tremble clef

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Saint Etienne, "This Is Tomorrow" (2007)

"Hi. We're Saint Etienne. Sarah's written a song with Annie -- she toured with us a couple of years ago, you know. It's floaty and electronic, as you might expect, has a talky bit, and is the title track of our new film, This Is Tomorrow. We thought the best way to get this song out there is to press it as a limited edition 7 inch single, and then give away the 2000 copies with the Nov 2007 issue of The Illustrated Ape magazine. No, most of you will have never heard of that fine journal, nor have many ways to get a hold of it. What's your point? Mwah-hah-hah."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Billie Ray Martin, "Your Loving Arms (Peak Hour Twirler Mix)" (1995)

Readers, do you love me? Yes? Well, talk is fucking cheap. Why hasn't anyone ripped these posters off from London tube walls and sent them to me?

Images stolen from; click on 'em to make 'em bigger.

These ads for HMV -- yes, the Pets did advertisments, but let's overlook that for now -- appeared in print in The Independent a month ago, and have subsequently been plastered all over Tube stations.

I want them. I need them. I would frame them and hang them, and possibly let them take me behind the middle school and get me pregnant. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD LET ME HAVE THEM.

It's not just that they feature Neil and Chris, and Billie Ray Martin, who I also adore. (Isn't it nice to see your idols love each other? In the October 2007 issue of FHM, Billie was asked about how it felt to be "name-checked" by Chris, and she said: "Yummy! It's wonderful! I knew 'Your Loving Arms' is his favourite song, but to soon see huge posters in tube stations and full pages in the biggest UK papers actually saying this is so exciting. Given the fact they are really my biggest inspiration, too, it's even more of an honour." Awwww.)

It's also that each of them has picked, as their "inspirations," songs and lyrics that really are amazing, not that we would expect anything less. Indeed, Billie's selection, "Paninaro," is actually my least favorite of the three songs picked. Neil's selection, "Goin' Back"? Only the most beautiful and poignant song about aging ever, and tears may or may not well up in my eyes each time Dusty sings, with hopeless resolve, the line, "And live my days instead of counting my years."

Even if it didn't remind me of a clubbier time in my life, "Your Loving Arms" is possibly my favorite song of the entire 90s. I don't need to tell you how desperate and melancholic it sounds: that first pulsating synth line (do-do-do-do), that second bleeping one (dee-dee-dee-dee-dee), that trancey beat. And while its lyric tends to be overlooked, Chris -- who has shown himself partial to seemingly simple lines that are emotionally devastating -- doesn't, and he picks exactly the right ones: "Sometimes the way that you act makes me wonder/What I am to you/And sometimes I can't stand the way that I'm acting/To be part of the things you do." Beautifully symmetrical -- the way you act, the way I act -- the lines perfectly conjure up all the sell-out occasions when we act like fools just to get in with someone we love.

You know and have, I hope, the original version of "Your Loving Arms." Here is my favorite of the numerous remixes: the awesomely-titled "Peak Hour Twirler Mix," courtesy of Junior Vasquez. He stays mostly faithful to the original -- the breakdown, during which we get a bunch of tribal beats that remind us that this was the era of The Goodmen's "Give It Up," may the only thing that strikes a casual listener as noticeably divergent -- but punches everything up just a wee bit. The beat is crisper, bigger, just a bit more urgent, and that bassline seems to quiver with even more heartbreak. The only problem with the song is that it ends.

Now get on scoring me those posters pronto.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Veronicas, "Revenge Is Sweeter (Than You Ever Were)" (2007)

There are only two songs I even vaguely like on the disappointing new album by The Veronicas. One is "Untouched," which will deservedly be the second single as well as, it would seem, an early fan favorite. Lyrically a kind of update of "Like A Virgin," the song is terrifically arranged: the urgent strings are at the forefront of what you'll hear, but they wouldn't work half as well if they were not juxtaposed against dementedly bouncy synths that are equal parts electroclash and happy hardcore, and those trashy, buzzsaw guitars.

Though less immediate, the other song worth repeated plays is "Revenge Is Sweeter (Than You Ever Were)." Its charms however come from a different place: namely, from the way it goes against much of the rest of the album, or, indeed, The Veronicas' entire sound. No, the song is not a startling big band number. The Origliasso twins traffic, of course, in teen angst, and most of the time they convey this by allowing their verses to build and build until things come to a head in the choruses, during which: be prepared to duck. On this album, unfortunately, it feels too much like we should also be prepared to turn down the volume or stick in the earplugs, because on Hook Me Up's choruses -- which tend to be not catchy enough, to boot -- the girls too often cross the line into shrieky bansheedom.

But not on "Revenge Is Sweeter": despite its title, which might make us expect extra spite and venom, the track begins almost as a ballad. On the pre-chorus, as synths arrive to join the chiming guitars, things predictably get more frenzied and shriller: "Are you even listening when I talk to you?/Do you even care what I'm going through?/Your eyes stare, and they're staring right through me/You're right there, but it's like you never knew me/Do you even know how much it hurts/That you gave up on me to be with her?" But then, quite unexpectedly, the tune deflates, trails off into the title line: "revenge is sweeter than you ever were." I love this downturn -- because, as I've suggested, it is a refreshing change from the way other Veronicas songs develop. But there's a bit more to it. When a Veronicas song turns up the volume and the intensity while going from verse to chorus, it acquires bravado; on "4Ever," for instance, the band is never surer that the night will last forever than during the "yeah yeah"s. In contrast, here on "Revenge Is Sweeter," Lisa and Jessica sound uncertain in the conclusion they supposedly reach; revenge might sweeter than he ever was, but the insight itself is bittersweet and offers considerably less consolation than we might expect. In that non-triumphant moment of ambivalence, the Veronicas for once sounds grown-up.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

BWO, "Stay With You Again" (2007)

The first time -- and to this day, one of the few times -- I heard about the game "Deprivation" was in 1991, when I read David Leavitt's "A Place I've Never Been." The tale features Celia and Nathan, characters who recur across several of Leavitt's stories: appearing first in "Dedicated" from Family Dancing, then popping up in the title story and "I See London, I See France" of A Place I've Never Been, before returning in Arkansas' "The Wooden Anniversary." (Apparently, a Dutch theater company once produced a play from these narratives.) Nathan, who is clearly a fictionalized version of Leavitt himself, is a gay man, and Celia his best fag hag; they were Will and Grace before Will and Grace.

"A Place I've Never Been" catches the two friends at a pivotal moment when they are beginning to drift apart -- or more precisely, when Celia starts to see that their codependence is not healthy. In the story, they go a party thrown by a college friend, who "invariably suggests [her guests] play Deprivation." "The way you play it is you sit in a big circle, and everyone is given ten pennies...You go around the circle, and each person announces something he or she has never done, or a place they've never been -- 'I've never been to Borneo' is a good example -- and then everyone who has been to Borneo is obliged to throw you a penny. Needless to say, especially in college, the game degenerates rather quickly to matters of sex and drugs."

As the story makes clear, "Deprivation" is not a game you necessarily want to win -- though there are witty ways to do so: one male player hilariously declares that "he's never had a vaginal orgasm," and gets considerable pennies from it. Victory, after all, suggests that you've never done anything, never gone anywhere. You win by being a loser. Furthermore, as we might expect of a story published in the early 90s, the specter of AIDS hangs over its characters, and Leavitt emphasizes how the "experiences" that "Deprivation" allows you to flaunt might also what kills you. Nathan, aware that his ex is HIV-positive, in particular has sunken into a state of self-pitying paranoia: an understandable reaction, though one that hurts Celia and finally allows her to see Nathan for the narcissist he can often be. "Do you realize," he informs Celia pathetically at the story's close, in the aftermath of the game, "I've never been in love? Never once in my life have I actually been in love?" And Celia tells us: "And he looked at me very earnestly, not knowing, not having the slightest idea, that once again he was counting me for nothing." "He looked away from me," she continues, "listening, I suppose, for that wind-chime peal as all the world's pennies flew his way." It's a lovely image, perfectly capturing the moment when Celia bears the brunt of Nathan's tendency to feel so sorry for himself that he reprehensibly discounts the things he has experienced in his life, the places he has been, the friend he has loved. Our romanticized attachment to deprivation blinds us to the ways we have been blessed.

There's a class of songs I think of when I remember "A Place I've Never Been," when I think of "Deprivation"; I have never been able to resist these songs. Their power come from the way their verses announce the things they have done, while their choruses pinpoint what they have not -- or vice-versa -- and it is from this tension that the songs derive their lyrical hook. Several examples spring to mind at the moment. One I've written about before: Charlene's "I've Never Been To Me," although, oddly enough, I did so at excruciating length and yet failed to mention how the song depends, for part of its poignancy, on the way the verses catalogue all the things Charlene has done (been to Georgia, and California), only to wipe them out with its plaintive announcement, in the chorus, of how what matters more is where she has not been (that would be "to me"). Another example is Kylie's "I Believe In You." Here, the trajectory is reversed, as we first get a litany of all the things Kylie does not has faith in: "I don't believe that magic is only in the mind/I don't believe I'd love somebody just to pass the time..." Because of all these negatives, the positive, when it arrives in the chorus, is tremendously moving: "But I, I, I believe in you."

I have no resistance to such songs -- even when they are cheesy, even when they don't strictly fit the pattern. Hence, I find myself stopped in my tracks even by "Stay With You Again," a BWO ballad (cheese: check!) in which the tension is not even spread between verse and chorus. After an opening synth passage that recalls Chic's "I Want Your Love," the song gives us some faintly nonsensical verses ("The night is full of torment and lives are torn to shreds/You want your correspondent with cameras infrared"?). But in its chorus I hear the conflict between having and not-having, between what-I've-done and what-I'd-rather-do, and all defenses fall away. "I have crossed a thousand rivers/I have walked the streets of gold," Martin sings. "I have been through hell and heaven/Where my soul was bought and sold/I have stormed the Himalayas/Blown the horn of Africa." (Even the juvenile sexual joke can't take me out of it.) But, Martin then tells us, none of this is important: "But as long I live, I long to see/I long to be, to stay with you again." Here are the things I've seen, these are the places I've been. What do they matter? There is, in the end, only one place I want to be.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Bertine Zetlitz, "Ashamed" (2007)

Bertine's tremendous new song, "Ashamed" -- which you can hear at Herspace, and which may be on her forthcoming Best Of, and, God, I just blacked out for a second when I realized how amazing that collection will be -- seems to be about her ten-month old daughter Lill. The song's introduction, filled with chimes from a baby's mobile while a toddler giggles softly in the background, makes that clear.

Let's take a moment for that to sink in: Bertine is a new mother, has written a song about her new baby, and that song is called "Ashamed." This is why I have her perverse soul so much.

Here's how the lyric goes:

(Look at all these papercuts...)

Verse 1: How you gonna fall-fall-fall asleep at night/Knowing that you never taught her how to fight/Knowing she don't know how to clench her fists real tight/Knowing she'll be better off way out of sight

Verse 2: How you gonna make her feel her way around/Ninjas' how I'll do they hardly make a sound/How you're gonna teach her not to make a mess/Running can be hard in high heels and a dress

Chorus: And if I love you half as hard/I know that I will fall apart/Sometimes while I sleep/The company I keep/Makes me ashamed/And if I love you twice as much/You probably won't stay in touch/Sometimes when I dream/The images I see/Makes me ashamed

Verse 3: Telling her sometimes that tigers come at dawn/Teaching her to be the queen and not a pawn/Ripping off your heart to show her how it breaks/Swallowing your pride to show how bad it aches


Bridge, twice: Look at all these papercuts/And all is in my heart/You know these papercuts/Mean we will never part/Among my favorite wounds are those that never heal/Among my favorite friends are those who never feel


The lyric, which returns to the complexity of her pre-Italian Greyhound releases (the arresting might eight, with its feel/heal rhyme, is something of a callback to "Closer" from Beautiful So Far), concerns the difficulties of raising a child. (And, at several points, about the specific anxiety of raising a girl in our still-sexist world: "Running can be hard in high heels and a dress.") It speaks brilliantly -- though not without humor, if I'm hearing that "ninja" line right -- to the sense of inadequacy and helplessness parents often feel: how will we ever be able to protect her from what is essentially a cruel world? And protect her, not just from physical injury, but, even more impossibly, prepare her for emotional pain? How do we balance the need to equip her with survival tactics (sometimes you'll need to run, or stay "out of sight") with the need to not back down, to be a "queen and not a pawn"?

Strikingly, even though the song is about her baby, the verses appear to be addressed to Bertine's partner. While it may seem odd that Bertine is palming her worries off on, or passing her responsibilities onto, her partner ("what are you going to do about that mess, boyfriend?"), this isn't necessarily the case: if she's addressing her lover, it might just be her transparent way of managing her fears, pretending that it is his job rather than hers when the very fact that she's singing about it gives the game away. Indeed, perhaps she's not really addressing him at all with those second person pronouns, but simply herself. Her lips say "you," but her heart knows to hear "I."

The "you" of the chorus -- featuring Bertine's trademarked harmonies, breathtakingly double-tracked -- gets even more complicated. Here, it feels unlikely that Bertine is talking about or to herself with the "you"s. It's slightly more possible that she is talking (or continuing to talk) to her lover, although that serves to shift the song -- from being about her child, to being about her lover -- a bit too much, and too disconcertingly. Is the chorus then sung to her daughter? The first half proclaims a love that is almost painful and unbearable: I love you so much that it's emotionally impossible for me to love you less; if I did, I would "fall apart." But the second half of the chorus turns a bit darker: "And if I love you twice you as much/You probably won't stay in touch." We could simply see that as Bertine's warning to herself to not be an overbearing mother, but it's also considerably more. It makes the song deeply and wonderfully paranoid, and in its own way even rather anti-procreation: I love you, but I already know you will abandon me eventually. It takes a special mother to confess to her newborn daughter that she already fears losing her, although both that fear, and her ability to express it, speaks volumes about the depths of Bertine's feelings; in its perverse, twisted way, "Ashamed" is the ultimate declaration of maternal love.

In other news: it's been a bittersweet week. The Red Sox win, but Stylus (and its Singles Jukebox) close. I'm proud to have been a part of the last, and glad to have had the chance to contribute one final essay to it.