Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hello, I Must Be Going! ... To Hell AKA Phil's Shocking Confession Falls On Deaf Ears

If you thought Phil Collins got all the divorce bile out of his system with his first solo album, well, think again. Jovial title aside, Hello, I Must Be Going!, or at least half of it, continues the ex-wife venting from Face Value, but you know what I say? Petulant Phil is better than sentimental Phil. For an album with only one real hit, I'm surprised to announce that Hello, I Must Be Going! still delivers the yuppie goods - but I think it takes a few songs to find its groove. "I Don't Care Anymore" and "Do You Know, Do You Care?" sound like "In The Air Tonight" re-writes, only with the drawback that the crushingly intense drumming actually comes in right from the start. Fans of the tacky, overly-processed Phil Collins horn section will get their "phill" from "I Cannot Believe It's True" and "It Don't Matter To Me" (sadly not a Bread cover).

No, it's near the end of the album where Phil finally whips out the Sad Bastard Ballads, priming the world for the stunning breakthrough known as "Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)." "Don't Let Him Steal Your Heart Away" is one more pathetic last attempt by the world's greatest balding drummer to keep that woman from deserting him for another, perhaps less balding, lover. Although topped off with an elegant string section straight from "Jealous Guy" or "#9 Dream," which should have made it another Adult Contemporary Collins cornerstone, it was only released as a single in the UK, where it stalled at #45 - just like his marriage?
You were lonely and you needed a friend
And he was there at the right time with the right smile
Just a shoulder to lean on
Someone to tell you it'll all work out alright

Don't let him steal your heart away
No, don't let him steal your heart away

You can look at him the way you did me
And hold him close say you're never letting go
But any fool can see you're fooling yourself
But you ain't fooling me

And don't pack my suitcase, I'll be back
And don't take my pictures off a' the wall
Oh, did you hear me?
Don't let him change a thing 'cos I'll be back
Jus tell him to pack his things and get out of your life
And just give me one more chance
I'll show you I'm right, I'm right

Don't touch those pictures, woman. Of course, no Phil Collins solo album is complete without a smoky, sinewy jazz-funk instrumental, and this time it's "The West Side." This one seriously makes me want to wake up at 3:00am, give the prostitute a $100 bill, hop into my Alfa Romeo, and drive along the waterfront while dangling my cigarette out the window.

With the closing track, "Why Can't It Wait 'Til Morning," Phil unleashes the flute, oboe, and French horn, taking us on a trip to a bucolic English countryside cottage where we can sit beside a stream with Winnie the Pooh and the Velveteen Rabbit. This time, Phil's reasoning amounts to "Hey baby, I'm too drunk right now, let's get divorced in the morning." It's like the proto-"One More Night." There's also the line, "You're going nowhere without me" - an airtight argument that always works in break-ups:
Why can't it wait 'til morning?
We can talk about it then
'Cos I've had a drink too many
And my troubles, well I ain't got any

Why can't it wait 'til daylight?
Things will seem much clearer then
I'm tired and my eyes are weary
And I just want you lying here with me

So close your eyes
I'll make it oh so nice

Well I don't wanna think about what we've said
And I don't wanna know why we hurt ourselves
'Cos I just wanna hold you so close to me
It'll take care of itself and I wanna sleep

So why can't it wait 'til next time?
'Cos that time may never come
Stay here with your arms around me
You're going nowhere without me

A hint of creepiness, perhaps, but hands down, the creepiest song on Hello, I Must Be Going! would be "Thru These Walls." Let's take this one verse at a time:
I can hear thru these walls
I can hear it when they're foolin' around
I can hear thru these walls
And I hear every sigh, every sound
I can hear thru these walls
In the dark with the shades pulled down
Every word that they say
Every move they make feels it's coming my way
Uhhh ... is Phil playing detective? Is he a CIA agent, extolling the pleasures of wiretapping, or perhaps another balding European - that guy from The Lives Of Others? Unusual, but not that creepy. Yet.
My favorite moment
Putting the glass up next to the wall
Though I see nothing, I hear it all
Putting my sign up
Do not disturb me, speak or shout, inside out
Ooh mind my clothes, they're all laid out
Mmmmm-kaaaaaay. So he's a voyeuristic pervert who's listening to other people have sex in his apartment building while he's jerking off? And what do his clothes have to do with anything? The Creep-O-Meter's jumping into the red here.
I can see thru my windows
I can see the girls and the boys
I can see thru my windows
And I can imagine the noise
I can see thru my windows
I can see them playing with toys
Oh I hope it won't end
If I promise not to touch, just be a friend
I think Phil just broke the Creep-O-Meter. Listening to couples have sex, that's one thing, but girls, boys, toys ... that's a whole different can of gated reverb. "If I promise not to touch"? Like I'm gonna give you the benefit of the doubt on that one. Can you say, "most sketchy Phil Collins song ever"?
Life is so lonely
And I don't get high off just being me
I like pretending
Wanting to touch them, wanting to see
It's only normal
Creeping behind you, now don't shout, 'cause it's alright
They keep the windows locked and the door shut tight
Yep, "it's only normal," getting high off sitting around in your room with your clothes all laid out, peeking at children through windows. Move along folks, nothing to see here.
Ooh I'm feeling like I'm locked in a cage
No way in, no way out, and it gets so lonely
Am I really asking a lot
Just to reach out and touch somebody
'Cause when I look thru my windows or open my door
I can feel it all around me
Aww. Damn it Phil, now I kinda feel bad for the guy. And they say Phil Collins is some sort of family-friendly "lightweight." This is more fucked up than Black Sabbath! It's like he listened to "Every Breath You Take" and thought, "Nope, not pervy enough."

You're probably thinking he toned down the stalker flavor for the video. No way, Jose. After seeing this video, you'll never want to sit in a rocking chair again. We've got close-ups of clock hands intercut with children bouncing on balls. Phil sits on a bed, wearing a dark brown coat that's, um, seen better days, while the shadows of an amorous couple dance behind him. During the line "Ooh my clothes, they're all laid out," he shimmies his fingers over his wardrobe with a little too much relish. At 2:53, he even starts passionately caressing his face with a soiled rag. David Lynch, eat your heart out.

It's clear that Phil really spent some time with these thoughts. As one YouTube commentator put it, "How many artists put themselves in the point of view of the lonely pervert." Because Phil is quite obviously playing a character here. Or is he? From In The Air Tonight:
No matter how frank I got in my songwriting, no matter how ugly and nasty I became, no matter how many anti-social fantasies I tried to express in my art, it just never seemed to register. No, all anybody could ever see was the "cherubic little drummer man." I would write about scoring horse tranquilizer and all they ever said was, "He's writing about his divorce." I would write about killing poodles, and all they ever said was, "Oh hey, he's writing about his divorce again." There was just no way to win.

One night, I finally decided that I would have to spell it right out. Twenty stories high, in big neon lights, so no one could miss it. Yes. I would write my most searingly confessional work yet. A song so honest, no one could fail to see it as anything other than a desperate howl of pain. A song so perverted, I could finally stop playing this happy-go-lucky "game" with the public and be seen as the demented, homicidal man I truly was. I called it "Thru These Walls."

Just as the release date approached, I sat in my room with Rot Rot.

"This is the end of the line. I'm tired of pretending."

"Oh, Phillip, there's no use fighting it," my hedgehog friend replied.

"No, Rot Rot, the jig is up."

"Don't you see? It's too late. Your image is already set in stone."

"Ha! They'll change their tune real quick once they get a load of these lyrics. And the video, Rot Rot, the video!"

"Oh Phillip, you could write a song about strangling your dear auntie with a ball of twine and they wouldn't even blink an eye."

"That's where you're wrong!" I said. "That's where you're dead wrong."

I wrote a letter on pink stationary, confessing all my crimes, ready for the moment when Scotland Yard and the London tabloids would rush to my door and ask me, "Is it true, Phil? Is it really all true?" I sat in my study, playing backgammon, waiting for a knock on the door. I waited one day. Nothing. Two days. Nothing. An entire week went by, and I realized that Rot Rot was right. There would be no media frenzy. The song only peaked at #56.

"Wow, isn't it amazing how Phil can get inside the mind of that character?" They said. "What an imagination that Phil has, to sound like such a pervert, even though he's perfectly harmless!"

Oh, fate, what a cruel, cruel trick you've played on that cherubic little drummer man!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Stock Aitken Waterman: They Came, They SAW, They Produced Tacky Dance-Pop

And there sat dance music in the early '80s, so "innovative," so "underground," so "trendsetting." Who, oh who, could come along and render that dynamic club sound more "digestible," more "formulaic," more "assembly line"?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you ... Stock Aitken Waterman.

"Stock Aitken Who-terman?" you say? The truth is, this lethal production triumvirate has had a deep and irrevocable impact on you pop music life, whether you've been aware of it or not. You heard their records as a child. Even though the team has been long-defunct, you're still hearing their records now. Like the pink bathtub ring in The Cat In The Hat Comes Back, conventional methods cannot get rid of their hits.

Stock Aitken Waterman were not a law firm, but they might as well have been. Unlike, say, Detroit techno contemporaries Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson (do I know my shit or what?), Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, and Pete Waterman saw mid-'80s electronic music as a chance to make money - piles and piles of money. Who cares about generating endless good vibes amongst your fellow outcasts until the sun rises; producing electronic music is all about climbing the charts! Stock Aitken Waterman were like Motown, only without any redeeming social value whatsoever. They found the lowest common denominator, and aimed lower.

Like all great artists who ultimately sanitized an alternative scene for the masses, Stock Aitken Waterman scored their first hit with a single by camp icon Divine: "You Think You're A Man." According to Wikipedia, Divine performed the song on Top of the Pops, "which resulted in a barrage of complaints." Such as ...? At any rate, little did she (he?) know what she (he?) was unleashing.

Next came Hazell Dean's "Whatever I Do," which despite peaking at #4 in the UK, has escaped my attention until now. I feel like I've suffered cardiac arrest on a treadmill and gone to Aerobic Rock Heaven. Let's call it "New Order For Kids." Also, if you're thinking that Hazell Dean sounds like she was trying to be the next Laura Branigan, well, so was Laura Branigan; the Queen of Aerobic Rock recorded the song herself a couple of years later, in a version produced by ... Stock, Aitken Waterman.

But SAW, as they are known to their many fans, were just warming up. Their inchoate producing career was more dead than alive until they teamed up with Dead Or Alive, whose "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)" hit #1 in the UK and #11 in the US. Based on the evidence presented in the video, it appears that lead singer Phil Burns managed to steal Cher's hair, Boy George's eyeliner, Adam Ant's eyepatch, and Vishnu's arms - quite the quadruple whammy.

Funny but, at this point, Stock Aitken Waterman still had a whiff of "alternative" or "club" about them, which would simply not do. No, what they needed to do was find was an act who was equally jazzed about trading any lingering indie cred for Billboard glory.

Enter, once again, Bananarama.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of 2015

Another year, another top 5. Here we go:

#5:  Halo 5 - "Kamchatka"

In my review of Halo 5 I didn't really touch upon the music. If you'll recall, for Halo 4 they brought in Neil Davidge of Massive Attack fame to do the soundtrack and, well, it wasn't received terribly well. As Endgadget said: "Think of it like Disney replacing John Williams' iconic Star Wars score with something by Randy Newman and you're about halfway there."

For Halo 5 343 Industries set about rectifying that mistake by bringing in composer Kazuma Jinnouchi. Luckily it worked out and the music in Halo 5 is brought back in line with the sound of other Halo games. Kamchatka is perhaps my favorite off the new soundtrack. I like how it how it incorporates the more electronic sound from Halo 4 while still being its own thing. Also, the build up at the beginning reminds me a bit of Vangelis's "Chariots of Fire".

#4:  VNV Nation - "Standing (Moderato Declamando)"

VNV Nation finally made the album that frontman Ronan Harris has been wanting to make for years: VNV songs accompanied by an orchestra. As I said in my review of Resonance, I was left mildly disappointed. The songs didn't quite have the bombast I had wanted or expected. I have however found myself frequently listening to the Moderato Declamando version of "Standing". It doesn't hurt that "Standing" is also one of my favorite songs by the group. Gone are the pulsing beats of the original that made it a dance floor hit, replaced instead with Ronan's voice and classical instrumentation. While I still prefer the original, this is the only track off of Resonance that's managed to make it's way into my regular playlist.

#3:  Diana Ross - "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"

Time for the retro pick. I've never paid much attention to Motown or Diana Ross before (shoot me) but I completely dig this song. And though I'm not usually the biggest fan of spoken word, I really like it here, and the moment at 4:18 is pure bliss. Listening to this song is like going to church, I feel the soul.

#2:  Carly Rae Jepson - "All That"
You may have noticed Carly Rae Jepson's E-MO-TION album on other end of the year lists, and as pop albums go it surely deserves to be there. Similar to my top pick from last year, the production on this album is superb. With a definite nod to the sounds of the 80s (which seem to be quite in vogue), E-MO-TION would make a young Debbie Gibson or Tiffany weep in envy.

Really, I could have picked any one of several tracks. I could have chosen the exuberant "I Really Like You" (with its bizarre video featuring Tom Hanks), and I've seen other reviewers choose dark horse "Run Away With Me" as best pop song of the year (that chorus!). But in the end I went with "All That", a song best described by AMG as a "seemingly long-lost slow jam". And what a slow jam it is! It makes me feel like I'm back at a junior high dance with my arms strapped awkwardly around some girl's waist. It brings to mind other late 80s jams like Stevie B's "Because I Love You (the Postman Song)". Now, where did I put my Hypercolor shirt?

#1:  Psy'Aviah- "Long Way"
If you bothered to read my review of Psy'Aviah's The Xenogamous Endeavor then you would have seen this pick coming. This is my favorite album of the year, showing a diversity of sound but still rooted in electronic/EBM/industrial. Like my #2 pick, I could have chosen any number of songs. There's "Sacrifices", or "On My Mind" (which came very close to being my #1), or any other number of tracks. But in the end I went with the album opener "Long Way". It's not the most lyrically dense song, but what I like is that it's short, punchy, and gets to the point. There's no flab, no extended outro, just a quickly building dance track. And like all the best songs, the louder you turn it up, the better it sounds. It also fits my life this year as I underwent some major life changes (like moving to a new state and buying a house), so it seems fittingly appropriate.

That's it for 2015, thanks for reading!