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Gorgeous and Fully Equipped
Sleeper: What Do I Do Now? #1
The definitive moment for me on Sleeper's debut album, Smart, is the line "What kind of A to Zed would get you here?", in "Inbetweener". It is a perfect evocation of the mundanity of existential confusion, a confusion rendered all the more debilitating by the implicit faith that it must have been arrived at for some good reason. In fact, what separates Sleeper from their musical compatriots for me is precisely this emotion, Louise Wener's ability to embody ambivalence and imbue it with a sad drama.
And so it is with "What Do I Do Now?", a post-Smart single that shows no overt sign of being the advance guard of a new album. Out of the throes of an oppressively ordinary relationship dysfunction is wrung the plaintive chorus cry: "What do I do now? / Are we going under? / What did I do wrong?" The singer's unquestioning faith that there is something to do, and that the relationship's demise is due to some concrete error, is heart-wrenchingly sincere. The world should be that way. Relationships shouldn't disintegrate for a litany of vague reasons you can't isolate, or because of some factors for which neither party could reasonably be blamed, they should crash spectacularly because somebody clearly, undeniably, screwed up. They should break on flagrant errors, because breaks can be repaired, and the acid dissolution of hazy incompatibility can't, and it hurts to watch something die and not even have the option of trying to fix it.
I like the song as much as anything Sleeper has done, musically, too. A sinuous synth riff slides over the top of the implacable guitars in the breaks, and burbles to the surface through the occasional gap in the verses. The guitars seem to somehow skip the attack portion of their envelopes half the time, and sound more like engines revving than like string instruments. The steady drums are awash in hi-hats and cymbals. Wener's voice is clear and subtle on the verses, and her airy chorus harmonies have a captivating lattice-like insubstantiality. She sings like she's telling you something, which is a rare skill. And the band plays like they hear her. Which is an even rarer combination.
On this first disc, "What Do I Do Now?" is accompanied by two more new songs, "Paint Me" and "Room at the Top". "Paint Me"'s verses match jagged music to a wavering vocal, leading into a mid-tempo chorus which makes good use of the semantic tension between paintings and photographs. Sleeper may be the first English art-school punk band to give any sign of having paid attention in art school. "Room at the Top" is slower and quieter, with a distracted guitar line set against a blurry processed wash of acoustic strumming, reverbed vocals, and some odd robotic-seagull sort of effects. Neither of the b-sides overshadow the lead track, but then they probably aren't supposed to.
Sleeper: What Do I Do Now? #2
Part two adds three live tracks from two March shows at Cardiff University and the London Astoria. The first of these is "Disco Duncan", which was a bizarre b-side on the single for "Inbetweener". In its energized live rendition here it seems like much less of a novelty, and the band seems better able to charge through its abrupt tempo changes without the song's progress getting derailed the way it seems to me to tend to on the studio version. The berserk conclusion is a nice touch, and the transition to "Vegas", the second track, is done so seamlessly that I was surprised to discover in the credits that it's from the London show and the other two are from Cardiff.
"Vegas", Sleeper's ode to Americana, misguided dreams and big-hearted rock and roll flair, is here subject to its second significant transformation. On its own single the song was bolstered with strings and production drama, turning a grand album track into a magnificent and magnanimous flourish. Here, live, it's stripped back down to guitars and only one copy of Louise's voice. And it still sounds grand, like a rhinestone spectacular somehow crammed into a tiny club almost without it noticing the change in environs or context.
The last recording, "Amuse", is done with only Louise and a slowly picked guitar part. I'm very pleased to hear this, as it means that Sleeper are not shying away from their quiet side, even in concert where the temptation to stick to the pogo fare must be omnipresent. And her deadpan "Cheers", bidding the audience farewell after such a somber interlude (the song is a disturbing half-paean to capitulation) (I think), seems to me to show her awareness both that much of the audience isn't going to pay close enough attention to the lyrics to spot the irony, and that those who do could use a touch of hope, no matter how symbolic, to take away with them. In her signoff, I hear Louise's understanding that as the crowd disperses, and couples make their way home, some of them will be reaching for each other's hands with exactly the same diffidences and uncertainties that the couple in "What Do I Do Now?" do, as they leave a concert themselves. And so the circle closes. And how many times do you get genuine closure in the space of a fourteen-minute CD-single?
Echobelly: Great Things #1
If there's anybody out there who looks for nothing so much as compactness of packaging in a single, "Great Things" will thrill you. It employs a new arrangement optimized specifically for two-part UK singles, putting each disc in a cardboard sleeve only just bigger than it (like a miniature LP sleeve, if you're old enough to remember those or have seen them on TV during Partridge Family reruns), and then providing, with the first part, an ever-so-slightly larger box-ended cardboard meta-sleeve into which both parts, if purchased separately, snugly fit. While I appreciate the reduction in plastics byproducts that this innovation brings about, I have this problem: new CDs in my house, particularly singles, live for some time in piles during that part of their lives when they are waiting to be reviewed. Jewel cases are firm and flat, and stack well. These faintly-bulging cardboard affairs make my piles teeter precipitously.
Those of you who care about the music therein may also find something of interest in this, the lead single from Echobelly's recent album On, which I reviewed just last week. "Great Things" itself is a pretty obvious single, giddily overblown like a pastel version of Big Country's "One Great Thing" (only without the social relevance or the guitars the size of radioactive monsters). Sonya Aurora Madan's lilting voice flits across the top of the roiling music as if buoyed aloft by its surge. "Here Comes the Scene", the first b-side, is appropriately portentous and rousing. Madan's vocal contortions on the bridge, in particular, are meticulous, and reassert her claim to out-Morrisseying Morrissey.
"God's Guest List", next, is a bit more restrained and, if anything, more melodramatic yet. The high note Sonya hits in "Now that the show is over" sounds very fleetingly like Kate Bush, and the trill at the end of "Will I belong to you?" makes me think for an instant of Radiohead. The instrumentation is all cymbal swells, minor chords, and funhouse guitar convolutions. The lyrics, while unavoidably reminding me again that Madan is none too profound a writer, are still sort of clever, recasting eternal salvation as an after-gig backstage party.
"On Turn Off", the last track, is an instrumental in search of a soundtrack. It's vaguely bluesy and slightly countryesque, with a big, ominous bass line and some infectious handclapping. It might make a good escape theme for one of these Generation-X-angst movies with the inevitable unhinged, mildly drunk night-driving scene. Grunge meets spaghetti western. Credibility meets obscurity, the latter of which makes for lower royalty rates on the subsequent soundtrack.
Echobelly: Great Things #2
The first b-side on the second disc, "On Turn On", is "On Turn Off" with the addition of token vocals. Madan's singing is sort of buried in the mix, and generally parallels the guitars, with the result that this version doesn't actually sound that different from the first one. The other tracks purport to be recordings done in the band's own bathroom (with the implication that the band has one bathroom between them, a charming fiction I wouldn't care to dispel even if I had any idea whether it was true or not). "Bunty" is a slight sing-song acoustic-guitar number that may have a future as the sunny theme song for some unrealistically multi-ethnic Saturday morning children's TV show. "One After 5am" is more in character for Echobelly, moody and elegant. Madan can't seem to escape the confines of the bathroom walls, though, and the single acoustic guitar simply doesn't do justice to Echobelly's talent for electric catharsis. Sometimes demos fail to demonstrate.
Echobelly: King of the Kerb #1
On's second single, "King of the Kerb", is my favorite track from the album. The ringing descending fifths of the guitar hook are idealized, and the thick roar of the power-chord core meshes perfectly with Sonya's fragile soprano, and the moment when she and the music break out of the chorus cycle in sync to hold the note on "they're the kiiiiiiiings of the kerb" is uncanny.
Accompanying it here are three alternate versions of prior songs. The new take on "Car Fiction" is labeled "French/Acoustic Version", but in fact the word "Acoustic" in this sobriquet appears to have been included at the whim of the liner card's graphic designer, as it has no conceivable relevance to the music. The version is sung in French, but is otherwise unchanged from the electric album rendition. It's possible that Echobelly would be better off singing everything in French, at least for English audiences, as this allows the listener to better ignore the words and focus on the sound of the singing, which makes for a better overall experience.
The other two tracks are, in fact, acoustic, at least to the extent of replacing the main electric-guitar parts with acoustic ones. The first is yet another version of "On Turn On" (with the lyrics). It's not clear to me that this song deserved three b-side appearances, especially as I persist in preferring the first one. The acoustic version of "Natural Animal", however, is quite good. The electric original is well-suited to this reinterpretation, relying less on slabs of distortion than many of Echobelly's other songs. Madan's riveting delivery is all the more arresting in this less assuming context, the subdued instrumentation providing a contrast for her voice, rather than directly supporting it like it usually does in electric form.
Echobelly: King of the Kerb #2
Echobelly show good single-construction sense on the second part, including four live tracks, recorded at a September 9th NYC show, including the live version of the title track in place of a dogged repetition of the studio take. In the end, though, this is less notable a touch than you might think, as the live version of "King of the Kerb", at least, is only distinguishable from the album version by virtue of seeming to drag just a little. The version of "Great Things", perhaps as a result of some equipment malfunction forcing the recorder to use more feed from microphones and less directly off the instrument inputs, sounds more live and animated. Also, if I'm not mistaken, that's Debbie Smith chiming in on backing vocals to compensate for the reduced number of Sonya Aurora Madans, relative to the song's studio incarnation. Cool.
The best things about this single, though, are the middle two tracks, blistering renditions of the two best songs from Echobelly's first album, "I Can't Imagine the World Without Me" (here truncated sheepishly, and disappointingly, to "I Can't Imagine" on the track list) and "Insomniac". The former is a vibrant anthem handled with vigor and aplomb, from the roaring and raucous verses to the sophisticated and elliptical chorus. The latter is one of the catchiest songs ever invented, and Echobelly play it live like they are quite willing to ride it into Ragnarok. Listening, I'm willing to follow them.
Alanis Morissette: Hand in my Pocket #1
Having an album of impressive songs to your name doesn't necessarily imply that there are any more in reserve. Perhaps it's a Canadian thing, as Sarah McLachlan has always fashioned her b-sides out of alternate versions and covers, and Jane Siberry has generally avoided singles altogether. At any rate, Alanis Morissette stretches out her first two-part single with four acoustic versions of Jagged Little Pill album tracks, recorded live and acoustic for the Dutch radio program "Twee Meter de Avond In", which I'm guessing means "two meters to run around in", referring to the smallness of the studio in which the performances must take place. The presence of only two b-sides on each disc seems unnecessarily stingy, especially given that this same radio session, I believe, produced the six-track Japanese release Space Cakes. I don't have this to check the credits and verify my hypothesis, but only an idiot would call anything "Space Cakes" if it wasn't recorded in Amsterdam. Of course, only an idiot would use this inane title again, after seeing it gracing every third self-satisfied Amsterdam-originated bootleg in underground history -- an idiot or somebody whose spent a little too much time personally verifying one of Amsterdam's legal peculiarities.
At any rate, this single features "Head Over Feet" and "Not the Doctor". People who sneeringly attributed too much of the credit for Jagged Little Pill's evident maturity to Glen Ballard's production professionalism would be well advised to hear these songs this way, done with just a single acoustic guitar, some coconutty toy percussion and her harmonica. Alanis sounds just as comfortable singing to an invisible audience from a quiet, tiny little room as she does fronting a wall of noise and reverse-guitar tendrils. "Head Over Feet" is a touching and unassuming song about falling in love with a best friend, and would be a stark contrast to the persona displayed in "You Oughta Know", were it not that the mesmerizing "Hand in my Pocket" itself already undermines the misguided impression that Alanis is vindictive by nature. "Not the Doctor" is yet another relationship perspective, a woman wearied by her partner's dependence. Since reviewing the album and admitting that I couldn't really follow this song, some readers have helpfully contributed perspectives: the thing about visiting hours means that he's only acting like he's ill, and his extension of them is his insistence in treating her like a doctor even when she tries to get outside the pretense. Also, perhaps thanks to the Amsterdam context, it occurs to me to connect the line about "smoke you are inhaling" with the "empty bottle with the holes along the bottom", which leads to the obvious interpretation that the bottle is a makeshift bong, and that marijuana is either contributing to the subject's malaise, or is another manifestation of it. Performing a disparaging marijuana reference in Amsterdam, however oblique, is another nice touch.
Alanis Morissette: Hand in my Pocket #2
The second part adds performances of "Right Through You" and "Forgiven". The stridency of "Right Through You" is well handled, with an uncredited male providing a strained harmony vocal to bridge the emotional gap between Alanis' vitriolic lead and the unavoidably gentle acoustic guitar accompaniment. The quiet "Forgiven", which already had hints of Tori Amos in its album guise, is even more reminiscent of her around the starts of the verses in this starker arrangement, the momentary vocal likeness augmented by the religious references and the piano-like guitar part in those sections. The howling body of the song, though, is wholly Alanis. I know it's in vogue, given Alanis' mall-disco background, her studio-savant producer and the three billion copies of Jagged Little Pill that have been purchased by the uncultured masses, to place credit for her success anywhere but on her, but hearing her voice tearing through the walls of some little radio station in Holland, she sounds to me like this is only the beginning of something much, much bigger.
Sarah McLachlan: I Will Remember You
Despite releasing a bushel of singles over the course of her career, Sarah McLachlan has yet to produce a single non-album original composition that way. She is occasionally willing, however, to release a song or two in advance of its album appearance, when a compilation offers some good excuse. "Hold On", from Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, appeared in the US on the No Alternative compilation a few months in advance of the album's domestic release. And so while I fully expect "I Will Remember You" to be included on Sarah's next studio album, in the meantime you can tide yourself over with the soundtrack to the low-budget Irish-American sibling portrait The Brothers McMullen. Or, if you don't care about the Seamus Egan instrumental material that makes up the rest of it, you can find just Sarah's song on this single.
The first couple times I heard "I Will Remember You" it didn't even occur to me that it was a new song. It was only when I started idly singing it to myself one day, and found myself unexpectedly in Solace's "I Will Not Forget You", that I stopped and realized that, despite the titular similarities between the two, this one wasn't on any of her albums. In a way, then, "I Will Not Forget You" is so much in keeping with Sarah's painstakingly refined aesthetic that it almost vanishes into her other work. At the same time, though, the confusion is only subconscious, and doesn't, at least for me, affect my enjoyment of the song at all. Obviously, since I bought the single just so I could listen to it during the wait before it appears on album. Sarah's perfection of her own style is virtually without equal, and she and producer Pierre Marchand may be the world's reigning masters of rendering awe-inspiring beauty in music without slipping into atmospheric new-age cliche or cloying sentimentality. And here's another song of it. What else do you need to know?
You better not need anything else, because you aren't going to get it. This underutilized single features only one other track, and it is the version of "Ice Cream" from her post-Fumbling disc of alternate versions, The Freedom Sessions, which any self-respecting Sarah fan will have purchased some time ago. Arista and Nettwerk missed a good opportunity to be nice to fans here, as they could easily have swapped "Ice Cream" for "Full of Grace", the new Sarah song buried on disc five of Nettwerk's imposing 10-year retrospective box, Decadence. As a marketing tactic, though, this would be moronic, as "Full of Grace" is almost certainly the label's best hope for unloading copies of this expensive, unwieldy, bad-multimedia-laden vanity piece. But realistically, how many people were going to spend $50-70 just to hear one more Sarah McLachlan song, however amazing, that they're sure will be on her next album in a matter of months, anyway?
I mean, besides me.
Roxette: You Don't Understand Me
Every good year needs several things to remember it for. I've got a raft of them for 1995. One of them is that this is the year I surrendered to Roxette. I picked an odd year for it, as the band's US profile has been unusually low throughout it. Their last album, 1994's Crash! Boom! Bang!, didn't produce any hits here to seriously challenge "The Look", "Listen to Your Heart", "It Must Have Been Love" or "Joyride" in what passes for long-term memory among top-40 pop audiences. They released a rarities collection this year, but only in Japan. And they've now put out a spectacular European best-of with the exhilaratingly appropriate and commendably self-aware title Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus!, but it isn't scheduled to reach these shores in any form until March.
But what better irony than when I finally adopt what is almost certainly the most US-commercial band represented in my collection, it comes at a time when I can only follow them diligently by seeking out rare and expensive imports? "You Don't Understand Me", then, is the lead single from the compilation, which features four new songs, this among them. Unusually, the song is a songwriting collaboration, Desmond Child assisting the normally autonomous Per Gessle. No matter, a Roxette song is ever a Roxette song. This one is one of the underappreciated sort that occupies the middle ground between their moments of pop glee like "The Look" and "Sleeping in my Car", and the histrionic ballads like "It Must Have Been Love" or "Fading Like a Flower (Every Time You Leave)". A ticking drum line with the faintest hint of hip-hop swing underlies cool, wistful keyboards and a soaring lead vocal from Marie Fredriksson, with the tagline "I guess loneliness found a new friend, / Here I am".
This single's bonus is the year's fifth new song, "Crazy About You", an outtake from the Crash! Boom! Bang! sessions which is not on the best-of. A mid-tempo pop gem with nicely overblown strings and some goofily gruff spoken parts from Per, this reaffirms my belief that Roxette can afford to throw away songs that would be masterworks of some other whole cultures. The disc concludes with a pointless reappearance of the album track "Harleys & Indians (Riders in the Sky)", but it hardly matters.
Roxette: The Look '95
It's hard enough keeping up with overseas singles from a distance without there being different releases in Europe and the UK. I believe, however, that "You Don't Understand Me" was only released as a single in Europe, as this clear UK part-one release alludes to a second part that features "the exclusive new track 'Crazy About You'". This half, I guess preferring to attempt to capitalize on the perceived British fondness for remixes, opts to promote the best-of with four reworkings of "The Look". I bought it with low expectations, more or less expecting a series of techno bastardizations that would make a great pop song sound like every other interminable dance-club remix of the past two or three years.
And, sure enough, there are two remixes that do exactly that, the "Rapino Club Mix" and the "Rapino Dub Mix". The same monotonous 120bpm each-part-taking-turns-dropping-out drum-machine crud we've already heard five trillion times under other nominal titles, the same incessantly repeated three fake-piano chords, used despite their having no musical relevance to this particular source material. An abject moral and aesthetic disgrace, in other words, turning a distinctive work of art into undifferentiated gruel. In a just world that took these things as seriously as they deserve, the Rapino brothers would be summarily shot for their efforts. This kind of remix is pure evil.
Fortunately, there are two other tracks here. The credits offer no clue as to who is behind the "Chaps 1995 Remix" and "Chaps Donna Bass Mix", but I interpret that to mean that Per and perennial Roxette producer Clarence Ofwerman are themselves responsible. I hope so, because these two versions are spectacular. The second, which extends the song to nearly seven minutes and adds an exuberantly earthshaking synth bass line, is easily the best remix I've heard this year, and perhaps ever. Instead of trying to turn the song into something else, it celebrates it, transforming it into an expansive epic of itself, with rousing synth-orchestral thematic recapitulations and thoughtfully placed resampled extenders. If you loved the original version, this remix attempts to capture the song the way it took shape in your mind. Put it together with the slightly less ambitious first version, and you've got about twelve minutes of undiluted "The Look" bliss. Or, on repeat, seven hours and fifteen minutes.
The Cardigans: Sick & Tired
The Cardigans have odd ideas of chronology. "Sick & Tired" was on their first album, 1994's Emmerdale. Including it on their second, Life, was strange enough, and now they've released it as a new single. Whatever. They back it up here with an alternate version, a non-album track, and a cover. The alternate take is the "puck version" of "Carnival", which turns the bouncy original into a morose acoustic dirge. This is an impressive achievement, but I'm not sure it's a good one. The non-album track is "Pooh Song", which is a little less kitchy and more predictably "alternative" than the Cardigans' more characteristic material.
The reason to buy the single, though, is the cover. The Cardigans follow their deconstructions of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" and "Mr. Crowley" this time by turning Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town" into a peppy, diffident bit of glamour-girl pop. Nina Persson's languid delivery and the band's cheesy retro-lounge instrumentation turn Phil Lynot's macho swagger into a nostalgic chiffonned confectionery. I think the Cardigans may be the best cover band since Anthrax. A Q Magazine bit on them said they like Magnum, too, so here's hoping they do "Great Adventure" next, or "Vigilante", or "Days of No Trust". Or "Heartbroke and Busted", or "Kingdom of Madness"...
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