Monthly Archives: May 2013

You’re the Storm: The Cardigans’ “Long Gone Before Daylight” Turns 10

The Cardigans, 2003

The Cardigans, 2003

The story of The Cardigans was one that many critics, American ones anyway, tried to peg from the start. Winsome Swedish group, specifically from Jönköping, emerge in the early-to-mid-1990’s on the back of an ironic blend of heartbreaking lyrics and saccharine 60’s mod-swinging pop-rock. Said group will remain in the niche they began in to appeal to hipsters the world over; no evolutionary bounds and leaps to be made. The end? Not so much. As it turned out Peter Svensson (guitar), Magnus Sveningsson (bass), Bengt Lagerberg (drums, percussion), Lars-Olof Johansson (keyboards, piano) and Nina Persson (vocals) were really pop exhibitionists at their cores. The Cardigans revelled in the best chameleon luxuries the genre had to offer. What did that mean for their fifth long player Long Gone Before Daylight (2003) and inherently, the group itself?

The History

After their arctic trip-hop excursion on their fourth LP Gran Turismo (1998), The Cardigans took a sabbatical. In the four years that divided Gran Turismo from Long Gone Before Daylight, each of the members became involved in other musical matters and personal affairs. Notably, frontwoman Persson ended up starting another alt-rock-pop crew called A Camp whose eponymous album appeared in 2001. Its lullaby and country gems were intriguing to hear from someone whose previous musical diversions had included various strains of 60’s and late 90’s pop. When it came time for The Cardigans to assemble for their fifth record, they all returned rejuvenated. Interestingly, they took an overarching nod from A Camp’s country-pop-rock remodel that’d later induce shock, awe and revulsion equally in fans and critics.

The Record

The Cardigans were ready to sit in the driver’s seat of their own long player and Long Gone Before Daylight offered that chance. Guided primarily in songwriting by Persson and Svensson, the other members each acutely contributed their instrumental gifts to an album that reverberated on a wholly rustic sensibility. The Cardigans gain in power still allowed for Tore Johansson, their primary producer on their four previous recordings, to co-produce; Per Sunding was also brought in to contribute ideas. Regardless, Long Gone was a Cardigans baby and their attention to detail was all at once full and arousing.

"For What It's Worth" cover art

“For What It’s Worth” cover art

The opening and, as Persson and Svensson confessed during the press junket for the LP, classic “Communication” pulled back the curtain for Long Gone Before Daylight. Its teary-eyed tug was complete with violins-held-at-bay that met striking bass and accentuated guitar / drumming; immediately it set the scene of hope colliding with a world-weary sense of knowledge in love. A listen to the content of “Communication” drove home Persson’s unique ability as a singer, “You always seem to know where to find me and I’m still here behind you, in the corner of your eye. I never really learned how to love you, but I know that I love you through the hole in the sky!”

Persson’s vocal, somewhere between disinterest and investment, spirited the lyrics with a sense of sweetness and melancholy that easily could make fellow contemporaries Dolores O’Riordan (of The Cranberries), Shirley Manson (of Garbage) and Gwen Stefani (of No Doubt) blush with envy at her effortless turn of phrase. Persson further revealed her powers on the violent ideas of romance contained in “You’re the Storm,” “And Then You Kissed Me” and “A Good Horse.” But Persson wasn’t doing this alone, her bandmates showed that a singer is only as good as the canvas they’re working on top of.

Whether it was the sear of Svensson’s guitar on “You’re the Storm,” the thunderous backbeats of “A Good Horse” via Lagerberg, or the coiling bassline and keyboards of Sveningsson and Johansson (Lars-Olof, not Tore) in “And Then You Kissed Me,” The Cardigans were playing in top form. A worthwhile mention is that “And Then He Kissed Me” was a disturbing (in a good way) rewrite of songwriter Carole King and her ex-husband Gerry Goffin’s 1962 number “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” by The Crystals; the original was produced by the mad genius, Phil Spector.

The quiet, but brisk music continued on the gingery “For What’s It Worth” and “Live and Learn,” both playfully kicked up the tempo a notch and were eventually tagged for single release, wisely. Still, the songwriting remained the height of the album’s character, as heard on the wistful restlessness in “03.45: No Sleep” and the kissable “For the Boys”; the latter was a bonus cut that appeared on the American pressing of Long Gone Before Daylight.

At 14 cuts deep, give or take three-to-four additional songs that were earmarked for different international representations of the record, The Cardigans had made their most focused project to date. The question was after the mixed reception of the heavy and noisy Gran Turismo, how would a reserved and patient Cardigans be greeted?

The Impact

The Cardigans, a quiet storm

The Cardigans, a quiet storm

When The Cardigans unveiled the first single from their fifth LP, “For What It’s Worth,” how the song was received depended on the territory it was released in. Britain who had shown (waning) favor with The Cardigans rewarded the track with a Top 40 placement on their singles chart (#31).

Sweden was far more rapturous for the first single and “For What It’s Worth” landed at a lofty #8 in their singles chart. The album itself had a similar fate when it finally dropped, courtesy of Stockholm Records, on 3/19/03: U.K. #47, Sweden #1. America didn’t get the project until a year later, 4/25/04. In spite of its deluxe repackaging through the indie-label Koch Records, it didn’t make waves outside of the indie brackets majority of The Cardigans fans moved in.

Taking it back to 2003, two more singles were pulled from Long Gone Before Daylight: “You’re the Storm” (6/2/03-U.K. #74, Sweden #10) and “Live and Learn” (12/3/03-U.K. D/N/C*, Sweden D/N/C). The album proved to be a perennial in a touring context, taking The Cardigans on another world walkabout that had fans rejoicing to the new material.

How the critics met Long Gone Before Daylight also depended on the audience that was privy to what the group was trying to achieve. The United States had notoriously turned their backs on the Swedes in 1998. As evidenced by this particular view from American critic John Bush on All Music Guide, the consensus was that The Cardigans took themselves too seriously:

Long Gone Before Daylight is understated and well-designed, a musicians’ record, one that sounds more like an MTV Unplugged session than the high-energy chamber pop of their early recordings. Unfortunately, it’s also over-produced to within an inch of its artistic life, and lacks the quality songs and exquisite productions that the group had made a hallmark.

There were a few dissenting opinions Stateside and Slant Magazine provided an interesting look into Long Gone Before Daylight from its writer Sal Cinquemani:

For their first studio album in over five years, guitarist Peter Svensson furnished his band with some of its strongest—though sometimes understated—melodies, while Persson’s lyrics are simultaneously burdened and resilient. “Oh, I wish my arms were wider,” she says simply on “Feathers & Down,” attempting to rehabilitate a drowning lover. She’s an object to be excavated, punched, kissed, reaped and sown, not only on “You’re The Storm” but on tracks like “And Then You Kissed Me” and “Lead Me Into The Night,” which softly evoke Fleetwood Mac. Persson’s finely graveled voice, however, is more Sheryl Crow than Stevie Nicks.

The United Kingdom’s soft spot for the group carried on even with their sliding commercial fortunes there. The frank and fickle NME (New Musical Express) had Peter Robinson report a fair finding on the new long player:

Where the cold production wedges of Gran Turismo were distant and aloof to the point where they ignored the songs themselves, the flourishes here are sparse enough to let them bloom. Best of the bunch are country-tinged opener “Communication” and the Spector-referencing “And Then You Kissed Me”; heartbreaking pop with an unstable psyche and a fresh, naked charm. This is an album powered by its own radiance – like a solar-powered torch stringed up to a pair of mirrors, driving itself on forever, and still going strong, even by daylight.

“You’re the Storm”

Directed By: Amir Chamdin

Long Gone Before Daylight unsurprisingly only certified in Sweden, platinum two times over. The glory days of their Japanese, British and American reign had certainly concluded. Yet, as mentioned The Cardigans had successfully continued their pop reinvention with the charming Long Gone Before Daylight.

Much like their Swedish cousins that came before them with The Visitors (ABBA, 1981) and Flowers (Ace of Base, 1998), The Cardigans weren’t content to be a predictable pop pony from abroad. Instead they blazed their own path in a defiant, but hushed way that had them raging against the preconceived notions of what pop could be. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: *=denotes “Did Not Chart.” Long Gone Before Daylight is available physically and digitally. For more information on the The Cardigans, visit their official site.-QH]

1 Comment

Filed under Alternative, Pop, Rock

The (Other) Shades of Donna Summer’s Rainbow

Summer, circa 2011

Summer, circa 2011

In the year since her death, to say that Donna Summer has been a hot topic is an understatement. Subjects from Summer’s impact on popular music to inner-race relations have percolated. With her acceptance into the (often) unjustly bias Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, Summer’s music has been closely scrutinized. Enter “the lists.” In this media-soaked age we dwell in, everyone and their opinion about Summer has had a say. Case and point, lists such as these, though well-intentioned, are usually obvious. It isn’t that the songs contained in the hyperlink aren’t deserving, but just boring. Who wants to read a list with the same songs that people pick all the time? Especially with it becoming, if slowly, more apparent that Donna Summer’s work was bountiful in its styles. I often, and with love, use the expression that Summer was the “Empress of Pop”; but the full range of her powers remains misunderstood and rarely mentioned. It ain’t all about the dancefloor with Summer.

To prove my point, I have selected my own collection of 10 songs culled from Summer’s four decades in music. Please understand, due to the vast nature of Summer’s discography, I couldn’t include everything. An honorable mention must go out to the contents of her 1984 opus Cats Without Claws. Open your ears, minds, and hearts and vibe to the rainbow of Donna Summer’s musical journey.

Down_Deep_Inside_(Germany)10. “Theme from ‘The Deep’ (Down, Deep Inside)”* from ‘The Deep’ Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1977)

Thoughts: Lost to the tides of this thriller film from the 70’s, “Theme from ‘The Deep’ (Down, Deep Inside)” has become something of a rare disco classic for Summer. Released as a single in 1977, the song combined Summer’s lyrics to elements from the movie score under direction from the late John Barry. Yes, that John Barry known for his work on countless Bond themes. Regrettably Barry and Summer never got around to doing a Bond theme themselves; this sensually dark trip replete with otherworldly guitar allowed Summer to channel her classic “Love to Love You Baby” vocals over one of the most dynamic arrangements she’d record.

[Listen to “Theme from ‘The Deep’ (Down, Deep Inside)”]

DonnaSummerCrayons9. “Crayons”** from Crayons (2008)

Thoughts: This tangy morsel was from Summer’s first album of original material since 1991’s Mistaken Identity. Never one to rest on her laurels, Summer threw herself into the island-flavor of the titular cut. She even brought along reggae royalty with a feature from Bob Marley’s son, Ziggy. The results were one of Summer’s patented social commentary numbers that grooved the head and heart. Spirited and (as ever) in fantastic form, Summer sounded recharged and ready for the pop landscape in 2008.

[Listen to “Crayons“]

ladynightsing8. “Lady of the Night”* from Lady of the Night (1974)

Thoughts: Often, many omit or forget about Summer’s first hit album Lady of the Night. While it wouldn’t find itself in print on our shores for many years, it was the album that got Summer her start in Europe. The title song made a case for Summer’s European romance. A lush collision of accordion, Moog synthesizer and dramatic flair helped “Lady of the Night” become one of those larger-than-life jams that are impossible to sit through without moving along to its sweet music.

[Listen/Watch “Lady of the Night“]

DonnaSummer-OnceUponATime-Front7. “A Man Like You”** from Once Upon a Time (1977)

Thoughts: This smooth slow dance was one of Summer’s straight-ahead R&B tracks. Complete with robust brass and a solid, soulful vocal from Summer, the song slightly stuck out among the chillier pop that lined the remainder of Once Upon a Time. “A Man Like You” was a neat break in the Euro-pop disco model that suggested Summer, as always, was more than meets the eye, in this instance ear.

[Listen to “A Man Like You“]

DONNA SUMMER  The Wanderer6.“Breakdown”** from The Wanderer (1980)

Thoughts: Some were blindsided by the  “sudden” shift into rock ‘n’ roll Summer pulled with The Wanderer. Bad Girls (1979) this wasn’t. However, The Wanderer’s music was so accomplished and potent it just couldn’t be denied. “Breakdown,” one of the funkier moments on the album, was a lost opportunity to be selected as a single. Here, Summer confesses her philandering ways and how her recollection of the act has caused her “breakdown.”

[Listen to “Breakdown“]

donna-summer-a-love-trilogy5. “Come With Me”** from A Love Trilogy (1976)

Thoughts: Spicy and sexy, “Come With Me” drew the perfect close to the steamy A Love Trilogy project. From its rattling rhythm section, to its varied hues of Summer’s voice, “Come With Me” brought pathos and desire into a wonderful gestalt. While “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” and “Could It Be Magic” are often what this platter is remembered for, “Come With Me” platforms that the album sides had plenty to offer as well.

[Listen to “Come With Me“]

Allsystemsgo4. “Fascination”** from All Systems Go (1987)

Thoughts: Oh, imagine this. Had “Fascination” been lifted as a single and serviced to the “Quiet Storm” formats, it would have further reinvented Summer. Sadly, it languished as an album side on All Systems Go, the final record of Summer’s stormy, but creatively fulfilling Geffen Records tenure. Here, Summer was restrained and emboldened by her emotion; using the nuance of her abilities she gave an excellent read to the lyrical material housed on this soulful sapphire.

[Listen to “Fascination“]

I'm_A_Rainbow3. “To Turn the Stone”** from I’m a Rainbow (1981/1996)

Thoughts: A breathtaking, almost funereal hymn, “To Turn the Stone” was a ballad that hummed on that same spiritual frequency that some of Summer’s most revelatory numbers did. Over a canopy of soft bagpipes and ethereal synths, Summer’s rhapsody of life was beyond supernatural, it was from another dimension. It, and the rest of her opus I’m a Rainbow, were shelved shrewdly by label-head David Geffen. Summer’s version wouldn’t see the light of day until its reissue in 1996. However, Anni-Frid Lyngstad of ABBA fame covered the song in 1982 on her third solo set, Something’s Going On. Debates still rage today between ABBA and Summer fans of which version of “To Turn the Stone” is definitive.

[Listen to “To Turn the Stone“]

2prhflg2. “Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)”* from Endless Summer (1994)

Thoughts: Lifted from the single-disc distillation of the superior two-disc Donna Summer Anthology (1993), “Melody of Love” was one of two new recordings utilized for Endless Summer. One of the most powerful and convicted performances from Summer is here; it’s uplifting in that “Dim All the Lights” fashion. Its slow-to-fast transition marked how Summer’s past disco gems were piloted. Moving back to Summer’s vocal take-down of the song, she worked the track with an energy that begged for Summer to service a new record. There was still another 15 years ahead before that transpired.

[Listen/Watch “Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)“-Single Edit]

Donnasummer821. “Lush Life”** from Donna Summer (1982)

Thoughts: The ennui classic created by jazz great Billy Strayhorn has had reads from Nat King Cole, Linda Ronstadt and Queen Latifah to name some. Summer took a stab at it in 1982 on her eponymous album helmed by the production wizard Quincy Jones. Evoking some of the jazz fusion her peer Chaka Khan was cooking at the same time with albums like What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me (1981), Summer displayed a whole new side to her personae. If anything, “Lush Life” was axiomatic proof that Summer could handle any genre with the same level of dedication and artistry she lended to her past experiments.

[Listen to “Lush Life“]

[Editor’s Note: *-denotes single, **-denotes album cut. Crayons, Lady of the Night, Once Upon a Time,  A Love TrilogyEndless Summer are all in print. The remaining albums the other songs were pulled from are not in print at this time. Please see physical and online retailers for further details. For information on Donna Summer, please visit Donna Summer Tribute.-QH]

37 Comments

Filed under Pop

30 Freakin’ Years of Cyndi Lauper (!)

Cyndi Lauper Today

Cyndi Lauper Today

This one-time Blue Angel lead vocalist blew the door down in 1983 with her solo outing, She’s So Unusual. Somewhere between the femme fatale rock of Pat Benatar and the self-aware dance-pop sex of Madonna, Lauper’s thrift, pluck and voice put her in a mold all her own.

Don’t believe me? A visit on Youtube with the evergreen of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” proves that despite the period of its genesis, its spirit is just as valued (and commercially viable) as it was when it dropped in 1983. Excusing a few questionable career detours (WWF, ‘Celebrity Apprentice’), Lauper’s musical niche remained resolute even if it meant a sales slide over time. Circumventing that “sales script” by maintaining popularity in certain formats and regions, Lauper’s recent successful turn on Broadway (via ‘Kinky Boots’) proves that she isn’t going anywhere.

This year, if you haven’t already gathered, marks the 30th anniversary of Lauper’s stated debut. It also is the 20th anniversary of Hat Full of Stars (1993) and the 10th anniversary of At Last (2003), two of her other engaging platters.

Rather than trying to do three separate essays, I decided to do a brief, but filling, run through of Lauper’s discography. The only exclusions will be best-of packages and her holiday long player, sorry Merry Christmas…Have a Nice Life! (1998). Some of you may know these records, most won’t, but you’ll walk away from this with a greater understanding of Cyndi Lauper and that her hold on pop music is still very firm.

Shes+So+UnusualShe’s So Unusual: 1983

Notable Singles: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “Time After Time,” “She Bop,” “Money Changes Everything,” “All Through the Night”

Synopsis: This is it. The set that put Lauper on the map and made her one of the many MTV-era stars that defined a generation. But is the record really that good? It is actually. While Lauper’s pen didn’t touch but two of the singles released (“She Bop,” “Time After Time”) and a small slew of the album fare, when it came to interpreting she proved her mettle. Listen closely to her cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine”; Lauper doesn’t change the sex in the song, a unique twist.

Upon further spelunking you’ll happen upon the new wave fit of “I’ll Kiss You” and the ska sway of “Witness.” In all, She’s So Unusual was the high energy pop debut that just wouldn’t quit. Legendary as She’s So Unusual is, it was only the beginning of a career that’d make even more stylistic switches than found here.

Ranking: Classic
[Listen/Watch “She Bop“]

True+Colors+Cyndi+LauperTrue Colors: 1986

Notable Singles: “True Colors,” “Change of Heart,” “What’s Going On?,” “Boy Blue,” “Maybe He’ll Know”

Synopsis: Two years separated True Colors from She’s So Unusual, Lauper was eager to share the changes in her professional and personal life on wax. True Colors wasn’t the sophomore slump many try to write it off as now, but it had a middling feeling in spots. Its weakness mainly dealt with Lauper trying to find direction out of the (slight) camp element (s) of her debut and into the “mature” songwriter she aspired to be.

At its worst, the duo that concluded True Colors was nonsensical pop fluff (“911,” “One Track Mind”). At its best, Lauper steered “Calm Inside the Storm,” “The Faraway Nearby,” and (the sorely unsung) “Boy Blue” into perfection. It was on these cuts that her writing ability shined.

When given material written by others, Lauper’s interpretive streak continued to wow on “Change of Heart”; its dark beauty immediately signified the change of direction in Lauper’s sound at the album’s opening. Of course no one can forget the title track, a song Lauper stamped immediately rendering each cover in its wake ineffective and calculated. A collection of odd, but pleasant covers in “Iko Iko” (James “Sugar Boy” Crawford) “What’s Going On?” (Marvin Gaye), and “Maybe He’ll Know” (Blue Angel) made the few growing pains of True Colors pleasant.

Ranking: Transitional
[Listen/Watch “Change of Heart“]

A+Night+to+RememberA Night to Remember: 1989

Notable Singles: “I Drove All Night,” “My First Night Without You,” “Heading West”

Synopsis: Lauper made a slight error in trying to, at that time, segue into film. The result was 1988’s ‘Vibes’, starring Jeff Goldblum as her romantic opposite. The kooky rom-com bombed and so did its corresponding single “Hole In My Heart (All the Way to China).” Say what you will about the movie, but “Hole…” was a fantastic surf-rock-pop-punk panache that holds as one of Lauper’s most underrappreciated moments. It didn’t bridge the changes she began on True Colors though.

Her third LP, initially entitled Kindred Spirit, was pushed back one year and reworked as A Night to Remember. The album possessed her last U.S. Top 10 hit, a powerhouse take of the Roy Orbison penned “I Drove All Night”; the LP also looked deeper into the idea of Lauper as the singer/songwriter she yearned to be. The latter piece came to a head on two moving ballads, the wanderlust of “Heading West” and the evening-time radio of “My First Night Without You.” One can’t omit the all-to-clever “Insecurious” as one of her finest relationship observations. Yet, something was amiss.

Epic Records, Lauper’s enduring label, fought with her on what the ideal “singer/songwriter” should be in 1989. Hence, there is an over-gloss to some of the work that shorted out their emotional potency (see the title track). That said, being raw wasn’t necessarily the key to authenticity. Close to her goal, Lauper just needed push harder past her label’s machinations.

Ranking: Above Average
[Listen/Watch “My First Night Without You“]

Hat+Full+of+StarsHat Full of Stars: 1993

Notable Singles: “Who Let In the Rain,” “That’s What I Think,” “Sally’s Pigeons”

Synopsis: In the three years between Lauper’s third and fourth recordings, she married and recorded a European hit called “The World is Stone.” “Stone’s” roots were based in a 1978 French-Canadian musical entitled ‘Starmania’; Lauper’s version was recorded for the film rendition of the play called ‘Tycoon’ (1992). Those wondering if Lauper had lost her pipes in the interim between albums were quickly proven wrong. However, Lauper’s major coup came with Hat Full of Stars. The album was an autobiographical piece that managed to be both artistically relevant but cognitive of the shift that had taken place in popular music. What Lauper had attempted with her second and third LPs, she accomplished here.

On “Who Let In the Rain,” the entry allowed people to not only listen to Lauper’s own life-situation but plug-in their own relatable experiences. The musical map of Hat Full of Stars was a fiery fusion of folk, hip-hop loops, house and classic R&B all tied together with a the perfect pop bow that somehow made it all work. The record stiffed on the charts thanks to Epic Records inability to market Lauper’s transformation.

Later, Lauper shared that alternative chanteuse Alanis Morissette once remarked that Lauper’s fourth album was the inspirational compass for her breakout junior record, 1995’s Jagged Little Pill. Socially conscious (“That’s What I Think”), sexy (“Like I Used To”), darkly confessional (“Broken Glass”) and humorous (“Feels Like Christmas”), Lauper landed her first post-She’s So Unusual masterpiece.

Ranking: Classic
[Listen/Watch “Who Let In the Rain“]

Sisters+of+Avalon+SOASisters of Avalon: 1996

Notable Singles: “Sisters of Avalon,” “You Don’t Know,” “Ballad of Cleo & Joe”

Synopsis: Fitting puzzle-perfect into a period remembered as the “Lilith Fair”-era of the mid-to-late 1990’s, Lauper’s fifth LP Sisters of Avalon was spacious. Whether imparting the cocktail-hour jazz of “Say A Prayer” or the world-music-meets-Euro-disco fever of “Ballad of Cleo & Joe” (more on that later), Lauper wasn’t afraid of pop or its power of reinvention. Lyrically it was uniformly strong, the title song reaching (and grabbing) the same kind of Venusian venerability Tori Amos had been toying with since Little Earthquakes (1992).

Drawing the spotlight back to the “Ballad of Cleo & Joe,” Lauper took to the subject of transgender reality in a fascinating way that gripped the psyche and the feet. This seed of dance music being explored so brazenly wouldn’t flower for another decade. Further same-sex tales played out on “Brimstone and Fire,” a lesbian fable of happenstance romance.

Though at times heavy-handed in its sound of the time, “Love to Hate” taking the crown for that, Lauper’s last effort for a continually (and unfairly) dismissive Epic Records took her out of there on a high.

Ranking: Above Average
[Listen/Watch: “Sisters of Avalon“]

Shine+OfficialShine: 2001/2004

Notable Singles: “Shine”

Synopsis: Free from Epic Records after her Christmas recording in 1998, Lauper made the plunge to record her first album of the 2000’s independently. Shine, due to be handled by the soon defunct Edel Records, never saw the light of day as intended in 2001. Rather, an EP including the titular cut and three other songs from those sessions was released into world. Japan, one of Lauper’s big markets, received the full-length project exclusively in 2004.

The raw energy shown here benefitted and hindered the long player. Shine was all over the place: tornado-like dance-pop (“Higher Plane”), early Noughties urban-pop (“Comfort You”) and intelli-chill (“Madonna Whore”). Lauper as the singer- songwriter and producer were on display unapologetically, but without any focus were her abilities being showcased at their best?

Many of the tracks felt trapped in a melting pot of Lauper’s previous two studio efforts from the 1990’s; “Valentino” and “Wide Open” didn’t feel fresh or nostalgic, just stale and directionless. There was also an ill-advised redo of the Hat Full of Stars track “Who Let In the Rain” that added nothing to the superior original. Despite the obvious missteps, Shine did have a clutch of classics in “Shine,” “Rather Be With You” and “This Kind of Love.”

The appeal of Shine was in the ear of the listener. Some may have enjoyed the roughness of “It’s Hard to Be Me,” others longed for the succinct polish of her past works; Shine continually creates conversation for Lauper devotees even now.

Ranking: Transitional
[Listen/Watch “Shine” (live)]

At+LastAt Last: 2003

Notable Singles: “At Last,” “Walk On By”

Synopsis: Returning to Epic Records, Lauper took a safe option with her first album of covers. With a range of choices (some obvious, some not) Lauper dove into works by Édith Piaf, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick and Etta James to finger a few members of the cast. The backdrops were restrained and prim, because of this it limited the effectiveness of the readings. At times, the quiet music made Lauper’s voice come across loudly (“At Last,” “If You Go Away”).

When the arrangements matched the power of Lauper’s voice, as on her swinging rendition of “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” she hit the ball out of the park. Additional victorious takes on “Stay” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” brought those Lauper colors to At Last, piloting it out of its monochromatic mood.

As an album, At Last was a long coming commercial reprieve that (again) showed Lauper’s varied sides as a performer. It also operated as an effective cleanse from the muddled sounds of Shine, even if it wasn’t as interesting on the surface.

Ranking: Transitional
[Listen/Watch “At Last“]

Bring+Ya+to+the+Brink+CD10GBring Ya to the Brink: 2008

Notable Singles: “Into the Nightlife,” “Same Ol’ Story,” “Set Your Heart”

Synopsis: Lauper and dance music wasn’t so much an unheard of idea, but one not totally pursued. Lauper’s singles had been the recipients of many remixes throughout her career; it wasn’t until the “Ballad of Cleo & Joe” and her Grammy nominated cover of The Trammps “Disco Inferno” in 1999, that Lauper thought to take a true dance-pop excursion. After a year of work in England and Sweden, Lauper knocked the competition out of the water with Bring Ya to the Brink.

Outside of its aesthetic sound, it was Lauper’s finest realized recording from top-to-bottom since Hat Full of Stars. With a variety of moods, vocals and sonics Lauper showed no mercy. “High and Mighty,” “Into the Nightlife” and “Rocking Chair” moved from quiet-riot, to frenetic, to eccentric with fireworks to spare.

Lauper turned in some of her best emotionally concentrated songwriting on “Echo” and “Lyfe”; both songs also veered into general electro-pop territories that weren’t beholden to just the dancefloor. In all, Bring Ya to the Brink was one of Lauper’s boldest musical makeovers.

Ranking: Classic
[Listen/Watch “Into the Nightlife“]

Memphis+BluesMemphis Blues: 2010

Notable Singles: “Just Your Fool,” “Early In the Mornin'”

Synopsis: Where could Cyndi Lauper take her music now? She’d done everything that you could imagine. Except the blues. While Lauper had always had a respectful, soulful tone to her pop, she’d never done a complete rhythm and blues recording, modern or otherwise. This head-scratching venture did allow Lauper to embark on her largest tour ever, visiting almost every corner of the globe with this unique collection of blues covers. The songs included had been recorded by greats such as Little Walter, Louis Jordan and Robert Johnson.

At times the songs dragged, a symptom that plagued the bulk of At Last; visit with “How Blue Can You Get?” for an example. Still, Lauper slipped into her new blues persona with ease on the low groove of “Romance In the Dark” and the jive workout of “Don’t Cry No More.”

Memphis Blues, released on Downtown Records after her second, temporary Epic Records run, managed to be another album that kept Lauper in a variety of Billboard charts, blues based as they were.

Ranking: Above Average
[Listen/Watch “Just Your Fool” (live)]

[Editor’s Note: See Amazon for the list of Cyndi Lauper albums that are still readily in print. For current information on Cyndi Lauper, visit her official site.-QH]

9 Comments

Filed under Pop

LL Cool J Gets “Authentic” On New LP

LL Cool J is Back

LL Cool J is Back

With a glance at the tracklisting of Authentic (429/S-Bro Music), LL Cool’s 14th LP and first record in four years, a feeling of dread falls over you. It seems as if a Todd Smith (2006) error of mass proportions is repeating itself in front of your eyes, and possibly ears. Authentic ties the aforementioned Todd Smith as LL’s most top-heavy record in terms of features. Only the ominously titled, and sounding, “Bath Salt” has LL riding on his own. With relief, the comparisons between those two albums stop there.

The cast brought on board for Authentic is interesting. It includes, but isn’t limited to: Charlie Wilson, Eddie Van Halen, Seal, Monica, Chuck D., Brad Paisley (yes of “Accidental Racist” fame), Fitz and The Tantrums, and Earth, Wind & Fire. What does all this mean for LL who musically left a very mixed, disappointing feeling behind with Exit 13 (2008)? Despite its posturing as “authentic hip-hop,” this isn’t a return to the b-boy bounce of Radio (1985), Mama Said Knock You Out (1990), or 14 Shots to the Dome (1993). The new long player is closer to his post-classic finesse reached with 10 (2002); close, but not exact.

Production on Authentic is tasteful, in-step with the time, but mature. That in and of itself is a major accomplishment for a veteran in a genre often seen as ageist. The clubby jams rock on “We Came to Party” and “Bartender Please”; LL’s love songs are still his trump card as heard on “New Love” and “Between the Sheetz.”

It’s on that latter batch that no time seems to have passed between LL’s once certain reign and the era of Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and A$AP Rocky. “New Love” is one of the songs that benefits from its guest; Fitz and The Tantrums provide a hook that is sweetly inescapable. Unfortunately, not every match-up is as successful and elsewhere LL finds himself submerged, drowning almost, in the craft of his friends (see “Something About You (Love the World)”).

LL Cool J in 2013

LL Cool J in 2013

LL hasn’t lost any of his athleticism in handling his rhymes and manages to kill “Whaddup” (the lead single). The major pro about Authentic in LL’s own words is that he would “Never try to sound like a rapper I raised.” The drawback? LL seems to (still) be under the misconception that his fans want to hear an album of features instead of an LL LP. The G.O.A.T. clearly enjoyed himself here and that’s nice. It would have been an even more joyous occasion if he had created a simple 10-12 track album that showed his unfiltered prowess. Authentic manages to wash away the unevenness of his last two records, but is neither classic nor totally modern. Instead it’s a strange composite of both ideals. Ranking: Transitional

[Editor’s Note: Authentic is available in both standard and deluxe formats. The latter is available through Target only. Standard version reviewed here. For current information on LL Cool J, please visit his official site.-QH]

Leave a comment

Filed under Hip-Hop

Soul On Fire: Kylie Minogue’s “Body Language” Turns 10

Minogue Circa 2003

Minogue, Circa 2003

When does pop’s great gift for the accessorial become too much for even its most devoted follower?

Kylie Minogue courted both creativity and controversy when she adorned certain sonics for her ninth long player; she wore them in such a way that it felt too comfortable for some.

Body Language proved to be another artistic pivot point to rival Impossible Princess (1998). Hitting its 10 year milestone, Body Language remains as addictive, enigmatic and divisive as it was when first unfurled in 2003.

The History

Minogue was at her second-largest height in 2002. With Fever (2001), her eighth album, she had solidified her presence as the definitive pop princess. Success abounded all over the globe in the wake of Fever’s mighty singles: “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” “In Your Eyes,” “Love At First Sight” and “Come Into My World.”

Even America, who hadn’t glimpsed Minogue outside of her Stock-Aitken-Waterman days, fell under her sway for a swift spell. The commercial cold war of her more artistically grounded deConstruction period seemed to be a dim memory. Yet, under the surface, many didn’t realize that Minogue wasn’t happy to rest solely on the achievements of Light Years (2000) and Fever.

While those albums weren’t color-by-number affairs, Minogue was ready after their sales-strike to dabble expressively again. For inspiration for her ninth record, Minogue looked to an unlikely epoch. A premonition to her next sound-step could be heard in a clutch of cuts from the aforementioned Light Years and Fever (“Spinning Around,” “More, More, More”). Those jams hinted at a rhythmic sauce for the main course to be provided.

The Record

In 1987 Minogue arrived as the bright-eyed cherub of Stock-Aitken-Waterman’s Hi-NRG fantasia. At the same time, there were other popular music events occurring. In America and Britain, black and white music was (again) rubbing shoulders like it hadn’t since the late 1970’s. House, pop, R&B, freestyle and hip-hop were all jumping and jiving on the scene.

Whether it was Duran Duran catching the beat on Notorious (1986) or Lisa Lisa bringing New York street style uptown, from 1985 through 1988 these genres worked together in the mainstream and underground periphery of music. Minogue’s desire to resurrect this sound was daring and dangerous.

Minogue, being no fool, still needed to keep an identifiable presence in spite of her new transformation. Several familiars and a few new faces assisted in completing the project (Minogue logged writing credits on nine of the 14 album cuts): Sunnyroads (Dan Carey and Emilíana Torrini), Baby Ash (Ash Thomas and Alexis Strum), Richard Stannard, Karen Poole, Johnny Douglas, Cathy Dennis, Rez Safinia, Mark “Spike” Stent, Julian Gallagher, Mauries de Vries, Tommy D, Wayne Wilkins, Liz Winstanley, Felix Howard, Chris Braide and Gavyn Wright.

Minogue field & flower

Minogue with field & flower

Two particular notables included Green Gartside (born Paul Strohmeyer) and Kurtis Mantronik (born Kurtis el Khaleel). The former was the leader of Scritti Politti, one of England’s leading pop avant-garde futurists. The latter fronted the hip-hop production clique Mantronix who had a large hand in sculpting the hip-hop-dance genre.

While both acts existed successfully outside of an 1980’s context, they enjoyed their biggest burst of popularity during that decade, the time-field Minogue was summoning. They both appeared as songwriters, producers and in Gartside’s case featured as a guest on three of Language’s best moments: “Promises,” “Obsession” and “Someday” (with Gartside).

The above referenced songs dictated the overall arc of Body Language: vast, urban and luxurious. Or, as Minogue put it “It’s my usual sound, but with curved edges.” Minogue was partially correct. In past situations, decent-sized portions of R&B had factored into Let’s Get To It (1991) and notably Kylie Minogue (1994). This time was different, Minogue had never sustained a progressive urban sound over an entire long player with such evocative results before. Opening with the fine synth threads of “Slow,” Minogue laid bare one of her sexiest vocal performances; it gave Body Language a “can’t put my finger on it” coruscating contemporary context.

On the snap, crackle, pop (!) of “Still Standing,” Minogue led the confident drum-pop production trickery with a coy coo of “Do you wanna hear me sing pop? ‘Cos I don’t think I wanna stop! Don’t you love it when my beats drop? Guess who’s back on top?”

Minogue landed her heaviest, layered beats to date on “Secret (Take You Home)” and “Sweet Music.” “Secret” sampled the already discussed Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam classic “I Wonder If I Take You Home”; “Sweet Music” was laden with references to musical jargon and an announcement of “Boys and girls, it’s a different type of sound!”  The urban settings, either electronic (“Promises”) or acoustic (“After Dark”), felt the fantasy of her newest musical makeover. “Red Blooded Woman” wore a back alley sassiness that wouldn’t have been uncomfortable on any U.S. playlist with its charged-up knocks and cadenced vocal flow.  The tropical summer-storm-madness of “I Feel For You” acted as the odd, hypnotic linchpin of Body Language.

Minogue Rides the Urban-Pop Storm

Minogue Rides the Urban-Pop Storm

The downtempos, her best since Kylie Minogue, did not lack persuasive power. Songs like the analogical “Chocolate” or the orchestral density of “Loving Days” showcased Minogue’s voice in a much higher, abstract way to match the atmospheric backdrops of the songs.

The sessions also produced a vast wealth of leftover material for Minogue unmatched, until X (2007). Much of it was distributed as additional tracks to the album (depending on territory) or as b-sides. “Slo Motion,” another welcome entry to Language’s ballads, showed up on the British and Australian pressings.

America received the hands-on-hips ‘tude of “Cruise Control” and the dusk-time sensuality of “You Make Me Feel.” “Soul On Fire” (b-side to “Slow”), “Almost a Lover” (b-side to “Red Blooded Woman”) and the former working title of the album, “City Games” (b-side to “Chocolate”) staged even tastier alternative pop grooves.

The Impact

The promotion for Body Language began with a bang when its first single “Slow” dropped on 11/3/03. The minimalist dynamo became a hit in Minogue’s two largest arenas: U.K. (# 1), AU (#1). Internationally, through the length of its run, it charted respectfully: Canada (#6), Germany (#8), Spain (#1), U.S. Hot Dance Club Play (#1) to spotlight some.

On the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 the song sadly stalled (#91); France also had a disappointing showing (#45).  Minogue pushed on by unveiling Body Language live in a spectacular one-off show entitled Money Can’t Buy. The concert, invitation-only to the British music press and contest winning fans, was put on at London’s Hammersmith Apollo on 11/15/03; the concert took place prior to the 11/17/03 album release date. The show, while cut with a small slew of established Minogue hits, was a fantastic, intimate display of the album’s sides.

"Slow" Single Cover

“Slow” Single Cover

Despite the buzz, the album’s arrival was met with resistance commercially and critically. The charts showed fair placements for Body Language: U.K. (#6), ARIA (#2), Switzerland (#8), Spain (#18), Ireland (#19), Austria (#23), France (#31), U.S.A (#42). The latter statistic for the United States, who didn’t acquire Body Language until 2/10/04, wasn’t totally surprising. America was known for their fickleness with international acts; Kylie Minogue’s commercial penetration of 2002 dimmed quickly in the year she was away. Body Language placing just outside the U.K. Top 5 did shock; Minogue had dominated there since her commercial resurgence in 2000. The mixed greeting seemed to be more about the shift Minogue made in her music versus the market tiring of her.

The critics divided between praise and what bordered on an almost softcore-musical-racist-about-face to Minogue’s R&B-pop remodel.

The veiled contempt of her commercial Top 40 crowd was expressed by music biographer Simon Sheridan in his book The Complete Kylie (2008):

Kylie’s ninth studio album deliberately veers away from the techno-glitterball Euro-excesses of her last two and into the low-lit R&B lounge of American hip-hop beats and 1980’s electro-funk.  At times it seems that Body Language is less about delivering a collection of distinctive pop tunes and more about creating long swathes of homogenous sounds. Anybody expecting the instant hit of Fever is going to come away disappointed.

Sheridan’s point was expounded upon PopMatters writer Adrian Begrand:

Listening to the more laid-back Body Language, you can’t help but think of how buoyant, warm, and upbeat Fever is, and wishing the new album would have something as undeniably catchy as “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, as euphoric as “Love at First Sight”, as welcoming as “Come Into My World.” Minogue’s foray into early ‘80s electro works well at times, but compared to the perfection of her previous album, it’s ultimately a mild disappointment, leaving you cold.

On the other end of the spectrum, many celebrated that Minogue wasn’t ready to dish Fever redux. Chris True of All Music Guide opined:

It’s stylish without being smarmy, retro without being ironic and its energy never gets annoying. In other words: a near perfect pop record. Instead of opting for more of the light dance and disco-pop of the last two releases, Kylie has sought to expand her horizons. Simply, Body Language is what happens when a dance-pop diva takes the high road and focuses on what’s important instead of trying to shock herself into continued relevance.

Eric Seeguy of Stylus Magazine remarked:

Kylie has again superceded her American counterparts with an album of fashionable thrills, dance-pop artisanship and total, utter hotness. “Still Standing” wields its gurgling keyboard hook like a leather whip, keeping the listeners less pure intentions at bay. The songs celebratory vocals “I’m still standing, still dancing, yeah! You know you want it!”–is at once an indictment of the critics who thought Kylie would have long since faded into pop obscurity, and a celebration of her irrepressible nature. With Body Language, Kylie makes like an antibiotic and invades the Mainstream—curing the myriad pop maladies we suffer aurally every day, and leaving a trail of dead in her wake.

As 2003 turned to 2004, Minogue led with two more singles from Body Language: “Red Blooded Woman” (3/4/04) and “Chocolate” (6/28/04). Drawing attention, again, to Minogue’s British and Australian musical spheres both singles charted well there: “Woman” (U.K. #5, AU #4), “Chocolate” (U.K. #6, AU #14). The final British commercial verdict for Body Language was platinum courtesy of the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) for over 300,000 copies moved. Australia, Minogue’s home, proved their affection with Body Language hitting platinum twice over, gold certifications were gained in Austria, Switzerland and other international locales.

Shot from the "Chocolate" music video

Shot from the “Chocolate” music video

The split that happened with critics and fans (diehard and casual), stemmed from the nature and use of black music in the oft-times white landscapes of pop music. For some, it was enough to keep black music in a specific box to be used as an adjunct to bolster pop when needed.

It was another thing entirely to entertain the idea to actually base an album totally within a black music mold. For those seeking refuge from elements of “American music” (i.e.-R&B, hip-hop), efforts like Body Language were frustrating and baffling. Minogue’s commercial pop fans gave into their phobias by giving a cold shoulder to Body Language.

On the other hand, the fans of black music viewed Minogue as an interloper who dressed in black music affectations when it suited her. So they too didn’t take to the album. It left the record without a home to call its own; the ears that could appreciate it understood the experimental precipice of pop and the constant of R&B weren’t mutually exclusive. Minogue, on some level, was aware of all the musical politics and tried anyway; Body Language reconnected Minogue back to the portion of her base that loved her deConstruction period and its experimental freedom.

“Chocolate”

Directed By: Dawn Shadforth

Minogue miraculously didn’t apologize for her detour, directly anyway. The musical follow-up to Body Language came in the form of “I Believe In You,” the first single from Minogue’s second official best-of collection Ultimate Kylie (2004). “I Believe In You” was a traditional European sugar-star that met with a warmer welcome than the slick Body Language. Yet, Body Language’s legacy continued to resonate throughout Kylie Minogue’s musical map. Cuts such as “B.P.M.” (ironically the flipside to “I Believe In You”), “I’m Just Here For the Music” and “Boombox” recorded and (initially) discarded from the album found life.

Dance-pop icon Paula Abdul, one of the co-writers behind Minogue’s “Spinning Around,” recorded anemic versions of “I’m Just Here For the Music” and “Boombox”; the latter was unreleased. Minogue (thankfully) took “Boombox” back into her arms and used it in a slamming mash-up with her hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” for her KylieX2008 and For You, For Me tours. Later, the “L.A. Riots” edit of “Boombox” featured on a remix collection of her Parlophone label singles. It even became the title of that anthology.

Body Language remains a lightning rod for conversation in Minogue’s discography, its sharp and silken contents equally beloved and loathed. If approached with open ears and mind, Body Language reveals itself to be one of Minogue’s stellar sets of material.  Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: Body Language, in both U.S. and British editions, is readily in print physically and digitally. See link above in essay in reference to DVD purchase of the “Money Can’t Buy” special. For current information on Kylie Minogue, visit her official site.-QH]

7 Comments

Filed under Pop