Marina Diamandis is the camp icon for the millennial set. It’s self-aware pop music for a generation that’s so self-aware and meta and ironic they can’t stop being self-conscious and just allow themselves to feel a natural emotion. Of course, vacuous idle youth have been the bogeybear that every receding generation shakes its stick at before reluctantly conceding that the kids are alright after all. It’s just the technology that keeps updating. Every generation gets the pop idols it deserves, supposedly. We certainly have enough of the kind who wholeheartedly and unironically represent the specifically modern tyranny of aspirational images. Some of them have a touch of the uncanny valley effect about the eyes that makes one wonder if they aren’t just digital sales bots. One suspects that Kendall and Kylie don’t actually exist; their eyes are glassy and they can barely speak in sentences, but their lives are impeccably well designed. Celebrity automatons may be easy targets for intellectual scorn – and may even be deserving of it – but who among us doesn’t spend time curating an ‘aspirational’ public image of ourselves as if we were of interest to anyone besides our 12 closest friends? What does that do to our souls? How does it affect our ability to be real people interacting with other real people? Are the self-regard and narcissism that social media so easily enables actually a satisfying substitute for the hard work of forming and maintaining relationships IRL? Why bother following the prescribed life path when you can just create the illusion that you’re following it? Sure, you’re a half-baked man-child or babygirl with no life- or interpersonal- skills and no interest in acquiring either, but you look like an interesting person on Instagram. And, really, when you think about it, aren’t you just a better-groomed version of the guy who leaves the club alone to go read books in the cemetery because solitary pursuits like reading and moping are so much easier and more fulfilling than the drudge and pain of trying to form meaningful connections with your fellow humans? It’s all the same miserablism played out on a different stage.
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.
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.
Gary Clark Jr. has been a leader in the recent soul music revival, and his album Blak and Blu is a prime example of how roots rock, funk and R’n’B are still fresh and modern, despite harking back to decades before the artist was born. Clark is also a native of my own adopted hometown of Austin TX, and residents have had the pleasure of discovering his music long before the rest of the world did. Clark is known for coming home to play the kind of small, intimate shows where young siblings and cousins jump onstage to sing backup and audience members can reach out touch the star’s shoes. I’ve seen Clark play on a few occasions, and his aw-shucks attitude belies his musicianship. I also have to say that hearing his songs on the radio when I first moved to Austin is one of my warmest musical memories. So my affection for this particular record is very much tied into my own place and time. But I’m pretty confident that it’s also objectively one of the finest pieces of what the Grammy Awards refer to as “traditional R’n’B” in recent memory. Definitely one of the records of the decade, if you’re about ready to compiling that list.
This is a new reworking of a very forgotten gem. Suzanne Vega has been steadily rerecording acoustic versions of old material, arranging the results by theme; love, family, states of being. Coming from most artists, such a project would be presumed to be an easy cash grab. And I think Vega has said that straightening out some byzantine copyright arrangements was, indeed, part of the motivation. Nobody’s motives are ever quite pure, and that shouldn’t sully the final product. Vega was interested in dusting off various obscure songs from her back catalog so she could explore them in a new context. Her new arrangements shine a fresh perspective on songs both familiar and never released. It’s ambitious and interesting, and it does justice to some great songs. Days of Open Hand, the album this track was plucked from, is Vega’s most underrated, and deserves to be lifted from obscurity.
Savoir Adore didn’t create the label dream pop, but their hit song Dreamers (which surely you’re familiar with if you listen to indie radio at all) is a towering masterpiece of that totally legit musical genre. Savoir Adore also don’t really exist anymore; a duo whose one-half leaves the group is now a solo artist. When that one-half happens to be the female vocalist, the remaining partner is now less than a solo artist – he’s a producer in search of talent. That’s what happened when singer Deidre Muro left Savoir Adore. It’s a shame, but their modern day one-hit wonder status is assured. Beyond the hit though, I think they were outstandingly representative of indie pop music in this decade; atmospheric, romantic, trippy, easily tuneful, beautifully sung, knowingly evocative of the past, and vaguely anonymous.
You wouldn’t immediately imagine it, but this reminds me strongly of early 70’s Elton John. Or, more vaguely, early 70’s albums in general, where stripped down narrative ballads lay hidden in between the amped-up pop hits. Father John Misty is too clever an artists to just write a straightforward narrative ballad – you couldn’t even really call this a narrative, more of a wordy stream of conscious. But the structure and performance call to mind a time when it was possible to get yourself a radio hit singing twelve to thirteen verses about a boat going down on Lake Ontario. This kind of soulful verbosity doesn’t get rewarded nearly as much anymore. I would say that’s a shame, but times change, and you know what? A lot of those long narrative hit songs from the 70’s were crap anyway. I’m not suggesting that this should be a hit. I love it but I don’t want to hear it on the radio. Some songs are meant to be discovered only after you’ve bought the album. Some songs are meant to lie far between the hits, hidden away on the end of Side A, (as if that were still a thing.)