Monday, March 19, 2007

Random Orphaned Song Reviews

Not much time for posting, so random dump of song reviews now. Upcoming post on Scatman John.

I couldn't fit these in any other post:

2gether - "The Hardest Part of Breaking Up"; 2gether - "U + Me = Us (Calculus)"
Review: 2-gether was the "fake" boy band produced by MTV. They starred in a TV movie that was all the rage when I was in high school. It was funny, or at least it seemed so at the time. In any event, they released two songs that were hits on MTV, in an example of blatant and shameless cross-promotion that far precedes the Disney Channel's exploitation of the same. Anyways, since they were in a movie that's a parody of boy bands, I guess that makes them a fake or parody boy band, but these both sound like pretty awesome boy band songs to me. The lyrics are just a bit sillier, but these would both fit pretty well in the Backstreet Boys catalogue, for example. Anyways, "U + Me = Us" is their ballad and "The Hardest Part of Breaking Up" is their uptempo tune, and both are good songs with funny lyrics! In any event, I can't think of another song about an ex-girlfriend stealing all of your stuff when she leaves, and it's a pretty good conceit that's handled in a funny way. They've got the boy band look and dance moves and looks down so pat, and they play it so straight faced that it begs the question of where the line between reality and parody is crossed. I guess they are a parody, but they had substantially the same audience as the actual boy bands, and it was pretty genius of MTV. Boybands dominated MTV to an almost nauseating degree at this time, and they capitalized on it. They made their own boy band, but they couched it in "parodying" or "making fun of" boybands, like they were too good for that whole boy band thing. That's a gesture I find inherently distateful, but when it works it works. [8] and [7] respectively

Roxette - "Fading Like a Flower"
Well Roxette is only like, what, the best pop band from 88-92? That's an absolutely fantastic run of 8 singles or so spanning 2 albums, maybe the best set of singles from 2 consecutive albums of any band. Well Madonna or Prince or Michael Jackson or somebody would probably be ahead of them, but anyways it's still excellent. They really deserve their whole post and maybe they'll get it someday, but for now this will suffice. Roxette particularly excelled at writing absolutely massive ballads like "Listen to Your Heart" (my favorite) or "Spending My Time", but this one is uptempo and awesome. There is, of course, the famous dance versions and what not of this track, but I love this song in it's original form with the cheesy 80's pianos and guitar and drums, but it all works. Roxette is all about the spectacle and this is their most spectacular: it's all over the top and crazy and great. And one hell of a catchy chorus. Song starts out with piano, crashing into guitars and piano. Leading to a verse bubbling with tension, waiting to bust out. It breaks out into the big chorus with a sense of great freedom and triumph, and then it just fades out. One of those truly soaring and triumphant choruses like "Breaking Free" and it doesn't even need to be that massive to achieve it! It just soars by contrast to the tension set up in the chorus. Then it just fades away, too soon. Like a flower. [10]

Garth Brooks - "Papa Loved Mama" (not online as far as I can tell)
What can even be said about Garth Brooks? I decided this year that I wanted to start listening to some of the big modern country artists, and Garth was the obvious starting point. So I picked up the hits collection. I already knew only two of the songs, due to my complete ignorance of country until 2005-ish, those two songs being "Friends in Low Places" (clearly the best karaoke song of all time) and "The Thunder Rolls", both of which I love. None of the other songs on his greatest hits really hit the level of those two, but this rollicking and rolling honky tonk type number about a husband killing his wife grabbed my attention on first listen. It's weird to listen to the hits collection though, stripped of all the GARTH-ness of it all. He was massive and great, and he knew he was massive and great and he was a phenomenon and he was the man. But listening to a nicely crafted little fun tune like this, it's impossible to hear any of that. In fact, it's impossible, listening to this greatest hits collection free of context and free of swagger and free of boasting, to fathom just how he became as massive as he did (wasn't until I listened to the live album that I understood that). It just sounds like a good little disposable country number, albeit one that makes an immediate and long-lasting impression. The music to this stands in very stark contrast to the lyrics. Compare to another popular country song about domestic abuse, "Independence Day". That one soars and flies and stays low and sad and just conveys importance from the first listen. The song sticks with you from one listen, and the lyrics match the soaring and the crying and the sadness and the massiveness perfectly. This one sounds throwaway and silly. It sounds like a song that should be about fishin' or drinkin' with the good ol' boys or something. It sounds like a karaoke number, like all Garth's songs do. I sure as hell ain't gonna do karaoke to a song about killing your cheating wife. Upon further listens, it doesn't really stand up as one of the better songs on Garth's greatest hits collection, and it doesn't stick as well as it should, but it's interesting to consider. [6] ---Note to Stylus writers: Somebody do "On Second Thought: Garth Brooks - Double Live." Ripe for the picking.

Toby Keith - "I Love This Bar"
By contrast, this is a song that sounds like it should be about drinkin' with the good ol' boys and it really is about drinkin' with the good ol boys. Another all-time great karaoke song, due to the lyrics being about drinking and bars and the naturally singalong chorus. It's slow and it rolls along, and it's easy to sing and it's laughably simple musically. But Toby's a great singer and he's just got a natural charm to his voice, even his recorded voice. The lyrics are kinda silly, about how much he loves his local bar, but damnit, they're right for the song! It's big and it's massive and it's got natural swagger and charm and it does all of that with no outside context at all. It does all that without even seeming like it's trying to do it. It's the type of song I assumed Garth's catalogue would be filled with, but it really wasn't. It's nothing revolutionary, and it's not nearly as good as the extremely similar "Friends in Low Places", but it'd slide right into Garth's greatest hits collection with great ease. [8]

Anna Nalick - "Breathe (2AM)"
This is acoustic, piano based girl pop, like Sarah McLachlan or Dido or Vanessa Carlton or something. It's not a world away from something like Natalie Imbruglia or Natasha Bedingfield, but somehow I feel oddly disconnected to it and oddly cold towards it and, it's ironic for me to say this, I feel like it doesn't speak to me because I'm not the target for it. (Ironic because it's not like I'm the target for teenpop either). It just feels like sophisticated music for sophisticated people, the type of music that has no dialogue with pop at all and would be offended by being called pop. The genre that just has nothing in it that speaks or appeals to me. But there it sits, on my list of the top 10 singles of 2005, sticking out like a sore thumb amidst the peppy pop songs ("I Said Never Again (But Here We Are)", "Wake Up", "LaLa") and the country ("As Good As I Once Was", "Kerosene"). "Unwritten" stands on the list as well, but that's about 100x sunnier and poppier than this one. To be honest, in fact, I've listened to the whole Anna Nalick album and didn't really care for the other songs. But this song is perfect. It find a genre and sticks to it to the letter and just perfects it, just like that. The lyrics provide insight without being big or cliched or uplifting. I remember when I first heard this song, in mid 2005 on the local top 40 station. I instantly filed it away in the Dido category. But as the song went on, and I heard that amazing, soothing, catchy as hell chorus, I started to get worried. "Hey," I though, "this is a really good song". I learned to embrace it. OK, but WHY is it good?

Anna's voice is nice and kinda generic and forgettable, but she's a good singer and she's got great phrasing. The verse rolls along with a nice little groove to it, into the pre-chorus, which feels like it's leading to something BIG and TRIUMPHANT. Something like "White Flag", some declaration of freedom or some kind of big catchy melody. It leads instead, in a nice bit of misdirection, to a flowing, fading harmony. Friend calls her having troubles. She details all the crap she's going through. Anna tells her, well you've gotta live life, there's nothing you can do about it. So cradle your head in your hands, what, go out? Solve your problems and be proactive and have fun and make the best of it? No, just BREATHE. Just sit down and take stock of the situation. And there's a light at the end of the tunnel and you'll keep making mistakes so what's the point in getting so upset. And it flows through and fades away from the building melody, dropping into a beautiful breathy harmony. A relaxing, soothing harmony. Something that just makes me smile. It doesn't have to be so bad. [10]

Avril Lavigne - "Losing Grip"
The song encapsulates all the problems I have about Avril and all I love about Avril. It's bratty but vulnerable and it's got a melody that's simultaneously catchy and annoying. It's angsty. It's sung with Avril's trademark thin voice that's not strong at all, but instantly conveys the angst and tension that's inherent in most of her lyrics. It sounds like a "real person"s voice. The song is overdramatic about 10 times over, with its huge bombastic melody and it's breakup song lyrics. Dig the lyrics: "Why should I care/Because you weren't there/when I was scared/I was so alone/You, you need to listen/I'm starting to trip/I'm losing my grip/and I'm in this thing alone". Losing grip on what? Her sanity? Her emotions? It's all left vague, and I have no clue what's going on in this song, other than that the dude emotionally devestated her. It's not Avril's best songs, it's probably not one of her 5 or 10 best singles, but it's interesting, and it's probably the single song that best encapsulates her career. [7]

Blink 182 - "All The Small Things"
I don't have much to say about the song here, which hit huge when I was a senior in high school. It was seens as the "antidote" or "alternative" to all the "processed pop" that was out there, though this song shared much of its audience with the fans of those processed pop singers. It's an OK pop-punk song, but not nearly as good as "Dammit" or "What's My Age Again" (or for that matter "The Middle" or "Basket Case" or "Don't Call Me White", etc.). What upset me though was that after remembering the song and seeking out the video, I can't remember what videos it's parodying! I thought I was fairly knowledgeable on this, but clearly my memory is fading. At the start, they are on a plane runway then dancing in front of a group of adoring fans. This is clearly a parody of "I Want It That Way". Then they are in a brick room with combat gear. What the hell? Presumably some boyband video but my memory has faded. It cuts back and forth between these barely distinguishable boy band parodies (maybe they are not parodies of specific videos but just the style?) Then at about 0:30 they are in colored silk pajamas in front of a colored blue silk sheet, which is apparently a parody of "Creep" by why would you parody that??? Boyband and "Creep" parodies continue, then they are on a beach in black and white (at about 0:50). I initially thought this was a parody of the "Survivor" video, but since this video predates that one it can't be the case. That bothers me because I was certain it was a parody of "Survivor". Cutting around, then at 1:10, he looks through a telescope to see a dog biting a man at a beach? This cannot possibly be a parody of a music video, can it? Next new scene is at 1:24, a parody of "Genie in a Bottle" that I could identify in my sleep. Then, one of the band members dresses up as a blonde and runs on a beach holding a red ball? They run naked on a beach next, in a callback presumably to their "What's My Age Again" video. Obvious parody of "Living La Vida Loca" at 1:50 when the girl dumps candle wax on the frontman. At 2:00 we get a brief clip of the singer in a white shirt and a big gold necklace with water dumping on him, that I don't recognize at all. Then is a scene of him dancing in front of a tour bus being washed, which is I think a parody of a Limp Bizkit video though this seems like it predates them too. That's the last new parody in the video. Please provide help if possible. [4]

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Career Retrospective: Natalie Imbruglia

Today's post will discuss Natalie Imbruglia, who is key in my autobiography of a music fan (as will be later explained) and who remains one of my favorite pop stars.

My first introduction to the music of Ms. Imbruglia was "Torn", as was everyone else's. I was 15 when it was released and it was a revalation. Unlike many music critics and especially one would presume most pop music critics, I did not grow up listening to music at all. I never listened to the radio and was entirely not cognizant of pop music at all, until high school. Oh, certainly I "liked" some songs, like "Losing My Religion" and "Motown Philly" and "Under the Bridge" but only because my older brother liked them and I was trying to fit in. For my 13th birthday, in 1995, my parents bought for me a CD player. It went unused and gathered dust for well over a year. In high school though, I was introduced, via a couple of friends, to They Might Be Giants. Flood was the first album I bought and I quickly purchased the rest of their catalogue. I started listening to 80's pop. My older brother listened almost entirely to modern rock radio (99X forever y'all), and I enjoyed listening to some of the poppier modern rock hits of the day. I even bought some albums, albums I probably still have around but am now rather embarrassed about, like Radish and Cowboy Mouth and Monaco. In short, I was a pop music fan who knew nothing about pop music and so didn't like any current pop.
Anyways, I was 15 when I first heard "Torn". I first heard it when I saw the video on VH1. I was transfixed. (It remains to this day probably one of my ten favorite music videos of all time). My friends had introduced me to artists, and I had liked bands my brother liked, but this was a pure pop explosion, and I loved it. It opened my eyes to the world of pure pop bliss. It was my first favorite song, and I found out about it all on my own and loved it all on my own. I had first heard it a bit before it absolutely broke out into a smash and never listened to the radio anyways. All I knew was that none of my friends liked it and my brother didn't like it. Music had been kind of a social thing to this point, but this was all mine and I loved it. I guess my entire history as a music fan can, in some ways, be attributed back to this song. (Not to be too melodramatic though, if it hadn't been this song it would have been something else, like "My Favorite Mistake" or "Steal My Sunshine" or "...Baby One More Time").
So, yeah, in America at least, Natalie is the ultimate one hit wonder. "Torn" ruled the US airplay charts for 11 weeks (though it wasn't allowed to chart on the Hot 100 until well after it had peaked, thanks to Billboard rules at the time which eliminated airplay only singles from charting). The followups "Big Mistake" and "Wishing I Was There" more or less failed to make any impact at all, though "Wishing I Was There" was a minor hit. Any discussion of Natalie has to start with "Torn". It's lovely and it's poppy and it's sweet and it's beautiful and I can't possibly be objective about it but I love it to pieces. I've heard it a million times now (quite possibly more than any other song) and I still haven't gotten tired of it. And yeah, it's a cover of an indie song, by a band named Ednaswap, but it's about 100x better than the original. Ednaswap, who had written the song, somehow felt the need to bury that beautiful lifting melody behind layers of distortion and instruments and fuzz. But the point is, while any discussion of Natalie's music has to start with "Torn", by no means does it have to end there.
The weird thing about "Torn" is that it's not really typical of Natalie's music at all. Natalie's music, for the most part, is characterized by oddball, spare instrumentation and very simple melodic lines. These aren't hook filled acoustic pop songs like "Torn", but they generally sport interesting instrumentation, nice (though generally fairly simplistic) lyrics, and one big central hook. Oh, and Natalie is a first rate singer. Her phrasing is outstanding and it turns very simple melodies into amazing ones. What's ironic about Natalie's music is that all of her songs sound like pop covers of grunge/modern rock songs except "Torn", which is her only song that actually is a pop cover of a grunge/modern rock song.
Right from the time I bought Left of the Middle, one track stood out in my head, in addition to torn. "Big Mistake" builds up slowly, with rather spacey instrumentation and not much melody during the verses. But it explodes in the chorus, which is rather rockin. Anyways, at the time that was my favorite non-"Torn" song on the album, but one song that I might now like even more than "Torn" is "Smoke", which IS rather typical of Natalie's career. It's a very, very pretty ballad, well sung and with nice lyrics and with a chorus that's way catchier than it seems like it should be. The lyrics are rather imagery based, about feeling pain and hurting. And the piercing "Whyyyyyy" in the chorus just cuts straight to the heart. It's achingly beautiful and it makes me want to cry every time I hear it. Thanks to "Smoke" and "Torn", this is one of the few albums which have multiple 10/10 songs on it. The actual followup, in America at least, is "Wishing I Was There", which is sunny pop along the lines of "Torn" and which is probably one of the weaker songs on the album, though the verses are great.
It's not just the singles on the album, pretty much all of the songs on the album are at least very good (heh, except "Impressed"). Personal favorites are "One More Addiction" which is probably the most alt-rock songs on the album and features psychadelic guitars in the chorus, which is possibly the catchiest on the entire album; "Pigeons and Crumbs" which is another very pretty ballad like "Smoke", although it's got more busy and more oddball instrumentation behind it, although the melody never really goes anywhere; and "Intuition" (even better than Jewel!) is very mid 90's, but it's got a nice sunny alt-rock sound to it and the melody is extremely strong throughout (warning: will get stuck in your head).
Natalie followd this album up with White Lilies Island, which is a much more downbeat affair entirely. Most of the songs are co-written with Gary Clark, and you can tell because it's all a bit same-y. Though very good nonetheless! This is a whole album of "Smoke"s and "Pigeons and Crumbs"s, gone are the sunny pop numbers like "Torn" and "Intuition" and "Wishing I Was There". The closest to it is "That Day", unsurprisingly a single from the album. The main guitar hook is nice enough here but what really makes this song is Natalie's performance. The verses are basically spoken word, but remain extremely catchy, due to Natalie's phrasing and wordings. It all leads up to a chorus which not much above spoken word itself and which features musical background that is substantially similar to the verses. The whole song plows ahead like a charging rhino, barely going up for air and just showing a hint of vulnerability. Like most Imbruglia songs, the lyrics are extremely imagery based and don't necessarily tell a complete narrative. As far as I can tell it's a breakup song, but clearly the lyrics are conflicted. The conflict in the lyrics though, is belied by the confident and charging vocals, which makes for an interesting contrast. The other single from this album is "Wrong Impression" , which has a very catchy chorus but isn't really as good as some of her better work. In any event, the album is good, though due to the saminess it's the worst of her three albums.
Other than the singles particular highlights: "Beauty on the Fire" rolls along with a very laid back melody into a prechorus. The song seems to die off right after the prechorus, and I start to lament that she hasn't taken it far enough. But just when it seems about to fade off back into the verse it blows into the chorus which really works in the context of the song. More of the odd spacy instrumentation though. "Satellite" is an acoustic pop song, though it doesn't soar like "Torn", it just kind of rides along sweetly and is very pretty. A great love song. If I could play guitar I would totally cover it. "Talk In Tongues" is a very simple song with not much of a melody at all, but it's very low and sad. And it's catchy enough anyways.
I feel like a broken record here which I guess hits to the main criticism of Imbruglia, which is the similarity of it all. Basically spoken word, very melodically simple verse building up into a big catchy pop chorus, is the basic Imbruglia song structure and most of her songs fit the bill. But the pop hooks are good enough and the verses are pretty enough and her performances are charismatic enough to overcome it all. To me at least.
The singles on her third album are "Shiver", which is a nice ballad that has a good catchy bass hook. The melody on the verses is very classic Imbruglia (one Imbruglia criticism: the verses all sound kinda alike), and it builds up to a pretty standard rock ballad chorus but is catchy. "Counting Down the Days" contends for my very favorite non-"Torn" Imbruglia song, with "That Day" and "Smoke", as it's very pretty and very catchy! It's a song about regretting a breakup, and it probably sports the best lyrics of any Imbruglia song in her catalogue. The production adds a lot to the song too. And it's a hundred times more lively than anything on White Lilies Island.
She only turns to Gary Clark for 2 songs on this album, "When You're Sleeping" and "Sanctuary", and you can tell because they sound exactly like the songs on her second album. Gary Clark is apparently kind of a one trick pony here, but when he does the one trick well enough I'm kinda willing to overlook it. I'm glad she's decided to work with multiple co-writers here though, because it adds a bit of new life to the album. She even turns to Kara Dioguardi for two songs, "Starting Today" and "On the Run", which are two of the particular highlights on the album.
Anyways, the music isn't as relentlessly hooky as most of the stuff that I talk up on here, but if you are in the mood for some more downbeat and pretty pop music, Natalie Imbruglia is one of the finer purveyors of that form. Her songs are a bit soundalike, especially on White Lilies Island, so that means it isn't going to be for everybody. But if you find that you like some of the singles that I linked, definitely go out and buy Left of the Middle and Counting Down the Days. She's just finished up a new album, and apparently it will be released in "Spring 2007", which would be any day now.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Back from the Grave

Just wanted to bump that damn American Idol post off the top of the page, staring and laughing at me. In reality, I haven't had internet connection at home for the past 10 days, which explains the lack of posts. I've had a couple ideas for posts in the interim, so expect some action over the next few days. I won't make any promises, per se, because I've made enough failed promises on this blog already. OK, to steal an idea blatantly from Frank K, here are my top 10 singles of 2007 thus far (an attempt to redeem this post slightly):

1. Natasha Bedingfield - "Babies": Completely mental lyrics, the "Babies, babies, babies, babies" part is completely bonkers, the main hook is "mm mm mm mm mm mm" (Crash Test Dummies!) and the whole thing never really comes together. But it's still brilliant! Good misdirection to the chorus (lyrically), where it seems like it's gonna be a simple declaration of love. Lyrics are funny and great.

2. Toby Keith - "High Maintenance Woman": Hilarious! "A high maintenance woman don't want no maintenance man". Great vocals, as always. Toby Keith has shown a remarkable knack for writing lyrics with funny lyrics and extremely catchy melody, and this goes right in that vein (erm, "As Good As I Once Was", "I Love This Bar", et al). Main hook can get stuck in your head for days, but in a good way! Right up there with Toby Keith's best work. If he can combine great hit singles like this with the remarkable consistency of White Trash With Money perhaps we can get a great album from the guy.

3. My Chemical Romance - "Famous Last Words": It starts out fairly standard, but ends up being nothing short of a genuine rock epic, weaving about 3 or 4 different, equally big, parts together with a great deftness, and all 3 or 4 parts are great, especially the main chorus! It sneaks up on you, but once it hits, it hits hard: emo-rock has met its peak with this song.

[The top 3 songs are all so close in quality and so different that there's no meaningful separation between them. I've listed them like this, but I keep changing my mind! In any event they are all equal, and will likely all be in my Top 20 or close to it.]

4. Vanessa Hudgens - "Say OK": A beautiful ballad. After "Come Back to Me" I had basically, unfairly, written off her entire musical career, but this song knocked me out. A great vocal performance from Baby V here, as her piercing voice just adds a lot of beauty here. Not much going on in the lyrics here, but I can forgive it for the catchiness and prettiness.

5. Hilary Duff - "With Love": It was hyped that the new Hilary Duff album would be more Eurodance, but this sounds like a pretty standard American R&B song to me. Hilary’s voice is filling out as she gets older, but it’s still remarkably thin. But in any event, it’s a super catchy song with a great and original melody, and that forgives all manner of sins. Markedly inferior, however, to “Play With Fire”.

6. Sophie Ellis-Bextor - "Catch You": This sounds appealingly like an electro cover of a great Blondie song that never was. Nice lyrics/music synergy here as this song just SOUNDS like the soundtrack to a high-energy chase. The catchiest melody and music of the brief year to this point and great stalkerish lyrics make this a refreshingly original pop tune that puts a good start on 2007, after British pop's rather weak 2006. (Kickass video too)

7. Ashley Tisdale - "He Said, She Said": Ashley's not a very strong singer, which does hurt this song a bit, but the production and main hook are so catchy they can overcome it. Ashley's album was really inconsistent, but the best of it is quite good indeed. And this is her best effort.

8. Christina Aguilera - "Candyman": Normally I don't go much for the retro sound, but I dig the crazy lyrics here a lot, and that plus the hook are enough for me. And the video! So, yeah, it's rather simplistic and maybe even a bit annoying, but it's my second favorite song on Xtina's last album, and this is one of her best vocal performances ever. She totally sells the ridiculousness of the song.

9. Katharine McPhee - "Over It": The song has the same songwriters and the exact same general sound as Jojo’s “Too Little, Too Late”, which makes it easy to dismiss. But it also has a great melody, conveying the sadness of the lyrics very well. Alas, the lyrics and vocal performance aren’t quite up to the wistful beauty of the music, but they are still pretty good and that “Too Little, Too Late” formula just works so well that it can drive at least a few more great songs. Still the best "Over It" of the year.

[All songs above this comment are 8/10 or better...songs 1-3 are 9/10 and will strongly contend for top 2o singles of the year, songs 4-8 are 8/10 and will strongly contend for top 50 singles of the year. What really separates the 8/10 songs from the 9/10 songs here is lyrics.]

10. Avril Lavigne - "Girlfriend": I want to like it more than I do but the whole thing bugs me. I like the lyrics a lot, but the main hook is kind annoying and I dislike the video so much that it is seriously hampering my enjoyment of the song. Well below the level of Avril's best work ("Complicated", "My Happy Ending", "He Wasn't", et al). But obviously, I still like the song, or else it wouldn't be up here.

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