tremble clef

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Sneaky Sound System, "Thin Disguise" (2006)

Does anyone know where I can get a horse's head? Please don't say "guillotine Celine Dion." Be serious. I have to go to a party in a few weeks' time, and there is a "theme," unfortunately. I am to be "dressed as a movie character," and Khartoum is as good a choice as any. (No, I don't want to spend US$87.)

Although the more acclaimed vocalist out of Australian electropop band Sneaky Sound System is Connie Mitchell, I find some of the album tracks featuring MC Double D just as charming, if more loopily so. The man raps like he's coming to us from the 80s -- specifically, like Indeep is still making records and he's their lost frontman. No matter what line comes out of D's mouth, it sounds like he's really saying, secretly in his head, "There's not a problem I can't fix/Cause I can do it, in the mix!" For this track, he tells some sort of inane story about seeing through someone's "thin disguise" (which he may or may not rhyme with "Californian wine" -- who can tell? Also: WTF?), rapping the verses over a thumping beat, and letting his voice get awesomely robotic for the chorus (i.e., his voice gets "disguised" right when he claims that he is seeing through ours. Do YOU see?). There's even a Nu Shooz shout-out in the middle eight. To paraphrase a line from the song, it's all "most undignified," but the whole block of cheese is just ridiculously exhilarating. Who needs dignity? I'm planning to arrive at a dinner party as a horse's head, for crissakes.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Mandy Moore, "Gardenia" (2007)

"I'm the one who likes gardenia/I'm the one who likes to make love on the floor/I don't want to hang up the phone yet/It's been good, getting to know me more."

I don't have a favorite flower. I often think that I should pick one. Irises, perhaps, or calla lilies. I want to make myself over, into a neat and digestible package, one easily comprehended. "Brittle-Lemon enjoys long walks on the beach, and he loves orchids, as long as they are either white or purple. He finds the pink variety too common." If we build it, he will come; the least I can do is make it easier for him upon arrival. He will be quickly presented with my quirks, and he can confidentally tell the chocolatier my wants, the florist my desires. I must simplify myself.

Meanwhile, I've spent seven weeks listening to Mandy Moore's Wild Hope. Smitten with The Weepies, I expected to love the songs Mandy co-wrote with them -- and, indeed, "Extraordinary" and "Looking Forward To Looking Back" are album highlights. But it's the wrenching closing ballad, co-penned with Chantal Kreviazuk, that I have kept coming back to (even despite my queasy resistance to thinking about Mandy's favorite sexual position). "Gardenia" is largely uninterested in telling a straightforward story, but we can piece some of it together. It's clear, for starters, that Mandy, with her "wounded heart," is coming to us in the aftermath of a breakup. She now has to remind herself of the things that she liked, and has a chance to still like. The things that (used to) make up who she is or was (more/Moore). These have gotten buried, sacrificed during her relationship. "I've been seeing all my old friends in the city/Walking alone in Central Park/Doing all the things that I've neglected/Traded 'em all in to be in your arms." So: "I'm the one who likes gardenia." Remember?

Is this declaration, simultaneously confident and tentative, enough to re-form herself? To bring back the persons we used to be, do we simply have to summon ourselves back? The song is finally unsure, although it holds out hope. "Well, I hear my own voice, sounds so silly/Keep on telling my story all around/ Everything I lost seems so different/Well, this is how everybody gets found." Perhaps it is only by becoming estranged from ourselves that we can re-find ourselves, but the song is going to have to get back to us on that. And so I take it as a warning.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Monrose, "Hot Summer" (2007)

Completely derivative (which is to say, totally now-sounding), "Hot Summer" is, as everybody and their grandmothers have pointed out, essentially Girls Aloud covering "Maneater." Monrose -- who were indeed, like the Aloud, assembled on Popstars: German and Germaner, though their name always makes me wanna go, "Monrose? More like Mon-stank, am I rite?!" -- are in fact cheekily self-aware about the derivation, including a line of lyric that goes, "I'm introduced to a hot producer/But I can tell he's just a stuck-up loser." Talk about biting the hand that...never actually fed you, but from which you, um, licked some crumbs. (Yeah, that metaphor got away from me.) As if that's not enough, the song had to craftily take a title that makes it near impossible for you not to slap it -- it would be perfectly positioned in front of Rihanna's "Breaking Dishes" -- onto your summer mixtape. So, so shameless.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Simian Mobile Disco, "Hotdog" (2007)

For the past few years, my favorite Pride event has been the one with bitches on parade. "That hardly narrows it down," you say, but I am thinking of the actual dog show organized by Pets DC. They've been holding it for the past fourteen years: dads and moms bring their beloved pooches down to Dupont Circle and enter them in categories like "Most Mysterious Heritage," and "Best Vocal Performance," while the crowd oohs and aahs, and it always makes for a jolly afternoon, and all for a good cause.

When I've been in DC for the summer, I always made sure to amble down to the event with Tee and Heather (aka Downy, aka Skittles [don't ask]), as spectators. I'm not there this year, so of course it's the time Tee chose to finally enter Heather into, heee, the "Best Senior Dog" competition. (She's fourteen, you know. A Grande Dame.)

Her giant head has been blurred to protect her identity.

And she came in third!!! She's officially almost-almost the cutest Pet Of A Certain Age in the greater Washington area! Her dad was really proud -- and we're guessing that Heather was happy too, although it was hard to tell, because, at her moment of triumph, she was apparently more interested in sniffing the penis of the dog next to her on the winner's podium. But since this was a gay pride event, this only sent the crowd into a frenzy, because all the fags could relate.

We're now a little worried, though, because Heather has caught pageant fever. She's started only answering to "JonBenét." She's working on a Mount Rushmore headdress. As her militant uncle, I called her on the phone and lectured her, explaining how we could see the dog show as an analogue for the way the gay community can be so fascist about notions of beauty. But Heather countered by pointing out that, even if that was true, at least this competition wasn't ageist, and so she continues, in the aftermath of her victory, to walk around waving her paw like she's some imaginary Miss Universe contestant.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Kit Chan (陈洁仪), "Disturb The Peace (傷了和气)" (1993)

I was always a sucker for songs in which our narrator meets some old friend who unwittingly asks after the narrator's lover, unaware that it's all over....But I don't want to talk about it. I've said enough already.

At the beginning of "Disturb The Peace," a heartbreakingly beautiful ballad sung to an acoustic guitar and brief stabs of pizzicato strings, our narrator is standing in line for movie tickets on a Sunday morning. But her heart is not in it, and her eyes red from crying; she thinks about "traveling" -- escaping, that is -- to "faraway places." She passes a café, and hears a song that fills her with melancholy. "June-like weather, December-ish emotions," she describes her mood succinctly. "The letter I wrote you long ago never did receive a response. Friends ask after you, and I pretend not to care."

What Kit Chan -- who, until her semi-retirement in 2004, was one of the more powerhouse singers in Chinese pop circles, and for my money the best star my fair land has produced -- tells those enquiring friends becomes the chorus of this song, and gives it its title. But "disturb the peace" is a rather inadequate translation of "傷了和气": while people might actually use the Chinese expression in real life, it's hard to imagine anyone saying, "the peace between us has been disrupted," when asked to explain the status of a relationship. But, then again, the Chinese phrase "傷了和气" is in its own way awkward, and in this sense a clunky English translation does convey how unnaturally our narrator is speaking and behaving. For someone saying ""傷了和气" comes across as trying to make light of the situation, but in terms that are excruciatingly polite, measured, deliberate. (Closer English equivalents: "Oh, we're just on a break right now"? "We thought we would give each other room to breathe for a while"? Sort of -- but more so.) The narrator tries to be breezy, but because the expression is so controlled, it gives the game away. This becomes even clearer in the rest of the chorus, which trafficks in plausible denial: "We're just temporarily apart. No big deal."

As the song progresses, the chorus is repeated: "I always say, 'The peace between us has been disturbed.' Your departure is not a kind of giving up. But my love is hoping for a new plot, a new ending." Noticeably, the curious friends hardly matter anymore: our narrator now addresses her ex-lover directly, as the (unconscious?) shift into the second person ("your departure") indicates. (Perhaps those nosy friends were never real, merely hypothetical people to whom the singer feels the need to prepare a response to.) And here, even an inability to understand Chinese matters little: the second chorus keeps the same basic melody as the first, but only the first lines are identical. As the second chorus continues, Kit's voice goes higher and higher, until it is -- not exactly hysterical, but at the point of breaking. It never does. But that high point coincides with the end of the line "your departure is not a kind of giving up," and so we wonder if she might be better off if she comes around to seeing that it just might be. A kind of giving up, that is.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sheena Easton, "Modern Girl" (1980)/"I Wouldn't Beg For Water" (1982)/"Almost Over You" (1983)

While I understood, in 1980, that "Modern Girl" was a song about a liberated woman, I'm not sure I got that it was specifically sexual liberation we were discussing. It's stupid, I know, that I didn't link the two. I mean, what other kind of "liberation" could a pop song be about? It's not like the narrative revolved around the freedom to vote. But this was 1980, and I was young -- a fetus, if you're counting, which you really shouldn't -- so I should be forgiven.

But listening to it now, it's amazing how wickedly sly the song is. Consider just the first verse: it begins by painting what looks like a domestic scene ("He wakes and says hello/Turns on the breakfast show/She fixes coffee while he takes a shower"), before alluding to a early morning fuck that unsettles that domesticity ("'Hey that was great,' he said/'Wish we could stay in bed/But I got to be at work in less than an hour'"), and then finally destroying any remaining illusions we may have that this couple is husband-and-wife, or even necessarily monogamous and steady. "She manages a smile as he walks out the door/She's a modern girl who's been though this movie before," and then we go into the exhilarating chorus: "She don't build her world 'round no single man/But she's getting by, doing what she can/She is free to be, what she wants to be/And all what she wants to be, is a modern girl."

The middle eight pulls a similar trick, but even more awesomely. "She's been dreaming 'bout it all day long/As soon as she gets home, it's him on the telephone": even if we've been paying attention to the rest of the song, these lines might still lead us to think that she's been dreaming about him, and that his phone call is thus her dream coming true. But...POW! "He asks her to dinner, she says I'm not free/Tonight I'm going to stay at home and watch my TV." As someone who is often tempted to stay home with my tube instead of going out and mating -- which is to say, as someone who is like everyone else, and don't you deny it -- I have to find the concluding lines of the middle eight simultaneously hilarious, righteous, and whine-inducing.

Over the weekend I revisited and rethought, not just "Modern Girl," but much of Sheena Easton's oeuvre. It was neither a strenuous nor an extensive rethinking: I simply dug up The World Of Sheena Easton: The Singles Collection to play (and play and play) -- it collects most, but not all of her singles -- and it's not like I'm now ready to overturn the critical consensus about her. The consensus goes roughly like this: Sheena was okay, but started sucking around 1985 (that year's singles: "Swear" and "Do It For Love"), or perhaps even a year prior, when her music hardened ("Devil In A Fast Car," "Strut") and she, at the hands of Prince, tried transforming into a sex kitten ("Sugar Walls"). In other words, conventional wisdom holds that only about half of the chronologically-arranged The World Of Sheena Easton is any good. And...that's true. If this were a vinyl record I would likely wear out Side A long before Side B.

Although: some of the tracks on "Side B" are at least interesting or revealing failures. For one thing, many of them catch Sheena (and her producers) in the desperate act of imitating contemporary trends, no doubt trying to find the right bandwagon for her after her initial persona (more on that in a moment) ran its course. "Devil In A Fast Car" signalled her turn to rockier guitars, and "Swear" (video) practically steals the licks from Michael Jackson's "Beat It." But that rockier sound does Sheena's voice -- which is always at its best when it can be pristine, crisp, and crystal clear, not fighting with rock arrangements, which pushes it towards "shrieky" -- no favors. Meanwhile, "Strut" (video) -- which I always forget is anti-, not pro-sex kittiness ("I won't be your baby doll") -- has a funk-lite beat that must have been inspired by the then-ascendency of Jam and Lewis, though in some ways it may be even ahead of the curve, since the songs it resembles the most -- Ready For The World's "Oh Sheila" (1985) and Cameo's "Word Up" (1986) -- were yet to come. Then, of course, there is "Sugar Walls" (video), which is truly horrifying. Quite aside from the risible lyric, which aims for "sexy" but lands on "gynaecological," the melody is just clunky. (But then again I find many of Prince's melodies clunky, and only his unique singing can sometimes make them work; the last track on the compilation, the ballad "Eternity" (video), is likewise a Prince composition, and it requires poor Sheena to wail and howl like a proto-Björk, which, honey, no. I actually find Sheena's output in 85-86 (produced by Niles Rodgers, oddly) to be okay; she returns to poppier numbers (the Motown pastiche "Jimmy Mack" [video] the breezy "Do It For Love" [video]), though it's true that they mostly seem watered-down and unexciting compared to her early work.

But how frequently great is that early work? Sheena no doubt still get royalties for "Morning Train (Nine To Five)" (video); I've joked about my relation to that song before, but for me "Modern Girl" has been the more enduring track.

We remember, of course, that the order of release for these two singles were reversed in the UK and US: in the latter territory, Sheena made her debut with "Morning Train" and "Modern Girl" was single #2, but in the UK "Modern Girl" was released first -- whereupon it flopped, and then rereleased following the success of "Morning Train" (which was of course simply titled "Nine To Five" in the UK, since Dolly Parton's song wasn't as much of a competitor there). The two songs balance each other out perfectly as far as Sheena's persona was concerned, so perhaps it is appropriate that both have served to introduce her. While "Modern Girl" declares Sheena's independence from any man, "Morning Train" saw her, if not beholden to, than at least enamored with one. To some extent, that same balanced relationship exists between the other two upbeat songs in her run of initial singles: the well-known "Telefone (Long Distance Love Affair)" (video), in which Sheena is clingy and distracted by a long distance lover, and the less-remembered "Machinery" (video), in which Sheena rails against being treated like a "piece of machinery." The latter is odd and spiky: Sheena sings in a hiccupy fashion, almost as if she was trying to channel David Byrne or Fred Schneider. If in the end "Machinery" is my least favorite moment from "Side A" of her greatest hits collection, it at least is entertainingly bizarre.

Finally: even if people acknowledge that Sheena's first ten or fifteen singles contained a number of gems, they tend not to pay much attention to the ballads, figuring them for treacly sap. They are, which is why I LOVE 'EM. For my money, very few of them are conventionally sappy -- there's almost always something about each that raises them above the ordinary. For crissakes, "You Could Have Been With Me" (video) begins with the weird line, "You're the seventh son of the seventh son," and, as it continues, does strange and intriguing things with pronouns (the "you" in the first verse seems to refer to her love, but the one in the second is a kind of self-address? I still can't work it out). Immensely Broadway, "When He Shines" is structured around a series of binaries, and the cover Barbra Streisand missed out on doing. And "I Wouldn't Beg For Water" I find bewitching: it keeps to Sheena's then-persona of being a modern girl, since it's largely about being proud and uncompromising: "I'm not the kind who deals behind the scenes/I won't sell my soul/I'll be nothing without some integrity." But the condition under which that pride is abandoned is thus powerful, and the condition, of course, is "you": "I wouldn't beg for water/I wouldn't beg for water/If my soul was on fire/But I'd get down on my knees for you."

Even "We've Got Tonight" (video), Sheena's seriously sappy duet with Kenny Rogers, appeals. Yes, really. I'm been trying without success to think of a song about a booty call that isn't jokey-sleazy, but instead nakedly emotional. The story starts out as a meeting between, let's face it, two losers at closing time ("both of us lonely"); they are absolutely realistic about what a fuck would mean ("We've got tonight/Who needs tomorrow?"), but the musical genre of the overwrought ballad duet tells us just how much a yearning for more runs underneath this assignation.

And "Almost Over You"? In 1983 I labored under the illusion that the chorus went, "Now I'm almost over you/I almost should be blue." I'm not sure I prefer the real line ("I almost shook these blues"), especially since it's ungrammatical. But even this doesn't stop me from practically bursting into tears each time I hear this track. I was always a sucker for songs in which our narrator meets some old friend who unwittingly asks after the narrator's lover, unaware that it's all over....But I don't want to talk about it. I've said enough already.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Garbage, "Tell Me Where It Hurts (Orchestral Single Edit)" (2007)

I've always thought that the first three lines of "You Look So Fine" are, in many ways, the sharpest and most succinct encapsulation of the Garbage ethos. "You look so fine/I want to break your heart/And give you mine." Shirley wants to hurt you and love you at the same time. Indeed, she wants to hurt you the better to love you, even if loving you hurts her -- kills her, for what will she do without her own heart? -- in turn. (Not for nothing is there a fangirl video on YouTube of Buffy and Angel's tortured relationship set to the track.) Of course, to some extent this is simply a more accentuated version of an old archetype: Ms. Manson is the dominatrix who shows flashes of vulnerability, the vixen with the bruiseable heart of gold. But like all archetypes, it's one for a reason.

But the reverse is true as well. Because of Shirley's persona, even the most ostensibly loving of Garbage songs are invested with the threat of violence. On the new single, "Tell Me Where It Hurts," it's impossible for me not to hear the title, not just as a command, but one that may not be advantageous for us to answer. Tell me where it that she will know, more precisely, where our weakest spot is? So that she can rub salt -- or something even worse -- in that wound? Tell me where it hurts, and I can hurt you more. None of those possibilities are necessarily "in" the song itself (since the rest of the chorus continues, "To hell with everybody else/All I care about is you and that's the truth/They don't love me, I can tell/But you do, so they can go to hell." As I said, a loving song). But they float around its edges, lurking, waiting for you to let your guard down. When you do, there's no telling what -- break your heart, take your heart, give her heart -- she will do.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Dragonette, "Marvellous" (2007)

There are definitely more commercial, chart-ready cuts on Dragonette's Galore, but "Marvellous" takes the cake for sheer inventiveness. The song features some tabla-drive beats -- suggesting that Martina Bangs/Sorbara learned a trick or two from her gig with Basement Jaxx, though the group's best Bollywood pastiche remains buried on a b-side and a bonus disc -- that give way to a thumping electrorock rhythm, making this, even right off the sonic bat, an arrestingly hybrid closer for the album.

And then there's the matter of the song's structure. Although the track has all the constituent parts of a pop song -- verse, pre-chorus, chorus, middle eight -- it messes around just enough with their order to create a song that will seem, upon the first few listens, to be weirder and more unconventional than it really is. Like Sugababes's "Ace Reject," "Marvellous" teases us with, but withholds, its very first chorus. Thus, we get two verses, after which we cut to Martina going, "Um uh uh uh uh, um uh ah-ah!" But any expectation that the song will burst forth into a technicolor chorus here is defeated, as we go back to another verse. This time, though, the wait more than pays off -- even if we are foiled as to the exact moment when the chorus comes in. The third verse, after all, concludes with a verb that also doubles as the explosive first command of the chorus: "They say you're bad news, I don't care/I just can't...STOP! You're dangerous!" (This chorus then ends with the "um uh uh"s, meaning that we were earlier fooled if we had imagined that the line was about to introduce the hook.)

The second go-round for the song is nothing like the first. Rather than verse-verse-verse-chorus, we now get a verse ("damn, here I go again...") that leads right into an amazing pre-chorus...which turns out to be a duet. The male vocals -- perhaps taken from Dan Kurtz and treated -- now tell us, with a hilariously Bollywood affect, "I'm not cruel, I know a lot of girls like you..." Martina coquettishly interrupts to protest using a string of...double? triple negatives? "Not true not girls not just like me!" And back and forth they go -- "They're just like you!" "Not just like me!" "They're just like you, they're trouble too!" -- in a funny game of "I know I am, but what are you?" Next: a second chorus, followed by a middle eight that's more electronic than any other part of the song (and one that brilliantly uses the word "druthers" to boot). Then the all-too-brief Bollywood snippet returns, and we get one final chorus to take us out.

All of this within 2:48! It's taken me longer to describe the song (as if that's not always the case)! The succinct nature means that, even when the first chorus gets postponed on our asses, the track never drags by staying in the verses too long. I haven't even mentioned the old but still crowd-pleasing "can't stop my heart from thumping [BOOM BOOM!]" trick, or the extra points we simply must award for the very, very sly sexual joke in the first verse ("My eyes are bigger than my mouth, but maybe/I could learn to be your lady").

With their love of hip gyrations, Beyoncébeyoncé and Shakirashakira really should have picked this to duet on. Imagine the video! I get weak doing so. It would have made Showgirls and the one for "Beautiful Liar" (same thing, really) seem like Bergman. Wait -- what am I thinking? They would indeed have eschewed all subtlety, and hammered the Bollywood hook to death, so forget I said anything.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Natasha Bedingfield, "Soulmate" (2007)

I have weak moments. Sometimes it's only a moment, like that night in the late 90s. Surrounded but alone in a gay bar, I suddenly felt the haze clear, and really heard what the DJ was spinning. And I thought, "Yes. YES. The way I feel IS sexual. It can't just be intellectual. My God." Later the haze redescended, and Amber's cheap song went back to being stupid, or at least no longer philosophically profound.

And sometimes, like now, it's a long moment. Three, four, six days. A week, two. Work is trying; everyone is dispirited. I refuse to be productive. On Sunday I listen to "Soulmate" to review it; I enjoy it and rate it well, but somehow draft a blurb that's mostly jokey. Meanwhile, friends talk to me, but talk through me. They carry on like nothing's wrong, and in many ways they are right. I write a long essay for the blog, but although the piece is clear in my head I can't seem to finish it, and what I write turns out meandering. On Monday I find myself unable to stop singing "Soulmate," and I revise the review, bumping up its score, adding phrases and lines to emphasize its merits. I still cough. My right eye, only the right, is irritated, bloodshot. I am restless, and find myself looking -- with my one good eye -- everywhere for him, a fact about which I am both defiant and ashamed. It's Wednesday, and by now I am fully obsessed with Natasha's song, and I consider taking up karaoke so that I can perform it. Nobody else agrees. My friend reads the review, and snarks thusly: "I'm just sort of surprised that it never struck her that one possible reason why she's alone is that she's an intolerable and smarmy Christian-family-values bitch." Good point. But who doesn't long for someone to hold, who knows how to love you without being told? I wait and wait for the moment to pass.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Shout Out Louds, "Tonight I Have To Leave It (Kleerup Remix)" (2007)

In which Kleerup remixes a Cure track so that it sounds like the Pet Shop Boys, and 80s music lovers die en mass and ascend to heaven.

Sorta. The already-awesome original version of "Tonight I Have To Leave It" does evince other influences: like much of the garage-rock band's output (as well as that of Swedish compatriots like The Concretes, and The Legends before they went electro), there's definitely the specter of Spector on the record -- say, in the gorgeous string arrangement -- and perhaps a bit of New Order. But that guitar, and the singing, feels like absolute Cure.

For his remix, Kleerup bravely, or foolishly, removes that string arrangement. It's hard not to say "foolishly," because, while the original version ostensibly has a chorus ("So I heard it's no good to run/But it feels so much better now that it's done/And tonight I have to leave it"), it's the swelling strings that truly serve as the song's hook. But Kleerup compensates. Firstly, most obviously: he ramps up the beat, to the kind of hi-NRG Euro-gallop that isn't too far from the Pet Shop Boys defacto rhythm (we're just a few orchestral stabs away from "A Red Letter Day"). And then there are those cowbells: introducing the song and then receding in the original version, but for the remix assuming major importance. In some ways they take the place of the strings, and, combined with the beat, do nothing so much as remind me of "Always On My Mind." And for his final trick: Kleerup brings in a tremendous synth wash -- just briefly at the 2:05 mark, teasing us again at 2:50, and then, at 3:39, when we expect its final return, we instead get the gurgling synth line to take us all the way out of the song, and to soundtrack the heavenly ascent.

Bonus: Since it's practically Kleerup week here, perhaps you fancy hearing the man's much more middling remix of Roxette's "Reveal"?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Crowded House, "You Are The Only One To Make Me Cry" (2007)

I keep a count of all the people I have, in the course of my work, made cry. I am up to seven and a half.

On an album full of depressed songs (the aptly-titled Time On Earth) -- but, then again, old age and the suicide of a band member will do that to you -- there may be none more downbeat than "You Are The Only One To Make Me Cry." Indeed, the song may be from the point of view of someone on the verge of leaving us: "But I have no illusions/Of where I am now/I'll let this wave take me/And draw me down." On the first chorus, the narrator seems incapable of even finishing a thought, and so the melody can only trail off anticlimatically: "You're the one to make me cry/You're the one to take me home/Of all the people in my life/The thoughts keep returning to you/But consciousness is fading fast..." In the song, the person who makes the narrator cry turns out to be the "only one" whom he hangs on for. That's a downer.

Neil Finn sings the song, which at moments sounds like -- has the same kind of resigned loveliness as -- "I Can't Make You Love Me," with a naked exhaustion that I haven't heard on any other Crowded House song. His voice is scratched and raspy, and on the chorus there are notes he doesn't hit. Needless to say, this only increases the power of the track, and his getting to the end of the song hence feels, disquietingly, like a triumph.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Jessica Folcker, "Snowflakes" (2007)

Although the central question asked by Jessica Folcker in this spellbindingly addictive song isn't especially imaginative -- she'd like to know why snowflakes fall from the sky, but appear not to be curious about why they are, say, hexagonally symmetrical -- the production boasts more than enough imaginative flourishes to make up for it. Helmed by multiple Andreases (specifically, Andreas "With Every Heartbeat" Kleerup and Andreas Unge, the bassist and producer who's also in the world music band Calle Real), "Snowflakes" is full of little production tricks that may, if the chips fall right (i.e., if the indie kids pay attention), help turn the track into this year's crossover electropop number, a la "Chewing Gum" or "Be Mine."

Possessing a lilt in her voice that makes her sound remarkably like Kim Wilde at moments, Jessica never oversells the song. Her measured tones are a perfect fit for the subject matter, since the track supposedly recognizes the inevitable end of a relationship. But as the song goes on, the producers pile on the backing vocals. These initially do little more than repeat the main melodic lines on the choruses, but when we enter the final minute of the song, they take on more independent life: again and again, they start to sing the melody, but then seem unable to progress beyond the opening syllables, as if the strain of keeping it together has started to pull Jessica apart.

But, most of all, there is that taut 80s beat: urgent, but melancholically so, as if the drums are racing only in an attempt to outrun sadness. But listen also to how they strategically drop out at transitional points: when we first go from the verse to the pre-chorus, at 0:46, to allow Jessica to proclaim herself "like a fool without a clue"; between that pre-chorus and the chorus, at 1:01, so that she can ruefully say, "Now I only wish I never met you"; or, as the first chorus comes to an end at 1:15, at which point the drums don't drop out as much as they stutter and pound, three times ("I can't help but feel no sorrow -- BOOM BOOM BOOM! -- for you"), either for emphasis or simply with one last burst of unspoken grief that the lyric pretends that it can deny. But when the song runs through its second iteration, it cuts back those breaks in the drum pattern to one (only at the end of the chorus). The beat, in other words, gets more relentless as the song goes on, as if each sing-through gives Jessica the strength -- or, amounting to the same thing, the heartbroken resolve -- to, in the words of that other Kleerup song, not look back. Never stop to look back.

Bonus: the Credheadz remix, which tries to turn the track into a filterhouse stomper (quite successfully, but not without blunting some of its emotional impact).

Monday, June 04, 2007

Beaumont, "Cross Country" (2000)

When Keith Girdler passed away about two weeks ago, the internet reaction was relatively muted. There were obituaries on Pitchfork and Idolator, and various blog mentions, sure. But in this age of what Richard Schickel, among others, called "false intimacy" -- when we imagine that we personally know celebrities though we've never met them, and are thus "deeply affected" by their deaths -- that counts as a deafening silence. (Compare: when Grant McLennan died in May 2006, it suddenly appeared that The Go-Betweens had all along been the secret favorite group of every mp3 blogger; Keith's death on the other hand didn't have a "Streets Of Your Town" to soundtrack it, I guess.) Of course, the few reactions that were registered still displayed what seemed like classic "false intimacy" symptoms: one blogger apparently "wept as [she] read the eulogy," which I suppose testifies either to how much Keith's music touched her; her fragile constitution; the prowess of the obituary writer; our culture of illusionary intimacy; or a combination of all of the above.

I'm not saying that I'm surprised by the silence, since Keith was a minor, or largely niche figure in music. Together with Paul Stewart, Keith was the nucleus of Blueboy, the English tweepop group on the cult (i.e., uncommercial) Sarah Records. Preceding Blueboy was Feverfew; succeeding it, Arabesque. I never knew those groups. But in 2000, I almost randomly bought an album, put out by the next incarnation of Paul Stewart and Keith Girdler, that I still love to this day: This Is...Beaumont.

The purchase wasn't entirely random: in the late 90s and early 00s, I went through a tweepop phase. There's a longer entry to be written about this, but for now, it would only be slightly reductionistic to say that the phase was largely sparked by Saint Etienne's Good Humor (1998) and The Cardigans' Life (1995) albums. I didn't know much about this Beaumont record (or group); I can't remember how I intuit that it contained the kind of swinging 60s music I was deeply digging. I imagine the album cover and packaging -- it might as well have come with a martini glass -- helped, or perhaps I persuaded Newbury Comics to test drive it for me. In any case, when I now think back on the 90s/00s, This Is...Beaumont is a record that I hold very dear in part for its general ability to encapsulate those five swinging years...

...but also more specifically, for: "Bacharach," with its faintly flamenco, or at least Spanish air. The gorgeous plucked-string opening of "Hey Barbara." The da-da-das of "Girlie." The funny line, "All my teachers told me/That girl and maths don't mix," from "Girl And Maths." The jaunty fairground rhythms of "Love Is...1968." The boy-girl vocal interplay -- Keith's dandyish voice, here as elsewhere, is a bit out of tune, but strangely endearing for that reason -- on "Aftershave," which on the chorus becomes mediated by a lovely guitar line. The way the opening chords of "His London" begins to move the last few tracks into darker, moodier territory. A mood that the closer, "Cross Country" -- all chiming guitars and melodramatic bombast that gets capped off by some tremendous backing female vocals, especially at its conclusion -- triumphantly carries to its logical conclusion. (You can get mp3s of "Hey Barbara" and "Girl And Maths" here, and you really should.)

Three years later, Beaumont released their second record, Tiara. I bought it with some excitement, but was disappointed by the short, eight-track album. It crossed the line into tinkly cocktail music, and was mostly instrumental; what singing there was was mostly by Cath Close, who had been a backing vocalist on the first album. 2005 brought No Time Like The Past, which suffered from very similar problems, although it did boast at least one lovely, intimate, almost-country number called "I've Tried." Again, Keith's voice was noticeably absent, and there wasn't much information on the interwebs about what was going on. I now know that Keith has been fighting cancer for the past few years, which no doubt accounts for why his contribution to the last two Beaumont albums has been limited to lyrics.

I can't therefore, in the end, speak of how Keith Girdler's entire oeuvre moved me. I caught only a glimpse of his music, let alone his life. But it was enough for me, and I hope for him, wherever he is. Thank you for This Is...Beaumont.