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,


  1. agreed...

    the marketing budgets are being spent on the wrong artists.

    this is better than both the artists you mention.

  2. I'm 42 next birthday. I'm the first to admit that I've always liked chart pop, and this year I've listened to more chart-aimed pop than anything else.

    There's nothing to match my own personal glory years of 81-84 - Human League for instance - but the amount of songs I've liked this year from the charts has surprised me. I had for a couple of years thought maybe I'd gone past it.

    The change in my circumstances? Sleepless nights with a young child when the only thing on the TV that I could cope with was the music channels. I think if you're out of step you're out of step all along. But I think you almost need to acclimatise yourself to it.

  3. Funnily enough I've made similar comments to Mrs M while watching recent Later shows - almost everyone seems to have forgotten to include any actual tunes in their songs, it's mostly deathly-dull ol' droning. Beardy bands (Midlake and similar) are interest-free, Brandon Flowers wouldn't know a melody or harmony if he tripped over both. And the Kings of Leon are unsalted honk-rock. Perhaps they're just not ripping the right songs off. The Beatles, Zep and countless heavy-hitters have established career songbooks built around re-writes of someone else's material.

  4. PS a couple of bands worth checking out The Sonic Executive sessions whose Yacht Rock debut album has had the royal Jellyfish thumbs up from Roger Manning and features the Alessi Brothers on one track..

    Marco Pirroni's new band The Wolfmen: Cecilie has all the hooks and stomps you'd expect from an Ivor Novello award winner, July 20 is the summer hit that never happened

  5. I'm with Mondo on the Sonics - the keyword there is 'joyous'. That Lauren Pritchard track, the keyword there is 'production'.

    The album I've liked, nay, worshipped, most this year is John Grant's Queen of Denmark, which is overflowing with tunes, musicality, and the thing I like most about it - heart. So few artists, chaps or ladies, seem to have it these days.

  6. Watched the song and found stuff to like in it. Pretty girl sings about depression, it's a classic theme.

    In the 90s I had a flatmate who had the collected works of Elizabeth Wurtzel and Alanis Morissette. Her 2010 equivalent would be sticking this on loud.

    BTW: There's something in the power of an extremely negative review: it at least makes be bother to listen.

  7. The dirth of catchy tunes is brought into ever sharpening focus every year we manage after 40. Coves like Thomas Walsh, Neil Hannon, Nick Lowe and Chris Difford now tower almost beacon like above the modern dross and all encompassing blandness that has killed the 3 minute pop gem. Maybe we should be looking for the next Rogers and Greenaway or Chinn and Chapman, instead of parading chinless karaoke wonders on the catwalk of Saturday night prime-time TV.

  8. There's ALMOST a tune in Lauren Pritchard 'Painkillers', it's the first half of a Michael Jackson hook, is it Earth Song? But then she rounds it off much less interestingly.

  9. I was thinking along similar lines when we caught Alesha Dixon on Strictly at the weekend. No tune, just a bass line.
    Then I wondered if I was getting old, as "there's no tune" was something I'm sure my parents used to say.

  10. That would be Greenaway and Cook; I'm sure not even they would compare themselves to Rogers and Hammerstein. Though they did pen this for the former hat check girl at The Cavern

  11. I like production and arrangements. If a song has a wonderful melody but has an unattractive arrangement or sounds ropey when played in the car or through headphones, that is just as much a failure as a song with a great beat but uninspired lyrics or a weak tune. YOu don't necessarily need the melody to be the strongest element; that is just a preference

  12. I'm glad you called out the songwriting bullsh*t on "Painkillers." It bothered me watching her get interviewed about the meaning of the song. Once, she said the lyrics -- 'It's not the drinking, it's not the drugs... / it's not the phone you never answer..' were really just ALL about her and her boring hometown. No romantic story involved, she was the one on *both sides* of the argument detailed in "Painkillers". But in other interviews, the story changed. There was a boy.

    **The song makes no sense** and you're also right about the industry's light touch- all I see is Major Label Money.

  13. This is such a good subject I am surprised that you are not developing it for an excellent Word feature along the lines of the recording studios and live music pieces, which were thought-provoking and insightful.
    I do like Rumer though, shades of Dusty. It's her first album and i hope she has the time to develop and build on it - not easy in the current climate. Amy W was fantastic, shame she crashed and burned.

  14. Isn't "Lauren Pritchard" the least pop name ever. I've seen it up on posters and it just screams efficient but ever so slightly dull head of HR to me.
    You know "How's the regrading going Tim?" "well, Tony it's still with Lauren Pritchard she's questioning the new london weightings..."

  15. Just giving Lauren Pritchard a listen. Something very grating about her vocal mannerisms already (halfway through the first song), and a very affected "soul" timbre. Some nice chord changes, but, as you say, not much of a tune. I don't like.

  16. Failsafe way to assess so called great new singer. Play their top song and immediately follow with Etta James/Carla Thomas/sandy Denny - 99 out of 100 will fade into insignificance but now and then a Kate rusty willmturn up to restorenhope