tremble clef

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Colonia, "Do Kraja (Pop Remix)"/"Polgedom Me Skini" (2006)

It's a big world out there, and I'm always happy to be reminded of it (I'm also happy to be reminded that it's a small world, but just go with it, okay?) -- like when I learn, for the first time, about a band who turns out to have been huge for decades, though only in certain places on the globe. It makes me feel like we live in parallel universes (creepy music), and that there might be wonderful pockets where scorn meets the every move of, say, Fergie (creepy music of a different sort).

So, when I helped review the Croatian Top 10 singles for Enthusiastic But Mediocre a month ago, and heard Colonia's fantastic "Do Kraja," it was nice to find out that they've been Croatia's top dance act for eons. Indeed, the album, which is also titled Do Kraja, is the group's eighth, and I gave it a spin on the strength of its title track (the mp3's still available at EBM) -- which I had described as "the consequence of someone nicking the bassline from 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head,' tweaking it, and then thinking, 'Well, this would be even greater if we added whistling'" -- and Edward's description, elsewhere, of the two men behind the group (Boris Djurdjevic and Tomislav Jelić) as Croatia's Xenomania.

Well, they're not, really. Do Kraja is nowhere as great as "Do Kraja." Except for when an Ace Of Base pastiche interrupts the proceedings, too many tracks err on the side of cheesy bosh bosh eurodance, like Infernal at their worst "Hava Nagila"-covering moments. But at least the album starts and ends strongly: with "Do Kraja," and then a surprisingly good remix of the song. "Surprising," because this "pop remix" audaciously takes out one of the original's most distinctive features: the whistling. But it's quite a canny decision: although the whistling made the original version completely irresistible, it was also the element that was the most derivative, since (as several panelists noted) it obviously channeled Bob Sinclar. The remix substitutes instead an acoustic guitar that turns the track into a kind of Balearic number, and the "ah-ah-ah"s reinforce that impression. The only other track that stands out is the second, "Polgedom Me Skini." (Rough translation: "my skin is a pappadum.") This has a similarly boshy bassline, but there is a rather endearing saxophone that weaves in and out, which makes the whole thing a bit like "Baker Street" gone Euro. (But, no, despite what that might suggest, it's nothing like an Undercover song. Ew.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Bang Bang, "Rendezvous" (2000)

Back in the day when I used to stroll into the HMV at Harvard Square (RIP) each lunchtime, I was endlessly fascinated by a CD by an artist I knew nothing about: Bang Bang. But have a gander at the CD cover, and you might understand why I was drawn to it:

That's an awesome picture. Of course, since it was a French import and hopelessly expensive -- not to mention that I had no idea what it even sounded like -- I had to be satisfied with merely fingering the CD each day. Um, pretty.

At some point HMV figured that no one would ever buy the wretched thing -- maybe because some person's fingerprints was all over the glossy cover -- and they put it on sale. Like, one of their occasional "things start from twenty-five cents" sale. This wasn't that cheap, but only set me back a couple of dollars. As it turned out, Bang Bang made trip hop; the album does feature Jay-Jay Johanson (who I may even have discovered via this) and was pleasant, but frankly not earth-shaking.

But at least I had a lovely cover to gaze upon.

Weirdly enough, a few years ago the second "cycle" of America's Next Top Model was won by Yoanna House (currently burning up a runway near you), and one of her photos looked like this:

I think I just inadvertently made the argument that I was Tyra Banks before Tyra Banks.

Also years later, I saw the group's second album in another sales bin. It...wasn't that good either, but did have a nice electro cover of John Martyn's "Auntie Aviator."

To recap: I now own both of Bang Bang's albums, neither of which is that essential; didn't spend that much money; and I'm a bad weave away from hosting a reality show. But Bang Bang did record a song I really love: called "Rendezvous," it was for the soundtrack of the film Sur Un Air D'Autoroute, of which I know nada. That's also about as much as I know of the song, because it's (1) in French, and (2) sung by a robot. But I can tell you that it's quite possibly about a meeting or something, and vocoderized electropop of the highest order.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Omarion featuring Timbaland, "Ice Box" (2006)

I don't have much patience with the protagonists of songs who spend the track proclaiming that they've been hurt before, and now they're really complicated as a result, so, hey, they've got to take it slow (by which they often mean: I'm going to keep playing the field while I "heal"). In other words, songs like Take That's "Patience." Oddly enough, in real life, I seem to have a lot more tolerance for that kind of emotional manipulation; or at least I did once, even if I now think "never again." But that's a different story for another time.

When I first heard Omarion's "Ice Box," I thought it was the same kind of song. But the track actually catches its narrator in the process of being legitimately messed up: he has been spending a lot of time fighting with his girl, whom he now barely recognizes, and feels himself growing frosty ands detached as a result. "I really wanna work this out, cause I'm tired of fightin'," he tells her, and us. "And I really hope you still want me the way I want you/I said I really wanna work this out, damn girl I'm tryin'." He has the self-awareness to acknowledge that "it's no excuse, no excuse." But he also knows that he's gradually getting -- may have already gotten -- "this icebox where [his] heart used to be."

What makes the song especially vivid is that we get to hear, in a sense, the creeping process of numbness Omarion battles against, because his vocals sit on top on of some terrifically icy synths that clearly represent his heart dying and turning cold. These come courtesy of Timbaland; although it sounds a bit like he's recycling the synth sound that, this year, will be more associated with Justin Timberlake's "My Love," it's sonically more apt here. Timbaland's other contribution is in the form of backing vocals. It's almost automatic that this is the less vital contribution, but it's especially the case here, because the vocals largely consist of his intoning the line, "I'm so cold, I'm so cold, I'm so cold." It's awkward because redundant -- we just heard about Omarion's heart being an ice box, so we get that it's going to be cold, dude. No need to state the obvious -- but, in the final reckoning, a blip on an otherwise impeccable track.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Linda Sundblad, "Back In Time" (2006)

Like many pop fans, I first heard of Linda Sundblad when Popjustice did a typically arch blurb on her and her single "Oh Father," but the greater impression was made when Sounds Of Sweden featured, a few weeks ago, another track from her album, Oh My God.

"Back In Time" justifiably got many bloggers, like XOLondon, excited. Vocally, Linda is almost a dead ringer for Robyn; on this track her voice has the same kind of taut muscularity, but is also less frosty. And the joyous song itself is anything but cold: most of it is accompanied by a stomping beat, a rubbery bassline, and frequent synth stabs. On the chorus -- "I could never imagine a boy could love me/But I found a baby, a baby who loves me" -- all those elements come together, and then even that is surpassed by the little diddly-dee synth riff that leads us out of each chorus while, over it, Linda makes endearing little grunting noises of pleasure ("woah-oh! woah-oh!").

But "Back In Time" is in some ways unrepresentative of Oh My God. By this, I don’t mean that the rest of the record stinks and disappoints. Yes, there are some duffers ("Dirty"), and the second half of the album, in general, is pleasant instead of outstanding; there are also a couple of lines that are distractingly nonsensical ("I am keeping my baby, and I make him turn on"?) -- but more about this later. Yet, Oh My God features "Cheat," the giddest song you'll ever hear about someone resisting adultery while on vacation (still up at Into The Groove); "Lose You," which could be an 80s Cyndi Lauper ballad, even as it features a synth passage that recalls "Smalltown Boy"; "Beautiful Boys," which has yet another dinky-dink keyboard part; and "Daisies," which despite a tragic guitar solo, is a rather sweet closer ("you’re making my daisies bloom"), and these songs, while not quite as brilliant as "Back In Time," are all great pop tracks.

No: what makes "Back In Time" unusual on the album is the way it, as its title suggests, moves back and forth in time. The song is about the joys of having found someone, but parts of the narrative also seamlessly go back to Linda's adolescent years, when she despaired about this ever being the case. The middle eight makes it especially clear: "I just wanna go/Back in time/Just to let her know/That she'll be fine." In that moment, Linda imagines being able to speak to her own teenage self, in order to assure her that things will turn out okay.

It's a sweet gesture, and a pretty universal desire that many of us have had. If I could go back in time and talk to my younger pimply self, I definitely would, and tell him to pack light. But strikingly, there are very few such moments of double consciousness on Oh My God. The end of "Dirty" slips in the observation that "life is much more complicated than it used to be," but that and "Back In Time" are pretty much it. Instead, the album isn't just "about" being a teenage girl, but actually coming to you, live, from those moments. In her recent review of the album for Stylus, Jessica exclaims, "Who needs Seventeen when you've got Linda Sundblad?" She doesn't put too fine a point on it, but the sentiment in its way notices that the album takes in Linda's traumatic teenage era, rarely from a safe "years-later" vantage point, but from the ground. This price of this, of course, is that some of the lyrics will come across as clunkily juvenile. "Keeper," for instance, is almost entirely in the vernacular of such a teenage girl, and thus silly: "He is the dynamite/Even my parents like/He makes it happen/He’s a keeper." (On the other hand, the title of the album functions brilliantly: it literally refers to God, of course, which is apt given the religious concerns of the record, but, as we hear on the short album intro, it is also a perfect teenage expression, like, oh my god!) But it's not a bad price to pay for a record that is interesting because, unlike many others, it is almost entirely committed to speaking as a teenage girl. Like, totally!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Paula DeAnda, "Walk Away (Remember Me)" (2006)

I came across this song last week when I was asked to review it for the Stylus Jukebox, and was pleasantly surprised (especially enjoying, as you will see, one musical aspect of it). I tried to explain this in my blurb, but, even as I wrote those limited few lines, I thought that I would like to expand on them for the blog. When the reviews were published yesterday, I was a little amused to see that I was totally alone in my affection, and so it seems even more worthwhile explaining my case. And hey, it gives me a chance to post the song. Everybody wins. What follows is therefore a less terse version of the Stylus review (I bet you can't wait: long windedness, yay!).

There are a fair number of reasons to be indifferent about, or even to actively dislike, Paula DeAnda's current R&B hit, "Walk Away (Remember Me)." Pretty much all of them have to do with the song's lyric, which is at best clichéd, and at worse cringeworthy. The song is told from Paula's point of view, in the wake of a break-up; she sees her ex "with his new girl," and, as a subsequent verse reveals, she herself has a new man. But she's not convinced that either of them are happy. The track therefore details a familiar situation; Robyn's "Be Mine," to pick just one recent superlative example, begins with the same set-up, and treads similar ground.

"Walk Away" does attempt to inject specific detail into the story, but it is here that the cringe factor comes in. "Does she rub your feet when you've had a long day?" Paula wonders about her ex's new beau. "Scratch your scalp when you take out your braids?" These touches are meant to be moving because precise, I suppose, but it just makes me picture Paula as less of a girlfriend, and more of a spa worker. You half-expect the next line to have to do with happy endings. That clunker of a couplet is followed by an even clumsier line, complete with dangling modifier: "Does she know that you like to play PS2, till six in the morning, like I do?" I'd bet that the new girlfriend does indeed know this "intimate secret," having gleaned it from, oh, you know, the fact that she sees him staying up till six to play PS2.

And yet, there is something affecting about this rueful song. Written by Ne-Yo, Christina Milian, and the Norwegian production team Stargate -- who, with this, "Irreplaceable" and "So Sick," have now produced some of the more intriguingly wounded R&B tracks of the year -- the song lifts itself above the mean with the musical structure of its chorus. That chorus features three kinds of singing. When it begins, Paula vocalizes the lines in a strikingly staccato way: "I. Can't. Ex. Plain. This. Feel. Ling. I. Think. About. It. Every. Day. And. Even. Though. We've. Moved. On..." In the background, a synthesizer follows these short lyrical bursts, hitting each note precisely and almost abruptly (that dop-dop-dop backing reminds me of Stars' "Going, Going, Gone," which in turn has always evoked, for me, Saint Etienne's "Marble Lions"). But as those first three lines end, they compel Paula into using a more dragged-out phrasing: "...It. Gets. So. Hard. To. Walk awaaaay, a-a-ay. Walk awaaaay, a-a-ay." In the course of this line, the phrase that provides the song with its subtitle also undergoes an almost imperceptible shift in meaning. Though it begins as part of a description ("It gets so hard to walk away"), when repeated, it becomes more of an injunction, as if Paula has to command herself to "walk away!" Meanwhile, Paula's doubletracked vocals begin a different part of the chorus, and these new lines she sings in rapidfire fashion, as if each is one long word: "Imgonnarememberyou/Yougonnarememberme/ Icantforgetit/Howweusedtobe..." Here, her words tumble over each other, as if, in the flush of emotion, she is unable to (analogy alert!) keep them apart.

The chorus therefore oscillates between several emotional states, all of each are primarily signaled by Paula's phrasing -- or, if we are feeling less generous towards this seventeen year old singer, by the phrasing the songwriters build into the track. The staccato phrases are the moments that see Paula choked up, perhaps, and then they open up into a series of self-injunctions that represent her attempts to steel herself in resolution. But the efforts don't work; it's as if the emotional damn bursts, and the true promise or hope -- to remember each other -- spills out. "Walk Away" therefore perfectly captures the conflict Paula feels about whether she should -- whether she can -- leave it all behind. The fact that it does this as much through phrasing, as it does with its actual words, makes it quite a remarkable number.

(There are several versions of "Walk Away." Unfortunately, the official single release has The Dey providing a rap in the middle eight, and they also do the "I'm going remember you" lines in the chorus. Which ruins things, since this splits the ambivalence I argued for over several people. So I'm going to pretend that the version I've provided, on which The Dey are thankfully nowhere to be seen, is the proper one.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Charlene, "I've Never Been To Me" (1977)

"Listen to it! She says 'fuck'!" In 1983, I was in my teens, and spending part of the summer at scout camp. One afternoon, while we were enjoying some rare downtime (scout camp was strenuous), or possibly while we were scrubbing pots and pans (cooking rice on an open flame blackens utensils like nobody's business, for future reference), our scratchy radio started blaring Charlene's song (which, though first released in 1977, had just gotten around to being a hit).

"I swear," my friend said. "Listen!" So we crowded around the radio, our ears all a-prick as Charlene started the spoken word bit. "Hey, you know what paradise is?" she poignantly wondered, while we teetered on the edge of our flimsily-constructed bamboo seats. "It's a lie, a fantasy we create about people and places as we'd like them to be/But you know what truth is? It's that little baby you're holding/It's that man you f#%&* with this morning, the same one you're going to make love with tonight."

"There! There! She said 'the man you [whispers] fucked this morning.'"

"No, she didn't. She said 'fought.' That's why there was a 'with' after that. 'FOUGHT WITH.'"

"You can [whispers] fuck with someone, what! Besides, the sentence makes sense -- she [whispers] fucked with him in the morning, and will make love to him that night."

"No, it doesn't. She fought with him in the morning, and will make love to him that night. That's the point. Like, love is rough and opposite, or something."

"Who cares?! She MADE LOVE TO A PREACHERMAN!!" Our crass third interlocutor had a point, as unsophisticated as it was. Regardless of whether Charlene actually mouthed the word [whispers] fuck (she doesn't, of course), the song was in sum about [whispers] fucking.

It would be years before I understood how retrogressive the message of the song is. The case for this is fairly well-known by now. Structured as a direct address from Charlene to some other unnamed woman -- the opening line, "Hey lady, you lady, cursing at your life..." makes that abundantly clear -- "I've Never Been To Me" details all the risqué adventues of the narrator only to make the point that these all turned out to be empty and soul-sucking. Thus, she's sipped champagne on a yacht, and in Monte Carlo moved like Harlow and showed 'em what she got! But all this "subtle [?] whoring," she realizes, "costs too much to be free." The price, apparently, was self-discovery and -fulfillment. For while she's been to paradise, she's "never been to me." Awww! And what does "me" look like? The dark inside of a pig's intestine? No. It looks remarkably like a conventional, heterosexual, procreative family: "Sometimes I've been to crying for unborn children that might have made me complete/But I took the sweet life, I never knew I'd be bitter from the sweet." (These lines, alluding as they do to abortion, are also the ones that led some people to think that the song is anti-choice.) Indeed, the woman that Charlene addresses the song to -- someone who thinks of herself as a "discontented mother and a regimented wife" -- doesn't understand how good she has it, and now Charlene aims to point out to her that the sluttish alternative to being wife and mother (because there is no other, of course. It's either Madonna or whore for you lot!) is not all it's cracked up to be.

I heard and understood nothing of this misogyny in 1983. In my defense, I had the good excuse of being fourteeen and stupid. But there's probably more to the matter. Part of what makes the song objectionable is not just its profoundly anti-feminist (or at least anti-sexual liberation) message, but its deeply hypocritical stance. What attracted -- and distracted -- those teenage boys at camp was not the message about how women are better off seeking themselves through experiences, sexual or otherwise, but the actual litany of those experiences. "Don't look for your G spot!" the track admonished us, male and female listeners alike. "Don't travel the world in the belief that you will find yourself! Stay at home and be a good wife and mother!" But all we heard, or misheard, was: she fucked who in the what and where now?!

It's hard to imagine that the song didn't, at least on some level, intend this. Perhaps it even counted and capitalized on it. Much like, say, a report about pornography produced by conservative assholes who obviously got a collective boner from describing in lascivious detail all the images they were supposedly condemning -- or, you know, every currently publishing tabloid -- "I've Never Been To Me" tries to have its cake while castigating others for wanting to eat it. Buttfucking! How disgusting! Now let me describe for you in precise detail exactly why it is so. It is in this sense that Charlene's song is not simply a reactionary one, but hypocritically so.

How, then, can we defend why I -- confession time! -- loved the song at fourteen, and, with a gun to my head, might admit that I probably still do now? Some of it was undoubtedly due to the song's spectacular musical qualities. A cheesey ballad with dollops of cheez whizz on top, the song gets me in the gut each time it hits those drums right before it goes into the chorus: "But I wish someone had talked to me/Like I wanna talk to you/Ooh, I've (DOMP!) been to Georgia..." The mother of that effect occurs during the last section: "I've been to paradise, but I've never been...(DOMP, DOMP-DOMP!) to me..." The pregnant pause (oh, pun!), that beat, and those drums that rush in to fill the space, devastatingly captures the sense of regret the narrator feels, even if that faux-regret is driven by a dubious political agenda.

Lyrically, the song might be defensible if we shifted the lens slightly, so that we think of the track as preimarily about the self and travel. I think I had my suspicions back then, as I still do now, about the supposedly educational powers of travel. One less recognized point about the song is that it engages with a different set of cultural narratives, in place since (or because) of the traditon of the Grand Tour: the one that suggests that travel forms the self. It's an assumption that has been perpetuated, more than challenged, by all our contemporary stories that place a premium on the experiences we accrue from travel. Indeed, while I can think of zillions of texts that support this assumption (hi, Pico Iyer!), those that problematize it are harder to recall (though we could perhaps start with Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out, and Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together). In that light, "I've Never Been To Me" does a little bit of valuable cultural work, challenging the idea that such travel experiences necessarily benefit the self.

I don't imagine for a moment, however, that the "good" which Charlene's song does with regards to those stereotypes about travel really outweigh the "harm" it does with respect to women's liberation. As a defense -- not even of the song per se, but as a defense of my enjoyment of it -- it still leaves something to be desired.

But in the end, that's fine, because I think the best defense or deconstruction of the song has already occurred, and it of course happened in the film The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.

In just its opening minutes, the film turned Charlene's track into a camp classic like few others. It does this -- to take a leaf from theories of gender performativity -- not primarily by showing how ridiculous the song is when performed by a drag queen, but how absurd the song was in the first place. The scene, in other words, allows us to see that there was something always already over-the-top and exaggerated about "I've Never Been To Me." And how. After all, if the song is to be taken literally, Charlene has not only been to Nice and the Isle of Greece, but also Georgia and California, and at some point during that globetrotting –- my money is on the Georgia portion –- she was undressed by a king (we still have those? And heterosexual ones at that?). Busy trip. It's not exactly a naturalistic vacation video we're watching here, unless the cameras are following Joan Collins. Priscilla simply exposed the absurdity: of the scenario, and of anyone who would subscribe to it and the idea that a woman should give all that up to be a regimented wife.

To some extent, Priscilla was only taking its cue from the history of the song. As many people know, "I've Never Been To Me" was initially written by Ron Miller from a male point of view; in that incarnation, it was structured as an address by a (now-homeless! HYSTERICAL!) man to another, as he warns his benefactor, who's presumably frozen in the act of tossing loose change, about the dangers of fast living ("I've been to China & Asia Minor, on any ship that would sail/I made some noise with some good old boys/We wrecked a southern jail"). Look at me! I chased pussy and am now derelict! Obviously. The natural history of the song, in which it mutates from being about men to women, therefore showed the (negative) difference that can be made by switching the genders; Priscilla simply fucks with things more by keeping the female subject matter, but letting the song's "wisdom" be imparted by a drag queen. The space that the song's history opens, which Priscilla cannily moves to inhabit, is potentially infinite, and I certainly am rooting for a Charlene comeback in which she would re-sing the song, with its original lyric, while dressed up as a drag king. God, make it happen.

In the end, I can't claim that, at fourteen, I understood that "I've Never Been To Me" was, despite its disturbingly misogynistic lyric, nevertheless ultimately harmless because we could, and would, learn to parodically resignify that lyric. But it's nice to know that this turned out to be the case. Maybe I was a gifted child, capable of portending the gender revolution ahead. I've now been to that paradise. I'm coming for "me" next.