Mike Atkinson

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 30th January 2006

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on January 30, 2006

Tokio Hotel – Schrei 

On the strength of this stridently yowling, faux-rebellious, pop-metal monstrosity – with a chorus that must have been precision-tooled to annoy the living fuck out of anyone over the age of consent – their chances of international crossover success would seem mercifully slight. Really darlings, it’s quite the most fearfully horrid racket I’ve heard all year. (2)

Chris Brown – Yo (Excuse Me Miss) 

Put together by A Touch Of Jazz productions, who have done some good work with Jill Scott in the past, this tries and fails to transplant “nu classic soul” values onto a wholesome, fresh-faced ode to teenage courtship. Several things let it down: the cloying winsomeness of the song, the unappealingly weedy lisp of young Master Brown (who you just know is only a couple of years away from ripping off the prom suit and the dickie bow, to reveal the usual oiled-n-tatted tits-n-abs), and a horrible loop which sound like two wooden blocks being knocked together, mixed up way too high, which – once you’ve spotted it and locked onto it – all but dominates the whole track. (5)

Elena Paparizou – Mambo! 

Greece’s reigning Eurovision champion returns with a cautious re-jigging of her winning formula, including – oh God, the flashbacks! – copious helpings of those infernal Big Drums which so dominated last year’s contest. (This year, to save us all, the powers-that-be should look at introducing some sort of European Big Drum Quota, impounding all excess percussion at Customs.) Although light on anything which might resemble your actual Mambo as such, this is a cheerfully efficient romp, with plenty to commend it – particularly the Eurodisco-meets-Cossack-wedding-party inflections of the bridging section which follows the chorus. (6)

West End Girls – West End Girls 

No, sorry, I don’t get this. Why, pray, does the world need a Swedish girl duo whose entire act is made up of cover versions of Pet Shop Boys songs? (There’s a whole album of this stuff, I’ll have you know.) Who decided this was a good idea? Which I guess it might have been, had this been re-conceived as, ooh I dunno, boshing Eurotrance or something daft like that. As it is, this disappointingly faithful re-working strips out all the atmosphere and context of the original, leaving nothing but a homogenised sheen of gormless vacuity. (4)

The Go! Team – Ladyflash 

Slap a bit of Cookie Crew/Wee Papas proto-femi-rap on top of the guitar chops from Archie Bell’s “Tighten Up”, shove some late 90s Big Beat underneath for ballast, lighten the mixture with the odd string sample, leave to marinate on a Mercury-nominated album for the thick end of 18 months, and then – just when everyone assumes that every last drop of promotion has been wrung from said album – bung it out as a single and see what happens. Raucous, messy, invigorating… and very, very Brighton. (In any case, most of your sales will come from the Kevin Shields mash-up of this track with “Huddle Formation”, on the CD single and the B-side of the 7-inch. Word to the wise: it’s serviceably catchy, but you’d never know that Shields had anything to do with it.) (7)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 23rd January 2006

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on January 23, 2006

Remioromen – Konayuki 

Until discovering that Remioromen were a Japanese band, I had blithely assumed that they were of Scandinavian extract. Finnish, maybe – or Icelandic, at a stretch. God knows why: a particular quality in the phonetics, perhaps, combined with a kind of widescreen melancholy which I have grown to associate with northern Europe. Anyhow, such lyrical impenetrability does have the benefit of lending universality to the music, regardless of what specific sentiments are actually being conveyed. The effect is not unlike listening to Sigur Ros, albeit wedded to the sort of midtempo indie-AOR chug that would normally turn me right off. However, any potential dreariness is staved off by a glorious refrain, in which the singer switches to a soaring upper register which displays all his strengths, while a sympathetic string arrangement strikes up behind. As the whole song shifts into a higher gear, moody introspection is dispelled by a yearning, expansive intensity – which reads to me like a final, desperate, doomed plea for redemption, rising up from the smouldering wreckage of a shattered love affair. So please don’t tell me that it’s about, I dunno, believing in yourself and following your dream or some other sort of Martin-esque cod profundity. Some stones are better left unturned. (8)

Pharrell Williams – Angel

A potentially delightful exercise in classic soul stylings of the Marvin Gaye/Prince variety is obstructed by the harsh, lumbering lower half of the arrangement, which awkwardly disrupts the flow of the upper half, all sweetly honeyed falsettos and beatific piano figures. Maybe that was the intention: to subvert the surface innocence of Pharrell’s vocal performance by hinting at the more directly libidinous intentions which he cannot convincingly conceal. After all, are we really expected to buy his “respectful son” act, as he first seeks the advice of his mother, before reassuring his girlfriend’s father that his intentions are honourable? Maybe the tell-tale moment comes with the line “I won’t touch your girl in your sight”. Well, that and referring to her “ass like a loaf of bread” at the top of the track, before asking whether anyone wants a “slice”. Bit of a giveaway, that. This light-hearted combination of the sacred and the profane could have worked – but ultimately, its opposing musical and lyrical themes create messy confusion rather than intriguing dynamic tension. (5)

A-Ha – Analogue (All I Want)

It’s hard to believe that A-ha have been having hits – in mainland Europe, at least – for the past twenty years, quietly notching up the sort of sneaking, how-did-they-do-that longevity which has also been bestowed upon fellow 1980s survivors Depeche Mode. As someone who hasn’t exactly paid much attention to them over those twenty years, I find myself struck, on the evidence of this at least, by a sense of natural generational progression, successfully sidestepping the sort of Faded Teen Hero/Peter Pan syndrome that would have scuppered a lesser act. Pleading for a second chance from both his wife and his son, Morten Harket – in as fine a voice as ever – articulates a kind of mournful desperation that is particular to a man in his time of life. The band hasn’t lost the knack of fashioning an instant hook, either. Like “Take On Me” before it, “All I Want” is centred upon the sort of emphatic, ascending three-note figure which – as recent personal experience can testify – can lodge in the brain for days. (6)

Cascada – Everytime We Touch

Like so much of the best pop-oriented Euro-NRG-Trance, this manages to strike just the right balance between the plaintive and the ecstatic. While the verses offer up a yearning plea for emotional/sexual fulfilment, the storming choruses illustrate just what a joyous release that fulfilment can be – at which point, we lurch into a rasping, brutal, deliriously dumb slab of Scooter-esque stadium techno, built around one of those insanely catchy melodic figures which are a speciality of the genre, and further emphasised by a gonzo-militaristic insistence on the down-beats. It’s wilfully dumb, not unlike the wilful dumbness of the early Ramones: a tightly constricted formula which can be endlessly re-jigged, each slight re-jigging topping pleasure levels back up to their maximum. In this case, it falls to the second verse and chorus to tinker with the expectations of the dancefloor: with each successive four-bar section, you can never precisely forecast where you’re going to be taken next. (7)

Richard Hawley – Just Like The Rain 

As many have observed, Hawley’s songs really do sound like they have been around forever: lost standards, plucked from the ether and made into living, breathing flesh. Besides which, South Yorkshire has always been big on Country & Western – and indeed, you can almost imagine a Sheffield version of Don Williams belting this out on a Friday night, at the sort of working men’s club where the teenage Hawley first cut his musical teeth. However, what separates “Just Like The Rain” from any number of MOR C&W standards is precisely that quality of the ethereal: a shimmering lightness of touch, where the exquisite intricacy of the gently tumbling arrangement adds weight to what might otherwise have been a perilously slight song structure. There’s precious little musical movement to the verses, which simply hang in the air, content to state and then re-state their purpose, just as Hawley – here cast as the returning prodigal wanderer – states and re-states both his remorse and his relief. Faced with this blend of lachrymose regret and shining-eyed hope, you sense that redemption is mere moments away. (9)

Miranda – Don 

Whereas with some foreign language songs, the absence of literal meaning can open up all sorts of possibilities for subjective interpretation, in the case of this bizarre little Latino-pop confection, I must confess to remaining utterly mystified. For what it’s worth, my guess is that some sort of lightly comic narrative is being conveyed, as a youthful sounding boy/girl duo deliver the verses in chiming unison over jerky triplets, a fuzzed-out rock riff, and next to no bass. But if a story is being told here, then why does the track keep skidding off into the most ridiculously chirpy bubblegum interlude, featuring a preposterous one-note synth melody which could have been lifted from an early 1990s Nintendo platform game? Daft, disconnected and disorientating – but at the same time, perversely effective. (6)

Stylus Singles Jukebox, 17th January 2006

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on January 17, 2006

Arctic Monkeys – When The Sun Goes Down 

Yeah well I wouldn’t expect a bunch of smartarse Heard It All Before Darling clapped-out soft-as-shite arty-farty PONCES to understand the TOTAL FOOKIN KICK-ARSE GENIUS of the UK’s BRIGHTEST HOPE IN YEARS blah blah authentic sound of the streets blah blah telling it like it is in Tony B.Liar’s Nightmare Britain blah blah we don’t need no fat cat record labels blah blah the kidz are all-REET etc etc (cont’d next week’s NME, pages 1-94). Oh, look here. Spontaneous grassroots movement or tightly orchestrated conspiracy: I really, truly couldn’t give a shit. At least, not when the end product is as powerful and as pure as this raw-as-fuck kitchen-sink mini-drama, spinning its tale of a Sheffield prostitute and her leery “scumbag don’t you know” punter to maximum effect. Because when all is said and done, some young UK guitar bands have just Got It, and not having to sit down and analyse WHY they’ve got it is all part and parcel of their appeal. (7)

Mark Owen – Hail Mary

Although, on one level, it’s kind-of admirable that Little Marky has managed to sustain a tolerably successful solo recording career over the ten year period since the demise of Take That, one really has to wonder why, with the big reunion tour only three months away, he still feels the need to bother hawking such pedestrian fare as this. The big fat cheques are as good as written, dammit! So go brush up on your dance routines, and spare us this risible, James-Blunt-sings-Coldplay, Gustav Klimt referencing turgidity! (2)

Ashlee Simpson – L.O.V.E. 

Hang about, wasn’t Ashlee supposed to be the “edgy” Simpson sister, all pouts and sulks and Keeping It Real’s and This Is Me’s? In which case, why has she suddenly regressed from Goth Teen to Sleepover Party Girl? I thought Ashlee’s thing was all about Evolving And Growing As An Artist, not desperately hammering the pre-teen demographic because everyone else saw through her the last time round. Frankly, if I was a pre-teen Sleepover Party Girl, I’d feel a little insulted. Anyway, by far and away the worst feature of this would-be anthem to latter-day Girl Powah is its infuriating speak-and-spell chorus, of such desperate inanity that it would disgrace the compositional skills of a four-year old. I mean, does anybody—even the girlies dumb enough to sign up for Ashlee’s Gang in the first place—really need to be prompted with the letters L and O twenty-eight times in the space of one chorus? What is this, remedial class? Educational and fun, in the same way that a Krispy Kreme is nutritional and tasty. (1)

The Veronicas – Everything I’m Not 

Bloody Hell, it’s “Since U Been Gone” Part Two! Same stuttering one-note guitar figure underpinning the verse, same quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamic, same vocal timbre, same defiant end-of-the-affair, screw-you-Jack, I-will-survive sentiment, same general Avril-does-Interpol stylings… how DARE these CHARLATANS get away with it? Possibly because “Everything I’m Not” was written and produced by Max Martin and Dr. Luke—the same team who were responsible for, er, “Since U Been Gone”. So that’s all right then? No, not really. While Clarkson’s effort felt refreshingly formula-busting, and in some sense (however artfully contrived) personally liberating for Clarkson, this merely feels like reductive I’ll-buy-me-some-of-that hackwork: re-casting last year’s smart breakthrough as this year’s dumb orthodoxy. (2)

Cat Power – The Greatest 

There’s something about the arrangement of this stately, gently regretful ballad—the strings, the little touches of tremolo twang, the overall sense of space—which puts me in mind of an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack for a David Lynch film, sometime in the early 1990s. Julee Cruise or even Chris Isaak could have performed this, positioned in front of an old-fashioned radio microphone, shimmering in gold lurex, caught by a single blue spotlight, with a backdrop of crimson velvet, on the stage of a half-empty supper club in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, this has the sort of elegantly classy soulfulness which I hadn’t previously associated with Cat Power, and it would be good if it found an audience beyond her customary indie-folk niche. (That KT Tunstall, she could spare a few for starters.) (8)

Belle & Sebastian – Funny Little Frog 

Ten years ago, this breezy, brassy, infectiously chirpy little ditty would have slotted in perfectly between Baby Bird and the Boo Radleys on the Radio One Breakfast Show. (“Holly Hotlips, is that not a great record?” “It’s a great record, Chris.”) Its trajectory would have been clearly defined: teatime slot on TFI Friday, straight in at Number Eight on Sunday, bosh slap wallop, job’s a good ‘un. What simpler, happier times. Ten years on, we look through a hall of mirrors: at a bunch of reformed indie shamblers in their thirties evoking 1996 Britpoppers in their twenties, in turn evoking the sort of British bubblegum which would have held sway while they were all in infancy. In other words: two fondly re-imagined Golden Ages for the price of one. Thus, for all the charming optimism on display, it’s difficult not to feel a certain wistfulness: for a time when this truly would have been Pure Pop for Now People, rather than Meta Pop for Ipod People who still feel a bit guilty about tuning into Radio Two at the weekend. (7)