tremble clef

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Human League, "Louise" (1984)/The Divine Comedy, "A Lady of A Certain Age" (2006)

When it comes to narrative songs -- songs that tell a story, often while in character, or at least are about characters -- choruses can be a pain in the ass. In such songs, the story needs to unfold, move forward a step at a time; this is a job that usually falls to the verses. But choruses, by their nature, are repetitious, and in that sense form a kind of obstacle to that forward trajectory. There must be a reason why, even as the story keeps plunging forward, we hear the same phrases, ideas, and words repeated in the form of the chorus.

Soon to be covered by Robbie Williams, "Louise," by the Human League, who may be one of the greatest bands at telling stories, represents one way of dealing with the problem. Years ago, when I first heard the song, I thought that the chorus clunkily interrupted the flow of the story. Two former lovers -- perhaps even the same lovers from "Don't You Want Me," since the band has said that it thinks of "Louise" as a sequel to that classic -- run into each other after many years. He sees her get off the bus; he says hello, and wonders if they should chat, "as if [they] were still lovers." She recognizes and hugs him, and he tells her she looks great, and makes him feel "as if [they] were still lovers." And so they talk, and then she has to leave. But as the bus pulls away, she smiles and waves, "as if [they] were still lovers." Each iteration of the chorus, hence, might initially appear to circle around, fixated. And maybe that can be taken as a comment or a clue as to where the rekindled relationship will go from here: nowhere, or, at best, in circles. And yet, despite the static chorus, there is perhaps less circling than it might appear. Although the key line of the chorus -- "as if we were still lovers" -- remains the same with each go-round, the sentiment gains in certainty as the song progresses. The first time, he is merely hopeful, and the reconciliation only silently hoped for; the second, he may actually have articulated his wish, and there is something they do or can do -- chat -- that could start to turn them into lovers again. And finally, even as she leaves, she does so with a smile and wave that appears as an almost concrete sign of that reconciliation. In "Louise," therefore, even as the choruses remain the same, each iteration also subtly marks the distance that the song travels over the course of itself.

In the Divine Comedy's "A Lady Of A Certain Age," something like the opposite happens: the words of the chorus may subtly change, but the story remains the same. The song is a character sketch, of a high society woman who has seen better years. It's not exactly a narrative, since there isn't much of a story to her life. At least not now. Then, yes: "Back in the day you had been part of the smart set/You'd holidayed with kings, dined out with starlets/From London to New York, Cap Ferrat to Capri/In perfume by Chanel and clothes by Givenchy/You sipped camparis with David and Peter/At Noel's parties by Lake Geneva/Scaling the dizzy heights of high society/Armed only with a cheque-book and a family tree." We further learn, in the two subsequent verses, that she had married someone rich -- though those damn "socialists" taxed away much of it -- and bore him two kids, who were mostly raised by a nanny, and now they don't see her much. The son lives in Surrey and his visits are always hurried; the daughter never finished finishing school. Even the fortune is gone, left by that philandering husband to his "mistress in Marseilles."

The song therefore alleviates one difficulty with narrative songs, by unfolding the story independently of a temporal linear time scheme. The choruses consequently bear less of a burden, since there is less of a forward-moving story to interrupt. Furthermore, as every review of the track has noticed, one line of the chorus gets changed each time it's sung. "You chased the sun around the Cote d'Azur," Neil Hannon begins by singing, "until the light of youth became obscured/And left you on your own and in the shade/An English lady of a certain age/And if a nice young man would buy you a drink/You'd say with a conspiratorial wink/'You wouldn't think that I was seventy'/And he'd say,'no, you couldn't be!'" When the chorus comes around a second time, the lady's age has dropped to "sixty-three," and then, further, to "fifty-three." It's not clear if the lady is speaking to the same young man each time (or even if such a man is more than a hypothetical: "if a nice young man would buy you a drink"), but that's part of the point. Whether she is constantly accosted by different men to whom she tells more and more bald-faced lies regarding her age, or whether her story to one man gets more and more fuzzy, the import -- and the haunted delusion -- is still the same. Meanwhile, the devastating string arrangement in the background plays over and over again; it evokes a beautiful time, now gone by, but it also goes nowhere in the end. Only a starker acoustic guitar plays us out, finally. "You, on your own and in the shade/An English lady of a certain age."

To err is human; to forgive, divine.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Kelis featuring Will.I.Am, "Weekend" (2006)

On "Lil Star," Kelis sings: "There is nothing special about me, I am just a little star/I'm a-running and jumping but barely getting, getting over the bar." Kelis, purlease. You're never gonna be the huge hip-hop star you deserve to be if you keep up this humility. Hip-hop is all about the boasting, no? You're bossy! You brought all the boys to the yard! You hated us so much back then! Sure, on this track you actually do this subtle thing whereby you (1) let Cee-Lo sing the chorus, which provides a rebuttal ("Cause in the dark of night, you're all I can see/And you sure look like a star to me"), and (2) point out, sensibly, that you -- and by extension all "stars," literal and figurative -- are only stars because of what we project on them. "If it seems like I'm shining, it's probably a reflection off something you already are." But, look, you are gonna come across as smart, and, in placing humble songs like "Lil Star" next to more swaggering tracks like "Bossy" or "Blindfold Me" on Kelis Was Here, you also risk coming off as, good grief, human and a bit complex.

Give us a little something more mindless (see about the usually-annoying Will.I.Am's availability) but still amazing, then. (Besides, we can get "Lil Star" and two other great tracks from XO's Middle Eight.) An old school electro track, perhaps, complete with robot voices, about getting your paycheck on Friday and going to the club seemingly made just for you: "It's the weekend, and the freaks are coming!" "And the beat go 'Boom!" And the beat go 'Boom, Boom!!'"

Monday, August 28, 2006

Paris Hilton, "Screwed" (2006)

About six years ago, Boy George expressed some unhappiness about people who defended Eminem by pointing out that his music should be separated from his personality, especially since so many of his songs are sung in character. Although he grudgingly agreed, like a good New Critic suspicious of the intentional fallacy, that you can't always judge a song (or, more generally, art) by its singer, he also fretted about the slippery slope this seems to create. "I worry that if Hitler or Pol Pot made a good dance record, people would probably buy that as well," Boy George observed. "Where do you draw the line?"

Last week saw the release of Paris, an album by a new and unknown singer, making her recording debut, named Paris Hilton. I kid, of course. While this is her debut, Paris is hardly unknown; Paris is...well, you know who Paris is. I don't mean -- I don't entirely mean -- to suggest that The Heiress (as TV ads for the album here label her, like suddenly we're in a Henry James novel?) is in any way comparable to Adolf or Pol (Pol? Pot?), but she is certainly someone whom many right-thinking people in the 21st century will find objectionable, for various reasons. There is, to begin with the less substantiated, the possibility that she is casually racist. Even keeping in mind how things are exaggerated for TV, Paris also appears to be, judging from her appalling reality series The Simple Life, how you say, a rich privileged bitch who would sooner spit on than look at someone not in her social class. There is also that sex tape, although here the worst thing you can say -- though not the only thing you can say, since some of the furore over it seems to be misogynistic outrage about female sexuality -- is that she has terrible taste in men. Who doesn't? But most of all, what chaps many asses about Paris is probably just the fact that she is such an unremitting famewhore, willing to do anything just to be famous.

Paris therefore arrives as an intriguing test case for music lovers who would like to be able to think of music in and of itself, without letting the singer's persona and/or personality influence that appreciation. Nowadays, we tend to call such music lovers either anti-rockists, or poptimists. (Although one thing the Boy George-Eminem incident reminds us of is that the defense of "music for music's sake" has never been the exclusive domain of pop lovers, unless you expand "pop" to its larger meaning of "whatever is popular." In the late 90s, after all, Boy George was speaking from a moment not just when Eminem was big, but when the charts were filled with hits mostly from "faceless" dance acts.)

But to call Paris a test case is not to suggest that the album and Ms. Hilton should only be measured with a poptimism yardstick. If it is ridiculous to reject Paris on the basis of Paris, then it should be as absurd to claim that not liking the album makes you rockist. Hardly needs to be said? Surely no one is silly enough to reduce things to black-and-white that way? Except that Plan B's baiting review more or less goes down that route. Starting with the assertion that "Paris Hilton is the perfect litmus test of one's ability to be a cultural commentator in 2006," the writer goes on to sketch things out with deceiving confidence. "Essentially, if you are one of the (sadly) many with a kneejerk prejudice against our heroine and her nascent-but-magnificent singing career, you may as well give up now; start buying Word and James Blunt albums, for there's no hope for you any more if you don't get exactly why she's so important." And why is she important? The rest of the review only trafficks in generalities, speaking of her "light, breathy voice" and "inability to put a foot wrong," or simply aping her album's vocabulary ("she's got choruses which burst into life like stars exploding into fireworks," although these stars are presumably not blind). In other words, for Plan B, we should like Paris because not liking Paris makes you an idiot. Illuminating! Even if we accept that Paris is "important," is that the only question to ask? How about: is the album any good?

I'm perhaps using Plan B as a bit of a strawman, though the question implicitly posed therein -- what kind of asshole are you to not like this shit? -- is far from isolated. And maybe the problem the Plan B blurb illustrates is something that many reviews of Paris have already managed, consciously or otherwise, to sidestep. Indeed, there is a fair bit of critical consensus on the album, namely: the production is quite impeccable; the songcraft varies; the singing is almost always awful, except when the producers managed to, ahem, correct for Paris's shortcomings. Nevertheless, what some of the reactions to Paris -- both "rockist" reviews that trash the album, and (supposedly) "poptimistic" reviews that embrace it -- demonstrates is the way the ideological standoff of rockism/poptimism creates not just a set of false standards, but a kind of double-bind. Paris comes with, not one, but at least two sets of baggage. (Posh Louis Vuitton matching baggage, no doubt.) To submit to either side of the divide unthinkingly is to give in to its ideological power, of which there is no "outside."

All I've been suggesting, ultimately, that there is a specific way to think about Paris and her ilk that is completely unproductive, that in fact reinscribes the things it purports to challenge. It would seem logical for me to end by setting out some alternatives -- ways that might help us out of the idiot's quagmire whereby liking Paris makes you a particular kind of music-listener and person, and not liking it makes you another -- but perhaps that's impossible and/or unnecessary. As I've noted, there are a good number of reviews that do try to deal with Paris on terms less dictated and predetermined. But we all want constructiveness, so I will at least sketch one schema -- which I'm not suggesting should be the only one -- by which I make sense of the album (and, um, incidentally, conclude that it's not a good one).

I've long been interested in gauging how albums or songs work with or against a singer's persona -- say, Rachel Stevens's "blank boringness," or Kate Bush's "wacky insanity", to pick just two examples -- and this for me makes for a less limited way to think about Paris. Ms. Hilton, as I've already noted, has quite a persona, and a not-especially-positive one. The album is most banal, I think, when it embraces or confirms what we think we know of that "identity." The two opening tracks ("Turn It Up" and "Fighting Over Me"), as well as the closer (a Showgirls-worthy cover of "Do You Think I'm Sexy?"), for instance, are all about how HOTT Paris is, and the former songs even couch that sick-making sentiment in a hip-hop idiom. At best, these songs are boring or laughable. They lack any kind of frisson -- frisson that could come from playing with aspects Paris's identity in more imaginative ways that playing to it -- that is arguably necessary for good pop.

"Stars Are Blind" gives us a glimmer of such frisson, even if it does so via a well-trodden path. In the gentle ska single, Paris announces: "Some people never get beyond their stupid pride/But you can see the real me inside." In other words: I'm not the shallow idiot you think I am! I need love too! It is of course the oldest protest in the book, and we may not -- probably should not -- believe it for real, but we're talking about a pop persona here. But what lifts the song slightly beyond cliché is an odd line that doesn't entirely make logical sense. At the end of each chorus, Paris sings: "Baby [or it might be "maybe"; Ms. Mushmouth makes it hard to tell] I'm perfect for you." It's a strange line, because we hadn't known that what was up for debate was whether Paris is right for the man she's singing to. The song, after all, has been about how how great he is, and hence how right he is for her. Shouldn't the line logically be, "Baby you're perfect for me"? But no; instead, the line slips into a kind of unconscious narcissism. Enough about you, let's talk about me. If we were uncharitable, we could point to this as evidence of Paris's self-centeredness. But I actually find the slip quite charming, precisely because it toys with our, or even creates a kind of, uncertainty within the song. Is Paris trying to rehabilitate her image as a spoilt brat, by resorting to the "I just wanna be loved" defense? Is she wittily (!) undermining that defense by slipping in a hint that it's ultimately about her? Or unconsciously doing so? It's hard to tell, but in being difficult, the song suspends, if only for a moment, Paris's "identity," and restores to her a modicum of mystery.

Even better is "Screwed," the chugging electropop song which, via leaks, has been floating around for a few years now but gets its glossiest and best production on the album. Here, instead of attempting, as "Stars Are Blind" does, to create some tantalizing doubt about "who Paris is," the song signals its recognition of what we think of her, and then turns that recognition into its hook. "Since I'm already screwed, here's a message to you," Paris sings. Of course, the title word works on several levels, although both has the same upshot: well, I already know what you (the potential lover/the audience) think of me (fucked/fuuuucked), so I won't even bother to fight it. Instead, the gloves come off, and the singer proclaims that she will use that screwed status to her advantage. "When you need someone just to have a little fun," she announces in the middle eight, "I could be the perfect girl for you to ruin." In early versions of the song, the line seems to end with "...for you to love," but "ruin" is so much more brilliantly apt. It winks in the direction of sexual ruin, but still retains, dare I say it, a touching but tongue-in-cheek notion of being emotionally devastated. (I can hear Neil Tennant writing a song with a title like "I've Been Ruined"; or, think about the Shakespear's Sister song that does exist, called "You Made Me Come To This.") Yet, at the same time, the track also holds in abeyance the possibility that, once again, we're talking about affection, that what the "already ruined Paris" wants is, aww, lurrrve. "My heart's wide open." In such moments -- "baby I'm perfect for you," the entirety of "Screwed" -- the album actually looks right at our belief that we've got Paris pegged, and toys with those beliefs.

I mean, aside from these two tracks, and "Nothing In This World" (in which Dr. Luke rewrites, for the umpteenth time, Kelly's "Since U Been Gone" by way of The Veronicas' "4Ever"), the rest of the album is hideous. Hideous. That seems as good a point as any on which to end, and better than most.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Rogue Traders, "In Love Again"/"World Go 'Round" (2005)

You're in a band, and you've made a splash with a solid and distinctive single. What are you doing next? (I mean, after you go to Disneyland.)

Like a sizeable number of people, the first Rogue Traders song I heard, at the end of last year, even though the band was already two albums into their career, was "Voodoo Child." The track was a hit in the group's native Australia then, although it reached #3 in the UK only a few weeks ago. (A US release is rumored to be forthcoming.) The song came on gangbusters from the get-go: a blast of electrorock that relied chiefly on its citation of a guitar riff from Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up," but overlaid on top of it a snarly vocal, courtesy of a Neighbours starlet, natch. I approved.

So far so good, as Sheena Easton would say.

Unfortunately, the second Rogue Traders song I heard was "Watching You." It's by no means a bad track, but it relies too much and too obviously on the same things that "Voodoo Child" does: here once more was a recognizable riff (from "My Sharona"), again re-played by the band rather than sampled, and another vocal that was half-sung, half-barked. I'm always a bit dubious when people dismiss artists by saying that their music sounds the same -- most of the time this really means "the band has a 'sound' and I'm too lazy to sit down and figure out its nuances and variations" -- but at that point, it seemed to me like Rogue Traders tracks were, at the very least, too formulaic.

This wasn't entirely the group's fault; the band's second single in Australia from Here Comes The Drums was "Way To Go!", but it somehow passed me by. But, since that track did worse in the Australian charts than third single "Watching You" (#7 vs. #5), it looks like the band is going with the latter as their follow-up in the UK. A bit of a tough call: there's a reason why "Watching You" did better ("Way To Go!" has energy to spare, but is just too chaotic), but the "Voodoo Child"-"Watching You" one-two punch may convince many listeners, if they're like me, that Rogue Traders is a one-trick pony.

"In Love Again" may be the best compromise. It's in fact slated to be the fifth single in Australia, but if released in the UK next may allow the group to come across as possessing a recognizable sonic template that they are nonetheless capable of tweaking in easily discernible ways. The track is a little slower in tempo, its new wavy synths are more prominent, and there are no grinding licks. But there is still an interpolated hook. About three minutes into the song, as a middle eight, a chorus of "la la la la la"s rise in the background, and gradually become a backdrop against which Natalie sings us out of the song. It's the hook from Tears For Fears' best song, "Head Over Heels" -- itself a bit of a homage to the Beatles -- and it would serve the function of allowing Rogue Traders to re-rely on a familiar snippet of musical history without that snippet being once again a crunchy guitar lick.

(Actually, if Rogue Traders were even more adventurous, they could release "World Go 'Round." This one features the big drums that nowadays mostly remind me of Pet Shop Boys' "Flamboyant," although it obviously dates back further. The guitars are much less sledgehammery, so the song's emphasis is more on the "electro" rather than the "rock." But I see how "World Go 'Round," being much more subtle, would be moving too far away from the kick-in-the-gut approach that "Voodoo Child" established, and which now, for better or worse, has become the group's raison d'être. Fair enough. I'll just enjoy "World Go 'Round" in private.)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Nina Simone, "Everything Must Change" (1978)

There are some musical vocal tricks that I, like a good Pavlovian dog, react to almost instinctively. It doesn't even matter if they are "tricks" in the more insidious senses of the word: calculated, scheming, deceptive. My comprehension of their manipulative nature doesn't lessen, in any way, their emotional impact on me. I am their bitch.

Foremost among these is the catch in the voice. It says: I am choked with emotion. I can barely go on. It pricks and bruises me, and, aside from being entirely intended, is perhaps analogous to what Roland Barthes called the punctum of the photograph. On several seasons of American Idol, the savviest contestants, of which there are few, knew this enough to offer us variations on it. When Tamyra Gray came out on Bacharach night and sang her two-minute but unforgettable version of "A House Is Not A Home," her voice hit the high notes effortlessly, but also seem on the verge of breaking, thereby signaling, especially to the critics who had found her too robotic, that not only was she human, but human enough to almost cry in the middle of a song and not care. More recently, Elliot Yamin movingly outsang Michael Bublé (admittedly not that hard) on the latter's "Home" by vocalizing a line of the lyric -- "I'm just too far, from where you are" -- with just the right hint of a catch, more akin to a despairing sigh, on the word "far."

For me, the most poignant example of a proper, official recording that demonstrates the power of the catch in the voice is Nina Simone's "Everything Must Change." I sometimes think, in fact, that it might be the saddest song ever recorded. Even though the lyric can come across on paper as consisting of a series of neutral, dispassionate observations -- of how "everything must change/nothing stays the same/everyone must change/no one stays the same" -- when sung, as it has been by everyone from Quincy Jones to Randy Crawford to Barbara Streisand, it usually leaves no doubt of the pain in which this inevitable state of affairs causes its singers. Nina Simone, of course, sings the hell out of it, her voice full of hurt as a piano rumbles with unbearable gloom behind her. But the pain is nowhere most convincingly conveyed than on the final lines. "There are so little things, so few things in life you can be sure of," she tells us, "except rain comes from the clouds, sunlight from the sky. And hummingbirds do fly." And then: "Everything's changed. Everything ends. Everything, must -- change." She sounds like it's all she can do to get the last word out; it catches in her throat, and when it gets out, finally, it stings with its resigned finality. On some versions of the song, the last line is actually "and music, music makes me cry." Nina doesn't sing that. She doesn't have to.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Regina Spektor, "On The Radio" (2006)

Let's review and prognosticate.

Here's what we know about Regina Spektor's current album, Begin To Hope. It's her major label debut on Sire; prior to this there've been albums, but they were independent and spiky. On the iTunes store, a fan moans that the new record "deviates from what makes Regina so special, her ability to create an intimate feeling....[I]t's almost as if she's lost her passion and replaced it with snappy background music and backup singers." Some fans more bluntly name it as Regina "going POP," though some feel that this is no bad thing ("she's growing up!" "there's nothing wrog with our girl trying to reach a wider audience with some radio friendly song structure"). Allmusic further points out that the first half of the album is more conventionally pop-sounding; the "more unique, quintessentially Regina Spektor-esque tracks [are] at the end of Begin to Hope," though this "isn't so much a bait-and-switch as is a clever way to lure in and loosen the inhibitions of new fans. The album feels like getting to really know someone: at first, it's polite and a little restrained, but then its real personality, with all of its charming idiosyncrasies, finally reveals itself." Thankfully, it feels like the metaphor stopped at the right time, seconds before phrases like "got me drunk," "roofies," "woke up with my clothes in disarray," "finally got a good look in the morning light" entered to extend it further.

From this, would we be right to predict that (1) I am, for pretty much the first time ever, willing to give Miss Spektor the time of day; (2) indeed finding the first half of the album more instantaneous; and (3) especially enjoying the poptastic single "On The Radio" (with its pizzicato string arrangement, ba-ba-ra-da-da-DUM! piano, swirly background bits, the almost call-and-response hook of "uh-oh!", which overcomes the too-quirky way Regina enunciates "pray-dee-oooh!", as the song progresses)? Yes. Yes, we can. Sorry. Like Regina, I can't be wild, wacky, and unpredictable all the time.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Nik Kershaw, "Wide Boy" (1984)

He was a classmate, for a while a very good friend, as fanatical about music as I was (a worshipper of Bananarama in particular), and he was convinced he knew the answer to the riddle.

Or rather, "The Riddle." That was of course the song Nik Kershaw released in 1984 to tease his second album of the same name. Just earlier that year Mr. "Missing A C" Kershaw had made a splash with four very successful singles off his debut album: "Wouldn't It Be Good," "I Won't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" (which, by the way, better lends itself to the predictable blowjob joke that tends more to be made about Elton John's "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" -- spread the word), "Dancing Girls," and title track "Human Racing." But now his star was at an all-time high, partly because he wasted no time putting out the follow-up, but mostly because, to accompany the release, Nik claimed that the song was in fact a riddle, and the clues to its solution were in the lyric. There may even have been a Smash Hits contest, albeit only a half-serious one, in which readers were invited to send in their best (i.e., most absurd) answers.

Fifteen, twenty years on, Nik would admit that there is no solution. But we didn't know it then. I wasn't that interested in either the answer or Nik; I was more of a Howard Jones fan myself. (In my circles, in the tradition of "Bee Gees, or ABBA?" "Culture Club, or Duran?", you were one or the other, but certainly not both, at least not until you got older and found it in yourself to shun these media-created rivalries and embrace all acts for their great music.) I liked "The Riddle" fine, although my favorite Nik Kershaw song is probably "Wide Boy." It has the muscularity of "Wouldn't It Be Good" (oh, those guitar licks), paired with a lyric that wasn't actually nonsensical (a "wide boy" is a bit of hustler, who crudely flashes his bling around) but still managed to sound gloriously stupid ("exceed, excess! exceed, excess!" "oh me, oh my, oh me, oh my!" Plus, I used to think that he was singing, "with your cemetery teeth" in the middle eight, which for some reason the official website leaves out. The supposed real phrase, "symmetry teeth," is ungrammatical, but at least a little less befuddling).

But here was my friend, with what he was convinced was The Answer. "The solution to the riddle," he announced dramatically, when a group of us finally convinced him to give it up, "is...the record itself." How meta. "See," he continued, "when you put the record on and play it, it goes around and around. That's what the 'hole in the ground' is -- the hole in the record!"

"Yeah, but who's the old man of Aran?"

"It's Nik Kershaw himself! The album has his picture in the middle, on the record label. So, when you play it, Nik starts spinning! In fact, when you look at the album cover, there's another clue -- there's a tree in the background, and who is actually standing 'near the tree'? Nik! Of course! It couldn't be clearer."

Hmmm. Hmmm.

"And you know what the 'beacon' refers to?"

"Yeah, why is he going on about meat?"

"That's 'bacon,' you moron. This is 'beacon.' When you put on the record, the little knob on your turntable will stick up through the hole. It looks like a beacon, doesn't it?"

Lighthouses are usually taller than a quarter-inch turntable spindle, but by this time he had gotten us excited enough to be grudgingly convinced. You should write in to someone somewhere with your answer, we told my friend, and do remember us when you're rich and famous as the world's foremost solver of pop music riddles. And for a while he and I continued to listen to, and vigorously discuss, music. A few years later we quarreled over nothing, then we went to the same school but different faculties, and more time passed, and the frost hardened. At least I think that's why we drifted apart and haven't seen or spoken to each other in decades. That development's not entirely puzzling, but, like so many riddles, its solution -- he was stubborn, I was pettier, and time leaves such foolish people and their friendships behind -- was right in front of our faces if we could stand to see it.

Friday, August 18, 2006

BWO, "We Could Be Heroes" (2006)

Hey fans! Thanks to your suppport, I got through the last round and am in the final six of Idol! How awesome is that? Very! I couldn't have done it without you. It's been such a great experience. I've made such good friends on the show. I love them all, even though as singers they all suck and I rule all.

Don't tell anyone, but I think I have the title in the bag. The producers have already come to me to talk about my coronation song. They want to make sure I get to sing something in the finale that suits my voice and ensure that the public votes for me. As if you wouldn't anyway! They played me a few things that Dick Lee knocked out in his sleep. They were okay, not great though. So I'm trying to persuade them to let me cover Bodies Without Organs' "We Could Be Heroes." You know it? It's the second best track on their album, and I think it's perfect. I mean, the lyric is totally inspirational. "We could be heroes! We could be lovers you and I!" The opening piano sounds like Journey! And I would copy the way Martin sings the chorus: at first in a basic key, and then the music drops out and his voice goes up a step. I would be so good on this -- everyone in the theater will get chills, I tell you, which they'll only be able to dispel by waving their lighters in the air. And then at the end there's even a bit that is ready made for the gospel choir that I assume will accompany me, as they do for every Idol finale, or at least on the American show.

Seriously, it'll be fantastic. The producers are a bit dubious because they would rather I sing some original composition, but I pointed out to them that it's not like BWO are well-known here, and even though this was the album's second single, no one would know it. Well, I do, but I'm cool. Besides, it's not like Ruben Studdard -- and look where he is now! -- didn't do a cover for his coronation song. And a tepid ballad first sung by Westlife at that, which sounded like it was, as my friend pointed out, about wingless tampons. I guess my song too could have some comedy value -- no doubt some wiseass will start singing that we could be gyros -- but I don't care, this track is awesome and I'm so going to win Idol with it, suckers!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Frank, "All I Ever Do" (2006)

It is really, really, really difficult to talk about Frank and their debut album Devil's Got Your Gold without invoking Girls Aloud, so I'm...not going to fight it. Indeed, although the album is quite enjoyable and may prove to be even better in the coming weeks, I do think that its shortcomings stem precisely from the fact that Xenomania fought the potential Girls Aloud comparisons too hard, or at least in the wrong ways.

Frank, as you may know if you've kept a ear in the vicinity of the pop grapevine, is made up of four women who were brought together to star in a Channel 4 TV series called Totally Frank. In it, they play fictional characters in the music biz, but the idea was always that in real life they would then become a proper musical group and release records. It's life imitating art, by which we mean reality TV, or something. (Of course, none of this explains why everyone concerned picked such a preposterously empty and ungoogleable band name. If it was solely to enable the weak pun in the show title, then the moniker is even more unpardonable, though I might grudgingly forgive them if they did a sequel series, went on tour with, or just married Lorraine.)

Still, all of this would have passed with minimal fuss if it were not the case that uber-producers Xenomania came on board to do the music for the girls. That's the Xenomania that has created pop masterpieces for Kylie, Sugababes, Rachel Stevens, Saint Etienne, and, ah, Girls Aloud. Not helping matters in this regard, Frank actually supported the Aloud on the latter's recent tour, so Frank are arriving more or less pre-yoked to their illustrious predecessors.

As listeners or critics, one way to deal with these comparisons is via the Popjustice route, which hilariously noted with typical dryness that "every new pop group can't be Girls Aloud. Just imagine how boring the world would be if every guitar band sounded like Coldplay. Oh, hang on..."

But this method of simply refusing to humor the comparisons isn't especially satisfying, tantamount to sticking your fingers in your ears and going "la la la la..." It would be one thing if Frank made heavy metal or country records that generically have little in common with Girls Aloud's output, but the two bands tread very similar ground (despite Frank trying to cultivate a "real band who play their own instruments" persona). It's almost impossible to hear, say, the girly rap in Frank's "Turn It Up," or the last thirty seconds of "Never Left A Girl," to not think of Girls Aloud, if you've ever heard the latter's distinctive output. "Complicated," may even owe a slight debt to the Aloud b-side "I Don't Really Hate You."

If this public and critical reaction is so unavoidable, then how best for Xenomania to deal it? What's interesting -- and by that I mean "initially quite disappointing to me" -- is that the producers have chosen a not very innovative or self-reflexive way of doing so. Which, namely, is this: on Devil's Got Your Gold, Xenomania has just kind of muted the touches they normally bring to their Girls Aloud productions. For example, on "I'm Not Shy," which Frank released as the first single, the opening twangy guitar is decidedly less twangy than it would if this had been an Aloud single, and the "ah oooh wa ooh wa" vocal hook is a bit more buried in the mix, as if it's somehow embarrassed and careful not to slip into the kind of blunt to-the-guttiness that permeates Aloud records. The result is an album that's good -- the poptastic songcraft is still intact and recognizable -- but in a way that's oddly less POW! than it could have been. The generous reaction to this is to say that Devil's Got Your Gold is therefore a more "subtle" or "grown-up" record than the Girls Aloud albums (adjectives that I've in fact seen on message boards). But then again, it might just mean that the record is just less deliciously shiny than the Aloud's best work.

The frustrating thing, of course, is that we know Xenomania are fully capable of producing the tracks in bigger, more glittery ways. That they haven't is therefore not because they can't, but it's like they were somehow shying away from it, perhaps out of fear of inviting comparisons. Which seems to me the worst of all possible solutions, some distance behind (1) refuting those expectations by actually producing a record that was completely different; (2) embracing them by turning the motherfucker up, and making the album even shinier than a Girls Aloud record; (3) or finding some way to deconstruct those expectations. Insofar as I had any expectations of the record, they were along the lines of option trois. Brian Higgins and company are so witty in their work that it made me hope that they would implicitly acknowledge, and then do something subversive to, those expectations. I'm not sure what that would mean, concretely speaking. Xenomania giving Frank a song called "Clones" to record, setting it to a backing track created by playing "Biology" backwards, while Miranda Cooper pens a lyric, complete with references to Vertigo, that actually indicts men for imaging that women are interchangeable, perhaps ("You dress me up in new clothes but I find it untoward/Cause I don't wanna play Kim Novak to your Jim Stewart!"). That would have met head-on, broken down, and thereby preempted things, which is almost always the best way to deal with inevitable comparisons.

Oh well. It will come as no surprise to report that my favorite track on the album is one in which Xenomania seems least frightened of inviting those comparisons. On "All I Ever Do," they go all in and create a loud, thrilling pop number that makes no discernible effort to not sound like it could have been recorded by Girls Aloud. The guitar riff is prominent, and while not surf-twangy, has the kind of crunchiness that we know and love. Furthermore -- and we haven't even gotten into this in any detail -- one other weakness of the Frank album is that Lauren Blake's vocals lack the character, attitude, and plain old sass of Nadine's, Sarah's, Cheryl's, Nicola's, or Kimberly's. But the wavering melody of "All I Ever Do" is so lilting -- "I took your hand this morning and we turned to grey"; "cause all I ever do is wait at home for you/When all you ever do is make me black and blue" -- that it drags Lauren's vocals up and down the scale, and thereby injects or even forces a bit more emotion into them (much as Richard X's production did to Rachel Stevens' on "Crazy Boys," as I've argued). It's a brilliant pop track in the midst of some other not-bad ones (and you can find another Frank track over at XO's Middle Eight), although those others really should have been equally ace.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Karen Ramirez, "Looking For Love (Trouser Enthusiasts' Joy Of Sex Mix)" (1998)

I have new pants, and I love 'em. They're black and subtly pinstriped, sit low enough on my hips that I look less fat than I actually am, and they cup my ass like its goblets were grown and harvested in Georgia.

They're fancy pants, too, so the pockets have to be unstitched by their lucky owners. But I've forgotten to do 'em all. The side pockets, yes, but the back two pockets remain sewn shut, and here I am at work. It wouldn't be that difficult to stick my finger back there and carefully unseam myself from nave to chaps, but I don't want to risk ruining these lovely trousers.

I've contemplated closing my office door, removing my pants, and cutting the pockets open with a proper pair of scissors. But you just know that, even if the cleaning lady doesn't walk in suddenly, her colleague will choose that moment to rise up from the ground in a crane in order to finally scrap the century-old fungi off my window panes, get an eyeful, and thereby plummet to an undignified death. I also thought about giving a box cutter to a coworker and asking him to do me the favor, but that tableau -- me with my ass sticking up in the air, while he takes a blade to it -- just seems like a sitcom misunderstanding waiting to happen.

I guess I'll wait till I get home.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Metric, "On The Sly" (2001)

The way I feel about Metric is close to the way I feel about Stars. This is not because I can't be bothered to distinguish between them, although, given the incestuous ties -- being part of the same (broken social) Canadian scene, and Metric's Emily Haines even singing on one of Stars' best songs ("Going, Going, Gone") -- they don't always make it easy to do so. It's just that my interest in both bands has waned the longer they've been around, because each has steadily moved from making more electronic pop-rock tracks to being more straightforwardly rock acts now. And the latter acts are a dime a dozen.

In the case of Metric, however, this trajectory is a mostly hidden one. Unlike Stars, whose initial record, the bedroom-electronica set Nightsongs, was on display for the world to hear, Metric's early output was never official. As far as the public was concerned, Metric's debut was hence the already quite rock-oriented Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? Which I quite enjoyed -- it's not like I hate rock on principle, you know -- since it had New Wavy tracks like "Hustle Rose." (I once joked, back when "Somebody Told Me" was everywhere, that it was a matter of time before a second-generation Killeresque band came along, but fronted by a woman, and they would claim The Motels as an influence. And then I realized we already had that band, and it was Metric.) "Calculation Theme," in particular, never fails to tingle my spine when the Casiotone-sque backing is joined by other synths, the key changes, and Emily sings, "Tonight, your ghost will ask my ghost: where is the love?" Their second record, Live It Out, which I found almost unlistenable (only "Too Little Too Late" is passable), was therefore, from that perspective, just the next logical step forward: even more rock, but sadly just that much less melody.

But before those official albums, Metric recorded: (1) an EP titled Mainstream in 1998, (2) another EP called Static Anonymity three years later, and (3) an entire album Grow Up And Blow Away, which was set for release until Restless Records folded, and the band apparently lost interest in getting their new label to pick up the album, claiming that they had moved beyond those early songs.

Those early songs are, at worst, a little meandering, but they are almost always texturally interesting. The Mainstream EP, for example, was filled with mostly triphop numbers, and none was spookier than the sparsely forlorn opening track "Butcher." "You're so handsome in this light," Emily proclaims, before continuing, "if only you'd reject me tonight." On Static Anonymity, the songs had more conventional pop structures, but the EP ended with a short dreamy number, backed by a piano and some clipped strumming guitars, called "London Halflife" that somehow sounded like it was recorded in a room that's not the one you're in now. Most of all, one of those early songs remain my favorite Metric recording: "On The Sly," from the abandoned Grow Up And Blow Away album. The song begins with a military marching band drumbeat, before bursting into a glorious pop song that's about love, yes, but only as cloaked in a typically acidic shell: "I want them to hate me, so you can love me on the sly." The early word on the Emily Haines solo album (her second, if you count the self-released decade-old Cut In Half And Also Double) is that it will be filled with "piano-driven songs backed with soft strings and horns," and the leaked tracks do sound closer to the Mainstream EP that anything Metric has done since then. In other words: a bit indulgent, uncommercial, but strangely worth spending time with. Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in again.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Mama Cass Elliot, "Make Your Own Kind Of Music (Yum Club Mix)" (1997)

It's 1996, and the past twenty-two years have not been especially good for Mama Cass Elliot, what with being dead and all. (Decidedly not, however, from choking on a ham sandwich.) But here comes Beautiful Thing: Jonathan Harvey's three-year old play, now a Channel 4 film, and that's received so well that it gets a worldwide theatrical release. Its final scene, of Ste and Jamie dancing right there in the council estate to the beautiful strains of "Dream A Little Dream Of Me," is only the most indelible moment in a film that throughout uses the music of Mama Cass and the Mamas and the Papas with absolute love.

Yet, as much as that film was embraced, it felt as if the Mama Cass adoration never quite hit the tipping point within the gay community. The next year, house producer Louie "Balo" Guzman, together with Carmen Cacciatore, don't help matters in this regard. A Carling Premier commercial on British TV had featured "California Dreamin,'" so for the CD single re-release Universal Music also stuck on a remix of "Make Your Own Kind Of Music" that Guzman and Cacciatore had done. Even though the track made it onto one of Centaur's many gay circuit mix CDs, it never, as far as I can remember, really set the clubs on fire. The reason is probably that it wasn't an especially "gay" mix: instead of creating some over-the-top handbag diva anthem (or, say, an interminable trancey track, cough), Guzman and Cacciatore gave Mama Cass a somewhat hippie-ish working over. The track was stretched out to almost ten percussive minutes, filled with flutey goodness, and had a leisurely, loopy feel that didn't, I don't think, make the tweaked circuit queens especially happy. But I felt oddly satisfied, then and even now, that Mama didn't get chewed up and spit out like yesterday's fag hag. "Make Your Own Kind Of Music," indeed.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Hot Chip, "A Family In Here" (2006)

We already know that Hot Chip will break your legs, but here the bastards mostly take aim at our hearts.

An extra track on the "Over And Over" single, this is a surprisingly gentle and moving ballad that was somehow left off The Warning (a bit too similar in tempo to "Look After Me," perhaps). For long stretches, it's backed only by an electric guitar, an unobstructive hi hat, and very gentle, even half-hearted handclaps, until we go into the chorus, during which the lovely chord change is accompanied by slowly rising synth washes. And for just as long stretches, it's not fully clear what the exact story is -- though it certainly seems like a gloomy one, judging by the affecting chorus: "When I go I want to go with you/I want to fall from grace in full public view." On the opening verses, our narrator is at least able to recall his happiness. "Look at me on the dancefloor," he says, "waving hello and goodbye." But the second verse confirms that something went wrong along the way, and any happiness is now merely in the past: "Darling, I don't know where I lost what was in our hands/What can you find in another useless set of plans?"

It is only in the song's final 45 seconds that the exact relationship lost becomes clearer. In only our right ears, Alexis practically whispers: "There's a family in here, somewhere baby/We can't find it, but I know it's in here/There's a feeling inside of me, somewhere baby/I can't find it, but I know it's in me." "So many things seem filled with the intent to be lost," Elizabeth Bishop famously wrote. Cities. Two rivers. A continent. Now, in here, a family.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Blancmange, "The Day Before You Came" (1984)

If it's not the best, "The Day Before You Came" is certainly among ABBA’s ten greatest songs. And given that this is ABBA we're talking about, that's saying a helluva lot. (Ten? Let's see. "One Of Us," surely, and "Slipping Through My Fingers" never fails to give me the vapors. Then there's "Super Trouper" and "The Winner Takes It All," and maybe "Chiquitita." "Fernando." Oh, "Take A Chance On Me," definitely. "S.O.S."? Sometimes I think "Mamma Mia" if only for the glorious way it bursts into the "blue, since the day we parted!" bit. "Like An Angel Passing Through My Room." "Lay All Your Love On Me" or "On and On and On"? And what about…oh, this is too hard.)

John over at Lost in the 80s recently placed the song in the context of ABBA's illustrious (though, as he notes, not illustrious enough in the US) career. As one of two singles the band released as bridges from the Super Trouper album to the swansong that was The Visitors, "The Day Before You Came" is usually taken as ushering in the band's final adult, largely depressed phase (even if we recognize the melancholy that was already inherent in middle-years songs like “Knowing Me, Knowing You”).

Indeed, "The Day Before You Came" is an incredibly morose song, even though it is in some ways not supposed to be. If the track, like some Chantal Akerman film, details the narrator's mundane and even mind-numbingly staid life before her lover comes, it nevertheless seems to promise an impending change, or indeed be narrated from that happy point in the present. At some moment, he came. Love was just around the corner. And yet, the sweet inevitability of that change somehow doesn't mitigate against how bleak and despairing the song sounds.

The reason for this no doubt lies in one word of the lyric, the one word that's repeated fifteen times. The word, as you may have guessed, is "must." The narrator's entire day, from morn till night, is catalogued entirely with a series of them: "I must have gone to lunch at half past twelve or so." "At five I must have left, there's no exception to the rule." "And turning out the light, I must have yawned and cuddled up for yet another night." Although we could consider the word as an imperative, it is far from commanding in its effect. The English language does not allow many grammatical moods; some linguists suggest, for instance, that it doesn't have the dubitative, which, as its name implies, permits a speaker to express doubt.

But in "The Day Before You Came," these Swedish songwriters seem to be utilising exactly that grammatical mood, coupling it with the past tense. The effect is of doubt -- specifically, doubt because the statements are only arrived at through inference and deduction. Even though our narrator tells us exactly what she must have done on that otherwise ordinary day, she only knows this because these are the things she's always done. She relies here not on actual memory, but on, as the song says, the "matter of routine." The lyric is in fact littered with qualifiers. Sometimes they're explicit: "I must have left my house at eight, because I always do." More often, the qualifiers are silent, only implied: "I must have opened my front door at eight o'clock or so. I must have, since I always do, though I don't actually remember doing so." The picture the song paints is of someone going through the motions: she robotically does this, and then she does that. In its final few lines, the song can admit this more explicitly -- "It's funny, but I had no sense of living without aim, the day before you came" -- and, to some extent, we comprehend the story from certain lines. But the dubitative mood is, I think, the most underappreciated and quietly stunning way ABBA uses to paint the portrait.

In the end, that's why the song is so moving, with its subtle detailing of a person sleepwalking through her life, never knowing that she was waiting for something until it comes. The only way she knows she's alive, is because she must be. There's really no other proof. And perhaps, even when a change comes, and even while love's arrival makes her happy, it also has the effect of making her see just how sad and empty her former life had been. I never knew, until I met you...and this knowledge, somehow, is a terrible thing. The day he comes can therefore only be, at best, a bittersweet one.

Since ABBA's masterpiece is still up at Lost in the 80s, I'll post instead Blancmange's version. I remember Smash Hits raving about it, but Neil and Stephen's track is disappointingly or wisely (depending on your perspective) a fairly straightforward cover. (I like Blancmange, though, and may someday do a post in which I talk, imagine this, about them.) Actually, I have two versions for your edification. When it was first recorded for the now-deleted Mange Tout album, the song was 5:57 (i.e., seven seconds longer than ABBA's). When Blancmange released it as a single, it was edited down -- mostly by speeding up the song and fading out hurriedly once the last verse ends -- to 4:24 for a 7 inch version, but extended out to 7:58 for the 12 inch. The abbreviated version isn't horrible: the quicker pace perhaps conveys that our automaton of a narrator is not only leading a meaningless life, but a hectic one. The much rarer 12 inch version, on the other hand, features a long tabla passage, courtesy of Pandit Dinesh (alongside some forlorn West End Girlish horns), that perhaps mimicks the sound of rain on the rooftops that the lyric ends with. Listening to it, you might be transported into the narrator's bedroom, as he numbly tries to fall asleep without letting his subconscious knowledge about the sadness of his life creep into his mind.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Cassie, "What Do U Want" (2006)

I'm nothing if not a very interactive TV viewer. Watching Law and Order, I cannot resist, during the scene transitions, chiming along with the funny signature sound -- which I've always thought, contrary to the Glarkware T-shirt, doesn't so much go "Chung! Chung!" as it does "Dung-dung!!" I'm so pitch perfect on it. But I'm most uncanny in front of a TV showing Jeopardy! If their sound effects, um, machine is ever broken, I can easily step into its shoes and do the laser-shooting sounds that are emitted each time a contestant lands on a daily double, and no one would ever be the wiser.

"What Do U Want" -- by Cassie, allegedly one of R&B's next great hopes -- features a bouncy pop melody that good Britney might have been proud of, an almost-Indian chiming riff, a rumbling rock guitar that is irresistably propulsive, and, leading into the middle eight rap, a thundering synth part. And there are at least three vocal hooks. They go as follows (roughly): "Oh oh, oh oh, oh oh, oh oh!" "Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no!" "Yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!" But even these take a backseat to the "woosh!" sound that undergirds the entire record, which you will either find catchily annoying, or annoyingly catchy. Some people may even spend the entire three minutes being unable to stop aping those woosh sounds.

(Preceding the song on the album, by the way, is the funniest track I've heard this year. Sadly, the hilarity is unintentional. In it, Cassie bursts out of the gates and sings: "He said he had fallen so in love with me/And I said 'Ditto, ditto, ditto.' He told me that I'm the only one he could see/And I said 'Ditto, ditto, ditto.'" Get out of my head! I have always dreamt of a day when my profession of love would be met by that reply from the object of my affection. This is HIGHLY HYSTERICAL. I say so. You of course should say, "ditto, ditto, ditto.")

Thursday, August 03, 2006

X-Press 2 featuring Rob Harvey, "Kill 100" (2006)

By this point in musical history, it feels like everyone and their grandmothers have sampled (royalties!) or alluded to (free!) "I Feel Love." (The Wiki entry probably only scratches the surface; it misses out Mousse T.'s use of the bassline for his mashy remix of Moloko's "Sing It Back," for instance.) This new single by X-Press 2 dips its toes into the same sample pool, but at least splashes around to create some different patterns.

The original riff, of course, manages the neat trick of seeming to build and build towards a peak when, in reality, it mostly circled around and back on itself in a kind of self-masturbatory frenzy. It's therefore largely been sampled as a gurgling expression of ecstasy. In "Kill 100," not so much. Featuring vocals from Rob Harvey of The Music, this is a slab of dark twisted electrohouse. Minimal and menacing, it's quite a few miles from the happy sounds of "Lazy" or the soulful drawl of "Give It" -- not that those tracks, despite being lead singles for the previous and the forthcoming X-Press 2 albums, are especially representative of the band's sound. But "Kill 100" is even gloomier than something like "I Want You Back"; if I hadn't known, I might have guessed that it was a new Underworld track. Over some sparse synth washes and an incrementally developing bassline, Rob intones a claustrophobic and paranoid lyric. When he then announces, quite surprisingly, that he feels love, and the familiar riff kicks in, it feels more like a portent of impending doom more than it does any kind of joyful release.

(The band is running a competition that allows anyone to remix the single, with the aim of producing 100 official versions. I like how they ask that "any additional sounds you use [should] not [be] uncleared samples." Presumably that doesn't include the one already in the song.)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Lisa Loeb, "I Wish" (1999)

Four or five summers ago, I found myself sitting in a coffee shop, in a suburb of Virginia, with three other adults and two kids. Tee and I had gone out there to visit friends of his, a married couple with these two great boys. We hung out at their house, ate the fantastic Indian food that she had "whipped up," went to a nursery because they wanted Tee's expert opinion about some shrub, and then, parched, ended up at the neighborhood Starbucks.

The kids, of course, weren't exhausted. The elder, who four years later would become first runner-up in the state geography bee -- no doubt you can soon see him in some indie documentary on the subject, especially if the winner is unable to perform his or her duties -- mostly kept to himself, but the younger one was quite a talker. Having finished my drink, I was playing around with the straw and ended up making some sort of crude origami thing out of it.

Interested piqued, he wanted to see it. I never pass up a chance to tease children, so I said it was all mine and refused to give it. "Bring it here!" he squealed with equal measures of delight and frustration.

"Bring it where?" I challenged.

"Here," he said.

"But it is here," I insisted, "right next to me."

"No, it's there!" he shrieked.

I moved it towards him for a second, not long enough for him to make a successful grab at it, and pointed out: "If I move it there, then it would be there; you said you wanted it here..." I said, moving it back to me, " here it is."

And on we went. Tee told me later how amused he was by it all. "He obviously hadn't figured it out before then," he claimed. "You could see a light go on in his head."

Lisa Loeb's brief ballad "I Wish" is from 1999, and it seems likely that its original title was "Anywhere But Here": she wrote it for the movie starring Susan Saradon and Natalie Portman, probably submitted it to the soundtrack producers who liked it, but not as much as k. d. lang's track, thereby necessitating the title change for Lisa. (Saint Etienne once jokingly observed how many b-sides suddenly appeared in 1997 with titles like "Tomorrow Never Dies/Lies/Attracts Mice" once Sheryl Crow's song was picked for the Bond movie.) It's a song about wanting to escape, although what she wants to escape from, or to, isn't entirely consistent. The poignant opening lines declare the narrator's wish for a place that she can simply remain in (as Natalie's character does, against her mother who eschews ties and always wants to be on the move): "I wish for a place, where the earth doesn't shake/If the earth won't be still, then I will." But later, it seems like what she wants is a spot where the action is: "I wish for a place, where I could go/Cause everything here moves so slow." Perhaps, then, what she wants to be away from, or where she wants to go, isn't even that crucial. She simply wants to be somewhere else.

But escape is impossible, a fact neatly summed up by the word game that the chorus plays: "Can you tell me if I'm near/To anywhere but here?" But you're always nearer here than you are there; there's no way to avoid being here. So, of course, the answer to the chorus's question is always "no." You can never be anywhere but here. Not there, nor there -- only here.