Vs. The (Pop) World

By Juan Manuel Freire

Vs. The (Pop) World Juan Manuel FreireSince a little over a year ago, when PlayGround came to me with an irresistible proposal –basically, to write whatever I wanted to and to receive money in return—I have been writing about my musical obsessions every month in a column with a very explicit name: The Greatest Hits in my House. But that is over and done with, and starting this month, my section on this beloved website is changing its idea and spectrum. Partly because that’s what the higher-ups want, and partly because I also feel like it, because there is nothing more dangerous for the spirit than to get into a certain routine and to feel comfortable with it. So it’s time to air out the house a little bit.

This means that my commented list of songs necessary to survive the world is finished, and now I’m going to start what will be a monthly face-to-face with the (pop) world. The current landscape of music that can be hummed, but which is neither electronic, nor hip hop –there are already other columns here for that– in a few simple steps. What you won’t get away from are those blessed intros in the form of personal ramblings. Next month, I’ll have one ready for you. (Lately I’ve been obsessed with sound system competitions between neighbours, but we’ll get around to that later.)

I hope I’ll still see you around, although there won’t be as many videos to watch or songs to listen to. I hope the words (and a few singer pictures), are enough to convince you to stick around, to keep participating. You can make all of your complaints in the comments below. This first piece is just an essay, so please think twice before you hyperventilate. Don’t make me feel like Dorota with Blair. New New Musical Express. When nobody would give a dime for it, the New Musical Express has arisen from its ashes in the hands of a new editor–Krisi Murisson, pretty and upright, to turn itself into the great option at the kiosk in the alternative pop section. The new NME is the wet dream of anyone who takes themselves seriously and lives and breathes everything that rhymes with pop: notable criteria, elegant design, massive text, opinion columns, splendid dossiers; see the issue dedicated to the best lyricists a couple of weeks ago… Quality musical journalism to make its own way in the chaotic universe of 2010 pop. Without the occasional whiff of mould that Mojo has, without the feeling that you are getting older as you turn the pages that you get reading The Word, and without the wild populism of Q. We hope that the magazine sells and doesn’t become just a passing impossible dream. It might be a success, at least if we look at the slight increase in sales in the British music industry, the first since 2003: 1.4%, thanks especially to Susan Boyle, but also to the Beatles and to singles. Crash and Burn and… Of the ten different covers of the first new NME, the best must be that of James Murphy, a.k.a. LCD Soundsystem, accompanied by a French bulldog that looks a lot like him. The declaration that went with his picture: “I’d like to see the record labels crash and burn.” Inside, though, the provocative sentence didn’t end this way, but rather went on to say, “and go back to being what they should be.” Don’t think that “You Wanted A Hit,” the biggest hit on This Is Happening,” LCD’s third and seemingly final album, is some sort of attack on his record company. In a recent interview for El Periódico de Catalunya, Murphy assured me that he is grateful to EMI for the “absolute freedom” that they have always given him; the song is really a wink at a friend who always asks him when he’s going to have a “real” hit, not hits for hipsters. Record companies aren’t the devil, after all, and they have often shown themselves to be necessary and decisive. Now they just need to fall into good hands. Broken Crystals, rebuilt. “You Wanted A Hit” could also be the title of “Celestica,” the new single by Crystal Castles, or its unexpected romance with the eurotrance brand Delerium. It is the closest thing to a mainstream hit that they have ever recorded, but that doesn’t mean that Ethan Khan and Alice Glass have entirely sweetened their digipunk. Listen closely to the feedback in the chorus of the aforementioned sacred song; or skip to the next cut, “Doe Deer,” to start working on that possible deafness. What is true is that Crystal Castles has shown those of us who saw them from the very beginning as a completely emotional group, with doubtless bile, but also with doubtless dedication to impossible intensity, that we were right all along. In “Crystal Castles,” or “CC2,” their noise is noisier than ever, but their beauty is almost larger than life. Seriously.

M.I.A. reloaded. Romain Gavras’ video for M.I.A.’s “Born Free” is the video of the month, and, so far, of the year. That’s how it is. The need for certain explosions of graphic violence is arguable, but not its high level of cinematic quality or pertinence; remember that it appears at the same time as that despicable law that allows the Arizona police to arrest anyone who looks like they might be an illegal immigrant—ha! On the other hand, it’s a pity that because this clip is so controversial, hardly anyone is talking about the song itself: a tense intro, an intelligent dynamic, a chorus that works its magic gradually but implacably, or (how to reach the infinite with only two words?) addictive capacity… Chaos and pop emotion joined in dissident harmony. Like in Sleigh Bells, co-authors of “Born Free,” and their Tell ‘Em : the bubblegum and Sunnydale cheerleader version of Portishead’s “Machine Gun.” 2010: the year of high-decibel pop?

Wiig Champion. Or for pop full of parody: listen to “Champion,” by Vicki St. Elmo, the character played by Kristen Wiig in MacGruber’s eagerly-awaited movie, and tell me it’s not irresistible. At least it shines, worthy of the best of Lonely Island or Flight Of The Conchords: it’s a joke, but it’s also 200% catchy, and will drive Kylie and her 80’s catchiness wild with envy. But Wiig’s leap into pop, after being the best of “Saturday Night Live” in the last five seasons, doesn’t end here: the film’s soundtrack includes two other songs by Vicki, one of them ( “Rock My Body”) with MacGruber himself and—careful—the illustrious Lightspeed Champion. What the fuck?

Vicki St. Elmo . Champion.mp3
Bon Iver, has been dodging for a season. What he’s been dodging is, of course, the responsibility of following up the album he recorded in a cabin as a response and solution for a love affair gone bad: the classic “For Emma, Forever Ago.” The album from Volcano Choir –his project with Collections of Colonies of Bees – overflowed with idealism and dreaminess, but the epiphany was a little bit harder for him. And now we find Vernon collaborating with Gayngs, the arguable post-sophisti-pop project of producer Ryan Olson with Zack Coulter and Adam Hurlburt from Solid Gold. Kudos to Vernon for his hyperactivity and versatility, but isn’t it about time he concentrated on the next round from Bon Iver? It concerns me. If you have news, say something below.

Canadian Super-group vs. Canadian Super-group. With all of the days in the year to choose from, The New Pornographers and Broken Social Scene, Canada’s two super-groups, had to pick the same one, May 4th, to put out their new albums. The question is: why didn’t the groups take advantage of this coincidence in the dates? A little beef, an exchange of insults, even if they were false. Carl Newman, leader of the Pornos, said this to the Vancouver Sun: “ When I found out that our album was coming out the same day as Broken Social Scene's, I wanted to call Kevin Drew and film a little promo video, which would show the two of us facing each other, on a windy day; then we would hug each other, to the tune of Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up.’ It would be like a double advertisement for both of our albums. But I’m too lazy. I got distracted.” It seems that the Pornos have won the commercial battle, but in purely artistic terms, the combat ends up being a tie: here we find two perfectly different bands exploiting their familiar formulas with criteria; power pop in various voices for the first, rock adventure and vertiginous pop for the second. “Together” (The New Pornographers) isn’t “Mass Romantic” and “Forgiveness Rock Record” (Broken Social Scene) isn’t “You Forgot It In People,” but they’re close enough to make them two of the best albums to come out this year. Indie Raises its Head. Maybe the time is coming when magazines like People or Us do the “beef” work for indie bands. That artists who are, shall we say, alternative begin to establish themselves above ground in the United States. This can be seen, for example, in late-night shows, which have performances that are getting stranger all the time; look at Jimmy Fallon, where groups ranging from Neon Indian to The xx have played. And The New York Times has published long articles in its Sunday magazine about Joanna Newsom and, more recently, The National, whose “High Violet” is a serious contender for album of the year, ahead of Pornos, Broken Social Scene, and practically everything else. Matt Berninger and his own have taken to the pages of GQ dressed in suits, with The Walkmen or The Drums. Maybe it’s only a mirage or my own imagination, but maybe U2 won’t take up so many pages in so many magazines the next time they put out an album. Here’s to hoping. 5 x 140. Five albums lost between the cracks of this column and worthy of mention; in twitter form, Weingarten-style.

1) Foals/ Total Life Forever: After bringing math-rock to the masses, they are relaxing their rhythm, expanding, swimming in ether, maybe for good.

2) Kaki King/ Junior: Emotive guitar virtuoso, the unsung melodic animal of indie-rock: listening to Communist Friends uplifts me.

3) Twin Sister/ Color Your Life: Those addicted to the latest Beach House should look for this magic, ethereal, vital EP. And the Daft Punk version.

4) Holy Fuck/ Latin: Jams on the same wavelength as the Battles, but driven more by radical impact than the frontal lobe. Simply crazy.

5)Summer Camp/ Ghost Train: The 7” lo-fi pop dream of Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey, occasional writer for New Musical Express.

In the next chapter: Kele Okereke’s gym music, the decline of Christina Aguilera, the extraordinary end of “Lost,” etc.

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