Sunday, December 23, 2018

Hey Now, Hey Now, Don't Dream You Only Had One Big U.S. Hit Single

Why didn't they just ... move into a bigger house? Build an extra room? Get a futon? Maybe one of the guys could've slept in the car? Look at it this way: at least the rent was probably cheap. On the other hand, "Crowded House" was probably a much stronger name than the band's original choice, "The Mullanes." Yowsers.

While these days he's serving as the awkward new substitute for Lindsey Buckingham in the international conglomerate otherwise known as Fleetwood Mac, back in the day, Neil Finn wasn't even the main singer/songwriter in his former band. Hell, he wasn't even the main Finn brother in his former band. That said, older brother Tim, either with Split Enz or solo, never had an American hit the size of "Don't Dream It's Over." Though Crowded House more or less feels like a one-hit wonder, it turns out they actually had another Top 10 U.S. single: "Something So Strong" peaked at #7. Apparently it wasn't "strong" enough to stay in the popular consciousness, because I don't remember hearing it much at the time, nor have I heard it much since. I'm sure it has its partisans; it sounds like a Paul Carrack B-side to me. But you know what? If Americans only remember Crowded House for one song (they were regular fixtures on the UK and Australian singles charts all the way into the late '90s), well, it's one hell of a song:
There is freedom within
There is freedom without
Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup
There's a battle ahead
Many battles are lost
But you'll never see the end of the road
While you're travelling with me

Hey now, Hey now
Don't dream it's over
Hey now, Hey now
When the world comes in
They come, they come
To build a wall between us
We know they won't win

Now I'm towing my car
There's a hole in the roof
My possessions are causing me suspicion
But there's no proof
In the paper today
Tales of war and of waste
But you turn right over to the TV page

Now I'm walking again
To the beat of a drum
And I'm counting the steps to the door of your heart
Only shadows ahead
Barely clearing the roof
Get to know the feeling of liberation and release
Here's how great of a song "Don't Dream It's Over" is: I only realized, just now, after 30 years of having listened to this sucker, when I copied and pasted these lyrics, that the lines hardly even rhyme! Hey man, rhymes are just walls people are trying to build between Neil Finn and his poignant, abstract observations, OK? The lyrics have this intriguingly vague '80s mixture of "We're gonna make it, baby" relationship imagery and "The Cold War's almost over, I can taste it" political hopefulness. Besides, when you've got a massive, jangly guitar that's jangling all the way into next Tuesday (particularly at 1:21 and 2:46), who needs rhymes? Not to mention a hymn-like organ and those eerily high-pitched harmonies on the octave-jumping chorus. Yep. They built this one to last.

Whether I like it or not, "Don't Dream It's Over" is one of those songs that immediately, unavoidably ... takes me back. I find its sad, aching quality two-fold: I feel the sadness that the song itself conjures, and I also feel the sadness of all the time that has passed since this song was blanketing the radio waves, and the sadness of all the ways in which my life has changed in thirty years, both "within" and "without." It's the kind of song I can't listen to too closely, or I'll get crushed by the weight of those pesky little things called ... what are those things called again? You know, they used to be in pop songs all the time but they rarely have them anymore? Wait, it's coming to me ... "emotions"! That's what they're called. The moment the song is over, I kind of want to put on "Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car," just to lighten the mood.

One more observation: I remember listening, back in high school, to a radio special about the history of rock and roll, and after airing a segment about John Lennon's assassination, the program promptly played "Don't Dream It's Over." As a result, for years, I assumed this song was somehow related to Lennon's death, or the "end of the '60s," but if it is, Wikipedia sure doesn't have anything to say about it. I've often wondered why that radio special would have chosen to play this particular song in relation to that event; "Don't Dream It's Over" didn't even come out until 1986, by which point the phenomenal success of Yoko Ono's solo career had long rendered John a distant memory. But recently I recalled that "God" on Plastic Ono Band contains the iconic lyric, "The dream is over." Surely Mr. Finn was aware of this lyric somewhere in the back of his mind, yes? Indeed, in 1986 it surely must have felt like "the dream," however one chose to define it, most definitely was over. Hell, Lennon proclaimed the dream "over" ... in 1970! By 1986 "the dream" must have looked like a shriveled corpse soaked in formaldehyde, floating face-up in the neighbor's algae-ridden pool. "Tales of war and of waste/But you turn right over to the TV page"? Damn right I do. Who wants to hear about Nicaragua and AIDS? What time is Perfect Strangers on? But Neil Finn hadn't given up on the dream, damn it. Bruce Hornsby, you've got company.

The tastefully surreal video was apparently a nice resume-builder for future The Crow/Dark City director Alex Proyas. I know that things work a little differently in New Zealand than they do here in the northern hemisphere, but you'd think they'd do something about that floating, shattering dish problem they seem to have. Hey now, hey now, somebody get a dustpan.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of 2018

Another trip around the sun and another year of music. I had a bit of a difficult time ranking my favorite songs but in the end I think I'm satisfied with what I came up with. Also, for those who've followed my Top 5 lists in the past, this is the first list in quite a few years where I haven't thrown in a retro song (can you believe it?). And now, the envelope please...

5. Holygram - "Signals"

These guys have definitely been in a goth club before. Holygram bill themselves as a post-punk/new wave act from Cologne, but you wouldn't be able to tell these guys are German at all. They sound straight up like they came out of 1982 with a sound similar to The Cure, and they look like... members of Oasis? Anyways, I like this song, though if I have a complaint it's that they're emulating the sound but not necessarily bringing anything new to the table. In fact, most of their songs sound remarkably similar, even if it is a good sound.

4. Charli XCX & Troy Sivan - "1999"

"Is this my generation's Bryan Adams' "Summer of 69"?" I asked myself when I first heard this song. The parallels are there: a song sung about a nostalgic year when the artist in question wasn't even really old enough to enjoy said nostalgic year (and yes, I know what Adams' song is really about, but just go with me here). Bryan Adams was only ten in 1969, Charli XCX was just seven in 1999. "1999" isn't particularly ground shaking, but it's an effective piece of pop that, besides the well made video, I've found stuck in my head for longer than I care to admit.

And what a video! Yes, it's just a collection of visual references designed to make those of a certain age say "I get that reference!". There's Jack and Rose from Titanic! The Spice Girls! Eminem! That guy from The New Radicals! They're all here!

You could argue that the song is a bit self defeating. I imagine Charli XCX's main audience is perhaps a bit too young to effectively remember (or to have even been alive) in 1999, and those that would be old enough to appreciate the song and it's video references are not really Charli's target audience. But anyways, I find it kind of bubblegum fun and I hope you do too.

3. Day Twelve - "Move" (Still mix) and "Move" (Neuroticfish remix)

That's right, two versions of the same song! I came across Day Twelve when I was listening to the latest Psy'Aviah album (who previously appeared on one of my Top 5's) and came to the realization that all of my favorite Psy'Aviah songs were sung by the same vocalist, Mari Kattman. So I found her Bandcamp page and came across this old band of hers (that did a total of one album) and fell quickly in love with it. I've listened to their album Fin more than any other album this year, and it was a bit tough to decide just which song to choose. I almost went with "The Basement" which is, ahem, a song about being trapped in a basement knowing you won't survive the night, but the whole thing is sung in the style of... sultry lounge music? It's worth a listen.

Anyways, I instead went with these two versions of the song "Move". The original is okay, but these two mixes bring out different sides to the song. The "Still mix" is the original stripped down to just Kattman and a piano. I would describe it as sounding like a Tori Amos song. Then there's the "Neuroticfish remix" which is the same song but made for dancing. The two versions are so drastically different it's almost hard to tell they're the same song. The real treat of the song however is what Kattman does with her voice in the original and Neuroticfish versions. She goes from singing to screaming and back to singing, sometimes all in the space of a single line. It's impressive, though understandably an acquired taste.

2. 45 seconds of "Big Enough" by Kirin J. Callinan

Here's an unusual first for Zrbo's Annual Top 5 list: a snippet of a song! Yes, there's an entire song that this 45 second clip belongs to but let's face it: it's not very good and really it's just there so Mr. Callinan could have a pretense for these 45 seconds. These magnificent, glorious 45 seconds.

Yes, it's basically just a silly bit that's most likely cynically produced just to "go viral" but dammit, whenever I hear these 45 seconds I just find myself with a big goofy smile on my face. Even if I'm having a bit of down day, I know I can just put this on and for a brief moment at least I'll be laughing my ass off. Watch the full video if you must, but it's not really worth watching more than once. It's really just kind of a big goofy eurodance number. The heart of it is these 45 seconds, and it's better just to listen to the clip going in blind not knowing what you're about to witness - just relax and enjoy the cowboy man. Also, turn up the volume for maximum enjoyment.

1. VNV Nation - "Armour"
It's pretty much a given that in a year when a new VNV Nation album comes out you're going to find a song of theirs on my annual list. This year's album Noire had a host of excellent songs, and it was tough for me to pick just one (I limit this list to one track per artist). I was tempted to choose the contemplative "God of All", or I could have chosen the Erasure-esque "Wonders" which has severely grown on me. But I'm going to go with my gut and choose the first song from the album the band first chose to debut at this summer's Klaffenbach festival in Germany.

From the first time I heard "Armour" I fell in love with it. It's a somewhat typical style of song that VNV does, a sort of self-affirmational. With lyrics describing the singer donning his metaphorical armor as the world has failed him, it's the song I needed in 2018. As a said in my review of the album, this song is like candy to my ears, and  thus it takes it's place as my favorite song of the year.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Invisible Touch; Highly Visible Sales Figures AKA Phil's First Experience With Ghost Sex

Anyone in the mood for a little role-playing? Let's say you're the jocular, prematurely balding frontman/drummer for your increasingly successful/increasingly ridiculed rock group Genesis. Your latest solo album, No Jacket Required, has just sold more copies than there are grains of sand on your Malibu beachfront property. It's your first day back at the studio with your old band mates. Now, what I want you to do is to ... re-create that conversation. My version might go something like this: "Hey, so ... guys ... ready to lay down another Genesis classic? What's that? My solo album? (chuckles awkwardly) Oh, yeah, don't worry about that, just a little side thing, pfft, I mean ... I'm still the same old Phil, we're still the same ol' Genesis, right?" (pats Mike and Tony on the back with more force than is necessary) Cheerio lads, keep calm and carry on, stiff upper lip!"

Of course, if anyone could have approached this situation with unfathomable levels of denial, it would have been Phil Collins. But our man P.C. may have lucked out, given that his other accomplices in this triumvirate didn't appear to possess a jealous bone in their passive little Yuppie bodies. I guess Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks looked at each other and thought, "Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em .. and, hell, we're already joined anyway."

The line on Invisible Touch is that it's simply No Jacket Required, Part Deux, rather than an actual Genesis album. In a three-star review, AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes:
Delivered in the wake of Phil Collins' massive success as a solo star, Invisible Touch was seen at the time as a bit of a Phil Collins solo album disguised as a Genesis album, and it's not hard to see why. Invisible Touch is, without a doubt, Genesis' poppiest album, a sleek, streamlined affair built on electronic percussion and dressed in synths that somehow seem to be programmed, not played by Tony Banks. In that sense, it does seem a bit like No Jacket Required, and the heavy emphasis on pop tunes does serve the singer, not the band, but it's not quite fair to call this a Collins album, and not just because there are two arty tunes that could have fit on its predecessor, Genesis. There is a difference between Collins and Genesis -- on his own, Phil was lighter, and Genesis was often a bit chillier. Of course, the title track is the frothiest thing the band ever did, while "In Too Deep" and "Throwing It All Away" are power ballads that could be seen as Phil projects, but "Land of Confusion" was a protest tune and "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" was a stark, scary tale of scoring dope (which made its inclusion in a Michelob campaign in the '80s almost as odd as recovering alcoholic Eric Clapton shilling for the brewery). But those songs had big hooks that excused their coldness, and the arty moments sank to the bottom, obscured by the big, bold pop hooks here -- pop that was the sound of the mainstream in the late '80s, pop that still effortlessly evokes its time.
If Erlewine seems to offer the album his grudging approval, Patrick Bateman can hardly restrain himself from holding back the superlatives:
Invisible Touch (Atlantic; 1986) is the group's undisputed masterpiece. It's an epic meditation on intangibility, at the same time it deepens and enriches the meaning of the preceding three albums. It has a resonance that keeps coming back at the listener, and the music is so beautiful that it's almost impossible to shake off because every song makes some connection about the unknown or the spaces between people ("Invisible Touch"), questioning authoritative control whether by domineering lovers or by the government ("Land of Confusion") or by meaningless repetition ("Tonight Tonight Tonight"). All in all it ranks with the finest rock 'n' roll achievements of the decade and the mastermind behind this album, along of course with the brilliant ensemble playing of Banks, Collins and Rutherford, is Hugh Padgham, who has never found as clear and crisp and modern a sound as this. You can practically hear every nuance of every instrument.
And I'm sure that Bateman, tossing and turning on his satin sheets in his spotless apartment, desperately attempting to pass away the evening under the grip of chronic insomnia, visions of severed limbs and screaming victims running through his head, was truly listening to every nuance of every instrument. To quote The Who, "sickness can surely take the mind where minds can't usually go." And if this is what Bateman calls "fine rock 'n' roll," I wonder what his idea of easy listening pop music is.

One must observe, in a twist of irony, that Genesis's most commercially successful long-player might also be its most atypical. I imagine fans of "Supper's Ready" and "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight," unlike Mr. Bateman, probably recoil in horror at the sound of winery tour gems such as "In Too Deep" and "Throwing It All Away." To be honest, though, I'm impressed that Genesis's big "sellout" album still has some fairly weird, arty stuff on it regardless. They could have gone full Huey Lewis & the News, but no. A creepy five-minute instrumental called "The Brazilian"? Not exactly "Hip to Be Square," you feel me?

And just how "soft rock" was "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight," a nine-minute epic that, in Erlewine's words, is "a stark, scary tale of scoring dope"? You know what's sad? Despite the nature of its subject matter, I'll bet supermarkets still play this song anyway. How about the fact that it has three different bridges (at 2:28, 3:16, and 4:30) and each of them appears only once? I'm not familiar enough with Blade Runner to comment on whether the video recreates its post-apocalyptic dread successfully; all I know is that I feel like I need to wear a surgical mask merely every time I view it. I mean, when the air is purple? That's not a good sign. Mike Rutherford apparently figured his collar would protect him from the carcinogens; it's so high, it's practically brushing up against the helicopters circling overhead.

My main issue with Invisible Touch is that, "The Brazilian" aside, I find the second half of the album Letdown City - even with the inclusion of another huge Top Five hit ("Throwing It All Away"). But how's this for a first half: "Invisible Touch," "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight," "Land of Confusion," and "In Too Deep"? It's like Boom, Boom, Boom, BOOM. Does Exile On Main St. have a side one that features four Top Five hits? I didn't think so.

"Invisible Touch" became the band's first and only US #1, which unquestionably makes it their best and most artistically satisfying song. Oddly, you'd think that, by 1986, the music Phil was making with the people he'd been playing with since 1970 would have come out sounding less dated than the music he was making on his own ... but you would be wrong. At least "Against All Odds" featured a real, acoustic piano. Right off the bat, "Invisible Touch" reeks of synths, drum machines, and Ray-Bans. I'm not complaining - just an observation. Right before the solo at 2:09, it appears that Tony Banks must have opened a giant can of dung beetles directly over his Emulator II and promptly turned that can upside down.

At least time has not altered the beguiling mystery of the lyrics. "She seems to have an invisible touch." Wait a second, is he in love with a ... dead girl? Maybe ... she's a ghost! "She reaches in, and grabs right hold of your heart"? You know what I picture whenever I hear that line? I picture that voodoo priest in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, literally reaching in and grabbing hold of that guy's heart. And that's what this girl does to Phil? That's pretty fucked up. "Well I don't really know her/I only know her name"? Wait a minute. Wait a minute. He doesn't even know her? It's like he's sitting in the lunch room in seventh grade, drawing little hearts on his Trapper Keeper. Why do I have the feeling that Phil hasn't really thought this particular attraction through?

The video features the kind of almost-humor that rich white rock stars who spend too much time together would find hysterical, and no one else. Phil holds a tiny camera over his eye and shouts, "I can direct videos! It's no problem!" Hardy-har-har. Phil screws up the miming of the opening drum fill! Wacka-wacka-wacka. Tony pretends to play drums! Hi-Yo. Phil pretends to play the electric guitar ... with his teeth! I can't breathe, I'm laughing so hard. Phil pretends his drum sticks are a microphone! I just snorted milk through my nose. Phil pretends to head-butt the camera ... without actually head-butting it! Who turned on the laughing gas? Phil flashes the camera ... but his shirt's still on! Tears are streaming down my face, simply streaming.

I remember, some time right around 1991, when I was heavily into the habit of taping songs off the radio, I heard this Phil Collins ballad come on, and I pressed "Record," convinced that I was recording "One More Night." I kept waiting for the song to eventually morph into "One More Night," and then after about two minutes had gone by, I realized that I was taping a Phil Collins song that was not "One More Night," at which point I promptly ceased recording. I now had, committed to tape, the middle two minutes of this "imposter" "One More Night." I then proceeded, for several months afterward, to listen to this oddly-edited portion of the mystery Phil Collins hit. That hit ... was "In Too Deep."

Like "One More Night," it's mopey, it's gloopy, it's drippy, and yet ... it's like the sweetest Phil sauce on the juiciest Phil steak. Patrick Bateman knows what I'm talkin' 'bout:
In terms of lyrical craftsmanship and sheer songwriting skills this album hits a new peak of professionalism ... Yet as danceable as the album is, it also has a stripped-down urgency that not even the overrated Bruce Springsteen can equal. As an observer of love's failings Collins beats out the Boss again and again, reaching new heights of emotional honesty on "In Too Deep"; yet it also showcases Collins' clowny, prankish, unpredictable side. It's the most moving pop song of the 1980s about monogamy and commitment.
There you have it. The most moving pop song about monogamy and commitment of the entire decade - even more moving than "I Want Your Sex." Also, I know American Psycho was intended as satire, but if I admit that, like Bateman, I'd rather listen to Phil Collins than Bruce Springsteen, does that make me Jeffrey Dahmer?

For the video, the band seems to have hijacked the set of Jefferson Starship's "Be My Lady." The studio recording of "In Too Deep" features the rare appearance on Invisible Touch of an actual, organic instrument, although I believe it's an electric guitar being played, while in the video Mike Rutherford is seen playing an acoustic. That's a hell of a lot more accurate than the misrepresentation perpetuated by Tony Banks, who in the video pretends to play a grand piano, while the keyboard sound that's featured on the recording is anything but: it's like some elvish video game instrument, where each lightly-emitted note bounces around in its little hobbit cave for three seconds before evaporating into the mystical morning dew.

As always, Phil drew his lyrical inspiration from some ... unexpected places. Per In the Air Tonight:
It was after a show in Hong Kong. I was in my dressing room, tripping on a homemade brew of mescaline, angel dust, and nail polish - a potent concoction I dubbed "El Caballo Loco" - when suddenly ... she appeared before me.

Was it a ghost? An apparition? A hallucination? I couldn't say. All I knew was ... she was hot! Picture a cross between Jacklyn Smith and Sally Field, with a little bit of Andie MacDowell thrown in for good measure. You know, sultry, but intelligent. She spoke in an eerie, high-pitched whisper.

"I've been waiting - waiting here so long," she cooed, although her lips hardly seemed to move.

"Who - who are you?" I asked.

"My name is Serserio the Undead."

"What - what do you want?"

"I want to feed off your life force."

"Oh. OK. Uh, like, how exactly?"

But Serserio clearly wasn't the chatty type. She began ... merging with me. But not. I mean, I can't explain it. We started making love, but ... not human love. It's like she just reached in ... and grabbed hold of my heart. She seemed to have ... how can I put this?

An invisible touch.

Crazy, I know. I mean, I was turned on at first, but then as the night wore on, a panic washed over me. She had something I just couldn't trust. Something ... mysterious. As we danced and shifted in the moonlight, I tried to step away, but that's when the horror truly set in: I was in too deep. I couldn't pull myself out of her! She was like a load on my back that I couldn't see - I tried to shake her loose, cut her free, get her away from me ... I was in too deep. That simple. She had me so I just couldn't sleep.

"Tonight, tonight, tonight," she moaned.

I was asking all kinds of questions to myself, but I wasn't finding the answers. I cried at the top of my voice, but it quickly dawned on me that .. no one was listening!

"I can feel your eyes go through me," she whispered, "but ... I don't know why."

"Maybe because ... you're a ghost?" I said.

Finally, she released me from her spectral grip. "I love you but ... I just can't take this." At that, she slipped out of my being and vanished through the window. I felt the sensation of black fur on my arms. It was like I was tumbling, tumbling from another realm. I was coming down like a monkey ... but it was all right. I heard a pounding on the door.

"Phil, you in there?"

I glanced furtively around the room and gathered my senses. I turned the deadbolt. It was Rusty, our tour manager.

"Phil, you OK?"

"Yeah, yeah ... I'm fine."

"What the hell's going on in here?"

"Oh man ... I was ... she's gone."

"Who's gone?"

"You're not going to believe this, but-"

"Hiding another groupie in the bathroom, eh?"

"No, no, this girl ... this is going to sound crazy, but she had, like, an invisible touch."

"Oh really? Who was she?"

"Well, I didn't really know her. I only knew her name."

"What was her name?"

"Serserio the Undead."

He glanced at me with head askew. "Phil, you been doing any of that 'Caballo Loco' again?"

"Maybe. You should have seen her, though. She crawled under my skin ... I don't think I'll be quite the same."

"Just get some sleep, all right? Plane leaves at 6:30 AM." He threw me a Coors Lite and slammed the door.