pop

30 years on: Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Welcome to the Pleasuredome

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For reasons as much to do with priorities as anything stylistic or aesthetic, pop music doesn’t get featured on 5:4 very often. But it would be remiss of me not to make some mention of today’s 30th anniversary of one of the most exhilarating debut albums ever made, Frankie Goes To Hollywood‘s Welcome to the Pleasuredome, originally released on 29 October 1984. i was 11 at the time, and discovered the album among the record collection of my best friend’s mother (i encountered Thriller the same way). First contact was more to do with the packaging than anything else; two vinyl records in a gatefold sleeve covered with wonderfully bizarre, perverse paintings imitative of Picasso, featuring imagined beasts engaging in a Dionysian orgy and entering two-by-two into the head of a giant phallus (see below). What 11-year old boy could resist the temptation to go further and hear what sounds had been married to these outlandish images?
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An inner conflict of cosmic proportions: Man Without Country

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Many’s the time i decide to write about a composer, group or artist and find it almost unconscionable that i haven’t done so already. That’s overwhelmingly the case with Man Without Country, a duo from south Wales whose unique brand of dreamy electronic pop has been doing the rounds for a little over two years. Indeed, it’s tempting to begin with an apology for not featuring them sooner. Still, definitely better late than never.

If you were to combine the heartfelt melancholy of Keane, the aloof, breathy detachment of Pet Shop Boys, the late-night wistfulness of Go West and the viscous, transcendent haze of M83, you’d begin to approximate the essence of Man Without Country’s music. Choosing their name, they say, as it “carries an instant intrigue […] it derives from ‘a sense of not belonging’ “, Tomas Greenhalf and Ryan James hit the ground running two summers ago with their first EP, King Complex. Both in its entirety and in just the title track (which remains one of their best) can be heard the duo’s predilection for a mode of expression that employs both the gentlest of soft edges as well as timbres and textures that cut like razor wire. It’s a dichotomy that works because it must, being the means to what is ultimately a very emotional end, declared with unflinching honesty in their lyrics. Read more

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The tentative return of Dubstar

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Having documented my love of Dubstar‘s music in a fairly exhaustive retrospective of their music a couple of years back, i was excited to hear that—following some rather acrimonious goings-on last year—the group had decided to get together to record a song for the new Amnesty International fundraising compilation, PEACE. Overall, the project is an impressive one; a collection of 182 songs, which can be downloaded following a donation to Amnesty that starts at a paltry €5 (of course, you can pay more if you wish). You can read more about the project, stream songs and donate/download at their rather nicely-designed interactive website here. It became available earlier this week and, as yet, i haven’t even scratched the surface of such a vast compilation (which amounts to 12½ hours of music); but i had no hesitation in starting with Dubstar’s contribution, a cover of The Passions’ “I’m in Love with a German Film Star”.

In a rather fitting metaphor for the reality of the group’s members in recent times, the song emerges out of distortion and noise, settling into a restrained, rather minimal backdrop of bassline, guitar and soft drums. And then it happens: Sarah Blackwood opens her mouth, and immediately the tingles down the spine begin in earnest, and one is lost in a welter of feelings and sensations that propel me back a decade, to the last time my ears heard anything of the kind. Blackwood’s voice is unique and legendary, capable of astonishing purity of tone, without even the remotest whisp of vibrato; from lesser throats, the result would emerge dull and emotionless, whereas from Sarah Blackwood, i would argue, comes one of pop music’s most expressive voices, one that’s enhanced by the gentle edge lent by her delicious northern accent. Anyway, enough of the hero-worship.

It’s a wise choice of cover song; indeed, with its rather lovely poignant shifts of harmony it could almost have been written by Dubstar themselves. Read more

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Paradise pop: Dragonette – Fixin To Thrill

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Lately it’s music from Canada that’s been interesting me; and most recently, taking their place alongside such disparate luminaries as Aaron Funk, Aidan Baker, Elsiane and Paul Dolden (about whom, in due course, much, much more), have been Dragonette, whose second album Fixin To Thrill came out earlier this month. Dragonette have been steadily forging their reputation over the last four years, beginning with one of the best debuts ever, the elusive but immaculate Dragonette EP, after which a clutch of singles and first album Galore have emerged, each revealing a group remarkably assertive and undeniably talented. To describe their music as ‘synthpop’ is to do them a disservice; eighties allusions come thick and fast, but their songs are firmly rooted in the noughties, and to this end they stand out as a truly contemporary act, rather more successful and engaging than, say, New Young Pony Club. Furthermore, there’s also a distinct rock sheen to their music, which in the best way prevents it from being too ‘clean’ a synth sound, akin more to the gutsy rocktronica of The Faint. Out in the limelight is Martina Sorbara, a singer whose voice is capable of a surprising range of characterisations and tone colours. Read more

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25 years on: Propaganda – Dr. Mabuse and Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy

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This year marks the 25th anniversary of two of the most striking songs of the 1980s—as well as being, in my opinion, among the best songs of all time.

The first is “Dr. Mabuse” by German synthpop outfit Propaganda, inspired by the character made famous by Fritz Lang. Released to a modicum of chart success in March 1984 (it reached No. 27 in the UK chart the following month), my first contact with the song was a few months later, on the compilation album Now That’s What I Call Music 3. Propaganda spent much of their time in the shadow of mightier acts; they hailed from Dusseldorf, home to none other than Kraftwerk, and during their time on the renowned ZTT label—formed out of the perfect collision of Paul Morley and Trevor Horn—continuously played second fiddle to Frankie Goes To Hollywood, whose song “Relax”, released a couple of months earlier, had taken the label into the stratosphere of success (aided in no small part by the BBC’s laughable “ban”). This, together with their particularly European (i.e. non-British) sound—crowned by Claudia Brücken’s sharply accented vocals—meant that Propaganda’s popularity in the UK never lived up to their merits. Not that they were the most imaginative band in the world; they certainly weren’t, but “Dr. Mabuse” is an outstanding song, surpassing everything they did after, and outclassing most other songs that year. A feature of the ZTT label—rarely an advantageous or helpful one—was that remixes of songs released as singles were made in abundance. Furthermore, the same version often ended up with a plethora of subtly different titles and accompanying verbiage, which may have been something to do with releases in different territories or even the label losing the plot (clearly the case on some occasions), but was most likely the influence of Paul Morley, someone not exactly known for restraint where words are concerned. “Dr. Mabuse” is no stranger to this melée of remixes and names, but thankfully not to the same extent as Frankie Goes To Hollywood; the number of versions is relatively low. Read more

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Frail, impassioned and allusive: Polly Scattergood

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Of late, i’ve been revelling in new releases from a number of British female singers, all of whom deserve much wider appreciation. First up is the superbly-named Polly Scattergood, whose self-titled debut album was released early last month. Scattergood—her real name—is an alumnus of the BRIT School, an inconsistent institution that has churned out numerous successful musicians, from the talented (Imogen Heap) to the banal (Katie Melua/Adele) to the disturbingly talentless (Amy Winehouse). Thankfully, Scattergood is very much at the Imogen Heap end of the spectrum, her songs often very unconventional, her voice capable of both aching fragility and disconcerting caprice.

Despite being a debut, the naïveté suggested by Polly Scattergood’s voice isn’t particularly noticeable throughout the album’s 10 tracks; it’s a confident, assured debut. On the other hand, lack of experience has its own kind of freedom, and this is perhaps best demonstrated on the surprisingly lengthy opener, “I Hate The Way”. Beginning with great delicacy, Scattergood’s voice extremely close-miced, it treads a path that worryingly suggests a ghastly emo track is to ensue: “I hate the way I bleed each time you kiss me”. Yet what follows is nothing of the kind, an increasingly fraught and insistent elegy, one that follows a nicely unconventional structure; at the middle 8, the song opens out into beatless gurgles beneath an angelic countermelody, while the coda abruptly descends into a surly, obsessive and deeply insecure monologue about wanting to gain the beloved’s attention away from “all those other girls”. It’s an impressive, deeply honest track, and also something of a statement of intent: baring the soul in an unconventional manner is to be expected. Read more

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Future Imperfect: Freezepop – Form Activity Motion

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Dear oh dear. It wasn’t terribly long ago that i was lauding Freezepop‘s most recent album, Future Future Future Perfect, and it was with some excitement that i approached their brand new release, a remix EP, the title of which would do Kraftwerk proud: Form Activity Motion. Essentially, just two songs have been chosen for the venture: “Frontload” and “Thought Balloon”, two of the best songs from the album—and this is where the problems start. In choosing a pair of such high quality songs, they’re immediately laying down the gauntlet to remixers to do something that can live up to those originals… a gauntlet that is most emphatically not picked up. One of the most prominent problems with these attempts is that they’ve clearly been created by people with minimal understanding of the harmonic direction of the originals. It’s hardly sophisticated stuff, of course, but in both songs it’s quite subtle, and certainly very effective; in many of the remixes, the harmonic progressions have been bowdlerised as though they’d been left in the hands of beginner music students. Read more

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Bitter and strong: the legacy of Dubstar

Posted on by 5:4 in Retrospectives | 6 Comments

A few months back, the announcement was made that Dubstar were at work on a fourth album, due for release this year. This came from Steve Hillier, brains of the outfit, who has, in the intervening years since Dubstar’s departure from the music scene, continued to maintain webpages connected with their music. Perhaps Hillier’s prevalent nostalgia is what has kickstarted the Dubstar motor once again, or perhaps they just couldn’t help themselves (real musicians never can); either way, things are afoot. i think that history – with all the old-fashioned benevolence of a grandmother – has been kind to Dubstar: they are encased within a memory that finds playful melodies and darkly acerbic lyrics conjoined, a paradox perfectly encapsulated in the person of singer Sarah Blackwood, her strongly northern dialect colliding with her angelic, unwavering soprano voice. Dubstar, in short, are like one of Grayson Perry‘s ceramics, discreetly placing disturbing imagery within a context that at first seems familiar and safe. It’s been interesting, then, to revisit all their old releases, many of which have been untouched on the CD shelves for far too long; ten singles (all long out of print), three albums, plus one or two other odds and ends, totalling a little over seven hours of music. Released over a five-year period, this is a fair achievement. But how does the music acquit itself now? What is Dubstar’s legacy? Read more

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Client B – Acoustic At The Club Bar & Dining

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Throughout the Easter season, Client have been releasing a free EP of “Client B” (i.e. the wonderful Sarah Blackwood (whose birthday was two days ago, so the timing is apposite)) performing an acoustic set, one track being made available per week. It’s a real treat, for many reasons, not least of which being the opportunity to hear Blackwood’s beautiful voice performing in a more stripped-down context; it’s something of a reunion too, with Dubstar colleague Chris Wilkie accompanying on guitar. The tracklisting is great, a mixture of songs by Dubstar, Client, The Smiths and New Order; Sarah Blackwood sounds nervous at first, but it’s clear after a short time that she’s really enjoying herself (she introduces “True Faith” as “one of my favourite northern folk songs”!). Hearing “Not So Manic Now” and “Stars” still sends a shiver down my spine after all these years… Read more

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More from The Pipettes – two live concerts

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As an addendum to yesterday’s post, here are two excellent recordings of The Pipettes performing live. The first comes from the 2007 South By South West festival in Austin, Texas; two excellent reviews of the concert – with great pictures! – can be found here and here. The concert includes two non-album tracks, “Guess Who Ran Off With The Milkman?” and “True Love Waits Patiently For A Miracle”. Read more

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The Pipettes: changing once again

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i’m in mourning at present. A few days ago, it was announced that two members of The Pipettes, RiotBecki and Rosay, are leaving “to pursue other musical projects”. i’ve nothing against change, of course, and in their five years The Pipettes have already experienced a fair amount of alterations, but these two together with Gwenno seemed to have achieved the ideal balance. Although there’s more than a whiff of being another pre-fab band (a fact their name hints at), they demonstrate an originality and talent which sets them apart from anything remotely ‘plastic’. The three-part harmonies that fill their early 50s-/60s-inspired miniatures are sumptuous, showing these girls really can sing, not merely perform (though they do perform brilliantly too, playing their own instruments and performing retro dance numbers). All the more sad that changes are afoot; the replacements are to be Anna and Ani (Gwenno’s sister), and according to Gwenno, the trio is demoing 20-25 new songs. Writing about the situation on the band’s website, Gwenno sounds both optimistic – “People may be confused by such a drastic change in line-up but please rest assured – if we were to be an imitation of ourselves we would stop” – and tantalising – “…we’re incredibly excited to be working toward bringing you a new album that will be unlike anything we (or anyone else) have ever done”. A change is probably a good thing; Rosay’s voice, in particular, has been central to the current Pipettes sound, so it’ll be interesting to hear how the new trio will sound. Either way though, The Pipettes as i’ve known and loved them are no more…

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Vitrolic, bitter and brilliant: Transvision Vamp – Velveteen

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When i was 16, i bought my first CD player. At the time – and i’m conscious how old i feel saying this – it was still a real novelty for anyone my age to possess their own CD player, and it was one of the (mercifully) few times when i was the centre of attention, everyone wanting to experience the clarity of digital music. At the same time, i bought 4 CDs, the start of a collection that i now have neither the time nor the inclination to count. Among those four was Transvision Vamp‘s second album Velveteen, that had been recently released (also among the four was Martika’s self-titled debut album, but we all make mistakes). My interest in Transvision Vamp began when their first single, “I Want Your Love” was released the previous year. Both the song, and its accompanying video, are breathtaking; it’s one of those amazing moments when you hear a song by an artist you’ve never encountered before, and the experience is totally enthralling. i can’t recall another female vocalist who was quite like Wendy James at that time: she snarled and screeched and screamed, she was the archetypal rock-chick, full of froth and feist, and she oozed sexuality (i admit i had many posters of her on my wall). One of the reasons why their sound was so refreshing, i think, is because it was at a time when the acid-house scene was reaching its peak, and the so-called “Madchester” bands were beginning to become really popular, a style of music that, with a few exceptions, i found bland, generic and – worst of all – eager to please. So Transvision Vamp’s combination of rock with (rather mild) punk was an exciting break from the norm. Read more

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Elsiane: strange, radiant pain

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For years, i’ve had a penchant for female singers with unconventional voices. This is, i suspect, as much to do with the fact that such singers usually surround their voice with equally unconventional sounds, as with the actual voices themselves. The list is considerable: Clodagh Simonds (Fovea Hex), Liz Fraser (Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil), Toni Halliday (Curve), Sierra and Bianca Casady (CocoRosie), Imogen Heap, Joanna Newsom, Anne Marie Almedal (AM and the UV), Claudia Brücken (Onetwo/Propaganda), Beth Gibbons (Portishead), Emiliana Torrini, Björk, Tori Amos, Ute Wassermann, and i’d even include t.A.T.u.’s Yulia Volkova, although she’s rather more mainstream. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these singers’ appeal, though, is in their ability – fuelled by their unconventionality – to bring a new kind of expressive power to songs, a power that is often extremely direct and moving.

A notable omission from the above list – and one of the most rapturous voices i’ve ever heard – is Elsieanne Caplette, one half of the Canadian duo, Elsiane (the name is an amalgam of her and drummer Stephane Sotto’s first names). Apart from anything else, they’re a curiously stylish entity, Caplette’s classical training fusing and fizzling with Sotto’s background in art history. Sonically, they are, literally, breathtaking; it becomes apparent listening to them how often singers don’t really sing, preferring either to murmur within a narrow cluster of notes or meander aimlessly in all directions. Elsiane, on the other hand, are the epitome of cantabile, their melodies singing out the journey that their poetic, intimate lyrics require, at times almost too low for Caplette’s voice, other times squealing high notes, but whether each comes from ecstasy or angst remains ambiguous. Read more

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Scandanavian sounds, part 3: AM and the UV

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Every now and then, a band appears that seems to bring together the most engaging qualities of several other artists. A delightful example of that – and proof that not everything coming out of these remote arctic regions is quite as intense or brooding as Deathprod and Biosphere – is AM and the UV, the relatively unknown collaboration of singer Anne Marie Almedal (AM) and obscure duo Ultraviolet (UV). The result is some of the most delicate and compelling songs i’ve heard, effortlessly blending the vocal lyricism of Alison Goldfrapp, the dark funkiness of Portishead (ok, so it broods a little) and the drifting washes of the Cocteau Twins, easily rivalling those artists, the songs are that good. Sadly, they only stayed together long enough to produce two EPs – Tomorrow Is All Like Flowers and Silently The Birds Fly Through Us – and an album, Candy Thunder. The titles of the EPs, in particular, point towards the ethereal aims to which AM and the UV are working. The songs communicate a kind of transparent (if perhaps world-weary) bliss, which grows with repeated listenings. Among the brightest of the highlights: “Whisper” is simply one of the most gorgeous songs ever recorded, “Speak” features some spectacular melodic writing, “Wonderful, Beautiful” is a bizarre retro/modern combination (Almedal sounding a bit like Karen Carpenter), and the chorus is irresistible to sing along with, and “Everywhere We Go”, the final track from the album, is very mellow, with the most delicious ending.

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