tremble clef

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Charlie Rich, "San Francisco Is A Lonely Town" (1970)

For a while, I had stopped listening to mix albums. I blame this partly on the way the iPod has changed my (and countless other people's) listening habits: with the choice of selecting tracks left up to the shuffle function 30, 40, 50% of the time, it made less and less sense to upload continuous mixes to the iPod. I would, I tell myself, listen to such CDs on a good old stereo -- which would allow me to appreciate the way a good mix recontextualize certain tracks, for example -- but of course, there's never enough time. But another portion of the blame goes to the way dance music, arguably in a funk (and not the good kind), has become less and less interesting in recent years.

Of course, not all mix albums are filled with dance music, and, indeed, the first mix album in ages that I've been quite smitten with is Nouvelle Vague's Late Night Tales. You know the Late Night Tales (neé Another Late Night) series: artists or DJs curate a mix of "eclectic" music that say something about their influences, or is stuff they would play you should they bring you back home to their place after the clubs close, or something. (Not to be confused with the Back To Mine series, in which artists or DJs curate a mix of "eclectic" music that say something about their influences, or is stuff they would play you should they bring you back home to their place after the clubs close, or something.)

That Nouvelle Vague has come up with a good mix is mildly surprising. I like their two albums well enough, but it was hard to imagine that a mix from them wouldn't be as one-note as their oeuvre, let's face it, tends to be. On their Late Night Tales, there are a few predictable selections: most obviously, OS Mutantes' by now over-canonized "Baby," which contains the template for their Nouvelle's sound. But the rest of the mix is quite enchanting. Trip-hop numbers like Avril's "Urban Serenade" brush up against vaguely dark and depressive 80s tracks from the Pale Fountains, David Sylvian and This Mortal Coil, or chansons genuine (Isabelle Antena) and mock (Anja Garbarek). But most fetchingly, in between are dropped a bunch of countrypolitan or torch songs, all sung by vocalists who clearly love holding the microphones veryclose to their lips -- Glen Campbell singing "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," Shirley Horn doing a resigned "And I Love Him" (allowing the title phrase to climb instead of descend), Peggy Lee performing a halting "You're My Thrill." Which is to say: Julie London-style, and indeed, Ms. London turns up to close the set with a shiver-inducing "Lonely Girl."

And like all good compilations, this one introduces me to a lost song I've never heard before: Charlie Rich's "San Francisco Is A Lonely Town." Although Charlie is better known for his countrypolitan hits like "The Most Beautiful Girl," I think the only songs of his I'd previously encountered were, perversely, his bluesier numbers (possibly courtesy this late lamented blog). "San Francisco Is A Lonely Town" appears to be a cut from a 1970 album called The Fabulous Charlie Rich. A sort of "Midnight Train To Georgia" gone bad, the track follows a narrator and his girlfriend to San Francisco, a city she takes to but he finds unwelcoming. "Oh there were good times for a little while/But now her new friends say I cramp her style/I guess I'm only in the way now, and she don't need me hanging round": how true it rings, that two people can grow apart because of the different ways they adapt (or don't) to a new set of geographical circumstances. (It's not an accident that the tracklisting includes both this and Campbell's song about Phoenix.) The song ends with the narrator leaving -- the city, and his love with a bus ticket in case she wants to follow. He can only hope that she too will come to realize "San Francisco is a lonely town." While that, in isolation, sounds like a mean, even spiteful thing to wish on a lover, Charlie sings it with such emotion -- listen to the way his voice soars over the title line, one penultimate time at the 2:50 mark, with a mixture of rage and pain -- that it's impossible not to forgive him for hoping that she will suffer a little, if only because this and only this can bring them back together again.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Sarah Shannon, "Hey Heartache"/"Along The Way" (2007)

Tell me her new (second) album is on Minty Fresh, that it contains songs no critic has ever described without using the tongue-twisting adjective "Bacharachesque," and you'll find me at least joining the line to check out Sarah Shannon. (It's at least a more persuasive angle than reminding me that Sarah used to be the lead singer of Velocity Girl, whose songs I have never intentionally listened to [though I'm sure they're perfectly nice], or even pointing out to me that she was the one who contributed the vocals to Styrofoam's 2005 reworking of Free Design's "I Found Love.")

A more difficult decision is choosing between "Hey Heartache" and "Along The Way." The former gives great piano: on the verses, it does that bump, bump-bump easy listening rhythm that I'm a total sucker for, before playing a short but sweet tinkly part to lead us into the chorus, where it becomes more vampy. But on the latter a fantastic trumpet blows: kickstarting the track, it at first just reinforces Sarah's points ("rise above it...bluh bluh bluh BLUH!"), but increasingly seems to acquire a mind of its own (during the chorus), and thereby gets rewarded with a solo that serves as both middle eight and a glorious outro. I guess I'll take both.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Weeping Willows, "The Burden" (2007)

It was one of the first few nights he slept over, and he was being very cuddly. We were half-talking, half-sleeping, and then at some point he became self-conscious about how tight he was holding me. "I am, right?" he asked. "I've been told I do." Always going for the joke, I said yes, I could hardly breathe, but what's more erotic than asphyxiation? Although he detected my teasing tone, he nevertheless pressed me, in all seriousness, on whether I thought he was proving thus far to be, both literally and figuratively, too clingy.

"It's three in the morning," I said with a sudden, genuine laugh, "and you're asking me to assure you that you're not needy." I may have further razzed him by affecting a whiney voice with which I parodied, over and over again, his question -- "Am I too clingy?" "How about now?" "And now?" -- but the truth was that I liked his attentions, not to mention the body warmth. And in between laughing and mock-punching me, he, if anything, held me closer.

There's nothing quite like being in love to bring out your worst insecurities. On their new single, Weeping Willows -- the Swedish group which, for over ten years now, has been inconspicuously making the kind of twangy music with wounded vocals that always have people mumbling "Scott Walker," but with a pop sensibility that Richard Hawley or Tindersticks only occasionally muster -- ask one question over and over again: "Do you still love me?"

That plaintive question, or variants on it, come up at the end of every one of the four verses, and a couple of times at the end of each chorus. This is, of course, perilously close to too many times: for the listener, but even more for the lover addressed by the song. On the chorus, which escalates into a sudden rush of words, the desperate longing is even more pronounced as the lyric becomes a series of statements of need: "I need your loving words, for often longing makes a heart go soft/I'm worried that you might be lost/I need to feel the love you give me, and the warmth your body brings me/I need to see it in your eyes/That you still love me/Do you still love me?"

Do we know what makes the relationship so seemingly fragile? The narrator is nothing if not sensitive, keeping close enough tabs on things to be able to notice very quickly when something feels off: "I sat down by the solitary river/In the shadow of a weeping willow tree/It seems like you have changed in the past week/Do you still love me?" But if this sounds like a new relationship, it's not. "We've been together so long that I wonder/And my mind is being fueled by disbelief." The length of the love therefore provides no safety, no consolation -- indeed, the opposite is true. The longer they are together, the worse it seems. The song names, in its second verse, "jealousy" as the titular cross the relationship has to bear. "Jealousy is such a heavy burden/It sneaks into my soul and never sleeps/I've gotta hear you whisper it to me/That you still love me." But the song never sketches in the details of this jealousy, which therefore feels like a symptom more than a cause. What makes the relationship so tenuous? The bleaker answer is that it's fragile because it is a relationship. If there is a "burden" in the relationship, it's not jealousy, but the relationship, or love, itself.

As beautiful as it is, the song is therefore quite difficult to listen to -- not just because the neediness is so naked, or because this neediness, due as it is to the very nature of love, appears so insurmountable. What makes the song additionally tough to bear is our sense that the narrator knows all this, and yet cannot help himself. Each query -- "do you still love me?" -- is a query he knows he shouldn't pose, but he somehow can't quite help himself. You can almost see the chasm widen each time the question leaves his lips. What is moving about the song, ultimately, is the sense we get of the approaching crash. For when is neediness not ever a self-fulfilling prophecy? Isn't the lover who unrelentingly begs to be loved -- to be assured of love -- also the one who ends up without, having driven away the very thing he tries to hold on to?

Or so the story normally goes. But then again, sometimes, there are surprises. I for one thought I knew where things were going, but I was wrong, and to this day I don't fully understand why things changed the way they did.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Joakim, "Lonely Hearts" (2007)

For a song ostensibly about solitude, "Lonely Hearts" is surprisingly exhilarating. Much of this is because, to my ears, the instrumentation comes together rather than falls apart in the course of the track. The record begins with a rough thudding drumbeat, in between which we hear a brief guitar line; while the effect is not exactly discordant, it's still feels strangely off-kilter and not terribly pleasant. But on the chorus, the drums are unified with faint handclaps, rounding off the beat, and the guitar gives away to a piano riff. That riff is equally limited in range -- we only ever get two notes at a time, but, because they always ascend, it feels like an uplift. The vocals, by Nicolas Ker, sound especially at the beginning like they could have come from a younger Dave Gahan, and perhaps the record is closest in spirit to early, lo-fi Depeche Mode. (Very early. Demo stages.)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Anneli Drecker, "You Don't Have To Change"/"My Emily" (2005)

Anneli Drecker doesn't get a lot of attention, despite being (1) Norwegian, and (2) a woman (3) working in electropop. You would think that with that combination, she would get mentioned in the same breath as Bertine Zetlitz, Annie, or Margaret Berger, and be already flayed and pickled in Xolondon's basement.

But then again, at 37, she is a bit older than at least the latter two songstresses, having been around since 1985 as the lead singer of Bel Canto, Norway's Cocteau Twins. (Indeed, Anneli was a judge on the season of Norwegian Idol from which Margaret emerged; Anneli was the person who awarded Ms. Berger the wild card that allowed her to move on and eventually become runner-up. Which suggests, if nothing else, that Anneli has impeccable taste and won't ever find herself dismissing a contestant who would go on to become an Oscar-nominated supporting actress, Simon.) Moreover, although Bel Canto has been pretty inactive since the late 90s, Anneli has only released two solo albums -- Tundra in 2000, and Frolic in 2005. That's not quite enough to catapult her into any kind of international, or even blog, limelight. If Anneli is known or recognized lately, chances are that it would be for working with a-ha (on Lifelines' "Turn The Lights Down," or on tour), or more likely for her vocals on Röyksopp's "Sparks."

Which is a bit of a pity. I've never managed to get my hands on Tundra, but Frolic is an overlooked album that I still enjoy large stretches of. Its first single should have been a huge hit: produced by Röyksopp, "You Don't Have To Change" is an ethereal stomper in the vein of "Poor Leno," only with added whistling. Electro-ballad "My Emily" is in many ways even better, mostly because it sounds like what we stereotypically want our Norwegian female pop to sound like: icy and unbearably emotional at the same time. The song was originally meant for an aborted Morten Harket solo album, and thus written with his "voice in [Anneli's] head". While Morten and his girlie powerful pipes would have likely done the song justice, it feels more interesting in Anneli's hands if only because her relationship to "Emily" is necessarily less defined. The song is so absolutely beautiful that I can hardly stand it.

Also: Since Bertine has come up in today's, and indirectly in Tuesday's post, can I ask what's been going on in Camp Zetlitz? I know she's pregnant, which accounts for the lack of promotion for (and thus far, a third single from) My Italian Greyhound. (And yet, weirdly enough, I only recently noticed that you can buy a "clean version" of the album on the US iTunes store.) But what are these rumors I hear about the next single being a duet, with Thom "Who The" Hell, of "Islands In The Stream," which you can in fact hear at her myspace page? A cover that does not at all show off Bertine's higher register, and thus feels lifeless and plodding? Why not release your own rewrite of "Islands" (aka "Get What You Deserve") instead, Bert?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Beautiful South, "Valentine's Day Wank" (2001)

Although my high school reunion a few weeks ago was surprisingly non-traumatic, it did make me wonder about the fine line between reminiscences and odd, unhealthy fixations. Befitting the event, many of us sat around at dinner playing the "hey, remember the time...?" game. It was fun and much of it hilarious, even if some of these memories were beginning to have a stale air about them, having been drudged up on such previous, but smaller-scale, occasions. (The time, in the middle of history class, when D. shrieked her conviction that a bug flew into her ear, and a certain class smart-ass remarked that she only needed to wait for it to crawl out the other side; a complicated running joke about M.'s supposed ping-pong prowess; the class production of Hamlet featuring the most deadpan reaction to Ophelia's death ever...)

But when L.Y. started going on and on about the nickname she gave me in those days, I found myself a little bit impatient. Part of it is that the name seemed, even then, so unimaginative: "cynical." (Hell, can an adjective really be a nickname anyway?) A lot of it was that I never recognized myself in that term; even if "cynical" is taken to mean, as it now clichédly does, "deeply emotional underneath that brittle exterior," it still was a woefully inadequately label then. And, if possible, even less applicable now, ___ years later. But I guess in it L.Y. held a particular memory of the person she thought I was -- but I never thought, or never wanted to be, true -- and, on occasions like these, the former always wins out.

And then sometimes I think she may have a point.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Pleasure featuring Brett Anderson, "Back To You" (2007)

In "Back To You," Fred Ball enlists Brett Anderson to sing of being enslaved to a woman. She flicks her mane, and clicks her fingers, and these things have the potential to draw him to her. Have drawn him to her before, over and over. But in the moment of the song, at least, he is free of her. And in this rare moment of liberation, he resolves: "And when the lands slides/And when the planets die/That's when I come back, when I come back to you/And when the sun cools/And when the stars fall/That's when I come back, come back to you."

The song uses Brett's -- take your pick -- whiny/yearning voice perfectly. It's not a triumphant song about finally being free, but a bitter, despairing one that notices that freedom but nevertheless craves its end. Craves destruction. Although Brett sings about nothing less than an apocalytic end of the world (when plants die, stars cool, stars fall), supposedly the only event that would convince him to go back to her, we can tell that such a doomsday scenario would not be completely unwelcomed. Indeed, it may even be a wish. "Back To You" is in this sense the bleakest but most heart-wrenching version of an old expression, with an added sentiment: See you in hell. Can hardly wait.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Valerie Dore, "It's So Easy" (1985)

One of the albums I spun at the start of the year but never got around to blogging about, because of Blackout 2006-7, was Sally Shapiro's Disco Romance. She caught the attention of quite a few bloggers, of course, and I only just noticed that Correlated Noise even emerged from his hiatus to blurb her, and more relevantly, to compare her to Valerie Dore. Which: exactly.

The charm of Valerie and Sally (or even yesterday's star, Tracey) lies not in the power or even quality of their voices; it's in fact a bit funny to read the wiki entry on Dore, which ends: "She is said to have the best voice in the italo disco genre." Sure. "Said to have." By whom, we don't know. What I like about her is in fact how thin her voice is; on "It's So Easy," it frequently sounds like she strains to hit her notes, and that, combined with the big booming-ness of the Italo beat, gives the song that kind of contrast I live for. I don't know enough about the history of Italo to be able to pinpoint exactly when this particular trend -- wispy female voice over the pounding beat -- emerged (plus, it's Friday afternoon and my mind has shut down), but I'm glad it did. Aside from Dore, the other famous highlight of the genre is Desireless's "Voyage Voyage," from 1986; that's also the track that Pet Shop Boys admitted they were trying in many ways to emulate when they wrote and produced "I'm Not Scared" for Patsy Kensit. They don't say it, but they could have concluded that sentence thus: "...because, seriously, folks, her reedy voice is an asset only with this kind of production. Our story will be that we want her to sound overpowered."

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Tracey Thorn, "Raise The Roof" (2007)

Back in the 80s, Alison Moyet admitted that a main reason why Yazoo disbanded, if I remember right, had to do her sense that Vince Clark's synthpop compositions were too limiting for her voice. I'm not sure I'll ever agree with a generalization that electronic music is somehow easy to sing, or "unsoulful," but that singers like Alison often feel that it is, is a valid enough perspective.

I don't know if Tracey Thorn ever feels the same way -- if not about the first half of Everything But The Girl's career, then about their second, dance act incarnation. It's less likely, given her solid (professional and personal) relationship with Ben Watt, and the fact that she writes maybe a third or quarter of the band's material anyway.

Nevertheless, one of the most interesting things about Out Of The Woods, Tracey's lovely new solo album, is how vocally unrestrained she seems. The differences aren't, to be sure, drastic or immediately noticeable: one of the reasons why the album is so anticipated is because Tracey's voice has been so missed, and many people seem predisposed to liking the album for that reason. And there it is, in all its familiar glory.

But what is subtly new about Tracey's singing is how much more she relies on her falsetto. We've heard Tracey's higher register before, of course, having previously gotten one or two lines (in "Wrong" or "The Future Of The Future," say) where she hits those high notes. Then, most sustainedly and memorably, the terrific title track of 1999’s Temperamental kicks off with a falsetto chorus, before Tracey switches back for the verses. But somehow, on "Temperamental," her falsetto actually sounded false, disconnected from her regular voice. (Indeed, there are still days when I harbor doubts about whether those sections are Ben-voiced.)

On Out Of The Woods, Tracey's falsetto appears with abundance and abandon -- and more notably, she appears to have freshly mastered the transitions in and out of that pitch. The album kicks off with an entire song sung in that register: the breathtakingly beautiful "Here It Comes Again," a lullaby of sorts about some unnamed entity -- a ray of light? -- that must, to a child, always seem magically just out of reach. (This is probably the song Tracey describes on her myspace as "The Carpenters on acid," but it reminds me as much of ABBA: specifically, "Like An Angel Passing Through My Room," but perhaps with the lyrical content of "Slipping Through My Fingers.")

With that daring opening, the rest of the Out Of The Woods sets about proving how seamless Tracey can use that falsetto in conjunction with her regular voice. The hookiest vocal part of the single "It's All True" is not the chorus ("And it's all true/And it's all true,” in case you've forgotten, which is easy), but the pre-chorus. There, Tracey sings a series of phrases that are, to be honest, probably fairly meaningless. But, oh, how she sings them, each succeeding word seemingly at a higher pitch than the predecessor: "Close your eyes. Count to ten. Turn around. Back again. Hit the floor. Then once more." And then, stretched as far as it can stretch: "I'm still here.” This pattern, whereby Tracey allows one word or line to climb on another, or oscillate between high and low, repeats itself on several other tracks: "Reaching for that feeling/Hands up to the ceiling." It hardly needs saying, but in those falsetto moments, Tracey sounds even more fragile and melancholic than ever. It's what makes the already stunning "A-Z," an in-spirit sequel to "Smalltown Boy," even more so: the falsetto segment here is short and isolated ("Human kindness/Where you're gonna find it?”), but effectively conveys just how tremulously desolate its protagonist feels, in the face of schoolyard bullying, to be driven into making plans to run away. "More fragile and melancholic": I hadn't thought it possible, but Tracey's voice is truly more adept than ever at invoking those affects.

Out Of The Woods is not a perfect album. I'm a bigger fan of slow songs than the average poptimist, but those who observe that the album needs one more stomper -- right now, aside from "It's All True," only "Get Around To It," "Grand Canyon" (an obvious second single if it can be edited down), and "Raise The Roof" (just about) qualify as such -- have a point. As do those people who more specifically note that the middle stretch of the album (from "Hands Up To The Ceiling" to "Nowhere Near") is too draggy and unvarying in tempo. Sure, "Easy," with its booming stutter beat over a repeating keyboard riff, does its best to seem as if it's breaking up a run of ballads, but I suspect that, for most people, it won't. One result is that the beautiful "Nowhere Near," with the most devastatingly gorgeous brass band backing since Pet Shop Boys' "Indefinite Leave To Remain," in particular, risks getting buried in that sequence and overlooked by most listeners.

Further, one of the stompers is a bit of a misfire. I'm not a big fan of Arthur Russell -- especially because of his canonization by today's discopunk acts -- so perhaps I'm not predisposed to like Tracey's cover of his "Get Around To It." But issues of my taste aside, objectively the track is all wrong for Tracey: not only is the flatness of the bassline out of place on a record that's otherwise round and bouncy, the song is lyrically too participatory to fit in with the other songs on the album. Tracey's forte has always been her air of resignation and faux detachment: often she seems like she surveys but never directly takes part in the events she's watching. ("A-Z" is narrated from that stance: "Some things never seem to change/Kids still call each other names/Should get better/But it's sad and strange." If Tracey appears in the song, it's possibly only as the mother who doesn't know that her kid has bought a bag in readiness to run away. Of course, often the implication is often that she is really singing about herself: "Falling Off A Log" for example includes the memorable observation that "you're been sleeping with the wrong man," but it's probable that by "you," she means "I.") But "Get Around To It," with its "sex with you, being right next to you…" lines, therefore is too in the moment, and consequently sticks out like a sore thumb.

But ten out of eleven is a great batting average, and the album ends especially strongly with the one-two punch of "By Piccadilly Station I Sat Down And Wept" (melodramatic literary title, check) and my current favorite song from the record, its closer, "Raise The Roof." This may seem strange, because the track has, for the album and perhaps even for Tracey, an uncharacteristically "up" lyric about seizing the day and thus certain affinities with "Get Around To It." But unlike the latter, "Raise The Roof" is about getting ready to be in the moment, to live life -- but for the duration of the song, it never actually is or does. Indeed, Tracey is typically coy about whether she is even addressing herself in, and with, the track, which begins in the second person ("What you do/Raise the roof/Everybody wants you to") before moving into the first. When it does, it is to worry that the moment for seizing has passed: "All those years I wasted/Sitting on my own/Think what I could have tasted/If I only known/Why did I wait?/Why did I wait?/Don't tell me it's too late." Throughout the song, Tracey uses her falsetto much as she does on the rest of the album -- one moment in, one moment out. "Don't mean a thing/Unless you care." Here, the promise of finally being able to let go -- to finally taste it -- dovetails beautifully with her soaring voice. That's always been the case with Tracey: when all else fails or fades, there's always The Voice -- now, in several registers as well -- but more often, as is the situation here, we get That Voice on top of everything else being perfect.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Sarah Nixey, "The Collector" (2006)

This portion of the blog post brought to you by Brittle-Lemon's iPod's shuffle function:

"I trapped a spider underneath the glass/I kept it for a week to see how long he'd last/He stared right back at me/He thought that he could win/We played the waiting game /He thought that I'd give in/England made me/England made me." (Black Box Recorder, "England Made Me," written by Luke Haines and John Moore)

"There was a boy who never smiled/Spent all his time chasing butterflies/So carefully, he put them in a case/No one saw his fine connection/Safe behind a wall of glass/For prosperity/He locked their beauty away/He believed they were better off that way/You cast your net and pull me in/You always get win this game." (Sarah Nixey, "The Collector," written by Nixey and James Banbury)

And this portion comes via the iPod's click wheel:

"Sing (Prelude)": skip
"When I'm Here With You": play
"Beautiful Oblivion": skip
"Strangelove": skip
"Hotel Room": skip
"Nothing On Earth": skip
"Nightshift": skip
"Memory (Prelude)": skip
"The Collector": play, repeat, repeat
"Breathe In, Fade Out": skip
"Endless Circles": play, repeat
"The Man I Knew": skip
"Masquerade": skip
"Love And Exile": skip
"The Black Hit Of Space": skip

Monday, February 05, 2007

Just Jack, "Disco Friends" (2007)

Over the weekend, I listened again to the Just Jack album Overtones, and thought...well, first of all, my general opinion on the album remains that it's okay, but not spectacular. The singles "Writer's Block," and "Starz In Their Eyes," and today's track "Disco Friends" are all worthwhile, and I also like a small bit in the weepie ballad "Mourning Morning": namely, from the second half, when he sings, "I really want you to stay/But I know you have to go..." What I enjoy is the way he carefully enunciates each word in that couplet. To a fault: the words almost don't manage to all get crammed into the lines, whose flow would be improved by dropping "really," for instance. That Jack doesn't do so, and that these lines are so meticulously mouthed -- in contrast, of course, to the rest of the album's lyrics, which, since they are delivered in Jack's North London accent, would often see a syllable or two dropped -- conveys quite touchingly how important those pleading words are to Jack.

But what I did realize over the weekend is this: the album, and Jack, is sort of...square. It's perhaps an odd thing to say about a rap/hip-hop record whose first track includes a couple of drug references, but Jack's persona does seem a bit earnest and Mickey Mousey. Reviewing "Starz In Their Eyes" for the Stylus Jukebox, I noted how strange it was that the song, which impeaches reality TV, yells at the Simon Cowells and Bunim/Murrays of the world for exploiting wannabes, but leaves mostly unblamed the wannabes themselves. The resulting lyric is total pearl-clutching: more a kind of quaint, prissy outrage about this new-fangled thing called "reality TV" and less an incisive examination or even satire of it. Likewise, "Disco Friends" has a undeniable backing track: to slow finger-snaps, a synth line glides alongside Jack's sing-song vocals, until they give way to a robotic voice. But how square is that lyric? A tale of a rich, privileged girl who seems to be headed down the wrong path...because she's got a lot of DISCO FRIENDS! Otherwise known as...DISCO LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! Who make her smoke...cigarettes and...other stuff, which is why that vocodized voice is all distorted and shit, like she's TRIPPIN'! This realization has made me like the song MORE. It's like the hip-hop version of that awesome Helen Hunt Afterschool Special where she smokes a joint, and IMMEDIATELY has the vapors, screams, and takes a fuck of a flying leap out a glass window. She probably had a lot of disco friends too.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Jamelia, "Love Me" (2006)

At first sight, "Love Me," a song that Jamelia foolishly decided to tuck away on the DVD single of "Something About You," seems like little more than a trifle. It's a big, dramatic, and impassioned piano ballad, but those merits also seem to be overshadowed by its lack of originality: increasing in intensity and loudness as it goes along, the song is stylistically very reminsicent of the work of Alicia Keys. Indeed, "If I Ain't Got You" may be the specific template, since Jamelia's track likewise tries to persuade a lover that she doesn't need any material evidence of love: "You don't have to lay down and die/Start changing your life/You don't have to give me the finest things/Money can buy/You don't have to promise the moon/To make my dreams come true /All you've got to do, is love me." In other words: some people want it all, but I don't want nothing at all, if it ain't you baby.

But there are a couple of things, both having to do with its lyric, that makes "Love Me" perhaps an even greater song than "If I Ain't Got You" (and the latter is great indeed). The first is the much more direct nature of the narration. For all of Alicia's emotion, her song nevertheless begins with an impersonal third-person address -- "Some people live for the fortune/Some people live just for the fame" -- before moving to the much more intimate "I." There's therefore a small part of "If I Ain't Got You" that feels ponderous, as if Alicia is pontificating and teaching the world about The Important Things To Do With True Love (an impression that unfortunately feels in line with her public persona). Jamelia's "Love Me" in contrast goes straight for the kill: "You say I'm hard to please/Believe me I'm not." We're immediately in the heart of the relationship, in a you-and-I story that nevertheless feels like it could be about us.

But the bigger reason why I find "Love Me" so tremendously moving lies in one word that appears exactly one time in the song, and that word is "again." After a couple of verses and choruses, Jamelia sings a simple middle eight: "Love me, that's all I ask of you/Love me again." That one word suddenly casts the song in a different light: whereas before Jamelia had been laying out the facts -- telling him that she doesn't need anything more than just his love, in an effort, we thought, to seduce or, at worst, to keep him -- here we understand that she has actually been doing so to bring him back. Once he loved her; now she asks him to love her again. The song, we see from this moment, is from the perspective of loss, an attempt to negate it. Furthermore, in presenting to us this fuller picture only via this fleeting reference, Jamelia subtly hints at just how painful it is to remember what she's lost, and how hard it is even to admit the loss. She can barely look it in the face, just long enough to say: love me. Love me again.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Kelis featuring Cee-Lo, "Lil Star (Future Cut Remix)" (2007)

Look, musicians twiddle with their records all the time and then reissue them as "remixes." I don't see why I can't do the same in blogging: take one of my old posts, which was in fact about a couple of Kelis songs and didn't even include an mp3 of this one in particular, rearrange the word order and "extend" it a bit, and call it a remixed post? Uh? Why can't I? So here is the remix, mix-mix-mix-mix-mix!

On "Lil Star," Kelis sings: "There is nothing special about me, I am just a little star/I'm a-running and jumping but barely getting, getting over the bar." It's a shockingly humble thing to say, especially in hip-hop, which is, after all, all about the boasting. You're bossy! You brought all the boys to the yard! You hated us so much back then!

Of course, Kelis isn't completely self-effacing; the track subtly allows Cee-Lo to sing the chorus, which provides a rebuttal ("Cause in the dark of night, you're all I can see/And you sure look like a star to me"). (Of the batch of new remixes, Linus Loves', which practically dispenses with Kelis's vocal, thereby fails to maintain the balance, while Future Cut's, which beefs up the beat and adds an adorably tinkly keyboard that merrily plays along, is the most commercial.)

But quite aside from what the song ultimately says about Kelis's own level of stardom, it remains clear-eyed about the very nature of celebrity, sensibly pointing out that all stars are only stars because of what we project on them. "If it seems like I'm shining, it's probably a reflection off something you already are." The pun doesn't completely work, since stars (actual celestial bodies) do emit light -- Kelis is probably thinking about planets, which reflect light -- but the point stands as a pretty astute analysis of celebrity, the way our stars, in the end, are simply a kind of collective wish fulfillment.