Every generation sends a hero up the pop charts. – Paul Simon
Paul Simon couldn’t have been more prescient in the “Boy In the Bubble”, the opening track to perhaps one of the most beloved pop albums of all time, Graceland. Anyone who pays attention to cultural trends knows that fads and aesthetics get revisited, reintegrated, replayed. We are after all conspicuous consumers of nostalgia, whether ours or those of our forefathers. (See the following well-written piece about irony as it relates to cultural (re)appropriation: “How To Live Without Irony“. Thanks to Joe for drawing my attention to this.) Truth be told, reinterpretation is perhaps more challenging an act than being “original.” The originalists have nothing against which to work. Their biggest challenge is whether the audience is able to understand, perceive, or appreciate the ingenuity of their work (e.g., Stravinsky, Van Gogh, Miles Davis, the Velvet Underground, Sly and the Family Stone, etc.) The reinterpreters have to wage two battles: (1) the previous works accepted “greatness” and (2) the dangerous moniker of “derivative.” For the record, I don’t care much for the latter word because I think it’s a misleading intellectual code for “not creative.” In my estimation, the word “derivative” works best as a descriptor pointing out a lineage of an artist’s influence not a hidden placeholder for judgment. Nearly all art is by its very nature derivative. The question isn’t whether it stems from or owes its origin to another source. The real issue is whether the artist does this in a fashion that adds a new layer of meaning or artistry to the previous work or creates an aesthetic dialogue. Two examples that come to mind are the works of singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and early Rap and Hip hop. The former were constantly reinterpreting standards and traditional songs of a previous generation. The latter took beats, riffs, and samples from rhythm and blues and pop songs and either simply overlaid poetic rhymes or added variation on the sample or beat. In both instances, one can appreciate the new work in its own right or enjoy the experience of the dialogue created between the two or multiple tracks at work. Think about the genius of Danger Mouse’s now infamous Grey Album and the way in which The Beatles and Jay-Z’s music interrelates and creates a fascinating third work that reinvigorates the relevance and immediacy of both.
All this is backdrop for discussing a couple of albums that have been playing in my digital and physical stereo for the past couple of weeks. Generally, I prefer to discuss one record at a time, but all these records contain the common trait of reminding me of previous epochs of music or artists that I definitely adore. The interplay between past and present or inspiration and reinterpretation gives rise to a form of aesthetic nostalgia and recollection. In other words, these records remind me of thoughts, moments, and feelings from the/(my) past. The hope is that one or all trigger either a similar response or please in their own right.
Let’s face it, you either love or loath music made with lots of synthesizers (e.g., Devo, Blondie, Depeche Mode and Yaz(oo)). Children of the 80s tend to have a soft spot in their heart for these sorts of songs because they were the music of our immediate youth, or, in my case, the songs played by my older sisters. Thus, Young Hunger definitely calls to mind images and memories of being a young child and the spectacle of big hair, shoulder pads, and pastels that reared their (ugly?) head in the 80s. Like Youth Lagoon’s Year in Hibernation, which evoked memories of adolescent dreaming, Chad Valley’s musiccalls to mind the late-night dance parties with Flashdance and Footloose soundtracks playing in the background. Young Hunger is unabashed, euphoria-infused electro-pop with the slightest of organic elements, generally only the high-pitch falsetto of the lead singer (real name Hugo Manuel from Oxford, England) or his collaborators of which there are many, including Twin Shadow (another nostalgia evoking artist), Perro Del Mar, and Active Child. It repeatedly recalls the work of Vince Clark (of Depeche Mode (before they went Goth-y), Yaz(oo) and Erasure) who helped define the up-beat, dance-culture of 80s England. Of all the records in Clarke’s catalog, Upstairs at Eric’s appears to be the DNA from which Young Hunger originated. (And, if you haven’t listened to that Yaz record, go back and check it out (click above), it’s fascinatingly fresh still.) Of course, Chad Valley doesn’t merely regurgitate Synth loops and pre-recorded sounds but adds some modern improvements (?) such as the perfectly pitched auto-tune moments – yes, it does have its place. A pleasant listen from start to finish, the stand out tracks are definitely the titular track “Young Hunger” and “My Girl.” The latter track is particularly precious with its inversion of the typical pop song convention of girl seeking boy to treat her better. Notice the moment in the track when Chad Valley inverts the most famous line from the Spice Girls “oeuvre” (if you can call it that): “if you wanna be my girl then you gotta get with my friends.” Where the former was about the power and importance of friendship, the latter is about vulnerability, a powerful yet under-utilized tool. In short, the record is polished and pristine dance pop perfect for energizing and drawing memories of the past both recent (e.g., one’s holiday reverie) or distant (e.g., an adolescence filled with Duran Duran and 80s synth).
Reminds me of: (early) Depeche Mode, Yaz and Erasure (aka the work of Vince Clarke
Although she might not get as much press or critical acclaim as Adele or Florence Welch, Jessie Ware definitely deserves a spot on the podium of stellar British blue-eyed Retro R&B/Soul singers. Perhaps Jessie hasn’t penned a soul-stirring, heart-stopping single to match the brilliance and beauty of her voice? I’d have to disagree there. “Wildest Moments” is an arresting contemplation on human behavior in relationships and our penchant for greatness and darkness. Jessie’s mellifluous and measured vocals recall the depth and sensuality of Sade. But, it’s the restraint and subtly that make this record so rewarding on repeated listens. So maybe it is the complexity and density of her work that keeps her under-the-radar? After all, we tend to like our popular art to draw clear lines (such as pining lover, scorned lover, bitter lover, et al.), physical imperatives, or senseless verbiage. Given her under-appreciated genius, it’s fitting that her work reminds me of another influential yet less popular British duo, Everything But The Girl. Like Tracey Thorn, Jessie Ware’s vocals waver between deep and sweeping soul-like moments and soft, tender folk sincerity. Whatever the acclaim, Devotion is unquestionably the work of a gifted singer making music that you can sink (and perhaps soak) into on a quiet, low-key late afternoon/evening chill-out session. Other stellar tracks include “Running” (listen for the perfect jazzy-guitar riffs), “Sweet Talk” or “Night Light”.
Reminds me of . . . Everything But The Girl (check out Amplified Heart) and late 80s, early 90s Brit Pop and R&B
The Swedish trio of Niki and the Dove produced one of my favorite dance/high-energy tracks of the year “Somebody”. For this song alone, the record is worth a listen. But, there are a number of other great numbers pop numbers littered throughout. One of the things, Niki & The Dove do with great artistry is construct well packaged pop songs with the essential crescendo and or sonic explosion perfect for the psychic and physical release for which we turn to pop songs, see “Tomorrow” and “Mother Protect” (I particular adore the way they break apart this track into two parts with a subtle tempo change). Malin’s vocals burst out like aural daggers (see “Drummer”) emotionally arresting (“Winterheart”) and energizing (see “Somebody”) much like Bjork or Suzanne Vega. But, what this record really recalls is Prince with his genius fusion of rock and pop with flair only “the Artist” could pull off. Shifting between downtempo sensuousness and upbeat pop-dance, Instinct is a nicely curated 80s tinged mixtape for your listening pleasure.
Reminds me of . . . (early) Prince. (Do I really need to link to him? 🙂
part two to follow…