25 January 2008

selling insights by the word (6¢ apiece)

...and now that i've weighed in on the ark, robyn's self-titled magnum opus is just about the only Pop album of the last few years that i absolutely adore, scandinavian or otherwise, which i haven't written about for amg. (though that's about to change.) it's been an immensely enjoyable process, though, as i say, a slow and painstaking one, since i seem to be compelled to explore and reconsider each album i review, even those i know and love intimately, to come up with at least one new nugget of insight - and in some cases it has substantially transformed my understanding of these albums.

so here's a round-up of some of what i have written there so far - call it round-up round one - with links to some of my favorite reviews and bios with excerpts that hopefully convey some of the insights i've gleaned. in the order i wrote them:

Margaret Berger: bio, Chameleon and Pretty Scary Silver Fairy reviews

Margaret Berger (or "Marble," as she introduces herself to us) reportedly wished her album to be "sweet but mean at the same time" -- hence the "pretty" and "scary" of the title -- a description that resonates with the balance she strikes between tones of innocence and experience. As befits a set of songs written by a 21-year-old reflecting back on her teenage years, these tunes convey a sense of carefree, youthful hope and boundless optimism that's often tempered (though never too harshly) by a more complex, knowing nostalgia.

[...] Recordings from her [Norwegian] Idol stint, as well as many tracks from her debut, reveal her to be a remarkably soulful, full-throated singer, but for the bulk of Fairy she modulates her voice into a more modest instrument. Not that it sounds thin or lacking in personality: although it would have been interesting to hear a song like "Get Physical," for instance, with a more commanding, emotive delivery, a simpler and sweeter approach is probably more germane to this mode of somewhat icy electro-pop; it also accentuates the mood of playful innocence. That Berger evidently chose to downplay her vocal abilities for the sake of constructing a sonically and thematically unified album is in itself a strong indication of her refined sense of pop craftsmanship.

Amy Diamond: bio, This Is Me Now and Still Me, Still Now reviews

Amy Diamond's tricky. She was a young teenager when this debut album was released -- a preteen, in fact, when some of it was recorded (though you'll have a hard time believing that when you hear her big brassy voice; and the cover photo makes it look like she's about six.) But her recordings are certainly more sophisticated than you would typically expect of "children's music." And - unlike the bulk of pop made by (and for) teenagers - neither do they attempt to mimic the forms and themes of "adult" pop, at least not in the familiar manner of teen-centric rock, R&B, and dance-pop. In that sense, Diamond isn't pretending to be something that she's not -- but it's still remarkably hard to determine who, exactly, she is, the album title notwithstanding: This Is Me Now may be chock-full of personality in a musical sense, but it's bizarrely lacking in identity.

Richard X: bio and Presents His X-Factor review

"The best album in the world ever! Massive tunes! All the biggest stars! All the biggest hits!" So proclaims voice-over artist and former BBC DJ Mark Goodier partway through producer/mash-up pioneer Richard X's sprawling spectacle of a debut album. It's a joke -- obviously -- and a decent indication of the cheeky, lighthearted tone with which X constructs his reverently irreverent recombinant electro-pop. But it's not hard to take the suggestion at least a little bit seriously, particularly slotted as it is just before one of the most genuinely "massive" tunes of the early 2000s (in Britain, that is): the Adina Howard/Gary Numan frisson-collision "Freak Like Me," which began its (bastard) life as a bootleg 7" on X's Black Melody imprint (as "We Don't Give a Damn About Our Friends," recorded under the name Girls on Top), before it was re-recorded by the Sugababes and debuted at number one on the U.K. singles chart.

Sway: bio, This Is My Demo and One For the Journey reviews

This debut album, which followed two rounds of "This Is My Promo" mixtapes, displays him as a fully formed and formidable talent: self-conscious and introspective (that much should be evident from his album titles), but never tediously chin-stroking or esoteric; delightfully witty and droll but almost always with a well-considered underlying message; streetwise but hardly thuggish; linguistically nimble but not ostentatious; decidedly English in rhetoric, references, and voice, but distinctive enough, and with enough sheer unqualified charisma, to transcend genre and geographic boundaries. Indeed, Sway strikes such a well-positioned balance between so many poles and potential pitfalls, offering a little something to appeal to almost any potential listener, that you'd expect him to come off as overly calculated. On the contrary, though, his casual, almost tossed-off earnestness is quintessential to his charm.

Minor Majority: bio and Candy Store review

Minor Majority's musical m.o. -- elegant, intimate, acoustic folk-pop -- remained virtually unchanged between their 2001 debut release and this 2007 compilation...the group swelled from a duo to a quintet over that period, so their more recent work is somewhat more fleshed out, or at least more likely to include drums; they've also picked up a bit of studio polish along the way.

[...] Like their similarly hushed countrymen Kings of Convenience, Sweden's Nicolai Dunger (circa Tranquil Isolation), and Iceland's Funerals, they manage to assimilate a distinctly American strain of rootsy melancholia into a style that only subtly hints at their Scandinavian origin.

The Veronicas: Hook Me Up review

The Veronicas -- who seem to be in control of their own career to an impressive extent for a pair of 22-year-old girls -- are the rare teen pop act for whom visual presentation is almost entirely incidental. (Note, for instance, that they haven't appeared on either of their album covers -- which is practically unheard of in teen pop -- and they're 22-year-old identical twin sisters.)

In fact, this album's glistening electronic trappings -- besides being enjoyable in their own right -- only serve to enhance the integrity of the Veronicas' aesthetic by elucidating the grand driving tension at the heart of confessional teen pop: the juxtaposition of adolescent angst with pop's transcendent sweetness.

Skye Sweetnam: Sound Soldier review

Since she first emerged in 2003 with the teenage rebellion anthem "Billy S." (probably the only song in history to contain a shout of unabashed glee about how much teachers get paid), self-described bubblegum brainiac Skye Sweetnam has toured summer camps, clubs, and stadiums (as Britney Spears' opening act) in support of her debut album Noise from the Basement; contributed her voice to The Barbie Diaries and her songs to The Sims; turned 16, 17, 18, and 19; emphatically protested the inescapable comparisons to fellow Canadian punk-tart Avril Lavigne (in Basement's "Hypocrite" she ironically refers to herself as "Avril-lite"; at one point her guitar sported an "Anti-Matrix sticker in reference to Lavigne's notorious production team), and amassed a reported seventy songs in preparation for her follow-up album with collaborators in Toronto, Los Angeles, and Sweden. In 2007 -- the same year that Lavigne unveiled a newly spunky, playful attitude and gaudy fashion sense noticeably similar to Sweetnam's own, and scored the first rock number one in six years with a song ("Girlfriend") highly reminiscent of her bratty, cheerleader punk-pop -- Sweetnam finally emerged with her second album (it had been delayed for well over a year since its originally scheduled release date), which turned out to have been produced and co-written predominantly by the self-same Matrix with whom Lavigne found her initial success. Such is life in the topsy-turvy, high-stakes, and jet-setting world of rock-based teen pop.

Tunng: This Is Tunng..., Comments of the Inner Chorus, Pioneers, and Magpie Bites reviews

"If it can be broke then it can be fixed/if it can be fused than it can be split" - it reads like a mission statement for resourceful sonic collage artists Tunng, who have built their career on breaking genre boundaries by fusing traditionalist acoustic folk with spluttering electronics...

It's a style that finds clear parallels in the work of New England's the Books -- in particular, the intermittent found-sound snippets and spoken word samples (that's Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso reading from their poetry in "Out the Window with the Window") make that connection unmistakable -but has few other obvious comparisons. Which doesn't mean it's hard to classify: indeed, the genre tag "folktronica," which had entered into general usage several years before Tunng's emergence, never had a more apt referent"

Marit Larsen: Under the Surface review

Her distinctive writerly voice encompasses both a sprightly playfulness and a self-consciously mature anxiety, as reflected in her penchant for outsized, almost bombastically melodic choruses tempered by more tentative, delicate verses. After the brief, sweetly understated preamble of "In Came the Light," the title tune rushes in with a frenzied swirl of schmaltzy, Disney-esque strings and bells, but its romantic exuberance is swiftly undercut by a yearning verse melody and a narrator so enraptured and yet so wracked by jealous doubt that she can barely even stand her lover's presence. This sort of crippling insecurity crops up repeatedly -- in the self-effacing unrequited lover/loner of "Recent Illusion," and the snooping, paranoid housewife of "This Time Tomorrow," a jangly waltz whose awkward second-person perspective and forced, unconvincing premise make it the album's sole lyrical weak link. In each case, it's made achingly more poignant by Larsen's resonant delivery -- there's so much warmth and sweetness in her voice that even in her most forlorn moments you can practically hear a smile determined to break through the pathos.

Rachel Stevens: Come and Get It review

Come and Get It is a marvel of pure pop craftsmanship, boasting inventive, fresh, engrossingly detailed productions, gorgeously layered vocals and synths, huge hooks, and infectious melodies... Especially in light of its lackluster reception, it comes across as a true labor of love, painstakingly constructed by and for discerning pop true believers, and destined for future pop cult enshrinement. With all this talk of craftsmanship, and all the talent that's on display, it's deceptively easy to overlook Rachel Stevens' role in all of this, to write her off as little more than a faceless, er, pretty face. And it's true that she doesn't present any sort of cohesive persona here, but that's due less to lack of charisma than to her conscious, consummate chameleonism, her own strongest point as a master pop stylist.

If this album offers us a glimpse of the "real" Rachel Stevens, it might very well be in its final track, the rather archly titled "Dumb Dumb," which belies its generic clubland groove with a ruminative third-person account of a gold-hearted, secretly despondent pinup who "sacrificed her image for her beauty." That's pure speculation of course, but it's hard to imagine Stevens tripping through the pop-star merry-go-round as she has, garnering such conspicuous potential and such compromised fulfillment, without picking up at least a touch of world-weary resignation.

Bertïne Zetlïtz: Rollerskating review

The album artwork depicts the glassy-eyed, nordicly stunning Zetlïtz wandering through a deep, dark, verdant forest improbably populated with cartoon bats, a man made out of vines, and an eerily illuminated slot machine. It's a bizarre, arresting series of images, aptly suited to the album's evocative if often inscrutable lyrics, whose dreamlike lucidity is also well captured in Zetlitz's dulcet but detached delivery. References abound to candy, butterflies, rollercoasters, and the like - but their sweetness is undercut by frequent allusions to guns, drugs, obsession, and all manner of emotional fragility and frigidity. Even the seeming reassurance of the stately, heartbreakingly poignant ballads "If You Were Mine" and "Broken" is couched in often disconcerting imagery ("it occurred to me you might be injured/cause my dress got stained from your touch.")

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