tremble clef

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lucy London, "My Name Is Lucy (Original 12" Mix)" (2007)

It's not clear -- not immediately clear, or even ultimately clear -- that this track should be considered a "robots in love," or, to borrow the title of an EP by Future Bible Heroes, a "lonely robot" song. "My Name Is Lucy" is a sparse, minimal, even monotonous electronic track: a steady beat, slightly skittering, adorned only by a chiming three-note synthesizer riff and another more ominous, bassier synth line. Over this, we get a woman telling us about herself: her name is Lucy, she is 20 years old and from Chelsea, London, seemingly bisexual, and she dances to Pete Tong though she doesn't understand his music.

"My Name Is Lucy" might therefore be taking aim at a certain kind of clubby attitude. There are, for example, several jokes in the lyric. "I don't take Class A drugs," Lucy tells us. Beat. "Is cocaine Class A?" In this light, it would be kindred to electroclash tracks -- say, anything sung by Miss Kittin, or Pay TV's "Trendy Discotheque" -- that ape but supposedly also mock zombie club-goers. Or perhaps the track simply pokes fun at hipsterism, a genre that somehow seems especially popular with Myspace bands (see, for instance No Bra and their NSFW video for "Munchausen." Really).

But the longer "My Name Is Lucy" goes on, the more it morphs away from those kinds of songs, towards being a tale of a lonely girl robot. That's that automaton vocal and intonation, for one -- not so much vocoderized as it is spoken-and-spelt. And there is the rather unnerving confession of loneliness, even if it is broken up by a joke: "I'm on Myspace, Messenger, Skype, Facebook, Small World and Second Life [ah-ha!]/But nobody writes to me/Only some people write to enlarge my penis/I do not have a penis/I wish I did." And there is the repetition -- of these facts over and over, as if in desperation. And at the 4:30 mark: "I'm single." A long pause, so that the proclamation can sink in not as a come-hither invitation, but as yet another profession of solitude. Then, again: "My name is Lucy."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Deborah Harry, "Two Times Blue (Nickel & Dime Mix)" (2007)

I only played Necessary Evil three, four times when it was released last month. Because, duh, it's not a very good record, though I like the single "Two Times Blue" quite a bit. But it was also a difficult album to sit through for another reason. No longer able to hit the high notes, Debbie's voice pierces my heart even when it reaches the low ones -- or when it starts a song, as is the case with "Two Times Blue," in a disconcertingly low register that she wouldn't have chosen twenty years ago. Those notes only remind me of what could be. I sometimes tell myself that a voice can be richer, more flavorful as it gets coarser, whether due to bad habits (smoking? whiskey?) or "simply" age. I do this with Sarah Cracknell's, for example, and there I am still capable of being comforted by my own falsehoods. But, at other times -- most times with Debbie -- I wince and mourn.

Years ago I yanked a mini-cassette out of an answering machine. There was one message on it, from this man. He had an especially distinctive way of saying hello when I picked up the phone, which I would recognize to this day had I but chance: hey-ay?!, stretched out into multiple syllables, a drawl of sorts, as if he was delightedly surprised to speak with me even though it would be he who called. I liked this man, he liked me too, but not enough perhaps, etc: you know the story. After one fight, and three dozen attempts at "being friends," too many, I knew I needed to make a clean break, or as clean as I could bear. So that last message he left me went unanswered, though not to say unheeded. And yet to this day, somewhere in my apartment is that tape, waiting to be replayed, as if it hasn't already been countless times in my head; and, so, I know what it's like, you see, to try but fail to hold on to a voice.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Freemasons feat. Bailey Tzuke, "Uninvited" (2007)

Surprise! The remixing team du jour has not turned "Uninvited" into a furious filter or handbag house anthem. Rather, with the help of Judie "Stay With Me Till Dawn" Tzuke's daughter, Freemasons reminds us -- and it was easy to forget, given the way the original version built to that overwrought ending that even Iron Butterfly would deem "a bit much" -- that the best part of Alanis's song is the spooky piano riff that kicks it off. By fashioning from that riff a haunted house track that you can almost imagine Faithless (in their heyday) or even The Knife doing, Freemasons takes a step towards demonstrating that it's not a one-trick pony.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Mutya Buena, "Fast Car" (2007)

Over the past week, The Singles Jukebox has been reviewing, track-by-track, the Radio 1 Established 1967 compilation (starting here). It's a spotty album, but the writing by the reviewers (excepting one pathetic bloke) is often insightful and vivid even when the material doesn't deserve it.

Mutya Buena's version of "Fast Car" doesn't fare especially well, receiving an average score of five. The reviewers generally agree that the song seems to have lost something: Joseph McCombs finds it less poignant, and John Cunningham feels like it now lacks urgency and "character." Even Kevin Elliott, who is most sanguine about the track, likes it because it's brighter and more hopeful, or, to put it another way, because it shook off the original's haunting depression -- which is to say that he essentially likes it for the same reasons that the others don't.

It makes perfect sense to compare Mutya's take with Tracy Chapman's original, of course, and I think Elliott is right to do so on the question of "hope." But I am much harder-pressed to say if Mutya's version is more or less hopeful, because it strikes me as having a deeply ambivalent relation to it.

Mutya has made some clear changes to the song. She re-plays the acoustic guitar riff using synths, but a lot of the changes are in the service of shortening the track (Tracy's version is almost five minutes, while Mutya boils it down to just a bit over three). She omits several verses: an early one about "working at the convenience store," and a subsequent verse that again mentions a job at a checkout (and dreaming about moving "out of the shelter"). In Tracy's version, the repeated references to the store is another marker of how defeated the narrator is: she may start the song as a young girl and end up married to the driver of the fast car, but through it all she heartbreakingly hasn't been able to make any progress work-wise. Mutya ditches this trope, but at least she preserves the start and end points of the story -- girl dreams of escape, girl marries man and has kids, man is no good, girl tells him to take his fast car and go -- and thus still conveys the sad dead-end of the narrative.

But perhaps the change that most strikes the casual listener is the way the song no longer bursts into its chorus. That amazing chorus has always functioned, for the song, as the locus of hope; for all the trials and tribulations the narrator goes through, she has a moment of freedom and exhilaration when she is in that fast car. Or rather, "had." Because, significantly, the moment is only ever a memory: she's never in the car during the song, but merely recalling being so. (Indeed, it's not even clear if they still "got" the car.) "So remember when we were driving, driving in your car/The speed so fast, felt like I was drunk/City lights lay out before us, and your arm felt nice wrapped round my shoulder." Even though the chorus lapses, for a moment, into an ambiguous present tense ("city lights lay out before us"), it's still a chorus about the time when they "were" driving. Considered strictly, "Fast Car" therefore never gives us escape or catharsis: the moment has already come and gone, and all we have is a memory of it, which of course only makes us sadder.

In Tracy's original version, it's easier, I think, to forget the retrospective nature of the chorus. The song hums and strums along for two entire minutes -- an eternity in pop music -- before we get the chorus. If those two minutes feel lulling or even boring for some listeners, all the better, because we can see it as conveying the tedium of our narrator's life. When we finally get the chorus, we get it with along with the first appearance of the drums, and the song springs to life. It's a dash of color, and we can almost feel the wind in our hair. Because of the instrumentation, even though the chorus is about remembering a drive in the fast car, the music makes us feel that we are speeding along right there and then, in that moment.

Mutya's version in contrast refuses to give us even this illusion of being there in the fast car. Her chorus never erupts. The entirety of her version is bleakly drumless. Aside from the change in melody, the only things that mark off her chorus as a chorus is the more prominent organ line, and the way Mutya's vocals on the word "I, I..." are more emphasized -- they sound a bit more disembodied -- perhaps by some sort of overdubbing. It even sounds to me like Mutya corrects Tracy's one use of the past tense: she swallows the end of the verb somewhat, but sounds like she sings "city lights laid out before us." Unlike Tracy's chorus, then, Mutya's never truly positions itself as an escape, and in that sense the song feels more hopeless.

But the story is not as simple as that, and certainly doesn't end there. If Mutya refuses to deceive us into believing we are in that car, her chorus paradoxically feels more present in another way. Tracy actually initiates her chorus with the word "so": "So remember we were driving..." Mutya changes that to a pronoun: "I remember we were driving..." Tracy's chorus is therefore a command or request, albeit a desperate one: please try to remember, because only that offers us hope and solace. Mutya's chorus in comparison is less of an imperative, but an actual description of her act of remembering. While Mutya never lets us pretend that we are in that car, she at least lets us witness her in a moment of remembering a time when she was, and thus in a moment of hope and comfort. At least we know that Mutya still can hope; maybe Tracy is past that point, and reduced to simply trying to goad herself into remembering.

Neither song therefore has a straightforward relation to hope. Mutya's, in a sense, is more ambivalent: while she is more unrelenting in not allowing us to forget that being in that car is a thing of the past, it at least points us to the hope that memory can provide. (Unless you think that remembering is a kind of fixation and should not be an avenue to hope, but surely we're depressed enough by this post as it is.)

Perhaps this deep and beautiful ambivalence accounts for the two other alterations to the song I want to end by pointing out. Tracy ends all her choruses with this couplet: "And I, I had a feeling that I belonged/And I, I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone." Mutya stays faithful to this wording the first time she sings the chorus, but the second time, she changes "had" to "got." Is "got" in the present, or past tense? Is "having" a feeling better or worse than "getting" one? Which gives us more hope, more solace? Which is more real, more present? Which one has abandoned us less -- is it more likely that a feeling you once "had" will return, or one that you once (or now) "got"? I don't know. I also don't know which is better: in Tracy's version, she tells us (and her lover) that "You [We] gotta make a decision/ Leave tonight or live and die this way." Mutya doesn't even think that living is one of the options, because, both times in her song, she says: "We gotta make a decision/ Leave tonight or we can die this way." But then again, even in the original, "living and dying" this way was already a kind of death, so it's not clear if Mutya is being less hopeful, or simply more honest.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Gabrielle, "Every Little Teardrop" (2007)

The new Gabrielle album, Always, is really quite great, and certainly her best produced. The first single from it is "Why," featuring Paul Smeller, and it stormed into the UK charts at #42.

This is absurd. There are thirteen tracks on the album; eight of them are better than "Why," and even after we discount those that may not work as lead singles (ballads, growers, etc), we still have approximately four or five that could have kicked off the marketing campaign less disastrously.

I suppose I can at least understand why my absolute favorite track wasn't picked as the first single. "Every Little Teardrop" is tremendous, featuring a beautifully emotional string arrangement that reinforces every word that Gabrielle sings in the chorus. But unfortunately, that arrangement is likely to remind listeners of Lenny Kravitz's "It Ain't Over Till It's Over" -- which would be fine, except that Mutya Buena sampled it not five months ago. I would imagine work on "Every Little Teardrop" started before "Real Girl" surfaced, so it's incredibly bad luck for Gabrielle that she kind of got scooped (by something inferior, no less).

Sigh. What a pity. The cover for a "Every Little Teardrop" single would even have designed itself:

Yes, the sleeve can also double as my TICKET TO HELL.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Alison Moyet, "One More Time" (2007)

That Alison Moyet's new single can be described as "theatrical" should not surprise. Although she has only appeared in two productions, one of those occupied her in the time most directly preceding her new material: a play about two sisters called Smaller, costarring Dawn French. (Margaret Cho gushes about the play and its actresses here.) Alison in fact wrote three songs for the play -- "World Without End," "Home," "Smaller" -- and these will close out her forthcoming album, the aptly-titled The Turn.

The subtly amazing first single from that album, "One More Time," was therefore not composed for the play, but it nevertheless feels like it should be on stage, somewhere. The song isn't "theatrical" in the bad sense of the word: that is, it's not some overblown, melodramatic number that needs to be performed with jazz hands. But the song feels like it could be from a Pinter or Albee or O'Neill play about, say, marriage.

There are either two or three characters in "One More Time": it's hard to be sure because the lyric masterfully shifts between first and second person pronouns, but it's likely that our narrator is simply oscillating between being part of the scene and trying to detach herself from it. From this conflicted viewpoint, we get three moments that take place around one bedtime. In the first verse, she turns the light out, her eyes tired. In the next verse, presumably lying there in the dark, with her lover ostensibly next to her but also a world away, she can only think of the difficulties of the relationship. "If easy was on the cards/Then someone made it disappear/And he smiles/And even now you hate him/ Only now he wants you to/The liberties you take/For what he won't be giving you." Sadly, it's a situation that isn't alien: "That's what you do."

But the breathtaking chorus also tells us that it's a situation that our narrator is willing to put up with. The four lines of the chorus, simple but precise as a surgeon's knife, figure the relationship in transactional terms; love, it seems, is a tie of debts and credits. "If all that we make here is sorrow/And all that we get we just borrow/I'll still buy, so can we try/One more time?" For all that love costs, it still compels us. What else will we spend our currency on? The way Alison's voice lilts over the phrase "I'll still buy" is heart-stopping; hitting that first high note, and then two more monosyllabic ones, it expresses hope, resignation, despair, sadness, all at once. It makes it impossible to know if the song ultimately shows us a person who is masochistically in a relationship from which she derives little, or if she is right in being pragmatic about the compromises one must make to keep any relationship going.

But perhaps we find out, sort of. After two verses and choruses, the song seems to work its way to a conclusion; the strings swell and get more elaborate, and it seems like we will end at the 2:50 mark. But true to its title, the song comes back for one more go-round, and this time we are offered some hope. The light, for one, gets turned back on by him. "He turns the light on/Sits down where he watches you/Tells you he couldn't sleep/He had something to share with you." And instead of the impersonal "you" second pronoun that we got to conclude the first verse, this third verse admits: "That's what we do." If the unpleasant situation feels all too familiar, it is at least something that the two of them are in together.

Do they indeed share? (And if so, is it good stuff or bad?) Do they talk? Do they work things out? Did they (the song seems to know -- "he had something to share" -- but it's not telling us)? Perhaps. But that chorus, which I haven't been able to get out of my head, where it may stay as one of the most moving lyrics of the year, comes back around. "If all that we make here is sorrow/And all that we get we just borrow/I'll still buy, so can we try/One more time?/One...more...time."

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Christophe Willem, "Elu Produit De L'année"/"Double Je" (2007)

2006's edition of Nouvelle Star (aka the French Pop Idol) was won by Christophe Willem, a contestant who seems to have caught the public's fancy for two things. One, his voice: arrestingly high-pitched, ethereal, and yes, feminine. Two, his looks: in an early round, one of Nouvelle Star's judges infamously called Christophe "la tortue" (the turtle), and then tried to flip him over onto his back. (I may have made up that last part.)

The two things are intimately related, of course: by now it's a common trope in many singing shows to have a contestant whose looks supposedly don't match his or her voice. (Mine does, but if I ever join a competition, I'll be sure to find some way to manufacture such a discrepancy and thus a good hook. Dress up like a tattooed punk rocker, say, and then sing like a choir boy. Though this plan is slightly hampered by my inability to sing like a choir boy.) Of course, like many reality TV characters, Christophe is not the hideous deformed beast he's made out to be. He's just the TV version of ugly. His gangly physique is Olive Oylie, his glasses make him into something of an Erlend Øye, and his unshiny hair doesn't hide his fivehead, oi vey. But if someone holds him down and shaves off that thing on his face, you can already see that he's plain more than fugly. (I do feel bad about how nature shortchanged him, though, because his father is rather [silver-]foxy.)

I'm not sure I would have liked Christophe if I actually watched the show. Maybe Nouvelle Star just had assy theme nights that restricted his song choices, but Christophe apparently had a weakness for bad 70s disco cheese: he performed "Sunny," "Born To Be Alive," "I Am What I Am," "Staying Alive," and "My Heart Will Go On," for crissakes -- although, I have to say, he's not that camp. (His taste in chansons is better, I think: here he covers Michel Polnaref"s "Goodbye Marilou.")

Christophe's debut album, Inventaire, doesn't bear much relation to his Nouvelle Star performances. It's surprisingly sleek and contemporary-sounding, and credit for that may need to go to Zazie, whom I think produced parts or all of it. It's also quite a varied album. Shows like American Idol are actually quite paradoxical: the format asks its contestants to assume different styles and genres each week. But if the show thereby showcases faux-versatility -- "faux," because as many critics have noticed, there is very little consistency in whether contestants are praised or castigated for "stepping out of their boxes," and if I never hear that expression again it will be too soon -- such versatility never becomes a marketing point after the winner is crowned. (This is probably due to how segmented the American music market is, of course; as far as I know, the one album that tried to be 16 weeks of Idol on record stunk up the joint.) Seen from another angle, this confirms what many know: something like American Idol is first and foremost always about the show (which requires that weekly variety), and much less about positioning its contestants for any kind of career afterwards.

But I digress. Christophe's album is not "varied" in the sense that it jumps from bluegrass to country to, say, a rap number featuring Kevin Covais (seriously, Paris, wtf). But listen, for example, to how different its first two singles have been:

"Elu Produit De L'année" was a download-only single released back in March, and it's a tremendously toe-tapping neo-Motown stomper. It's a bit like Spice Girls' "Stop" with more violins and horns, which is a compliment of the highest order. And the groovy video features women dancing with lampshades and birdcages on their heads! (Not at the same time. That would just be silly.)

"Double Je" is the more official second single, and it's awesome in a totally different way. Reviewing it for the Jukebox, where the song is gratifyingly lodged in 2007's top ten, I compared "Double Je" to the French Italo disco classic "Voyage Voyage," which Pet Shop Boys fans will remember is the record they were trying to emulate with their Patsy Kensit version of "I'm Not Scared." It's a cool piece of thumping, bleeping electropop, and that video has new age people laying hands on Christophe, or something. I don't know.

Though it has its patchy moments, Inventaire has several other potential hits: lovely piano-led ballads (like "Chambre Avec Vue"), and even a pulsating English electropop number "Kiss The Bride" that may spearhead Christophe's attempt to break into Francophobic countries. But I feel like I almost don't need these other tracks, because ""Elu Produit De L'année" and "Double Je" may constitute the best one-two debut punch from any Idol winner ever, and that's practically enough for moi.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Mêleé, "Built To Last" (2007)

Blue moons are well and fine, but an even rarer occurrence took place last week, right around, as it happened, the mid-Autumn festival. I absent-mindedly had MTV Asia on, and it INTRODUCED ME TO A NEW SONG: Mêleé's "Built To Last." Oh my God, how novel, someone should look into this marketing tool, etc..

The video is pretty ordinary, featuring as it does a rather literal interpretation of the album title (Devils and Angels), and some dubious fashion choices (lead singer Chris Cron, who might just be J'ason D'luv's third cousin, sports a waist coat that's totally on the wrong side of Seth Cohen).

But the song: what a song. It looks like it is or has been #1 in Japan, though the band is American. Specifically, from Orange County, so you know what that means: power-pop! It's been a nice year for the genre, what with a solid (if now trendy-to-diss) album from Fountains Of Wayne, and excellent tracks by Rooney, The Click Five (at a pinch, we might even include Orson).

While "When Did Your Heart Go Missing?" and "Strapped For Cash" have been leading the race for best power-pop single of '07, "Built To Last" is mounting a serious late challenge. That piano riff betrays how much Coldplay is an influence on the band, but the song is gloriously soaring instead of drippy. The same might be said of Cron's vocals. Strong throughout the track, he at points sounds uncannily like Roland Orzabal on the last Tears For Fears album (the underrated Everybody Loves A Happy Ending). On the chorus, that voice is ably supported by backing "ahh"s, and the sweetest of harmonies. But the vocals really get on a roll beginning with a middle eight using a modified version of the chorus melody ("Walking on the hills that night/With those fireworks and candlelight/You and I were made to get love right") which, after the chorus, return one more time with new words ("Cause you are the sun in my universe/Considered the best when we've felt the worst"). It's hard not to get carried away and shout along with the final few lines: most of all, most of all... LOVE. IT. The Japanese got it so right.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Freezepop, "Thought Balloon" (2007)

In some ways, songs about being tongue-tied or struck dumb in front of a crush carry an extra burden to be articulate. The more the song can precisely and lovingly describe the condition, the more we understand how silly it is that our narrator, so bright and well-spoken within the song, can't muster up the words without.

Freezepop's gorgeous ballad about the affliction doesn't necessarily strive to be "articulate" per se, but it finds a point of focus that is wonderfully human and relatable: the cartoon figure of the thought balloon. It's "such a pretty thing/A white balloon on a string/It floats above my head/Filled with stuff I should have said." It is subject to a kind of gravity. "Thoughts can weigh me down/My balloon dips closer to the ground/I'm hoping that you catch my drift/Give my balloon a little lift."

Near the end of the song, our narrator resolves to speak her mind. "I've been quiet for too long/And I'm gonna take the dare/Find a way to let you know, la la la la/Time to let my secrets go, la la la la/I'll pull the words out of thin air." And so she decides to set the balloon free, a gesture that feels as sweet and wondrous as when Nena let go of hers, though this time round we're not even dealing with nuclear holocaust. (Not literally, anyway.) "I'll set it free, my thought balloon/And lead you here to me/And finally I'll have my say/And then my thought balloon can float away."

And yet the triumphant moment makes me sad. Maybe, in the course of the song's three-plus minutes, I'd grown accustomed to, and even fond of, that white balloon. Maybe it's because of the melancholic feel of the song, built as it is on a mellow, quivering synth line (that places it in the tradition of, say, "Rent"). Or maybe, having struggled for the past month with a sorta-friend, to whom I want to say so much and yet cannot, I find myself understanding that some balloons must by necessity always remain attached to us, and us to them.