Feeds:
Posts
Comments

THIS BLOG HAS MOVED

Hello everyone. I have now retired this blog and moved on to the exciting world of self-hosting.

Please find my latest witterings at http://www.johnplucas.com/

Thanks

Pet Shop Boys – Leaving

Pet Shop Boys - Leaving

Expecting a pop group in  their 27th year together to still be competing with the energy of a new act is obviously a tall order, but the Pet Shop Boys have always been been unusually chart-savvy and resistant to fading onto the nostalgia cicuit, which makes the lingering sense of defeatism surrounding their new album ‘Elysium’ particularly disappointing. Lead single Winner – almost apologetically pushed out to coincide with the Olympics -made nary a dent on the charts; partly due to a lack of promotion and partly due to it being really rubbish and depressing.

Of course, some of the very best Pet Shop Boys songs are massively depressing; Being Boring, Dreaming of the Queen, You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk. But Elysium is largely the sound of a great band finally running out of steam – dreary and half-hearted where they used to be dynamic and regal. Not everyone loved their collaboration with Girls Aloud hitmakers Xenomania on their last album’s lead single ‘Love Etc.’ but for me it was classic Pet Shop Boys, with an energy that’s desperately lacking on the new record.

No Pet Shop Boys release is ever a total washout though, and thankfully they’ve pulled out by far the best song on it for their next single. ‘Leaving’ isn’t going to join Go West on wedding disco dancefloors 20 years from now – if it even cracks the top 75 it’ll be a minor miracle – but it’s a classic Neil Tennant love song, with some of the best lyrics he’s ever written. It’s enough to give me hope that – even if their hitmaking days look to be irrevocably behind them – the album merely represents a blip on the radar, rather than the last gasp of two of our greatest and most underappreciated pop statesmen.

Our love is dead
but the dead are still alive
In memory and thought
And the context they provide…

Ola is another one of those chiseled, vaguely metrosexual-looking blonde boys that Sweden does so well. If you watch a lot of Clubland TV you might recall his single ‘All Over The World‘ which looked like it might be a UK hit for a few minutes but then… wasn’t. He’s had six number one singles in Sweden since 2006, and it’s rumoured that he was originally offered Loreen’s Euphoria but turned it down – the fool.

His latest international release is a very good pop song with a very bad video. Like, jaw-droppingly bad. Not the “shot on a shoestring with two extras and some straight-out-of-1996 green-screen” kind of bad you often get with Europop releases. This video probably took quite a lot of time and effort, and is packed full of ideas – all of which are spectacularly terrible in both conception and delivery. I think… think… it’s some kind of torture porn pastiche in which our peroxide hero is forced to eat his own heart, dies and then goes on a surrealist journey to the afterlife. Maybe. Anyway take a look for yourself, it is quite something.

Still, there’s something to be said for failing interestingly, and the song is one of those infectious Europop earworms that you’ll probably not think much of on first listen, only to find yourself relentlessly humming it for days afterwards. I don’t think it’ll trouble the hit parade – it’s harder than your usual Scandipop track, but probably still too European to get Radio 1 and Capital on board. However, I like seeing songs like this getting a chance to shine, even if only briefly. Seriously though Ola, next time just get yourself some pretty girls and a nice easy-to-mimic dance routine. Hostel as directed by David Lynch may sound exciting on paper, but it’s just not the Swedish way…

Donna Summer

Donna Summer’s chart career had already wound down by the time I was old enough to gain an awareness of popular music. I was first exposed to her the same way I was exposed to most of the classic artists whose golden years pre-date me – through the hours I spent watching VH1 Classics in the early 90s. I don’t remember the exact occasion when I first saw the live video of her groundbreaking chart-topper I Feel Love, but I do remember being mesmerized by this ethereal-looking woman, eyes shut tight, her voice almost at one with the pulsating dance beat she was singing to. The song would already have been at least 13 years old, but I remember it sounding like something from another world. The only song that had a comparatively bewitching effect on me was Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. Two very different records by two very different women, but both profound influences on how I would listen to music for the next twenty years.

Pre-internet, I gathered more knowledge of Donna’s remarkable discography in snatches. Was that high, breathy voice really the same one employed to booming, jubilant effect on This Time I Know It’s For Real? Or the one that brought such rich warmth to the sublime State of Independence? Not to mention her highly sexed early seventies records. Some of that disco raunch sounds humorously campy now – I particularly love her rendition of Could It Be Magic, which breaks after the first chorus while she has a protracted audio orgasm. But at the time the audacity must have been astonishing.

Her versatility was astonishing, and her willingness to stay abreast of emerging trends in a genre that she helped to create was admirable. A few years ago I picked up her most recent studio album and was surprised to hear not the gentle laurel resting of many heritage acts but a game and intermittently successful modern pop-dance record. She may not have had the chart afterlife of divas such as Diana Ross or Cher, but you suspect this was largely down to the fact that she only recorded a handful of new songs between her last two studio albums, separated by 17 years from 1991 to 2008. Like Kate Bush, she was obviously driven by something other than a desire to remain in the public eye.

Other people are far better qualified than myself to talk about her legacy, her influence on dance music, her under-recognised abilities as a songwriter – she wrote or co-wrote the majority of her hits. I don’t even have all her records – her output at her peak rivaled Rihanna today for sheer volume of material and not all of it is by any means essential. What I can say is that for as long as I have had a serious interest in pop music – that exhilarating, oft derided but ever-enduring art form that has shaped my life and walked with me through the most joyful and the most miserable moments of my life and everything in between – the voice of Donna Summer has been somewhere in the background, whether it’s through her own records or any of the innumerable pop classics that owe her a heavy debt. She blazed the trail. Now it’s up to her successors to carry the flame. They have a hell of a lot to live up to.



Madonna MDNAThere are two broad schools of thought when it comes to Madonna in 2012. The first is that she’s continuing her inexorable slide into gruesome, desperately hit-chasing self-parody, a grotesque, humourless combination of Baby Jane Hudson and Amy Poeler’s ‘cool mom’ character from Mean Girls. The other is that, as a strong independent pop icon with thirty years of hits behind her, Madonna can dress and act in any way she damn well pleases actually.

I wish I could say I fell into the second camp. After all, I’ve long been a fan of the woman, and yet as a child of the 90s, the pretentious, humourless, easy to admire but difficult to love public face of Madonna is the only one I’ve ever really known. The problem now is that in recent years her tunes have struggled to compensate for her perceived lack of warmth. Listening to MDNA made me think about the trouble with pop narratives – what do you do when your retain your shelf life but run out of storylines?

The generally accepted version of events is that Madonna reached a peak of maturity with Ray of Light. Before that album she had been the bubbly ingénue, the queen of the world, the fucked up superstar and the Hollywood wife. What remained, it seemed was a dignified transition into cuddly (well, by Madonna standards…) elder stateswoman of pop circa her lovely but middle of the road hits from Something to Remember and her success with Evita. Then she threw a curveball by hooking up with William Orbit and delivering her the most complete, reflective and forward thinking album of her career. It wasn’t just a fantastic album about what it is to be famous beyond all imagining, by exploring more universal themes such as grief, motherhood and middle age it also made her seem more human than anything she’d done in years.

However, the further she moves away from Ray of Light – and while MDNA shares a producer in Orbit, it contains precious little of that album’s introspection – the more I think that perhaps it wasn’t so much an arrival as a diversion. In fact it was the successful but retrospectively underrated follow-up Music that arguably gave more of an insight into her psyche. Where Ray of Light was calm, spiritual and contempletative, Music combined carefree dance songs like the title track and Impressive Instant with bruised, defensive and at times a desperately sad album cuts. The closing two tracks are perhaps the most morbid songs she’s ever recorded.

American Life was thematically closer to Ray of Light than Music, but it sounded like the result of too much therapy and Kaballah, and came off self-absorbed and condescending. Its failure seems to have been a defining moment in Madonna’s career, save for isolated tracks she’s generally retreated from such personal fare on her subsequent recordings. Confessions was a successful nod to her gay fanbase and her disco roots. That it was considerably bigger in Europe than America probably prompted her collaborations with Timbaland, the Neptunes and Justin Timberlake. She scored her biggest US hit in years with 4 Minutes, but it was her weakest and least interesting album. I don’t think it’s ageism to suggest that a 51 year old woman should perhaps have thought better of informing her listeners that her sugar is raw before inviting them to “see my booty get down”.

What unifies her post-Ray of Light output – excluding American Life – is a lyrical fixation with movement. Clocks are always ticking, she’s always tired of waiting, the listener is constantly implored to ‘hurry up’ or ‘keep up’. These may be fairly standard dance cliché’s, but combined with the defiantly raunchy promotional photo’s that accompany her albums (the MDNA booklet consists largely of shots of her looking sultry and heavily airbrushed in her underwear, and the less said about the album cover for Hard Candy the better…), there’s a definite sense that Madonna’s attitude towards her advancing years is not the Zen acceptance preached on Ray of Light, but a pathological fear of slowing down.

That I’ve now written almost 700 words about MDNA without making any significant reference to the music contained therein is quite telling. It’s not the disaster I feared from the unpromising evidence of the pre-release singles (Give Me All Your Luvin is a grower, but Girls Gone Wild really is one of the worst things she has ever recorded), but it isn’t an unexpected success either. My abiding impression after initial listens was that it’s the most faceless thing she’s ever done. There are the expected controversial moments like the campy murder fantasy of Gang Bang and a couple of lyrical references to the breakdown of her marriage to Guy Ritchie, but the authority is missing. Even Hard Candy’s most embarrassing moments were unmistakably Madonna. If I heard a song like Superstar blind, I could easily assume it was by a c-list Eurodiva. It’s listenable, but I can’t see myself returning to it very often. Madonna has made great throwaway music throughout her career, but a good half of MDNA is downright disposable.

Where does she go from here then? With a lead single peaking at #37 in the UK and stalling at US radio (though the Superbowl promo at least gave her a record-extending top ten hit) and follow-up hits not looking likely, I imagine this will go down as Madonna’s least successful album to date, and a continuation of the commercial decline she’s been facing since Confessions in America and Hard Candy in Europe. Nobody with her drive or legacy will ever be a totally spent force, but having already played out every kind of comeback imaginable – from the artistic renaissance of Ray of Light to her triumphant return to the dance floor with Hung Up – Madonna may finally have reached the point where she can no longer live up to her own monumental accomplishments.

Early March is a good time to be a Eurovision fan. All across the continent, the competing nations are selecting their representatives. Some are taking it very seriously indeed, some less so. Nevertheless we have now heard 24 of the 43 songs due to participate, and I’m happy to say that it’s shaping up to be a very decent year. Here’s my top 5 so far….

5. Ukraine: Gaitana – Be My Guest

One of my very favourite things about Eurovision is the way foreign songwriters tackle the english language. The lyrics can range from inspired, to deranged, to incomprehensible, to technically fine but not quite right. Gaitana’s jubilant entry for the Ukraine falls into the latter category. “You can be my guest!” goes the euphoric refrain – to what, we are never told. Fabulous tune too, and I do love a diva vocal.

4. Iceland: Grétá Salome & Jonsi – Mundu eftir mér

One of the most reliable Eurovision nations of recent years, Iceland once again field a fantastic song this year, with a dramatic folk-inflected by 2004 competitor Jonsi and songwriter Grétá Salome. Possibly too niche to be a big hitter, but this one creeps up on you…

3. Finland: Pernilla Karlsson – När jag blundar

Another gorgeous scandi-folk slow-burner, this subtle but richly atmospheric guitar ballad truly gives the lie to the stereotype that the Finns are only good at scary hard rock screeching.

2. France: Anggun – Echo (You & I)

Indonesian-born pop diva Anggun was a popular decision for France this year. This pulsating dance track is a world away from her lush signature hit Snow on the Sahara, but if she can nail the vocal it could be a big hitter.

1. Norway: Tooji – Stay

Classy ballads are all well and good, but let’s face it, it’s unadulterated pop madness like this that really makes Eurovison worth watching. This utterly infectious earworm of a track was a clear winner at Norway’s national finals, and could go big guns in Baku in May. On the other hand, I thought the same about Stella Mwangi last year…

I tend to spend a lot of time thinking reminiscing about random old pop songs and thinking that I’d quite like to write something about them. However, more often than not I can’t think of a good enough reason to talk about them, so I don’t bother. To combat this tragic lack of nostalgic wittering, I’ve decided to create an occasional series in which I shamelessly make the case for an old pop song for no better reason than the fact that it’s popped into my head on that particular day.

To launch this exciting series I bring you Let A Boy Cry, a #11 hit from 1997 and the followup to her more famous hit Freed From Desire. The mid 90s were something of a landfill for continental divas scoring one-and-a-half big hits before disappearing forever, but Italian Gala stood out for her combination of flat, stern vocals and philosophical lyrics.

They say silver
I choose gold
I’m not afraid to be alone
Someone will judge his gentle soul
Let a boy cry and he will know

I have no idea what it all means, but it has a beguiling, understated charm that has stayed with me. The backing track is, as is so often the case with these things, pretty much a carbon copy of Freed From Desire, but still, this was far more interesting than, say, Old Pop In An Oak.

Gala, wherever you and your trombolise/strong beliefs/trampoline are now, I salute you.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.