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Sunday, November 14, 2010

I know what I like

I can't get on with the new batch of torchy female solo artists. I'm talking about the ones that seem to waltz effortlessly on to big radio playlists and are acclaimed as the voice of the year before the year has actually begun. Duffy, Rumer, Pixie Lott, Lissie and so on.

I think it's the songs.

Because most of them work alongside factory songwriters, old hands who have spent years kicking about in no-hoper bands but have a Ph.D in what works, their songs are constructed artfully enough. They have all the surface characteristics of catchiness without actually being catchy. Not at least to me.

I've never written a song so what do I know? I have however listened to billions of songs so I have a point of view. It seems to me a good pop tune has a perfect balance between familiarity and strangeness. The lyric offers you a ribbon that's easy to take hold of and invites you to pull that ribbon to find out more. A good song lifts like a curtain, surrendering its meaning at a pace that the listener can keep up with. The great records aren't just catchy on the surface. At the same time they're hinting at the promise of further layers of catchiness to come.

I'm not picking on Lauren Pritchard. She's simply the latest to get this treatment. She went to Hollywood when she was 16 and for some reason lived with Lisa Marie Presley. She starred in an off-Broadway show. She was in a pop duo. She fronted a reggae band. And now she has a contract with one of the few major record companies and is getting The Treatment. Colleagues of mine like her record Wasted in Jackson She'll probably do very well. I just don't get it. This is her first single.

I've got a strong suspicion that there's no tune in this song. There's a lot of very musical work in there but not a tune you could hum to yourself. The lyrics are difficult to catch, particularly at the beginning. There are no great pop songs that don't have good opening lines. Further into the song the stress doesn't seem to fall where it should. The hook line is "no painkillers make it go away", to which the casual ear wonders why there's such a long "no" and the pedant wonders "make what go away?" It continues. "If I tried to over-dose it wouldn't bring no change," which is a really strange line in that it neither echoes everyday speech nor helps the tune along.

To prove to myself that this is not just an old scrote's prejudice against the new generation, I do like Amy Lavere's record Anchors and Anvils, which came out last year. She's a similar age and background. She has a song called "Killing Him Didn't Make The Love Go Away", inspired by something a woman said after she'd killed her husband. I love this song because it explains something to you and it's all about the performance not the production. After one listen you come away knowing what has happened and how the woman feels. After two listens it has imposed its pattern on you, you're anticipating the chord change on "he said he'd give her the sun and the moon/now all she's got is this eight by eight room" and the cheap poetry of the title is embedded in your memory.

Pop music changes regularly. If you listen to a lot of it you retune your ear to adapt to those changes. It's only occasionally you find yourself wondering if everybody's out of step but you, whether everybody else has settled for songs that are well-made when they really ought to be stopping you in your tracks,