Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Koyal (Songbird)" by Nitin Sawhney (2005)

When it comes to the topic of 'world fusion', I think there's good reason to be afraid, be very afraid... at its worst, the very noble idea of integrating music from different global traditions (or, if 'tradition' is a bit of a misnomer for the frequently modern styles at work, let's say 'styles') is fraught with problems: first and foremost is a kind of dilettantism that frequently seeks to 'spice up' otherwise bland music by infusing it with a touch of 'exotica'. With no disrespect to Martin Denny, it's that very word that got world music, and world fusion, started as a viable commercial enterprise - on arguably the wrong foot. There's frequently a 'look at the natives' feel to a lot of these cultural mash-ups that not only turn vivid musical traditions into museum pieces but also discourage true collaboration: sing how you would have anyway, and I'll put some beats underneath. The different strands of DNA all too infrequently recombine to form new, viable hybrids: most of the time, they merely exist in the same sonic space at the same time: musical oil floating on musical water.

So I have little to say about Nitin Sawhney. The English will see him as Indian, Indians will see him as English. Like a good many English musicians of South Asian heritage, those little bits of music that have floated around him perhaps since childhood somehow manage to make their way back into whatever music he's making as an adult. He's all over the map, stylistically, ranging from jazz to hip-hop to classical. While South Asian music is never that far away, it's hardly strictly a Bhrangra-esque take on Indian-music-plus-Western-beats. What Nitin Sawhney is doing, largely, is creating music regardless of genre: assembling sounds without consideration of which kinds of sounds have until now co-existed. It's not genre-mixing so much as music that makes the concept of genre irrelevant.

I can't find anything songwriting credits more elaborate than 'written by Nitin Sawhney', so it's entirely possible that the gorgeous melody and Hindi-language lyrics (about a songbird) were really composed just a few years back. But they certainly sound like they've been around, floating on the air, since time immemorial. The song gest started with a looped piano, some pretty standard 'downtempo' drums, and an Indian flute. So far, so new-age, really. It's gorgeous, but nowhere we haven't been before. For me, what makes this song so special is how little it gives in to the trappings of Buddha Bar 'fusion': well before its brief three minutes finish (no solos, no instrumental segments), you've forgotten just how 'European' and 'modern' its instrumentation is. The record scratches never go away, but they become merely a part of the atmosphere. Somehow the oil and water mix perfectly here.

But it also manages to avoid that 'look at the natives' feel either. As foreign as it all clearly is (the singer sounds like every female singer you've heard in every Bollywood movie you've caught on TV), it doesn't quite feel foreign, and I think that's because the melody pulls emotional strings that are universal and recognise no genre.

Which, I guess, is ultimately the 'lesson' of world music, by which I mean the Western fascination with, and appropriation of, music from other countries: however exotic something might appear, it still appeals to emotions that are, of course, universal. The lyrics don't seem to mean much, but the two voices in combination mean a million things I can't quite put my finger on. I've seen this song described in a few places as 'haunting', but I don't get that at all. It's nothing spectral, unsettling or anything like that. It's something... purer. I'll embarrass myself further if I keep trying to describe it, but that's what it is. Something very simple, but very heartfelt.

And God is is gorgeous.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

"One Love / People Get Ready" by Bob Marley and the Wailers (1977)

There's just some things not worth arguing about. Yes, this song espouses religious beliefs I do not share ('a thumper's song', my father calls it). Yes, it takes a full verse from Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready". Yes, it's a re-recording of a twelve-year-old song, in a dearth of inspiration that plagued Marley throughout the seventies. Yes, by now it's entirely enveloped in that haze of sunny benevolence that takes certain works of art away from the field of objective criticism (or even enjoyment) into the realm of admiration-by-default. "One Love" is so universally loved and uncritically adored that it almost seems that there's nothing to say about it...

Which is fine, really. It's ultimately a song so simple and yet so gorgeous, so full of hope and beauty, that silence might well be the best way to approach it. Or, of course, singing along with it. If music differs from other forms of art in that it is ultimately communal, if an artist's work is irretrievably tied to the people who consume it, then this is about as high as the art of music climbs. If any song deserves to be considered a 'treasure of mankind', this one does. It may be an expression of belief in a very tiny religious movement indigenous to a very tiny island, but somehow it's universal. People knowing nothing about Rastafarianism or Jamaica can still find themselves in this music, can still find joy and uplift: the equalising power of music. Bob Marley, a Jamaican signed to a British record label and a symbol for people in pretty much every country of the world, was a global phenomenon in a way an American act simply couldn't be at the time (until "Thriller", at least).

Of course, by the very nature of its existence, this song is a political statement. Its idealism is political, but for all of its cheeriness, the lyrics are primarily about judgement, about condemnation. Even if they weren't, though, the song would still be about empowerment: about the small having power over the large, about the weak having power over the strong. The song is about unity, and the inherent power of unity. Bob Marley's lyrics may say nothing about that, but the message still remains strong and clear.

To the point that it's still there even if you choose to tune it out entirely. As political as Bob Marley inevitably was, there's no need to have a political bent to enjoy this music: it basks in a sunshine of its own making. It is an irrepressibly optimistic good-time song that lets in no rainclouds. It's all but impossible to be cynical about this song. It represents, and evokes, all that is good about life on earth. What else does that?

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procul Harum (1967)

I'll never be a church-goer. I just don't have it in me. But I acknowledge that in shutting myself off from religious experience, there is an aspect to the appreciation of music that I also, if not quite shut myself off from, at least limit myself access to. I can listen to the best of gospel or sufi music and feel something real – but undoubtedly something less, or at least different to, what believers experience. Not quite ecstasy. Secular people have to find ecstacy somewhere else.

It's not quite ecstasy that this song offers. It's not quite the meditative trance or the reverent awe. It's a little bit of all three, though. Procul Harum's first recorded effort, the organ-and-gibberish epic “Whiter Shade of Pale” has nothing much to do with traditional religion. Nothing in popular music in the 1960s, or the 1950s or 1940s before it, did. It would still be a few years before Jesus started appearing in pop songs like “Spirit in the Sky” or “Put Your Hand in the Hand”, and this is just as secular as anything by the Beatles before it. The lyrics seem to have more to do with seasickness than anything found in a church. Yet, to me – this is what religion sounds like. Or rather religion at its best. If I had a religion, the halls of its holy houses would ring out with music like this. Lindsay Buckingham calls it 'classical soul music', and it's that too: a perfect mixture of European classical grace and American popular music feeling, thus in both cases reverting back, pincer-like, through European pipe-organ liturgies and African-American folk spirituals, to religious experiences anyway. The organ line is apparently cobbled together from various classical pieces anyway. It sounds like it. But it also sounds more than a little like the hazy confusion of the lyrics, it sounds like accessing only a tiny bit of something much greater but seing awed by it nonetheless. It sounds profound, it sounds knowledgeable. It sounds like greatness. Whatever else, it sounds indescribably beautiful. And ageless, too. Though you get the sense that it truly is from 1967, from the so-called 'Summer of Love' where people were otherwise convincing themselves that their-less-than-stellar musical efforts were in some way the pinnacle of art, this quiet and understated piece feels like it could fit in any era, really.

Or any dimension, too. I don't happen to believe in heaven, but I have no problems convincing myself that such a place would nonetheless be filled with music. And much of it would sound like this.

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Saturday, June 5, 2010

"Luka" by Suzanne Vega (1987)

Is it really possible for an artist to release one of the worst songs in the world and one of the best songs in the world on the same album – in fact, back-to-back as the first two tracks? Well, if you're a New York folkie, undeniably talented yet sadly precious, clever yet too-clever-by-half, sensitive and senseless, it's possible. In short, if you're Suzanne Vega, it's possible.

They like to talk about the evolution of pop (or 'rock') lyrics in the 1960s, how Bob Dylan led music away from the so-called 'moon in June' style of lyrics to something more powerful. Superficially, that's true – but all I can say is that there are different types of 'power'. There were certainly moving lyrics before Dylan, and Dylan operated on a plateau that, while stunning, perhaps didn't always offer the most direct access to the listener's heart. I don't think Dylan would see that as the point.

One of the many things that good lyrics can do is tell truths that can't be told in a spoken voice: when wedded correctly to melody, well-written words can take on a second layer of meaning entirely absent otherwise. This is why poetry and lyric writing, while obviously related arts, are ultimately distinct.

The jangling guitars, those closely-miced drums, that keyboard-imitating-a-marimba that serves as the main instrument – all these things put the song unquestionably in the mid-80s. Without them, Suzanne Vega might just be any folkie-out-of-time. But I don't know if folkies were actually brave enough before Suzanne Vega to stare child abuse in the face like this, unflinching, courageous.

It's easy to be preachy about child abuse, to condemn the abusers and to turn the victims into faceless charity cases: soapbox stuff. Don't get me wrong: I like my righteous indignation as much as the next person, but this is something altogether more impressive: written from the perspective of the abused child, the lyrics make every effort to hide the abuse, to apologise for the abusers, to say 'it's no big deal' – all clearly illustrating without ever needing to directly say just how big a deal it clearly is. Suzanne Vega's plainspoken delivery underlines this. This is no heart-swelling, overwrought performance. This is something altogether more subtle, and as a result more direct. It's all very moving.

The other thing that makes this different from, and truer than, a more ham-fisted approach to the topic is the fact that there's no resolution. As the song ends, Luka's not been saved from his destiny, the parents (about whom we know nothing really) haven't gotten their just desserts, no victory has been proclaimed. All you get is Luka's desperate cry to be left alone: 'just don't ask me how I am'. Those neighbours' doors will continue to hide scenes of torment and torture. All Suzanne Vega has done is remind us that such things really do happen.

And yet, a mere reminder is sometimes the most powerful thing you can give.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Funkytown" by Lipps, Inc. (1980)

“Funkytown” proves something very rarely considered but widely accepted: that a strong composition absolutely transcends genre and era. “Funkytown” is one of those very rare things in music: a universal. What I mean by that is that, technically, it's a late-era disco/pop cross-over, and technically it is from that grey area between the 70s and the 80s (chronologically, I mean: though sonically that's appropriate too), having been released in January 0f 1980. But none of that matters: I have a feeling that if you played it in the roughest C&W honky-tonk bar, somehow it would be accepted and loved. Why? Well, one thing about the song is how completely unassuming it is: not a drop of attitude or bad vibes. It's just a simple, breezy pop song with no agenda whatsoever. So no reason to dislike it, right? More importantly though: it's just a well-crafted song, packed with incident. It has that timeless keyboard riff, it has those guitars in the chorus. It had a chorus, and verses, and linking bits, and it progresses from one part to another with an indisputable logic. It was catchy and it was fun. It wasn't wildly funky, but it had a touch of the funk – enough to justify the title anyway. Still, it made people feel funky while listening to it, and it's one of those songs that lets people dance as badly, and un-self-consciously, as they want: without delving too heavily into cliché, it does take people to... well, to a place where music is fun and you can enjoy it without pretense.

It fit, decades later, into the sountrack of a cartoon, Shrek 2, with absolutely no difficulty whatsoever. With nothing changed or updated, it was suddenly a 21st century kids' song. And why not? All things to all people, there is nothing “Funkytown” can't be, no shape of a hole this square peg won't fit effortlessly into.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Crazy in Love" by Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z (2003)

Jay-Z and Beyoncé actually made two back-to-back wonderful songs at the time: I have a soft spot for “'03 Bonnie and Clyde”, but the sad fact is that it consists of a 2Pac song whose lyrics the duo clearly didn't understand and a Prince song whose lyrics they clearly didn't understand. It's like they Googled 'girlfriend' and made a track out of the songs that showed up. But it's a hip-hop song built around an acoustic guitar riff, and how cool is that?

No acoustic guitars in this song, mind you: none of that soft-focus hippie stuff at all. If pop is meant to be bold and brassy, than this is a pop masterpiece. Scientists need to be studying this song, in order to discover the effortless way that the energy Beyoncé and the production team bring to it gets transferred, across radio waves and speaker wires, to the listener. As methods of energy distribution go, it's way more effective than a world of pipelines or power cables. I think this song could wake people from comas and put wheelchair-bound grandmas on the dancefloor. Not only is it infectious, but it's actually generous with its energy and sunny positivity, as if Beyoncé were strutting down the street in the middle of a parade, throwing armfuls of energy at the passers-by. There is no darkness here, no moodiness or aggression: it's just a celebration of love, of happiness and of positivity.

And it does so with one of the weirdest backing tracks I could imagine: an over-the-top horn sample looped into infinity, a cowbell-heavy rhythm loop that sounds like it's come from some island dance party. I think one of the main ways that the music – or at least the pop music – of the past decade will be remembered is through its willingness to create songs, and insanely catchy songs, out of the weirdest combinations of musical detritus. It's music designed for people who load their iPods with all manner of different kinds of songs and then listen to them on 'shuffle' mode. This is what pop music is today: an iPod on shuffle mode, condensed into a single song. Which is what makes it so great, and why for me the first decade of the 21st century is one in which the songs that were the most popular very frequently also happened to be the ones that were the best.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Thank You for Talking to Me, Africa" by Sly and the Family Stone (1971)

What is funk? I think it's one of those things that aren't really easily defined, but when you encounter it, you know it. Obviously, James Brown holds the patent. Even if funk wasn't entirely a one-man creation, certainly he's the touchstone from which all funk derives. His journey from soul man to funk viruoso in the late sixties and early seventies is an inspiring and awesome one.

But I think you could argue that it's not actually the most illustrative journey into funk. For that, one needs to turn to Sylvester Stewart. Stewart, who rechristened himself Sly Stone, was a music insider in San Francisco, working behind the scenes, before launching his own career. It's interesting to think that such a charismatic frontman originally kept himself out of the limelight. It's seen as revelatory that his band, the Family Stone, was mixed-race. I'm not so sure that it is, really. After all, you can't hear skin colour on a CD, and I don't even know – or care to know – whether it was the drummer or the keyboardist who was white. You know, whatever. What does matter, at least for the early years of the Family Stone, was the way their music arguably fused what was popular in 'white music' and what was popular in 'black music' – in the 60s, they weren't very distinct things either, with all kinds of cross-pollination, but Sly and the Family Stone played just as readily on 'R&B' stations as on 'rock' stations.

More importantly, they were jubilant. Ecstatic. Happy, carefree music: righteous, yes, but righteous in an idealistic way. Positivity, in music and in message.

Things got a bit different with 'Thank You (Falletinme be Mice Elf Agin)', the unfortunately retardedly-titled song that forms the linchpin between 'early' Sly and 'late' Sly. It's somehow upbeat and downbeat at the same time. It's somewhere between the sunny-optimism of the hippie-era sixties and the more strident realism of the more radical early seventies. And, just as importantly, it's still sixties pop, but it's becomeing a deeper and deeper funk: just listen to that bass. That's funk. That's where James Brown lives.


After that single, Sly and the Family Stone apparently fell intol a drug-induced haze that made it tough as nails to actually get an album released. It took a few years – which was a few lifetimes back then – for them to produce There's a Riot Goin' On, with its iconic, red-white-and-black American flag cover. The fifty stars have been replaced by suns, but there's nothing sunny here. This is deep, dark stuff. To say it's drug-induced is missing the point: of course it's drug-induced. So was everything they did in the sixties. Just different drugs. Or, perhaps, different reactions.

This album takes funk into, arguably, a deeper and darker place than James Brown ever went. And the highlight, the centrepiece, is a rerecorded version of that very single. This time, it's seven minutes long, slow, narcotic, messy, but undeniably funky as hell. Whatever Sly and the Family Stone were on, it wasn't peace-and-love pills. But that doesn't make this music depressing: it's not. What it is is intoxicating, addictive... the bass played by Larry Graham is so effortlessly funky that it's stunning. He's not doing much here, but whatever 'funk' is, he's exuding it with every slap of a bass string. Everything else is merely wrapped around that amazing bass, and it's all as sloppy as possible: it's still a communal sing-along, but no one is listening to each other really. The guitars are not exactly chicken-sctratch, but they are abrasive: not musical at all, really. And all over the place...

How does this song work? With its messy and depressing constituent parts that barely cohere, how can the result be so affirming, so exciting and so thrilling? Well, whatever funk is, I suppose it is at its core truly a mystery. Or a form of magic, maybe.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

"Präludium" by Jay (1997)

You know, it may be true that there are a certain number of songs whose praise is universal enough to be considered 'objectively' great songs. I'll never go wrong, or find people who disagree with me, if I fill his blog with the likes of 'Strawberry Fields Forever' or 'That's All Right Mama'. And they have their place here too, but ultimately this is my list, and the only criterion that matters is whether or not I like it. So that can lead to songs as obscure as this one.

I don't really know anything about this. It comes from a Def Jam release, so it's not exactly an obscure indie thing. The album also includes LL Cool J and Warren G on it, so again... seemingly high profile. But try finding anyone who's ever heard of it.

It's called The Rapsody Overture, and the terrible pun of the title comes from the fact that it's a various artists record of hip-hop / classical crossover stuff. Potentially horrible stuff, and a good amount of the songs on it are pretty bad. This one, however, is something the others aren't. Or rather, it isn't something the others are: overblown and ostentatious. Most of the other rappers on the collection seem to have felt that 'opera', or 'classical music' more generally, meant an exotic and wailing variation on the 'female voice to sing the chorus' cliché, with cheesy synthesised approximations of the musical score as background music. And then business as usual rapping over the top.

It's by Jay, and I have no idea who that is... it's not Jay-Z, who got his start at tround this time, but I have no information at all on him, and he's afforded two tracks back-to-back on this collection. Anyway, Jay takes Bach's Präludium #1 in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, the piece that would later become Ave Maria, as his starting point. It's not a symphonic piece, and it's not an opera piece. It's a two-minute long composition for piano (there also feature strings, probably synthesised, that may or may not appear in Bach's original; anyway they're understated). Beautiful, yes, but more importantly: simple. Understated, in fact. Jay takes this two-minute piano piece and, amazingly, resists the urge to pile stuff on top. A simple beat, slow, and his rapping. The track peters out as Bach does, and that in itself is remarkable: who's ever heard of a two-minute rap song?

Jay finds a kind of pathos in Bach's piece. He tells it as a story of two childhood friends who have fallen on wrong sides of gang warfare, and the narrator is tipping off his former friend, as a final favour, that he's 'getting touched'. Bach gives this tale a mournful, wistful finality. There's no anger, no resentment, no aggression. Not even regret: just a quiet, resigned tip-off and goodbye, in the same breath. Bach's piece has a beautiful ending, and Jay's song ends the same way, with a simple melodic turn and a satisfying resolution of the song's principal chord: a tiny ray of sunshine, perhaps, but a bittersweet one. The illusion of happiness, or peace, perhaps. Truth be told, there's none here. The best possible solution is that the childhood friend disappears, never to be seen again.

Gang culture is so mythologised partly because it is brutal barbarism dressed up in the must cultured of clothing. There's a reason gang life associates itself with the arts, with high culture, and there's a reason we find ourselves attracted to the accompanying dichotomy. In avoiding histrionics and going for simple, naked grace, Jay alone on this Def Jam vanity project understands.

A note: I found, a few weeks ago, much to my pleasure, that someone had uploaded this song onto YouTube. It racked up barely more than 1000 views. Now, YouTube is swimming with copyright violations. Huge uploads with millions of views use popular mainstream songs without permission, and get away with it. Here, this barely-viewed upload of an obscure song that is almost certainly out of print anyway... It's the one that gets yanked for copyright issues. Sigh. I have no idea why. But as I've already composed this entry, it'll go ahead. In its place, I present "Ach So Fromm", the other Jay contribution to the soundtrack. And my disappointment at UMG's pointless behaviour.

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

"Everyday" by Buddy Holly (1957)

There is a list waiting to be made of history's best-ever b-sides. While 95% of all singles have filler on the b-side, there is the odd case where a great a-side is accompanied by a great b-side, or where the b-side is actually better than the a-side. Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue" is justifiably famous and iconic, being a simple enough vehicle for Holly's hiccupping overlaid with some of the most amazingly propulsive percussion on a rock-and-roll song and a creative guitar solo. But flip it over, and you get this.

What is this? Well, it's a lullaby, a fragment of a dream. Such a simple and elegant song that it feels like it would shatter to a million pieces if you dropped it. Wistful and filled with memories of a time long gone, but in this case not an artificial-sepia forced recollection of sock hops and ice cream parlours but something more genuine: a simpler time, the innocence of childhood. Or maybe that's just my memories of the movie Stand by Me talking.

There's an acoustic guitar and an upright bass here. But what really matters are the other two musical ingredients: that heavenly celesta, that confidently carries the entire song, building its etherealness on, contradictorily, a steady foundation. It's not the most versatile of instruments, but here it gives the song all the qualities I cherish it for: its dream-state, its gentleness. The 'percussion' is apparently Buddy Holly's drummer slapping his legs. Not artful, certainly, but it suits the song just fine: a heartbeat, a pulse. It keeps the rhythm and does nothing else.

Buddy Holly's lyrics are certainly not very profound. Simple love stuff, witnh a reference to a roller coaster. But his vocal performance is beautiful, entirely fitting the mood, hiccups and all, and carrying a melody that makes perfect sense, flowing with a very particular logic that still doesn't diminish the album's dream-state. A tiny little moment of peace and quiet, one to cherish in the privacy of your own solitude.

(Note: it does bug me that the title of this song proves people have been confusing 'everyday' and 'every day' for half a century now...)

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Birthday" by the Sugarcubes (1987)

I am about to make a confession that throws into disrepute whatever credibility I might have had as a reviewer of music: alone on the entire planet, I was worried when I heard that the Sugarcubes had broken up that Björk might not be able to hack it as a solo artist. Ludicrous, I realise, that while the rest of the world (who had heard of them back then) called out, 'thank God she's gotten rid of those albatrosses', I worried that... I don't know, without Einar Örn's famously annoying Fred Schneider-like interjections, Björk might be lost. Shrug. I was the only person in my high school of that opinion, if I can test your credibility by actually claiming that enough people in an Ontario high school knew of the Sugarcubes to hold discussions about them.

Let me further test your credibility by telling you how I first heard the Sugarcubes: in signing up for a Columbia House subscription, where they offered 8 albums for a penny or something, on a whim I wrote down the name of a band I'd never heard a note of before, with the album that had a silly multi-coloured cover with crudely drawn genitalia. I knew only that the band was Icelandic. I guess that was enough to catch my attention.

When the albums came in the mail, I can remember my reaction to this completely unknown quantity. It seems relatively tame now, but to me at the time, this album made Iceland seem like a very, very foreign - and beautiful - place (Sigur Rós would do the very same for other people in later years, I imagine, as would volcano pictures these days...).

The album is far from perfect. It startes to get a bit repetitive towards the end, and of course Einar Örn grates like fingernails on a million chalkboards. It's not a classic album. But this...

This is gorgeous, fantastic, shimmering, enchanting... I can't imagine anyone not falling head over heels in love with Björk after hearing this, which for my money remains all these years later her best recorded performance. Of course, it's the English version I was familiar with, being on that Columbia House album, though the Icelandic version probably has the advantage of better singing on Björk's part. But then you miss out on the lyrics... well, no big deal. It's nonsense about a five year old girl and her fifty-year-old friend. A lot of gibberish sounding like the poetry of a person who speaks little English. It all goes to hell in the amazing chorus, which is entirely wordless anyway. It consists of Björk grunting out a melody with an intensity that (a) belies her stature and (b) has little to do with a five-year-old who smoke cigars and keeps spiders in her pocket. What it is is a short-circuit to a very specific emotional place, one furthered by the slightly woozy instrumental background (and the trumpet that obscures Einar Örn's mouth, preventing him from speak-singing). It's an emotional place that manages to be very dark and light at the same time - innocence with underpinnings of sinister intent. Perhaps the conflation of a five-year-old's feelings (played well by Björk, who has a permanent lifeline to childhood anyway) with the feelings of the kind of fifty-year-old who befriends five years old.

I have no idea. I lot of this song is a mystery, including the way it comes to a rapid ending with a few dum-dum-dums and then an immediate dissolution. It's beautiful and enchanting, yes, but it's also a tough act to follow and seems to require about half a minute of silence following it for... quiet reflection, I guess.

Reflection of how misguided your preconceptions of music have been, perhaps. To have presumed that music could not exist on this emotional level, and certainly not with vocals that are alternately wordless and meaningless (or in a foreign language, depending on which version you go for).

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Tomorrow Never Knows" by the Beatles (1966)

You know, there are few things in this life less interesting than reading people prattle on about the Beatles. The tendency to present the Beatles as something special, unique, unprecedented and in all categories distinct as opposed to a very, very good band that made a lot of good music for a few years has, in my opinion, backfired. Your average punter feels he can’t appreciate the Beatles the same way he might appreciate, say, the Who. I mean, I half feel that I need to create a special ‘directory’ when uploading them onto my MP3 player, for Christ’s sake.

The thing is, though, bravado and marketing aside, the Beatles were pretty amazing. There are at least a dozen Beatles songs that deserve a rightful place here, and presumably we’ll get to them all sooner or later. This one, not a single or even a song you ever hear much on the radio, is the concluding track on “Revolver”, without a doubt their finest album. From start to finish, there’s a total of maybe two or three songs that merely good, not exemplary. No hyperbole.

This one… well, this is John Lennon tripping out on LSD and reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Forgetting Aldous Huxley rhetoric for a minute, it’s all very Buddhist – Lennon apparently even wanted chanting monks on the track. Strange, though, that this is the Beatles as Buddhists, because instead of being calm and meditative, it is an unholy din from start to finish.

I can’t imagine what EMI must have thought when they heard the cacophony of seagull squalls, backwards guitars, lumpen misshaped drums and (most brilliantly) a one-note bass line. How cool is that? On top of all of that is Lennon clearly not going gently into the good night, shrieking into a chasm of echo. This is good-trip as bad-trip, or someone who can’t see the difference between the two or doesn’t care.

Apparently the mess of sounds in this track came to be through tape loops brought in by each member (the seagulls apparently Paulie laughing) – so in a sense this is a democratic “Beatles composition”, but it’s impossible to imagine it coming from the mind of anyone but John Lennon. I dislike the notion that has become established ‘truth’ that Lennon had all the talent and McCartney had all the white teeth – Lennon made his fair share of crap and McCartney more than his share of genius. But it is a different type of genius, and I don’t think Paul ever could have found beauty in what is deliberately ugly quite to this extent – even if he was the first one making avant-garde musique concrete. They were just too different. What Paul made was also brilliant, but I don’t know whether it was ever quite as… for lack of a less-clichéd word, provocative.

Nor, mind you, were Oasis, a band that tried to get rich off of Lennon-deification to the point of actually covering this song, a band that wouldn’t recognise unbridled genius of this nature if it bit them on the ass…
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Saturday, April 10, 2010

"Being Boring" by the Pet Shop Boys (1990)

The Pet Shop Boys, let there be no doubt, are wonderful. You could easily fill a blog with 'the best Pet Shop Boys songs in the world... ever'. By any useful standard, they should be heralded and worshipped up there with 'the greats' – your Led Zeppelins, your Beatles, etc. As it is, they risk a complete slide into obscurity. Why? I think that, to a certain level, their success has also been their failure. Ironic detachment is a great novelty, a kind of parlour trick that wows them at first but then leaves them a little bored, and with a bit of a bitter aftertaste in their mouths. Irony is a great art that has added a lot to our culture, but I think that generally speaking it needs to be applied sparingly. The M.O. of the Pet Shop Boys, generally, is Neil Tennant's usually arch, usually monotonous vocals singing invariably literate, witty and clever lyrics over synth-pop spiked with dance music of whatever genre happens to be currently fashionable. It's a pretty genius formula, really – and it's nowhere near as repetetive as it might seem. There's plenty of room for variation in this format.

The overall feel is often a dichotomy between current musical trends and a kind of aesthetic that goes all the way back to the 1940s – or even the flapper era. Like obvious role models like Cole Porter, Neil Tennant is aware that irony and that smirk on the lips only tell half the tale: they disarm, lowering defenses in order to let the truly emotional, the sentimental, in. Neil Tennant is not afraid to pull heartstrings, but he rarely does it. This makes it all the more special when he does.

The heartstrings get pulled in every direction on this song, frequently considered the Pet Shop Boys' very best – or, more grandly, the 'best song ever'. To start with, the song is a master of minor-key wistfulness, its slow fade-in and not-ostentatious wah-wah backdrop setting the mood for thoughtful contemplation, for a reflective consideration of what, and who, has been lost. This is a lament not only to friends and loved ones lost to AIDS but to a childlike innocence lost not only to AIDS as well but also to the simple ravages of age. The wistfulness is borne of the realisation that the years Tennant so lovingly describes are irrevocably gone – and so they are remembered not only with fondness but with a defiant pride. Neil Tennant remembers those lost years as true glory years, a time of reaching for greatness. Implicit in the sadness of this recollection is the notion that one rarely attempts to reach for greatness after a certain age – or at least not if crippled by the constant disappearance of loved ones.

This is not the kind of message you usually encounter in a pop song, and 'Being Boring' truly is no pop song. It is rather something more serious and sedate than that. It has a beat (and that wah-wah again) that makes it theoretically danceable, but it's all but impossible to imagine a dance floor responding to its waves of emotion. In fact, the dance beats of this song act as another echo of the past – the foot scuffs left on a now-empty dancefloor.

This perhaps explains why this 'sleeper', which is one of the Pet Shop Boys' most beloved songs some twenty years later, only went as high as #20 at the time. We don't always want to be confronted with naked emotion, sentimentality and an aching sense of loss. Which is why we remember Neil Tennant for that ironic, arch smirk.

When we remember him at all.
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Saturday, April 3, 2010

"You Don't Own Me" by Lesley Gore (1964)

What a curious thing Lesley Gore is. Or rather, her recorded works. From the perspective of 'analyses of the relationships between boys and girls', you could put together a whole Ph. D. dissertation from merely reading her lyrics.

Lesley Gore was a teen singer in the 1960s who recorded her first hit at 16 years old. Her music (and her hair) is very much of the pre-Beatles 1960s, and much of it is disposable fluff. Of course, she wasn't a songwriter: primarily, she puppeted the words put in her mouth my men much older and much maler than her. So the fact that Lesley Gore came out as gay long after her glory days doesn't mean very much in consideration of these boy-crazy lyrics; if anything, all it provides is a certain ironic distance from these lyrics.

Lesley Gore's first 'classic' hit, 'It's My Party', isn't that noteworthy, really. The tale of a girl betrayed by her boyfriend on her birthday, it's a cute enough sob story that says little about male/female relations. Its follow-up, 'Judy's Turn to Cry', however, is a shining example of all that's backwards about 1960s gender politics: in it, 'Johnny' comes back to our heroine, and is of course welcomed back with open arms. The spiteful laughs fall squarely on the shoulders of Judy, the temptress who wooed Johnny away. Johnny here bears no fault for cheating on his girlfriend: he's merely the grand prize in a bitchfest between the evil harpy Judy and the sweet singer of the song.

It gets worse: 'That's the Way Boys Are' excuses her boyfriend's leery, unfeeling and abusive behaviour as merely an unavoidable consequence of his gender. 'Maybe I Know' explains away and defends her boyfriend's adultery: despite his deceit, he loves me. I know he cheats on me, 'but what can I do?' All Lesley Gore is left to do in this rather horrible tale of female powerlessness and tolerance of male indiscretions is hope that 'maybe one day he'll settle down'.

So how to explain the present fabulous song? Musically, it's gorgeous: mid-tempo, with strings tastefully hiding behind some kind of echoed idiophone, a large room with minimal decoration, leaving plenty of space for an 18-year old to combine youth and experience in a pretty powerful vocal performance that keeps the words the centre of attention.

And the words are amazing: impressive even today, downright radical for 1964. It's a brilliant declaration of independence from a girl with an overly controlling boyfriend. The message is clear, and stated in a masterfully direct language that loses none of its poetry or power through its simplicity and directness: don't treat me as if you own me; you don't. One can imagine the singer tearing into this guy in righteous indignation after being on the recieving end of one command too many.

The song (written, surprisingly yet unsurprisingly, by two men) is all the more impressive in light of the 'boys are animals; what can we do?' theme of Gore's other hits. It was held to #2 by 'I Want to Hold Your Hand', the song that heralded the dawn of Beatlemania. So as the Beatles were radically rewriting generational relations, this little salvo for gender equality played its own part in the changes that were in the air.
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Saturday, March 27, 2010

"High School Confidential" by Rough Trade (1980)

It can be hard sometimes being a Canadian. Especially in the knowledge that your most famous celebrity exports to the world tend to be manufactured MOR (Celine Dion, Shania Twain) or manufactured 'alternative' (Alanis Morrisette, Avril Lavigne). It certainly gives the world the impression that Canada has little to offer except for bland dumbing-down genericisations of American music.

But to hell with all that. We have Carole Pope.

The most effortlessly cool person on the planet, Carole Pope was the lead singer for Rough Trade in the late seventies and early eighties. They're all but forgotten now, but back in the day... they were something special.

"High School Confidential" is their most well-known track and, though they have a handful of greats, their best. I must admit the Rough Trade catalogue is a bit threadbare and some of it hasn't aged well. But this? Well, this is something special.

Musically, it's definitely an early-eighties keyboard-fest. The best thing about the music is that strutting -tempo. It's an enjoyable construct, with a decent synth-riff, but it's irrelevant. It's Carole Pope that matters. Throughout the song, she lays on that paradoxical mixture of cool detachment and passion that only she can do so well. She's telling a story long told - of a sexually attractive high school girl who knows she's attractive and knows exactly what advantages that affords her. The strut of the rhythm I mentioned is the strut she affects walking down the corridor. The song practically gives off steam, not just from the hot chick but more importantly from Carole Pope's combination of helpless submission to the girl's charms and seething jealousy of them. All under the guise of distant observer.

1980 was fully thirty years ago now, and it seems ridiculous to talk about how groundbreaking it was to write a song from an openly lesbian perspective. Apparently the song was intended to confuse and not be overt, and I can remember my father, even though I was only five, trying to figure out the sexual ambiguity in the song. It doesn't seem very ambiguous to me, and didn't even then. 30 years changes a lot, and now the expression of desire from one female to another seems less surprising than the forthright way it's expressed in this song. But that in itself is still, well, if not surprising than at least compelling. Certainly getting a song this direct onto the radio was an accomplishment, and I think its legacy survives in a much more open mindset these days. I think you can draw a pretty direct line from this to, say, Peaches. And where I don't say Peaches couldn't have existed without Carole Pope, I do think she might have been less conventionally accepted, at least up here in Canada.

Carole Pope couldn't kill off the Celines and Avrils. But she helped create a climate where people of real worth and integrity (not to mention coolness) can exist alongside them. Even if no one outside of Canada ever hears them.
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Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space" by Spiritualized (1997)

Jason Pierce should have known better. If you let your first band use a syringe as its logo and use "taking drugs to make music to take drugs to" as its motto, it's going to be tough to convince people that your second band represents something different.

So when his group Spiritualized releaed the album that this song serves as opening track, title track and main title theme for, "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space" in an album package that resembled a packet of prescription medicine, it was generally percieved as 'Jason Pierce returns to drug chic' - at least, by people who never bothered to listen to the album, or only listened to the lyrics.

To me, and maybe I'm just an optimist or an idealist here, this album - which I'd put in my personal top five of 'best albums ever' - is nothing as tacky as 'music to take drugs to'; it's packaged as it is because it aims to do what prescription medicine can: it aims to soothe, to medicate, to heal... If you think that sounds overwrought, you're right. But I believe that Jason Pierce genuinely believes in the power of music to heal. If not for the listener, at least for himself: apparently things were bad, romantically, for Pierce while recording this album, as his keyboardist and girlfriend Kate Radley married the verve's Richard Ashcroft, and Jason Pierce turned to heavier and heavier drugs to numb the pain. But, of course, the drugs don't work. Does the music?

Well, I can't say that this album has ever healed leukemia or herpes. But I can attest that, in a pitch black, empty, silent room at night, this album has the ability to alter moods significantly - to relax, to uplift, to transport. There exist in this album all kinds of emotional responses, but throughout there is a recurring haunting, spectral beauty that I find entrancing. I wasn't originally going to pick the title track, but then I realised it's not just the keynote of the album but also the piece I keep returning to in my head.

Launching into life with a female voice muttering the "Sophie's World"-referencing title and ending with a 'bleep' like a heart rate monitor, this song builds up, layer by layer, like a kids song done in 'rounds' a la 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat'. Famously, the Elvis people would allow him to interpolate "Can't Help Falling in Love" (so he merely evokes it by pseudo-plagiarising it), but even still there are several independent melodies riding on top of each other here. It creates a slowly-pulsating wall of sound that, unlike Phil Spector's dins, encourages you to focus in on individual bits of it and swim through its layers of sound at your own pace, picking up what you like an discarding the rest. If you sing along to songs as you listen to them, you'll find yourself building up your own version, flipping from melody line to melody line. As such, it can't really be said to have verses and choruses, and if it went on ten minutes longer than it actually does, it probably wouldn't do anything different except go through the cycles again and again and again. But it would still be wonderful.

I mentioned Phil Spector above. One thing Jason Pierce has in common with that murderous producer is that neither are embarrassed at all to make music that's unabashedly big. The scope of this music - which has nothing to do with prog and little to do with bombast - is at times amazing. This is 16:9 music, and even when he fails (as much as I love the album, it has many weak points), he earns top marks for setting the bar high. Few people truly believe in music as much as Jason Pierce does, though listening to this album and its lighter-than-air title track can convince you too.
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Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Fools Gold" by the Stone Roses (1989)

'Madchester', they called it. They also, equally stupidly, called it 'baggy'. What was 'it'? Well, a new genre of music emerging from the UK, land of the micro-genre, in the late eighties. What did it consist of? Well, as people would tell it, it was a synthesis of indie and dance, fused together with ecstasy. It was, I could add, terribly exciting to me as a fourteen-year-old. Too young to go to raves yet, but old enough to be excited by the concept of raves, the whole inclusive touchy-feely vibe that emanated from Manchester, or rather that emanated from press reports about Manchester, made me feel that music was finally getting exciting and fun, and finally convinced me to stop listening to depressing music. Just in time for puberty.

Now, there are plenty of people who would sooner give up their first-born sons than give up their aging, scratched vinyl copy of the Stone Roses' début album. It is one of those super-highly-praised albums that only comes along every few years or so – and among those albums, one of the few to have absolutely no backlash or vocal opponents. There are anti-Ian Brown types, anti-John Squire types, anti-the-second-album types (okay, that's the vast majority of the world)... but no one will ever diss that album. And neither will I: it's remarkable.

But what I don't really get, listening to it all these years later, is quite what it has to do with the coalescing scene I discuss. Quite what it has to do with 'dance', or with the Happy Mondays' more assured steps toward dancability or, especially, with 'Screamadelica' (not actually from Manchester but somehow the pinnacle of that city's movement), I don't know. It's a great album, but it's high on the indie and low on the dance. For that, you have to look to this: a concurrent single-only release, “Fool's Gold” is what got the airplay, here in Toronto at least.

What is it? Indeed... what is it, exactly? Well, to start with, it's ten minutes long: not the most commercial length for a single. It got hacked to bits for the benefit of antsy radio programmers, but it's the full ten-minute version that matters – even though it's just minutes and minutes of wah-wah that gets clipped off. The component bits here are: all kinds of percussion, an amazingly evocative 'lead bass', all kinds of wah-wah metallic guitar scraping noises all over the place, and somewhere in the back, vocals unobtrusively whispered and impossible to decipher. I have no idea who these four musicians are, but it's tough to believe they're the four who put together the album as well. At some point in the studio, they were possessed, I guess. By, er, the Gods of Funk or someone. I don't know. I do know that this incredibly sexy, intoxicating swagger of a song feels very little like anything else the Stone Roses did (not to disparage either, as both are wonderful) except for the consistency of Ian Brown's whispering non-vocals.

This is the sound of people who know next to nothing about dance music suddenly tapping into its purest essence and, somehow, delivering it perfectly. And put on a dancefloor populated by indie kids, it had the power twenty years ago and still has the power today to transfer that miraculous essence to the listeners. More people have danced badly to this song than any other. Yet who has ever cared? You can't dance self-consciously to this song, and you can't dance to it in a way to 'be seen'. This is a ten minute opportunity to merely connect with the song, and with the other confused people on the floor, and simply feel it. Regardless of how ridiculous you may look.

Once the song abruptly falls apart at the end and the DJ puts something else on, you can feel the blood rush to your face again as you recall who you are and who you're with and where you are... you can go back to being an 'I-can't-dance' wallflower... just as the four Stone Roses themselves went back to indie rock music. But for these ten minutes? It all connects. It all makes sense.
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Saturday, March 6, 2010

"All That I Got is You" by Ghostface Killah feat. Mary J. Blige (1996)

Why is is that violins are able to push the limit between sentimental and maudlin so? The simple eight-bar sample of piano and strings, taken from a Jackson 5 song and played over and over and over, ought to be a sentimentality overdose. It ought to be tacky. Yet somehow it pierces the heart, just enough for Ghostface's words to pour in.

The Wu-Tang Clan was, in retrospect, a collection of talents so varied that some of them would never have gotten near a mic on their own (solo) merits while many of them were revolutionary in their own way. Their business plan was amazing, as was the fact that they were able to work at a pace like this - with, at its peak, a new RZA-produced release every two or three months. Obviously the quality was not 100%, but it was still remarkably high. Like most 90s hip-hop, a Wu-Tang related release would have upwards of ten songs that you'd never need to hear twice. But the remainder... if marketing considerations could ever allow for it, a real Wu-Tang 'Greatest Hits' album might just be one of the best CD collections ever. And it would most certainly have to include this song.

Ghostface, as he would ultimately shorten his name: a ghost. Something that skirts on the edges of reality, not always easy to see. On the Wu-Tang début, Ghostface Killah seems like one of the more marginal of the background players. He doesn't seem like a star at all. And in fact all these years later when he's managed to outshine any other Wu-Tang, he still doesn't seem like a star. He has a curious work ethic wherein he seems to keep recording out of a need to do so more than out of a need to be famous. His best stuff is quite subtle.

Like this curious creation: lengthy film quote, one super-long verse rapped by Ghostface start to finish with no pause or interruption, a 'verse' (if you want to call it that) sung my Mary J. Blige, some stoned babbling by an irrelevant hanger-on named 'Poppa Wu', nothing else. This process takes five and a half minutes. All that we've got in the background is that strings-and-piano sample over and over and over again. Ghostface's lyrical thrust is not quite MJB's, and neither are really complemented by Poppa Wu's, um, dissertation. It's three different songs that barely recognise each other. And one of those three is quite disposable.

Yet the result still never fails to bring out the waterworks. Ghostface's celebration of strength and resilience in the face of poverty is so heartfelt that you never for a moment doubt its autobiographical nature. Rappers are often very eloquent while speaking about their mothers, and Ghostface pays his mother a very touching tribute here.

Mary J. Blige is not playing the role of Ghostface's mother - his father leaving them is referenced only in passing, whereas it's the main point of Mary J. Blige's part. Ghostface's mother doesn't seem like the type to do drugs, whereas Mary J. Blige admits to it. I'm not sure if either party spent much time making sure they were on the same page, but it doesn't really matter. Mary J. Blige is a hell of a singer and she really performs here. This is pretty direct warts-and-all drama, tragic against the violins, where Ghostface rather brilliantly lets Blige and the strings carry the tragedy, so that his story can be truly effective while never actually using the language of tragedy. His story of strength in adversity is something that anyone who has lived with true poverty can relate to, and it ultimately says much more than Poppa Wu's 'sermon' at the end, which dissolves into a kind of stoned laughter that threatens to make a complete mockery of all that has come before, could ever hope to say.
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Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Come on Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners (1982)

There are a few songs released in 1982 that take me away to an unknown place whenever I hear them. It must be something about a child's development: I guess at age seven, a child learns to love music in a certain way that leaves an indelible stamp upon him.

Alternately it could just be that there were some kick-ass good songs released that year.

Kevin Rowland doesn't matter very much to the world. A bit self-important, really, he thought more of himself than the public-at-large did, with the result that he spent about three years at the top of his game and generations a laughing-stock.

This is, however, the top of his game. It's rare, really, that someone's best song is also their most commercially successful (in fact, in the USA, this song is pretty closely associated with the state of being a 'one-hit wonder'). Rowland's dream of integrating soul with Irish music might have been revolutionary if Van Morrison hadn't already been spending decades at it by this point, but here he gets the balance pretty good. Being 1982, somehow this song manages to sound synthesised despite being performed entirely on acoustic instruments, yet it pulls the listener along from start to finish through an amazing ride of increases and decreases in tension as well as tempo. A wonderful vocal melody shares the spotlight with those fiddles and accordion and whatever else, with a result that must have struck a 7-year-old Canadian as in many ways other-worldly while still seeming so perfectly right.

I didn't have the first clue what they lyrics were when I was seven - I just heard it as another part of the music that would occasionally call out the title before lapsing back into mere sound. Had I never read them online, I might not have known that they reference Johnnie Ray and seem to be largely about getting a girl out of her 'pretty red dress'. And frankly at 7, neither of those things would have meant much to me. It is interesting, though, that like so many touchstones from my youth that make me nostalgic to hear now, it is a nostalgia piece itself - going back to 1950s radio with 'our mothers' crying in it. Ultimately, the music is all 'retro' too. Yet that doesn't stop it from being a truly awesome piece of work - with much less 'soul' than most other Dexy's Midnight Runners songs, but somehow with all the more soul as a result.

And ultimate proof that it really doesn't matter who or what you are, how good or how pompous a musician you are: it's still possible to find that elusive thing and pin it down for three minutes or so, thus entering you a place in eternity's record books.
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