Monthly Archives: July 2009

I can walk you through the park if you’re feelin’ blue, or whatever

I don’t understand the concept of “makeout music.” If you’re going to makeout with someone, you’re concentrating on your lover, not on whether a Marvin Gaye or Animal Collective album is putting you in the mood. Thus, affixing this moniker on what Maxwell does mystifies me. Like Roxy Music’s Avalon, BLACKsummer’snight, his first record in almost eight years, evokes eroticism instead of being itself erotic or provoking erotic feeling.To me he’s “erotic”  like the Donna Summer of “I Feel Love,” who at least shouted psychotherapy from a height of 40,000 feet; Maxwell’s voice and come-on rely on perceptions of grit and “groudedness.”

As one of the best engineered recordings of the last several years, BLACKsummer’snight offers sumptuous pleasure: every rim shot, guitar strum, and doubletracked vocal has a presence missing in a lot of pop music, let alone “neo-soul.” Several plays lately, I’m not any closer to understanding what Maxwell’s intentions are — is he expressing lust or is he expressing that he wants to express lust? The confusion wouldn’t itself bother me if he wasn’t adapting soul signifiers to gloss it. This is the kind of album whose craft stifles an artistic sensibility that you’d think would transform these signifiers into weapons. Not enough to dissuade me from listening: “Stop the World” is the natural single “Pretty Wings” wasn’t, and a splendid companion piece to Raphael Saadiq’s expert soul cryogenics last autumn. “Help Somebody” boasts a keyboard hook lifted from Tricky circa 1997, horns blasts borrowed from early seventies Stevie Wonder, and a fuzzy guitar from god knows what; the groove’s so expertly coiled that I have no wish to ask it to surrender its secrets. If BLACKsummer’snight isn’t quite at Avalon‘s level, credit Bryan Ferry’s choice to sculpt music whose instrumental filigrees, which blare and disappear through the synthesized mix, conjure a detachment that Ferry’s vocals don’t quite convince you he feels. On “Love You” and “Pretty Wings,” Maxwell wants to breathe on your ear, but the arrangements restrain him; the tension between singer and band isn’t strong enough; in a couple of spots it exposes the weakness of his melodies. But when he strips down the music and wraps his voice around a fetching metaphor (“Playing Possum”‘s hunter-gets-captured-by-the-game tricks) and a trumpet solo that David Sylvian would die for, he’s irresistible.

You’re just kissing to be clever

If you can snag a copy of Dave Rimmer’s Like Punk Never Happened used on Amazon or eBay (it’s available), please do: it’s a wonderful companion to Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again.  Renewed interest in Culture Club’s Colour By Numbers provoked by an I Love Music poll persuaded me to request the book through my university’s interlibrary loan. Rimmer published his book a year after UK New Pop, in Robert Christgau’s trenchant words, conquered the world and then went pfft. A former writer for Smash Hits during Neil Tennant’s tenure as editor, Rimmer writes with intelligence and sensitivity about how the convergence of punk, disco, and the resurgence of youth culture produced a shift in popular culture that was truly seismic across the pond.

Rimmer’s triumph is to get bands to admit to the crassness of their motives without using these admissions to condemn their music; the shortcomings of Spandau Ballet and Howard Jones to my ears notwithstanding, they at least accepted their place in a plutocratic society. They adduce his thesis that the relationship between consumer and product had changed utterly in 1983 and 1984; these acts could claim, while looking you in the eye, that They Really Mean It and demand twenty pounds for that concert T-shirt, thank you very much. I wish Rolling Stone‘s early ’84 Duran Duran cover story was available online (the famous “Fab Five” cover): it’s one of the best testimonials to rampant, naked arrogance that I’ve ever read (you read it and understand why it took a generation to re-evaluate their music). Since 1984 was the peak of Reagan’s popularity as president and Thatcher’s on British popular culture, it’s no surprise to hear statements as honest as Thompson Twin chief operating officer Tom Bailey’s:

“A multinational corporation,” he says, “is exactly what we are, in a business sense. We’ve got a monstrously big turnover internationally. A lot bigger than a lot of companies that are quote don the Stock Exchange.”

The book concentrates on the rise of Culture Club, all of whose members come off as media savvy, quite aware that they’re on the ride of their lives and determined to have fun before the fall they see coming (and fall they did). Sandwiched around accounts of a Japanese tour and the processes by which bands make money off royalties and merchandise, we get character portraits: drummer Jon Moss, the not-so-closeted Tory and out-to-everyone-else lover of Boy George (was Rimmer the first journalist to reveal the secret? Inquiring minds want to know.); the detached bassist Mikey Craig; guitarist and all-round affable bloke Roy Hay. As for George Alan O’Dowd, Rimmer captures him at the height of his global popularity — the gal was on “The A Team,” for god’s sake. He also isn’t afraid to puncture holes in George’s sexuality, represented by Borscht Belt bon mots (when asked if he’s bisexual, George chirps, “No, I never had to buy sex”). Besides pointing out that George’s stonewalling made “sound commercial sense” (it kept everyone guessing), he demonstrates how it’s nothing new: “the path of  fame and fortune in the world of British pop began with the casting couch. A clique of homosexual managers ruled the roost.”

It’s a week of correspondences. After contributing to an ILM thread devoted to The Cure’s Wish, I remembered a fantastic profile in Details published in ithe summer of ’92, in which Robert Smith comes off considerably more human and thoughtful than he ever did or would again. After checking said magazine (I own lots of back issues from Details‘ 1992-1996 glory years), I noted: Smash Hits colleague and author of two fantastic Pet Shop Boys tour chronicles Chris Heath wrote it.

Negotiable space

The idea of Top 40 radio as what Tom Ewing calls “a place where ideas about pop could clash and mutate” is exactly the vision through which Casey Kasem and Shadoe Stevens’ competing but not much different tallies of the most popular songs in America seduced me. This might explain why I’m so tolerant of Sheena Easton, Paula Abdul, Phil Collins/Genesis, Roxette, and countless other third-stringers. Nostalgia, inevitably, has something to do with it; but even then I was conscious of liking a “Cold Hearted” here or “Dangerous” there because contact with songs I loved like “Enjoy The Silence,” “Me, Myself and I,” or “3 AM Eternal” inoculated them against visceral disdain. Liking or loving them, as Ewing asserts, is quite beside the point; it’s how they negotiated spots in a room whose sanctity depended on the purchasing power of millions of Americans. The mass audience who sent “Dangerous” into the top five also made “Enjoy The Silence” a Top Ten hit! Songs that become pop hits take victory laps around our ears; we can’t ignore them. Although my iTunes/CD player vs car radio listening is roughly 90-10, I can’t shake the sense that hearing your favorite new song on the radio — it happened last summer with M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” — is a triumph that our atomized marketplace can’t easily replace. My song can compete. That’s why I lose patience with colleagues who still — in 2009! — assume that their favorite song remains a shared experience between the band and the listener.

(Hat tip: Matos)

The Onion couldn’t have put this more gracefully:

In a surprising development, the Roman Catholic church has moved to officially endorse masturbation. The result of an intense theological debate, the decision is seen by progressives in the Vatican as a major step forward in bringing Catholicism into the twenty first century.

“Whether we like it or not, masturbation is fast becomin’ the preferred method of sexual activity in today’s society,” opines Bishop Brendan O’Fugh, one of the leading pro-masturbation campaigners. “With people increasingly turnin’ away from matrimony and choosin’ to live on their own, whacking off represents the one form of sex outside marriage which doesn’t involve sodomising another man, commitin’ adultery or havin’ to pay for it! We’ve no choice but to embrace it!”