Sunday, July 19, 2020

Runaway Horses: When An Album Gallops Across Europe, But Trots Across America

Question: Would you trade American stardom for European stardom? Sub-question: If you had no choice in the matter, could you get used to it? It sounds to me like Belinda Carlisle never quite did.

Although she couldn't have actually known it yet, with Heaven on Earth and its accompanying worldwide #1 single, Belinda had reached the peak of her solo success. But if she didn't know it yet, she could certainly sense it. A pop music career is not a math equation. Just because your first album goes Gold, and your second album goes Platinum, doesn't mean that your third album will go Double Platinum. But it wouldn't be out of the question if it did, would it? From Lips Unsealed:
Though a number of major producers inquired about working with me, I teamed up with Rick Nowels again. For a second time I was in the studio trying not to think about the pressure and the high expectations. Yet the industry's reigning A&R guru John Kalodner laid it right out there by saying, "If Belinda gets this album right, she's going to be the biggest star in the world." I tried not to think about it, but I knew the opportunity was there.
"Belinda, baby, the world is your oyster! You could be the toppermost of the poppermost!" Uhh ... bigger than MJ? Based on what, exactly? Her wall-humping prowess? Well, either Belinda failed to "[get the] album right," or John Kalodner was talking out of his A&R anus, but if squint a little, you can kind of see where he was coming from. Belinda was just coming off an album that had produced three US and UK Top 10 hits, she had the looks, she had the pipes, she had the looks (on the Runaway Horses album cover, as a sweater delicately slides down her comely shoulder, the camera is potentially catching Belinda either in mid-orgasm or mid-fart - it's hard to tell and they both feel good anyway) ... the airwaves were hers for the taking. What she didn't have, of course, was ambition, but hey, that hadn't hurt her yet! At any rate, let's see how accurate Mr. Kalodner's prediction became:
Overall, we worked on the album as if money didn't matter. We took a year and spent close to $1 million. That may have sounded great in the press, but now when I hear something like that I know, because it was the case with my album, that it signals trouble. We second-guessed ourselves right and left and lost touch with the basics and ended up with an expensive album, not the great one we had hoped to make.

In September, "Leave a Light On" came out and was a hit everywhere in the world except the U.S., where it failed to crack the top 10, an indication that times and the music-buying public's taste had changed. When Runaway Horses hit the stores a month later, it opened well overseas but struggled here at home, needing six months to creep its way to a very disappointing peak of 37.
(Sad trombone.) #37? Daaaaaamn. That sure puts other notorious commercial "disappointments" like Tusk (which peaked at #4) or The Final Cut (which peaked at #6) in perspective. Even Queen's Hot Space peaked at #24. But leave it to the master of self-loathing to throw more cold water onto the fire than necessary. In Belinda's telling, "Leave a Light On" was "a hit everywhere in the world except the U.S.," but what she means is that it was a huge hit everywhere in the world except the U.S., where it was merely a moderately-sized hit, peaking at #11 - which ain't bad at all! Talk about changing the goalposts. And sometimes, an album's peak chart position doesn't tell the whole story anyway, because what Dottie Danger fails to mention is that, in the U.S., Runaway Horses still went Gold! In other words, plenty of people did ultimately purchase the album; they just took their sweet time in doing so. A Gold album is nothing to sneeze at. Talk Show didn't even go Gold. Besides, here's how I know the album found its way onto numerous American stereos: a couple of years ago I met a colleague on a theater project who claimed to have repeatedly performed aerobics as a youth while listening to Runaway Horses. I tell you, nothing gets the blood pumping like the red-headed roar of the Queen of Yuppie Rock. It's also classic how much she downplays the success of the album in Europe, merely stating that it "opened well overseas." The album peaked at #4 in the UK, #4 in Sweden, and #6 in Australia, essentially duplicating the success of Heaven on Earth. Runaway Horses was a blockbuster smash - just not in the country she was born in. But on the other hand, I know what she's saying. Her management and her record label were whispering in her ear as if the album was going to be the next Rhythm Nation 1814 or Like a Prayer, not R.E.M.'s Murmur. I mean fuck, in 1990, even Christmas albums went Gold. Belinda was not about to become Mariah Carey here.
Although I put on a positive face for the press, I was deeply hurt by the album's failure to live up to expectations. In many ways, it was my favorite collection of songs. Morgan counseled me to work at the things I could influence and let go of everything else. I tried. Some days I managed. Other days I was filled with anxiety and struggled with all of my issues.
Yeah, well, par for the course. It's also interesting that in one paragraph she says that she "second-guessed" herself and ended up making an "expensive" album and not a "great" album, and then in another paragraph calls the album "my favorite collection of songs," but Belinda is nothing if not a riddle of contradictions. Although I only got around to listening to the entire album about a year ago, frankly, I think it's a stronger overall album than Heaven on Earth! AMG gives it three stars and its predecessor four stars, but I would probably switch that rating around. No, it doesn't have that one single song that blows you away like "Heaven is A Place on Earth," but overall I find it more consistent, more adventurous, more ... not depressing exactly, but more tempestuous, mercurial. Runaway Horses, despite the thousand layers of studio gloss on it that Belinda apparently claims to regret, feels to me more like the work of the "real" Belinda. Sure, it's long way from "Skidmarks on My Heart," but let's just say that if your stock shares just plummeted and you're in the mood for a late night cruise through wine country, this is the album that begs to be blasted on your Mercedes stereo.

"Leave a Light On," "Summer Rain," and "La Luna" I already tackled, but get a load of these seven other goodies. The title track isn't quite a power ballad - it's more like an "energy saver" ballad, but as Belinda album cuts go, I say it's a keeper, with a chorus that inspires me to hoist my solar-powered flashlight high into the air. Even the key change, if predictable, still feels appropriate. "Runaway Horses" actually made some noise in the UK, peaking at #40. Let's just say these horses didn't exactly win the Kentucky Derby here. Besides, if you're riding "runaway horses," don't those horses actually belong to somebody? Wouldn't you need to give them back? The relatively uneventful video features Belinda in a wholesome peasant-style dress, leaning against a wall in the requisite abandoned house with crystal chandelier, as the shadows of horses prance around the room and sinister merry-go-round horses silently wait to pounce. A golden opportunity for further wall-humping, clearly wasted.

"Vision of You" hit #41 in the UK, but whoa, Darby Crash would not have been into this one. Get a load of this chorus: "Nobody's touch feels like your touch/Nobody gets to me that much/Nobody's kiss gets me inside/And I have no place to hide/Tell me what can I do/I have a vision of you." Generic, thy name is "Vision of You." I feel like even Streisand would have balked at these lyrics. It's a little too cliched and sedate for me, but judging by the YouTube comments (always an accurate barometer of public opinion), it has plenty of admirers. Let me just say that this is the video I posted back when I wanted to demonstrate how counter-intuitive it was that the singer of songs like "Vision of You" claimed Iggy Pop as her musical idol. Of course, Iggy Pop didn't look quite as good in a tight sequin dress (though I'm sure he tried).

"(We Want) The Same Thing" could be considered the album's big "rocker," Belinda's husky, lower-register delivery on the verses coming as close as this album gets to sassy, winking camp ("Here is my case/We've got no time to waste/'Cause we want the same thing"? "We're fighting a war/But we don't know what for/'Cause we want the same thing"??), but the chorus is sparkly and shiny and smothered in a thick wall of female vocals and bells and keyboards and it kind of sounds like a jingle for pantyhose but ... it's catchy. Good Lord, is it catchy. For those taking note, the single mix was even more violent and unruly, sporting opening chants of "Hey! Hey!," extra vocal overdubs, and more club-friendly percussive thumping. This one really caught the British public by storm, peaking at #6. Guess that remix did the trick?

So that's six singles that charted at least somewhere in the Western world, but I think where Runaway Horses has Heaven on Earth beat is in the relative strength of the leftover album tracks. And I mean "relative," because don't expect "Never Going Back Again" and "Oh Daddy" here. "Deep Deep Ocean" is like the lethargic twin sibling of "Leave a Light On," featuring the album's other George Harrison solo, and yet, despite being just a rat in a cage, listen to Belinda's vocals of rage! "Valentine" and "Whatever It Takes" is where the album and/or Rick Nowels start to lose me, but if you're going to lose the listener, you might as well do it around tracks 8 and 9, amirite? There's an octave jump on "Valentine" that I'm not entirely sure Belinda handles successfully, but did I ever co-write "You Get What You Give"? No, I did not. If Rick said it worked, then I guess it worked. There's also a synth solo that sounds like it left the apartment drunk one night back in 1985 and got lost for four years on its way back to the studio. I would have made a joke about "Whatever It Takes" resembling a bland Bryan Adams track, except the song literally features backing vocals from Bryan Adams.

Upon learning that the closing track, "Shades of Michaelangelo," features lyrics composed by none other than the artist herself (with music by her former colleague Charlotte Caffey), I was tempted to chuckle surreptitiously into my sleeve (so that Belinda wouldn't see my snark), but if I check my attitude at the door, I have to admit that the song is surprisingly soothing, spirited, and hummable. I'd say it kicks the crap out of the three cuts that proceeded it, at least. Maybe B.C. should have gotten off her ass and written more of her own lyrics - not because she was great at it, exactly, but because it apparently gave Charlotte the impetus to compose some excellent musical accompaniment:
A still life portrait of you by my window
Touched by an innocence now fading away

Into a quiet storm of the tears of the angels
Falling around me as I'm watching the days
I frame colors of passion against a fading sky

With a stroke of love on the canvas of my soul
I'm painting a perfect world with shades of Michaelangelo
It's a promise made to every heart that knows
We can live in a perfect world, with shades of Michaelangelo

I hear songs of children echo in the sky
I hear songs of children, a tomorrow so bright
But could she actually spell "Michaelangelo" correctly? Sure, these lyrics might be overly earnest and hokey, but are they any worse than the lyrics for, say, "Vision of You"? And while I feel like her singing on some of the album's tracks veers into wayward vibrato territory, on "Shades of Michaelangelo" she sounds clear and sweet and Go-Go-licious; I'm thinking that either she felt more at ease with her own lyrics, or that Charlotte had a more intuitive grasp of Belinda's proper vocal range than Rick did. Here's how she described the inspiration behind the track in an interview on The Arsenio Hall Show: "It's an environmental-type song, it's just how ... I look out my window, I have a garden and a hill, and just wondering whether it's gonna be there 50 years from now, and then I was at the Vatican in Rome, and looking at all the great masterpieces by Michaelangelo, and thought, 'Oh wouldn't that be perfect, to live in a picture just like that.'" Deeeeeep. Actually, that doesn't make any sense, but never mind. I watched Belinda suffer a dull, aching pain, and now she decided to show me the same. Wait, that's "Wild Horses," not Runaway Horses. You get the idea.

Anyway, it's funny how the business works. Belinda releases an album that, in my opinion, is stronger overall than Heaven on Earth, but it essentially kills the momentum of her American solo career. Let me put on my best Seinfeld voice and ask, "What was the deal?" I'm not saying it was the greatest album on God's green earth, but it's not like she married her 13-year-old cousin or something. Here's my best theory. Initially, with her first two albums, American record buyers were wondering if Belinda could pull off a solo career, and then when she answered that question in the affirmative, most of the suspense was gone, and suddenly she was just another adult contemporary singer (albeit one with a nutty punk background). Her songs weren't "risky" or "shocking" like Madonna's or Janet's. Whereas in Europe, the Heaven on Earth Belinda was the Belinda they were introduced to, and since Runaway Horses was mostly more of the same, they ate it right up. I guess my point is this: Belinda released three more solo albums in the '90s, and none of them did squat in the U.S., although, in my humble opinion, her music really never got noticeably worse. It's not like she pulled a Queen and switched from anthemic hard rock to sleazy synth-pop. If people liked the shit she had been doing in the '80s, they should have liked the shit she did in the '90s. They kept liking it in Britain! I guess predicting the pop charts is a bit like predicting a runaway horse. Sometimes that horse just leaves the stable, and no matter how much hay you place in the barn, it never comes back.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

How Did I Miss 'The Birthday Massacre'?

I was surfing YouTube one night recently, letting the algorithm guide the music selection. It's gotten remarkably good, and remarkably accurate, narrowing in on my specific tastes. So far it had presented me with a host of amazing, often obscure singles from bands I'd never heard of before, yet that operated in the kind of genres I frequent, and I'd been liking a lot of these heretofore unknown-to-me songs. But I had so far never been presented with an entire band that I had fallen for.

Well, that all changed when YouTube presented me with a song by the group The Birthday Massacre. My ears perked up, "oh, this is pretty good". Then YouTube showed me another song by The Birthday Massacre, and hey, it sounded pretty great too. And then another song, and another, and, holy shit, this band is really good!

Hailing from Canada, the six piece The Birthday Massacre has been around for nearly twenty years with a whole bunch of albums under their belt. Fronted by lead singer Chibi, and accompanied by bandmates with names such as Rainbow and Falcore (I wish they'd drop the monikers and use their real names, but hey, I'm the one writing under a pseudonym so I should probably just shut my mouth), their sound is a terrific blend of goth rock, retro 80s synth pop, darkwave, and metal. I've seen their music referred to as 'synthrock'.

The band is labelmates on Metropolis Records alongside my absolute favorite band VNV Nation. I had technically heard The Birthday Massacre before - I'd had their cover of Limhahl's "The NeverEnding Story" on my old iPod for as long as I could remember, but I had never really given them much thought. But now, suddenly, I'm finding myself falling for the band fast and hard. How did I miss The Birthday Massacre?

The band has crafted a distinct and consistent visual look, using copious amounts of pinks, violets, and purples in their album artwork. They couple this with a sort of Edward Gorey meets Donnie Darko theme, which, along with their name, creates this cutesy yet macabre image (just take a look at their album covers and you should understand pretty quickly). I've long been drawn to bands with consistent visual imagery (see the aforementioned VNV Nation or KMFDM) so the fact that their image intrigues me comes as little surprise.

The Birthday Massacre's earlier offerings are rooted in goth rock. Their early sound is gloomy, kinda Disintegration era The Cure but more pop leaning. Take a listen to "Horror Show" or "Video Kid" from their second album Violet. The former reminds me of something from Switchblade Symphony but more friendly, while the latter, once you get past the initial burst of heavy guitar, adds a dance beat and with its little hand claps between lines sounds like something spawned from 80s new wave. These two songs might be more easy to digest if you're already into this style of music, but I've found with their follow-up album they really began to embrace the pop elements lurking under the surface here.

Their next full length album, 2007s Walking With Strangers, with its bunny ear wearing children cover art appropriately adds a bit of childlike whimsy by adding a good dose of pop. Originally appearing on their first album, Nothing and Nowhere, and remade for this album, the song "To Die For" is a light bubbly bit of bouncy pop with a rhythm that kind of sways. The repeated "ahhh-ooohs" during the chorus seem designed for live show audience hands-in-the-air arm waving, and I dig the entire bridge part from 2:30 to 3:20. You almost wouldn't even know it was the same band from their previous album.

Maybe because they're just more accessible, but I find myself drawn to their more pop or dance oriented tracks, though I do like the more guitar heavy songs too. The song "Calling" from their album Pins and Needles is, as far as I can tell, pretty much a pop song, even with its there's-something-under-the-bed lyrics.

By the time we get to 2014s Superstition the band seems completely confident and comfortable in this unique sound they've crafted. The song "Oceania" is straight-up pop and strongly reminds me of the dance-rock of the band The Naked and the Famous while the title track "Superstition" is wonderfully lean and mean, with an extraterrestrial sounding synth. It's one of my favorites.

The final song I want to point out is "Beyond". I want to bring attention to this song only because I find the way the band presents itself is sometimes in opposition to the kind of music they actually make. "Beyond" is a wonderful mid-tempo dreamy pop song that sounds like it could come from someone like Carly Rae Jepsen. It's video, however, with its funereal imagery, makes it look like some moody goth anthem.

I'm honestly slightly annoyed that YouTube's algorithmical gods hadn't proffered The Birthday Massacre to me earlier. Here's a band that lies near the very center of my network of interests. Just look at the covers they've recorded. There's the previously mentioned cover of "The NeverEnding Story". They have covers of Madonna's "Open Your Heart", Tommy James and the Shondell's (but likely meant as an ode to Tiffany's version) "I Think We're Alone Now", both of which capture my love of infectious 80s pop. The real kicker for me however is when I discovered they have a cover of Faith No More's "From Out of Nowhere", a band that filled a large part of my teenage music listening days.

It *is* possible to get closer to the heart of my interests, but the triangulation here comes pretty dang close. I mean, I listen to or am at least versed in all sorts of bands that orbit The Birthday Massacre. I listen to women-fronted metal bands like Within Temptation and Nightwish, goth rock, synth heavy 80s inspired pop like Chvrches, and basically anything that's danceable that might be played in a goth club. Why did YouTube take this long to say, "oh hey, you might like this?".

I do have a few small complaints. While they have a consistent sound, at times their songs can almost sound too consistent, maybe even a tad repetitive. Though they've developed this amazing sound, after chugging through their albums I've noticed that they do, at times, have similar sounding songs, or, perhaps more accurately, I find that many of their songs tend to follow the same structure.

I also wish the band were a tad more ambitious. A thing I've noticed is a lot of their songs just come to a sudden end. It's almost as if their songs are the shortened-for-time radio versions. I wish they'd let the music breathe more. There's rarely a song with a lengthy outro, and not a single song that fades out, and that second point really stings because some of their tracks are just begging for a few more repeats of the chorus ("Calling" comes to such a sudden end it sounds like the last 30 seconds got cut off). This results in a certain uniformity when it comes to the length of their songs. This is a band where most songs clock in around three and a half minutes, with songs over four minutes rare, and those over five few and far between. I long for a song of theirs with a bit of an extended outro. I've also yet to hear a ballad, or anything gentle or slow. I suppose in one way that the brevity kinda leaves you wanting more, and they do end up with short, easily digestible albums. But still, I'd like to see them push themselves just a little more.

I also can't shake the feeling that I've stumbled upon a kind of Hot Topic band that's meant for gloomy teenagers (I actually checked the Hot Topic site and thankfully did not find any TBM merchandise). Because their dark, gloomy music is so approachable, and because the visuals are so purple and cutesy I could see how they could come across as something like "my-first-goth-band". On that note, judging from the band members' actual looks, I don't think they actually look all that "goth" (besides Chibi). They dress more emo in my opinion (don't ask me to explain the difference, it's a subtle nuance), This makes me think that this could be the reason I hadn't quite been exposed to them before - they ended up attracting the emo crowd more than the goth crowd, but I really don't know if this is something I might just be making up in my head.

It's interesting reading the comments under their videos. I see three main types of comments. The first seems to be a lot of "wow, I used to listen to these guys in high school, good to see they're still rocking!" sentiments. The second is the hard core fan "I've been a long time fan and even have a tattoo to prove it!" die-hards. And the third type of comment I see a lot of is, "wow, how have I never heard these guys before?" which about sums up my experience with the band.

One last curiosity, there are several times where I've been listening and... I swear I've heard the melody before. Now, both their Wikipedia page and comments on YouTube confirm some of my feelings here. I don't want to throw accusations of plagiarism around, but sometimes they have parts of songs that come *awfully* close to other songs. There are some outright acknowledged samples, such as the chorus on their song "Weekend" lifts the chorus from U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday", and their track "Without You" steals its chorus from U2's "New Years Day". Also, the previously mentioned "Calling" features elements from Nine Inch Nails' "God Given", though the NIN version is so schizophrenic it's a bit hard to tell. There's times where just for a second I feel like they're stealing someone else's vocal delivery. I swear I've heard moments of Pat Benatar, Gotye, and others.

The most egregious unacknowledged instance I've found though is from their song "Midnight" where the chorus seems, surprisingly enough, directly lifted from the chorus of Sarah Brightman's "Deliver Me". Listen to the section of Brightman's here and TBM's here and tell me they're not exactly the same. I don't know how I feel about this. As one review I read stated regarding this practice: "Is this a deliberate nod or an unintentional reference?... [the] references should probably be integrated and assimilated more thoroughly so they don't run the risk of becoming unintentional quotes." I agree.

So that's what I've got to say about The Birthday Massacre. If you're a fan of dark, synth-laden music, there's a lot to like here. There's even some very good pop music here as well. They're not the most intriguing or lyrically complex band, but I've really enjoyed what I've heard so far. I just wish I had discovered them ten years earlier.