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Sugar Rush
Roxette: Room Service
Roxette don't really make albums. They release them, but if there's anything holistic about Room Service, or any of their five previous nominally-"proper" albums or four collections of various sorts, I've missed it, and since you'll have a hard time finding anybody with a stronger motivation to notice things in Roxette albums than me, I'm going to take the liberty of assuming that if I've missed it, it's not there. Roxette just make songs. Periodically, for logistical reasons, they put a dozen or so together and call it a record. But aside from some minor fast/slow considerations, there's more or less nothing about any dozen Roxette songs that mandates their cohesion, which is why I made an exception to my usual no-compilations list policy for their best-of, Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus! With most of the bands I love, compilations simplify away some of the history and complexity that make them special to me. In Roxette's case, there's no complexity to worry about. They are my vote for the best producers of high-gloss pop songs in the history of the form, and the value of any given subset of their catalog to me is largely proportional to its size, with some bonus points for the inclusion of any of the dozen or two of their songs I happen to like best.
Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus! is therefore kind of arbitrary, but given that it does exist, and my prejudices about artistic control prevent me from making my own infinite series of randomized Roxette CDRs and considering them equivalent, there was a real danger that I'd let it change my receptiveness to new Roxette songs. Although it's not that hard for me to imagine that the collection could be improved upon, over time, I'm pretty sure that in practice it won't be, and if I thus think that it's the best Roxette album that will ever be officially available, all the songs they make afterwards are doomed to be Roxette songs that aren't on their best album, and how excited could I get about that? Indeed, a couple years on from Have a Nice Day, only two its songs figure into my offhand Roxette pantheon ("Wish I Could Fly" and "Staring at the Ground"), and I have to actually play the record to remember how happy another five or six of them can make me.
So I push Play on Room Service with these questions in mind: Have Roxette become everything they're going to be in my life, or do I have emotional space left? Can I love them more? You might have some other questions to add, like: If I haven't liked them before, is there any reason to think I'll like them better now? How many slow ballads, how many fast dance songs, and have they learned how to play a third sort? Are the lyrics any more sophisticated than usual? Is the music any more experimental or aggressive? Are they starting to sound old?
In reverse order, they don't sound old, the music wields classic pop motifs with the same unselfconscious confidence it ever did, the lyrics still careen from touching to laughable without much appearance of control, no, six fast, six slow, no, yes, yes and no. There's no new kind of thing on Room Service, but arguably there's been no qualitative advance in the state of the Roxette art since they began. I don't love them because they evolve, or challenge me, or challenge themselves, I love them because listening to their songs makes me dizzy and ecstatic. I don't know whether they arrive at songs like these through an arduous, painstaking process that fails twenty times for every finished piece they let us hear, or whether Per has just perfected a deft technique for tossing off pop choruses on the order of Bob Ross' six-brush-pat method of painting happy little trees. I don't know, and I don't care. They were good enough trees for me. If Roxette ever beat Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus! out of its place of honor, it will have to be by edging out one of its songs at a time, and although it always takes longer for second loves to surpass firsts, we have the rest of our lives.
Of the fast songs, the two that seem to me most likely to end up on a second volume of the best singles by the world's best singles band are "Jefferson" and "Make My Head Go Pop". "Jefferson", an apologia for some maligned friend, is sturdy and galloping, with airy verses and surging choruses, in the sparkle-rock mold of "Sleeping in My Car" and "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore". Per takes the lead (not even flinching as he sings "Jefferson got hit by a westbound truck, / I guess that didn't make him look like a million bucks"), Marie chimes in with a sympathetic counterpoint verse towards the end, synth runs flutter around the warmly roaring guitars and Christer Jansson and Christoffer Lundquist supply a bubbly, propulsive rhythm section. "Make My Head Go Pop" is dancier and mechanized, closer to "The Look", complete with a chattering drum-machine pulse, restless vocal processing, synthesizers channeling every other instrument that comes to their minds, a stately bridge choir, lots of Dopplered-strafing re-entries and a chorus that finds cartoon exuberance in romantic helplessness, and vice versa. The other four are all close behind. The only thing that mars the beepy "Real Sugar" for me is that after the plaintive verses ("There must be many ways to ask her to my room, / Why didn't I dare?"), the repetitive choruses ("Real sugar, I don't wanna climb the walls. / Real sugar, that's what I want or none at all.") seem like a let down. "The Centre of the Heart", the moody lead single, is just a few beats-per-minute slower than I want it to be, and the most buoyant part of the refrain resorts to "Na na na na", instead of words, which always seems like a missed opportunity to me, but I can't argue with the ticking drum track or the gurgling synth-bass, and it probably provides the album's best vocal interplay between Per and Marie. The twangy, unhurried "Looking for Jane", silkily rendered by Marie, could be the song the Corrs and Nina Gordon have been waiting to collaborate on. The jittery "Fool", though, bounding along on fake horn-stabs and twining Maries, might be replicable by nobody else on the planet.
Of the six slower songs, none of them quite essay the anthemic sentimentality of "It Must Have Been Love", but they offer several possible compromises. The wistful "Milk and Toast and Honey", with its twitchy hi-hats and swooning backing vocals, is my idea of everything right with techno-ballads that the Backstreet Boys get wrong. Marie's McCartney-esque "Little Girl" sighs and swells. "Bringing Me Down to My Knees" plugs in some twittery sequencer fills to be modern, but scrape them off and you're left with a song Shaun Cassidy would have relished. "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" is glassy and methodical, like the William Orbit-produced Madonna songs, and the credits claim Per is playing banjo on it, but unless he's got a MIDI pick-up on the thing, I couldn't tell you where. "My World, My Love, My Life" is almost mid-tempo, but the cascading piano lines, gauzy synth pads and Marie's hushed delivery mark it as a ballad no matter what the pace. "Do you want to talk about it?" Per asks, Marie's "I don't know" sliding in in response almost before he's finished asking, as if they know each other so well that the question both states and answers itself. And although I still think the definitive example of Roxette balladry is Marie's solo-piano Chilean concert performance of "It Must Have Been Love" on Tourism, my favorite of these ballads is the second to last, "It Takes You No Time to Get Here", sung by Per and driven by acoustic guitars and drum loops. Per may not always know the difference between impishness and inanity, but when he lets an entire song stay sweet, it usually works out well. This one is a fond standing invitation to a house in the country, like a romantic (and possibly metaphorical) rewrite of Anne Hills' lovely "Follow That Road". And I'm reminded, as hasn't occurred to me in a long time, that "It Must Have Been Love" is a tragedy, and as many tragedies as Per and Marie have written, some of them in the guise of melodrama and some not, Roxette is quintessentially uplifting to me, so there's something wrong with saying that they are most themselves on a sad song. "It Must Have Been Love" is about resilience, ultimately, and implicitly about having the courage to acknowledge what you've lost, but "It Takes You No Time to Get Here" is a promise, not an insistence, and better than living happily forever, or sadly, is knowing that forever hasn't started yet, and you still have a choice.
Roxette: The Centre of the Heart #1
My favorite new Roxette song, though, and for at least a week my favorite song of the year so far, is a bonus track on the Japanese edition of the album and the sole b-side on the two-track UK single for "The Centre of the Heart". Juxtaposed with "The Centre of the Heart" on this short track-list, "Entering Your Heart" looks like a part-two, maybe even a remake, but in fact it's an unrelated song, and the only one of this new batch that sounds distinctly different than anything Roxette did in their earlier ones. The backing tracks are busy, delicate and expansive, somewhere between Enya, Walking Wounded-era Everything but the Girl, Thomas Dolby circa The Flat Earth and maybe a trace of OMD, parts of them articulated as if the performance controller was an Aeolian harp, and Marie's subdued lead, instead of following either of her usual paths, snappy ebullience or serene intimacy, is processed into acting like another instrument. The result is far less obvious than is Roxette's wont, liquid and rippling instead of plastic and shiny, and if the whole of Room Service were like this, I'd probably change my answer about whether it could win over doubters. But a dozen songs like this wouldn't be a Roxette album, and the fact that they left it off suggests that Per and Marie weren't sure a disc with one song like this would be a Roxette album. I say it's my favorite, but in the same sense that I love Game Theory's "Mammoth Gardens" and Big Country's "Winter Sky", as anomalies in which the bands' usual selves are as carefully described by their absence as they are in "Throwing the Election" and "Where the Rose Is Sown" and "Joyride" by their presence.
Roxette: The Centre of the Heart #2
I wish I could simply give up on remixes, since I'm so seldom anything but enraged by them anymore, but even if I do, Roxette and Manic Street Preachers have been the subject of several of the very few remixes I've heard in the past decade that struck me as important positive contributions to the songs in question, so they'll be the last to go. Part two of this pair of singles offers five alternate mixes of the title track, four of them by StoneBridge and one by Yoga. I didn't like what StoneBridge did to "Wish I Could Fly", and I don't like their nervous "Club Mix" or half-length "Club Mix Edit" any better. The "Peak Hour Dub" feels like it might have a functional dance-club purpose, but listening to it while sitting in a chair, under normal household lighting, is pretty wearying, and the "More Vox Dub" reprise, which is the same excessive, monotonous length all over again, I can't put up with long enough to find out how much more "more" is. The "Yoga Remix", by contrast, has at least the virtues of brevity (3:29, only eight seconds longer than the original version) and invention, most of its work consisting of ripping out the original rhythm track and grafting in a stiffer, but related, hip-hoppish one that may not be an improvement, but is a change, and a change that shows some awareness of the personality it's altering.
Marie Fredriksson: Äntligen
Marie only wrote one song on Room Service, which is about par for Roxette albums. Her high-point for credits was one solo and two shared, on Look Sharp!, and on Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus! she doesn't have any. Her performances are integral to Roxette, but her writing is not. It's not because she can't or doesn't write songs, though, and although I never see her solo albums in stores here, I have seen a few copies of Äntligen, a retrospective of her Swedish-language solo work released last year. The bulk of it is a straightforward best-of, including one track from 1984's Het Vind (the quivery, folkish "Ännu Doftar Kärlek"), four from 1986's Den Sjunde Vågen (the tense "Den Bästa Dagen"; the elegant piano lullaby "Mot Okända Hav"; the Titanic-like title track; and the sort of multi-tracked Latina sea-shanty "Ett Hus Vid Havet", which could be a very early prototype for Destiny's Child), and three each from 1987's Efter Stormen (the mid-tempo AOR "Efter Stormen"; the dramatic, stomping "Om Du Såg Mej Nu"; the jazzy, chirping "Bara För En Dag") and 1992's Den Ständiga Resan (the muted-Roxette-like "Så Stilla Så Långsamt"; the retro-funk inflected "Så Länge Det Lyser Mittemot"; and the dark, murmuring "Mellan Sommar Och Höst"), which is a fairly good sampling, especially if you can't find the original albums anyway. The extra incentives for existing fans are two new (2000) singles (the loping title track and the chiming duet with Patrik Isaksson, "Det Som Var Nu"), Marie's haunting 1989 theme song for the Swedish TV show "Sparvöga", two songs for Colin Nutley's 1996 film Sån't Är Livet (the atmospheric, string-lined "I En Tid Som Vår" and the power-ballad sketch "Tro") and one mostly superfluous "Äntligen" remix retitled "Solen Gick Ned Över Stan". Her solo work doesn't transport me like Roxette's songs do, not least because I don't have the patience to go through the lyrics with my Swedish-English dictionary and find out what she's saying, but for the purposes of intermission music, in the reflective pauses between Roxette catharses, hearing the words without understanding them is just about perfect, like being balanced on the precipice of sleep, halfway between hearing and knowing.
Steps: Buzz
But my affection for Marie's solo music is a function of my love for Roxette, not a factor in it. A much larger part of my coming to trust my feelings for Roxette is that I've learned to recognize hints of them in my reactions to other groups. I don't know if this pattern is peculiar to me, or universal, but it's almost always the way I understand things. I understand Marillion better by knowing IQ, Tori Amos better by knowing Kate Bush and Jane Siberry and Happy Rhodes, Low better by knowing Ida. I understand Alanis better by seeing how I like Julia Darling and how I dislike Fiona Apple. I understood Roxette a lot better after I went back and bought all the ABBA albums, and better still after I discovered Savage Garden and the Corrs. This is one of the reasons I keep pursuing genres so obsessively, when it seems like I may have passed the point of diminishing returns, because the band after next will be fantastic, and even the nth cliché-ridden heavy metal album not only tells me a few small new things about bass-solos or the Kalevala, it also helps me see what flaws I tolerate in return for what virtues, from which I can deduce some of why I like the bands I like better, better. One of the notable turning points in my transition from thinking I liked Roxette as an isolated, guilty pleasure, to realizing that I think they're masters of a form I care about, came the day I heard Steps' hyperactive, remorselessly cheesy cover of the Bee Gees' "Tragedy". It turns out I don't dislike dance-pop on principle. I thought the big difference between Roxette and the Spice Girls, for me, was that Roxette write and play their own songs, but Steps are indistinguishable from the Spice Girls, structurally (they're co-ed, but the two boys are rarely in evidence), mediocre tag-team singers fronting store-bought studio pap, and yet I like them. Not all their songs, by any means, but I like my favorite Steps songs as much as I like my favorite B*Witched songs (for example), I hate my least favorite Steps songs less than I hate my least favorite B*Witched songs, and there are lot more of the former than the latter in Steps' case than there are in B*Witched's.
Steps' version of "Tragedy" is on their second album, Steptacular, unless you live in a country where they only have one album (Step One, the US version being an amalgam of the two UK albums, the first of which is also called Step One), in which case it's on that. The US edition of Step One also includes the UK single "Better the Devil You Know" (the Stock/Aitken/Waterman song previously recorded by Kylie Minogue, not the Jesus Jones song of almost the same title), which came out after Steptacular, and thus makes its UK album appearance here, rather belatedly, on the group's third album, Buzz. There might ought to be a limit on the number of other people's old disco hits a new group is allowed to try to trade on, but presumably it won't be lower than two, and Steps handle "Better the Devil You Know" with sufficient aplomb, I think, updating it for a generation that expects dance music to sound like Britney, not Diana Ross. They approach their disco-remake limit with the Bernard Edwards/Nile Rodgers "tribute" (read "rip-off") "Stomp", and "Summer of Love" tries awkwardly to invoke "Livin' la Vida Loca" and Cher's "Believe", but once they get past the canned singles, Steps are noticeably better off. Jörgen Elofsson's "It's the Way You Make Me Feel" smacks of ABBA and Savage Garden, and he and co-producer David Kreuger let the five of them sing without worrying too much about whether they're good at it. "You'll Be Sorry" has that bad post-House thump usually reserved for second-rate TV game shows, and drowns the principals under session singers, and the faux-soulful "Learn to Love Again" should have drowned them, but "Never Get Over You", with a co-writing credit for Lisa Scott-Lee (the Welsh redhead who would have never got the gig if Steps were American, because her cheeks are too round), keeps the backing track restless and simple, and bolsters the singing with plenty of reverb. "Hand on Your Heart" is treacly, but "Happy Go Lucky" is an endearingly unconvincing attempt at hip-hop-pop, and "Buzzz" sounds like a female version of DuJour, from Josie and the Pussycats, gamely trying to imitate UB40. "Here and Now" swipes the underpinnings of "Backstreet's Back", but drapes a slithery, "Waterloo"-ish melody over it. "Turn Around" isn't going to make anybody forget Ratt's "Round and Round", ELO's "Turn to Stone" or any song that ever used a nylon guitar, and "Wouldn't Hurt So Bad", the bonus track on what's labeled the "Special UK Edition" (as far I can tell the only other edition is Belgian), is somewhat desultory and lumpy, but the album ends with the eagerly awaited (by me, at any rate) Cyndi Lauper/Jan Pulsford contribution, "If You Believe". Faye Tozer and someone called "Jasper (Polar Bear) Im", about whom I've been able to find out nothing, get co-writing credit, though, and since the song ends up sounding like a drippy Disney theme and I can't imagine Cyndi's voice being enough to rescue it, I'm going to assume that Faye and Jasper fucked with it. But once you start ruining other people's songs, you're only one small step away from writing some of your own to ruin.
A*Teens: Teen Spirit
Steps are paragons of credibility, though, compared to A*Teens. A*Teens are four Clearasil-cute non-instrument-playing Swedish teenagers whose first album, The ABBA Generation, was composed entirely of paint-by-numbers ABBA covers sung over what often sounded like General MIDI accompaniments, and is one of the most idiotic sets of music you will ever hear outside of a karaoke bar in a middle school. I found it weirdly compelling, though. "Super Trouper", "Dancing Queen", "Take a Chance on Me" and "The Name of the Game" are fine songs, and while A*Teens can't quite sing them, neither can most people, and do we really believe that should stop them from trying? Maybe, maybe.
For their second album, though, A*Teens abandon ABBA for original songs. Not original songs written by them, mind you, but original songs written by somebody other than Benny and Björn. On one hand, it's pretty hard to live up to eleven ABBA songs, as a body of songwriting. On the other hand, the fact that the ABBA songs were performed so ineptly levels the playing field considerably, and although their stable of writer/producers don't come up with anything comparable to ABBA's alien crinkle, A*Teens are so squeakily anti-ironic, from the album title all the way down, that I'm willing to give them the benefit of whatever doubts I can scrounge together. "Bouncing Off the Ceiling (Upside Down)" is some demented hybrid of "...Baby One More Time", "Mickey", "Don't You Want Me" and Grease, and ought to have at least as good a shot at immortality as "Crush on You" or "Wouldn't It Be Good". "Halfway Around the World" is a perfectly plausible ABBA pastiche, and I'd do my best to work it into a big production number in a remake of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The boppy "Firefly" ought to plunge Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul and Kylie Minogue into bleak middle-age crises. "Sugar Rush" could be a cross between the Corrs and Jane Wiedlin. "Rockin'" is A*Teens' "Backstreet's Back" rejoinder (apparently every dance-pop group needs one). The sensitive, soupy semi-acoustic ballad "Around the Corner of Your Eye" turns what could have been a love song botched by kids really too young for it into a sweet friendship ode. "Slammin' Kinda Love" and "All My Love" are flabby "Independent Women (Part 1)" retreads, but "For All That I Am" swirls together Britney's "Stronger" and Patty Smyth's "Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough", like AOR for toy radios. "Morning Light" invokes Nik Kershaw and a-ha (maybe unintentionally). And "Back for More", the exit anthem (if you ignore the unlisted bonus track, which I encourage you to), takes us out with more grace and promise than plenty of real bands who ought to be a whole lot better than A*Teens. I'll be very surprised if these four kids manage to make a third A*Teens album, for lots of reasons, the most mundane of which are that it will be pretty stupid to have a group called A*Teens when they start hitting twenty, and that any day now at least one of them is bound develop image issues, or just turn ugly. Or they'll get cocky and want to write, or their writers will get cocky and want to perform. Or everybody will get sick of bubblegum pop again and we'll have six more years of Edie Brickell and the Spin Doctors. Or I'll be wrong, and glad, and dancing.
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