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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