Portugal. The Man, stealin’ from the sixties again. Can’t complain about it – they nail the whole psychedelic rock sound so well that if I didn’t know better I’d be wondering what obscure Haight-Ashbury collective is responsible for this. They got it right, right down to the song titles. What I can’t help but wonder with these guys is just how serious they’re being. You can’t fault their musicality, but is there a subtle element of ironic mockery at play? It may be that I’ve just been raised to expect ironic mockery in everything and have a hard time accepting sincere homage as real, being the jaded millennial that I am. But this is now, and you can’t just sell sunshiny melodies without a dark evil underside. If you’ve ever watched any of Portugal. The Man’s videos, they’re usually as dark as the songs are tuneful. If the music isn’t exactly ironic – and I think that it’s too lovingly well made to be – then it’s at least self-aware.
The sea shanty is about due for a revival. Since sailing has ceased being a major industry and seamanship a major career option, so the shanties have died out. But with all things old-timey and artisanal being currently on-trend, I think we can expect to see some of the more obscure and niche types of folk music becoming a hip thing for trendsetters to be in-the-know about. Bluegrass music has been steadily becoming more popular for some time, while the general interest in backyard gardening and the long-lost pickling arts shows no sign of waning. People want to do things with their hands again, they want to feel connected to some kind of heritage, they want to feel some sense of self-sufficiency, and learning musical folklore is part of that.
The single most blood-curdling lullaby you’ll ever hear. And it becomes even more chilling when you learn that it’s very much based on real history. The real-life Shankill Butchers were a kill-squad within the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force who went about kidnapping and murdering Catholics during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. I much recommend learning about the political history of Ireland, because if nothing else it will deepen your understanding of all the pop culture that the Irish have produced. (It’s also quite the cautionary tale about the English people’s boundless desire to colonize literally everyone including their next-door neighbors.) If you don’t feel like doing the research, then the Decemberists have done it for you.
Sham pain for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends, as they say… Marina Diamandis, clever as she is, isn’t above using some corny-ass dad puns as vehicle for her social commentary, in this case about the perils of getting yourself blackout drunk. She also wrote a song called Hermit the Frog. She likes wordplay. And she’s totally in using it. Humor and absurdity go a long way towards leavening angst-ridden topics, and Marina uses both, along with heady doses of glam and glitter, to get her message across. Underneath the hooks and costumes, there’s some heavy angst, and serious observations about how wounding and hard life can be for women and how much of a charade femininity essentially is. Also, the weight of creativity and fame, don’t forget about that additional burden. Life is an uphill battle. Let us have our dad puns.
Come at me for saying this, but Debbie Harry remains the greatest white woman rapper. She came about that distinction on the strength of one song, Rapture, which in 1980 became the first rap song to achieve mainstream popularity. Here she is again in 2003, proving that she’s still got it. Now you may point out that Harry is not very good at rapping and her verses are kind of nonsensical. Well, yeah. I never said she was the best. There’s not a whole lot of competition in the white women rappers category; to the best of my knowledge there are maybe two or three. There’s Iggy Azalea, an Australian whose emulation of black culture is one bad suntan away from straight-up minstrelsy, and Yo-landi Vi$$er, a South African whose work is only tangentially related to American hip-hop. And then there’s just Deborah Harry, who’s not a very proficient rapper but can claim credit for helping to popularize the genre, which definitely makes her the most culturally important white woman in the game.
“I think I came to the studio with a bit of a hangover, and it was one of those strange days where you’re not really sure where a song comes from. [Producer] Paul [Epworth] just had these chords on the organ, and they sounded optimistic and sad at the same time. And I was thinking of regrets, like, you know when you feel like you’re stuck in yourself, you keep repeating certain patterns of behavior, and you kind of want to cut out that part of you and restart yourself. […] So this song was kind of like, ‘Shake yourself out of it, things will be OK,’. [Because] sometimes I have to write songs for myself, reminding me to let it go. But then, the end refrain of ‘What the hell’ is really important as well, because you’ll dance with the devil again at some point, and maybe it will be fun. I’ve heard he does a really good foxtrot. […] I feel weird because I’m always talking about how I’m writing songs when I’m hung over most of the songs weren’t but ‘Shake It Out’ was. Like ‘Cosmic Love‘ (it was) written when you’re not feeling too great. It became the ultimate hangover cure, and then it became about something bigger. Like trying to get rid of ‘hangover ghouls’.” – Florence Welch
There you go, “hangover ghouls”. Clearly, Florence Welch is a woman after my own spirit. She knows that you have to dabble in a little self-destruction to fuel the creativity. It’s constant cycle of wreck and rebuild. But she makes is sound like such dizzy heights though. I wish I could build such mad magic out of my hangovers.
Future Islands make the case that synthpop is really timeless. As opposed to being tied inexorably to nostalgia for the 1980’s. They really elevate a genre that often gets dismissed as floof. They are most definitely not a nostalgia act, but they do evoke the very best of past synthpop. Which makes it a real sweet pipe dream for one synthpop icon should cross paths with another. It makes perfect sense that they should bring in Debbie Harry for a cameo. Blondie pretty much created the recipe for synthpop as we know it: a marriage of disco beats, punk rock attitude, melodies airlifted from sixties’ pop, gorgeous vocals and smart, personal lyrics. That’s a recipe a lot of people have tried to follow, but not that many have been able to hit all of the points and still avoid sounding like emulators. This here’s a marriage made in heaven, one master to another.