Been traveling around a bit lately, but finally had the time to sit down and write a bit (hopefully the next few days will allow me some time to write before taking off again). But I have kept my iPod stacked with great new music. So here are two albums, one by veterans and the other by a “newcomer,” that you should really give a listen to. Yeah, they are both pop albums and some of my friends have even joked about me loving these two albums. But this is not your throwaway pop music; this is craftsmanship that should be respected and emulated. In the near vacuum of good pop music of the past decade, pop acts are emerging and veterans are returning with strong efforts. Though I do not think that we will ever return to the mid-80’s new wave hit machine of mindless pop (which is a good thing), it is great to see intelligent pop being produced and giving a real alternative to corporate music, indie/festival circuit bands, hip-hop, and the dominance of rock (in all of its forms) over the past few years.
A-ha: “Foot of the Mountain”
A-ha released their first album in four years; “Foot of the Mountain” (19 June 2009 in the European Union, available as an import in the USA) truly highlights what A-ha does better than any synthpop band out there: combining luscious vocal arrangements with subtle synth hooks. There is not doubt that they have already left their mark on music with early hits like “Take on Me” and “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” where you hear their fingerprint in the likes of Beck, Coldplay, Keane, Radiohead, and Travis. Unfortunately, especially on the States side of the Atlantic, when bands have major hits early in their career, what follows if often ignored by the mainstream. But in this nu-new wave world, were new bands are emulating and celebrating the monuments of the past, it may be wise to take a look at one of those bands that not only help to define new wave, electropop, and synthpop, but continue to define, push the envelope, and compose some of the highest quality music out there.
Out of Norway, this band is not creatively bankrupt; well with being associated with a musical scene in Scandinavia that is producing some of the most interesting bands at the moment (the Legends, Royksopp, Moonbabies), A-ha proves that they can step into a new era of music with relative easy and comfort. Unlike other veterans of electro/synthpop recording these days, the quality of sound is incredible. The album is crisp and flutters easily like sunlight through a window early in the morning. What is different about this album is that it is more empathic, a feeling of being more personal than any of their previous material. For instance, in the song “Nothing Is Keeping You,” the entire music works towards the singular goal of making you feel pensive. Other tracks that I would pay close attention to is the opening track, “The Bandstand” (incredibly arranged and layered), “Riding the Crest” (a throwback to 80s new wave), and “Sunny Mystery” (a beautiful interplay in the vocal arrangements, a beautiful interplay of different sounds).
What is a real standout about the album is that it does not sound dated. If you are one of those people who are harkening for an old style, synthpop album, this is not it. A-ha has learned through the years, and even influenced, by everything from pop to dream pop. They do not jump any bandwagons, but they certainly allow themselves to be influenced, continue to experiment with new synth sounds, while composing music in the same classic standards style. Furthermore, the years have strengthened their English language skills. Just like Bjork and Robyn, it is wise to remember that these boys are not native English language speakers, but recognize the fact that to obtain international, global status, they must sing in English: “Life is the dream that you wake up to, these things you’ll never find; dreams are the life from which you wake, out of sight and out of mind; everybody makes the extra effort, these things you’ll never find; never know what to do, out of sight and out of mind but you know the answer, yeah you know the score, it feels just like before…” (“Sunny Mystery”) And moreover, this is an album by veterans who are living up to what they are capable of. It is obvious that they are not attempting to ride the coattails of their moniker, reconstruct old hits for a new generation, or living with a foot in the past with their sound or attitude. Instead, what you have here is an amazing album by a band that can produce. I am often critical of veterans, but there is nothing here to criticize (…well I would have liked a few more songs, but that is splitting hairs).
Keep up with A-ha at their homepage and MySpace.
Here is the link for A-ha’s video for “Foot of the Mountain” from the universalmusicgroup YouTube Channel.
1. The Bandstand
2. Riding the Crest
3. What There Is
4. Foot of the Mountain
5. Real Meaning
7. Nothing Is Keeping You Here
8. Mother Nature Goes to Heaven
9. Sunny Mystery
10. Start the Simulator
V. V. Brown: “Travelling Like the Light”
She is a genius; combining the best of sixties sensibility, rockabilly, and neo-soul, V.V. Brown (born Vanessa Brown) hit the music scene this year with her incredible debut, “Travelling Like the Light” (13 July 2009 in the UK). This is current pop at its best: fun, intelligent not heady, danceable, infectious, and “genre free.” This is the main appeal. Brown is not trying to appeal to a specific scene or sensibility; rather she has produced an album that has appeal across a large spectrum of listeners – something that is becoming increasingly rare in music today.
“Shark in the Water” (which I posted the video for here) is on the album. Nowhere on the album is the fact that she is of Jamaican and Puerto Rican descent more obvious, but more to my point I am always weary of singles by “pop acts,” because they usually represent the best of what is on the album. This is not the case of “Travelling Like the Light.” The single is amazing, but the other songs on the album are as amazing and captivating. The album opens with “Quick Fix” (not so ironically the shortest song on the album), which will bring to mind more of an American sound than a London cliché. It is this kind of song that sets her apart from other neo-soul singers like Amy Winehouse or Alice Smith. The vocals are raw, passionate, and even screechy at times, not to mention it may inspire you want to surf.
Another track worth taking a look at is “Crying Blood.” It has that infectious beat and familiarity of rockabilly (think “Monster Mash”). But she does to pop and soul vocals what Annie Lennox did twenty-somewhat-years ago with the Eurythmics: she infuses a passion and candidness that is unexpected from a voice that is so distinctive. “Can’t believe what you’ve done to me,” ingeniously Brown sings, “you got me feeling like a cloud in stormy weather.” Of course that album includes the mandatory ballet (aptly called “I Love You”), but it is the slow-paced, almost experimental, titular track “Travelling Like the Light” that will get your emotions stirring: “I try to deny when my surface butterflies, and I try to resist when you say that it’s alright, and I try to believe that it’s nothing but a crush, but it’s incredible… so incredible… I’m travelling like the light.” The last track I would like to mention my favorite song on the album: “Everybody.” Busting in a bit of disco elements and a steady beat, this song is all about dancing, but not frivolity.
V.V. Brown may be a new name to the scene, but she is anything but an amateur. Under her pseudonym, “Geeki,” she has penned music for pop acts such as the Sugarbabes and Pussycat Dolls, and has the goal of one day scoring films. Most impressive, she turned down opportunities for recording, turning down P. Diddy at one point. She stuck to her guns and eventually had the opportunity of releasing her own album, on her own terms. Along side such artists like Little Boots and La Roux, pop is coming back with a vengeance. But what is great about this album, as I said before, is how its appeal crosses genres, but I would also like to add that unlike so many artists out there, the appeal crosses generations. (My mom loves this album.) There are rumors of a fall States-side release of the album, but do not hold your breath and just import it!
Keep up with V.V. Brown at her homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.
1. Quick Fix
2. Game Over
3. Shark in the Water
6. Crying Blood
7. Back in Time
8. I Love You
11. Crazy Amazing
12. Travelling Like the Light
Here is V.V. Brown live performing “Crying Blood” on the John Peel Stage at this years Glastonbury Festival from her YouTube Channel VVBrownTV.