Mike Atkinson

Daft Punk – Digital Love (Virgin, 2000)

Posted in The Stylus Decade by Mike A on February 26, 2010

This review originally appeared as part of The Stylus Decade, January 2010.

Its narrative plays out as a dream sequence: emerging from slumber at the start of the track, and retreating to it at the end. During the introductory vocal section, the dreamer recalls his dream, willing it into life. Behind him, the music sounds inside-out: a negative image of the dance track you’re itching for it to become. A curling Pepperland trumpet enters, escorting you to the threshold. The bass thump kicks in, there’s an explosion of colour—and then you’re off and away, spinning around in a world beyond language, jumping from bridge to bridge, dipping into the calm waters of a Supertramp piano figure, then spiralling skywards with a Frampton-esque talk-box cadenza. As the freak-out peaks, you’re turning somersaults in the clouds, freed from accepted notions of good taste—or at least, the notions of good taste which prevailed in 2001, before the widespread aesthetic rehabilitation of soft-rock and symphonic pop. Daft Punk might have had a quiet decade thereafter—but for helping to remove guilt’s hold over pleasure, we should salute them.

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Kylie Minogue – Can’t Get You Out of My Head (Parlophone, 2001)

Posted in The Stylus Decade by Mike A on February 26, 2010

This review originally appeared as part of The Stylus Decade, January 2010.

Like so many great pop records before it, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” represents a graceful collision of contrasts. It is both participative and private, matching perky singalong sections with intimate confessions, worried pleas, and moments of blissful surrender. Beneath the archetypal gay-disco bounce, an electric piano sketches a melancholy counterpoint, adding blue notes to the primary coloured template. A soaring, swooning glide of strings is subverted by a series of blaring electronic miaows, which in turn remind us of those strange purring noises which greeted us at the start of the track. Do they subliminally reinforce our image of Kylie-as-sex-kitten, or are they there to satirise, and gently debunk? We could chuckle at the arch wryness of it all… or we could dismiss all these jolly trappings as misleading flim-flam, a smokescreen for the “dark secret” which lies at the heart of the composition… or we could simply de-tune from the detail, yield to the magic, and luxuriate in its utter perfection.

Kelis – Milkshake (Virgin, 2003)

Posted in The Stylus Decade by Mike A on February 26, 2010

This review originally appeared as part of The Stylus Decade, January 2010.

At a time when mainstream pop was becoming ever more hyper-sexualised—a journey which took us from the transgressive highs of Britney’s “I’m A Slave 4 U” to the reductionist shallows of Christina’s “Dirrty”—the obliquely suggestive riddle of “Milkshake” came as a welcome counterpoint. As we puzzled over its definition, our imaginations doing the dirty work on her behalf, Kelis offered no further clues. Artfully offhand, like some sort of sphinx of the schoolyard, she spun her teases and taunts over a lean, lithe arrangement: lurching, buzzing bass in the foreground, sparse acoustic slashes in the background, pattering beats, the occasional bell chime (“Time’s up—next!”), and not a fat lot else.

Kanye West – Through The Wire (Roc-A-Fella, 2003)

Posted in The Stylus Decade by Mike A on February 26, 2010

This review originally appeared as part of The Stylus Decade, January 2010.

Although helium-voiced “chipmunk soul” soon became one of the decade’s more irritating fads—Akon’s “Mr. Lonely” standing out as a particularly pointless example of the genre—this early deployment still feels artistically justified. As Kanye recovers from reconstructive surgery—jaw wired shut, meds coursing through his veins—a hallucinatory vision of mid-80s Chaka dances around the edges of his consciousness, her pitched-up vocals heightening the sense of other-worldly remove. Meanwhile, at a more earthbound level, the patient raves and drools, cracks jokes, gives thanks, spits in the eye of misfortune, and—as the world was soon to see—turns “tragedy to triumph.”

Rihanna – Umbrella (Def Jam, 2007)

Posted in The Stylus Decade by Mike A on February 26, 2010

This review originally appeared as part of The Stylus Decade, January 2010.

It’s a snowball of a song: accruing power as its arrangement steadily builds, its anthemic status boosted by each week spent at the top of the charts (seven in the US, and a decade-besting ten in the UK). Even as late as January 2009, we could still buy into its happy-ever-after sentiment—as demonstrated on the last Chris Brown tour, where Rihanna habitually strolled out unannounced, dressed down in sweater and jeans, for a re-worded duet (Brown: “You can be my Cinderella, ella, ella.”) But as the fairy tale fractured, key elements of the track’s magic drained away, perhaps diminishing its stock value in polls like these. Well, didn’t we all expect it to place higher than 70th?

Twista – Slow Jamz (Atlantic, 2003)

Posted in The Stylus Decade by Mike A on February 26, 2010

This review originally appeared as part of The Stylus Decade, January 2010.

The track’s unwillingness to stick with Jamie Foxx’s opening brief, which positions it as a fond celebration of ladies’ choice classics, and the dynamic tension arising from Kanye’s and Twista’s increasingly lewd attempts to subvert his mission (“Imma play this Vandross, you gon’ take your pants off”), is central to its fascination. On Kanye’s album version, the balance lies more in Foxx’s favour—even if his attempts at feminine empathy eventually flounder in typically blokey list-making (“Smokey Robinson, Freddie Jackson, Ashford and Simpson….”) But on Twista’s single version, the late-to-his-own-party rapper gets the last word, his quick-fire flow obliterating all lingering traces of the original premise.

Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend (XL, 2008)

Posted in The Stylus Decade by Mike A on February 26, 2010

This review originally appeared as part of The Stylus Decade, January 2010.

Ubiquitous to the point of nausea for most of 2008 – hell, even Mickey Rourke’s daughter in The Wrestler had the poster on her wall as a token of presumed “edginess” – it seems almost indecent to disturb the refractory period that big hitters like this require. And as an early convert – primed by blog leaks of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kawassa” and “Oxford Comma,” then blown away by the very first full-length play – it feels almost embarrassing for me to revisit the source of such giddy joy.

But “blown away” I most certainly was. Halfway through “M79”, and I was already composing superlative-stuffed emails – just like that golden afternoon when “Hey Ya!” and “Milkshake” surfaced on gabba.net, leaving me too hyped up to get any work done for the rest of the day.

Instant hits can yield diminishing returns, of course. I delayed the decline by deploying the album as a social soundtrack. It was hook-rich enough to work subliminally as easy, buzz-fuelling background clatter. (“This is nice, who is it?” “I’ll get a pen, shall I?”). But “Blake’s Got a New Face” first crossed the line that separates an agreeable earworm from a bothersome pest. The CD was duly shelved, then retrieved a few weeks later, ahead of an unsatisfactory gig. The venue lacked intimacy. The band didn’t scale up. Freshness and finesse were smothered in the soupy mix. And where were the strings, dammit?

For while much has been made of the album’s occasional African excursions (whose detractors seemed curiously unable to identify which genre was being so ignorantly mis-appropriated – soukous, high-life, township jive?), it was the crisp, crunchy, mock-Baroque string arrangements that first reeled me in: florid but concise, dainty without being prissy, and arguably the most effective pop/classical marriage since ELO. Perhaps that’s why the string-drenched “M79” first drove me to evangelical, missive-firing frenzy – and perhaps that’s why it remains my favourite track, nearly two years on.

Elsewhere, I’m still chuckling at the lyrical juxtapositions (lamas, butlers, Lil’ Jon! Vuitton, reggaeton, Benetton!) and revelling in the cloistered New England preppiness of it all (I’m English, I get to mythologize these things), and, I admit it, drifting off a bit during the second half (when you’ve thrilled to “A-Punk” and “Campus,” “Bryn” to “Corrected” is a comparatively dull run).

A played-out, dissected, consensus choice, or an era-defining future classic? It might still be too early to judge, but I already know which way I’m leaning.

Hercules & Love Affair – Hercules & Love Affair (DFA, 2008)

Posted in The Stylus Decade by Mike A on February 26, 2010

This review originally appeared as part of The Stylus Decade, January 2010.

Grounded in disco, routing forwards via UK synth-pop and Chicago house, and reaching back through brassy Seventies funk, Andrew Butler’s project seems conscious of its place within the lineage of New York dance – and yet the music easily and confidently transcends its influences. For other members of his collective, Butler’s awareness of historical context barely registers. As vocalist Nomi explained to me in 2008, “I never listened to disco, really. It’s strange, but when I listen to the record, it relates to me just as a modern, futuristic, mainstream electronic pop record. I don’t have those references in my head, so I can’t really refer to it as disco. The way it registers in my ears is just as some new kind of pop.”

Nomi is one of four voices on the album – two male, one female, one trans – although given Antony Hegarty’s contributions, which thread through five of the ten tracks, perhaps we have reached a land that lies beyond the boundaries of mere gender. Although Antony’s vocals sit well above the funky horns and disco bass, he doesn’t so much play the disco diva as adopt the persona of a lamenting deity, gazing down upon the mortal world with ineffable sorrow and yearning. His defining moment comes with “Blind”: the album’s centerpiece and emotional high water mark, casting a shadow from which its second half never fully emerges.

For having spent the first half ascending towards “Blind”, we now find ourselves inexorably ebbing away from it, despite some belated attempts to nudge us back into the party. Following the contemplative “Iris”, the crepuscular “Raise Me Up” and the frail idealism of “This Is My Love”, a returning honda-honda bassline suggests a girding of the loins – but the lovelorn Hegarty is having none of it. (“Life danced right out of me”;”I will never dance again”) The chirpy camp of “Hercules Theme” already feels like a distant memory, and not even the breezy swoop and bounce of “True/False, Fake/Real” can take us back to where we once were.