I’m Scared

Blue eyed soul, man, blue eyed soul. The lovely Duffy is officially on hiatus, and with only two albums for us to enjoy. Why she decided to take a break from recording, I don’t know, but I hope she comes back soon. She is my favorite thing to blow in on the tide of British retro soul that came post-Winehouse. Overall, I think that particular trend in music is quite nice. It’s all about talented, glamorous ladies who pour their hearts out and take the time to learn their doo-wop. Things didn’t work out very well for Amy Winehouse, the spearhead of the movement, but her influence is still strongly felt. I mean, right now you can’t tune in to any form of media without slamming into Adele. (Who I like a lot, by the way.) It’s kind of offensive when you think about it, to call Winehouse, Duffy and Adele et al some kind of a revolutionary new movement. It just shows how wrongheaded and assbackwards the music industry is that everyone is so amazed to hear a few singers whose primary distinction is being good at singing. Like, oh wow, she actually has the ability to sing, and doesn’t whip her boobs out in public, and has a working knowledge of music history and writes her own songs! (Ok, Winehouse whipped a lot things out in public she shouldn’t have, but you get where I’m going with this.) I think that, for women, the music industry has become very two-headed. On one hand, you have indie music (which is basically every single thing under the sun that’s not ‘pop’) where girls play instruments and front bands and start their own labels. Then you have the monster machine of mainstream pop, which is a meat market where talent is runs a very distant third to flat abs and public nudity. So it’s a bit awkward for an artist like Adele, who becomes immensely popular on the merits of her talent and doesn’t have the physical prerequisites for a Playboy centerfold. Everyone deals with that pressure in their own way, of course, some by being defiant, some pliant. I don’t know much about Duffy, but she is immensely talented and totally gorgeous. She could easily have let herself be groomed into the pop stratosphere, but I get the impression that she is not someone who wants to be seen in her underwear by ten million people. I suspect that the pressure to show a certain image may have contributed to her decision to step back for a little while. Being successful as a stunning blonde in the music industry requires playing the part of ‘stunning blonde’ and that, for many, is distasteful and distracting. I’m not entirely against the sexualization of pop stars. Being sexy can be empowering – and profitable. I don’t think it’s false equivalence to say that music is the rare playing field where men and women are both equally (self-)presented as flesh for fantasy. If Mick Jagger isn’t a writhing, half-naked over-sexed object of desire on a par with any Pussycat Doll, then I am seriously misperceiving something. A big part being a rock star is selling yourself, and creating the illusion of your sexual availability, to hordes of horny teenagers. The thorny issue here isn’t the sexualization itself, but the degree of control the subject wields. It comes down to choice, as always. There is a difference between a pop star creating their own image and being shoved into it by external forces. A statement of sex-positive girl power means something very different coming from, say, Beyonce, an artist who controls every aspect of her image, than from Britney Spears, a woman so not in control that she was placed in the care of a court-appointed legal guardian. It’s understandable that for someone who just wants to make music, entering into this battlefield of image and body politics can sour the whole experience of being a musician. There must be hundreds if not thousands of great talents who could have changed the world, but took one look at what they’d have to do to themselves to get there and just turned their backs and went home.

Hanging On Too Long

In this day and age, performers need to think hard about what their stage name should be and whether they might end up having what we scientists call a ‘Google problem’. Like for example, when I search Tumblr for pictures of the honey-voiced Welsh singer Duffy, I end up scrolling through page after page featuring some effed’ up teddy bear. I’ve never heard of Duffy the teddy, but a lot of folks have and there’s more pictures of him than there are of the human being I’m looking for. If Duffy had chosen to sell records under the name Aimee Duffy, or Aimee Ann Duffy, or Ann Duffy, Duffy Ann, or Double A Duff or whatever, she wouldn’t be losing pageviews to a stuffed animal. At least she doesn’t have Joe Jackson’s problem. He has to share a tag with a famed child abuser. Newly-minted stars need to stop and think about any potentially embarrassing namesakes they may have before unleashing themselves on the world. Or, some nerd genius needs to invent a means of simultaneously searching more than one tag. There has to be a way to do this. I don’t want to look at teddy bear pictures.

Fool For You

Duffy isn’t the only lovely British chick reviving American Motown styles from the sixties. The lush, slightly campy, unabashedly emotional sound of sixties girl-groups is all over town right now. The original girl-groups were all about big lashes, bigger hair and chintzy matching outfits, but underneath the glam they were built on the best songsmithery and the amazing voices of singers like Diana Ross and Ronnie Spector. It was glamour, personality and emotion. The new retro movement was probably started by the late Amy Winehouse, who took as much from jazz and blues records, and now Adele’s catchy tales of woe are all over the radio. Duffy distinguishes herself by her helium infused voice, both gorgeous and slightly weird.

Enough Love

We love the sixties. It’s the height of coolness to look and sound like a time traveler from 1966. It’s come to where we’re dying to embrace even the corny/cheesy aspects of sixtyness. It’s part of Duffy’s schtick that she could have been transposed through space-time from some Starlite Lounge in a midwestern conference center circa ’67, and it’s the most crazy-appealing thing. Enough Love is precisely what you’d imagine a square lounge singer’s trickle-down interpretation of the all-you-need-is-love vibes wafting in from the counter-culture meccas of rock ‘n roll would sound like, clean and proper for the conservative three-martini crowd. And that is a compliment. Because that is a story, and a song that can so weave an instant narrative is a treasure to find.

Best of 2010

So it’s time again to take stock of the year past and take in some of the highlights. 2010 was a very good year. It was the first year in a long, long time that I could afford to buy food at Central Market instead of Wal-Mart. I could purchase lingerie at Victoria’s Secret instead of Wal-Mart. I did my holiday shopping at real boutiques instead of Wal-Mart. You get the general idea here, I think. In short, I earned a living wage, went to a lot of shows, ate a lot of food, drank a lot of wine, traveled, dated intensively, learned a lot and generally enjoyed a high caliber quality of life.

Highlights include in no particular order… getting thrown out of an English Beat show for, um, I don’t remember what, but probably fighting. Not getting thrown out of an encore English Beat show. Making out with a cute stranger at a Valentine’s Day Nouvelle Vague show. Having a Dead Weather roadie tell me my outfit is “very Karen O.” Getting dumped for the second time in my life and not crying about it. Many instances of drinking myself into a rolling blackout. Free wiener-on-a-stick at ACL courtesy of my parent company. Groping M.I.A.’s ass at ACL. Getting to see the full Cremaster Cycle on the big screen courtesy of the now defunct Dobie Cinemas. Going overseas, including a flyover glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Meeting family members I didn’t know existed. Seeing A Night At The Opera, and also seeing a night at the opera. Getting certain bad influences out of my life once and for all. Getting my first tattoo, courtesy of the lovely and gracious Dresden Dolls. Completing my self-appointed Year of Living (for lack of a better term) SATCily. Seeing the old one out in, not exactly style, but definitely with a sense of achievement. I just can’t wait to fall right into my next big mistake.

Now, musicwise…What a good year! So many great records streaming in! In fact, there’s been so many good ones that I won’t limit myself to just ten. Because there’s more than ten albums I’ve been listening to this year. There was a disappointment or two, sure. The Knife put out a virtually unlistenable opera based on the works of Charles Darwin. Vampire Weekend is still insufferable. Matt & Kim aren’t as great as everyone says they are. Broken Bells literally made me fall asleep standing up (not that their album was bad or anything). And as usual, the top forty was an orgy of the bland, the talentless and the downright terrible. But on the bright side, I’ve found so much to love. Here’s the ones I couldn’t stop playing…

  1. Sea of Cowards – The Dead Weather
  2. Here Lies Love  – David Byrne & Fatboy Slim
  3. The Ghost Who Walks – Karen Elson
  4. This Is Happening – LCD Soundsystem
  5. Treats – Sleigh Bells
  6. Trans-Continental Hustle – Gogol Bordello
  7. /\/\/\Y/\ – M.I.A.
  8. Olympia – Bryan Ferry
  9. Congratulations – MGMT
  10. Body Talk – Robyn
  11. Soldier of Love – Sade
  12. Endlessly – Duffy
  13. I Learned The Hard Way – Sharon Jones &The Dap-Kings

If you’ve been reading for any amount of time, my feelings about Jack White must be known to you. I think the man is a god-put-on-earth. He can do no wrong. He has vision. He makes me want to find my demon. Plus, he’s a really nice guy. The first Dead Weather album was pretty great (it was on my list last year) but it was just an appetizer. It’s a feast of dirty, sexy, crazy energy. The collaboration between Jack and the incredible Alison Mosshart has fully blossomed at last. The difference is that unlike the other Jack projects, this one is dripping with female energy. Isn’t it tiresome that it’s always the boys who’re getting their rocks off? Not anymore.

Leave it to David Byrne to do something completely random and make it so brilliant it starts to make sense. A collaboration between the polyglot Byrne and master DJ Fatboy Slim was sure to yield interesting results. Byrne reached into his bag of ideas and out comes a two-disc concept album rescuing Imelda Marcos from the joke-bins of history. If anyone remembered her at all, it was as a symbol of vulgar consumption in the face of poverty – she owns thousands of shoes. Thousands! Whatever her crimes, Mrs. Marcos is still a person; an aspiring singer and beauty queen who married into wealth and power, felt shame about her poor education and less-than-lavish upbringing, endured exile and her husband’s infidelities and found a late-life political career of her own. All this and more you’ll learn, all complete with Fatboy beats, Byrne’s dry wit, and perfomances from an A-list parade of singers. I’ve heard that Marcos herself gave the project her blessing and even wanted a chance to sing something.

I’ve admired Karen Elson’s modeling career since circa 1997 – that’s more than a decade, centuries in model years. I loved her look, her fiery red hair, her porcelain whiteness, her eyebrow shaving boldness. When she started to talk about going into music I wanted to see her succeed. Then she scored a real coup in her personal life – you know of what I am speaking – and it looked like the music dreams would be shelved forever. After all, nobody wants to be seen as the talentless spouse riding her man’s coat-tails towards her own ambitions. But guess what! She finally made a record and it’s incredible any way you slice it and she is incredibly talented. Her voice is as beautiful as her visage, and her songs are beautiful too. Songs she wrote, literally, in the closet. Where any number of  model-slash-whatevers have fallen flat on their face, Karen nailed it. Besides being a great singer, she has her own distinct sound, a kind of goth-folk with strains of Nashville and maybe just a hint of whatever planet Tom Waits is broadcasting from.

Ok, this is something I downloaded on a whim because the buzz on it was so good. (I think some reviewer evoked the mythical Berlin Trilogy founding fathers as influences.) And guess what! The buzz was all true. I love to dance and I love dance music and I love electronica and great beats and blippy sound effects and all that. But it’s hard to know where the good stuff is. Because so much dance/electronic music is utter rubbish. It’s what the old folks say; any idiot with a keyboard can cue up a beat,  add some pings to it and a loop of someone chanting nonsense, and there’s your big dance single. I’ve tried randomly downloading electronica that I’d been told was good and just thinking “this is a brainless waste of gigabytes”. For example, the much hyped Deadmau5 record I found simply mind-numbing.  So here’s something with brains you can dance to. And even harder to find on the dance floor, it’s got heart. Starring James Murphy, a doughy aging hipster smart enough to know he’s doughy and aging, and to write an album about it.

This might be the authentic sound of now. Or not. I believe they’re calling it ‘noise pop’. That’s not a terribly appealing name, but I guess the point is to scare off the oldsters. To me Sleigh Bells sound so fresh. Alexis Krauss has a lovely voice, and the ‘ah ah ah’s and ‘oh oh oh’s she emits in every song are straight from some long-lost girl group from the pre-Fab sixties. The lovely’s hidden underneath a storm of feedback, so you may not notice it at first. However it makes a balance – lovely vs loud, sugary vs dirty. Beauty and noise.

Gogol Bordello are looking to go widespread. Hence a record sleeve of Eugene Hutz looking almost presentable and production courtesy of Rick Rubin. They sound professional for the first time, and it’s good. Their earlier albums, brilliantly alive though they are, didn’t have the highest production values. Also, they suffered from energy overkill, or rather they didn’t suffer but some listeners might have. This is their most accessible record, but don’t say they’ve sold out. (Or maybe they have – Eugene is on speaking terms with Madonna. If that’s not selling out I don’t know what is.) You can still shake a leg to it, or more likely your booty. This time around there’s more room for Eugene’s thoughtfuller side. He’s always had thoughts, sure, but sometimes they got a little lost underneath all the PARTY! If you thought the more lyrical songs where the highlights of Super Taranta! you’ll appreciate how much more autobiographical and open-hearted Eugene’s songwriting has become. Or maybe it’s always been that way but everybody was too drunk to notice.

Alright, M.I.A. was never for everybody to begin with. So it’s not big shock when nothing on her new album was as easily accessible as Paper Planes or Boyz some armchair judges decided she wasn’t cool anymore. No, she’s still cool. Maybe she’s cooler than ever because she more interested in pursuing her interests than being fun or accessible. Yeah, the album is built on noise, and there’s liberal dollops of weird autotune, and cryptic lyrics as usual. The lady holds true to her convictions, whatever they are. And really, it’s almost admirable – it’s her most high profile, hotly anticipated release yet, and still it sounds like she threw it together in a basement with a box of tapes.

The new Bryan Ferry album sounds exactly like a Bryan Ferry album. That’s kind of the point.

Again, not so much with the big hit singles ready for chart domination. But a more sophisticated moving on up the ladder. I was a bit leery of MGMT at first – they have been such hipster darlings and what’s cool isn’t cool. But hey, guess what! They’ve only gotten smarter, and more melodic with relative age. And anyone who writes a rapturous ode to Brian Eno (Brian Eno) gets mega super bonus cool points. Apropos of god knows what, but the more I listen to this album the more I suspect these boys may have, at some point listened to the works of the Brothers Mael. I don’t know why I think that…

It’s been a long cold winter since the last Lady Gaga record came out and you’re needing something to fill the void. You need some dancefloor crazy, euphoric, slightly guilty pure sugary rush of pop music. See, bubblegum doesn’t have to suck. Sometimes the purest sugary fluff is just what the doctor ordered. As far as fluffy pop songs go, too, Robyn’s are surprisingly thoughtful, at least sometimes. How many times have you heard the words ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ while grinding it out on the floor? That’s what I thought.

The new Sade album sounds just like…a new Sade album. Not unlike Ferry, Sade has found the sound that works and she’s polished and perfected it over the years. So what if every Sade album sounds the same. There aren’t that many of them to go around. Her eponymous band works like a smooth operating machine, the lady’s voice still sounds like sex and honey, and she hasn’t aged a day. She’s still writing inscrutable love songs. Still showing the young girls how it’s done.

I’ve decided I do quite like the new, marginally modernized Duffy. She’s strayed across the street from her regular crystal ball evocation of sixties Stax girl-group-iness, adding exciting elements like faster tempos. So maybe Endlessly isn’t the glossy beast the first album was, but it’s ok, it’s still fun. I’m waiting with baited breath for some Disney executive to have a Eureka moment and ask Duffy to voice some singing cartoon frog princess. She’s got a cartoony voice, does she not? She even looks a bit like a sassy cartoon kitty. You know what would be cool? A Duffy musical cartoon series. She’d definitely be a kitty, and it would be set in the swinging sixties and she’d ride a Vespa, and sing and solve crimes.

Sharon Jones is keeping old-school r’n’b music alive. Not that dumb crap they file under r’n’b nowadays. None of them ‘guest raps’ here.  If the best part of your song is a sample from someone else’s song, that’s cheating. None of that here. No drum machines, either. Absolutely none of that damn auto-tune. Real musicians don’t need those props. Sharon and the Dap-Kings belong at the top of the top of the pops, real soul music should be topping the forty, but the world isn’t fair like that, and that’s what Sharon Jones is talking about.

Distant Dreamer

Not everybody loves Duffy’s voice, but I find it lovely – soul with a hint of helium. This is of the highlights from her first album. She recreated a certain moment of sixties-ness – motown torch songs – with exactitude. She’s just put out a second record, and I’ve just played it. The first thing I notice is it’s a lot shorter. Then I think about, what are the expectations for a second Duffy album? Do we want more and more of the same, or do we want her to stretch out a bit? She does a little of both. The new one is not so much a time-capsule – it has beats, for one thing. It’s pretty good, but not as good. Because, really, anyone can do a song with beats, and plenty of people do, better than Duffy does. She has made a specific niche for herself, and she fares best when she’s doing what she does best, which is filling her niche. But on the other hand, it would be boring if she just made another album exactly like the first one, so cheers to her making some small change. I think it would be cool if she did some covers, but not of anything from the sixties, and not those tired old standards either. It would be cool if she did covers of famous contemporary songs in an oldies style.

Delayed Devotion

Just when I was wondering if little Duffy fell off the earth, here comes the news she’s finally got a second album on the way. In the two years since the success of Rockferry, she’s been touring madly. Her new record, titled Endlessly, is coming out in December. Duffy says that while there will plenty of songs in her usual retro-girl-group style, she’s also been exploring a funkier, more upbeat sound. “I just want everybody to dance.”