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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