tremble clef

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Girls Aloud, "Singapore" (2006)

1. The beginning of the song, which is found on the bonus disc of The Sound Of Girls Aloud: The Greatest Hits, always makes me think that it's going to turn into a Frank track. Well, not any one Frank track in particular. That would be too precise for my "argument." But there's something about the groove and flow of the backing track that feels maddeningly familiar. You can at least sing "All I Ever Do" over it. It wouldn't be surprising: Xenomania have never been above recycling, whether of entire songs ("Money In My Pocket" getting passed around like a cheap whore), or just their backing tracks (and thus the rhythm track for Saint Etienne's b-side "Got A job" later pops up in Texas' "Get Down Tonight." But we forgive them, on account of their being geniuses and everything).

2. "You kiss my lips, as I try to fix your tie" is such an understatedly classic line: so precise, so mundane, and thus so utterly believeable.

3. But you can see why they dropped it from the final running order of Chemistry, for which it was first recorded: the track isn't as finished as it could be, lacking as it does a killer middle eight, and perhaps even a fuller second verse. Right now, after the first chorus, poor Kimberly and Sarah have to sing the same words, one after another ("Please means more/I see you knocking at the door..."). Maybe the repetition expresses how time stands still when he's away, etc., but it does feel a bit like their normally reliable lyricist ran out on them halfway.

4. In the song, "Singapore" represents a place far, far away. Well, sure. Hardly anyone lives there. But it's also a good place for rhyming purposes. "Now you're off to Zimbabwe" would be a bitch to follow up, wouldn't it? Oh, wait, maybe not: "So my days are filled with ennui"? Damn! I RULE ALL.

5. The key change that takes us from verse to bridge is sigh-tastic. The feel is aided and abetted by the way the Girls sing "And I..." over it, after which Cheryl hits the line "I'm watching day time TV" just right, lightly, deftly, and yet emphatically. And the cadence of the next line! "Wishing you were with me...": it tails away, and then lifts upward pitch-wise, and perfectly captures the sense of yearning.

6. So, yeah, I really like this. I like it more than any of the three new tracks on disc one of the collection, which to me border on parodic, like the Girls are beginning to follow a formula without much conviction. But this, this is slinky and heartfelt, and thus on repeat.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Amy Winehouse, "Back To Black"/"Love Is A Losing Game" (2006)

Amy Winehouse's new album Back To Black -- unlike her jazzy first record, Frank, this one's more indebted to Motown's and other girl groups -- begins on what is already a famously defiant note: "They tried to make me go to rehab/I won't go, go, go." The eleven-track record ends with an equally uncompromising stance, as Amy tells some woman that her boyfriend is bogarting her joint ("Tell your boyfriend, next time he around/To buy his own weed, and don't wear my shit down"). Back To Black therefore doesn't trace a transformation in its subject, nor work its way to much of a revelation. She loves her booze and drugs at the start, she loves them to the bitter end. (It's no secret that Amy, in real life, appears to be no stranger to substance abuse; for some listeners, this knowledge will make it hard to stomach the unrepentant attitude of the album, while for others it is largely irelevant and does not -- should not -- detract from what is overall a fine artistic achievement.)

The closest the album comes to providing a deeper insight into addiction is on the two tracks in the middle of the album, which also happen to be the best. The title track, "Back To Black" is track five, while "Love Is A Losing Game" is the sixth; together they are hence positioned as the heart, the soft center of the record.

And they do offer a glimpse into something like a reason for Amy's, or the narrator's, self-destruction. "Me and my head high/And my tears dry/Get on without my guy," Amy sings on "Back To Black," over a backing that XOLondon has accurately described as a kind of Shirley Bassey pastiche. "You went back to what you know/So far from all that we went through/And I took a troubled track/My arms are stacked/I go back to black." Given that "Rehab" has already established that "black" is an (obvious) metaphor for the abyss of addiction (on that earlier track, Amy announces, "Yes, I've been black/When I come back"), the song suggests that her spiral began when she was jilted.

On the following song, the gorgeous "Love Is A Losing Game," Amy accordingly catalogues all the ways love is a no-win proposition. The song moves subtly between various ideas of why exactly love is so hopeless; in the first section, built around assertions that "love is a losing game," the problem seems to be in the competitive nature of love itself, which necessitates winners and losers. In the second, where the refrain is that "love is a losing hand," it is the chips themselves that are stacked against her -- although it suggests that, with a better hand, she could have won. Here, victory is at least a possibility, if a largely theoretical one. But in the final, and perhaps most poignant section, there seems no real way to beat either the hand you're dealt, or the game itself: "Though I battled blind/Love is a fate resigned/Memories mar my mind/Love is a fate resigned."

If the album therefore begins and ends with Amy refusing to back down from her addiction, the middle two songs at least gives us a look into the reasons for that state of mind. But, in attributing her compulsion to that most human of emotions -- love, and its inevitable failure -- does Back To Black make Amy's situation more excusable...or less? Or is that even the right question to ask?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Audio-Frauds vs. Peyton, "Ride Like The Wind (Extended Mix)" (2006)

Oh purlease. Like you didn't love Christopher Cross in all his nautical-lovin', baby-bottom smoothness back in "the day," and like you haven't been praying all these years for a cheestastic house cover of one, just any one, of his big hits -- by, say, Peyton, the son of a preacher man who went on to be the food and drink expert on the short-lived British version of Queer Eye For The Straight Guy ?


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Voyage, "Souvenirs" (1978)

I first heard this rueful disco song only in 1998, but somehow I felt I had known it all my life. I was by no means a hoochie circuit party boy in the late 90s, but you don't live in a big metropolitan East Coast American city for close to ten years without bumping into a block party every now and then. At the very least I was interested enough in gay club music to, if not collect, then at least pay attention to all the Centaur compilations that were beginning to flood the market. These compilations became shit fairly quickly, but one of their first was also one of their best: Fire Island Classics Volume 1, mixed by Michael Fierman. Placing then-current tracks (Frankie Knuckles) alongside classics (Viola Wills) and reinterpretations of classics (Peter Cox), the surprisingly-seamless mix ended with a track from the French disco group Voyage. It was a perfect choice, and instantly evocative, even of something I never knew: a beach party at the notorious Pines, or anywhere else, really, that, as the sun comes up, must finally end, but at least ends with a glorious track that makes you feel part of something larger.

A few years later, in 2001, I found myself leaving that big metropolitan East Coast American city, as I always knew I would. That June saw a last round of summery activities, including, naturally enough, gay pride. Even if that event had long ceased to be vital or even exciting, it still felt like an old friend, especially since I did it with old friends. Some of them seem sadder than I was about my impending departure; but if I appeared less so, it was mostly because I was numb. James had started playing with some editing program on his Mac, and just bought a nifty video camera. It followed him most places. Later, he would send me a video montage that he had shot, chockful of moments from that final summer. And the song he chose to soundtrack the montage, entirely by coincidence, was "Souvenirs."

"Souvenirs, are signs that take you away/Souvenirs, will make you leave here today/For a world of joy and living/A world of love and giving/Away, far away." In the song, souvenirs seem literally capable of transporting you. But in sending you to a world of "joy and living," the implication unfortunately is that this world we now find ourselves in is less than perfect. Yet, in the end, these souvenirs are only signs: they point and refer to something, but, like all signs, are never the thing -- that world of love -- itself. And often, they are signs of signs, a memory of a memory, though somehow their power fails to be diminished by that fact. It's easy, as most of us know by now, to be nostalgic for something we never knew. Some objects make it even easier, arriving as they do with already a sheen of nostalgia about them, a sheen that, with touching generosity, allows us to attach to it further associations, memories, and desires.

Edited to add: The first mp3 link takes you to the 8-minute version of the song that actually ends the Fire Island Classics mix. The second link is to a 3-minute 7" edit that to my ears of course sounds less intact.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Robbie Williams, "The 80's" (2006)

"Art," Oscar Wilde once remarked, as usual using what only appears on the surface to be a paradox, "is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious." Though I do want to suggest that pop music is often art, I don't also mean to imply, with that epigram, that Robbie Williams is a great artist, nor even that his new album, Rudebox, is uniformly brilliant. (The first five tracks are great, as is the final third of the record, but there's also a middle stretch of Lily Allen-aided futility.) Nevertheless, I feel quite bad for Robbie that a high number of critics and listeners don't seem to know quite what to do about his perceived lack of seriousness (though I'm sure his MILLIONS OF DOLLARS more than make up for being misunderstood), when, in fact, as Wilde already portended several centuries ago, an artist who affects a lack of seriousness should never be taken to be less than serious about his art/music. That we cannot reconcile Robbie's trivializing and serious sides -- that we sometimes even take that (heh) "discrepancy" or "inconsistency" to be an artistic or even character flaw -- is a reflection, I think, of the kinds of affect we allow, not just our artists, but our men and women.

Take, for example, the two-star Guardian review of Rudebox, in which Alexis Petridis sets up this narrative: on Intensive Care, Robbie's previous album, "Stephen Duffy apparently expunged the singer's desire to record the wretched jokey tracks that had peppered all his previous albums" (sure, because a man who once wrote the lines, "I'll get a lot of ink/Out of our affair," never had his tongue in his cheek), thereby leading, Petridis implies, to better reviews (although it's not clear how he established that cause-and-effect relationship). However, much to Petridis's dismay, it turns out that Robbie is "not done winking and gurning yet," and the problem with "Rudebox is...that [it] doesn't stop winking and gurning at you for over an hour." On a more mundane but related level, the fan debate about the single "Rudebox," when it was released a month ago, roughly proceeded along related lines: "He's winking (and therefore it sucks)!" "No he's not (and therefore it's good)!" "He's taking the piss (and therefore it sucks)!" "I know I am, but what are you? (You suck!)"

There is little about "Rudebox" -- which, yes, I find one of the most infectious and thrilling singles of the past few months -- that strikes me as a joke, and no one who suggests that it is has ever, as far as I can tell, pointed to specifically why it should be considered so. Some, I guess, have gestured in the direction of Robbie's rapping. But even if we establish that the rapping is "bad," a case would still have to be made that it is intentionally so, since only then would it constitute a "joke." Indeed, I'm not even sure if I find the rapping "bad" -- Robbie's cadences appear to me to be quite straightforwardly and even earnestly modelled after, not Mike Skinner's (not in this case anyway), but Murray Head's efforts on "One Night In Bangkok" -- or, at the very least, I think that our pronoucements of "bad rapping" is too often because we uncritically apply a racialized yardstick. (But that's another blog entry.)

Some press reviews have tried harder to pinpoint (if only implicitly) the jokey nature of Rudebox. In his review for The Independent, Andy Gill calls Robbie's lyrics "pretentious," by which he seems to be mean that Robbie throws together a bunch of quotations, citations, and references. Some of these, for Gill, are more permissible than others, although the reason proves elusive. "It's one thing," he frets, "to reiterate the Pet Shop Boys' reference to Yevtushenko's To the Finland Station [on "Viva Life On Mars"], and another thing entirely to imagine one might usher a glimpse of insight into 'The Eighties' through a collage of apparently random pop-culture references and biographical details." First, of all, it's not evident why such lyrics are "pretentious" -- what is Robbie pretending to be? He's not claiming to have read Yevtunshenko (if anything, it's Gill's off-handed citation that makes that claim for himself. Besides, I've always thought that the Pet Shop Boys citation was of Edmund Wilson's account?) The touchstone is "West End Girls," not Russian history. Second: why not? Why can't we get a glimpse into a decade through a collage of pop-culture references? Haven't we just summed up the raison d'ĂȘtre of VH1?

"The 80's," the other track that Gill mentions, is not in any case meant to provide a look into an entire decade, but simply a glimpse into Robbie's (or the narrator's). The citations don't themselves "usher a glimpse of insight"; it is the act of Robbie's endless citing that is in itself revealing. The citations are not a means, as Gill seems to think; they are themselves a kind of ends. "The 80's," to set some context, is autobiography, and a fairly poignant one ("Things look better when they start/That's how the 80's broke my heart"); on some levels, its template is provided by, say, The Streets' "Weak Become Heroes," Estelle's "1984," or even Pet Shop Boys' "Being Boring." But in some ways, it also departs from those tracks: not just because it "devolves" into joking mockery at the end ("What you looking at, you mong?"), but because there is less of a sense, even though the narration is retrospective, that Robbie has really transcended the life he documents. Near the end, Robbie talks about losing his virginity, and adds: "I'm in my 30s now and I'm still impressed/Why the Falklands Mum, and what have they done/Where do girls come, where do girls come from, where do girls come from?" Time suddenly seems collapsed, and the last line especially exhibits a surprisingly moving urgency; although its ostensible meaning is that Robbie, even now, can't understand women, it also feels like, for a second, he has regressed to a time when girls caused him anguish and pain.

Surrounding this pivotal naked moment in "The 80s" are the citations that tick Gill off so much. But it's hard to see why he sees them as jokes, or why he's annoyed at the emptiness of the signifiers. In the song, Robbie quotes 2 Live Crew, Snap!, A Flock Of Seagulls, Berlin, Musical Youth -- yes, as throwaway lines, like he's the rainman of 80s culture. But this seems psychologically accurate, suggesting as it does the extent to which Robbie's memory of that decade is made up of half-remembered phrases and fragments, many of which have now been detached from their original contexts to take on independent lives. It actually makes Robbie like many of us (where's the beef, where's the beef!?). Such citations litter all of Rudebox (I especially like the Missy Elliot snippet), and it's what gives the album a sense of vitality. Geezers need excitement: one reason why the past few Robbie albums have been dud is the way they sound like he's just going through the motions. On Rudebox, in contrast, he seems to be rediscovering the joys of music -- by re-assuming his role as fan, and reminding himself of the way music soundtracked his life.

Or even formed it. In this light, Robbie's decision (stay with me here) to cover the Pet Shop Boys' cover of My Robot Friend's "We're the Pet Shop Boys" makes perfect sense. I've written about this song before, back when it only existed in two, instead of three incarnations. Then, I faintly suggested that the song expresses the narrator's fantasy that music can bring him and his estranged lover back together: "one possible way to interpret it," I noted, "is to see the narrator thinking back on a failed relationship ("Suburbia is a slipstream of a memory/Of a time when you were close to me") with a partner who shared his love of the Boys. Pretending that he's 'there again,' the narrator starts singing 'we're the Pet Shop Boys,' as if that chant, as well as all the Boys' song titles at the end -- and his and his ex's shared fandom of the group -- can bring them back together again."

I've become, in the three (!) years since penning those thoughts, more convinced by this reading of "We're the Pet Shop Boys," and it is one that helps us make sense of Rudebox's narrative. The album is suffused with such phantasmatic gestures: most obviously in the autobiographical suite "Burslem Normals," "The 80s," and "The 90s," but really throughout. Robbie covers a number of songs that probably mean something to him (The Human League's "Louise," and Stephen Duffy's "Kiss Me"), coming as they do from the period of his life that the album details. But in covering "We're the Pet Shop Boys," he also points us to what it means to cover anything: it might be a homage, but it is also a selfish act, because in covering -- or elsewhere "simply" citing musical lines, references, memories -- such songs, Robbie suggests that he is doing nothing less than seeking to remind himself of the things that have quite literally constituted him. These are far from empty, jokey, or pretentious references.

I have spent some time arguing that at least a couple of things that people have pointed to as evidence of Robbie's lack of seriousness (his rapping, or more prominently, his compulsive citations) shouldn't really be considered as such. And yet, in the final reckoning, I'm not particularly interested in establishing If Robbie Is Serious, Or If He Is Joking. For what it's worth, I think he's deadly serious, but, as Wilde reminds us, this does not mean that he can't be absolutely jokey in his approach. The division between seriousness and jokiness is not a clearcut one.

More importantly, perhaps, is the final question of why we are largely incapable of coming to terms with that last fact. Which is to say: that Robbie's music can often be both a joke and yet deadly serious, is something that we seem to have trouble negotiating, and why this is so is an interesting phenomenon. Again, as the figure of Wilde suggests, there is of course a name for this kind of stance, in which seriousness is covered by a jokey exterior: camp. Camp is often thought of as the sole property of gay men, and Robbie's entire career has been plagued by rumors and jokes -- not least made by himself -- about his gay sensibility. What I finally find most intriguing about our culture's persistent refusal to believe that Robbie can hold both serious/joking multitudes in his being is the way it confirms what we probably already know: our inability to allow camp, in its largest sense -- in which a seriousness of purpose is belied by a trivializing mode -- as a mode of expression for anyone except gay men. Good news for gay men, perhaps, but in the end, what a limiting constraint for straight men like Robbie, and, really, everybody else.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Lloyd Cole, "Rolodex Incident" (2006)

"Rolodex Incident," a track that closes the new Lloyd Cole album Antidepressant, begins with a poignant, extended instrumental passage. For almost two minutes, a piano tinkles up and down the scale, exhibiting what seems like a bit of restlessness, before it's eventually joined by an mournfully plucked guitar. "Tripped on your rolodex," the song's narrator begins, "brought up a cloud of dust. I had to take an antihistamine, before I could move on, and assess the damage done." He examines the rolodex, and spotting what "you wrote" in it, indeed sees a kind of damage: "In case of loss..."

At this point, the singing pauses, and we get another instrumental break, as if the narrator became too choked up at reading those initial words. "In case of loss," he finally returns to the inscription in the rolodex, "'it said 'Return to this address.'" It's not clear if these lines are followed by an actual address, or if "this" is some sort of existential joke: after all, if all the instructions said was "return to this address," then the rolodex would never be lost, since it would always be right here at "this" spot, and thus where it is always supposed to be.

"So here we are," the narrator continues, "except you don't live here anymore. And I guess I'm leaving. I guess I'm getting around to leaving. And then again, remember when I asked for just a little quiet please?" What happened? Who, or what has been lost? Even if the rolodex has been separated from "you," which of the two is actually displaced? You may not live here anymore, but the narrator himself is likewise leaving. Does the rolodex stay, or go with him? And which action would return it to its rightful place, or is that no longer possible? The word "melancholy" has become general and vague in its meaning, and I certainly use, or even overuse, it indiscriminately. But Freud at least suggests that, in melancholia, the people who suffer the loss do not even know what they have lost, nor even, sometimes, that they have lost at all. "In case of case of loss," but do we always recognize the case?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Koop, "Come To Me" (2006)

EQ: I love the single from the new Koop album.

BL: Which one? The first single, "Koop Islands Blues," or the second, "Come To Me"? Never mind, I love them both. I hadn't known that the vocalist on "Koop Islands Blues" is Ane Brun. But "Come To Me" is so great, isn't it? I would post it on the blog THIS VERY SECOND if I only had something to say about it beyond, "This makes me so happy!"

EQ: Do you need anything more than that?

BL: No. No. All I need is happiness. Which is, of course, very little to ask for, God.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

X-Press 2 featuring Tim DeLaughter, "Witchi Tai To" (2006)

It was gross when Public Image Ltd did it:

Still gross, but, fine, a bit funny when Dubstar had their turn:

And then did it again:

Which I never quite understood, by the way: the first Disgraceful sleeve with the turned-out pencil case was too rude, so it gets replaced with a slipper that connotes exactly the same thing -- but now with added bunny ears! -- and it becomes okay? Hmm.

So, X-Press 2, I'm just saying it's all a bit played out:

I feel like I should take a leaf from The Office's book and award someone a Dundie for "Bushiest Busiest Beaver."

Um, let's have a song instead. I've posted a track from Makeshift Feelgood before: the "I Feel Love"-sampling, second single "Kill 100." This here is the band's cover of the old Jim Pepper jazz standard, "Witchi Tai To." The boys have laid the familiar Peyote chant on top of a gentle dance beat, augmented by some nice synthesized strings at the end. Sing, or you prefer, whistle along to it. You know how to whistle, don't you? You -- sigh, wait for it, you knew it was coming, I'M SORRY, OKAY? -- just put your lips together and blow.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Magic Numbers, "Take A Chance (Radio Edit)" (2006)

"Ah ah ah aah. Ah ah ah aah." It's hard for me to listen to The Magic Numbers' infectious new single without totally giving in to the desire to have my life be soundtracked by those "ah"s. If Angela (Michelle? No, I think Angela's the backing vocalist) would be so kind as to follow me around for the rest of my days, choosing opportune moments to add some "ah"s to the things I say, that would be just dandy.

But that would be going against the logic of the song, because in it, those "ah"s may be exactly what Romeo seeks, and we're supposed to want, to escape. Like many of their tracks, "Take A Chance" is loaded with hooks, and melodious all the way through. Technically, the chorus proper seems to be the section that goes, "It's a crying shame, that the love you've made/Is a cross, that you bear"; there, the drums pound more insistently, and the section is noticeably more agitated than the rest of the song. But the chorus is also, to my ears, the least catchy bit, mostly because it lacks those "ah"s. Those backing vocals serve largely to transition us in and out of sections: they kick start the song, lead us into the verses, and then reappear after the chorus on a kind of sub-chorus ("take a chance, with a woman who lets you"). The chorus almost seem to be want to, even at the cost of "catchiness," beat back the "ah"s. But, thus banished from the chorus, these "ah"s nevertheless pop up everywhere else, infecting these other sections so that they end up being just as chorus-like.

The "ah"s therefore function, by proxy, as something like the singer's nemesis. The narrative of the song, after all, has to do with a lost love which Romeo is haunted by. He wants to, but can't quite forget, and it's driving him crazy. A point that the video makes more literal:

Poor Romeo: restrained in a strait-jacket while Nurse Ratched forces pills down his throat, having everything around him fall apart or be revealed as mere props, eventually escaping...but only to then come face-to-face with his bandmates who stare at him, mouth the words of the song, and basically hum him back to the nuthouse. Where the nightmare all begins afresh. Absurd(ist). And yet, a perfectly logical narrative, if the song itself (and those "ah"s in particular) represents all that Romeo wants to, but can't get out of his head. Namely: the love that, like a lingering "ah ah ah ah" siren song, just "won't leave me alone."

Monday, October 09, 2006

Jody Watley, "Borderline" (2006)

It's Monday. My brain isn't therefore working warticularly pell. But that can't be the only reason why I've been trying to think of successful covers of Madonna's songs, and coming up mostly blank.

Have there even been that many covers? Well, there is Virgin Voices -- Volumes 1 and 2. But good versions never seem to actually appear on such dedicated albums (see also: Pet Shop Boys, Depeche, etc.), comprised as they tend to be of fans working from their bedrooms; bands you never knew were still alive and making music, but therefore possess at least a bit of a morbid kitsch value (Sigue Sigue Sputnik! Flock of Seagulls!); and, for some totally inexplicable reason, always a high proportion of goth artists. I haven't sampled all the tracks, but, I do possess Amanda Ghost's drum-n-bass reworking of "Bad Girl," from Vol. 1, which approaches listenability.

Aside from such compilations, there have been: Ciccone Youth's "Into The Groove(y)" and "Burnin' Up," which, um, no, just no; Marc Almond's "Like A Prayer," recorded for an NME project, which is pretty over-the-top, uncharacteristically. And Australian band The Triffids once backed their 12" single of "Bury Me Deep In Love" with covers of both Pet Shop Boys' "Rent," and Madonna's "Into The Groove"; on the latter, they are barely in tune, but this is almost excused by how classic the a-side is.

Perhaps Madonna's music is too infused with her personality to be successfully covered. In this light, and given the dismal record of those who've tried, Jody Watley's version of "Borderline" must constitute a minor miracle. For the rubbery disco bass of the original, Jody substitutes a lush, seabreeze feel that slows the song down and turns it into something like a bossa nova number. Meanwhile, one of the most recognizable elements of Madonna's original -- the repeating nine-note, eight-note synth riff, which gives the song its lift -- has been simplified (Jody's version uses a piano, which plays one, and then two fewer notes each time), but also revamped (the riff now seems to descend). As a result, Jody's edition doesn't quite possess the tension, so prominent in the original, between a melancholy lyric and an upbeat rhythm; this feels less playful, more mournful, and if that's a more literal reading of the song, than at least it's not an inappropriate one. Accordingly, Jody -- using rather than hiding the rougher edge that time has bestowed on her voice -- sings the former disco classic with ruefulness and resignation, and, with that, completes the transformation.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Bliss, "Kissing (New Version)" (2003)

The most surprising kiss I've ever been part of took place on a bridge. The locale -- Longfellow Bridge, to be specific, which links Boston to Cambridge -- was, I suppose, part of the surprise. It was late; one, even two in the morning. At that time, I was traveling precisely in that direction, coming from some depressing bar in North Station, past Buzzy's Fabulous Roast Beef, and going home. I was on my bicycle; in those days, that was, perhaps foolishly, the way I chose to get home at closing time (the better to tell people that, without a dainty basket on the front of the bike, there was no way for me to offer them a ride?). But, foolish or not, I loved being on my bicycle at those late hours, in the cool night air. It made everything feel like it would be alright.

Despite the late hour, I wasn't the only cyclist crossing that bridge. And like me, the other man was doing so in the same manner: haltingly, with starts and stops. I pedaled past him, who was pensively gazing into the river, at the quarter mark; I myself then stopped, a little further on, to do the same. The lights were reflecting off the water. Like in some odd relay race, he got back on his bike, and thus passed me in return. As he did, he said, with a bit of a brogue, "I hope you're not thinking of jumping."

You know how such dances end. We talked for a while, our bicycles similarly idle by our side. We might have walked a bit, checking out different spots along the bridge, as if they offered drastically different views of the water. It's not even a long bridge, but somehow on that night it could contain a conversation that seemed to stretch very far, if only with possibilities. And, indeed, when we eventually, finally, got to the end...the Cambridge end of the bridge, at any rate, which I guess from another perspective would be the beginning, he, in one swift motion, kissed me. I don't need to tell you that memory plays tricks and realigns everything into a stupid movie script, but in my mind the headlights of an isolated passing car chose that moment to briefly light the edges of our being.

In his defense, the foolish man was a bit drunk. This became more apparent when he needed to descend to the bushes underneath the bridge to relieve himself. It's hard to say if this made the moment more or less romantic, really. Less ambiguous in that regard was his admission that he, at this beginning or end point of the bridge, "unfortunately" had to head off right, to the east, "home to his boyfriend." That boyfriend, it turned out, owned a restaurant that I'd eaten at several times, although I only liked one thing on the menu. Yet, somehow, a few days later, we talked on the phone and ended up, aptly enough, going for a long bike ride together that had, if memory does not again deceive me, its share of meaningful silences. There was a second kiss, but by then it was decidedly bittersweet.

Thanks to a friend for reminding me of this. Sorry I didn't go with, as you suggested, Scissor Sisters' "Bicycling With The Devil" for the entry. It was only partly a high camp comedy, you know.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Scissor Sisters, "Might Tell You Tonight" (2006)

Not that he would actually care what I think, of course, but Jake Shears might titter to hear me pronounce Ta-Dah to be, not a show-er, but a grow-er. The second Scissor Sisters album has been out (or "available") for a few weeks now, so mine is a belated pronouncement, but you can't declare something a grower except belatedly, can you? No, you cannot. It was tempting to dive in and write about Ta-Dah a day or two after it ended up on my iPod; in retrospect, I'm glad that I didn't. I wish I could say that I refrained because I, in my infinite wisdom, knew back then that the record needed more spins. But the banal truth is that I found the album so underwhelming and unworthy of ink after those initial samplings that I just put it aside.

I was mostly wrong. The question of "first impressions" (or relatedly, "immediacy") is an interesting one for pop music, and particularly so in the case of Ta-Dah. Strikingly, the people who didn't like the album right after its availablity were reasonably unified on why they didn't -- why we didn't, since I shared those opening impressions. I'm not going to suggest that all those impressions are wrong, nor, for that matter, that all of them are right -- it is, it won't surprise you to hear, a bit of both -- but I do find, as usual, the critical reactions fascinating, and the reasons for those impressions intriguing.

Scissor Sisters has always drawn on two eras and sounds for inspiration, and early dismay about Ta-Dah revolved around the idea that a whole side of the band was missing. On the first album, the Scissor Sisters sound was roughly but almost neatly split between 70s soft-rock ("Laura," "Take Your Mama," "Mary," "Music Is The Victim," "Return To Oz") and 80s synthpop ("Comfortably Numb," "Lovers In The Back Seat," "Tits," "Filthy," "Better Luck," "Can't Come"). Several commentators argued that Ta-Dah ditched the latter sound, a move that, furthermore, has political implications: given that the 80s electro numbers were often the campier ones in the Sisters' arsenal, this even led some writers to suggest that the band was selling out, either because they're subscribing to rockist ideas and opting for a more commercial (for the US?) rock sound, or because they're de-gaying themselves.

The album did initially strike me as lacking electropop, but, now, a few weeks down the line, this feels less empirically true. But I think there's a reason why that first impression was created, however, and it has to do with the sequencing of the album. While Scissor Sisters mished-and-mashed the 70s and 80s influences (perhaps even jarringly: to this day, I'm a little jolted when I hear the bleepy opening of "Comfortably Numb" right after the stomp of "Take Your Mama"), Ta-Dah more or less splits them over two halves. Tracks one to six (from "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" to "Intermission" are indeed very 70s; because the album's therefore frontloaded with that sound, it's easy to overlook the way its second half gets a bit more electro. "Kiss You Off" kicks off this stretch, and the next three tracks ("Ooh," "Paul McCartney," and "The Other Side") are more electro-disco than you think. (Though not entirely: one internal "problem" with "The Other Side" is the way it begins with a shimmering synth riff, only to then feature not one, but two very 70s interludes: first, a slide guitar solo, and then a sax solo. Those stick in your mind, if not your crawl. It took me a few listens before I classified the track as a fundamentally electropop number with some unfortunate 70s touches, rather than the opposite.) The record does return to a more 70s rock sound with the two closing tracks (including the tragic "Everybody Wants The Same Thing," which I disliked then and now), and this does further cement the impression of the album being too focused on rock. It's unlcear why the Sisters decided to structure the record this way -- although the move makes a bit more sense if we supposed that the band, in keeping with their aesthetic, have conceived of the album as a piece of vinyl with two sides.

But the sequencing is only partly responsible for creating this largely erroneous idea that the Sisters have ditched half their sound. In baseball (wait, come back! It's just a metaphor!), people sometimes talk about pitchers losing their effectiveness when they fall too much in love with a pitch, which they then proceed to overuse and thus fail to surprise their opponents. On Ta-Dah, it feels like the group has fallen in love with two things. One of these is the piano vamping riff -- you know the one, in which the pianist pounds away like he thinks he is, and on several occasions, actually is, Elton John -- or the rhythm modelled after it. (I think this is what XOLondon meant when he said that the band is stuck in a plonkety plonk groove.) The problem with the first half of the album is not just that it sounds too 70s, but it sounds 70s in a quite specific and monotonous way. Even on "I Can't Decide" and "Intermission," which owe something to, I dunno, 1920s burlesque music as well, the pianos follow a rhythm that isn't very distinguishable from the ones on "She's My Man" (which in turn is almost a straight rewrite of Elton John's "I'm Still Standing"), and "Lights" (which sounds to me like Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry"), the most 70s of the tracks. I've since come to enjoy the first half of the album quite a bit, and find even the next single "Land Of A Thousand Words" a great lighters-in-the-air ballad, but I can also understand why I initially found it a bit of a dreary headache.

If Scissor Sisters have fallen a bit too much in love with the piano vamp and its rhythm, they have also come to rely too much, and too indiscriminately, on Jake's falsetto. It's very difficult, I think, to express different emotional shadings while in falsetto; as a result, that tone is most effective when contrasted to a natural voice (when I reviewed some singles for Stylus magazine's jukebox this week [subtle self-pimp!], I snarked about how Jake had forgotten this fact). On the first album, part of what made "It Can't Come Quickly Enough" such a delectable song was the way Jake shifts in and out of the high notes; when he reaches the chorus and tells us that "it can't come quickly enough, now you spend your life waiting for this moment," the quiver from the falsetto expresses, as even words cannot, the tremulousness of the dreams. In contrast, on something like "I Don't Feel Like Dancin,'" Jake's decision to sing the whole song in falsetto means that there is no explosiveness, so the track feels oddly flat. (Imagine a version with the verses au naturel, and, then, with a laser sound effect, the song bursting, only then, into a higher-pitched "Don't feel like dancin'! Dancin'!"). On "Might Tell You Tonight," a lovely banjoesque song that perfectly captures the sweet tentativeness of the moments when you are contemplating telling someone how you feel about him, Jake doesn't technically use his falsetto, but you will be able to notice the different "tones" of his voice on the verses (rougher) and chorus (gentler and sweet). Somehow he cannot do that in falsetto, and the album sounds poorer as a consequence.

The overuse of falsetto is also the reason, I suspect, for another early complaint about Ta-Dah: its supposed lack of songcraft (the Stylus review: "what's missing are the tunes"). Again, this is an opinion I shared in the early going, but no longer do. I think it's easy to overlook the melodic variation and dexterity of the album because Jake's falsetto, once again, pancakes those qualities; you barely notice the song "Lights" going from verse to chorus, because Jake singing both parts in fairly close tones means that the key change gets buried. On almost all of the songs, indeed, the middle eights totally sneak by for the same reason.

In the final reckoning, Ta-Dah isn't a perfect album. There are some points on which I haven't changed my mind in the intervening weeks. For example, there's another sense in which "a whole side of the band is missing," in that, as XOLondon also noted, Ana Matronic doesn't feature enough. She gets "Kiss Me Off" as her big solo number, of course, but her absence continues to bug -- especially since some of the songs could easily have been (nay, should have been) duets. "Ooh" is the most obvious, since we know that there is a version with Kylie's vocals, but a back-and-forth repartee between Jake and Ana would have also been welcomed on a track like "I Can't Decide" ("I'll kill you! No, I'll kill YOU!" Look, I don't ask for sophisticated repartee). Also, the bonus disc continues to be shit.

But, even though Ta-Dah isn't perfect, it's also become clear to me that many initial judgments about the album -- judgments that I'm not arguing are wrong, and in fact have tried to point out are "justified" in the sense that they are produced by the record, and particularly by the band's over-reliance on two of their musical tricks -- are worth revisiting. So, you know: go listen to the album again. Start from side two, perhaps. Maybe use your iPod shuffle function to mix up the track order. Auto-correct Jake's pitch to remove, not all, but some falsetto. Listen, again.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Howard Jones, "No One Is To Blame [7" Single Version]" (1986)

Cambridge GCE A-Level Examination in Music
Essay Question
30 marks

"For its release as a single in 1986, Howard Jones's 'No One Is To Blame' was re-produced by Phil Collins and Hugh Padgham. With its whirls and clicks, this version is the first, or at least an early, example of glitch, a style that has become increasingly popular and prominent in recent years, influencing the electronic dance genre, but also everything from hip-hop to pop and rock (in the work of underground acts like Styrofoam or Telefon Tel Aviv, or even mainstream ones like Radiohead)." Assess this claim, which implies that Phil Collins gave birth to Thom Yorke, making sure to support your answer with specific examples.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Linus Loves, "One More Chance" (2006)

This track has mostly flown under the radar (the otherwise majestic PSB discography makes no mention of it as yet, for example), which is a little surprising given how ear-to-the-ground Pet Shop Boys fans usually are: Linus Loves covering "One More Chance," specifically the Bobby O version with the more pronounced arpeggios.

Maybe the neglect is because all the attention has been siphoned off to another of the album's tracks, "Waterfall," which is not only the catchiest on a largely-disappointing record, but also an odd exercise in testing the limits of what constitutes sampling and cover versions (it's more or less "just" an old 10cc record played at a higher speed. Whereupon, quite hilariously, 10cc ends up sounding like Dolly Parton, as punched up by Bent). Or maybe the neglect is due to "One More Chance" being, well, a not-especially-essential cover: although Cut Copy's Dan Whitford has been drafted to do the vocal honors, the track never makes a fully compelling case for its existence. Maybe Linus Loves should have sped this one up, turned Neil into a chipmunk Kate Bush.

File under "curio," is what I'm saying.