Month: February 2015

Pop Song Review: Taylor Swift, “Style”

Despite my best attempts to keep up with all things current, somehow a new Taylor Swift single managed to pass me by. I’m beginning to think I’m not putting enough effort into this whole “eye on the mainstream” thing; either that or it’s not worth the effort I do put in. Anyway, here’s my review of the new Taylor Swift song, “Style”.

First impressions: I don’t mind this. Nice minimalist groove in the background there, decent melody… sounds like a good song to take a night-drive to.

The music: First things first, “Style” is probably the first official single from Swift’s latest album, 1989, that sounds like it could actually have been written and recorded in the Eighties, or at least the early Nineties. It’s got that slick New Wave vibe to it in those shimmering surfaces, while the choppy funk-guitar groove runs smoothly alongside the synth pulse, giving the track a nice and vaguely danceable beat. Comparisons to Depeche Mode are a bit of a push (though would at least succeed in aggravating a Depeche Mode super-fan friend of mine) but there is a certain sensuality to the sound here that that band often pull off with ease. I like that it’s not too vigorous, either – the lean, dark synth lines and minimalist vibe add a sense of fatigue that chimes well with the lyrical subject.

I kinda wish the chorus (the first one, at least) had more of a payoff than that “out – of – style” non-hook, though. What cadence is that the chorus ends on, anyway? I appreciate it’s not a typical perfect pop cadence, but it’s still a bit jarring. Also, something about “Style” reminds me of Swift’s breakout hit, “Love Story.” I think it’s the chorus melody, the way those syllables hammer the tune one by one. This is very much a dance-pop song, though, so the synths fizz and glide (as they do) while everything builds to that big whooshy rush. Calculated, perhaps, but still effective.

Unfortunately, although my first impression was quite positive, a second listen isn’t particularly rewarding. It’s certainly polished but apart from that (admittedly neat) little groove there isn’t much going on under the hood, while the shiny production makes the music about as intimate an experience as pressing your ear up against a window. That said, there is a warmth, a heartbeat to “Style” that, for me at least, makes it a far more pleasant song to listen to than something like “Blank Space”. For the most part, though, style trumps substance here – so, fitting name, really.

The lyrics: Initially (based on the title alone), I figured Swift had written a female-centric retort to David Bowie’s “Fashion” which, frankly, would have been great. Instead “Style” is written about an ex. Hey, nobody complains that all Sam Smith sings about is how lonely he is (except me, from now on). Besides, it’s a little more complicated than that… actually it isn’t, but let’s continue, anyway.

“Midnight, you come and pick me up / No headlights / Long drive, could end in burning flames or paradise.” Without his headlights on, one of those outcomes is looking a lot likelier than the other. But okay, it’s about a late-night hook-up. How long a drive, though? If it’s more than an hour or so I’d recommend dropping the whole thing for the night. Remember, nothing good happens after 2 a.m.

“I should just tell you to leave cause I / Know exactly where it leads but I / Watch us go round and round each time.” Each time? Right, so this has happened before. Fair enough. Does he leave his headlights off every time as well? Details are quite scant at the moment, so if this is about a specific ex then TMZ have their work cut out for them this time. Also, she’s still in his car at this point – if anyone’s leaving, it shouldn’t be the driver. This is less a song than a PSA for Think!.

“You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye / And I got that red lip classic thing that you like.” Well, men do generally prefer red lips over, say, green ones. Admittedly there is something about that classic, early- to mid-twentieth century aesthetic that remains appealing: the glamorous women, the slick-cool men, all tearing up Hollywood with their parties and films and general disregard for the worries of the world, until about half of them met their end in a hotel bedroom or the mangled remnants of a motorcar. Speaking of which, that headlights line is still bugging me.

Also, I would have liked it if she’d drawn another comparison from that era; instead she just leaves it at Dean. Is that the only person she wanted to throw in there? She could have fleshed it out a bit. Were there no other classic actors she could have mentioned whose style never went out of… er, style? Perhaps a woman – Ginger Rogers, maybe? Grace Kelly? Mae West (going back a bit here)? Marilyn Monroe’s a bit of a cliché but still a worthy choice. Also, I need to go play some L.A. Noire, like, right now.

“You got that long hair, slicked back, white t-shirt / And I got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt.” Okay, so we’re talking specifically James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, except Dean’s hair wasn’t all that long in that film. Well, long by 1955 standards, I suppose, but… hang on, isn’t the album called 1989?

“I say, I heard that you been out and about with some other girl / He says, what you’ve heard it’s true but I / Can’t stop thinking about you and I / I said I’ve been there too a few times.” Wait, that’s it? That’s the payoff? They’re just all, “yep, we’ve both done some stuff. Anyway, bed?” That can’t be it. Surely there’s more to be explored here – conflicting feelings about hooking up with an ex? The question of whether this’ll turn into something more or stay what it is? I thought Swift was a good storyteller, or at least a competent one. There are Amazon reviews with more interesting narratives than this song.

“Just take me home.” You’re already home. Remember, “he takes me home”? Just go to sleep, you two. You’re clearly knackered.

By Swift’s standards these aren’t great lyrics. Two exes hooking up and still having the hots for each other is an old story but one that can still be handled well with some originality and detail. Unfortunately the narrative here is uneventful and lacking in the information required to make a decent story out of it. They’re not bad lyrics, just not particularly good either; and from Swift we can probably expect better by this point (though by someone like Katy Perry’s standards they’re practically Dickensian). Even tabloid junkies looking for another fix of melodrama aren’t going to find much to chew on here.

Verdict: 3 out of 5, I think. My brain’s telling me the lyrics are unfulfilling and the music is lacking in depth, but my heart’s not bothered by any of that, and the point of this song, I think, is that the heart wants what it wants. So there we are.

Today’s double-up is “She’s in Fashion” by Suede. See what I did there?

Pop Song Review: Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”

So it looks like, after a relatively lengthy hiatus, Rihanna is back on the music scene – with a stripped-down acoustic ballad nonetheless. Well, that means today I’m reviewing “FourFiveSeconds,” the oddly-titled new single from Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney.

First impressions: Oh. Right, okay. Hard to get excited about this, to be honest.

The music: “FourFiveSeconds” is composed as a sparse ballad with strong melodic vocals resting over an acoustic guitar accompaniment – and that’s all, folks! Derrrrrr dah-dah duh-duh-derr, derr-dah-dah-dah derr

Okay, seriously though, how in-depth do you want me to go with this? Do you even need me to talk about the music here? I know too much about music to just say “it’s a pretty song” and too little to go into the sheer specifics required to generate an interesting discussion, so what do I say? It’s a very conventionally written song with few surprises – you can hear the Pop Music Chords clicking together nicely in there – while the orchestration is sparse, crisp and minimalist, highlighting the melody as sung by Rihanna and West. There’s no bass here but it still feels full and grounded, the instrumentation supported by the strength and clarity of the vocals.

Speaking of which, I do like how raw Rihanna’s singing is: away from all the studio trickery and tiresome sexual posturing, she really does have a whopper of a voice. It’s also a rare event to hear Kanye West actually sing (I think) without Autotune. I don’t mind it at all. But can I ask, what exactly is going on in the background while Kanye is singing? Was somebody having a domestic in the other room while his parts were being recorded? No, hang on, it sounds like a child… laughing? Or is that Rihanna providing backing… squawks?

Overall it’s a safe, intimate song that isn’t terribly memorable but is quite nice to listen to – and that really is about all I have to say. Yeesh, I never thought I’d have so little to write about a song co-written by a Beatle. Sorry guys, but a pleasant acoustic ballad isn’t the easiest thing to write about. If they’d thrown in a trombone solo or something I might have been able to stretch out my critique.

The lyrics: “FourFiveSeconds” is a song about estranged love. I think. It’s… it’s not quite clear.

“I think I’ve had enough, I might get a little drunk / I say what’s on my mind, I might do a little time.” Rihanna here is exasperated by… something, which has led her to start drinking. When she drinks her filters turn off and… she goes to prison? Okay, sure, maybe she goes on the bender to end all benders, a la Krusty? S’happened before. Of course, it would be nice to know what’s triggered all this as well.

“‘Cos all of my kindness is taken for weakness.” Fair enough, but what does that have to do with you getting smashed and doing time? Also, in my experience people who get drunk and boast about how they like to “say what’s on [their] mind” rarely have anything kind to say.

“Woke up as an optimist / Sun was shinin’ , I ‘m positive.” Now Kanye’s taken the mic. I think he’s trying to say that he was feeling positive when the sun was out, but due to the inconsistent tense it just sounds like he’s trying to convince himself that it was sunny earlier.

“Then I heard you was talking trash / Hold me back, I’m about to spaz.” Oh, jeez, Kanye… you know what? Don’t change. Don’t ever change.

“Now I know that you’re up tonight, thinking ‘how could I be so reckless?’ / But I just can’t apologise, I hope you can understand.” No. No, I don’t understand, Rihanna, because first of all, going by your own statement you don’t have anything to be sorry for – if he’s the one being reckless, why do you need to apologise? I suppose if we remove those quote marks and assume it’s actually Rihanna’s own recklessness she refuses to apologise for, it makes a bit more sense.

“Now I’m four, five seconds from wildin’ / And we got three more days ’til Friday / I’m trying to make it back by Monday morning.” So… it’s Tuesday and you’re already exhausted? This is going to be a tough week for you. Also, I think you’re going to make it back by Monday. It’s 2015 – how does it take anyone more than six days to get anywhere?

“They want to buy my pride / But that just ain’t up for sale.” Who’s “they”? And how do you buy anybody’s… you know what? Let’s just pause for a moment to try and figure out exactly what this song is prattling on about. We’ve got two people, probably lovers, as represented by Rihanna and Kanye, frustated with each other for reasons that are never explained, apparently living an indeterminate distance from each other. Rihanna blames herself for the friction between them, while also blaming Kanye who just seems keen to, ahem, “spaz.” Anyone any closer?

In fact, let’s do some outside research (i.e. leeching off Wikipedia links – shapow!). According to Sharan Shetty of Slate it’s about “heartbreak and redemption.” Great help, that is. Yahoo!, meanwhile, thinks it’s about “personal travails and confusion”; well, I’m certainly confused, so well done there. Elle‘s Nora Crotty has probably the best interpretation of the three, calling it “a pop music ode to repenting in the morning for the foolish mistakes you made the night before.” Mind you, she also calls the song “awesome”, so I’m not sure I can trust her opinion completely. Sometimes I feel as if I’m putting more work into this than people who are actually paid to write about this stuff.

“If I go to jail tonight, promise you’ll pay my bill.” Wait, now Kanye’s going to prison?

“I swear I wish somebody would tell me / Ooh, that’s all I want.” You wish somebody would tell you… what? No, actually, this line perfectly encapsulates what this song is about. There’s a vague theme of estrangement and exhaustion underneath all this, but otherwise these lyrics don’t make any blasted sense, as if they’re on the cusp of meaning something but haven’t figured out quite what it is.

Verdict: Well, it’s pleasant enough, if not exactly interesting or worthwhile. The word that comes to mind is “harmless”: for all its references to “wildin'” it’s not exactly a wild song itself. Should it be? Well, considering it features one of the greatest songwriters of all time collaborating with two of the most prolific R&B artists of our generation, I think it should have a little more vim to it. Plus the lyrics don’t make much sense, which kinda bothers me. Still, I’ll give it a 3 out of 5. It’s nice and… that’s about it.

Today’s double-up is “The Night Before” by The Beatles. Yes, it’s another Beatles song, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to put this in. Anyway, I’m not apologising. I hope you can understand.

Red Dwarf II, episode 6: “Parallel Universe”

reddwarfII6doubles2

Red Dwarf II, episode 6: “Parallel Universe”

Written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor; originally transmitted 11th October 1988.

What happens?

Holly announces a new invention of his: the Holly Hop Drive, which he believes should be able to transport the ship to Earth, or at least where Earth should be. Instead, it takes them to a parallel universe and a parallel Red Dwarf, run by a female Lister, a female Rimmer and their companion, Dog. As they mingle things seem to be going well, at least for the two Listers – until they get a little too friendly.

reddwarfII6mesmer

What do I think of it?

First of all, let’s get it out of the way so we can move on: the “Tongue Tied” music video at the start of the episode. Yeah, I’m guessing my first reaction to this was much the same as yours, largely in regards to the contemplation of what specific kind of hell it could have been. I mean, what was the thinking behind this? I don’t mean that as a criticism, because the video is downright hilarious, but I… I’m just baffled. The way it’s threaded into the plot of the episode isn’t thoroughly convincing, either, but I have to say that, after repeat viewings, that hardly matters. As a song “Tongue Tied” is passable. As a music video it’s bizarre, daft and wonderful, from the choreography to the faces pulled by the characters to Cat’s spurts of scat to Holly’s dancing ears. None of it makes sense and, I think, that’s why it works.

Speaking of Holly, he once again initiates events this week as he presents his latest invention. Watching Holly explain the Hop Drive, along with its execution, results and reception from Rimmer, all make for some subtle but lovely laughs. Red Dwarf was still quite small and subdued in its comedy at this time (which is probably why moments like “Tongue Tied” stick out like they do), but that would change before too long so, for me, moments like this are a bit of a last lap for the “vintage” Dwarf style of humour. Big laughs and high concept, they were a-comin’.

Admittedly, the second act drags a little because the emphasis is very much on the binary differences – or perhaps, similarities – between the male and female counterparts of each character. From the female crewmembers we get a glimpse at how this woman-centric society trivialises and objectifies men instead. As satire it’s a little blunt, and swapping the sexes is a typically lazy way of making a point about gender inequality. As comedy, too, it’s perhaps a touch forced; and even though hearing about all the gender-swapped figures of history is funny at first, it gets a bit wearisome after a while (although I did enjoy the play titles of Wilma Shakespeare).

reddwarfII6listers

The reason this act really works as it does, despite these issues, is the reason most Red Dwarf episodes work: one Arnold J. Rimmer – or rather, two Rimmers, as the female version keeps hitting on the male version to the latter’s extreme discomfort. There’s a sense of schadenfreude in watching Rimmer’s chauvinism, arrogance and general creepiness towards women reflected back at him, specifically through his methods of “seduction” (like using hypnosis to get a date) and his attitudes regarding gender and sexuality. At the same time, you feel genuinely bad for him – he does, after all, get a fair amount of harassment in this episode; and while I’m sure this is, again, leading into a point about how our society sometimes (often?) treats women as things to be ogled and felt up, I do wonder whether Our Rimmer would be this lechy and overbearing towards Their Rimmer if she was in our universe, or whether the very presence of a woman would reduce him to a puddle of nerves and other things.

reddwarfII6rimmers2

Now, normally I try and avoid spoilers when writing these capsule reviews, but it’s difficult to avoid the big issue that comes up in the third act because it essentially is the third act. Basically, the party goes sour for the two parties that actually seem to be enjoying themselves – the two Listers – when it transpires that [SPOILERS] they done went and slept together. Worse for Our Lister, it’s the men who get pregnant in this parallel universe, and as they’re abiding by that universe’s physical and biological laws Our Lister may very well be up the duff. I’m still not totally sure how this works – did the parallel universe give Lister a womb? No, surely Their Lister would still have a womb because it mostly seems to be gender stereotypes that have switched places in this universe; but then where in his body would the male Lister carry the baby? Wouldn’t he need breasts as well? And why wouldn’t the issue be nullified when they returned to their own universe – wouldn’t their own laws of biology kick in again?

As usual with Red Dwarf, it’s probably best not to think too much about the science of it all. “Parallel Universe” is a fan favourite and generally considered one of the best episodes of the series. While I’m not sure I fully agree with that, it is a very entertaining episode. Of course, things were about to change in a big way for the show, so “Parallel Universe” is something of a cap to this early Red Dwarf, and a worthy one at that.

reddwarfII6hollyhilly

Some stray smeg:

  • This was Norman Lovett’s last episode as Holly for a long time due to issues with travelling from his new marital home in Edinburgh to the studios in London; he was replaced by Hattie Haybridge, who plays his alternate self, Hilly, in this episode. So for now, hats off to Lovett for squeezing such a class performance from a deadpan computer programme. We’ll be seeing you again shortly.
  • “Tongue Tied” was apparently so well received at the time that five years later, in 1993, it was re-recorded and released as a CD single in the UK, reaching #17 in the charts (making it possibly the highest-ever charting song to feature the line “my breakfast left my body”). I’m not sure how that happened, to be honest: sure, the song’s all right, but it’s the video that really makes it. There was another video produced to accompany this re-release; it’s decent enough but it lacks the grounded silliness of the original.
  • Someone alluded to this in the comments section in an “uncut” version of the “Tongue Tied” music video and I have to agree: Bruno Mars totally ripped off the look in this video for “Treasure“. Pony up, Mars. (It’s also been pointed out elsewhere that Angela Bruce, the actress who plays alternate Lister in this episode, looks like Bruno.)
  • One last thing about the “Tongue Tied” video, I swear: 1:29-31 – Holly hands!
  • When Cat meets Dog, for a brief moment Cat actually breaks the fourth wall. Does that ever happen again in Red Dwarf? Someone should look into that.
  • Rimmer’s Mesmer stare… yeah.
  • Cat’s dance at the disco… oh yeah.
  • Nice background story with the scutters there. I keep forgetting about that one.

Pop Song Review: Ellie Goulding, “Love Me Like You Do”

Hey, here we go: the first soundtrack hit of the year and, this time around, it’s Ellie Goulding pulling the (guns and) horses with her new single, “Love Me Like You Do,” from the upcoming Fifty Scenes of Shame soundtrack. Oh, of course I’m kidding – I bet there’s way more than fifty.

First impressions: Hm. Well, that was certainly a song. Congratulations, I guess.

The music: “Love Me Like You Do” is one of those modern pop songs where the songwriters and producers don’t seem to have a firm grasp of dynamics: a huge, Billy Squier beat stomps and reverberates about in the background, but in the foreground we have these minimalist keyboard notes cooing politely in a bizarre clash of heavy and soft sounds. I don’t know what to make of it – is it supposed to be sensual or triumphant? Are we making love or storming the gates of Troy (not a metaphor, you dirty beggars)? It’s like the song wants to be intimate and grandiose at the same time without realising that those are two very different sensations to aim for that hardly, if ever, complement each other within the confines of a four-minute pop song; so in reaching for both it never quite achieves either – it’s too loud to be intimate and too tender to be grandiose.

At least the production is somewhat sparser in the verse and fuller in the chorus, so you get a sense of the euphoric build the song is going for. In among all this Goulding’s spindly warble delivers a fairly forgettable melody which, despite its highs, tends to remain fairly low-key (possibly because Goulding is not a very powerful singer). For the most part it’s all very subdued and romantic for a song written to promote a film about sex dungeons and kinky bondage play. Couldn’t they clear the rights for Guns N’ Roses’s “Pretty Tied Up“? And if that was never up for consideration in the first place, why? It’s right there in the song: “she’s pretty tied up, hanging upside down…”

Hm, sorry? Oh right, the review. Anyway, the bottom completely falls out of the first chorus as the beat disappears, but in the repeated chorus the song explodes into a firework display of fizzing synths and strings. I’m not really sold on it, though: Goulding’s voice is too frail to pull off something as effusive as this and the chorus melody is just annoying, that “love, love, love” hook stabbing into your ear like a child prodding you in the leg until you get him the toy he wants. Plus, we’ve already had that “I Love It Loud“-style drum beat doing its business throughout the first act of the song, so it doesn’t have the same whoomph it would have had had it been left till the end. You might say that the beat came too soon. Tee-hee.

But yeah, the whole song, musically, is underwritten, relying on atmosphere and production tricks to pull off the euphoria it wants to evoke in the listener. I mean, yeah, technically it works, but there’s nothing particularly satisfying or worthwhile about any of it. Sure, it’s quite a rush while it lasts, but then it ends and you’re left thinking, “wait, what was I happy about?” Allegorical? P’haps.

The lyrics: As you might have guessed, as the lead single for the Fifty Shades of Reddened Buttock soundtrack “Love Me Like You Do” is about a rougher loving than the usual pop smash. Then again, if this song wasn’t released in the context of this film, how likely is it that you’d tie the two together yourself? Speaking of tying things together…

“You’re the light, you’re the night, you’re the colour of my blood / You’re the cure, you’re the pain, you’re the only thing I wanna touch.” So you’re light and night – you’re contrasting states of day, though technically you could have light at night if you leave the bedside lamp on. In other words, you’re a mix of black and white. Geddit? But you’re also red, apparently, “the colour of [her] blood,” which is a bit of a mixed message but never mind. Blood, obviously, has certain sexual connotations, as does “pain”, which you can also cure (which reminds me, I need to listen to Morphine’s Cure for Pain again sometime soon. Man, that’s a good album), but you’re also causing the pain, or rather you are it. Are you as confused as I am? To put it simply, you’re a bunch of stuff she likes. Well, you’re winning so far, son.

“You’re the fear, I don’t care, ‘cos I’ve never been so high / Follow me to the dark, let me take you past our satellites.” She’s frightened of your sweet, nasty loving, but she doesn’t care because it makes her feel so good and high. Well, she’s not actually frightened of you, see, because you are the fear, whatever that means. She also wants to return the favour, apparently, by taking you into space (where you can’t breathe, because again, sexual connotations) “past our satellites.” So, just beyond our atmosphere? If you’re going into space you might as well head a bit further than that. Heck, Wallace and Gromit went to the moon and that was just to go find some space-cheese. Sounds like she could put a bit more effort into this trip of hers.

“Fading in, fading out, on the edge of paradise / Every inch of your skin is a holy grail I’ve got to find.” You’re pushing it with the half-rhymes here, songwriters. “Edge of paradise”, though – interesting image, because isn’t it usually paradise itself where the loving takes you? What’s with this modern pop music habit of skirting around an image instead of going straight for it, the same way Katy Perry said she’d make it like your birthday everyday instead of just making it your birthday? And just to be pragmatic, there’s at least a few inches of skin I’m sure you wouldn’t realistically want to stumble across in a lovemaking session. Yes, this is supposed to be a song for a film about some filthy kinda lovin’, but really there’s filthy and then there’s… you know what, let’s move on.

(By the way, at least one website I used to confirm these lyrics stated that the actual line was “a holy gray”. Yeah, nice try.)

“I’ll let you set the pace, ‘cos I’m not thinking straight / My head spinning around, I can’t see clear no more / What are you waiting for?” Are we sure she haven’t just been drugged? Remember, ladies: watch your drinks.

As you may have noticed in my review, I haven’t really picked at the lyrics as much as I usually do. Does that mean they hold up? Well, they’re pretty clichéd – the last thing pop music needs right now is another “heart on fire” metaphor, for example – but they’re not that bad, either. I do appreciate that they at least attempt to tie into the film’s subject matter, albeit as non-threateningly as possible – nothing Capital FM would turn their nose up at, y’know?

As for the title/chorus line, that’s got to be the most passive cry of lust I’ve encountered in a pop song for quite some time. “How do you want me to love you?” “Eh, like you do.”

Verdict: “Love Me Like You Do” is a serviceable, if unmemorable synthpop song. I would give it a 3, but personally I think it’s too underwritten and generic to achieve what it’s trying to achieve, while its elements go together about as well as a touching love story and BDSM; therefore a 2 out of 5 it is. I’m sure Miss Goulding and her team are devastated by my conclusion.

Today’s double-up, for all you kinky beasts out there, is “S&M” by Thin Lizzy. Yeah, Thin Lizzy wrote a bondage song – and be honest, wouldn’t you much rather hear that groove kicking in as Christian Grey brought out the sex-ribbons?