Sen no Suiyoubi no Yoru
438 · 19 June 03
Roxette: The Ballad Hits/The Pop Hits + bonus EPs
Roxette already have a best-of. It's called Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus!, and it's the only compilation on my list of the ten greatest albums of recorded musical history. I readily concede that there may be some way in which it could still be marginally improved, but if there are already only a handful of albums I like better, improving Roxette's any further seems unnecessary and discourteous. And their American label's botched "updating" of it, a few years later, hasn't even those qualities to recommend it.
But Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus! came out in 1995, which as of 2003 has drifted to essentially the middle of Roxette's official timeline. Only two of Roxette's six studio albums have come out since then (or two of five if you ignore Pearls of Passion, which the compilations do), but if I put aside my convictions of immortality I can understand the band's impulse to do something for the newer material. A Volume 2 based only on Have a Nice Day and Room Service would look rather dubious, so a two-disc reappraisal of the whole catalog seems like a reasonable idea.
Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus! squeezed in eighteen songs. The Ballad Hits and The Pop Hits, between them, make space for thirty. Sixteen of the thirty on the new set were on the old one. Each of the new discs is book-ended by a pair of new songs. Of the other ten on the new set, seven are from the two newer studio albums, and three are from older ones. This all sounds fine. The newer songs aren't my favorites from those two records, but they're the singles, which was the rationale behind the first compilation, too, so I won't argue too much.
Or I won't argue with that, at least. Unfortunately, though, breaking the new set into separately-sold discs organized by energy level is as monumentally idiotic an idea as resequencing Memento so that all the indoor scenes come before all the outdoor ones. A huge part of Roxette's genius, on both studio albums and Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus!, was their deft intermingling of sentimental ballads and bubbly pop. Maybe there are people who would like to hear one without the other, but we shouldn't be their enablers. Fast and slow need each other, and we need both. Even a graceless mechanical interleaving of these two discs' tracks is a qualitative improvement on listening to one disc and then the other. And putting the old tracks back in Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus! sequence and adding the new ones in album/chronological order, for example, is fairly marvelous. There's still no good reason for such a thing to be shipped with assembly required, but I have iTunes, I can fix it.
And maybe Per and Marie knew they were doing something wrong, because the first editions of these packages, in addition to each having two new songs, each includes a bonus EP with four more. The ballad disc opens with the tranquil "A Thing About You", built unfussily around the core of Per's demo, with Marie circling him like halo gleam; it closes with the coolly effervescent "Breathe", Marie taking the lead again while drum machines twitter and synthesizers sigh. The bonus EP, however, seems to me to have the more interesting songs. The swirly, understated "The Weight of the World", the shortest thing in the whole ballad list, plays like a fond lullaby, Per and Marie trading leads in the middle like parents on either side of the bed. The 1998 recording "It Hurts" lets a drum loop thump distractedly as keyboards hum and Marie walks through the words. The glassy 1993 outtake "See Me", one of Marie's, verges on Enya. And "Every Day", nearly a Marie piano-and-voice solo, is a rare Roxette-labeled reminder of her solo facility for elegant traditionalism.
The pop disc commits one incomprehensible error of omission by leaving out the brilliant Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus! bonus "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore", but a flick of the mouse in iTunes and it's back where it belongs. The disc opens with the three-minute-even "Opportunity Nox", as epigrammatic a demonstration of Per's pop sense as any of the established singles, especially with the springy vocoder intro, bounding chorus bass and fluttery lead guitar. It closes with the alternately suspended and storming "Little Miss Sorrow", which tries gamely to live up to "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore", and in my opinion comes exhilaratingly close. The pop bonus EP is a little disappointing, though. "Stupid" is practically onomatopoeia, particularly the blustery guitar solo and the carefully telegraphed chord changes, and it's the only real pop song the EP has. The 1993 leftover "Makin' Love to You" is sweet enough, but clearly should have been on the ballad disc. A demo-ish 1997 "Better Off on Her Own" doesn't quite reach full pop speed either, but makes up in sunniness what it lacks in force. And even the languid "Bla Bla Bla Bla Bla (You Broke My Heart)" is broader than it is fast.
And if these two compilations fall so far from recapitulating Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus!, but can be salvaged by hand, that may be fitting. If downloading and streaming threaten to undermine the studio album as the primary unit of popular-music production, then they threaten even more ominously to destroy the compilation as the unit of its resale. In a virtualized music market, you can't sell the same track to the same person twice. A compilation of previously-released songs contains no new information but a track list, and in explaining the track list to sell it you have given it away. Adding a couple new songs to a collection of old ones is a dead sales strategy as soon as the iTunes store and its competition and successors reach critical mass. And if these are its last rites, there will be dancing at the wake.
Alanis Morissette: Feast on Scraps
B-sides are a dead gimmick, too, of course, as are b-side compilations. Alanis acknowledges this by packaging a round-up of Under Rug Swept outtakes with a concert DVD and some CD-ROM multimedia. The videos are worth watching at least once, which I will do any day now. The news is that Alanis actually had b-sides this time around. If you bought the import singles for "Hands Clean", you will already have heard the loudly menacing "Fear of Bliss", the grinding "Sister Blister" and the effusive "Unprodigal Daughter" (and a gentler list-song called "Symptoms" that she didn't bother reprising here). Any of those three could have replaced anything on Under Rug Swept except "Hands Clean", "Precious Illusions" and "Surrendering", in my judgment, so if you missed them the first time, and care, take this second chance. The "Precious Illusions" singles added the solid middle-energy might-have-been-album-track "Bent for You", the brittle and mostly-acoustic semi-ballad "Offer", the meandering "Sorry to Myself", and a relaxed and surprisingly apt acoustic version of "Hands Clean". Feast on Scraps also throws in the silky piano-and-strings ballad "Simple Together" and the shifting quasi-Indian experiment "Purgatorying". Alanis is popular enough that it's tempting to forget about her in between albums, just to stave off overexposure, so for me these extra songs are a useful reminder of how much I like listening to her by choice.
Ayumi Hamasaki: Free & Easy
Much of my mixed emotion about the imminent possible death or marginalization of the album format comes from my rueful observation that if you separate album artists from singles artists, as the market is likely to, I like a whole lot more of the former than the latter. Roxette are the most prominent exception, of course, but in Roxette's case I treat all their songs as singles, so it's kind of the same thing. There are very few artists that I like intensely on some songs, and dislike intensely on some others. Ayumi Hamasaki may be my most extreme example: Rainbow, her most recent album, has so many songs I simply hate that trying to listen to the whole thing is futile. Focus her energies at single length, though, and it can still be thrilling. "Free & Easy" is on Rainbow, but it's much more appealing, to me, on this single from earlier last year. The song itself enters slowly, its hushed intro built on woodwinds, strings, piano and assorted keyboards, before erupting fitfully into a concussive Euro-trance stomp goaded by clanging piano runs and whirring guitar. The "Dolly Mix" of "Naturally" thins the song out and chops it up, to techno but interesting effect. The Warp Brothers turn "Still Alone", which was half understated pop and half power-ballad on I am..., into a relentless epic, complete with applause breaks, overbearing synth stabs and endless knob twiddling, but Ayumi's tiny little voice keeps it from getting completely out of control.
Ayumi Hamasaki: H
The most intensely I've so far loved Ayumi, though, is during the half hour of H, another single from last year. All three of these songs are on Rainbow, but context is critical. The album version of "independent" was remixed and distended, no match for the single version I put on my 2002 top-ten list. Echoey cheerleader handclaps, snarly guitar, burbling bass pulses, twitchy hi-hats and whip-crack kick-snare loops snap in and out under Ayumi's headlong vocal. An eerie guitar solo, somewhere in the middle, nearly outdoes the Buzzcocks by hanging on a single note. Pop can be punk, and Avril Lavigne isn't how. "July 1st", the second song, shifts the whole stop-start structure down the noise scale, banging back and forth between atmospheric acoustic guitar and bloopy DJ-scratching. And "HANABI" ("Fireworks", but not a cover of the Roxette song) is the quiet song to balance the other two, chirping and creaking and undulating like a deconstruction of Madonna's "Live to Tell". As is common Japanese practice, the EP then repeats the three tracks in karaoke versions (labeled "instrumental", but they include the backing vocals). This sounds redundant and annoying, and sometimes is one or both, but here I find that they've become part of the experience for me. In part they act like credits music, but in part Ayu's voice is so distinctive that without her lead vocals I end up hearing different aspects of the rest of the arrangement.
Nanase Aikawa: Owarinai Yume
The Japanese pop industry is better prepared for the format revolutions in at least one way, as it seems to be more accustomed to releasing most or all of an album's singles in advance of the album, rather than trying to contrive new buying events for music that has already been available for a while. Owarinai Yume, released late last summer, was Nanase Aikawa's first single after Purana and the EP The Last Quarter, and the title track was the other half of my imaginary #8 with Ayu's "independent". "Neverending Dream", it means, approximately. Guitars churn and ping, in Glay-like proportions. Drums slap and rattle. Whooshy percussive noises and insectival synth whines pick at the song's rock dignity, but Nanase lets herself get caught up in the movement, singing from just under the surface of the song, rather than gliding on top of it the way Ayu might. This is what Patty Smyth or Shona Laing might have sounded like if they were younger today, maybe. Of the b-sides, "Cryin' in the rain" is appropriately squelchy, purring along on slow fretless bass murmur, and "DO IT !!" is its polar opposite, manic drums battering against crunching guitar and relentless industrial-groove synth blurts, Nanase strutting like Toni Basil somehow grown up into Joan Jett.
Nanase Aikawa: Roppongi Shinjyu
"Roppongi Shinjyu" ("Roppongi" is a Tokyo nightlife district, "Shinjyu" is lovers' double-suicide), the next single, is even more enthusiastic, seething guitar-samples grinding over pounding trance drums, gruff male voices intoning "Toshokan!" in the choruses (which means "library", so either I'm mishearing them, or else the double-suicide has a literary angle I haven't deciphered yet). "Utsukushii Hibi" ("Beautiful Days"), the b-side, is serene mutating into resolute. DJ Ajapai's remix of "Roppongi Shinjyu" turns it into glib soundtrack music for a gadgety Pink Panther remake, but CMJK's solarizes and actually shortens it.
Nanase Aikawa: Shock of Love
The crescendo nears a peak on the third single, "Shock of Love", released earlier this year. There are still noise layers for texture, but otherwise the band plays the song straightforwardly, albeit frantically fast, and Nanase is frequently reduced to shouting to keep up. "THAT DAY + THAT MOMENT", the first b-side, is galloping and wide-eyed; "Fukinshin na Nozomi" ("Unrepentant Hope"?), the second, is anxious and impatient, with a bitter guest rap from Giorgio Cancemi. I'm not sure who could get away with this in America. Jane Wiedlin, perhaps, if she re-formed Frosted without the grunge pretensions. Cyndi Lauper if she could marry the energy of "It's Hard to Be Me" to the ambition and adventurousness of "She Bop". Jewel if she set out to make a metal album.
Hitomi Yaida: Kodoku na Cowboy
Some songs, Hitomi Yaida sounds like a real artist to me, pushing pop songs around unexpected corners. Some songs she sounds like a pretty girl who got a music career for her twentieth birthday and quit her job smiling at noodle-restaurant patrons in order to enjoy it better. Sometimes, as in "Kodoku na Cowboy" ("Lonely Cowboy"), I have both of these impressions in the course of a single song. The music is simple, the melody is sing-song, and she sings the verses as if she's too proud of remembering to face the microphone to worry much about subtler nuances. And yet, the quavery, keening way she winds through the chorus is anything but prefab. The b-side, "Mama to Teddy", is even harder to figure, quick-step speed-pop flourishes warring with Hitomi's wriggly vocal performance, which at times seems on the brink of turning into yodeling. But she writes her songs, so at worst she saved up enough money at the noodle job to buy herself the music career.
Chitose Hajime: Kono Machi
Take the odd twinges in Hitomi Yaida's voice and make them a whole style, and you more or less have Chitose Hajime's ethereal Okinawan wail. She too may dream of being a happy pop singer, for all I know, but for the moment somebody in Epic Japan marketing has opted to stick to the idea that her ethnicity inherently qualifies her as world music, something like Enya as a snake charmer. "Kono Machi" ("This Town") is in exactly this mold, Chitose winding over quiet piano, ticking drums, rustling chimes and water-drop bass. A string-heavy remix of the Hainumikaze album-track "Rin to Suru" ("Being Cold"?) is pensive and eerie. But the other b-side, "Hummingbird" (or "Hamingubaado", transliterally), was my favorite single song of 2002. Instrumentally, it's breathtakingly simple, mostly a quarter-note kick-drum click and an acoustic-guitar chord-cycle, with individual piano notes and doppler-flyby percussion occasionally banked in later for variety. Chitose's vocal is pretty, careful and uncluttered, paced by harmonized "doot doot"s, evoking a lineage going back at least to Paul and Art's "Cecelia". There's almost nothing to this song, and it's almost perfect.
Chitose Hajime: Sen no Yoru to Sen no Hiru
The second post-Hainumikaze single, "Sen to Yoru to Sen no Hiru" ("A Thousand Nights and a Thousand Days"; nothing to do with Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi), reverts to the identity plan, though, vocal lines spiking out of the tastefully restrained music like solar flares. "Shiroi Yoru" ("White Night"), produced by Deep Forest's Eric Mouquet, is even more Enya-like, disguised only thinly by methodical drums. And the crossover bid is the last b-side, a spare acoustic-guitar-keyed cover of Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors". Not only is covering Cyndi Lauper overwhelmingly likely to make you sound bad by comparison, no matter who you are, but unlike with Hitomi's version of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car", Chitose attempts to sing this one in the original English. This proves self-defeating, it seems to me, as the whole point of Chitose's presence is her bewitching voice, but when she's forced to struggle phonetically through a foreign language it sounds less bewitching than impaired.
Every Little Thing: Grip!
"Grip!" itself is on Every Little Thing's album Many Pieces. The single has only one b-side and the standard karaoke mixes of both songs. That one b-side, "Yura yura", is a gem, though, buoyant and glittering, keyboards pinging over affectionate guitars and pattering, unhurried drums, key changes lurching in abruptly, melodies stair-stepping up and down like zero-gravity ballet.
Do As Infinity: Mahou no Kotoba ~Would you marry me?~
Do As Infinity's album TRUE SONG is barely half a year old, on the other hand, and they've already moved on to their first post-album single, the brassy "Mahou no Kotoba ~Would you marry me?~" ("Mahou no Kotoba" is "Magic Words", not the Japanese for a marriage proposal). Horns flash, guitars scritch, violins slither. The video (on an accompanying DVD, if you get the limited edition, although you have to be able to play region 2 PAL video to watch it) shows the band mugging shamelessly for nearly five minutes while we wait to see Tomiko's turn at trying to jerk a tablecloth out from under a place setting without knocking the glasses over. She's cute. The band is goofy. The song is cloying and atypical. The b-side, "mellow amber", is more in character, guitars squalling and muttering, strings sawing, Tomiko's melody spinning and arching over the arrangement.
day after tomorrow: elements + EPs
But if you have moments when "cloying" is exactly what you need, and lots of it, then the J-Pop band for you may be the new trio day after tomorrow, yet more protégés of Avex Trax and producer Max Matsuura. elements is their first full album, after two EPs (which are compiled and included here as a bonus disc for good measure). That makes two dozen songs, lasting nearly an hour and forty-five minutes. Listening to it all at once might kill you. Every song is catchy to the point of super-glue adhesion you can't peel off without drawing blood, and more than once you might find yourself feeling that I have violated the spirit of my promise not to inflict Morning Musume albums on you. day after tomorrow make ELT sound like EbtG, and DAI sound like the Pretenders. They have the sophistication of the Mickey Mouse Club, the discretion of a Nevada rodeo clown on a corn-syrup bender, and the existential angst of a Smurf listening to the Jets on an orange-plastic eight-track player. My favorite of their songs, the EP track "Hello, Everybody!", sounds like Missing Persons with every faint trace of Zappa blanched out. The best way to appreciate this album is to put it on shuffle with enough others that you won't hear anything from it very often. That way, when one of these songs finally comes around, you'll enjoy the blast of sweetness, just like you do when you bite into the lucky turkey burger with the lone fudge-covered passion-fruit gumdrop.