Friday, 25 May 2012

Playlists and the Ultimate Test

Eureka!  I have just discovered a foolproof way of discovering what you like, what you really really like.  You know how it is, there are always social occasions where you get asked what your favourite songs are by, let’s say for the sake of argument, Queen.  At this point, you are immediately on show and the choices you make reflect upon your standing in society, so you probably do the following.

First up, you pick a few popular titles so as to establish a rapport with your enquirer (Bohemian Rhapsody, We Are the Champions etc), then you add a few early titles so as to show that you’re not a Johnny-come-lately to the band (Seven Seas of Rye or anything earlier if you dare) and then pick a few obscurities to round off the list just to prove that you know all their albums and not just the singles.  Job done.

But do you actually like any of these songs?  At the time, you may think so but I’ll wager not all of them are true favourites.  The way to test this assumption is to create a playlist of about a dozen of these so-called favourites and then play them every day for weeks.  Very soon, you begin to realise that there are some on the list that you can’t wait to get to and others where your finger is itching to press the skip button.

I discovered this phenomenon when I complied what I thought were my very bestest loved Smiths songs into a playlist of about 15 culled mainly from ‘Hatful of Hollow’ and their four studio albums.  After a few days I’d already pared this list down to 10 and after a few more it was down to about half a dozen.  Interestingly, many of those songs that I would’ve sworn blind were my all-time favs fell off the list early on – and all of them were from ‘Hatful of Hollow’, still my favourite Smiths album.

Finally, the list stabilised for some days and comprised the following five:
  1. Hand in Glove
  2. The Headmaster Ritual
  3. I Want the One I Can’t Have
  4. Bigmouth Strikes Again
  5. Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before

I think it is safe to say that these are my true favourites, born of trial by fire and Ipod playlist, but whether I would’ve come up with this list before is very debateable.  Interestingly, two of these songs have been covered by others and there is no doubt that the act of a new interpretation has elevated them in my estimation as a different side to their nature has been revealed.  The two in question are ‘Hand in Glove’ covered by Sandie Shaw and ‘Stop Me…’ covered by Sarah Blackwood of Dubstar and both show how the songs can live outside of the unique Morrissey/Marr environment.

I must try and remember these the next time I’m asked.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Marina and The Diamonds - Electra Heart

There was a time when I regularly bought LPs on their day of release, even to the point of waiting outside music shops so as to rush inside the minute they opened so as to be heading homewards with a brand new LP clutched in my sweaty paw by 9.01 am.  Happy days.  Since the advent of the CD and now Downloads that initial enthusiasm has waned for the most part although some items have been snapped up immediately but these days that just means clicking the pre-order button.

Despite my aging cynicism, there is one album that I have been awaiting for some few months and it is ‘Electra Heart’ by the strangely accented Marina Diamandis (or Marina and the Diamonds as she has styled herself).  When her debut, ‘The Family Jewels’ arrived in 2010 I decided to give it a listen despite the hype from the music press and found that there was substance to the hyperbole.  In fact it turned out to be one of my favourite albums of the year, melding astute lyrics to crafted melodies sung in that peculiar half Welsh, half Greek accent.  It sounded different.  It was different.

So her follow up album has been on my list ever since and as the months have passed, it has grown into a must buy.  Hence my first day of release purchase like the awe-struck teenager that I once was.  But was it worth it?  Now read on.

Well, after several plays I can report that the voice is still as beguiling as it ever was.  That low register growl that shoots up to a pure falsetto inflected with that kooky Welsh/Greek accent is one of pop’s most unique instruments.  Also present and correct are the thoughtful yet pointed lyrics.  I haven’t found myself really listening to what a song is actually saying since ooh…the days of Joni Mitchell in the 70s.  She really does have a way with words, this girl.

Nevertheless, as with many second albums, the music is not quite up to the standard of ‘Family Jewels’.  There are exceptions, like the storming opener ‘Bubblegum Bitch’ and the atmospheric closer ‘Fear and Loathing’ and one or two in between but generally, it is not quite as consistent, but this was almost inevitable given the quality of FJ.  My feeling is that Marina wants to be a star and is prepared to be drawn into the ‘star-making machinery’ (to quote the aforementioned Ms Mitchell).  There are no less than 8 producer/writers credited on this album, one of them being star-maker writer himself, Rick Nowells.  As a result, the album is all over the place, style-wise and struggles for consistency.  It lurches from crunching cutting edge synthesised ‘beats’ one minute to old-school rock arrangements the next.  Little Boots’ debut ‘Hands’ suffered the same way – it seems that the current music industry is so paranoid of failure that it will dress up all potential new talent with a slick everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production believing this will make them mass audience friendly rather than letting them breathe by themselves.

But in the case of Ms Diamandis, I can’t help feeling that all this paraphernalia is totally unnecessary.  The fact is that Marina has the most important tools required to be a star already on board – her unique voice and her undoubted song writing ability, both with tunes and lyrics.  The issue with this album is that both are submerged in a mess of over-production and too many song writing collaborations.  Aimee Mann and Nerina Pallot have also been pushed down the ‘must collaborate’ path and it didn’t work for them either.  ‘Fear and Loathing’ and the excellent 'Teen Idle' are by far the best songs in the set and she wrote them by herself.  QED.

Despite all this, I still like ‘Electra Heart’, and seeing the ‘acoustic’ versions of some of the songs on YouTube just confirms my views about production (see video attached to this post).  Marina, please just take a deep breath, write some great songs and find a producer who will set them sympathetically to show off your thought-provoking lyrics and that fascinating voice.  Those are your USPs - not an all-enveloping production.  You don’t need to be Katy Perry to succeed.