Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Army of Me" / Bjork / Telegram

My wife is the big Bjork fan in the family, accounting for the four albums of hers on my itunes. I wouldn't say I'm a huge fan, but I enjoy the occasional song. I really liked The Sugarcubes, one of those "underground / progressive" bands from back in the 80's (as we called them before the genre "alternative" became established), especially their modest hit from '88, "Birthday", a great tune that still holds up well today:

"Army of Me" is a pretty badass song for one reason - that ominous, rolling bassline which doesn't let up for the entire song. I'll be damned if anyone can make any sense of Bjork's lyrics, even if they can decipher them, but the lyric that stands out that gives the song its title: "If you complain once more / you'll get an army of me" makes me chuckle a bit. Bjork, with her Icelandic, pixieish* voice and persona, doesn't lend well to tough talk like that. It actually is kind of adorable, which really just defeats her purpose. Oh, well.

*Any writing done about Bjork and her music is contractually obligated to include either a reference to Iceland and / or the word "pixie". Just following through, here.

Love the video, though. Typical Bjork surrealism - the tiny girl driving an immense tank with a full set of teeth, a gorilla dentist, Bjork playing secret agent and blowing up a museum....good stuff.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"Senses Working Overtime" / Mandy Moore / Coverage

You may be asking yourself what a 38-year-old, married, father of three is doing with a Mandy Moore song (or two) in his itunes collection, and it's a fair one to ask.

First of all, it's not originally a Mandy Moore song. "Senses Working Overtime" is by the brilliant English pop group XTC and this version appears on Moore's album of covers called, er, Coverage. Second, as I have owned up to before, Mandy Moore is on my list of five (she's 26 now, so that's not creepy...right?). And, finally, Ms. Moore (I refuse to call her Mrs. Adams) is a pretty talented singer who has a nice interpretation of this song.

Mandy Moore was lumped in with the Brittanys and Christinas of the pop word back during that teen explosion of the late 90's, but she never quite took off the way those two did. She's seemed to have found more success as an actress now than as a musical artist, but I always suspected that there was a little bit more going on (musically) with her than the rest of the 'tween queens. This was somewhat justified when I found out she covered artists like XTC, Joe Jackson, Cat Stevens, The Waterboys, and Joni MItchell on this covers album. She seems to be a very mature musical artist now, unconcerned with album sales and motivated by a love of music (and, again, a profitable acting career gives one that luxury).

Moore doesn't add too many twists to her version of "Senses", but I do enjoy some of the changes. The XTC version takes a bit to get going, beginning very quietly and then getting louder toward the chorus, but Moore jumps right in with the "1-2-3-4-5" bit (the most cringeworthy part of the cover, in my opinion). Her version swings a little more too, though "swing" is a relative term when discussing two rather square artists.

As with most pop acts, the chorus and / or hook is where the tale is told, and "Senses" has a great one. I'm not crazy about the high-end overdubs Moore has on the "counting" bit, but I do like the smooth, fretless bass added underneath. I miss the little guitar jingle after the "counting" that XTC has, though to be fair Moore isn't attempting a rock cover, so no guitar is meant to be noticed anyway.

My favorite part of Moore's version is just a really brief bit - at the end of the chorus the delivery of the line

Trying to taste the difference between a lemon and a lime

I love the way she ever-so slightly draws out the "L" sound (alliteration, kids!) and puts a very slight hitch in her voice on the word "lime". It's also nice how the chorus ends softly, with an almost a cappella part on the "church bells softly chiming" line, the harmonics suggesting chiming bells themselves.

All-in-all, a cover that doesn't necessarily improve on the original, but does give a different perspective which is what a great cover should do And props to Ms. Moore (see, Mandy? You don't even need to change your name!) for digging deep in the pop vault to dust off a little gem like this.

And for comparison's sake, here's the original

Sunday, May 2, 2010

"Soap Star Joe" / Liz Phair / Exile in Guyville

Has any other "important" artist had such a sad, precipitous fall as my girl Liz Phair?

The quality of her music has just taken an absolute nosedive with each successive album. She went from indie pop brilliance in 1993

To mawkish, Adult Contemporary crap in 2005

I mean, I know a girl's got to provide for herself and sell some CDs, but as a dedicated fan, it's just sad to see her neuter herself over the years. And judging by her album sales, I'm not the only one that feels this way - she was dropped from Capital Records after the poor sales of Somebody's Miracle. I own all of her albums, as I've mentioned before I'm a loyal fan of artists I love, but damn she's making it hard to maintain hope.

But for now, let's remember some happier times. Exile in Guyville, her debut was a HUGE album back in the burgeoning alternative scene in the early 90's. Importantly, hers was the first important female voice to emerge, paving the way for the Lillith Fair scene (don't hold that against her, though). Exile in Guyville, if you believe the rumors, was written as a feminist song-by-song response to the Rolling Stone's masterpiece Exile on Main Street (which would make "Soap Star Joe" the response to "Torn and Frayed", my favorite non-hit Stones song).

Both songs begin with a simple strummed intro and have a nice, mid-tempo sway to them. "Torn and Frayed" is about a dude named Joe (!) that's in a band but is having some issues. His coat is "torn and frayed", he's a drifter and a "deadbeat", is addicted to codine, but apparently is a hell of a guitar player to "steal your heart away".

Phair's "Joe" is the personification of American manhood, the Marlboro man:

He's just a hero
In a long line of heroes
Looking for some lonely billboard to grace
They say he sprung from the skull of Athena
Think about your own head
And the headache he gave

(you have to like the mythological allusion and clever turn of phrase at the end, huh?) And as if you didn't divine the Joe-as-archetype through the lyrics, she ends with this line:

Check out America
You're looking at it babe

Uh, thanks...

So, yeah, a big difference between the Stones' Joe and Phair's: the former being a veritable bum that pulls it together in time for incredible shows, the latter being American, Western manhood incarnate, a "hero from a long line of heroes", wearing tight blue jeans, sporting "thinning hair" and driving a pickup.

The sound of Phair's song is sparse, like much of Guyville - mostly just her strumming the chords, accompanied only by her unique, quivering voice and a few brush strokes on a snare. What amounts to a chorus (at 1:28 and 2:03) offers an echoed, haunting change (is it really a chorus if it's the same music but not the same words?) with a telltale Stones-ish harmonica finishing out the song. Most of the Guyville songs follow this structure; Phair plays around with conventional song structures throughout, often eschewing choruses, bridges, and rhyming altogether. It's this loss of experimental spirit that has let so many fans down; "sellout" is an ugly, overused word in music, but it's sometimes applicable.

I believe Phair still has some great stuff left in her. It's been five years since her latest album, the 90's are beginning to have a nostalgic return (it happens in cycles of 20 years), and music fans LOVE a comeback. All she needs to do is hook up with the right producer (i.e, not The Matrix /shakes head/), find her edge again, and await the plaudits that will certainly be tossed her way. Come on, Liz...we're rooting for you!