The Knife’s music is a distant relation to the electronic music you hear at clubs and bars, in the same way that the frozen ‘breakfast pizza’ you were served in middle school is related to what people eat in Sicily. (Obviously, The Knife’s music is the authentic Sicilian cuisine in this equation.) The Knife evokes a frosty and surreal atmosphere, using such dangerous gimmicks as voice distortion and tinkling reindeer bells. It is, through and through, very Scandinavian, and like Scandinavia itself, not to everyone’s taste. Alienating music is by rights the most interesting music, and by alienating people in swaths artists gain cult-like followings from true believers. With The Knife, Fever Ray and solo projects, Karin Dreijer is definitely one of those artists who serves freshly-chilled weirdness to a small cabal of true believer-type fans. She is not about to become a household name or headline a major festival, but I’m guessing that she has more freedom and satisfaction in her idiosyncratic career than major pop stars may do in theirs.
What does David Bowie know about the disappointments and frustrations of a mundane life? Probably not much, having escaped from it long ago, but he can empathize. This may a standout from Reality, which I’ve always thought was a very strong album overall. It’s a return to the plastic soul sound he perfected so well in his Young Americans days. It certainly tunnel-visions it back to the days of station wagons with faux-wood paneling on the outside and Soul Train on television. And it imagines the nagging resentment of a life lived on the wrong side of the Hudson River, a life of suburban dreams grown shabby and the paths to escape growing fewer over the years and the repetition of daily life becoming the only experience. That’s a life we all either end up living, or narrowly escape from.
It’s a fair bet that if someone passes by Nick Cave’s window in the first verse, they’ll be dead by the final chorus. In this case nobody dies, though the fruits of summer do wither in the cold of winter, which is a metaphor for the transient and fragile nature of life itself. The lady is fortunate indeed that Nick Cave failed to fall in love with her. She can pick up her dropped glove and go on living. I very much like the imagery in this song, and I notice that although it’s less verbose than Nick Cave usually likes to be, it tells a very full story that’s clearly set in time. The glove dropping etiquette is all that it needs to place it in the Romantic era, when flirtations started and thwarted with the keenest discretion. It was not unreasonably for the Romantic poet to liken a young woman to a withering spring fruit, for her lifespan would likely be far shorter than that of an plum tree. Why love at all, the poet asks, when youth and beauty and life itself is so speedily destroyed?
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.
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.
Welcome to the most played riff of the new century. You could even say ‘overplayed’ since the riff has We-Will-We-Will-Rock-You’ed its way into sports stadiums all over the world. But the ubiquity of the former little-garage-band-that-could from Detroit shouldn’t overshadow the importance of their impact. You could say, in the pompous tones of a newsreel narrator, that The White Stripes changed the world forever. (Changed the world… forever.) But what the White Stripes did was change a lot of lives. I remember the exact moment when that riff made me prick up my ears, in the community theatre basement where I was sewing costumes as a summer intern, age 20 and as convinced that rock music was dead as Nietzsche was about God. If I had been more musically gifted, it would have been my Elvis-gets-his-first-guitar moment. Still, it was enough of a life changer just to know that rock wasn’t really dead and there was new music worth caring about. (I told Jack White as much on the one occasion I crossed paths with him, and he said “I’ll take that.”) Now, 15 years later, being the generation that discovered and nurtured the White Stripes feels historically significant, like your parents and their punk records, or any other group whose deeply personal cultural experiences have in hindsight appeared to be the definitive cultural experiences of their time.
Here’s a Blondie song you may not have heard on the radio. Because deep cuts from 2003 don’t come up through the cracks very often, not when you can keep playing the old hits. Anyhow, I thought The Curse of Blondie was a pretty great album (especially for a band that had been in and out of hiatus for nearly 20 years.) But it was definitely a weird one, thematically at least. The band was meditating on things not usually found on a pop album; aging, death, the squicky metaphysical implications of May-December romance, and the idea of reincarnation, which some people apparently find romantic.