tremble clef

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Jay-Jay Johanson, "Rocks In Pockets" (2007)

It's tough to listen to the new Jay-Jay Johanson album, the ominously-titled The Long Term Physical Effects Are Not Yet Known, without slashing your wrists, but it's a record worth locking up the razors for. Sonically, Jay-Jay has left behind the bouncier electropop of the last two albums (Antenna, and 2005's criminally ignored Rush) to return to the trip-hop vibes of his earlier work, and written lyrics to match. (Perhaps his recent work with The Knife has left a mark.) The result is a spectacularly depressed album.

To wit:

1. The first single and lead-off track is "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore." It's about her, who's not so much with the living there anymore. Sob.

2. Another song finds Jay-Jay on a beach somewhere, though it's fair to say that it's probably not Phuket. It's probably not even the beaches of Lost. He reminisces about the time he carved a raft out of some wood, but by the second verse he is digging "a hole in the sand/Longer and deeper than wide/And from what was left, I created a box/That I gently placed in the grave." The song is therefore called "Coffin," and its chorus goes, "Everywhere I go, everywhere I hide/Makes me feel no better/Anything I do, anything I tried/Makes me feel much worse."

3. "New Year's Eve" is not really a celebratory song to which you can kiss your lover at midnight: "New Year's Eve/Why you decide to choose me?/Deliberately abuse me?/You let her say goodbye." Nor is what sounds like its sequel, "Tell Me When The Party's Over/Prequiem," especially celebratory, although the tune of the chorus is incredibly hooky. "Tell me when the party's over/Call me when the music stops/When your champagne glass is empty/I will come and pick you up/Tell me when the party's over/Call me when the lights are out/When everybody's left the building/I’ll be 'round.” The glass is not even half-empty on this one.

4. The French edition of the album features a bonus track called "It Would Be Easy To Say I'm Fine, But I'm Not" (which you can hear at Jay-Jay's myspace). Somewhere Morrissey seethes with jealousy.

5. But my favorite track on the album is the song slated to be the second single, not that I can imagine it actually being a hit. To a sparse but urgent "Running Up That Hill"-esque drumbeat that was born to soundtrack flight and escape, the narrator addresses a young girl (though he may likewise be teenage). "Pack your bags/Keep it quiet/So your dad doesn't wake up/He'll be mad/When he notice that you're gone/Cross the field/Through the trees/Behind the curtain we take off/Cut the leash/Come with me, we're on the run." As the verse ends, a synth wash simultaneously provides an uplift and a chill down the spine; Jay-Jay's voice goes up an octave, and he sings the ethereal chorus: "We don't need nobody's help/We can make it on our own/We just want you all to leave us alone."

But what comes after the chorus is perhaps spookier, as it gives the song its title and makes clearer the young lovers' intentions: "We've got rocks in our pockets/But nothing's gonna slow us down." The suicide-pact scenario becomes sharper as the song progresses, and in the final verse, Jay-Jay commands: "Strike a match/Hide the box/To the smell of gasoline/Take a breath/We're gonna leave it all behind." Although the song might therefore seem like a melodramatic teenage soap opera -- the kind of scene that t.A.T.u. has been painting for a while, for example -- Jay-Jay's singing, which paradoxically combines passion and a kind of zombified lack of affect, as if he is under the spell of a cult leader, absolutely sells it and makes the song not just believeable, but quite shiver-inducing. It is, for me, a six-minute goosebump.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Patrick Wolf, "The Magic Position" (2007)

It was only after New Year's Day passed that I started browsing bookstores, looking to pick up a 2007 calendar. That's the best time, of course, since prices are 50% off at that point; really, unless you're Christmas gift-giving, I don't see why anyone ever buys calendars before the sale kicks in.

This year, I was specifically looking for a day-a-page calendar; there's something satisfying about marking the passage of time by ripping something off each day. At Borders I briefly toyed with getting the Sex: Everyday In Every Way calendar. One problem with getting a calendar of, say, Westie puppies, is that the pictures are SO CUTE that I never want to tear them off, which rather defeats the purpose of day-a-page calendars. With the Sex calendar, it's doubtful that I will really feel the need to hang on to a page when the day has passed. What am I going to learn? Indeed, flipping through the calendar and examining the 365 positions, I found that I had --

The title track to Patrick Wolf's marvellous The Magic Position is also its highlight, although it has some seriously stiff competition. For Wolf -- whose earlier work featured rape and dismemberment -- it's a surprising happy and up song. (This album is almost entirely cheerful, though.) (He must be in love.) (The bastard.) Over a jaunty violin riff (and then, later, a joyous toy piano), Patrick tells us, using a melody that in parts sounds like it owes something to Cyndi Lauper's "I Drove All Night": "Cause out of all the people I've known/The places I've been/The songs I have sung/The wonders I've seen/Now that the dream's all coming true/Who is the one that leads me on through? It's you! Who puts me in the magic position!" It's hard to imagine that Wolf is unaware of the faint double entendre here, but he sings the lines obliviously, with what is therefore a calculated innocence that nevertheless sounds totally naive and sweet. That's perhaps part of the point of the song: when he's with his lover, Patrick sees the world as a child would, as a perfectly beautiful and magical place. "So let the people talk/This Monday morning walk/By past the fabulous mess we're in." The kind of magic that transforms shit into fabulous shit. The best kind.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Alesha Dixon, "Lipstick" (2006)

The worst thing about all those Ziploc-sponsored security measures, currently in place for international travel, lies in how much they completely uman me. Fancying myself a seasoned traveler, I'd like to think that I had gotten the activity down to an art. I have my one carry-on; it's perfectly sized, and I'm able to fit into it my laptop, my iPod, a book, a magazine, my travel documents, and a mini-toiletry bag (not to be confused with the full scale bag, containing a more extensive range of hair and skincare products, from which I can just about bear to be separated for a travel day). After I get to the airport, I can further chuck my keys and coin-filled wallet, and whatever sweater or jacket I may be wearing, into the bag. The result is that I go through checkpoints with just that one bag, which really cuts down to zero the risk of leaving something behind.

Nowadays, such efforts at compactness and intactness is doomed to defeat. The shoes have to come off, needless to say; the belt, too. The computer needs to be out of the bag, sometimes turned on, the better to expose the embarrassing wallpaper you have up. The lotions and liquids and jellies should be in a clear plastic bag, which perhaps can then stay inside the toiletry bag, or maybe needs to come out and sit in the tray by itself for maximum prodding and sniffing. We're not consistent about this; we like to keep you on your toes.

As a result, by the time I pass through the detectors, I'm half undressed. People can see the holes in my socks, my pants are falling down (you're supposed to fly in baggy, unrestrictive clothes, after all), the hand that's not hanging on to the trousers have to remember to grab the bag, but also the now unmooored computer, and there's the random Ziploc bag of fluids, and do keep your boarding pass with you at all times, and it's all TOO MUCH, GOD.

On my recent December/January travels, the public undressing wasn't even the most bizarre or shameful thing I had to endure. A year ago, as I've detailed in these pages, I found out how flying can dry up your skin so much that your fingerprints disappear, resulting in you needing to come perilously close to muttering words like "lubricate" in front of authority figures. True to form, this time I once again had no identifying marks on my limbs. But the officer was no longer surprised. A swarthy man with a proud Selleck of a moustache, he waved away my suggestion to get out the moisturizer. "No," he said, fixing me with a forthright look, "just do this." And then he swiped his own finger across his forehead, following the line formed by his magnificent eyebrows.

I guess I should have been offended by the suggestion that I had an oily T-zone, but...I do everyone does after twenty hours in the air. At any rate, it did the trick. And it provided me with the unique spectacle of a customs officer caressing himself, which was strangely arousing.

But even this would be topped in the strangeness and humiliation quotient. At one of umpteen security checkpoints, I am frisked by a man who is arrested by a lump in my pants. (Get your mind out of the gutter.) He reacts to this in an oddly silent way, pointing to it, without a word. Just like one of my dates, really. (It actually crosses my mind that he may be a mute.) (Friend to whom I later tell this story: "You know, that would actually be an awesome job for someone with that disability.") I say, "It's my lip gloss." "My lip balm," I correct myself, not wanting to sound like a bigger girl than I already was. He points to my pockets again, still without a word. "Take it out?" I wondered out loud. He nods, and so I do. And then he mimes holding the chapstick up to his lips. Of course, the hilarious Borscht Belt thing to do would have been for me to act dumb and smear his lips with the stick, but I hear that the airport is a famously humor-free zone. So, finally comprehending what was wanted of me -- proof I wasn't Sydney Bristow, armed with poison chapstick that I was going to cunningly use to corrode the pilot's face after I knock him out with a karate chop -- I uncap the chapstick, and hold it up to my lips. There, in the middle of the airport, surrounded by all and sundry, I, feeling never more exposed, slowly, deliberately, to the security officer's wordless satisfaction, put on lip balm.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Momus, "Nervous Heartbeat" (2006)

Late last year, Momus came as close to having a "hit" as he may ever have had with "Nervous Heartbeat" -- it ended up at #44 on the Stylus year end singles poll, for instance -- although I'm not sure if the music press ever came to a full understanding of the song. Which eludes me as well, but here is at least an attempt to start piecing together a story.

Taken from Ocky Milk, "Nervous Heartbeat" is a dream-like, floaty, swoonsome ballad that's impossibly beautiful. Momus's voice is heavily processed; while some critics have found this "autotune effect" irksome and unfortunately reminscient of "Believe" (because Cher invented autotunes, don't you know), the wobbliness of the vocal is precisely what gives the song part of its power: the way Momus's voice "quivers" as it goes up the scale on the line, "Doki doki, the hammering beat of my heart," for example, conveys, more than the words themselves can, just how close to falling apart he is.

The song consists of two simple verses. Its lines are fragmented and impressionistic, although, taken together, they add up to a narrative of sorts (Namely: she's left, he's sad.) Each line is split between English and Japanese, although the two parts often say the same thing, or the Japanese phrases are simply onomatopoeic versions of the English. Thus: "Crying, shiku shiku/Reluctantly, shibu shibu/Repeatedly, tabi tabi/Just in time, giri giri." The effect is of a kind of faux-Japaneseness, as if our narrator only has at his disposal doubled phrases that he can't quite use in actual sentences. He is, in other words, armed only with the kind of halting, elementary Japanese that a white man, say, might have acquired as a means of communicating with a Japanese woman.

But the song really begins with what turns out to be its most memorable element: a gorgeous string arrangement that swells with barely controllable emotion. That arrangement is a sample, or an interpolation of a passage that will be well-known to most people who know Chinese pop music, taken as it is from "何日君再来" ("When Will You Return?", although that translation doesn't fully capture the fact that "君" is rather formal, less second- than third-person, and gendered male as well: a more accurate, if clunkier, translation might be "When Will My Gentleman Caller Return?").

"何日君再來" has a fascinating history in itself: according to the page devoted to it in Chinese wikipedia, the song, whose authorship has never been definitively established, was originally the theme to a 1937 movie from China, when it was sung by one of the country's most famous songstresses of the time, 周璇 (Zhou Xuan). Although the original was well-known, the track would enjoy a new leash on life in the late 70s when Taiwanese superstar 邓丽君 (Teresa Teng) covered the tune and made it a humongous hit all over again -- especially in Taiwan and China, but really throughout the Chinese diaspora. (I certainly could not escape it, growing up. There's a whole other story to tell about my father and his Teresa Teng poster.) And beyond: the song was translated into Japanese and just as popular (you can hear a version here). Its popularity in China, however, was never "official" after the Cultural Revolution: it appears that the song to this day remains banned on Chinese radio, possibly because of its enduring popularity in Japan.

"Nervous Heartbeat" doesn't use the tune of "何日君再來" (if anything, it's melodically closer to "The Impossible Dream"!), just its strings. It's unclear to me if Momus acknowledges the sample in the credits for "Nervous Heartbeat" -- "何日君再來" is probably in the public domain or, as noted above, not tied to specific composers anyway -- but he slyly does so in the song itself, since its last line is "Chiku chiku, when will I see you again?" Here, unlike the rest of the song, the correspondence between the English and Japanese phrases is not exact: "chiku chiku" refers to a small but sharp pain, although it's one that is presumably provoked by the question of whether his beloved would ever return.

"Nervous Heartbeat" is therefore a curious little thing: a "Western" song that possibly tries to signify Japaneseness (and, perhaps more specifically, uses the idiom of J-Pop ballads) -- with its "sampling" of staccato, chopped-up Japanese phrases, but also with its "sampling" of a primarily Chinese string arrangement that migrated to Japan. Indeed, one accusation we could make of Momus is that he doesn't seem especially careful about those national boundaries; in a time when many Westerners still can't tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese people, the collapsing of those two national traditions in "Nervous Heartbeat" could be seen as perpetuating that myth -- satirized to hilarious effect on a recent episode of The Office -- about the interchangeability of "Asians." But then again: one of the things that the history of "何日君再來" demonstrates is precisely the permeability of those national boundaries when it comes to music. Indeed, if the (not-so-)covert story of "Nervous Heartbeat" is of a Western man separated from his Japanese lover, then the track must in some ways be itself a lament about national boundaries, and a wish for their permeability. The structure of the song, with its inspiration from several cultures, may in that light be a kind of utopian desire for a time when such boundaries no longer exist, as they sometimes don't when a hit song gloriously takes over the world.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mika, "Lollipop" (2007)

Although he's only now breaking in the UK -- his excellent download-only first single "Relax, Take It Easy" failed to trouble the charts last year, but the second, "Grace Kelly," is currently top of the pops even before physical copies hit the stores -- Mika has already attracted a standard criticism. He is, many people have remarked, derivative. ("People" meaning posters on the Popjustice boards and the nowadays-unreadable ILM.) Indeed, the "lack-of-originality" charge is oftentimes not even a charge, but more a fact that's casually stated for the record -- even a positive review, for example, will generously recast those presumed originals as Mika's "influences." Scissor Sisters. Elton John. Rufus Wainwright. Queen. Cutting Crew (heh. Only in the sense that "Relax" does sound an awful lot like "(I Just) Died In Your Arms").

Mika himself hasn't hid these influences in his press, but, more interestingly, his album Life In Cartoon Motion itself confronts the issue. (Perhaps it's a sign of how fast music and the discourse it generates move nowadays, but it feels like Mika is heading off and/or embracing the criticism even before it fully takes root. I remember, back in the old days, artists used to respond their critics months or years later; that's what sophomore albums are for, after all.)

Confronts the issue from track one, in fact. "Grace Kelly" begins, all Sally Field-like, with a series of questions about just how much we like Mika: "Do I attract you?/Do I repulse you?/With my queasy smile?/Am I too dirty?/Am I too flirty?/Do I like what you like?" The most obvious interpretation is to treat the narrator as speaking to a potential lover -- perhaps one whom he is meeting through a personal ad -- and subsequent sexual references reinforce this impression ("Should I bend over?/Should I look older, just to be put on the shelf?" [the allusion to ageism places the song firmly, I think, in the context of gay life]).

But the song could just as well be addressed to Mika's potential pop audience, to whom he ends up declaring his willingness to be anything we like. "I try to be like Grace Kelly/But all her looks were too sad," Mika sings in the playful chorus, which is built around a kind of free association between the words "princess" and "Queen." "So I try a little Freddie/I've gone identity mad!" It's presumably a parodic lyric: it's as if Mika understands, even when he wrote and recorded the song, that we will be comparing him to Freddie Mercury, and so he, acting like a cheap whore willing to play to our every fantasy, tells us that, yes, not only can he be a Freddie if that's what we want, but he can be anyone else we might desire too. (For, say, $50.) In so doing, Mika slyly turns the track into a song that's at least partly about our fantasies and desires -- our fantasies and desires of what we might want in our popstars -- as much as his own "influences." If we see Mika imitating Scissor Sisters, perhaps it is as much because we are ready, even eager nowadays to see Scissor Sisters as something to imitate. Of course, like many parodies, this one might be half-serious: Mika's not ultimately blind to the fact that his ability to receive our projections and desires is what will earn him success. And thus, the song ends, jokingly but with just a whiff of truth: "Kerching!"

If in "Grace Kelly" Mika therefore anticipates the accusations of derivativeness and turns them into the very subject of the song, the second track of the album tries a related but different tack: here, the imitation partly serves to bring out certain denied or even repressed aspects of the original(s). A naggingly infectious song, "Lollipop" might, if unleashed as a single, become one of the year's most hooky tracks. But it's not novel: it jumps on the schoolyard chanting bandwagon that we could see Kelis's "Milkshake" as having started, which Gwen Stefani continued in "Hollaback Girl," and Fergie then ripped off in as unimaginative a way as possible. But, listening to Mika's attempt, it also becomes clear that those earlier songs essentially used a form without acknowledging its effects -- without acknowledging, that is, that generations of schoolkids are now likely shrieking faintly inappropriate slogans about London bridges (not to mention misspelling "duchess"). Rather than similarly sweeping this fact under the rug, Mika's "Lollipop" daringly goes ahead and uses actual kids to help chant the suggestive chorus: "Sucking too hard on your lollipop/Say love's gonna get you down." To some extent, there is something slightly squicky about hearing youngsters mouth such a risque line; but then again, if "Lollipop" becomes a hit, it's not like actual kids won't be singing this in the playground. In a sense, Mika might be once again launching a kind of preemptive strike, or, if you will, "outing" the "inappropriateness" of songs like "Milkshake" -- and thereby rendering them, as well as his own "Lollipop," as really not that inappropriate. If he is going to be taken as "imitating" Kelis or Gwen or Fergie, Mika might as well take the opportunity to also point out, meta-critically, something about the predecessors he is supposedly emulating. It is, after all, one way to one-up your "sources."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


The interruption in service was totally unplanned. Be back soon. Really.