tremble clef

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.


  • Very cool write-up.

    I've only partly understood the take on this album as de-gayed. While I can't say that I've fallen in love with this album, I think that one of the things that it's trying to do is broaden the set of sounds that count as gay. Given the queerness of Elton John, T Rex, and glam rock -- who could argue that plonky-plonk is straight? It may have *become* straight over the last thirty years due to its mainstreaming, but there's nothing essentially straight about this music. And for SciSist to, in effect, remind us of this through their promotional photos and their, um, performances on _Dancing With The Stars_, is perhaps more subtle and sophisticated than people give it credit for. If someone asks for an example of a genuinely de-gayed album, point them to _Sam's Town_.

    Lyrically, I can see how some might be upset at "Everybody Wants The Same Thing," but I think that it's in the same vein as, and far less anvilicious then, "Return To Oz."

    As for "Might Tell You Tonight," I love the dissonances in the second verse (for example, at "just cut your clothes and change your hair"), which are nice echoes of the "learn to play the right notes" theme.

    By Anonymous esque, at 7:03 PM  

  • Interesting re-appraisal, enjoyed reading it. Always tricky reviewing albums the day after you get them - mine was done after 4 full plays, and I'd probably make some different points if I were writing about it now. "She's My Man" and "Kiss You Off" have both been almost unshakeable ear-worms, for instance, which I wouldn't have predicted.

    By Blogger mike, at 7:40 PM  

  • The question of whether any genre of music is gay is so, so complicated. It would have taken the entry in a different direction, so I didn't pursue the point, but I too have some qualms about the analogy 70s soft rock : 80s synthpop :: straight : gay (which, to clarify, Troubled Diva's [hi MIke!] review ventriloquizes instead of advocates), since, as you point out, esque, the guiding figure of the 70s sound for the Sisters is, for crissakes, Auntie Elton.

    Having said that, I do think that this album has a less playful relation to Elton/the 70s than their debut. Nothing here, for instance, is as lyrically subversive as "Take Your Mama," which is in part a comment about the way Elton's songs could have been gayer (if he had sung about showing his mom a gay bar), and therefore queers him -- i.e, suggests he was too straight. (Perhaps this new album is more pastiche than parody?) In that sense, than yes, the 70s sound is marked as the less gay of the Sisters' two influences, because the band has already demonstrated that it needs to be more queer.

    Interesting that you mentioned Sam's Town; at one point this entry was going to compare it to Ta-Dah on precisely this point, in an effort to consider the question of what it means for a genre to be "gay." Might still happen. In the meantime, Alfred Soto's review of Sam's Town for Stylus makes pretty much that argument about the Killers' de-gayification (going so far as to call it gay panic).

    By Blogger Brittle, at 10:47 PM  

  • "Kiss You Off" is intriguing: a lot of the pop lovers who found the album lacking in electropop goodness pick it out as their fave track, probably because it was the most immediately electro one. (Edward O., for example, seems to consider it the album's only good song, deeming it as a Blondie rip-off.) I liked it a lot at the beginning, but now it's receded for me a bit as the poppiness of the other songs became more prominent. I'm essentially curious to see if the whole album is in the process of some weirdass 180 degree turn for me!

    By Blogger Brittle, at 11:07 PM  

  • I can see the point about playfulness, although I'll have to listen to the album some more. I wonder whether you think that "Backwoods Discotheque," "Step Aside For The Man," "Electrobix," etc. are playful tracks, or whether some other adjective might be more apt.

    BTW, "She's My Man", especially at 0:45-47 = "Mr. Blue Sky".

    By Anonymous esque, at 11:52 PM  

  • How funny - I'd given up on this album, too. Based on your findings, I'll give it another shot.

    I am, however, giving "Sam's Town" a time out in the corner on my blog later today.

    By Blogger John, at 1:42 AM  

  • The much overused word "camp" does, unfortunately, come to my mind to describe the songs you mentioned, esque. On Ta-Dah there isn't anything in that vein, except for "Making Ladies' from the bonus disc (which is much more throwaway); this is another reason why the album strikes many people as less gay, I think.

    "Electrobix," btw, is in some ways the 80s counterpart to "Take Your Mama": just as the latter uses the Elton/70s sound and critiques it, "Electrobix" uses a track that sounds like a gym workout track to critique gay body fascism.

    John, I think that if you disliked the album for the same reasons that I (and some others) initially did ("it's not pop enough," etc), then you might change your mind upon further spins. But my sense is that your reservations about the album may be a bit different -- that it's too faithful of a 70s homage, perhaps? -- and that, to some extent, may still be true after repeated listens. I do hope you reconsider the record, though.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 5:21 PM  

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