This is going out to all of my Russian readership. Here is Regina Spektor with a faithful and passionate reading of a classic by the Georgian bard Bulat Okudzhava. Right now, Regina Spektor’s best known piece of work is the theme song for Orange is the New Black. She may never be able to shake that particular brand of fame-by-association. Fans who got on board pre-Netflix know her as an incredibly smart, literate and poetic singer-songwriter with an eccentric streak. Her work has been refreshingly free of both the overly saccharine and the overly confessional tendencies that often plague female singer-songwriter-pianists. Spektor is, of course, a Russian emigre, and though it’s often very subtle, her writing and musical style is distinctly Russian. Russians are naturally wary of cheap sentiment and unnecessary intimacy, which helps account for the lack of the usual love song cliches and shrill emotionalism in Spektor’s work. Instead Spektor leans towards the literary, finding new ways to illuminate everyday emotions and experiences, using subtle metaphors and long-form narrative, all of which shows the unique influence of her background.
It’s hard to imagine today, but back in the 90’s most people didn’t know very much about BDSM culture. Back then, you see, there still existed barriers between the mainstream and the underground. There were these things called ‘subcultures’ that most folks had no access to or way of knowing about, except by word of mouth. If you weren’t lucky enough to live in a place with an underground or know people who knew people, you could go your entire life blissfully unaware being someone’s voluntary sex slave was a lifestyle option. Today, of course, being a ‘sub’, a ‘little’ or even a ‘pup’ is a lifestyle choice like any other and there’s a thriving community of like minded people ready to cater to you at your fingertips. So the antics of Belgian industrial music collective Lords of Acid may not strike your jaded eyes as shocking. They exist to make music for the kind of nightclubs that have no sign on the door, and to proselytize about the joys of the kinky life. Their lurid aesthetic and explicit lyrics made them notorious, if only in their own narrow corner of the club music scene. The whiff of transgression may have faded somewhat since the 90’s, but that just means that their music has cycled around to being perfectly timely again. We’re all about being sex-positive and we’re anti-kink-shaming here. We need music that articulates those beliefs in the most explicit way possible.
One of my favorite things about attending a Marina and the Diamonds concert is seeing kids in the audience wearing versions of Marina’s video looks. Marina Diamandis has adopted a distinct visual style for each one of her three albums, and fans show up to shows dressed to echo their favorites. That shows real connection between the artist and her fans. Clearly her message and her style are hitting home. That’s fantastic news for everyone, because she is one of the smartest singer-songwriters around, and what she has to say is enormously empowering. Electra Heart is a concept album exploring female archetypes and the way they affect our real life identities and our ability to function as human beings. Unsurprising conclusion; they’re mostly harmful. That may sound heavily cerebral, but it’s big ideas delivered in bubblegum packaging. It’s a master class in how consciousness raising can be fun, and pop music has the power to deliver lessons and inspiration. In the right hands.
The Kills are probably the last band that need the soft focus acoustic treatment. As feral as they are on stage and on record, they’re not meant to play sitting down. Still, you can enjoy their acoustic sitting and find that the songs hold up even stripped of most of their thunder. Also, a great partnership with a great rapport is always a joy to watch. The Kills have gone from unknown to indie sensation to the toast of Fashion Week, and will probably fall back into obscurity with their partnership intact. Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart are just a great team, and hopefully will carry on being, past every magazine cover, fancy dress party and divorce.
If you’ve ever wondered what ‘poon-tang’ is, here are The Treniers to explain that old-timey slang for you. Ok, so you’ve probably never wondered, because nobody uses that term anymore. It’s a huggin’ and a kissin’! So, a 1950’s word for sex. Obviously, the word fell out of favor a while ago, which is why it brings to mind nothing except your unsavory old uncle who reeks of malt whiskey at 1 pm and likes to loiter outside the barber shop. He’s the kind of a geezer who still wears suspenders and hollers “that’s some good lookin’ poontang!” at girls on their way home from school. You hear the word ‘poon’ and you just feel like you’ve been slimed. But the Treniers make it sound like a nice fun time again; you’re a sailor on shore leave, you’ve got a brand new Hawaiian print shirt on, a nice cold beer in your paw, and you just want to find some huggin’ and squeezin’. As people have done for as long as there have been people. And that’s just as wholesome as cherry pie. I mean, I’m sure you don’t want to think about your grandfather cruising for poon-tang, but he was probably a real fun guy in his day, he probably had some real swell times, and made all the same mistakes you do, and that’s kind of endearing. So, how’s about we make poon-tang swell again?
One of the greatest musical artists in the German speaking world pays homage to one of the worst. The question is, why? Cultural solidarity of some sort, I presume. Nina Hagen and Falco couldn’t have been more different. She tore apart the fabric of musical convention as part of the underground punk scene; he was known for a handful of novelty rap songs. I’m sure you’re familiar with the famous hit Rock Me Amadeus. If not, just know that it is a song of such excruciating badness you can’t help but love it. Really though, Falco’s music was so, so, so, sosososo sooooo sooooooooooooo objectively bad. I mean, this guy was the German Vanilla Ice. He was also the most successful musician to come out of Austria since Amadeus himself. Inexplicably enough, the world really wanted to hear what europop would sound like with more rapping. Why does Nina Hagen, one of the godmothers of punk, see this man as a kindred spirit? We’ll never truly know, because Falco is dead and Nina Hagen is insane. No really, Prima Nina is batshit insane, which is, of course, a large part of her brilliance. Hagen is one of those people for whom aggressive weirdness is not an affectation but a way of life. She has to be weird because otherwise she would explode. It doesn’t help her harness her immense talents towards anything approaching marketable appeal, but it’s made her a cult icon to fans whose alienation is too deep to be salved with what’s readily available. Nina Hagen will probably never follow former fellow outsiders like The Smiths and David Bowie from well-kept secret to Hot Topic sales rack, and that’s ok. She doesn’t want that, and her fans don’t want that. Let the weirdness remain undiluted. So what if a lot of what she writes about makes no sense. She writes from the heart, no doubts about it. If she wants to write a send-off for the soul of a shitty half-forgotten pop-rapper who drove into the side of a bus while high on cocaine, that’s her grace. If Nina Hagen thinks Falco’s soul is worth blessing, that doesn’t elevate his legacy, but maybe we should consider that being an artist is in itself elevating, even if the art is dreck.
File under obscure favorites. If I may recommend a must have album that never shows up on any of those circle-jerk best-of lists, please take the time to discover John Cale’s Vintage Violence. Cale is still best known for using the viola to produce a vicious haze of electronic feedback with The Velvet Underground, and he’s carried on being forbiddingly weird throughout his solo career. Unlike Lou Reed, Cale’s walks on the wilder side never fluked their way onto the radio, and he’s never gotten up there with the big boys in terms of record sales and accolades. Which might be just fine as far as he’s concerned. He does what he wants, and if it’s not always easy to enjoy, that’s fine. But, despite a reputation for being even grumpier and more avant-garde than anyone else in his circle, he is also a master of stately emotional ballads. Which is his most accessible side, and where this particular album makes a great introduction. This is some truly underrated work, and it’s an injustice that John Cale isn’t widely accepted as one of the best songwriters and composers of his time.