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I Leave a Kiss on Your Answering Machine
Roxette: Don't Bore Us - Get to the Chorus!
I've already used a rarities collection and some singles as excuses to slip into my Per Gessle/Marie Fredriksson reverie sporadically over the course of the last year, and for those of you who have developed a propensity for scrolling nervously past the parts of my reviews where I say preposterously hyperbolic things about Roxette, this is your cue to execute a quick drum roll on the nearest Page Down key, praying that that's the keyboard connected to the screen you're looking at.
Because it's my considered opinion that this is the greatest unapologetically glossy dance-pop album in the history of civilization. People often call things their "considered opinions" when they really mean that they've given the subject very little thought and are hoping to bluff you out of questioning them by surrounding their snap judgment with borrowed Masterpiece Theater idioms, but in this case I mean the phrase literally. This disc came out in the UK last year, and I've had a copy sitting on my to-be-reviewed/heavy-rotation pile since, according to my database (and I can't imagine why it would dissemble on this subject), December first. I would have reviewed it as soon as I got it, but for most of that time I was intentionally stalling, waiting for EMI to release the album in the US, so that people who read this column in the country where I write it would be able to find copies without undue expenditure of time and money. The label appears by now to have abandoned any plans of releasing the collection here at all, but the result of their stringing me along is that this disc has gotten to spend more time in my CD player than just about anything else I've purchased in the last two or three years. I'd tentatively decided that this was the greatest unapologetically glossy dance-pop album in the history of civilization by New Year's, so I've now put more than four months of frequent conclusion-revisiting into the idea, and haven't been tempted to retract it yet. There is certainly no reason why you should map the magnitude of my surety into credence for my assessment, but I wanted to record my testimony that this music is, for me, in addition to its other qualities, durable.
The oddest thing about my adoration for this compilation is that I'm generally an album purist, and particularly with bands whose albums I've liked plenty on their own, of which Roxette is one, my reaction to best-ofs generally consists of a little good-natured quibbling with the track list, followed by the placing of the disc on the shelf with a small burp of completist contentment, never to pay it the slightest heed again. And yes, if I furrow my brow and concentrate (the furrowing might be unnecessary, come to think of it), I could dredge up a few non-singles from the recesses of Roxette's catalog whose absence here strikes me as deeply tragic ("Half a Woman, Half a Shadow", "Small Talk" and "The First Girl On the Moon" would be my short list). But here's the trade-off: the Roxette songs I actively miss while listening to this collection are vastly outnumbered by the songs I actively miss while listening to any one of their other albums. I suspect that this is sort of a vicious circle, in that I've now listened to this album more times than any of the others, and perhaps I would have had largely the same reaction to a randomly selected sample of this size, but since any collection that would satisfy me would have to have "The Look", "Joyride" and "Sleeping in My Car", this one will serve as well as any.
It's also, as it happens, far from a random sample in execution. Given the profile of many of these singles, it would have been unsurprising if this was a crass record-label exercise in low-materials-cost profit extraction, hastily assembled and aimed at the impulse-purchase demographic, but just the trouble you'll have extricating the thick booklet (which includes lyrics, detailed credits, some inventive photos and impromptu explanatory dialogs between Per and Marie for each song) from between the prongs in the case lid should reassure you that people who actually cared were in charge of this project. It probably serves the spur-of-the-moment market well enough, at least in countries where it can be sold at a competitive price, but there is also plenty here to interest the more discerning Roxette fan, if there are more of such people than just me. Of the eleven tracks culled from Look Sharp!, Joyride and Crash! Boom! Bang, seven of them are single versions. This pleases completists immensely, but it also helps give the collection a non-stop good-parts energy for short-attention-spanned neophytes, and has the incidental benefit of letting them fit more songs in. Look Sharp! is represented by "The Look", "Dressed for Success", "Dangerous" and "Listen to Your Heart", with "Listen to Your Heart" swapped out of its original album-ending position to set up a better running order leading into "It Must Have Been Love", their epic ballad from the Pretty Woman soundtrack (included in a spellbinding half-live incarnation on Tourism, but not available in its original form on a Roxette release before now). The Joyride tracks are "Joyride", "Fading Like a Flower (Every Time You Leave)", "The Big L" and "Spending My Time", again juggled to intersperse power-pop with power-ballad. The second between-album bridge consists of "How Do You Do!", from the odds-and-ends album "Tourism", and "Almost Unreal", rescued from the cutout-bin obscurity of the soundtrack to Super Mario Brothers (though the demo version of this song appears on Rarities, and is reprised on part two of the current UK single for "You Don't Understand Me"). And the Crash! Boom! Bang! segment consists of "Sleeping in My Car", "Crash! Boom! Bang!" and "Vulnerable", a nice tapering of intensity leading into "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore".
Which brings us to the most important detail for the devotee, which is that there are four news songs here, book-ending the fourteen prior hits. "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore" was my choice for 1995's best single, and "June Afternoon" is nearly as ebullient. "You Don't Understand" and "I Don't Want to Get Hurt", for balance, are slinkier and more subtle, to the extent that Roxette is ever subtle. I have more than one compilation where the inclusion of some new material in addition to the hits is occasion for a polite note to the artist explaining that if we'd wanted our hits mixed with putrid crap, we would have purchased one of their customary releases (the Animotion retrospective I recently fell for leaps, unbidden, to my mind), but in this case I think all four of the new songs give no ground to their auspicious company.
The combined effect of all this is, at least for me, seventy-five minutes and nineteen seconds of uninterrupted, unqualified, guilt-free, rapturous smiling. Yes, I sense your skepticism, your quizzical faces out there in the networked, anonymous darkness. Some of you who I lured in last month by obsessing about Everclear singles are starting to have the sinking suspicion that this whole Roxette thing isn't a parody after all. The people who sent me nice notes after I reviewed Steve Reich and John Oswald are shaking their heads (polyrhythmically, one assumes), and somewhere out there there's probably a coven of wan collegiate Midwesterners lighting a pentagram of candles around their favorite Sparc in the hopes that next week I'll finally do Cannibal Corpse and Impaler. Well, I might. But if you ever decide, any of you, that you need an hour or so of music that is antithetical to all things angry, difficult or sinister, this is what I recommend.
Voice of the Beehive: Sex & Misery
If you need a second hour, or you live in a country that is currently at war with Sweden, some of the same Big Pop tendencies that make Roxette either thrilling or cloying, depending on your taste, are in evidence on Sex & Misery, the semi-comeback third album by Voice of the Beehive. Dizzy harmonies, chattering dance-beat drum loops, eloquent synthesizer flourishes, the sound of crashing guitars and the occasional restrained moment that contrast makes seem more sophisticated than it probably really is combine with perky lyrics about the moon, kisses, angels, love and paradise to make a deliciously confectionery album that ought to appeal to anybody who enjoys the rush of consuming a Twinkie more than they hate the chemical aftertaste. My only real hesitation about branding this as disposable after one listen was that it might be ecologically irresponsible to discard something this artificial without taking some special steps. Actually, I hate Twinkies (brandishing metaphor like a nineteen-foot paper-mache rapier with a handle swaddled in sardines, he advances on his quivering prey...), but yet I liked this. Enough to listen to it more than once, anyway, which is more patience than I can promise you'll have for it.
Repeat listening had an effect I didn't anticipate, though, so perhaps you'll have the same experience. I definitely put it on again in my Roxette mode. Roxette songs, for me, don't get better or worse with repetition. In fact, they basically have no depth at all. You hear a Roxette song, you've heard it. If you didn't like it yet, I doubt it will grow on you, so there's little point in playing it again unless you have changed. Sex & Misery, however, did change as I listened to it again.
The first change was mostly my fault, for not having paid close enough attention to the lyrics the first time through. It turns out that "perky" is not a very good word for them. "I'm Still in Love", despite its devoted title and snippets like "Crazy, crazy" and something about puppy-dog tails, turns out to be a rather disturbing admission of masochistic co-dependency, revolving around a chilling turn of phrase that turns an abuse scenario sound into a playground chant. "Moon of Dust" is an unhappy autopsy of romantic disillusionment. "Angel Come Down" seems to be about a dead friend. "Love Locked Inside" might be noble dedication, but it's unclear whether the narrator is saving love for a real person, or for something she knows to be a myth. "Playing House" is a grim portrait of banal domestic misery. "Heavenly" is about a memory of a relationship, not a current love. And the last three songs, "Blue in Paradise", "So Hard" and "Moonblind", are all about the persistence of sadness in environments that seem tailored for being happy.
But okay, misery is not new to pop, and while there are a few turns of phrase I like, scattered among these songs (the interesting redundancy of "Lonely in a cautious way", in "Scary Kisses"; the possessive optimism of "The sky is endless and it's just for me to see" in "New Day"; the end-of-pop-girlhood discovery that "the heroes always fall from the bedroom walls" in "Moon of Dust"; the touching "Anywhere you lay your head my love you will find rest" in "Moonblind"), there are really far too many hackneyed bits like "I would rather run and fall than take no chance at all", "Yesterday blue skies turned grey, / You know I felt I'd lost my way", "I think I loved you deeper than the ocean blue", "I want to drink champagne and dance in a / Fountain splashing us with rain" and "Anywhere you go, you will find me" for me to justify the album on lyrical grounds.
Fortunately, the music is another matter. Although the album never strays far from production-value pop, the number of subtle variants on this theme that it manages is pretty impressive. "Scary Kisses", the opener, plays a beepy techno synth-burbling against ringing guitar, and a busy drum pattern against soaring duet harmonies from sisters Melissa Belland and Tracey Byrn. "New Day"'s verses sound a lot like one of Madonna's slower songs ("Live to Tell", maybe), but the chirping violin and quick, surging strings on the chorus are much too busy for "Papa Don't Preach", and the muted spoken interlude is closer to TLC. "Angel Come Down" would be a straightforward ballad if it weren't for the odd choice of synth voices (something harpsichord-ish, a harp sound with some extra white noise, and whistle and flute sounds played by somebody who is really good with a pitch-bend wheel), the slight waifish vulnerability that comes through in the surprisingly human vocal treatment, and the way the song seems to hiccup over its second-to-last beat. The vibrant harmonies and chorus pomp of "Moon of Dust" could have come from listening to Scarlet's album to excess, but there are these intricate stentorian phrases right after two of the choruses that remind me of "Bohemian Rhapsody", except that the second one breaks into a momentary hip-hop drum return. "I'm Still in Love" has a little of "Free Your Mind"'s diva-elan, but mounts it on a completely straightforward kick-snare frame. "Love Locked Inside" starts out like it's going to be an October Project song, and then wanders off into a smooth, silky ballad whose childlike voices make me think for just an instance of Shampoo (except that these are unaccented and in tune) and then suddenly inserts some monster guitar that in a band with a higher profile might have been a Slash guest appearance. "Playing House" is charged and deliberately overblown, with both women cutting uncharacteristically loose. "Heavenly" is sort of mid-tempo Abba, with a gorgeous, soaring chorus. "Blue in Paradise" was co-written by XTC's Andy Partridge, and to me demonstrates what's similar about his and Elvis Costello's writing styles better than most of the songs they perform themselves tend to. "So Hard"'s drum loop feels particularly like those on Gary Numan's Sacrifice to me, and "Moonblind" sounds like later Jane Wiedlin (after she stopped singing like an twelve-year-old).
As I said, though, I liked this album even before I started treating it as a pop archaeology project, so I'm not arguing that it's good because it displays all these influences and similarities, I'm saying that it goes from pleasant to fascinating for me because listening to it I start to disassemble the songs and see how it is that Voice of the Beehive suggest so many other artists without actually sounding, in the end, exactly like any of them. I compare them, Roxette and Scarlet in my mind, seeing what such precise triangulation can tell me about why I capitulate so quickly to this kind of shiny pop, and then I try to figure out why I so seldom like the Madonna-ish things about this record when they're embedded in Madonna songs. I know, there are probably more important topics I could be considering, but self-discovery (as I said to a perplexed mall-toy-store cashier over a large stack of rapid-fire Nerf weapons yesterday, though I think I ruined the effect by going back and returning one of them today) takes many forms. Whether these are questions of any import in your lives, or whether you too need extra ammo belts for your Chainblaster, you will have to answer for yourselves.
Ben Folds Five: Ben Folds Five
There's more to pop than women's voices and well-equipped studios, though, and one of the more bracingly individual renderings of the form in recent memory, I think, is this unassuming little debut from last year some time, which a belated video appearance on 120 Minutes a couple months ago alerted me to. Ben Folds Five are a trio (cosmic redress for the fact that the Leslie Spit Treeo had five members, perhaps), with Ben Folds himself on piano and lead vocals, Robert Sledge on fuzzy, Velvet Crush-ish bass, and Darren Jessee providing snappy drumming. In my 1995 year-end writeup I said about Suddenly Tammy that they would "probably be the world's best guitarless pop trio even if there were more of them", and it's discovering bands like Ben Folds Five that keeps me diligently inserting precautionary "probably"s into my pronouncements as I edit these columns.
The two bands, though they share instrumental makeup and the dubious honor of my critical endorsement, are virtually nothing alike. Suddenly Tammy project an impish, handmade, family aura that hints at music born of afternoons in their parents' rec room, and Beth Sorrentino's piano style sounds like she developed it more through not knowing any other way to play than anything else. In Ben Folds, on the other hand, pop piano tradition runs deep and fast. I can hear Elton John and Billy Joel in this music, clearly, and perhaps even Little Richard and others who came way before my time ("my time" beginning basically, for musical purposes, around 1978). Extend that line through Joe Jackson, who Folds resembles vocally at times (albeit with a North Carolina accent instead of Jackson's English one), and a ways down it you find the next generation of piano-pop hero, playing a permutation that owes as much to garages as to piano bars. Ben Folds Five and Guided by Voices have nothing literal in common that I can think of, but they inhabit the same era, and a similar spirit of irrepressible enthusiasm animates them both. "Alternative" may have been boiled in broth so long that about all it can safely be said to mean any more is "Not Celine Dion", but this is the kind of music that gave rise to the term in the first place, in that you listen to it and you say "Well, I've never heard that before!"
Staking myself to two preposterous superlatives in the space of one column seems excessive even for me, but the truth is that I'm pretty convinced that this album, too, is the best something in the history of the world. My parents insist that as a child I would dash breathlessly into their bedroom upon returning from every movie I saw yelping that it was the best movie I'd ever seen in my life (doubtful, as Clash of the Titans was in there somewhere), and perhaps you think that I have yet to shake this syndrome entirely, but what can I do? Every time I play this album, my jaw drops. Tori Amos plays the piano like her nerves are woven into the strings, and that's remarkable, but Ben Folds plays the piano like it's a six-month-old puppy on speed that he's somehow trained to jump ninety feet straight up in the air to catch the frisbees of the gods, and that's remarkable in another way. Tori's playing is Expressiveness, while Folds' piano sounds like the hyperactive Muse of Melody, come to Earth to remind us what the word "frolic" was invented for, perhaps because the other Muses were about ready to strangle her. It doesn't even sound like he's actually playing the music; it doesn't seem like he could. The piano must be generating it itself, and Folds is just shaping and directing by pounding on the soundboard and flailing inspiringly at the sides of the thing.
The piano-playing would be remarkable enough on its own, but the rest of the context is integral in turning a virtuoso novelty into a stirring band. Sledge's bass is warmly low-fi, and though there's nothing amateurish about his technique, neither does he try any Stanley Clarke histrionics, and the production treatment is such that I always feel like he's standing in somebody's spare room playing a beat-up instrument into a battered old amp he borrowed from some friend who was too stoned to object, not cocooned in a climate-controlled studio with a headless Steinberger and a pair of Sennheisers on, listening to the producer's critique from the control booth. Jessee's drumming uses a classically simple palette (there's at least one tom, and maybe two or three cymbals, in addition to the hi-hat, kick and snare, so it's not the Stray Cats, but you're not going to get any of those endless Gil Moore fourteen-tom rolls out of it), and while there are signs, like the jazz outro to "Underground", that he may once have received formal training, discretion is the better part of his nerdy pallor here, and if there is a slight jazz inflection to his playing, it's the kind of Max Weinberg-ian drumming where you want to keep a firm grasp on the sticks because half the fun is hitting things hard.
Vocally, Sledge and Jessee's harmonies are angelic and absent of irony. The combination of the humble arrangements and the astonishingly ambitious songwriting is, to me, totally charming, in much the same way that the Posies' debut, Failure, was. I abhor it when bands misconstrue the apparent acceptability of low-fi and think it means that they can slouch through such vital activities as tuning, singing and writing songs. Those are the things you can control; the point is that you don't have to fret about the things you can't. In my worldview, a cheap guitar is fine, a four track is fine, singing even though you haven't got Tom Jones' voice is fine, but J Mascis singing while he's half asleep is not, the Drop Nineteens employing alternate tunings that don't yield a tune is not, and trite three-chord Lemonheads songs are not. Failure is sort of the archetype of naive ambition to me, Ken and Jon's attempt to make Pet Sounds in one of their living rooms despite the fact that basically neither of them could play drums and they weren't entirely sure what EQ stood for. Ben Folds Five lacks that "Gee, how hard can it be?" ingenuousness, but the contrast between the craft and the materials is just as arresting. If Failure makes a Rose Bowl Parade float out of popsicle sticks that still have red stains on them, then this album gets some sturdy two-by-fours to work with, and uses them to build a suspension bridge. And I mean a good float and a nice bridge, so that the first thing you say is "Hey, nice float, or bridge!", and only later do you say "Hold on, this thing is built out of popsicle sticks?! Or two-by-fours."
And while Roxette is proof that a lack of profound lyrics won't necessarily keep you out of my pantheon, it helps that Ben Folds weaves his manic pop tunes around engaging narratives. "Jackson Cannery" has some affecting family pathos in a factory town. "Philosophy" builds a self-image out of groundless childhood dreams and details like the way the helmet your parents made you wear when you rode your bike would mess up your hair (and when Folds says "I've got my philosophy" you get the feeling that, unlike when Bobby Brown sang "My prerogative", he doesn't feel a smug sense of accomplishment from just having pronounced the word correctly). The break-up-denial anthem "Julianne", with a rebound girl who looks like Axl Rose and a whole verse in which the narrator drags a bag of trash up and down the street (in front of Julianne's house, I'm guessing), is painfully evocative. The soulful "Where's Summer B.?" picks through the depressing stasis of returning to a claustrophobic hometown, and the wistful "Alice Childress" counters with the lonely feeling of having moved away. "Underground" mocks the idea that there's a single underground culture, or if that's all there is that it means anything ("Officer Friendly's little boy's got a mohawk"...). "Uncle Walter" is probably the best pop song ever written about desperately wishing that your significant other would return and rescue you from the endless lectures of one of her odious relatives. "Best Imitation of Myself" is a cool way of expressing the feeling that you've become alienated from your own identity, and "Video"'s study of deadened senses and "mature" retreat is chillingly mundane ("I've seen some old friends sort of die, / Or just turn into whatever / Must've been inside them, / And whatever all of us had then in common / Grew up and left home"). I won't ruin "The Last Polka"'s punch line for you. And "Boxing", the finale, is a life crisis cast as a confession to Howard Cosell.
Frenetic pop, effortless poise, good counsel and open eyes. The thought that Ben Folds Five might someday make another album leaves me weak and flustered, but convinced, for a few happy minutes, that perhaps the entire world isn't plummeting inexorably to hell after all. And sad, if it's not going to, that I didn't keep at those piano lessons when I was eight.
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