Month: April 2013

Ninety 90’s Songs: Make up your mind, Wilson Phillips.

1990 saw the entrance of the bestselling all-female group since the Supremes. Their music has seen near immortality due to its tendency to be covered by other performers who aren’t necessarily musicians. Needless to say they were a powerhouse until they went on hiatus just a few years later. When looking back at the order in which singles are released, it’s striking to see the messages and emotions that juxtapose each other, even from the same album. Consistency, schmonsistency… (say that three times fast. Or once even!)

#77 “Release Me” by Wilson Phillips. Considering how popular “Hold On” was and still is today in one form or another, “Release Me” also did quite well and topped the Billboard and the Adult Contemporary charts. Wilson Phillips’ three part harmonies dominate the song, including some fancy schmancy synth echo effects.

The video, in classy black and white (must have been a trend at the time), takes place in what looks like the condo they supposedly spent writing the song, where it seemed to rain abundantly. The ladies of Wilson Phillips also took advantage of the high-rise seclusion to perfect their over-earnest head bop and nodding choreography, because *true* emotion is shown through precise and expressive cranio-cervical articulation. The cinematographer was also in love with taking footage of the expansive skyline, for whatever he thought that added to the video’s message.

Speaking of which, “Release Me” is obviously a break-up song. All this mention of “letting go” because it’s not “that easy” makes me wonder what caused such a drastic change in sentiment from the lyrics of “Hold On”. Where did the optimism go? What happened? Which lyricist forgot to take the prescribed lithium to prevent moodswings? Who stopped holding on!?

Considering the almost sickeningly sweet positivity of “Hold On” maybe someone thought that being morose would show Wilson Phillips’ versatility or something. Regardless, their harmonies mesh as beautifully as ever, and schizophrenic content aside, “Release Me” remains one of their stronger hits that sees little light of day anymore.

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Ninety 90’s Songs: So Trippy…

What does departure sound like? Or invention? Does breaking away from the commonly accepted standards have a distinct tone? What if the difference isn’t literally different, but is just a rearrangement of things familiar to us? What effects does this have, if any at all? Sometimes those unique examples stand on their own as an island, and other times that strand of beach stretches out rather than ending back on itself.

#78 “Unfinished Sympathy” by Massive Attack. This remarkable single from 1991 is from what is now seen as the first trip hop album, “Blue Lines”. That genre went on to have a broad effect later on in the decade as many other groups and artists sampled sweet morsels from its style.  “Unfinished Sympathy” itself has also been called by many one of the best songs ever.

Unlike the driving beats of house music that blared from Europe at the time, this single rings much differently. Replace the steady drum and bass with a polyrhythmic backbeat, accompany your synth sounds with “classical” instruments like strings and piano, keep a vaguely hip hop feel to it, and mix it like a mad witch’s brew and you have what is called “trip hop”.

Ahead of its time and so cooly moody, “Unfinished Sympathy” embodies all of this. Though the origins of its style stretch back, this song can be seen as the spark of life that spawned an avant garde genre. Even Tina Turner couldn’t help herself and covered it a handful of years later.

Accompanying this complex and atmospheric dynamic is a simple but evocative video. As the singer Shara Nelson walks down the streets of Bristol, it’s as if the music is her mood reacting to and embodied by the world around her.

Ninety 90’s Songs: Wed In Something In Red, Like A Bed, Ted.

Among other musical trends in the early 90’s, country music exploded on to the scene with more genre crossing hits than ever before. Much like other genres until the melting pot time of the 90’s, country music was an outsider. It is commonplace now for a country music artist to have a track or two on the Top 40 charts, and even reality television puts aspiring southern starlets on equal footing with Baby Gagas and Mini Mariahs, but this has not always been the case.

#79 “Something In Red” by Lorrie Morgan.  This platinum hit was one of the notable singles of the genre for it’s venture into the non-traditional blend of country with pop. Perhaps this effort did the single credit at the time, but it didn’t age all that well. While popular, this song did little to blaze new trails like her contemporaries Garth Brooks and Carrie Underwood did.

Country music is generally described as the singer’s description of the downside of life. Broken-down tractors, sick dogs, empty bottles of beer. If you were to reverse the circumstances of the song, it would be the happiest thing ever. “Something In Red” twists this format by mimicking Doctor Seuss. The way Lorrie Morgan shifts from color to color in her pining lyrics, it sounds like she is reading nursery rhymes from the pages of Victoria’s Secret or Frederick’s of Hollywood. Or Sears.

The video isn’t much better. She looks like Roxette on the set of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. She spends the whole time rolling around in bed, rifling through her closet, and getting dressed. Apparently female country singers are often distressed about what to wear in the morning. Had she found an outfit more quickly, maybe Lorrie Morgan would have kept up a bit better with country music’s rise in popularity.

Ninety 90’s Songs: Slow Down, Paula

Is it possible for a well-known choreographer to become a pop artist? Sure, as former cheer leader Paula Abdul proved in the 80’s. Is it also possible to leverage a reputation of dance pop into a downtempo ballad that rides the R&B trend of the early 90’s? No problemo, said Paula. The real question, though, is: can Keanu Reeves channel anything besides an idiot burnout with his acting? Whoa…

#80 “Rush, Rush” by Paula Abdul. Common sense dictates that a wheel bears no reinvention as long as it rolls. The road to stardom is seldom smooth and often steep and sometimes versatility wins the day. Coming off her Grammy award-winning high of dancing with a cartoon kitty, Paula Abdul tempted fate by releasing a ballad as the premier single of her second album, “Spellbound”.  “Rush, Rush” is a stylish, catchy tune that walks a tightrope by focusing on her vocals and acting instead of her career-defining dancing.

Further increasing the tension is throwing Keanu Reeves into the mix and casting him as *gasp* a romantic lead. Pairing him with Paula in a “Rebel Without A Cause”-inspired performance is kitschy enough to deflect criticism, and somehow it all works. The 50’s period setting gives the video an ageless quality and suitably reinforces Paula’s simple but vulnerable delivery of the lyrics.

I can’t help but think that Keanu’s presence in the video indicates Bill and Ted had a spin off adventure. During the segment of the video where they pillow talk and makeout, I’m not really convinced that Paula is head over heels in love with Keanu, and his surfer dude accent doesn’t mesh with his supposed bad-boy worldliness.

Paula Abdul ran out of steam after this album, and even other singles released from “Spellbound” never surpassed the popularity of “Rush, Rush”. While lack of further success doesn’t diminish the quality of this song, it’s disappointing that her return to pop culture relevance is reduced to judging other musicians with the likes of candy/plastic Nicki Minaj. Contrarily, Keanu Reeves’ career and “whoa”-ness blossomed the rest of the decade after this confluence with Paula.

Ninety 90’s Songs: Are You Feeling Rhinoceros-y, Baby?

A long time ago, rock and roll used to be loud and exciting. Its songs championed partying, excess, girls who partied and had excessive mammaries and bottoms. It fostered a fast lane lifestyle which was too fast for some of its musicians, but they were having too much fun to care. One day out of the distant west came the new “Seattle sound” of rock. It was called grunge. It took rock by the head, and it made you listen to its emotions, its angst. Then, from somewhere in between east and west came a man, or was it a group? Something different. Something smashing…

#81 “Rhinoceros” by The Smashing Pumpkins. This track is one of the Pumpkins’ first hits to graze mainstream culture. Featuring a psychedelic sound to a nearly plodding tempo, the dreamy song eventually leads into the loud/soft dynamic that characterized The Smashing Pumpkins’ later work.  Prominent guitar and bass lines steal the show, and the way that electric sound screams down the fret board is reminiscent of the music that inspired Billy Corgan in the 80’s.

The album “Gish” on which this song was recorded, created a lot of strain for the band. It also exposed the first inklings of stress that would eventually plague them. Billy Corgan took on a lot of the work himself, recording nearly all of the bass and guitar parts, displacing the other band members who assumed those roles. One may think that such drama is expected within a group named after clashing squash (now, there is a band name).

As the band evolved, it shed nearly all of its members until reforming with only its intrepid leader Billy, which begs the question: were the band members Pumpkins, or is the name referring to a greater concept? Is there no truth in beauty? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? The world may never know.

The Smashing Pumpkins remained a driving musical force through the rest of the decade, hitting a peak in the mid 90’s. They forged ahead with their continually evolving sound into cerebral and sometimes controversial territory until disbanding. While Billy still chugs along to this day with new Pumpkins in tow, it’s the days of he, D’arcy, James, and Jimmy that many remember best.

Ninety 90’s Songs: Emcee Cover

Looking at the numbers, and sales, one would think MC Hammer is a relevant pop icon. One would think he has his finger on the pulse of the music world, that he knows the ins and outs of the music “biz”, and is a creative force with which few could contend.  But just look at his album “Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em”. There are so many covers that it is practically snuggly and warm.

#82 “Pray” by MC Hammer. While not King Hammer’s most popular hit, it’s still one of his biggest. It heavily samples Prince’s “When Doves Cry”, adds a “contemporary” percussion section, and overlays the original with pop rap lyrics that are both sexualized and religious. So… original? Yeah, no.

Any time a music artist samples from a colleague’s stellar hit, isn’t it just a bit seamy? Sure there are some successes, and looking at Hammer’s sales record you could say he pulled it off quite well. “Pray”, however, is indicative of a trend on its album. Sampling and covering are the crux of the whole record. Take away the work of other artists, and “Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em” may as well be “a Ham Hurt”.

“Pray” itself, is a rather unique take on the Prince song. The inherent sensuality is still there, so what else could you add? How about some back up singers who’s jobs are only to whimper “pray”, some shiny dancers who “get down on their knees” while chanting the lyrics, and to keep the devout from denouncing King Hammer, film the remainder in a church with some enthusiastic gospel singers, and don’t forget the obligatory white girl towards the end of the video.

In retrospect, it all seems just a bit silly. One hundred years from now, I imagine musicologists uncovering footage of Hammertime and wondering if, in fact, someone had discovered a parachute-panted genie and gave him a record deal, who wound up gaining a cult following, and used the music of other artists like scraps to make this patchy quilt of an album.