tremble clef

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Stars, "Barricade" (2007)

I laugh hysterically each day on my way in to work, but only because of this sign outside the entrance to the parking lot (as usual, you can click on the picture to blow it up):

You would think that cartoon characters would be more careful. I adore everything about the sign -- if I were sixteen I would steal it for my bedroom -- from the colors (which have been carefully chosen to match The Official Color Scheme of the place I work at) to the constipated stoop of the gravely distressed figure. But I especially love the three stars, each a different size; they make the tableau so expressive! You can really feel the guy's pain.

The new Stars album (which was yesterday released digitally, several months before the physical release) is called In Our Bedroom After The War. As that title and a look at the tracklist -- say, "Take Me To The Riot" -- would suggest, the album boosts a number of loosely-related songs that center on love and war. (It's not quite a full-on concept album, although doing one would be a logical step for a band that seems determined, as I've previously lamented, to move more and more into blander indie-rock territory.) Love! War! Love is like war! War keeps us from love! These novel musings of course put the abum into instant competition with Spandau Ballet's Through The Barricades, so I hope you're ready to see Torquil and Gary Kemp bitch-fight each other using their scarves as weapons.

No, actually, In Our Bedroom does feature some gems when the band isn't intent on rocking out ("Window Bird" and "Bitches In Tokyo" both start fine, but then end with tragic guitar freak-outs), or vocally pulling...a Timberlake ("The Ghost Of Genova Heights")? Perhaps no surprise, then, that I'm most immediately smitten with the slower songs on the record: the epic title track is gorgeously melodramatic, while "Personal" (a shimmering duet between Amy and Torquil, playing people who try to meet through a personal ad) may be one of the most heartbreaking things they've done. "Barricade" is a simple piano ballad (it would fit easily on the Memphis albums); if In Our Bedroom became a musical, "Barricade" would be the plaintive song its lead character sings after his beloved gets taken away by the Nazis ("Meet me at the barricade/The love died but the hate can fade"). I hope those crazy war-torn, star-crossed lovers work it out! Or at least avoid getting bonked on the head by the barricade! ("Oh, how could anyone not love your cold, black heart?" -- Torquil.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Santessa, "Nowhere (Wamdue Diestra Radio Edit)" (2000)/ "Just When I Needed You (Joe Claussell Sacred Rhythm Dub)" (1999)

A couple of years ago, I found myself idly wondering, "Eh, what happened to Santessa?" And all the interwebs went, "Dooo dooo dooo, we dunno." And then, since my mind resets itself every few years, I asked the same question again just days ago, and this time found her on myspace. Ain't technology grand? As is, um, the passage of time that allows people to catch up to technology.

In 1999-2000, the English-Ghanaian singer Santessa released a handful of singles and an album (Delerium), much of which was produced by, and co-written with, Stuart Matthewman. Stuart is largely known for being Sade's long-time collaborator and a member of her band, and those of you with extra mind grapes may know that he's also a member of Sweetback (which makes Sadesque music during the periods when Ms. Adu is busy living her life, which is quite a lot of the time), and Cottonbelly (which produces many narcoleptic Balearic tracks that end up on all those Cafe Del Mar compilations).

Shockingly, therefore, Santessa's album didn't fall far from the Sade tree, although a second listen reveals that it's a bit dubbier, more trip-hoppy than the usual Sade songs. It didn't achieve much success, although Hed Kandi championed it quite a bit, licensing its tracks for a few of their compilations. But Delerium was itself released on a small label, Disco Volante, which seemed to have had only one other artist on its roster. I'm guessing that the label folded, and Santessa now appears to be playing jazz clubs in New York City while waiting for her next big break.

I wouldn't mind her getting another one, although if she made a second album I would want it to be for a company that can afford to hire ace remixers. For Santessa's tracks were almost always improved by being rejiggled; while Delerium was a pretty pleasing affair, the songs I most enjoy now, seven years later, are both reworked versions.

"Nowhere" was Santessa's fourth and final single; in its original incarnation, it was a ballad oozing with sensuality, but also a bit of lethargy. Chris Brann gave it a spankingly sunny remix, turning the track into a livelier samba-ish number that practically has sand between its toes. The Diestra radio edit (there's also a full length version) really should have been the single version.

The Wamdue remix did owe a little to the work of Joe Claussell -- to his "Spiritual Life Ibadan remixes," in particular; Brann's reworking of Santessa is not a million miles away from Claussell's equally festive reinvention of Beth Orton's "Central Reservation" from a year before, for example. Claussell himself had been roped in to remix Santessa's first single, "Just When I Need You." His "Sacred Rhythm Dub" is stunning: ten-and-a-half minutes of blissy goodness, with Santessa's voice (and synth washes) sweeping over your senses, you could swear, exactly as the waves must on a warm, beautiful beach. I guess I can't technically say that I prefer remixes to all of Santessa's originals -- and, if you want to hear an original, I strongly recommend downloading from her myspace page "Back Again," the chilly and haunting b-side to the "Eyes On You" single -- since I've never heard "Just When I Needed You" in its untinkered form (it oddly wasn't included on Delerium). But, unless epic beach house mixes are not your thing, I honestly can't imagine how it could be better than this Claussell treatment.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Click Five, "Long Way To Go" (2007)

A question, a confession: why do I find male backing vocals -- especially when they are racuously, shambolically, even fascistically shouted -- incredibly homoerotic? I don't necessarily mean that such tracks give me a huge fat boner, but listening to them always makes me suspect that the lead singer is gettin' it on with his troops, right there in the studio, bow-chicka-bow-wow.

Some songs seem aware of this, and even play to it. The apotheosis is Pet Shop Boys' "Go West," largely because the male choir clearly stands in for the men, described in the song, who have made that trek to what they imagined would be utopia. (Matters were not helped by the way Neil and Chris employed a burly Welsh choir, with each member dressed as a coalminer, to sing back-up at the 1994 Brit Awards. Which was held at Earl's Court.) Of course, since this is the Pet Shop Boys, the gesture ends up being less camp than oddly poignant -- or as poignant as it is camp -- because, in the final reckoning, the men sound like less like they are in an orgy, and more like they constitute the kind of loving, familial community that the song elegiacally figures as already destroyed by an epidemic.

The Click Five's "Long Way To Go" doesn't exactly court such gay interpretations. Well, maybe a little: the power pop song is addressed to some girl (I guess) who loves our narrator, but said narrator doesn't feel the same way. For, you know, whatever reason. "Why would you wanna be with me instead of other guys?/Or make me feel like something special?" he wonders, itching to hand her off to a better man. And so, for the chorus, he sings, "Even though I love you...," whereupon "other guys" join in to yell, "...I CAN'T HELP THINK ABOUT IF I'D BE BETTER WITHOUT YOU!!!" They are presumably speaking for him, rather than as an interested, involved third party. These mates are NOT AT ALL the reason our narrator can't bring himself to love this girl.

But, to me, it sure sounds that way sometimes, and by "sometimes" I mean "every single time I listen to the song." Remember that episode of Seinfeld which satirizes the way straight men irrationally and idiotically get turned on by catfights, because "men think if women are grabbing and clawing at each other, there's a chance they might somehow, you know...kiss"? I know I'm totally acting out the homosexual version -- "put a group of men between the antiseptic soundp(r)oof walls of a recording studio, and you're bound to get some hott man-on-man action!!!" -- but what can I tell ya? I am what I am.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Hafdís Huld, "Happily Ever After" (2006)

Love at first sight, with all its cocky confidence, is boring. More interesting are the occasions when you meet someone, and share enough tentative moments to be able to glimpse something like a future together. Perhaps, perhaps not: it is in the uncertain space between that you can fantasize and dream of possibilities.

In this song, Hafdís Huld, the Icelandic waif who used to sing for Gus Gus, meets, beside the "angel fountain," a boy with a unique eye color ("a perfect blend of dark blue, and some kind of yellow"). But she also tells us: "They don't really match [his] shirt." She decides that she "like[s]" him: a measured but sweet assessment, one that resists the kind of headlong plunge into OMG-LUVU4EVA111 territory. Even her verdict on the way he smells ("like honey") is disarmingly moderate: "And I really like honey!/Not as much as vanilla, though." The gentle, acoustic track -- comparable to some of the work of Hello Saferide -- is therefore less twee than it first appears. Indeed, one final detail reminds us of how much the song, despite its dreamy chorus ("We could live happily ever after"), tempers its starry-eyeness with a kind of sordid realism. It's a line that, not coincidentally, provides Hafdís's album with its title. "Before you leave you write your number on a dirty paper cup/I walk home sunburnt in my face/Holding that paper cup next to my heart."

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Rooney, "Are You Afraid?" (2007)

Warning: This post may cause seizures in some people.

Although the Rooney comeback single "When Did Your Heart Go Missing?" (which you should immediately head to Hype Machine to get, if you haven't already) is tremendous -- irresistibly catchy Motown handclap pop, which Rolling Stone even compared to Culture Club -- it's not very representative of the rest of the album, whose influences lean more towards the heavier side of 60s rock (as its cover art already tells us).

But the album's next best song, "Are You Afraid?", after a heavy rock opening, features some keyboard vamping and very heavenly harmonies on its chorus, which makes the track totally ELO. There are certain clichéd expressions in music writing, but one that remains evocative for me, especially when I remind myself to think of it literally, is "kaleidoscopic harmonies." As a kid I loved watching those beads seemingly fall apart and pull together. The picture splits and reforms, and is unfailingly beautiful for that process. Now I am no longer with a childish... with a childhood toy, so I listen to something like "Are You Afraid?" instead.