31 March 2009

Shakespears Sister: Retrospective on Studio Albums

by Slowdive Music

Years ago, in what I consider another lifetime, I was sitting in my best friend’s, Mia’s, car, which we named the Happy Car (after “Happy House.”) She played the album “Hormonally Yours” before it was a hit album, and I was flawed. The beauty of the album, the urgency of its composition and arrangements, and just that great feeling one has when listening to great music (you know, the feeling of being lifted off your seat) just enraptured me. Though I had heard and really liked the first album by this duo, that day in the Happy Car I fell in love for life with this band. Furthermore, it is hard not to think of Mia and the heydays of college when listening to “Hormonally Yours.” So, Mia, this one is for you, because in many ways, you too are Shakespears Sister.

Named after an essay by Virginia Woolf, Shakespears Sister was one of the few bands in the early 90s to try and merge the gap between the guitar dominated and electronic scenes. Neither rock nor synthpop, a better classification would be synth rock. Creating a blend of savvy guitar playing with quirky keyboarding, the Shakespear’s Sister created a unique, heady pop sound that definitely left a mark on both sides of the Atlantic. Their signature song, “Stay,” breached the Top 10 in multiple countries and showed the potential of musicians that could think outside of the box and discard both the mainstream and underground.

The band has two historical lines that merged into one narrative. First there is Siobhan Fahey, then married to David Stewart of Eurythmics fame (they split in 1996), Shakespears Sister would be her first musical venture after leaving Bananarama. The concept of the band originally made her the heart and soul of the band; leaving Bananarama because she could not resolve herself to accept the direction the band had taken, her new project was both an embrace of the pop sensibility she perfected in the 80s and an expansion of her repertoire to a darker, more rock oriented sound. Enter stage left the American, Marcella Detroit (nee Marcella Levy); she made a name for herself working with a range of artists that include Belinda Carlisle, Eric Clapton, Alice Cooper, Chaka Khan, and Bette Midler. Originally, she was not half of the duo, and this was reflected in the fact that it was only Fahey who graced the cover of the first album. However, before finishing the recording of the first album, she would become the second half of the duo, till Fahey would dissolve their collaboration after their second album. Bringing both an American and British feel to the band, “Stay” would be one of the few singles of 1992 that would make audiences forget the dominance of guitar oriented music.

Fahey brought the deeper, lower range in vocals, while Detroit was able to hit those high notes that most vocalists would be jealous of. With Fahey’s pop sensibility and Detroit’s savvy guitar playing, their two albums would reach Top 10 status in the UK with ease. The third album, “#3,” would not breach the top of the charts. Though some think that it was not as strong as the first two without Detroit, while others may say that it was, the problem was that whenever any outfit waits that long (12 years) to release a new album, the reception is rarely what it deserves. The reality was that the record label did not want to release the album after completion; it took Fahey years of pestering to get back the rights and independently release the album. Shakespears Sisters, which originally competed against the music of the veterans of post-punk, shoegazers, dream pop artists, and the earlier wave of 90s Brit Pop, were at a lost in the world of Placebo, Muse, and the nascent Keane. They were relegated to nostalgia, which demonstrates the fickleness of the mainstream to validate younger artists and not those who have proven themselves.

Though both Fahey and Detroit composed and performed successful songs prior to Shakespears Sister, and even continue to do so, the apex of their career was this band. And one is only left to hope that one day, whatever differences they may have, the two will come back together and make us stay for another moment in time.

“Sacred Heart” (1989)

Why is it a must? First off, the single “You’re History.” If there was a song on this album that really pointed to the future potential of how Fahey and Detroit were going to play with their vocals, this was it. A sythpop-esque background, intruded upon by a guitar solo, the song keeps a nice tempo between dance pop and ballad. Then there is “Twist the Knife,” giving into the 80s cliché of incorporating Latin elements; the accent is impeccable as Fahey sings the word “carbon” – translation: “fucking bastard.” The opening track, “Heroine,” is as addictive as the drug, and the only song that is really close to clear out rock. Right from the beginning, this album rejects the demureness and moodiness of post-punk and the growing shoegazing movement’s compressed sounds, while retaining all the headiness; it does anything but reaffirm the music industry moving towards guitar oriented music; and it embraces pop sensibilities in order to deliver a darker sound than expected from these two.

Track Listing:
1. Heroine
2. Run Silent
3. Dirty Mind
4. Sacred Heart
5. Heaven Is in Your Arms
6. Twist the Knife
7. You’re History
8. Break My Heart
9. Red Rocket
10. Electric Moon
11. Primitive Love
12. Could You Be Loved
13. You Made Me Come to This

“Hormonally Yours” (1992)

Why is it a must? It would be a cliché to say “Stay” – but here we go… “Stay.” What an amazing song! This is not the normal, run-of-the-mill duet. A song of life (the ethereal vocals of Detroit) versus death (the sinister vocals of Fahey), it is a clash against each other, struggling for domination. With a video that is appropriate to the song, the song truly expanded the idea of how two vocalists could interrelate to one another in one song. (Honesty time, the real meaning of the song has nothing to do with that myth. According to Fahey and Detroit, they are portraying characters of the cat people on the moon, one of which fell in love with a human, while the other was out to kill him.) Then, of course, there is “The Trouble with Andre,” which of course is that he is a liar. And the closing track, “Hello (Turn Your Radio On),” a song that I usually run to when I am completely depressed. No beat, just ambience, as they sing, “Hello, hello… Turn your radio on. Is there anybody out there help me sing my song… Life is a strange thing, just when you think you learn how to use it, it’s gone.” Full of unforgettable tracks (“I Don’t Care” and “Let Me Entertain You” to name two more), this is an album that is truly timeless and still feels as fresh as the first time I listened to it.

Track Listing:
1. Goodbye Cruel World
2. I Don’t Care
3. My 16th Apology
4. Are We in Love Yet
5. Emotional Thing
6. Stay
7. Black Sky
8. The Trouble with Andre
9. Moonchild
10. Catwoman
11. Let Me Entertain You
12. Hello (Turn Your Radio On)

“#3” (Recorded 1995-1997, Released 2004)

Why is it a must? Okay, let’s admit this right off – this is more of a solo album than anything else. Detroit has departed from Shakespears Sister and Fahey is the sole member of the band. Working with various musicians and songwriters, including ex-husband David Stewart, this album really gives the listener the insight of everything that Fahey had learned to that point. Though the opening track, “Go,” is a bit derivative, trying to recapture Detroit’s presence in the band, other tracks really showcase a new urgency. For instance, “Opportunity Knockers” really moves Fahey to a more standard rock sound, and “The Older Sister” really showcases her ability to arrange music in a quirky cuteness that will irk you. “Do I Scare You?” is the classic Sister sound, neither electronic nor rock, this song builds the same anxiety and urgency that the band was known for. A great album, but not really a Shakespear’s Sister album – I recommend it, but do not be disappointed if you do not hear that energy that created the band’s greatest songs.

Track Listing:
1. Go
2. I Can Drive
3. Do I Scare You?
4. Opportunity Knockers
5. Can U Wait That Long?
6. Oh Dear
7. Excuse Me John
8. The Older Sister
9. Singles Party
10. I Never Could Sing Anyway
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White Lies and Friendly Fires (Live)

(Slowdive Music’s review.)

27 March 2009, my most anticipated concert of the year to date. Though not making many waves on this side of the Great Pond, both White Lies and Friendly Fires are part of the hype machine in the UK. Nothing alike, one being post-punk revival and the other experimental pop, both bands briefly toured a few dates together throughout the US, culminating at the Bowery Ballroom. And if these both bands represent what is happening in the London music scene, well we might want to consider booking a flight and checking out what is going on.

The show opener was Soft Pack, from San Diego, formerly known as the Muslims. Let me admit ignorance on this band, but after seeing their tight performance (flawless would actually be the word for the night), I am definitely inspired to look into them.

Keep up with Soft Pack at their MySpace home.

Then Friendly Fires came on stage. The energy was amazing! Think of David Gahan’s (of Depeceh Mode) effect on a crowd: everyone was on their feet, dancing, bouncing, and having the time of their lives. What I found most interesting was how well they were able to deliver their sound live. Sure, it is easy to throw on the sequencer and backing tracks – a limitless number of bands do this. But to use sequenced material and still deliver the raw power of a live performance is no easy task. My personal highlight was “On Board.” From it’s slower tempo beginning to the savvy synthpop guitar interplay of the music at the end, this song demonstrates Friendly Fires at their best – unique arrangements, high energy, and a song that has a life beyond the recorded version.

That’s the thing with many bands these days – they compose music that is either great live or recorded, but rarely both. And to be honest, that was my fear anticipating Friendly Fires: their live performance would fall extremely short of their recorded album. How wrong it was for me to entertain those fears. Like any great band, the music performed live was not a carbon copy of their recorded versions, but rather brought forth a new dimension. I have not been more surprised by a live band in years!

Set List:
1. Lovesick
2. Jump in the Pool
3. Skeleton Boy
4. In the Hospital
5. White Diamonds
6. Strobe
7. On Board
8. Paris
9. Ex Lover

Keep up with Friendly Fires at their homepage and MySpace.

Check out these video clips of them live.

"Skeleton Boy"


"On Board"

Then White Lies took the stage. To their credit, lead singer Harry McVeigh was suffering from a slight cold, but the show had to go on, and go on it did. White Lies delivered one of the most spot on performances I have ever witnessed. Harry reminded me of a really young Robert Smith; his posturing was not one of shyness, but rather one for dramatic effect – standing still, using his fingers to mime out parts of songs occasionally. The band seemed transported somewhere in the back of their minds while performing, lost in the genesis of their music.

Color lights? No. All white lights, accenting their post-punk influenced sound. They kicked off their set with “Farewell to the Fairground” and ended with “Death” – they cruised through a nine song set with the ease and poise of veterans. My highlight of the set was “From the Stars” – easily one of my favorite tracks of the year. With a fourth member on stage, the strings were pulled off with amazing well live, while the building drama of the song was mirrored in the playing of the other band members and voice of McVeigh. And, yes, though towards the end there was a definite difference in the quality of his voice, he managed to hit every note and suspend any discomfort on the stage while singing. This was in itself impressive. Definitely another band you have to see live, especially if you get to see them in the intimacy of a venue like the Bowery Ballroom.

Set list:
1. Farewell to the Fairground
2. To Lose My Life
3. E.S.T.
4. From the Stars
5. Place to Hide
6. Unfinished Business
7. Fifty on Our Foreheads
8. Price of Love
9. Death

Keep up with White Lies at their homepage and MySpace.

Check out these video clips of them live.

"To Lose My Life"

"From the Stars"


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Did You Forget to Take Your Meds?

Update: Juju is back, permanently, this time writing about her favorite band: Placebo. Have to take a few days off to address some issues, but Juju will be running the show and posting the next few entries here. And, I really would like to thank her for creating the Facebook presence for the blog. Check it out.

Placebo fans, it’s about that time again. Placebo will be releasing their long-awaited album “Battle for the Sun” on 8 June 2009 and the band has already released their first single, “Battle for the Sun.” But this time, there is a huge difference; this album is under a new label, a new producer (David Bottrill), and a new drummer. They were signed with EMI and its branches from 1995 to 2007, which makes it about a twelve year history, and have now signed onto PIAS as of last year.

The current drummer, Steve Forrest, was added a few months ago after Steve Hewitt left due to personal and musical differences. There have already been comments towards the fact that Steve Forrest is American and that his musical style may clash with the European indie rock band, but what many do not know is that Brian’s father is an American and both Molko and Olsdal went to school together in an American international school (American International School of Luxembourg). The new album has generated very high expectations from Placebo fans not just because of Hewitt’s departure, but also the change in record labels. “Battle for the Sun” is likely going to receive both positive and negative comments due to so many changes; it may impossible to stop many people from emitting biased opinions.

The single “Battle for the Sun” was released on Zane Lowe's BBC Radio 1 show on Tuesday 17th March. Placebo has come a long way from “Nancy Boy” to “Pure Morning” to “Meds” to “Battle for the Sun,” and the difference is significant due to many factors; the band is growing up and with that their views have evolved. The lyrics are still existing on two opposing levels: the straightforward and the metaphoric. With this approach, the band continues to embrace life for its negatives and positives, hence the title “Battle for the Sun.” Lines like “I will brush off all the dirt … I will pretend it didn't hurt” straightforwardly states these thoughts, but “Dream brother, my killer, my lover” leaves a listener wondering possibly for days trying to figure out what the band means. While many may say the repetitions of certain words are “odd,” there is a reason for those repetitions: emphasis, as the subject shifts from one topic to another.

Placebo has an effect on all fans: they create infectious songs that only become more addictive with time. It is difficult to find any track that does not deliver and with their “Battle for the Sun” album coming out in a few months, this leaves fans dying of anxiety, so keep a look out for their release in June and a Limited DVD box set can be preordered, possibly hiding a golden laminated ticket which holds a VIP dinner with the band, a live performance, and two nights accommodation in a city in your country.

Track Listing
1. Kitty Litter
2. Ashtray Heart
3. Battle For The Sun
4. For What It’s Worth
5. Devil In The Details
6. Bright Lights
7. Speak In Tongues
8. The Never-Ending Why
9. Julien
10. Happy You're Gone
11. Breathe Underwater
12. Come Undone
13. Kings Of Medicine
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26 March 2009

Catching up with Royksopp and MSTRKRFT

Sorry for not posting in a few days, but we all know how life can get. To play a little catch up with myself, I have started the SlowdiveMusicBlog YouTube Channel (will be updating the favorites list over the next few days). Two great CDs came out over the past few days, and luckily a friend of mine stepped up and decided he would help me out with this post. Thanks to Mirage for his review of MSTRKRFT’s “Fist of God.”

I really hate the term “electronic” as a genre – it is sort of like “alternative,” this nebulous, meaningless term that does not do justice to the range and breath of music that is lumped together. I personally go through my own phases when I either label everything really specifically (shoegazing, electric body music, dream pop, post punk revival) or just forego all labels all together. I mean, let’s be realistic, are we listening to a label or to the craftsmanship of musicians? Though a label may help us understand a range of music that a band or a specific album falls into, we should never assume the breath, the depth, and the uniqueness of composers. Having said that, here are two great albums you should definitely give a listen to.

Royksopp: “Junior”

The first half of music to be released by Rokysopp this year, “Junior” (23 March 2009) is an amazing album. (“Senior” to be released later this year, completing the entire set – start the countdown.) Easily sandwiched somewhere in between downtempo and synthpop, as I have argued over and over, Scandinavians are amazing composers of music. A duo (Tobojorn Brundtland and Svein Berge), they combine pop sensibility with quirky electronic, 80s-influenced arrangements. Avoiding darker musings, the power of the music comes from its beckoning for you to just give into the soundscape and enjoy the moment.

Guest vocalists out of the wazoo – Robyn, Anneili Drecker, Karin Drijier, and Lykke Li – the presence of female vocals add something romantic, even alluring, to this brand of synthpop. Whether the songs were written for them, or whether they are production masterminds, the songs flow from one vocalist to another with fluidity. There is never a moment on the album that there is an abrasive change of sound or style. Yet, each song is uniquely crafted – for that matter, Royksopp has never recorded the same song twice. My personal highlight is Robyn singing “The Girl and the Robot.” It is obvious that Robyn is singing out of her comfort zone, yet she sounds amazing in the suspense building background. (And let’s not forget that Drecker sings in English!)

Composers that rely on electronic equipment definitely have one advantage over traditional songwriters: the ability to change sound and textures on the drop of the dime, often midstream, even live. What will definitely catch your ear in this album is how Brundtland and Berge manipulate every synthpop trick, while adding a few new ones (like the kind of Spanish-esque “Vision One”). Give into the beckoning and listen to this album, it will not disappoint.

Track Listing:
1. Happy Up Here
2. The Girl and the Robot – Featuring Robyn
3. Vision One – Featuring Anneli Drecker
4. This Must Be It – Featuring Karin Drejier Andersson
5. Roykscopp Forever
6. Miss It So Much – Featuring Lykke Li
7. Tricky Tricky – Featuring Karin Drejier Andersson
8. You Don’t Have a Clue – Featuring Anneli Drecker
9. Silver Cruiser
10. True to Life – Featuring Anneli Drecker
11. It’s What I Want

Keep up with Royksopp at their homepage and YouTube Channel: RoyksoppMusic.

Here is their video for "Happy Up Here."

MSTRKRFT: “Fist of God”

MSTRKRFT (Pronounced “masterkraft”) does not produce a sophomore slump with their electro house “Fist of God” (17 March 2009). Continuing the dance oriented beats from their debut, “The Look” (2006), this duo (Jesse F. Keeler and Alex Poudziukas, a.k.a. AI-P) out of Canada put out there what Canadians are known for – solid musical composition. Close to an experimental album, “Fist of God” expands their sound to a grittier and dirtier feeling. You may listen to it on your iTunes, but you are going to want to dance to this album.

For this album, they have reached out to names like Lil’ Mo, N.O.R.E., and even John Legend. The different vocal styles give a different feel and wider range of melody to the album; there is no fear of being drowned in sheer electronic beats or noise – which is not a bad thing, per se. From instrumentals to an R&B edge to some rap and heartfelt singing, you will be boogying to it all. What the band never looses is the sense of themselves, what they are about. No matter whom they collaborate with, there is a feel that they know who they are sonically and what they want to achieve.

Though the debut was looked down as sub-par with Daft Punk and the like, which is debatable, MSTRKFRT truly brought their game up for this album. With a wide range of textures and sophisticated production and mixing, it may be time for critics to stop comparing them to other musicians and hear what they have to offer on their own terms.

Track Listing:
1. It Aint’ Love – featuring Lil’Mo
2. 1000 Cigarettes
3. Bounce – featuring N.O.R.E.
4. Vuvuvu
5. Heartbreaker – featuring John Legend
6. Fist of God
7. So Deep – featuring Jahmal
8. Click Click
9. Word Up – featuring Ghostface Killah
10. Breakway – featuring Jahamal
11. 1000 Cigrettes – featuring Freeway (Bonus Track)

Keep up with MSTRKRFT at their homepage, MySpace, and YouTube Channel: MSTRKRFTMUSIC.

Here is there video for "Bounce."

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24 March 2009

Heloise and the Savoir Faire (Live)

20 March 2009, Friday night in New York City’s Highline Ballroom, I coped with butterflies in the stomach waiting to see Heloise and the Savoir Faire. Though I heard grumblings of ticket sales being low, the space filled out nicely by the time the music started, allaying any fears that this would not be a successful show. But before hearing the live versions of songs from “Trash, Rats, and Microphones,” the Brooklyn-based band Deep Red took the stage.

An unsigned band, Deep Red combines sultry vocals with synthpop elements reminiscent of Eurythmics' debut album, “In the Garden.” Of course, there is more of a New York City, sinister twist sound to the music. Not rehash at all, they definitely have garnered my curiosity to hear more. (Check them out at their MySpace home.)

Deep Red

Minutes after their set was completed, Heloise and the Savoir Faire came on stage. I have heard a lot of labels for this band, from disco-punk to disco revival to glam, but it may be better to just discard those labels and deal with the band on their own terms. Drawing influences from various genres, their debut album, “Trash, Rats, and Microphones,” swirls you around infectious beats, lyrical narratives, and ingenious craftsmanship. The music, and live performances, is best described as an orgy with your clothes on; the music (and Heloise) exudes sensuality. The in your face, theatric performance keeps the time passing until it is all forgotten.

Luke Hughett is one of the best live drummers in New York City; add James Belzia on guitar and the amazing bass playing of Jason Diamond, this is a band that never skipped a beat, played with complete conviction, and are always consistent as all hell. In the forefront was Heloise with her two dancers, always a smile on her face, often holding back laughter from their antics, they barreled through nine songs, a costume change, and an improv about finding dick in the park. Just like the album, there is nothing sacred and all things are viable for fun.

The crowd was less than bouncing around the place, which they should have been, but this did not deter the spot on performance from the band. The highlight of the set was “Members Only.” Always a fun song, full of energy, the song is the perfect exemplar of wit and pop culture meets music. Also performed was “Trash, Rats, and Microphones” (not included on the album). The encore, “Memorial Day,” which I have described as sex, booze, references to 80’s song titles, partying, a Muslim roommate, a Chevy Celebrity (!), and a flirtatious lesbian, this song is about pure energy and fun. It is the perfect closer to any show. From beginning to end, through the high theatrics and costume changes, what comes through about this band is that it is about the music. Sure, it is sensual, orgasmic even, but that is only possible because of superior song writing and spot on performances. My advice, if you haven’t seen Heloise and the Savoir Faire live yet, hunt down the next show and go. (Oh yeah, and get on iTunes and by “Trash, Rats, and Microphones.”)

Heloise and the Savoir Faire

Set List:
1. Downtown
2. Pick ‘n’ Choose
3. Members Only
4. Illusions
5. Datsun 280z
6. Trash, Rats, and Microphones
7. Canadian Chang
8. On Fuego
9. Po’T

10. Memorial Day (Encore)

Here are two brief clips from the show.

"Members Only" (Live 20 March 2009)

"Memorial Day" (Live 20 March 2009)

Keep up with Heloise and the Savior Faire at their homepage and/or MySpace.
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19 March 2009

Catching up with the Wavves and Black Lips

From the West Coast to the East, from Noise Punk to Garage Punk, here are two recent albums that you should take a listen to, which really represent an underground American attitude that is becoming more and more prevalent. Though one relies heavily on distortion, and the other is crisp, both generate urgency with a sense of sincerity and straightforward song writing, devoid of any production shticks, or any attempts of getting an audience to love them.

Wavves: “Wavvves”

There is no doubt with titles like “Gun in the Sun,” “Weed Demon,” “Beach Goth,” and “Surf Goth,” there is both elements of California and tongue-in-cheek in the Wavves sophomore album “Wavvves” (17 March 2009). This is really a one-man band, Nate Williams, who has the ability to tap into the late teen / early twenties anxiety in a straightforward manner: “Got no car, got no money, I got nothin’, nothin’ at all. Got no god, got no girlfired…” (“No Hope Kids”) When most artists are feigning a sense of universal connection, Williams’ musical minimalism and lyrical simplicity is the real deal. There is no attempt at writing about a world that exists outside of his existence; this album is like photographs capturing candid moments in the life of a twenty-two year old slacker.

Heavily distorted sounds, appropriate for our sound-byte, double talk culture, the album finds a mellow low in the middle with “Weed Demon” (punk, surfing, and California, what else would you expect?) Like a good, sunny Californian and punk rocker, there is a definite parody of Goths and references to skating. The closing track, “Surf Goth,” an oxymoron if I ever heard one, is probably more in line with the classic gothic sound than most of what passes for Goth these days.

Disingenuously, William sings “I’m just a boy with nothing to say…” (“Get in the Sun”), or perhaps he does not realize this album is the voice of a generation of punk rockers tired of hearing the same old, cliché phrase that punk is dead. And though I never buy that crap about musicians saying that they write music for themselves (if they did, they would be content to write and perform in their garages instead of painstakingly searching for a record contract, touring, and pouring countless money into promotions), with Nate Williams there is this feeling that this is “him.” No attempt at a stage persona, and if you don’t like what you are listening to, well fuck it and go to another list on your iTunes.

Track Listing:
1. Rainbow Everywhere
2. Beach Demon
3. To the Dregs
4. Sun Opens My Eyes
5. Gun in the Sun
6. So Bored
7. Goth Girls
8. No Hope Kids
9. Weed Demon
10. California Goths
11. Summer Goth
12. Beach Goth
13. Killr Punx, Scary Demons
14. Surf Goth

Keep up with Wavves at MySpace.

Black Lips: “200 Million Thousand”

Hailing for Georgia, “200 Million Thousand” (24 February 2009) is Black Lips fifth studio album. One of the most prolific bands out there, they have released five albums since 2003. It reminds me of the many veterans in the 1980s. It was one album after the other, yearly in fact, but it was that urgency in having to compose and record, and then perform new music that created a sense of vitality and the willingness to experiment with structure, lyrics, and production styles.

“200 Million Thousand” is the first album to finally coincide with the quirkiness that this band brings to the stage. The album has more of a vintage style, really wearing influences on their sleeves (New York Dolls, Troggs); however, this album is not all upbeat, straight-out rock. There are some slower, more experimental, bordering on psychedelic, tracks. “Trapped in the Basement,” with backing vocals coming close to insanity, will take a listener by surprise, creeping them out a bit. “I’ll Be with You” and “Drop I Hold” are examples of pastiche done perfectly well – definitely looking towards the past for the sound, but infusing their own sense of modern in your face that would not fly yesteryear: “feel so lame, what a shame, smoke my brain, got no name, is insane, what a game…” (“Drop I Hold”)

But Black Lips are at their best when rocking. “Drugs” will get thinking of old day rock dance halls, while “Short Fuse” is a solid pop song that will hook you. Some critics have discarded this album as a great attempt at sounding like the past, but what they may have missed is the fact that is album is more of the next step in a generation of Southern rock meets punk rock. This is not about honoring the past, but bringing it one step into the future. The Black Lips finally have got me to call myself a fan, because they have shown me a craftsmanship that acknowledges everything they have done, their influences, and how they can continue to write music that is fresh, new, and adds onto the canons of a genre.

Track Listing
1. Take My Heart
2. Drugs
3. Starting Over
4. Let It Grow
5. Trapped in a Basement
6. Short Fuse
7. I’ll Be with You
8. Big Black Baby Jesus of Today
9. Again & Again
10. Old Man
11. Drop I Hold
12, Body Combat
13. Elijah
14. I Saw God
15. Meltdown

Keep up with Black Lips at their homepage, MySpace, and their YouTube Channel Blacklipstv.

Here is their video for “Short Fuse.”

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Sinead O’Connor: Retrospective on “The Lion & the Cobra”

(Time… Time is of the essence, right? I wanted to get this out for St. Patrick’s Day, to be honest, because I wanted to give credit to my favorite daughter of Ireland. Apologies for the delay and enjoy.)

Sinead O’Connor will forever be known for two things. The first for being one of the sexiest, bald headed women in the world. Like many other post-punk women, there is definitely a sex appeal to the image she projects, but at the same time there is a fierceness and strength that can be intimidating and disarming. The second thing she will forever be known for is ripping the picture of the pope, John Paul II. On 3 October 1992, live on “Saturday Night Live,” after singing an a cappella cover of Bob Marley’s “War” (switching the lyrics from “racism” to “child abuse”), the pope’s image was ripped in half. She said, “Fight the real enemy,” as the crowd sat in shook, horror, and silence. What was never discussed was her reason for doing this. In a nutshell, it was her protest against the Catholic Church denying and / or perpetrating acts of physical and sexual abuse of children. It is funny how Sinead has never been forgiven for this act, when within ten years all of the headlines in the press would decry the abuses of priests within the church. Her anger and outrage was years ahead of everyone else's.

But what should never be forgotten is that Sinead O’Connor had and continues to produce some of the most mind-boggling, urgent, infectious, and politically conscious music, accompanied by perhaps the most unique voice of all time. As an artist she is uncompromising, and as a person she suffers with her own demons like the rest of us. And before there was all of his brouhaha about ripping a picture, she was just that bald headed girl from Ireland, who released an amazing debut album, “The Lion & the Cobra” (1987).

The album opens with “Jackie,” a harrowing tale of a woman waiting for her man who embarked on a voyage at sea. “I remember the day the young man came, he said, “Your Jackie’s gone, he got lost in the rain.” And I ran to the beach and laid me down, “You’re all wrong.” I said… I’ve been washing the sand with my salty tears, searching the shore these long years… till I find my Jackie…” Devoid of percussions, the song gains power from the textures of her voice. From sweet and loving, to angry and sinister, to anxious and resigned, Sinead in under two-and-a-half minutes is able to demonstrate more range and power in her voice than most singers in their career, period.

Her most successful single from the album, “Mandinka,” follows, which was under heavy rotation on “120 Minutes,” reached top 20 status in the UK, and was performed at the Grammy’s. But the show-stopper of the album is “Troy.” An epic that would make any post-punk, Goth artist jealous, she raps the story of the fall of Ancient Troy around the abuses she endured by her mother. “Do you want me? Should I leave? I know you’re always telling me that you love me, just sometimes I wonder if I should believe…” And just as the walls of Troy crumbled, the experience of abuse crumbled her psyche. And just as the Greeks were not just happy with breaking the walls, but had to continue with slaughter, Sinead sings, “and the flames burned away, but you’re still spitting fire.”

But this is more than just doom and gloom; just as Sinead demonstrates the range of her voice, she demonstrates the range of her craftsmanship. From the harrowing and epic, so the straight out pop, “I Want Your (Hands on Me)” is an itchy, dancy number. “Jerusalem” is a heady pop song with a wha-wha effected guitar in the background: “It’s show time, I hope you do what you said when you swore you’d make it better, deliver all the letters on time, Jerusalem.” And of course, a little bit of gender bending in the final track: “Don’t call me sir, oh just call me Joe. Don’t call me lady, just call me Joe. Don’t call me mister, just call me Joe. Don’t call me sweetheart, just call me Joe” (“Just Call Me Joe”). Because at the end of it all, Sinead understands that we are all “Joe,” a generic face, quite often forgotten and ignored in the crowd. But unlike most, Sinead is willing to make waves and scream until we listen. She proves from the onset, before that ripping the picture incident, that this bald headed daughter of Ireland has the talent to deliver solid music, the conviction to not be frivolous, and the audacity to shock us, not because her actions are not things that we have not thought about. But rather because she has the courage to deliver them to action when we do not. It is all of that, from the benign to speaking the taboo of abuse, which makes “The Lion & the Cobra” an amazing album.

As for the two different covers for this album, it is a bit of interesting trivia. The first (above), from the European release, is a defiant, menacing Sinead, screaming. The second (below), the American release, of a more peaceful, calm Sinead – the idea being that the first would be to bombastic for Americans to handle.

Track Listing:
1. Jackie
2. Mandika
3. Jerusalem
4. Just Like U Said It Would B
5. Never Get Old
6. Troy
7. I Want Your (Hands on Me)
8. Drink Before the War
9. Just Call Me Joe

Keep up with Sinead O’Connor at her homepage and MySpace.
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16 March 2009

Superoscope Answers 5

Born in New York City, Superoscope combines the best in electronic body music and electro-industrial with an amazing pop sensibility. This sound, this mindset, is most definitely part of the future of electronic music, as they point to the possibilities of making darker, anxious music and forbidding, urgent beats more accessible to a wider audience, while never compromising their sound. And to top all of that, they have agreed to Answer 5.

1. Who are your musical and nonmusical influences?

Musical: Chopin, Elvis Presley, Fad Gadget, Philip Glass, Thom Yorke
Nonmusical: physics, sociology, ecology

2. How did the band come together? What was the genesis?

Here you can check out the story on the bio. (links below)

3. I hear you always dress in white on stage; why? How important is the visual image of the band to you guys?

We want to be as clean as possible in every way. We aim at being spiritually clean and it is manifested in every realm of our activity, as well as by the outfits. That's why we wash our white Hazmat suit outfits often. We also feel we have something more to say than a temporary fashion style. We do not want Superoscope to be a product of the marketing process; we want to stay away from that.

4. In terms of the means you use to generate music, do you prefer hardware or software? What difference in equipment do you use for studio recording versus live performance?

We do not limit ourselves to any environment, we are constantly seeking new possibilities, new sounds, new solutions, that is why [we] travel a lot. We try to sample everything that is unusual and seems to be interesting for our production. We use a lot of software, innovative plug-ins created by independent developers. In general, we feel like we need to learn a lot.

For live acts we designed a dedicated solution that we will present in the near future.

5. In this digital age, the Internet is coming to replace the radio as the means for exposure to new music. How important is the Internet for Superoscope and are there any drawbacks?

The Internet is the most important tool for us, for music promotion. We do not see any drawbacks to it. That is why we concentrate on the Internet so much. The Internet helps staying clean, you don't waste resources to produce temporary material stuff. We believe that listeners will make good use of the Internet. The Internet gives us freedom to create our music wherever we are. We are not limited to any location and most importantly the Internet gives us the opportunity to transmit our music to anyone in the universe.

Follow the band on their homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and the Superoscope Channel on YouTube Channel. Here is a link for a video entitlted “A Green Recovery” (set to their song “Hypersensitivity”). It sets Superoscope apart from most bands – it demonstrates that they have a social, global consciousness.
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13 March 2009

Catching up with Wake the President and Cursive

Identical Scottish twins (and not the Proclaimers) and post-hardcore from Omaha, Nebraska – here are two great albums that you should make the time and listen to.

Wake the President: “You Can’t Change That Boy”

The debut album by Scottish identical twins, Bjorn and Erik Sandberg, Wake the President is signed to Electric Honey of Belle and Sebastian and Snow Patrol fame. “You Can’t Change That Boy” (9 March 2009 in the UK, available as an import in the USA) is a groovy mixture of indie rock and folk. From intricate arpeggios to beautifully harmonized vocals, the power of this album comes from avoiding the current trend of rock musicians keeping a dance floor feel to their music. You may not get a hip-gyrating experience from this album, but you will get an amazing listening experience of witty lyrics and catchy straightforward arrangements. If an album can musically sound sincere (without lyrics), this is the album.

Opening with the sedate “Something to Turn Up,” you might be deceived into believing this album moves slower than granny with her walker, but then “Professor” smacks you with pure pop sensibility and hooky guitar playing. “Remember Fun?” is reminiscent of the best the Smiths had to offer: amazingly played music that adds to the power of the vocals. “Just Give Me Two Secs” is the final song with a pop-paced tempo with guitar playing bordering on elements of American country. Wittier and more blatantly honest than most artists, the song states, “She said, ‘He’s no man, he’s just a piece of merchandize.”” Then the album falls into the final track, which much like the opening track is slower than the rest of the album. “A & E” is the most distinct track on the album. Its arrangements are the most sophisticated on the album, and the emotional rawness of the band is most apparent here. The song is as if someone exposed a void in him or herself – this song is pure genius. Moreover, this final track points the future possibilities of where they may head sonically.

With the ability to narrate like the best of them (Bob Dylan included in the group), there is a level of maturity and meticulous craftsmanship in “You Can’t Change That Boy.” This is more than your average college radio station, run of the mill jangle pop band; Wake the President creates strong enjoyable songs that merge into an excellent listening experience as an album – there is not a single track you want to fast forward.

Track Listing:
1. Something to Turn Up
2. Professor
3. Mail, Alice
4. Miss Tierney
5. Wake
6. You Can’t Change That Boy
7. Remember Fun?
8. The Security Place
9. Just Give Me Two Secs
10. A & E

Keep up with the band on MySpace.

Check out the band’s live performance of “Miss Tierney” on the music video company DirtyTrainers YouTube Channel.

Cursive: “Mama, I’m Swollen”

Released 10 March 2009 (digitally 1 March 2009), “Mama, I’m Swollen” is Cursives sixth studio album. Twelve years into their career, this post-hardcore band continues to write some of the headiest albums on the market. Hitting the universal reality that we all want to escape, the album’s first track, “In the Now,” opens with electronic, urgent sounds before letting the beat drop to sheer anxiety, Tim Kasher sings, “Don’t wanna live in the now, don’t wanna know what I know…” It is that feeling we all feel from time to time when we wish we're someone else, something different, and not weighted down with own memories. Aptly, he sings in “Donkey”, “You don’t like the way you live, so you play pretend.”

The universality continues through the album, even in the inclusion of fresh musical elements in the Cursive repertoire, including the arabesque feel to the beginning of “I Couldn’t Love You.” Down to politics, Cursive does not steer away from making statements that are so obvious but very few musicians dare to make: “You’re flashing me that politicians grin, you got your image squeaky clean, you’ve such a fetching smile but a maw with sharp teeth” (“We’re Going to Hell”). But that is what makes Cursive, Cursive. They do not shy away from making lyrical or musical statements: “Let Me Up” demonstrates the ability to compose a single song, which can transverse texture and mood, from one extreme to another, in just one song. If punk rock is about turning the world and musical clichés on their heads, and spinning them really fast, until what you get is subversive, Cursive does this with more sublimity than any other indie rock band out there.

Perhaps what I am going to say may be considered blasphemy by many Cursive fans: forget “The Ugly Organ.” This is Cursive’s best effort yet! More intelligent than anything they have done before, more sophisticated and ingenious than any album to date, with a new injected urgency in their sound, “Mama, I’m Swollen” will hold a mirror glass to any listener’s face and force you to confront some of your own demons, while tapping your feet to a wonderful soundscape of the perfected Cursive sound.

Track Listing:
1. In the Now
2. From the Hips
3. I Couldn’t Love You
4. Donkeys
5. Caveman
6. We’re Going to Hell
7. Mama, I’m Satan
8. Let Me Up
9. Mama, I’m Swollen
10. What Have I Done?

Keep up with Cursive at their homepage or MySpace.
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The Onlookers Answer 5

It is not easy for any new band to try to establish itself and get the backing of a major label to create all the hype. But in our digital age, the Internet is giving us access to so many exciting new bands, that we should take a moment to pause and listen. One of those bands is the Onlookers. Though they are busy at work (with a great EP out on iTunes (“The Onlookers EP”) that you should get your hands on), they have taken the time to answer 5.

1. Who are your musical and non-musical influences?

Our influences vary musically [from] artists on the 1960's Electra record label, Motown and bands from the early 1990s.

2. There is some wild info out there on how the band formed, including a police line-up. How did the band come together?

The band formed because half of us are related and the other half lived near by and we thought we could do better.

3. Why “The Onlookers?” How did the name come about?

Whenever you read a newspaper article that word is written at least once.

4. In this digital age, the Internet is becoming more and more intricately interwoven into the lives of people. How important is an Internet presence to a new band?

It is a very important tool for getting music out to people, but at the end of the day if you cannot deliver live it’s useless.

5. You refer to your audience/following as “brothers and sisters” in a blog posting; how important is it to you to feel a sense of affinity with your audience?

It's very important as everyone needs a family, and family is important.

Hit this band up on MySpace and spread the word.

(Photographs by Sam Seager, check out his work.)
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11 March 2009

Starsailor: "All the Plans"

A friend of mine, who happens to be the biggest Brian Molko fan this side of the Atlantic, reached out to me excited with the prospect of Starsailor’s release of their fourth album. She volunteered immediately to write up a review, and I was more than happy to oblige and post. Here is a review by Juju.

Deriving their name from a 1970 Tim Bukley album of the same name, Starsailor has released four albums since 2001, including their newest album “All the Plans” (released March 2009, Virgin). This is not an experimental album, but Starsailor stuck with what they do best: melodic songs with meaningful lyrics.

Although now being released under the Virgin moniker as opposed to EMI, the changes are not radical on the actual music. (Virgin is part of the EMI Group.) The biggest difference was the tone; it seems that “All the Plans” is a more ambient and calm album. While the previous albums have more upbeat tracks, the newest album concentrates on meaningful songs that strike the soul. This is what the band and producer, Steve Osborne, were aiming for. Osborne, who also co-produced the debut album “Love Is Here” (2001), enables the band to stay more on the romantic side that is genuinely Starsailor. Whereas new tracks like “The Thame” may totally differ from old classics like “Four to the Floor” (from “Love Is Here”), it maintains an upbeat tempo to a certain extent in order to avoid an emotionally overwhelming album.

Like many rock bands, Starsailor cannot possibly be categorized. They are placed under “rock” and “piano rock” but that is quite naïve to say. Starsailor has the capacity to range from arranging music with strings, to standard piano rock, to incorporating wind instruments, and in each instance creating a new and fresh sound. There is no constant subject that the band dwells on; rather the songs are a conglomerate of various emotions and events in one’s life. The lead single of the album is “Tell Me It’s Not Over” (released 2 March 2009), which is rather heart wrenching with a few possible interpretations. At times the lyrics are straightforward: “Thought I'd lost you once again … All that drinking bought some trouble to our name”; but then complicating the narrative with lyrics like “Now the lights out … I discover, she is sleeping … with another.” The song starts off with a character with a drinking problem and “you” was thought to be hope, but then a girl is introduced, which adds to the meaning. These lyrics added with beautiful arrangements, truly makes this single.

“All the Plans” is calming, happy, sad, and just about every simple emotion put into one “soulful” and relaxing album. Unfortunately, it is not easy for indie rock bands/artists to hit it big on the Billboard charts, but this album is a solid one filled with tracks that are unforgettable. Eyebrows should be raised over this awesome album – do not overlook it!

Track Listing:

1. Tell Me It's Not Over
2. Boy In Waiting
3. The Thames
4. All The Plans
5. Neon Sky
6. You Never Get What You Deserve
7. Hurts Too Much
8. Stars And Stripes
9. Change My Mind
10. Listen Up
11. Safe At Home

Keep up with the band on thier homepage , MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube Channel.
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10 March 2009

Neimo Answers 5

Hailing from France, Neimo emanates a sense of confidence, sexuality, and craftsmanship in their music that is impressive. Earlier in their career, they found acceptance in the Francophile scene difficult, as they have chosen to compose music written in English (as they acknowledge, rock & roll came to birth in the United States). But with the release of their album “Modern Incidental," they are starting to make waves in the music scene. In the middle of a tour, Neimo has taken the time to answer 5.

1. Who are your musical and non-musical influences?

We could say we love David Bowie, New Order, The Smiths, Lou Reed, Blondie, Kraftwerk, The Kinks, Elvis "The King" Presley, Talking Heads and so on… And for non-musical ones, there is Andy Warhol and Joe Dallesandro, Marlon Brando in "The Wild One," The Goonies, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dali...

2. You mention in an interview that France is a "league behind when it comes to rock." (link to interview) Why do you think this is so, considering all of the musical festivals that are sponsored in France?

Well, this has changed a bit now, but one has to admit that rock & roll is an Anglo-Saxon thing. Every time the French have tried to make rock & roll, it has been quite ridiculous. But we are trying to change that!

3. Obviously the music scenes of continental Europe, the UK, and the US are different. In your opinion, what are those differences and how has Neimo been received in each?

We've never quite felt such a gap between those countries actually. What's funny is that we've realized that the crowds prefer different songs. For instance the British like "The Hourglass" better while we can never go through a gig in NYC without "Peter And The Wolves"!

4. I've heard many people comment that your sound is very straightforward, but yet sexy, and I agree. Is this something you aim at when you are writing and producing your music?

Yes, we try to keep some form of spontaneity in our music, especially onstage, but we try to consider our work as a piece that is readable through various layers. You have the straightforward aspect of it indeed, such as the melody, and then the next level is when you hear the lyrics and if you go deeper and listen more carefully you'll discover loads of sounds or meanings in the words you hadn't heard till then.

5. What can we expect next? (Returning to the US any time soon?)

We are touring Europe a lot right now, especially France and Germany; we just had our music featured in a Karl Lagerfeld fashion show today (we're very proud) and already starting to write a new album. But we're longing to go back to the US, and see our friends in NYC.

Keep up with the band on their MySpace home.

And get their album. “Moderne Incidental” is one of those albums that cover all the dimensions of solid indie rock. The opening track, “Can You Call Me?” has that straightedge guitar playing that just hooks you. “Echo Pixels” has a sense of urgency that is addictive. “Peter and the Wolves” is an ironic poetic ode, while “Diamond Lane” is an interesting example of spoken word. Then there is “The Hourglass,” a cryptic story hemmed into some of the most dramatic music out there. The album brings your full circle by the end; “Carsick” will lift you off your seat with its classic guitar rifts and its fast tempo. And for as catchy as this album may be, it isn’t gimmicky in any sense of the word; this is solid craftsmanship that relies on ingenious songwriting, not production tricks. Run out, get the album, now!

Track Listing:
1. Can You Call Me?
2. Johnny Five
3. Echoing Pixels
4. Peter and the Wolves
5. Something in Common
6. Lines
7. Diamond Lane
8. Deceit
9. Poison the Chalice
10. The Loving Dead
11. The Hourglass
12. Carsick

Here is the link for their video “Lines” on the Vimeo page of directors Chind and Brechet.

(Photos of the band by Mat Zazzo.)
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Superoscope: "Mechanism"

If like me, you grew up on a steady diet of electronic body music (EBM) / electro-industrial, such as Nitzer Ebb and Front 242, and have been whetting your appetite for a new band in this tradition that is more than just imitation, you don’t have to wait any longer. Hailing from New York City, Superoscope is a duo composed of Lee Rock and Ex Tymon. Their debut album, “Mechanism,” is going to wow you away.

It may be easy to dismiss this album as something pastiche, but I am reminded of what T.S. Eliot said: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” These guys may have ignored the development of electronic music that the likes of Blank and Jones and the Prodigy capitalized on, they may have also ignored the integration of more traditional elements of music that Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails have infused into their music, but “Mechanism” is not a dreary ode to the past. Quite the opposite, Rock and Tymon may have learned (and stolen) from the past, but they have incorporated new elements to EBM. In today’s upbeat world of happy love songs and never ending superficiality, their music mirrors the dark tensions and anxiety of what the real world is like but we fear to face.

The opening track, “Body Language,” has a harrowing feel to it; like Bjork’s “Enjoy,” there is a sexual tension to the rhythm, always on the verge of breaking into dance, but keeping you in check in the early stages of foreplay. You know those stages, where one is feeling skin, smelling skin, tasting skin… Aptly, the lyrics start “I like the color of skin, sweet and moist skin.” “Hypersensitivity” demonstrates a minimalism common in EBM, but what makes this song stand out is how the texture of the music changes from movement to movement. There isn’t this stagnant repetition of beats and/or mood; percussion elements are introduced and then disappear, while keyboard sounds and arrangements typical of late 80s dance music (“Vogue”) grace the song. “Antilove” has a spy-esque feeling to it. A journey through different textures, the song combines traditional elements of music, static, and a cacophony of sounds – and if love is supposed to be serene and pristine, this song is sonically just the opposite.

More experimental tracks are included on the album, such as “Will I Ever Get Enough,” incorporating human breaths into the percussion, and “Universal Girl,” best described as a study in sound. The closing track, “I Believe in Your Strength,” is more reminiscent of the dream pop / shoegazing of Curve than EBM. Ambient, airy vocal arrangements drowned out by music, the song still incorporates a rhythm style that falls short of letting the beat drop. (This is the kind of song that is ripe for an underground house remix.)

Overall, continuing the tradition of great New York City bands (Blondie, Interpol, Scissor Sisters), this is a solid album that not only reflects the musical past, but points in a new direction of possibilities for rejuvenated old ideas and a music scene dominated by more standard line-ups. This is a five-star album. Sure, perhaps a little impersonal, perhaps a little inaccessible, but you have to remember, it was written by New Yorkers, what more could you expect?

Track Listing:
1. Body Language
2. Will I Ever Get Enough
3. Hypersensitivity
4. Sine Wave
5. Antilove
6. Opus Qwerty
7. Name
8. Love Simulator
9. Universal Girl
10. I Believe in Your Strength

Check out the band on their homepage and/or MySpace.
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08 March 2009

Some Recent Videos and a Live Performance

Here are some really good recent videos. Check them out, and check out the bands' or labels' YouTube Channels.

Where embedded videos are not allowed or disabled, I have placed links to let you see the video by the official provider.

Superoscope on YouTube.


Depeche Mode on YouTube.

[Update: embed no longer available.] Here is the link for “Wrong.”

Annie Lennox on YouTube

Pattern of My Life” (Link)

Thursday on Epitaph Recoreds YouTube Channel.

“Resuscitation of a Dead Man”

Starsailor on YouTube.

“Tell Me It’s Not Over”

Yazoo on Alison Moyet YouTube Channel.

Live performance of “Don’t Go.”

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07 March 2009

Five Synthpop Albums

New wave was more than just an extension or development from punk rock; it was also a reaction against both mainstream and underground/punk. Where as punk rock may have condemned the frivolities of pop music, it still composed and thought of music in much the same way and on the same terms as standard rock – just stripped down and more screaming. New wave artists, on the hands, were more experimental, allowing for more integration of funk, disco, and electronic influences. Instead of denouncing what was out there, they were willing to embrace it with a twist. Instead of arguing that pop music was “lame” or “hackneyed,” they demonstrated with careful craftsmanship that mainstream pop arrangements could be utilized for experimental music. And among these new wave artists were the bands aptly called synthpop.

Though its genesis was in the middle of the new wave movement, synthpop would continue to exist beyond the 80s with a new resurgence in recent years. The most common definition of synthpop would be that these bands in the subgenre prioritized the use of synthesizers and sequencers to generate music. But there is more to it than just that. There is a conscious element of creating music that is obviously mechanical, while injecting vocal arrangements that are warm and empathic. Present is ostinato – a constant, repetitive sound from beginning to end, like the background of “Save a Prayer” by Duran Duran or a never changing drum pattern. Even with today’s technology available, synthpop continue to incorporate ostianto though they have the means to create more luscious arrangements and soundscapes.

As a matter of image, these bands, like the rest of new wave, experimented with their looks. There was a conscious blurring of gender and/or sexuality; there was no rejection of queerity – in fact, two synthpop greats, Bronski Beat (“Small Town Boy”) and Erasure (“A Little Respect”), were more than willing to bring the gay cause to the forefront of their music. What new wave and synthpop allowed was not just a new way of thinking about music, but also a new way of thinking about what was acceptable to write about in music. And though new wave would die out with the hairbands of the 80s, synthpop would outlive the 90s, and continue to challenge the notion that music had to be guitar based and/or realistic sounding till present day.

A-ha: “Hunting High and Low” (1985)

The debut album by a Norwegian band that still retains its popularity on the Continent, A-ha (homepage) hit the American radio and video play in an impressive way with “Take on Me” (top 5 single in Norway, UK, USA, France, and Germany to name a few countries). A-ha in the United States will always be known as the band that had that catchy video with the girl who falls into the pencil drawn comic book. They were ahead of their time; creating a video that set the standard for 1985. And 2009 will see A-ha releasing their ninth studio album.

Why is it a must? Though we all know the single “Take on Me,” included on this album is also “The Sun Always Shines on TV.” This is an incredible song and demonstration of craftsmanship. (The video references at the beginning the video for “Take on Me.”) The song is more sophisticated in sound and arrangements than the first wave of synthpop – technology had greatly improved. But like many other Scandinavians (Abba, Moonbabies, Lars Ulrich of Metallica, Savoy, etc…), these boys have an ear for writing music that is unpredictable, catchy, and infectious. This album is no different.

Track Listing:
1. Take on Me
2. Train of Thought
3. Hunting High and Low
4. The Blue Sky
5. Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale
6. The Sun Always Shines on TV
7. And You Tell Me
8. Love Is Reason
9. I Dream Myself Alive
10. Here I Stand and Face the Rain

Depeche Mode: “Speak & Spell” (1981)

Formed in 1980, Depeche Mode (homepage) originally included David Gahan, Martin Gore, Andy Fletcher, and Vince Clarke, who was originally the primary song writer and would go on to form both Yazzo and Erasure. After playing in other “standard” bands, Depeche Mode would emerge at the forefront of the synthpop movement. Arguably, they are the most successful synthpop band of all time in terms of longevity, album sales, and influence. With well-crafted songs based on the standards of old, the use of electronic equipment allowed them to inject urgency and vitality to their music, something that was not done to this degree by synthpop bands before hand. Critics did anything but praise Depeche Mode, yet they have survived the test of time, as they prepare to release a new album (“Sounds of the Universe”) in 2009. And, it is not just a new album, DM continues to be fresh and relevant to music.

Why is it a must?

Even though Martin Gore would become the main songwriter after this album, what all of the DM albums have in common is a meticulous eye for detail. There is always a sense of “this is perfect” when listening to a DM album. “Speak & Spell” includes their first song, “Photographic,” and that alone is reason to buy this album. This song is perhaps the most urgent song of all early synthpop. Also, with songs like “Tora! Tora! Tora! (written by Gore) and the Schizo Mix of “Just Can’t Get Enough,” there are hints present that DM was going to start a journey towards darker music.

Track Listing UK:
1. New Life
2. I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead
3. Puppets
4. Boys Say Go!
5. Nodisco
6. What’s Your Name?
7. Photographic
8. Tora! Tora! Tora!
9. Big Muff
10. Any Second Now (Voices)
11. Just Can’t Get Enough
12. Dreaming of Me – 1988 CD Re-release
13. Ice Machine – 1988 CD Re-Release
14. Shout! – 1988 CD Re-Release
15. Any Second Now – 1988 CD Re-Release
16. Just Can’t Get Enough (Schizo Mix) – 1988 CD Re-Release

Track Listing USA:
1. New Life (Remix)
2. Puppets
3. Dreaming of Me
4. Boys Say Go!
5. Nodisco
6. What’s Your Name?
7. Photographic
8. Tora! Tora! Tora!
9. Big Muff
10. Any Second Now (Voices)
11. Just Can’t Get Enough (Schizo Mix)

The Human League: “Dare!” (1981)

One of the few major bands that do not have a website (as they believe they do not merit one), the Human League dominated radio play with their hit “Don’t You Want Me” – the number of high school talent shows of couples singing this song are infinite! They considered themselves a song-based band and have definitely left a definite mark on mainstream music. Concentrating on carefully crafted songs, with little hooks unique to synthpop, it is arguable that the Human League set the standards for all synthpop bands to reach – they did reach the number one position in the UK and USA twice, a feat not accomplished by any other synthpop band.

Why is it a must? We can be cliché and say that everyone must own a copy of “Don’t You Want Me,” but there are other great tracks on this album. The opening track, “The Things Dreams Are Made Of,” is an excellent song and a precursor to sounds that would be included in techno later. “Do or Die” has arrangements in it that you can see where some 80s pop artists (like Madonna) got ideas from. Then there is that enigmatic electronic piece, “Get Carter,” that comes in softly and disappears quickly – I wonder what they were alluding to there?

Track Listing:
1. The Things That Derams Are Made Of
2. Open Your Heart
3. The Sound of the Crowd
4. Darkness
5. Do or Die
6. Get Carter
7. I Am the Law
8. Seconds
9. Love Action (I Believe in Love)
10. Don’t You Want Me

Catch the Human League at Astralwerks YouTube Channel.

Here is the link for their video for “Don’t You Want Me Baby.”

Ultravox: “Vienna” (1980)

This band has a revolving door around membership sort of like the Cure – thirteen members have graced this four-man line-up. In February 2009, Midge Ure (frontman) confirmed that Ultravox (homepage) would be reuniting to record new material. (Not a nostalgia tour, as many other artists have done, but rather give fans a new chapter in their career to enjoy.) Not always radio friendly, Ultravox built a career on experimental pop, intricate, interwoven arrangements, and avoiding the clichés that many synthpop bands fell into. With an ability to shift styles (perhaps, like other bands with revolving line-ups, because different members brought a different style with them to the fold), Ultravox never recorded the same album twice. Throughout their career, they were always able to remain fresh and relevant.

Why is it a must? Midge Ure became the frontman of the band in 1979, releasing “Vienna” as his first album with Ultravox. This is the bands most successful album to date. Combining different styles and genres, from sheer electronic, synth oriented music (”Astradyne”) to more guitar-oriented arrangements (“New Europeans’), something DM would do later in their career, the album showcases all of the extremes of synthpop. The single, “Vienna,” an amazing experiment in pop, combines elements of acoustic sounds (piano) and synthpop ostianto and cold, mechanical sounds. This is an amazing ballad that should not be written out of the annals of musical history.

Track Listing:
1. Astradyne
2. New Europeans
3. Private Lives
4. Passing Strangers
5. Sleepwalking
6. Mr. X
7. Western Promise
8. Vienna
9. All Stood Still
(Note, the US edition re-ordered the songs on the A-Side of the vinyl: 5, 4, 2, 3, 1.)

Yazoo: “Upstairs at Eric” (1982)

After leaving Depeche Mode and before forming Erasure, Vince Clarke would team up with Alison Moyet to form Yazoo (homepage), in the US known simply as Yaz. I got to see the band perform on their Reconnected Tour last year at the Beacon Theater in New York City and was wowed by them. Yazoo is pure energy! Even the slowest paste songs will smack you in the face with emotional rawness, while the faster tempo songs will make you want to dance. Even while singing about dancing (“Don’t Go”) there is a conviction and seriousness in Moyet’s voice; even when being experimental, Clarke is able to generate a soundscape (even using real voices in “I before E Except after C”) that is impressive. Honestly, there is a part of me hoping for a third Yazoo album.

Why is it a must? “Don’t Go” and “Situations” are on this album – you may not know these songs by title, but when you hear them, you will start dancing. Synthpop, in fact most of electronic music, is never thought of as soulful, but “Midnight” is one of the most soulful songs ever recorded. Alison Moyet’s voice has been one of the most under-appreciated voices in modern music, and the genius of Vince Clarke’s simplicity and craftsmanship has never been given the credit it deserves. “Upstairs at Eric’s” demonstrates the vitality and timelessness that synthpop music brought to the mainstream and underground, and why as a genre it has been influential.

Track Listing UK:
1. Don’t Go
2. Too Pieces
3. Bad Connection
4. I before E Except after C
5. Midnight
6. In My Room
7. Only You
8. Goodbye 70’s
9. Tuesday
10. Winter Kills
11. Bring Your Love Down (Didn’t I)

Track Listing USA:
1. Don’t Go
2. Too Pieces
3. Bad Connection
4. I before E Except after C
5. Midnight
6. In My Room
7. Only You
8. Situations (US Remix)
9. Goodbye 70’s
10. Winter Kills
11. Bring Your Love Down (Didn’t I)

You can find Yazzo on the Mute YouTube Channel.

Here is their video for "Don’t Go."

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