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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