09 December 2007

sparks & spears & sophie & so on (cont.)

a couple more things, still riffing on jordin sparks.

first, to correct an oversight (you might want to read the last post first if you haven't...if you care...if you dare): even though it was mentioned on the teenpop thread, i neglected to note/recognize that "see my side," which i mentioned as by far the sweetest (almost wrote sweedest, ha) of the recent bloodshy/avant crop, was written not just by karlsson/winnberg and åhlund, but also by r. carlsson. which is of course (not me, though i am also r, carl's son!) but robyn, of robyn fame. (of whom discogs has more images than it has credits - well, under that version of her name.) (sorry tapestore - is that someone i know? - but i'm pretty sure the connection probably came via bloodshy and windbag, er, i mean, since apparently they'd already submitted the track to britney. nice thought though - let's keep working on that.)

which, come to think of it, makes perfect sense, because it has an extremely similar sensibility to robyn's heartbreaking closing trilogy, particularly "eclipse" and "anytime you like" - it's not quite as achingly gorgeous as those two, but it's close, and i can imagine robyn doing a pretty stunning rendition of it. (actually, as long as we're getting particular, robyn didn't write "eclipse" - she didn't write "robotboy" or "handle me" either; åhlund did. she does have the third co-credit on "anything you like" with two people i don't know - how significant do we think order of credits is? but the point holds.)

meanwhile, "young and in love" is (in addition to b&a and their frequent crony h. jonback) by cathy dennis, who is a bona fide legend in this game - behind hits from basically everyone in uk chartpop starting with spice girls and s club 7, peaking with kylie, and recently sugababes ("about you now" - with dr. luke!), sophie ellis-bextor ("catch you") and roisin m. (non-album tracks only) and a legit artist in her own right. her previous co-writes with b&a include rach stevens' "sweet dreams (my lax)" and, oh yeah, "toxic."

besides jordin's album, i've been following the links and connecting the dots for sophie la-bex's trip the light fantastic and for kylie's x, both of which i've only started to listen to recently, and about which i feel much greater capacity to care. which is partly because they're almost certainly better albums; partly because i have a much better sense of who sophie and kylie are, as artists and people - tho you can blame that on the no tv if you like i guess. how much those two factors are linked is a crucial question i want to get into a little bit later. anyway, trip has cathy dennis/greg kurstin (who till has no wiki entry, amazingly), pascal gabriel and hannah robinson, xenomania, the guys from sneaker pimps, the feeling, and the b-52s...though, imporantly, sophie has a co-credit on every song except the dennis/kurstin "catch you." x, with minogue credits on just over half the tracks, has dennis, hansen/jeberg, calvin harris, freemasons, karlsson/winnberg with karen poole (of alisha's attic), kurstin/minogue/poole, and, if wikipedia is to be believed, which i doubt, kurstin producing a bloodshy/avant/poole/minogue/quant co-write.

also kat mcphee's album, which in stark contrast to sparks' has no scandinavian names - and the difference is quite audible - but does have six kara dioguardi credits and six nate hills credits (five overlap.) and "open toes" is written/produced by the clutch (along with those two and kat herself), who also did "ice box," "like a boy," dave's two favorite keke palmer songs, and blackout's "radar" and "freakshow" (the latter, interestingly, britney's only writing credit on the album)... both of which are bloodshy/avant tracks, not danja tracks.

which is interesting, because it means the scandinavians electro-pop crew were working together with the american r&b crew (the clutch, which seems to be a slightly loose collective, are timbaland proteges or something; at least they include keri hilson.) though knows how directly they were working together - actually, the liners reveal that all of the bloodshy tracks were recorded partly in the states as well as in stockholm. well whatever.

it's really hard to say what any of this means.
how do these songs get written? how much of the way credits are presented is based on legal/contractual considerations that don't necessarily accurately reflect the creative process? in the vast majority of the cases i've been looking at, the producer or producers are credited as among the writers of a given song. which in plenty of cases probably makes sense, especially for sonically inventive/electronic-based music where so much of the song's essence comes from the production rather than the writing per se. but to what extent are songs usually finished before they go into the studio; or to what extent do "'songs" sometimes get fleshed out after the creation of the beats and backing arrangements (which counts as "production.")

i've been fairly focused on songwriting credits lately, in my amg pieces as well as these posts here - calling attention to it, for various reasons, in my reviews of albums by the veronicas, rachel stevens, skye sweetnam, and marit larsen - and while it makes sense as an interpretive key of sorts, it also feels strange to be so fixated on. i do feel in some ways that my interest in pop has been taking a turn for the academic ... that at least a lot of the recent stuff i've been listening to hasn't managed to excite me quite as much on a musical level as some things in the past - or, certainly, to engage me on an emotional level.

indeed, as much as i enjoyed listening to and familiarizing myself with the skye and 'ronnies albums for review - and i stand by my (respectively) generally positive and enthusiastic assessments of them - neither has shown exceptional sticking power. certainly neither has compelled me (so far anyway) to keep listening and re-examining the way rachel and marit's albums have (in both cases i came to fundamentally new shades of understanding in these most recent revisitations.) meanwhile there's been this whole series of teen-pop and dance-pop albums - most of which, admittedly, i only have as itunes playlists - that i've been enjoying, to a greater or lesser extent, but that have so far largely failed to stand out as especially distinctive. that'd include the new ones by sugababes, roisin murphy, keke palmer, ashley tisdale, amy diamond, vanessa hudgens, and the aforementioned sparks, mcphee, kylie and sophie e-b, and aly + aj (though that one is making major strides - probably shouldn't be on this list anymore.)

admittedly many of these will require more listening, though some are simply not going to be worth the effort - my overwhelming impression of a lot of this is that it's, well, overwhelming - just too much, too fast, that's all impressively good but not quite great. and though of course there are some stylistic distinctions among these various albums, i'm struggling to distinguish them more fully. so i guess i may be delving into the minutiae of credit information, in part, as a shortcut to understanding them.

but i'm also on some level trying to link these lackluster impressions to the effect of having too many cooks, as it were. as fascinating as it is to realize how incestuous and intertangled the world of mainstream pop/r&b/dance/etc. can be - especially when the behind-the-scenes players intermingle internationally (well, across scandinavia, the u.k. and the u.s.) even though the public personas often don't - it grows increasingly harder to know what to make of all this prodigious cross-collaborative output, let alone to keep the endless but recurring array of practitioners straight.

many of the albums i listed above have quite a hodge-podge of writers and producers working on various tracks, as i've sort of demonstrated in exhaustive detailed. insomniatic is a clear exception, and is decidedly stronger for it - as are the veronicas and skye album's (though the latter is pretty scattershot even with the same producers/writers on 9/12 tracks) - though it should be noted that all of these are much more pop/rock than anything else on the list, despite their dancy frills. (same goes for ashlee's two albums, primarily the work of the sorely missed simpson/dioguardi/shanks trifecta.)

some other (slightly less recent) albums that are primarily written and produced by the same people: linda sundblad's oh my god [all songs sundblad/karlsson - a different one - with a couple adding others - max martin on one, klas åhlund on "lose you"], sally shapiro's disco romance [the possibly fictional sally herself doesn't write anything, but mr. johan agebjörn wrote all but two songs and produced everything], and the work of bertine zetlitz, especially her last two albums, which were produced entirely by fred ball [aka pleasure] and written entirely by zetlitz/ball. (two people...made the whole album? is that even possible?) the shapiro album and zetlitz's rollerskating are two of my absolute favorite albums at them moment - and the sundblad's pretty great too - i'll hopefully have reviews for all three up on amg shortly.

so those are some scandinavians (there's also annie and robyn, both of whom are starting to get seriously overdue for new albums - but though they do co-write most of their material, neither of them write all of it, and both of their celebrated albums had a fair range of different producers involved, which is interesting to note in light of how auteurist their public personae tend to be.) then there's madonna's confessions on a dancefloor [all madge co-writes; all with stuart price and/or mirwais except for two bloodshy/avant tracks] and hilary duff's dignity [a handful of producers, including, hilariously, richard "humpty" vission, but 12 out of 14 cuts are by dioguardi/duff, often with the producer as a third co-credit] - both solid if not amazing, but certainly stylistically cohesive.

and then there's blackout. it's telling that this album has, by far, fewer producers (or, maybe more relevantly, fewer production teams) than any of spears' albums since her debut - either five or six, depending on how you count the clutch, but basically only two for 3/4 of the album. to recap: four tracks are produced by bloodshy and avant (two with the clutch co-producing) and five are produced by danja. that leaves one by the neptunes, one - "heaven on earth," very possibly my favorite track - with music by onetime (?) ambient electronica duo freescha and vocal production by kara dioguardi, and one - consensus weakest-link "ooh ooh baby" (though i kinda like it; possibly too bad they didn't actually sample the turtles) by dioguardi and "fredwreck" nasser, who also did something on the mcphee album. anyway, as i think i've established, it's quite cohesive sonically and consistent song-wise, and, well, it just keeps growing on me, even though my interest in it has relatively little to do with britney herself.

i'm happy to continue absenting myself from the controversy over the extent of her actual involvement, as fascinating as it is. as far as i'm concerned, as long as the job is done and done well, i'm not going to complain - and whoever it is that's behind blackout has accomplished something pretty remarkable, just by virtue of creating an album that stands out from this season's teeming pack. i will point out, however, that there is only one person listed as executive producer for this album. and that's britney, bitch.

one disclaimer, and one final question. just to be clear, i certainly wouldn't want to contend that a record needs to have a reasonably consolidated writing/production crew to work well as an album. my review of rachel stevens' come and get it - which just might be my personal yardstick for the entire genre - should make that evident enough (even though it's definitely not the album-iest album.) similarly, kylie's fever - an obvious touchstone of an '00s pop album if there ever was one - is cobbled together from a surprising array of talent (truly, surprising - i'd always assumed it wasn't so much, because the sound is so consistent, but nope.) and then, of course, i'll always have paris ... the presence of many sets of writers and producers did little to stop me from erecting a grand glittering interpretive edifice to its conceptual perfection. and i don't think i need to say any more about that.

but as a general rule - and as one would imagine - albums with fewer writers and producers do tend to hold together better as albums. the exceptions generally have some other overarching unifying element - a clear shared stylistic approach, or a front-person with enough individuality, vocal/lyrical distinctness, or sheer force of personality to make everything hold together.

so my question is this: what is the historical context for albums with songs by many different writers and producers? i know it's a longstanding pop tradition in some ways (tin-pan-alley, brill building, motown, what-have-you), but it seems like there's been a resurgence and an intensification, probably just within the last 15-20 years, and possibly increasingly over that span. it seems at least partly related to the rise of hip-hop and r&b (and even in those genres it has gotten far more pronounced - even when the black album came out it was a big deal that each track was by a different producer, which i guess would still be noteworthy today, but i think less so.) if there are discernable trends along these lines, can we link them to other trends in the nature of pop albums?

and, more broadly, what else can be said about the historical development of the pop album? admittedly, it's a somewhat academic, limited question - in pop, albums will always be secondary to singles and songs - but as both a confirmed poptimist and albumist, it speaks to a very present tension in my musical exploration, and as year-end album list time grows ever nearer, it's also timely one - and i'm gonna keep on teasing it out.


Dave said...

A bit late (Merry Christmas) but have you heard the Fred Ball Pleasure album? It is SO GOOD. I can't believe I missed it all year (technically it came out in 2006 in Norway). I'll wrap it up and send it your way.

Dave said...

I would like to demote my SO GOOD to a more sober "QUITE GOOD." Merry Day After Christmas.

Ross said...

i've actually been looking for it, all over the side of the road. i will look forward to hearing it from you. SO QUITE GOOD.

but this is off-topic.