Pop Music by Committee

Imagine Dragons Groan Their Way Into the Speakers of Your Dentist’s Office

The above article about the Imagine Dragons made me laugh.  I believe it was Morrissey who asked if all commercial radio stations were playing the same song.  It sure seems like it.  This article not only points out what is wrong with this particular band, but why pop music in general is so bland and forgettable.  A sample:

Okay, the A&R guy would say, excitedly brushing his gel-soaked comb over back into place, sweat pooling in the deep furrows of his spray tanned forehead.  “We need an undercurrent of Coldplay and hip hop, but mix it up with EDM and Autotune, and get some ‘80s synth effects in there. I want handclaps and echo! Drench it with reverb! And make sure it will play well during an NFL game.”

The rest is history. That is, if anybody will ever remember it.

To their credit, that the band has a style a listener can immediately identify is a monumental feat in today’s mostly flat and beige pop music landscape. They should be commended for it.

Unfortunately, that “sound” reads like a greatest hits collection of “things that are or have been trendy” mashed together into a ProTools casserole of “shit the kids will buy if we play it enough on the radio.”

I would much rather spend my time championing things that I believe deserve attention, as most of you that read along will notice.  However, it is also important at times to point out how and why things in our culture are meaningless.

RIP Lesley Gore

Lesley Gore has passed away.  She was best known for the song It’s My Party, one of those songs that will live as long as people are playing pop music.  You probably don’t even need to know the song to have uttered, or to have heard someone utter, the refrain.  The song came out in 1963, but I even remember it making its way out to high school parties in the 90’s, as I’m sure it still does on occasion now.  It is one of those moments of alchemy in pop music when singer and song are combined to create something greater than either.  Although I’ve always loved 1960’s girl pop songs, and I did like this song, I’d be lying if I said it was one of my personal favorites in the genre.  However, it was always there, and will remain for a good long while, and there is something to be said for that.

The Four Tops’ Still Waters Run Deep

The Four Tops’ album Still Waters Run Deep is an soul album that any fan of the genre should check out.  The Four Tops were not known as an album act, as they came to popularity in the singles era.  However, in keeping with the times, they wanted to make an album, a complete statement, and Still Waters Run Deep, which came out in 1970, was their chance.  The album was not a huge commercial success and it would mark their last new release for Motown.  (Surprisingly the album actually came out before Marvin Gaye’s  What’s Going On, which was the Motown album that took soul music into the realm of the concept album in the public consciousness. The Wikipeda page states that the Tops album was an influence on What’s Going On, but I haven’t seen any other info that definitively supports that, though the chronology would make sense.)

It’s a shame that this album was not more successful, and even now not widely known, as it is simply a fantastic piece of pop soul that plays like a complete piece.  Every song bleeds into the next one.  The melodies and arrangements are top notch and Levi Stubbs is as great a soul singer as anyone.  Although the album, as stated, plays as a complete piece, the topic of the songs doesn’t go too far away from the standard Motown fair.  There is something about the arrangements and the innocence the lyrics of the album that reminds me of a soul Pet Sounds.  The songs are largely reflections on human relationships.

One of the reasons I love this album, aside from the strong songwriting and excellent musicianship evident, and the always astounding singing of Stubbs, is the fact that in listening to it one can get a different outlook on one of Motown’s greatest acts. Aside from two minor hits, as Still Water (Love) and It’s All in the Game are featured on some of the Tops’ greatest hits, this album features music you haven’t heard anywhere else in a format that is a great front to back listen.  It also serves as a bridge, musically, between the more pop soul of standard Motown, and the more psychedelic and forward thinking arrangements of later Temptations and Marvin Gaye records.  (It is still extremely melodic and features many nods to 60’s pop, but it branches out in the margins through some of its production touches.)

So here you have a great album from the Motown era that has largely been forgotten.  However, this is a record that truly deserves an audience.  It was shaped by the world around it, by its immediate past, by those searching for the future.  It’s a one off that remains unique to this day.

Terry by Kirsty MacColl

I mentioned Kirsty MacColl in a blog a couple days ago that was about breakup albums.  Because of that I started revisiting her catalog. Kirsty was one of those rare pop artists that could write almost anything and make it work.  Her music goes from the political to the personal.  The way she sang, especially the way she layered harmonies, always gave her an identifiable sound.  This is despite the fact that she was endlessly adventurous and tackled many various different forms of music.  She could go from sugary 60’s pop to minor key ballads.  (Jazz singer Mary Coughlan covered her song Bad.)  She wasn’t afraid to go outside of traditional rock and pop music and would even eventually incorporate club and Latin grooves into her music as well.  Really her whole catalog is fantastic, with a diversity and intelligence that very few artists have.

One of my favorite pure pop songs of all time is her early single Terry.  This is from the period when she was briefly on the Stiff Records label.  This song seems like a homage to the early girl groups of the 60’s.  However, while some of those groups were created by labels, and had men driving their careers, with Kirsty’s knowing wink and devious smile you always rightly got the sense that she was in charge, that no men were going to tell her what to do.  The song is perfectly arranged and the melody is one a jet plane could take off from.   This is pure ecstatic joy captured to tape.

Rihanna, Kanye West, Paul McCartney, and What I Hope to See More of In Pop

I really like the collaboration between Paul McCartney, Kanye West, and Rihanna.  It’s nothing more than a pop song, but it is a really good one.  I’ve always liked Paul McCartney, and have long thought Kanye West to be brilliant, especially his Yeezus album.  I haven’t payed much attention to Rihanna, largely because the music she makes seems really generic, although one can see with this song that she can really sing.  I wish pop music would take a hint from this song, that with a great singer and melody you don’t need all of the gimmicks and tricks that reduce artists so often to mere minor characters in their own hits.  I’m not even necessarily talking about big productions vs. the acoustic guitar simplicity of this song.  I love epic productions as much as I love folk songs.  What I mean is that a great pop song should have a strong melody, and that the singer should also be represented in some kind of way where their humanity gets across.  That is so important, that the singer’s voice in a pop song should be allowed to express emotionally what the singer is feeling, and not be covered up in either the production or the mix in a way that makes it seem less human.  I didn’t like the last collaboration with Kanye West and Paul McCartney very much, though I haven’t listened to it a great deal, because the excessive use of autotune bugged me.  I also didn’t think the melody was as strong as this song.  Now I know that West used autotune extensively on his album 808s and Heartbreak, and I actually like that record, but that is because the use of that technique there was specifically to make his singing sound emotionally distant.  I like Daft Punk too, but again what they are doing with autotune is part of their concept and not just part of a trend or to cover up the fact that someone can’t sing.  Autotune is fine if it is used in a way that fits conceptually, but a real human voice, naked in its emotions, will win almost every time.

P.S.  It is a common production trick now to use autotune on a lot of pop songs in a subtle way that is harder to detect to fix flat notes.  I have no idea if this is the case on this song.  I haven’t listened to it on headphones yet, but at least Rhianna’s vocals sound natural. She has great phrasing on this song as well.

Van Morrison Into the Music

One of the greatest Van Morrison songs from one of his greatest albums.  And the Healing Has Begun is from his album Into the Music.  This is actually probably the Van Morrison album that I listen to the most.  Side one features some of his best pop songs.  (The joyous Bright Side of the Road is probably the most famous.)  But side two will simply knock you out.  It’s four winding Celtic soul songs that are as beautiful and poetic as anything he has done.  The album closer You Know What They’re Writing About is really beyond words.  Pure emotion that makes you sad and happy at the same time.

The First Shoppable Super Bowl Halftime Show and Reality Made Virtual

I almost feel as if my soul is dying, commenting on Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime show.  I feel compelled to because it felt like some strange new paradigm has been achieved.  I feel like we have finally crossed the threshold where human life is sometimes more meaningless than a video game, and sometimes video games have more at stake than real life.  That’s what it looked like to me, one big video game, where the only things missing were Japanese anime characters, Mario, and Luigi.  Which actually might have been trippy enough to hold my attention if there was anything akin to real human emotion at the core.  It was musical entertainment without the music.  It was reality virtual.

I realize that most pop music has ceased to be anything but a marketing tool for a long time, but this felt different.  (And not just because this was the first shoppable Super Bowl Halftime Show.)  If one can be skull fucked in a vacuum then, like the banner former President Bush once stood in front of, “mission accomplished!”