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Vs. The (Pop) World

By Juan Manuel Freire

Juan Manuel FreireMy building is a time capsule, at least in terms of the surrounding sound. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians who want to know about the listening habits of modern humans in 1989 need only take a walk around my stairwell, where the worst hits of the period’s mainstream (sometimes, the sing-along versions) is the daily piped music. It might be funny, if the same songs weren’t repeated over and over in an oppressive, terrifying continuum: “Right Here Waiting” ( Richard Marx), “It Must Have Been Love” ( Roxette), “I Wanna Sex You Up” ( Color Me Badd)… Yes. Color. Me. Badd. I hear artists that not even KissFM dares to remember. If this odyssey were a film project, the pitch would be: “ Ground Hog Day meets Hot Tub Time Machine meets Shock Corridor.I have the good fortune to live on the same floor as those responsible for this injustice, but I don’t speak their language, nor do they speak mine; and anyway, my congenital shyness would keep me from bringing up the subject in the lift, even though more than once I have fantasised about recording CD’s for them, not to proselytise, but just to bring a little diversity to their musical experience. For now, I restrict myself to sending angry sonic attacks through the kitchen window: some material from Digital Hardcore, Gnaw, Admiral Angry, vintage Black Dice songs… It has crossed my mind, though, that at this rate it’ll be me and not them who’ll get kicked out of the building. How can these wars be fixed? How can we escape from this AOR labyrinth? All legal and realistic suggestions in the comments section below, please. And now, let’s get down to business. Gym music.Sound pollution lies in wait in every corner of the city, especially those furnished with weights machines and benches for doing sit-ups. Going to the gym is a cross to bear that is only made worse by the music that usually emanates from their loudspeakers: essentially, David Guetta productions. It is for these temples of pain that Kele Okereke of Bloc Party now composes, leaving the angular guitars and tense rhythms, if not the epic features, of a first solo album that is less apt for moshing than for spinning. Accompanied by XXXchange, Okereke transfers his pop melodies to the land of distorted electro and house euphoria, and he often blows it. How is it possible that New Musical Express put this man on the cover of its issue dedicated to the challenging artists of the moment? The challenge must be, in reality, listening to “The Boxer” from beginning to end. Among the few things he did right are “On The Lam”–2-step with Kele’s voice filtered like a Smurf– and his duet with Jodie Scantlebury, a serene “New Rules.”

New rules .That’s what they say “Lost” has ushered in, with its extraordinary last episode which brought an age of television to its end. And I say closed because until further notice, it seems that absolute conservatism will reign on the small screen, especially in a Spain that is a slave to indigestible local features programming in 70-minute slices. The only series with an (apparent) interest in taking over for mystery, in the form of a Pandora’s box is “Persons Unknown”, a creation of Christopher McQuarrie ( “The Usual Suspects”) that could be defined as Lost meets Cube meets Drive. This last was a failed “Lost” on wheels based on a mysterious illegal race across the United States; the pilot of “Persons Unknown” ends, surprise, surprise, just exactly the same. Hard times for mysticism. The trip.Those who need a good mystical-hallucinogenic trip can look to the intoxicating LP debut of Tame Impala, the 60s but danceable “Innerspeaker”, a way of being initiated into the culture of acid without having to risk spending the rest of your life seeing dragons all around you. You only have to put your headphones on and let yourself be pushed along or rocked by the inventive retro-yet-current buzz of a music that is only tangled up to a certain point, not so much that it loses all centre and we are lost without meaning. The fantastic “Jeremy’s Storm” is something of a virtual score for a 60s car film –personally, I like to see it in my mind’s eye for the great chase scene in “Bullitt” (1968)– while the group reveals itself to be a master of the pop format on “It Is Not Meant to Be” and “Solitude Is Bliss,” for which Megaforce has directed this fabulous video clip. Arcade Fire.If we look at the two songs on the to appear, “Month of May” and the recent American ( “Ready to Start”) and British ( “We Used to Wait”) singles, the return of Arcade Fire would be better described as an arrival. There is nerve, melodic inspiration, and an indescribable magic in this handful of songs, particularly on “Ready to Start”, which shall from here on be known as one of their classics. I don’t know when Arcade Fire stopped being gods to became a dividing force, but if all of “The Suburbs” sounds like “ Ready to Start”, their detractors better starting writing their retractions and be ready to publish them on the first page of the national newspapers come the album’s release.

Stars.Without leaving Canada, we stop to look at Stars. I don’t know about you, but their last album, “In Our Bedroom after the War” (2007), sounded uncomfortable to me, like a group forcing their equipment, trying to puff up their chests, but all of them being dragged along and kept upright by artificial respiration. “The Five Ghosts” is something else: in it they recover their best pop without losing the grand sound acquired in “Set Yourself On Fire” (2004). The first single already has a significant title: “Fixed”. They’re fixed, and they have access to our hearts and minds.

How life is. Christina Aguilera put “Bionic” forward as a revolution in mainstream pop and, at least in its first moment, that’s what it appears to be. The title song is hot, although its chorus could be better. The same can be said of the infectious “Woohoo” (with Nicki Minaj) and the daring “Elastic Love” (with M.I.A.), without any arguments. But then later come the slips, the ballads, and the aroma of schizophrenia and the lost opportunities for redemption. Her label has probably nipped Xtina’s avant-garde inclinations in the bud to ensure that they don’t entirely cease selling albums. In any case, the award for the Downer of the Month doesn’t go to “Bionic”, but to “LP4”, Ratatat’s not-very-stimulating new album, and for “Flashover”, the Mansun-style Brit-rock number that the Klaxons have come back with right at the mid-point of 2010. “We were an art project that got out of hand, but now we’re a band,” they say. Consider me officially worried. White Inc.No, we aren’t talking about a new company belonging to Walter White, antihero of “Breaking Bad”, but rather Jack White’s roots conglomerate, Third Man Records. At this rate, we’ll soon start referring to Jack as a new Liam Gallagher: a character is who a good deal juicier –or at least entertaining– in his interviews than on his albums. Because what is coming out of White’s label-studio-stable doesn’t sound as much like a vindication of rock essences as much as a reproduction with a lack of punch: The Dead Weather should pulverise, but they don’t even distract (and they turned down a remix from Skream), while the model Karen Elson (Jack’s wife) has recorded an album that is better than Naomi Campbell’s “Baby Woman”, but not by much. Elson should record a cabaret album, closer to her musical roots, rather than sticking to a country girl character that is a little hard to believe. M.I.A. on fire.Unlike Jack White, Maya Arulpragasam is as funny on her albums as in her interviews. She throws in the occasional out-there slogan, wild declaration (I have enough money to have you killed,” etc.), and along the way, she might irritate people like Lynn Hirschberg, whose article on the artist in the Sunday magazine of The New York Times led to the flowing of rivers of digital ink. The journalist called into question a radicalism with its headquarters in Beverly Hills, using former friends and lovers to reveal new shadows and certify that YouTube’s censuring of the video clip of “Born Free” was planned ahead of time, and was part of the promotional strategy of ///Y/”, with its cover where M.I.A. is pictured behind the bars of progress. Ouch, the article hurts: Maya even put the journalist’s number out on Twitter. And her fans scratched our heads. But later you listen to “XXXO” –in its original version, not in the remix with Jay-Z’s not-too-shining rap– and you would almost forgive her any kind of ethical ambiguity. PS: As I am writing these lines, I see that the album has just been leaked, but in a version with terrible sound; we’ll reserve the potential backlash for next month. Eclipse.Once again, among the compilations of the year, one will slip in with teenage idols on the cover and the typography of a cut-rate fantasy novel. Yes, we’re talking about the soundtrack to “Eclipse”, the latest film in the “Twilight” saga, in which Vampire Weekend – get it?– is finally present, with the notably addictive “Jonathan Low”. There are songs by Muse and The Bravery, but also (hold on) Band Of Horses, The Black Keys (their new album is much better than that of The Dead Weather, by the way, and along similar lines), Cee-Lo Green, Fanfarlo, Metric (also on “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World”), and Beck on a duo with Bat For Lashes. Kudos to the musical supervisor Alexandra Patsavas ( “O.C.”, etc.), even though she didn’t return any of the messages I left her when I was preparing an article about her enviable job for the magazine Travelling (RIP). The song of the summer. Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”? No, thanks. Because it’s horrible and because, like Best Coast says, she doesn’t represent California girls. I respect Perry more since I found out that she’s the niece of Frank Perry, the director of “The Swimmer”, but as a mainstream summer hit, I’m sticking with Sky Ferreira’s “ONE”, by far. Among the indie quarters, The Drums would win with “Forever and Ever, Amen”, “Let’s Go Surfing,”, “Best Friend” and almost any of the songs in their great debut album. And as far as the third route goes –neither mainstream nor indie—the winner would be Robyn with “Dancing on my Own”. In fact, I wonder how it is that this one isn’t already considered the song of the summer.

5 x 140.Five albums that I didn’t know how to include in the previous points and that are worth mentioning, even if it’s in the form of a Twitter message (I didn’t say “tweet” because The New York Times has prohibited its use outside of an ornithological context).

1) Wolf Parade/ Expo 86: Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner, really together in tense harmony. Hymns about wanting to be anywhere but here. 2) Here We Go Magic/ Pigeons: With a band, Luke Temple’s folk gains in flexibility and emotion. It’s not casual, it’s heartrending. And it comes within a hair’s breadth of BSS.3) Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti/ Before Today: With a band and in a studio, Ariel Pink’s pop gains dynamism and strength. And the insanity continues. 4) Wild Nothing/ Gemini: One word: “Chinatown”. But it doesn’t all end there: the first Wild Nothing is an album of infinite (pop) finds. 5) Foxes In Fiction/ Swung From The Branches: Re-edition (with extras) of this ambient-pop gem under the yoke of Stars Of The Lid and the abyss. In the next episode: M.I.A.’s backlash, Sofia Coppola’s comeback, The Situation does rap, an in-depth analysis of the Blu-ray of the 15th anniversary of “Showgirls”, etc.

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