changing, how can it be the same? And tell me how, year after year, you're sure your heart will fall apart, each time you hear his name?" It's really quite a tremendous conceit, expressing through eight concise questions, almost all the doubts one might have as a relationship (or, in the case of the movie, a friendship) morphs into a long-term commitment. "The more I love, the more I'm afraid, that in your eyes I may not see forever."

The song, furthermore, makes a bit of a meta-comment about love songs. It implicitly reminds us how easy it is to compare love, as many songsmiths have done, to a lovely tune, but to do so only at that level is to neglect to push that analogy to its logical extreme. (Perhaps a pretty girl is not like a melody -- or rather, maybe she is very much so, since her beauty, and the relationship, will fade. That's partly, though not completely, Stephin Merritt's point in one of his 69 Love Songs.) But even though "How Do You Keep The Music Playing?" goes further than most to develop the analogy, it finally shies away from fully embracing it. After the stunning opening, the lyric reaches a conclusion that's too overly tidy: "If we can be the best of lovers/Yet be the best of friends/If we can try, with everyday, to make it better, as it grows/With any luck, then I suppose, the music never ends." It's a bit of a cop-out, especially since the song -- of course -- does end. Sure, perhaps by that point, the "music [that] never ends" no longer refers to the specific song that is actually being sung there and then, but rather more broadly denotes the "music of the relationship" -- in other words, the idea seems to be that we'll be okay as long as we keep remembering to turn the record over, or put another on. But still, the song doesn't appear to recognize, let alone capitalize on, the devastating irony of having Patti and James sing, "With any luck, then I suppose, the music never ends..." right before it does.

In the Cardigans' "If There Is A Chance," the track that got me thinking about the topic in the first place, there is no such false reprieve. (Oh, those depressed Scandinavians.) The song, which is tucked away as a bonus track on non-European editions of the group's Long Gone Before Daylight album, is almost unrelenting in its bleakness. "The music's playing on, but something's wrong, something's gone," Nina Persson sings. "The major's [major chords, presumably] turning blue, and so did you, so did you." Her lover has left; only Nina is left to sing the countryish melody. "Bird leave their nests," she philosophizes, her voice temporarily lifting on the bridge, "and they fly/There's nobody left here but I." But she keeps the record playing, because she still nurses a faint hope: "If there is a chance, just one in this world, that we'll ever dance again, as it turns/If there is a chance, if there is a way -- there's one record left, that you haven't heard." (It's worth comparing "If There Is A Chance" to a subsequent Cardigans song, "Overload," in which Nina implores her lover to dance her home: on the surface a cheery proposition, or at least cheerier than the one presented here, but even there, Nina still manages to sing it, as Edward at Umlauts/EBM has noted, like she's absolutely heartbroken.)

But I think she, unlike singers of "How Do You Keep The Music Playing?" knows in her heart of hearts that she is only deceiving herself. She will keep playing the record, and hope that he comes back for one last dance; but she understands, much as she may not want to, that the song must end, will end. Here, the tension is not ignored or swept under the carpet, but completely integral to the song. She knows. We know. Indeed, part of why the song is so sad to listen to is the way it fills us with a sense of inevitability: for four minutes, you have to hear Nina express her fragile hope that the music will keep playing, when you, for many reasons, know that it won't. I can hardly bear it. "There's one record left, that you haven't heard. And I'll keep it spinning," Nina finally sings, in her completely bruised and immeasurably sad voice. The waltz slows. The organ stops. The guitars drop out, though one plays a last twang. The drums are the last things left. They thud: once, twice, once more. And then, silence.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Tracey Ullman, "They Don't Know" (1983)


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Alexis Strum, "Why Me, Why Now? (Bent Mix)" (2006)

Bent has some some brilliant remixes done to them, and have done some great remixes themselves. There were, for example, the amazing reworkings by Ashley Beedle of their "Always" (with the stunning pizzicato string arrangement) and "Magic Love" (with the thumping almost-tribal beat and thrilling synth wails). I'm also partial to the great but lesser-known Reverso 68 remix of "Comin' Back" -- Reverso 68 being that not-very-prolific team who also did a treatment of The Juan Maclean's "Tito's Way" -- with its percolating rhythms that should, but somehow never, get monotonous.

Bent's own remixes of other artists are always provocative, if nothing else. For one thing, they've often chosen some unlikely suspects: Lighthouse Family. Hall and Oates. "9 pm (Till I Come)." Indeed, I vaguely remember them once saying in an interview that they feel like they get more to work with when the original source is a little dubious, not that they were speaking about anyone in particular, ATB. Their remix of Billie Holiday's "Speak Low," done for Verve Remixed 3, is for my money the best remix of last year. I don't understand how they did it, but somehow they managed to get the synth lines to synch with the way tears rise to my eyes when I hear it. Freaky.

As Bent remixes go, their recent tweaking of Alexis Strum's "Why Me, Why Now?" isn't their absolute best, or their most radical, but maybe that's because the affecting original is no sow's ear. Bent adds more of a beat, some lovely synth washes, and then just let Alexis's vocals float above it all (and, at some points, reverberate effectively). But these are also exactly what the original needed to perk it up, and I for one would be happy if Alexis -- if and when she ever gets the chance to actually release Cocoon, sigh -- considers replacing the original with the Bent remix.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

I'm From Barcelona, "Treehouse" (2006)

An ex-roommate is apparently in town. Thankfully, he hasn't called me, and probably won't, because he doesn't need anything from me this time. I once wrote about him elsewhere, noting that he's the "kind of person who might: go to a radical faerie meeting; enjoy beating drums in jungles with other naked gay men; have once gone to a massage gathering and thoroughly embarrassed the guy he was with because, anytime someone laid hands on him, he insisted on sighing really, really loudly and exaggeratedly; perform a ritual to change his name that may or may not have involved blood, a jade dildo, a virgin aardvark, and the drinking of ashes dissolved in water; and then write a serious essay about said ritual."

So I'm worried sick because I really love this song. I'm From Barcelona hail, logically enough, from Sweden. Since there are something like three hundred and twenty-seven members in the group, they have been endlessly compared to The Polyphonic Spree. If my ex-roommate were music, he would be The Polyphonic Spree, i.e., sound like an irony-free choir of singing granola bars. You just know he would really love the liberating outfits because they let his balls swing free.

Mercifully, I'm From Barcelona are dressed much more sensibly, and more akin to a scruffy army of happy pop hipsters. Some of them even border on being a little hot, but then again there are twenty-nine to choose from. You'd figure that the odds are reasonable. "Treehouse" is my favorite thing from their quite-good debut album, and almost impossible not to sing along to: "I have built a treehouse!/I have built a treehouse!/Nobody can see us!/Cause it's a you-and-me house!" The harmonies are expectedly glorious, but it's the "ah, ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah" and "wa-aaah-aaah" backing bits -- they first bring us from the opening chorus to the verse, and then are overlaid over subsequent choruses -- that are especially killer. And it's not as if it's not obvious from the start that "treehouse" is a stand-in, but by the end of the song, the joy at finding a private place in the world really feels infectiously uplifting.

Obviously I've started down a slippery path and am myself now a step away from wearing a muumuu. Help.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Veronicas, "I Could Get Used To This" (2005)

Lisa and/or Jessica's boyfriend, not minding her morning breath, wakes her with a kiss and makes her breakfast in bed. He doesn't care about her messy hair, and has the same taste in music and movies as she does. When she freaks, he understands; there's not a trick about her he misses. He has even tattooed her name on his hand. So she thinks, with charming, almost-English reserve and caution: "I could get used to this."

Some of us eavesdroppers might think: don't. All that will die off completely, or if you're lucky, just fade. The full-on kiss will devolve into a peck on the cheek, then the forehead, and eventually nothing at all. Soon there will be fights about chick flicks vs. Van Damme rentals. There may even be expensive tattoo removal procedures. Also, get your own damn cereal.

Because some of us are old, and cynical, and no longer have any faith in, or use for, love. But listening to this, one of four great teenpop tracks on The Veronicas album (and the only one not a single so far), some of us might forget ourselves for a moment, and believe again.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Basement Jaxx, "Take Me Back To Your House" (2006)

The new Basement Jaxx album, Crazy Itch Radio, is pretty much what you'd expect. The structure, for example, hews to their formula: the album is frontloaded with the immediate songs (the first three proper tracks can easily be the singles); there are interludes (which develop the conceit that we are listening to a radio station, as the album title already foretells); the slow or mid-tempo jams are stuffed into the latter half of the album, broken up only by one hopping track ("Everybody"); it ends with the obligatory over-long track (although in this case, said number is actually "long" because it includes a hidden track).

The potential singles also continue to demonstrate the camp sense of humor typical of the Jaxx. Typical to me, at least: while many people have recognized the humor in many of Felix and Simon's songs, probably not many would call it camp. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I would, in the sense that these songs usually mask their sincere emotion by immediately commenting on, or mocking it. The lead single "Hush Boy," for instance, is a giddy delight -- I've always preferred the Jaxx in their slinky "Jus 1 Kiss" or "Oh My Gosh" manifestation more than their frat boy jump-n-shout mode -- but never more so when the male backing vocalist screams in a funny drunken voice, "IF YOU WANT ME FOR YOUR GIRLFRIEND!!!" And on "Take Me Back To Your House," the narrator is almost plaintive about wanting to be taken home, but before the emotions get too naked, the track bursts into a glorious chorus, with people screaming in the back, and then a cartoonish voice going, "NO NO NO NO!!!" In my book that's camp, and these tracks are great additions to the Jaxx canon, which is just waiting to be mined by an enterprising drag queen.

If it sounds like I'm calling Crazy Itch Radio predictable, I...well, I am, but the predictable touches (1) don't detract from what is a ridiculously enjoyable album, and (2) are sandwiched around lots of less expected ones. On "Take Me Back To Your House," it's the banjo, which inflects the Jaxx flamenco-house sound and mutates it into a kind of country stomper. On "Hey You," the other insta-hit, it's not just the vocals provided by Robyn and a children's choir, but the way the jittery backing track both builds on, but departs slightly from the samba rhythms previously favored by the band. Meanwhile, "On The Train" sounds like a big band jazz number updated for today.

But it's all about "Take Me Back To Your House" today, when I'm not, that is, walking around randomly shrieking at passers-by, "IF YOU WANT ME FOR YOUR GIRLFRIEND!!!" (Sorry, no mp3, since I see that a couple of sites that had put up tracks have presumably been asked to take them down. I ain't poking nuttin'.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Frost, "American Records" (1998)/"Duo" (2002)

Here is a picture of Aggie Peterson and Per Martinsen, aka Norwegian electronic duo Frost.

My head feels funny
Oh dear. Per's head has been replaced by a disco ball. It's like a Kafka story, except happy.

The photo, which I'm supposed to tell you was taken by Hans Fredrik Asbjørnsen, is to promote the current single by the band, called "Sleepwalker," as well as the forthcoming album on which it will presumably feature. Not for the first time I have failed you, because I don't have an mp3 of the track. But you can watch the video. Sure, do it now. Go on. I'll wait.

The song's quite good, isn't it? Bit of an electro stomper, with Aggie singing ethereally over the top. It could be a modern day version of "Voyage Voyage." Maybe it's a bit repetitive and isn't quite "the finest track of its ilk since Annie's 'Greatest Hit,'" as one press account would have it, but still -- it stomps.

I'm therefore quite eager to hear the new album. My spidey sense tells me that, after two records that didn't live up to their potential, Frost might just be finally ready to produce one that will be brilliantly stompy all the way through. Perhaps.

Aggie has always been the center of the group, but she's had different partners. She started by working with Rune Lindbæk, producing a debut album called Bedsit Theories with the help of Torbjørn Brundtland, who would go on to form Röyksopp. That first album mostly consisted of moody triphop numbers, interspersed with more guitary tracks. In the former category, for instance, there was a cover of The Rah Band's "Clouds Across The Moon" (you know: that fantastically melodramatic 80s song set in a futuristic world where the technology is advanced enough to send a man to work on Mars, but not advanced enough to allow his girl to call him more than once a year?). In the latter category was "American Records," which the trainspotters out there will know is also a cover, of the Saint Etienne b-side "I Buy American Records." It was therefore a slightly unfocused album, and also lacked a killer pop single ("Close To You," with its na-na-nas, was pleasant, but pretty inconsequential).

For the second album, Aggie worked with Per, and that line-up seems to have solidified. The resulting record, Melodica, was more determinedly electronic, featuring a couple of tracks produced by Röyksopp as well as a single called "Endless Love" (at least on the US version of the album) that Torbjørn and Sven gave the remix treatment to. Quality-wise too, the album was much more consistent, and contained some lovely numbers: the bouncy "Alphabet," for example, on which Aggie cutely declares her intention to not "live a life preset/I want to read every letter of the alphabet."

But my favorite song is probably the gorgeous electro ballad "Duo." In particular, there are moments in there I could listen to over and over: whenever the song goes from the verse to the chorus and the key changes, and Aggie's voice suddenly lifts to sing, "One and one was still two/You came to me, I came to you/You bought me flowers, talked for hours [surely a Pet Shop Boys quotation, and indeed the conceit of the song might even make a gentle nod to "One And One Make Five"]/It was meant to be, I know/One and one was still two/I wouldn't be without you/Another day, night fades away/We were meant to be, I know..." It is then when Ms. Frost especially lives up to her name: icy, but always holding the promise that when it all melts, it creates beautiful moments to witness.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Two Of Us, "Blue Night Shadow (Special Dance Version)" (1985)

When I was your age, to get to school I had to trudge ten miles in the snow naked while a pack of wild coyotes snapped at my frost-bitten ass all the way. Now you ingrates just call that a "circuit party." And in my days what music we had was on vinyl. Sometimes the vinyl was even colored or made into these things called "picture discs." Not that I could afford any of them. All the money I had went towards my snow shoe fund.

I first heard this song on some BBC radio show. Back in the 80s listening to the BBC was laborious: I had to tune my shortwave radio just right, and not move a muscle in case anything interfered with the reception. My ears had to be glued to the set; even when the tuning was on, the reception was faint and static-filled at best. But I somehow managed to hear this song, once, and then never again on the radio. It's a slightly odd but wildy catchy number: ominous, shivery violins giving way to a finger-snapping rhythm that imitates a plucked double bass, almost doo-wop vocals, and dramatic orchestral stabs. It's like, in your modern parlance, Koop mashed up with Yes's "Owner Of A Lonely Heart."

Three or four years later I was in Princeton Record Exchange, and found the 12", priced steeply at 99 cents. I sold a liver to buy it, played it quite a lot, and then, after I stopped having a functional turntable circa 1992, never again.

Through it all, I know little about Two Of Us. We didn't have these interwebs back then, and there was no mention of Two Of Us on the stone tablets passed down to us. They are German, that much I gathered. Now I see that they consisted, logically enough, of two members (James Herter and Thomas Dörr), atrociously used to be called "Kiz," and released two albums (Twice As Nice and Inside Out).

The thing I remember the most, aside from the song itself, was that the record was pressed on blue transparent vinyl. Not flimsy vinyl either: all twelve inches were thick and solid. My favorite piece of vinyl was probably my Frankie Goes To Hollywood "The Power Of Love" picture disc, but this clear blue record was still pretty damn cool. At some point I weepily had to make snow googles out of the record, but, when it was mine and intact, I totally dug it.

Monday, July 17, 2006

My Robot Friend featuring Crasta Yo, "Swallow" (2006)

"Boy girl boy girl boy girl boy girl boy girl boy girl boy girl boy, boy girl girl boy boy boy boy girl girl boy boy girl."

The more I write the words "boy" and "girl," the weirder they look. That may not have been an intended consequence of this song, but is certainly in keeping with its spirit. "Swallow" sees My Robot Friend team up with out lesbian rapper Crasta Yo for an electroclash number, alternately grunting and spry, that's a celebration of proverbial polymorphous perversity. Looking for a bathroom, Crasta instead stumbles into "what must have been the backroom," where...well, you know the rest. Though, just when you think do, "all change positions!" "Tri bi metro omnisexual, homo hetero, yo, I'm flexible. Horizontal, in a pile, doggie, dragon, lotus-style. From beginner to advanced, drop your hang-ups, drop your pants, it's all release and relaxation, with no weird breakfast conversation." I really should check the Kama Sutra to be sure, but I think that just about covers it.

Meanwhile, My Robot Friend himself sings a chorus in which he "swallowed everything you gave me." It doesn't sound especially safe or politically correct to me, but what kind of perversity is? Besides, he is a robot.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Candy Lo (卢巧音), "Anaesthesized (麻醉)"(1999)

The Pet Shop Boys must be simultaneously pleased and narked that the BBC used "Numb" a couple of weeks ago to soundtrack their montage of England getting booted out of the World Cup. (You've seen by now, no? If not, you're sorta out of luck, since YouTube has removed the vid. Except that it seems that the one embedded at Popjustice is still working.) Pleased, because it provides huge exposure for the track, huge enough that it might propel the song to #1 on the charts much as it almost did for Oasis after the 2002 World Cup. But narked, since the timing is off: while "Numb" may yet be a single, for now it's "Minimal" that is slated to be released in a few weeks. But that's been a typical PSB story, and I suspect they will soon start telling the tale of mis-timing as yet another example of how they usually get no breaks, even when they get the breaks.

"Numb" is interesting in that its words and music work at cross-purposes (a point that, believe it or not, I never explicitly made before now): while the lyric tells of wanting to feel emotionally dead, its music is hardly numb. (A more predictable route would have been to arrange the song in a trip-hop fashion, and indeed Portishead is the other band with a famous track named "Numb.") With its grand orchestrations, the music instead plays the role of the turmoil -- the world crashing down around -- which the narrator feels the need to escape from or deaden himself to. At least until the part when all the music drops out -- which, in the Fundamental interview CD, Neil calls the central moment of the song -- which is the track's moment of numbing.

While I've just called songs that are both about, and sound like, numbness more "predictable," this doesn't mean that I'm not partial to them. Perhaps my favorites of these -- and there are quite a few -- is Candy Lo's "Anaesthesized" (though "Numb" would be as good a translation). Candy is a popular Cantopop songstress from Hong Kong; it took her a few albums to define her identity, which is currently that of a quirky performer who sings well-crafted but commercial songs with experimental lyrics. "Anaesthesized" is from early in her career, and helped to crystalize that identity. It was first released in 1998 as a Cantonese number, with different words and the title "Trash." The following year it acquired a Chinese lyric, and it is this version I love.

The track compares love to being gradually put under. Each word that her lover says to her, and each gift he presents, is tainted, she later realizes like the heroine of some 40s melodrama, with anaesthesia. "Day after day I loved you/It accumulated little by little/I felt it was so beautiful to follow you/Until I saw you leaving me step by step/And I strangely had no strength to make you stay." The music swirls hypnotically, putting us, of course, in the exact same state of mind. "I didn't think you would leave so matter-of-factly/I didn't think I would be so numb/No desire to sleep/And unable to cry/I lie on my bed/Waiting for it to ebb." But it is finally unclear if this is unbearably cruel, or a kind of mercy: "It turns out that being thus anaesthesized/Is itself a kind of addiction/No desire no more for it to ebb."

(Yousendit sometimes has trouble handling tracks with Chinese characters. If so, try downloading what seems to be a title-less file, and then manually add the .mp3 suffix to it.)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Aberfeldy, "Uptight" (2006)

You ever talk to some imbecile who's totally not understanding where you're coming from, and so you get more and more irked, but not rudely so, and he sees this, and he's all like, "Dude, don't get pissy!" As if he's not the one who's given you reason to get pissy? And then he usually busts out a "Hey, don't be so uptight! You gotta relax, bro!" Which now drives you into a deeper and more explicit fury, though you realize that this makes him seem as if he's right when he says you're being uptight? Yeah. And don't get me started on people who offer "Oh, he's so tightly wound, he needs to get laid..." as a cure-all for everything.

Um, wait, am I seeming a bit on edge right now? I'm's just...oh, never mind.

You wouldn't think I would be predisposed to like this song by Scottish band Aberfeldy, who are often compared to Belle and Sebastian (though Camera Obscura might be nearer the mark), which does insists that I just need to relax. (The band's debut album Young Forever featured the tweetastic "Love Is An Arrow," but this, from the sophomore Do Whatever Turns You On, is possibly even better.) But the sentiment -- "There comes a time in everybody's life when you gotta do or die/Oh baby, please don't be uptight/It's up to you, do what you wanna do, you can tell the truth or lie /Come on baby, you might as well dance all night" -- is so cute and good-natured that it will hear of no resistance. There are bleepy keyboards. There is boy-girl duetting. There is a melody straight out of 70s soft rock. There are handclaps, for crissakes, and a couple of "yeah yeahs!" If I ever had a stick up my butt, and I swear to God I didn't, I don't anymore.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Individual, "Skyhigh (Bustinloose Radio Mix)" (1996)

Time in the US came to end now back home long flight followed by long flight sat next to Jehovah's Witness not that bad actually dead tired carnt sleep have to work already feels like everything's underwater

Individual = some anonymous dance act but features an uncredited Billie Ray Martin on vocals belated handbag house anthem rousing as all get

Take the radio version but as bonus also snag the glorious 10-minute Satoshi Tomiie mix always trust a jetlagged man and that's that

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Carpenters, "A Song For You" (1972)

There's a line in "A Song For You" I've never really understood. "If my words don't come together," its narrator says, "listen to the melody/Cause my love is in there hiding." In other words: the lyric may not be adequate at expressing what I'm thinking, and the real meaning is in the melody. It's a conditional sentence, so maybe it's not truly the case. Nevertheless, the song tells us to look to the melody for its secret, in case the lyric doesn't make its feelings clear.

But, puzzlingly, the lyric is perfectly clear. A track that has steadily become a classic since it was originally recorded in 1970 by Leon Russell, "A Song For You" is about the split between public success and private failure. The cost of the former is the latter. The narrator has had a rich career as an entertainer: "I've been so many places in my life and time/I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhymes/I've acted out my love in stages/With ten thousand people watching." In contrast, his private life has been more checkered, and he now thinks, in particular, of the person he has neglected: "I know your image of me is what I hope to be/I've treated you unkindly, but darlin' can't you see/There's no one more important to me." The time has thus come to make amends; perhaps the public success has faded, or become less important. He now sings directly to the lover he has neglected: "But we're alone now and I'm singing this song for you."

The song therefore contains a tension that its singers have to try to negotiate. "A Song For You" is supposedly a song that's sung by the narrator in a moment when he is only with his loved one. But, of course, it is still a public song -- played on the radio, performed in concert (with, say, ten thousand people watching on American Idol). It hence has the potential to not mean what it says, to undercut its own message. It says it is a private song for one; its life is, must be, as a song for millions. To listen to it successfully, then, we have to be able to imagine that this mass product is meant only for us -- nay, only for me.

Since Leon Russell's original version, "A Song For You" has been covered by numerous artists, ranging from The Temptations to Joe Cocker to Simply Red. Probably the most heralded cover is Donny Hathaway's, and his and the original are usually considered the definitive versions. We would be hard-pressed to find many people who would consider The Carpenters' 1972 cover as the most revelatory. This of course is largely due to the fact that critics tend to privilege soul over soft rock. Even though the latter genre, and the Carpenters in particular, have been critically rehabilitated somewhat in recent years, it's still tough to pick Karen and Richard. They certainly don't make it easy; the sax solo in the middle of their version, so obviously a product of the 70s, adds a layer of schmaltz to the track it doesn't need.

And yet, Karen's reading of the song is amazingly subtle. If the contradiction of the song lies, as I have suggested above, in the way it has to simultaneously aspire to be a mass hit as well as a song that sounds tailored for one, then much depends on the way the singer sings it. Donny Hathaway fills his take with "soulful" vocal tricks, and they are indutiably effective in making us feel his anguished pleading. But at the same time, such vocal pyrotechnics also create the impression that the song is being performed for a big audience, and in many ways therefore undermines precisely the sense of intimacy that the song really needs. Karen, in contrast, sings it straight. She regularizes the melody (I only learned how to sing the song by listening to her version). More importantly, listen to the way she sings the pivotal line: "But we're alone now and I'm singing this song for you." You can barely hear the words "alone" and "now"; Karen's voice dips low, almost swallowing the words, and they sound muffled, indistinct, hidden. To hear the line on which the entire song turns, you have to listen, just as if she is singing merely to you. Perhaps it is in this sense that the meaning of the song is indeed less in the lyric, and more in the melody, "hiding," and Karen, in her infinite wisdom, comes closest to comprehending this.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Lasse Lindh, "Stuff" (2002)

So, how have you been?

I myself am good! My trip to Chicago at the end of last week was fab; thanks for asking. It was lovely to see my friends, and the city, which I hadn't previously been to despite everyone in my life telling me I-should-I-must-I-will-really-like-it, came just as advertised. Let's see. I went to a couple of museums: the Art Institute, mostly to see the Thorne miniatures (an exhibit, I was surprised to discover, that wasn't just attended by little girls and gay men) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, which had Chris Ware, Alexander Calder, and Wolfgang Tillmans exhibits up. In the room with the Calder mobiles, while the guard was out, I seized the chance to bust out a rendition of "I'll Plant My Own Tree." Obviously, I was intrigued by the Tillmans mostly because he shot the Pet Shop Boys' "Home and Dry" video and the album cover of Disco 3 (a pic featured in the show itself, along with the photos of Tony Blair done for Attitude but totally recontextualized for the display, and a portrait of Morrissey. Also, there were cocks). I clearly only relate to high culture through low culture. Speaking of the Pets: leaving Chicago, I hear "I'm With Stupid" over the PA system of the tunnel connecting the L with O'Hare. But I only went to a few record stores, and most of them were named "Reckless." And I hung out in various neighborhoods -- Wicker and Hyde Parks, Andersonville and Boystown -- and they were all great.

But the most awesome thing I saw, I saw at Navy Pier. I know, I know: all the locals turned up their noses when I even vaguely mentioned my interest in that tourist attraction, but I just enjoy seeing the things that revolt the natives. It gives me a sense of what each city considers tacky. In fact, quite disappointingly, I actually found Navy Pier not tacky enough.

With one glorious exception: tucked away in the mall at the pier was the Build-A-Bear Store. The name of the store is pretty self-explanatory, in the tradition of Snakes On A Plane, but let me boil it down anyway. This is where you can buy the skin of a toy animal, bring it up to one of two tanks in which stuffing whirls around as if in a tornado, stick a hose into the gaping orifice of the animal, and then step on a pedal that magically pumps your chosen animal to life. I'm not sure I can think of a more terrifying concept, and if I were a twelve-year-old I would be having nightmares for weeks, and therapy for years. Hell, I'm a little scared right now. I really have no need to see how my stuffed animals are brought into existence, much as I don't need to know how my shish kebabs are cooked. I like my products to be in their finished states; like all good capitalists, I don't need to see the seams, especially when they're literal ones. I guess it's nice to be able to choose the degree of tumescence for your Pooh, but that's hardly enough of a compensation. Even now, a week later after my visit to what I'm calling The House Of Buffalo Bill (sign on their door: "No [Dead] Pets Please"), I still toss and turn in bed at night, wondering when the lambs will stop screaming, Clarice.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Helen Love, "A Boy Like You" (2005)

"I like the way you pop your bubblegum/I like the things you do!/The way you shine just like a summer sun/I like everything about you!"

Well, sure. When you're in love, everything about him is so cute. But give it a year, and we'll talk about whether you still think the way he pops his bubblegum is super kawaii!!!, or so annoying that you want to cut out his tongue with a rusty saw.

Ah, but a verse of the song knows this: "Slow down in the summertime/We gotta take our time/Cause we've just begun/Hey baby don't move too fast/We gonna take it slow/We gonna make it last/Cause I want you to be my boy!"

We could sound the same word of caution about this song. Indeed, perhaps the song sounds the same words of caution -- which is to say it's probably a meta-song, as much about music as it is about love. While this is now a ridiculously infectious and catchy bubblegum pop number, will it last? Given how the band's "Debbie Loves Joey" was one of my favorite tracks from last year, but still fills my heart with unspeakable joy, I'll tentatively bet that this song -- taken from the same EP, which I spotted last week in the Chicago Virgin Megastore, thereby remembering that Helen Love exists beyond that one fantastic single (and indeed has been around, in some form or another, since 1992) -- might also never get old, lose its flavor, or its snap. It's great pop, and hopefully the bubble never pops.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Brookville, "Golden"/"Slow Emotion Replay" (2006)

It's easy to casually like, but probably difficult to fanatically love, Brookville. Since the band is led by Andy Chase, it's tough to not consider Brookville in the same mental breath as the other bands that Andy has links to: Ivy (in some ways the central, nucleus band, since it comprises Andy, his significant other Dominique Durand, and Adam Schlesinger); Fountains Of Wayne (which features Adam); and Paco (another side project, this one with Andy and Dominique).

And in that light, Brookville does suffer by comparison. It's not as famous as Fountains Of Wayne, and doesn't play the kind of instantly hooky power rock that would ever make them so. And while its output -- bossa-novaish lounge pop, or, to paraphrase the band's press materials, "languid, atmospheric music" that allows Andy to "balance his talent for songcraft with his love for rich sonic landscapes and textures" (and yes, those descriptions made Andy like a terrifyingly boring muso to me too) -- isn't far from Ivy's or the even more languid Paco's work, it does lack the charming vocal stylings of Dominique.

But, of course, as much as Brookville suffers from these associations, it also benefits from them. After all, I've picked up both Brookville albums -- 2003's Wonderfully Nothing, and the new Life In The Shade -- because of those very ties. (Also possibly because the two album covers form an obvious money pit diptych. Which apartment do you want? Tough call, I know.)

Life In The Shade is certainly not a bad album, though. "Nothing's Meant To Last" has probably gotten the most attention, being as it is a kind of duet between Andy and the Brazilian Girls. But I'm inclined to think that "Golden" might have made a good single: it has brassy trumpets over a chugging bass, and were it not for how the lyric turns out by the end to be a lament for how "nothing can be the same way again," would make a perfect sunny summer song. A bit subtler is "Slow Emotion Replay," but I like it as much. A cover of a track from The The's Dusk album, it almost sounds like a modern Housemartins song (I'm likely thinking of "Bow Down" in particular). I hereby deem them worthy of your time, even if, once again, both songs sound like they would work even better as Ivy tracks, with Dominique's vocals. But then again, you could say that about practically every song in the world, so let's not hold it against them.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Bertine Zetlitz, "500" (2006)

On a recent but already-famous episode of Kathy Griffin's My List On The D-List, which I've been dutifully watching while here in the US because I'm often too gay to live, our protagonist gets to meet her fans backstage after one of her gigs in Virginia. The one who gets the most airtime is an Asian-American doctor, and he deserves it because, when he meets Kathy, he totally, how you say, FAGS THE HELL OUT. What a scene. While one hand clutched my splitting sides, my other hand was held over my eyes, since I could barely stand to watch the good doctor scream like a howler monkey and offer to give Kathy a free pap as a way of showing his fandom. Oh lord, I thought, some people can be so undignifed.

Well, look away, because I'm quite excited about the return of Bertine Zetlitz.

My love of Ms. Zetlitz has only increased since I pitted her in a deathmatch with Annie and her previous album Rollerskating went on to become my favorite record of 2004. The new long player, My Italian Greyhound, is due Sep 11, but its first single hit her native Norwegian streets yesterday. "500" is therefore being released far ahead of the album, which I immediately took to be a good sign: I imagined that she and producer Fred Ball (aka Pleasure) laid down a track so strong and catchy that she couldn't wait for the rest of the album to be finished before she put out the single.

For me "500" is indeed a stonker, though it's also surprisingly unconventional. Unconventional as a pop track, that is: within Bertine's own oeuvre "500" bears some resemblance to "Ah-ah" in the way it's mostly rhythm and groove, although melodically it also reminds me somewhat of one of Rollerskating's highlights, "Wicked Wonderboys." But compared to what elsewhere passes as a pop track, and against the expectation I've mentioned that this would be a "classic-shaped" pop single, "500" is not very conventional at all.

There is, most strikingly, not much of a distinction in the song between verse, chorus, and middle eight. For instance, what arguably serves as the middle eight (at the 1:42 mark) is in fact just the verse and chorus repeated, but with the backing track all but dropped out: a neat demonstration that the song relies more on variations in groove to create structure. Otherwise, there are two, perhaps three main parts to the song: in one Bertine sings various lines built around the title phrase (though the second time around the refrain changes to "600"), while a second section simply consists of the lines "You've been on my mind/Suddenly gone blind/You've been on my mind." Not that it ultimately matters, but I'm inclined to agree with Edward over at EBM (from where you can also get the mp3) that the latter is probably the chorus, since, as he puts it, "the bass cuts deeper." I would add that "you've been on my mind" functions a little more like a chorus, despite not having the title phrase, because it's where Bertine does her trademark doubletracked vocals, which I can never listen to without feeling my heart leap out of its designated cavity. Furthermore, those lines, when they appear for the second time, are followed by a woozy synth riff. It sounds a little bit like the break from Andreas Johnson's "Glorious," and gains more and more prominence as the song progresses, to the point where it too competes to be the main feature or chorus of the song. All of which is a long-winded way of saying: everything's a catchy hook in this track.

Perhaps the blurriness between chorus and verse in "500" serves a function. The lyric is somewhat elliptical, but seems to be from the point of view of a fan who alternately despises the object of her adoration ("600 for a letter from your fanclub/600 though you probably want more/600 cause you kept it in your bathtub/600, boy I heard it all before") and worships him or her ("You know I have been sweet on you forever/That's why I have been stealing all your stuff/5, 500,000 worth of clever/You see I can't ever get enough"). Literally stuck between love and hate, what we're calling the chorus is therefore perfectly poised between being filled with yearning, and perhaps with stalkerish, murderous intent: you've been on my mind. You've been on my mind. The track's coyness about traditional pop structure, or the structure of pop -- what's verse? what's chorus? -- may be a way of reflecting the lyrical subject matter, in which our narrator, in a state of frenzied fandom, fails or refuses to distinguish what our crushes owe us, and what we deserve to get from them.

As I was saying: oh my god, Bertine, I love you aieeee-aawwww-ooooeeee-aaaahhhh-eeeeeeee. Call me!

Edit: If you haven't watched the "500" video over at, you should. You'll see why I am willing to turn for her, although, judging from the All About Single White Female Showgirls video, in which Bertine kills with a single phallic thrust and then gives birth to a cute little greyhound through that same appendage, I would have to turn lesbionic.