Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Blogging Without Prejudice, Vol. 1,483

Listen ... without extreme prejudice. (Any Apocalypse Now fans in the house?)

Toward the tail end of high school, back in the dark ages of human existence (AKA before the internet), I used to spend long, desperate nights staring at my computer screen perusing a CD-ROM created by Microsoft called Music Central, which featured, among other bits of rock journalism, several reviews from Q magazine (a UK publication, I believe?). Let me just say that it's always amusing to read album reviews that were written immediately upon those albums' release, without the benefit of even the slightest hindsight. For instance, Q magazine gave five stars to Dire Straits' long-awaited On Every Street, which currently sports a cool two stars from AMG, and they also had a hilarious habit of giving five stars to every single new Lou Reed and Van Morrison album of the '80s.

At any rate. I was only dimly aware of George Michael's Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 at the time, but when I read Q magazine's five star rave review, I admit it: I got pumped. I glanced at my recently-purchased print edition of the All Music Guide, which merely gave Listen Without Prejudice four stars to Faith's five, but ... man, you should have read this review. It really whetted my appetite. So, long before I ever experienced the majesty known as "I Want Your Sex, Parts I, II, & III," I checked out a copy of Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 from my local library. Upon listening (without prejudice, I assure you), I concluded that ... this particular Q magazine reviewer might have gotten a little too excited.

The tendency for arguable over-excitement can work in the opposite direction as well, such as when a performer passes on and it's suddenly "hip" and "trendy" to re-evaluate his work, as this BBC Culture article by Nick Levine titled "How George Michael Transformed Pop" demonstrates. The blurb at the top reads "Thirty years ago, the star released the commercially disappointing Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1. Now, it is rightly recognised as a groundbreaking masterpiece..." Well, maybe it's deserving of a second look, but "groundbreaking masterpiece" is one of those phrases that music journalists should only whip out on birthdays and anniversaries. "... It is seen in retrospect as the album that successfully cemented his position as a pop maestro, not a mere pop puppet." Yeah, uh, wouldn't you say that Faith is generally seen as that album? "[Paul] Flynn calls the album Michael’s 'grand apologia for being in the closet' as well as 'the album where he turns his back on fame'. 'It’s the album where he realises where his hollow ambitions have led him to, and the compromises they have involved, which have so much to do with his sexuality,' Flynn says." Well, cool story bro, but I'm not sure if George himself ever described the album in that way, even after he came out. Levine continues:
Written by a closeted gay man at the height of the epidemic, Listen without Prejudice Vol. 1 is an album steeped in the grief and confusion of the HIV/Aids era. Michael acknowledged in a 2007 Desert Island Discs interview that “Aids was the predominant feature of being gay in the 1980s and early 90s as far as any parent was concerned” and a major factor in his decision not to come out to his own family sooner. It’s little wonder that, as he became more emotionally honest in his music, he no longer sounded ready to party.
Wouldn't argue with that too much, I guess. I do like this narrative that the Q magazine and BBC Culture writers were aiming for, sort of suggesting that Faith was George Michael's Revolver and Listen Without Prejudice was his Sgt. Pepper; I'd like it more if I didn't think it was just a bit off. Let's try this one instead, using a different British George: Faith was his All Things Must Pass and Listen Without Prejudice was his Living in the Material World. In other words, the follow-up album would have been seen as a huge success, if not for the even larger success of its predecessor. Looking back, that "disappointing" follow-up album can sound pretty damn good - but would you recommend it as a starting point for the curious instead of recommending the previous album? Questionable.

I've never listened to George Michael's third solo album, Older, but I have read Stephen Thomas Erlewine's AMG review of it, which basically amounts to the same thing, and a couple of lines of his have always stuck with me: "It is one thing to be mature and another to be boring. Too often, Michael mistakes slight melodies for mature craftsmanship and Older never quite recovers." This more or less sums up how I feel about roughly 50% of Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. Look, I'm completely on board with George "getting himself happy" and "taking these lies and making them true" and all that self-actualizing mumbo-jumbo; I just wished I felt the songs did all that while employing instantly hummable melodies and energetic production flourishes. "Something To Save," "Waiting For That Day," "Mother's Pride," "Heal The Pain" ... I find them pleasant, pretty, sincere, somber ... and a bit flavorless. Where the hooks, G.?

Now, I wouldn't normally get my knickers in a twist over an album that contains some tracks I love and some tracks I meh, but what gets me about Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 is that I can imagine there being a version of this album that I like as much as I think George intended me to. You know what the ballads on that imaginary album all sound like? They all sound like ... "Praying For Time"! That song was serious, yeah, but seriously catchy. I feel like "Praying For Time" demonstrated that George could pull off the impossible, ie. shift his lyrical concerns while still making melodically gripping pop music. But what about the follow-through? It's like he caught the ball at the five yard line, but only scored a field goal. Sure, field goals are still points, but after the one-two punch of "Praying For Time" and "Freedom '90," I was kind of expecting a touchdown.

If there is one style George Michael thought he could pull off that Little Earl would say he really could not, that would be acoustic-based rock. I've read reviews that call "Heal the Pain" "McCartney-esque," probably because, with its synthesized conga percussion, it somewhat resembles The White Album's "I Will." But even '80s-era McCartney doesn't sound as dry and stilted to me as "Heal the Pain" does. To these ears, "Heal the Pain" is stiffer than piece of matzoh. Remember when I wrote that "Faith" didn't really rock enough? This song is like "Faith" after being left out in the sun for two weeks. Then there's "Something To Save," which I'm tempted to dub "proto-Lilith Fair." I'm convinced George found these chord changes in the back of a Sears catalog. "Waiting For the Day" comes a little closer to dance-pop by utilizing a then-ubiquitous "Funky Drummer" sample, but too bad the rest of the arrangement only utilizes two chords! I mean, "Freedom '90" also utilized a "Funky Drummer" sample, but it altered and contorted that sample so creatively that I didn't even realize the track had utilized "Funky Drummer" until a few months ago, when I wrote my blog post about "Freedom '90." Finally, "Mother's Pride" utilizes an "Asian flute" synth sound that, personally speaking, reeks of Dire Straits circa 1985. What I'm saying is that there are oodles of songs in George's catalog where I feel like he really made all the right moves and all the smartest choices. I wouldn't say that these are those songs.

Caught somewhat in between is his cover of Stevie Wonder's "They Won't Go When I Go." I remember playing the album, arriving at this track, and thinking, "Wow, what a great undiscovered George Michael song!" And then I looked at the songwriting credits and realized, "Oh, hold on a minute, it's a Stevie Wonder cover." Granted, it's an enjoyable Stevie Wonder cover. But eventually I heard the Stevie Wonder version, and, well, I don't think I'm going out on a limb by stating that improving on a Stevie Wonder track is a tall order. I give George points for picking a relatively obscure Stevie Wonder track to cover, and not screwing it up. But Faith didn't have any covers on it. Faith didn't need any covers on it. I think George simultaneously thought he could demonstrate his newfound artistic credibility and add another top-drawer composition to the album in one fell swoop. These days, I'm slightly resentful of George's cover, because, however strong it is, I simply wish I'd heard Stevie's version first. I find myself unable to listen to George's version without being ... prejudiced.

However. There are two tracks on the album that I've never tired of and would place right up there with "Praying For Time" and "Freedom '90" as Giorgios essentials. In other words, if I had found at least a couple of the other tracks discussed above as enjoyable as I find these two, I might be more inclined to support the views expressed by my friends at Q magazine and BBC Culture.

"Cowboys and Angels" is like the smoky prog rock sequel to "Kissing a Fool" (sophisti-prog?). It's supper club George, but this time with an evil film noir breeze blowing in through the slightly ajar window. Despite being seven minutes long, I find it hypnotic instead of boring, because I'm fairly certain that, wherever the hell George found these tasty chord changes, he did not find them in the back of a Sears catalog. "Cowboys and Angels" is a black and white crime film starring George Bogart, who saunters into a dimly-lit bar wearing a fedora and trench coat (and probably nothing else), sits down at the counter, and barks, "Gimme the hardest stuff ya got." And do I detect the haunted ghost of "Careless Whisper" in the sax outro? Someone decidedly, wisely I think, that the song was single material, and yet it only made it to #45 in the UK, and didn't do squat in the US. Hogwash, I say. At least George managed to sneak it onto Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best Of, which hopefully gave it the wider exposure I would say it deserved the first time around.

Finally, for those hoping that Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 would offer at least one more irresistibly hook-tastic butt shaker aside from "Freedom '90," I give you "Soul Free." "Soul Free" is like the Miami Sound Machine-influenced sequel to "Monkey." It's a sultry stew of flute, congas, horns, and lusty falsetto come-ons. Maybe it's just me, but I need my Serious George leavened with campy cries like "When ya touch me bay-uh-bayyyy/Ahh don't have no choice, ooooh!" Leave that acoustic guitar in the den, George. Your head may be saying, "I'm a folksy balladeer!," but your groin is saying, "I need to hit the gay clubs, pronto."

Professor Higglediggle writes, somewhat incomprehensibly (even for him):
The lapsed modernity within the twin axes of expression presented by "Heal the Pain" and "Waiting for the Day" is only mediated by the invocation and realization of disjunctions and cohesions expressed by an interpretation of a Stevie Wonder composition, which essentializes and racializes Michael's grab-bag primitivism under a rubric of co-optation and Africanist reification. The Latin groove of "Soul Free" doubles as an amatory assemblage of tonic-dominant sonorities and a neologistic re-reading of Cuban revolutionary rhetoric, which is only undercut by the static harmonic polysemy of "Cowboys and Angels," Michael's declaration "You're not the same/Everyone's to blame" forcing us to interpret his semiotic slippage through the lens of queer theory and ethnomusicological nihilism.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

"Poison": A Femme Fatale So Duplicitous, She Induces Vomiting

Have you guys thought about, you know ... calling the Poison Control Center? Maybe taking a quick trip to the emergency room? Rinsing gently with water for 15-20 minutes? Am I the only one concerned that, by being so preoccupied with warning the other members of their gender about the toxic nature of this particular female, Bell Biv DeVoe are ignoring the necessary first aid precautions?

New Edition. Forgive me if I've lost track of who the exact members of this '80s teen act were, or exactly when each member was in the group, or exactly which hits they had. I've been busy focusing on more important things, like the juicy details behind Phil Collins's decades-long horse tranquilizer addiction. Suffice to say, in 1990, perhaps following the lead of their erstwhile colleague Bobby Brown, New Edition alums Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe decided to shed that sacred "boy band" image and drag their music into the darkest recesses of the modern American experience.

Here's a thought. Didn't Dick Tracy come out right around the same time as "Poison"? With its "rat-a-tat" percussion and snappy horn blasts, I'm thinking "Poison" might have fit more handily onto the Dick Tracy soundtrack than Madonna's attempts at lounge crooning that make up the majority of I'm Breathless. According to Wikipedia, the song's writer and producer, Elliot Straite AKA Dr. Freeze (possibly a villain from the Dick Tracy comics?), "cited German electronic group Kraftwerk and Latin musicians Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria as influences on the song's sound and production," which I suppose is where the track gets its "Miami Sound Machine stuck inside a malfunctioning Apple IIe" vibe from. It's like Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5," but more evil.

"Never trust a big butt and a smile"? So can I trust a big butt and a frown? A small butt and a smile? What are the rules here? So much early '90s R&B crossover has no teeth, but "Poison" spits out a nice fat wad of misogyny. Which, honestly, is sort of what I like about it. It's not emanating from the same early '90s wellspring of misogyny as, say, N.W.A. or Guns 'n' Roses; it's more like a throwback to the Coasters' "Poison Ivy" or Dion's "Runaround Sue," with a brief nod to Hall & Oates's "Maneater." It's retro-misogyny. (Speaking of N.W.A., I've always chuckled at this lyric from Ice Cube's "The Wrong N**** to Fuck Wit": "It ain't no pop 'cause that sucks/And you can new jack swing on my nuts.") How do they know she's a loser? "Cause me and the crew used to do her." "Do her"? Like "date" her? "Sleep" with her? Beat her ass with a rusty pipe in the alleyway outside the studio? You see, that line is really the key to Bell Biv DeVoe's true source of anger: their own culpability. As much as they'd like to deny it, they're part of the poison.

Anyway. I'm always looking for ways to fill gaps in my otherwise vast knowledge of late 20th century popular music. One day I was perusing Wikipedia, found myself staring at a list of Billboard R&B #1 hits, and was amazed at how many of the tracks I did not recognize. So, I downloaded them all and listened to them in order. Let me tell you something: this might be the Forgotten Kingdom of '80s music. Herein lies songs that have not been played on any radio station since 1989 - or at least not on any radio station in my neighborhood. To paraphrase Paul Simon, "Where have you gone, Freddie Jackson, LeVert, Surface, The Boys, Troop, and Angela Winbush? An '80s blogger turns his lonely eyes to you." I feel like this was music that was meant to satisfy a certain audience at a certain time, but not surprise or innovate, even in minor ways.

However, I think "Poison" managed to crawl out of this late '80s/early '90s sewer with some dignity and appeal intact because, setting aside Dr. Freeze's arsenal of new jack production tricks, let's face it, melodically it's as smooth as buttah. No Freddie Jackson song ever piled on the tasty, soaring vocals that dominate the pre-chorus. Check out the section following the command, "Yo Slick, blow," where the beat drops out, and Ricky (?) busts out with "It's drivin' me outta my myyynd" accompanied only by the bouncy bass line and a gauzy "imitation choir" synth part that sounds, shall we say, more '90s than '80s. This is some poison worthy of the martyred lips of Socrates.