31 January 2008

in january it's so nice

mostly it's a month for playing catchup, or in whatever sense to deal with old music. because in januarys there is more or less no new music. few if any big deal new releases to speak of

[this year no bright-eyes, no strokes, no shins and of montreal; i guess the big stories were the magnetic fields' predictably accurately-titled non-return-to-form distortion - not too impressed yet, though (i hate) "california girls" is nice enough, but maybe i need to go listen to some jamc and come back to it - and vampire weekend, who seem very nice, but also seem to have enough people liking them for the time being; i'll be glad come back and like them some more in a little while. of course the biggest album released in january 2008 was radiohead's in rainbows, which i recently purchased for $9.99 - it's very nice, with cool and pretty if confusing packaging - but as we all know it's very much old news]

and even anything released in december is officially old because it's just gotten finished being endlessly included on year-end lists and recaps, or more likely not included on those things because people didn't have a chance to process it yet. so basically january is a chance to discover the music that other people were excited about the previous year, even though your enjoyment of it will inevitably carry a sort of tarnished feeling, since it will be decidedly, emphatically so last year.

in my case (and for more than a few, i'll reckon), i took a gander at that there pitchfork best of 2007 list and gaggled, huh-what is this "swedish" "pop" musics of which you speak? am i aware of these "fellow swedes" who were busy "concocting anthems for sunshine-soaked shorelines this year"? and wait whaddayamean "it was a balearic year"? uh-oh, was i listening to the wrong 2007? no, i just wasn't paying attention to p4k, rlly, what with stylus ceasing to publish and all.

anyway, so i just found out about this band the tough alliance. they took me a number of listens to "get" - and it's still sort of hard to describe their music (i said it's the intersection of swedish indie-pop, swedish synth/dancepop, and swedish spacey electronica - except they sound like they're pretending to be caribbean, or they're in the caribbean) - but they really are something pretty great and unique. i immediately wrote the official definitive biography about them, as per my job as authoritative expert on scandinavian pop music, which i mostly researched by looking at everything on the amazing sincerely yours website (that's the label they're on and run), where they assign a catalog number to everything, including mp3s, music videos, weird one-off merchandise items, and oh yeah records too. i kontakted the label and told them i liked their website, and they sent me a lovely gorgeous package with a sticker claiming it had been lost and/or damaged in the mails, but in fact that was not true, it just had copies of the tough alliance's a new chance, the honeydrips' here comes the future, air france's beach party, and jonas game's adhd. all of which are great, and which i will review soon. see, i'm as cool as pitchfork!

there's also this group studio, whom i had already heard of, and whom i haven't been listening to - in fact i passed up a copy to buy their album used (which i now regret), having heard them a bit and decided they were nothing special; fine but dispensable, atmospheric and jazzy and organic and groovy in a kind of jam band way that i have not much use for. honestly i think this is my problem with appreciating jazz; it's not that it's indulgent, i just feel like there's so much of it around that i don't need to worry about it - it's easy to come by, more of it can be easily generated, without the kind of investment and craft that goes into, for instance, pop songwriting (not that jazz doesn't involve craft, it's just a sort of craft that involves endlessly renewable well-springs), so that its value becomes hopelessly watered down. that said "life's a beach" is actually pretty sweet. (and by the way it's not jazz at all.)

mgmt, who i first encountered opening for of montreal lo these many years ago (august of 2005!), have finally grown up and released their debut album (on columbia records no less, and the first of a reported four-album deal - that's crazytalk!) i'm not sure what i think of it yet, but it does at least reprise two highlights from their EP that i bought way back then: everyone's favorite hit "kids" (made famous on my october is eternal mix) and p4k best-of-'07 inclusion "time for pretend," which has an unbelievably awesome video (seriously, one of the greatest music videos i've seen, which may not be saying too much) made by a friend of somebody who lives with my friends, that i was lucky enough to see at a weekly variety revue at their house two weeks ago. apparently, amazingly, that video is not available on the internets yet, but i will let you know when here it is (embedding disabled by request, don't wanna figure out how yr supposed to get around that.)

ingrid michaelson,
whose album was wxpn's cd of the month this month, and whom i saw perform at "free at noon" a few months back, and who gets photographed eating food creepily often (each with literally hundreds of comments about how beautiful she is - u have to be signed into myspace to see though), and who supposedly is emblematic of a new model of indie music success (i.e. song placements in tv shows and commercials), has this song, her "big hit", "the way i am," which is so minimal and slight that it's barely even there, with short simple verses (with lyrics that are banal, and worse, embarrassing - liz always talks about how it mentions rogaine) and even shorter, simpler choruses - the whole song is basically this tiny nugget of melody, 1-2-3-2, which is fit into a single syllable in its first three iterations ("i" "love" "you") and then stretched out to four words ("take me the way.") it's kind of brilliantly economical, and annoyingly catchy in a really obvious but understandable way. by the way, we don't think we like ingrid michaelson.

i heard the song on the radio and it made me get, in succession, regina spektor ("better"), natalie imbruglia ("torn"), and the cranberries ("zombie") in my head. not sure what to say about that.

meanwhile, i've been thinking about kylie and madonna. i was out somewhere recently and heard a song that i vaguely recognized, then realized was from madge's maligned 2003 album american life (i think it was "nobody knows me") - it sounded pretty good and it reminded me very much of blackout and the corresponding recent glut of vocal-twerking electro-pop productions (most of them by bloodshy/avant), and i wondered whether american life might have been ahead of its time, prefiguring that recent wave of innovation (if that's what it is) and unjustly dismissed as uninventive. relistening to it a little bit... well it's not a great album, mostly because the songwriting is somewhat wooden and of course the rapping is just embarrassing, and as appealing as the acoustic guitar + electronics formula is, it mostly sounds like it's attempting to recapture the glory of "don't tell me" and never quite hitting it. still, it's probably better than it's remembered as. "nobody knows me" is probably the best song.

this is totally weird: it is the only album in history to provide seven top-ten hits on the hot dance music/club play chart. (from wikipedia.) (even though it only included one #8 single on the hot 100, the bond theme "die another day," which barely counts - though it does also feature some of that bloodshy/avant steez.

you know what album's even worse though? kylie's body language, which is also from 2003. i remember being tremendously excited for both albums when they came out - i bought a bootleg copy of the madonna in the ny subway for $5 (only time i've ever done that), and waited and waited to order the kylie online at a halfway-reasonable import price - having totally swooned over their respective predecessors (i actually loved music when it came out in 2000, but fever was still a belated revelation for me when i first heard in '03 - it was the turning point for me in terms of embracing mainstream pop.)

but i never warmed to body language, as much as i was determined to, and it's obvious why - it's just not that interesting. apart from "slow," which is pretty nifty and unusual, but never got me that excited, i don't understand the singles choices at all. to me the obvious standout would be the rather blunt but funky (at least) "sweet music" or perhaps "obsession." otherwise i can't even remember how any of the songs go, looking at the track list, although upon listening i remember that "still standing" is pretty cool and catchy (though i would never have remembered that it's called that.)

but on the whole it's an astounding and inexplicable disappointment as the follow-up to fever, which was not just one of the greatest dance-pop albums ever made, but also among the most successful. it's probably relevant to note that almost none of the same songwriters return: cathy dennis and the duo of stannard/gallagher, who each had a hand in three of fever's standouts, get one co-credit apiece, on the two fine but unremarkable closing two tracks; and then there's kylie herself (who has four co-credits here rather than five.) it's certainly stylistically coherent (as fever was), but it's just nowhere near as compelling.

if you ask me, her two stand-alone singles from 2005 - the glistening, scissor sisters-produced futurism of "i believe in you" and the simple but effective pumping disco of "giving you up" (orphaned except for their appearance on the double-disc ultimate kylie) - are far superior to anything from body language.

and then there's x, the actually-not-that-interestingly-titled 2007 album, which is a "return" after kylie's succesful battle with cancer hoo-rah! and also after four years which is actually not that much time in blockbuster pop diva album terms (she's on course with madonna, for instance.) and, from what i can tell, it seems to be getting a sort of middling reception from critics for being stylistically scattered and unfocused and not projecting a clear persona that's recognizably kylie.

i guess if those things are true enough, if they bother you, but to me they overlook the fact that this album is just so much more vital and vibrant and fun than, for instance, (the generally well-received) body language. i mean, fair enough to have your specific preconceptions of what you expect a given popstar to deliver musically, but what with this recent glut of (especially english) diva-pop full-lengths (kylie, sophie, roisin, natasha, mutya, siobhan, sugababes, girls aloud) to work through, i'm just trying to stay focused on who's actually bringing the goods, and to my ear (and maybe my surprise), kylie's got this round covered (roisin maybe a close second, that'll take some more listening.)

i've been listening to x a bunch, and it's just tremendously listenable. that may be because pretty much every track stands out in some way or other, from the obvious highlight of guitar-based glam-schaffel lead single "2 hearts" to the jaunty, serge gainsbourg-sampling "sensitized" to the sparse, boom-bappin' "heart beat rock." sure, much of it is - obviously, gleefully - derivative, including "2 hearts" (shades of goldfrapp, though of course it goes further back than that), "speakerphone" and "nu-di-ty," which are cut from the same whole cloth as blackout (and yeah, recall "technologic" too), and slightly slight but appropriately immediate second single "wow," which is a second-hand "love at first sight." and whatever's not specifically derivative is generically derivative - hey, it's electro/disco/pop.

my current crush/favorite is "all i see," which is just a sweet lil love song written and produced by cutfather and jeberg, who also did "one step at a time" on the jordin sparks album that i blogged about somewhat randomly and intensively and which has exhibited considerable staying power ("no air" has really grown on me too, though i still haven't paid enough attention to determine why/whether the central metaphor makes sense.) and the two songs ("all i see" and "one step") are extremely blatantly similar, with the same step-step groove, very similar harp figures, and almost identical chord progressions. they've been playing off one another in my mind all the time - i never know which one is stuck in my head, since it's pretty much a trick question to begin with.

the thing i can't decide is whether this is a problem. is it okay for writers and producers to recycle their own material? what's the line between "sonic signature" consistency and unethical self-plagiarism? (do ethics even enter into it, or is this purely an aesthetic debate?) obviously if both songs were on the same album it would be pretty obnoxious (kylie is nearly guilty of this herself on fever, with "come into my world" following soundalike "can't get you out of my head" up the charts just a little facilely), but most kylie fans are unlikely to even encounter this random jordin album track, and vice versa. which may make it even more insidious. personally, i'm just interested in hearing more of what jeberg and cutfather have to offer, to find out whether it's more than this one particularly captivating, sentimental pony trick. (even as i consider that the seductive familiarity of "tattoo"'s opening synth-strings probably owes a little too much to the benificent omnipresence of the likewise stargate-produced "irreplaceable.")

hm. is that what i have to say about january? guess so.


Dave said...

You mean this one??


Ross said...

yes, that is the one. that is the one.