The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Sunday, May 18, 2003
GIRLS ALOUD

Is Julie Burchill correct when she says that Girls Aloud are the most important pop group since the Sex Pistols? She may well be, if for no other reason that Girls Aloud have hit upon an uncomfortable truth about pop which only the Pistols have previously managed to express so bluntly. We ought to have known, of course, from the real “underground” of discomfiture which underpinned their debut single “Sound Of The Underground” (“Crank the bass, I’ve gotta get some more/Water’s running in the wrong direction”) which describes an addiction to music which is more clinical than celebratory. And it is now confirmed on their second single “No Good Advice.” Ostensibly another post-Shangri Las anthem in favour of not paying attention to your parents, there is something considerably more disturbing going on in this record. It is the parallel to the clenched teeth irony of Bill Fay’s “Some Good Advice” (the final line of which advises, “But don’t listen to anything that anyone tells you”), but its “My Sharona”-gone-wrong groove points to someone who is actually past the point of help, the dying screams of an incurable addict. Ms Dynamite’s “stereo” motif is echoed, but this is not a lifeforce but a needle which will eventually kill the consumer. “I don’t need no special fix to anaesthetise me” howl the singers unconvincingly. “Shut your mouth!” snarls one of them (Cheryl? Kimberley? Sarah? Nicola? Nadine? Can anyone truly tell them apart? And what would be achieved if we could?). “I’m already wasted” they go on to proclaim; and finally there’s the astonishing anonymous soliloquy at the song’s close, which culminates – in a direct echo of “Pretty Vacant” – in a malevolently grinning “’Cos frankly, I don’t even care.”

It is supposed to be a euphoric blast of teen liberation, but in fact it’s one of the most terrifying moments in pop since “Death Disco” – that point where Lydon/Girls Aloud suddenly turn to face the camera and sneer murderously at the consumer, as if to laugh, “You think that pop is supposed to matter?” It is terrifying precisely because the consumer is expected to applaud it as a masterstroke of subtextual subversion, though it is really an undisguised truth.

(Consider the closing sequence of the “Dance Of The Dead” episode of The Prisoner wherein Mary Morris, a last-minute substitute for an unwell Trevor Howard as Number 2, laughs through Patrick McGoohan, through the camera, through our screens, directly at us, as behind her the disconnected teleprinter continues to print indecipherable data. The real terror here lies in the possibility that McGoohan, off screen, is participating in, or even initiating, this laughter. As systematic and lethal as the knife which proceeds to bisect Waldo, the geek progenitor of the Velvets’ “The Gift”)

On the cover of the debut album by Girls Aloud, also entitled Sound Of The Underground, there is a pink sticker which proclaims “YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS CAN BE THE VOICES OF GIRLS ALOUD!” This turns out to be a device whereby if you plug a microphone into your PC and programme the CD correctly, you can sing into the microphone – significantly over a section of “No Good Advice” – and depending on whose name you click, your singing will be reproduced as a recreation of one of the five band members’ voices. That’s how much they matter, of course. They are pictured on the cover, lined up, straight-backed, clutching microphones, wearing silver foil outfits – a touch I can’t resist; I remember what the silver foil-clad Suzi Quatro on the cover of her 1974 single “Too Big” awakened in me as a ten-year-old – but they are unsmiling, their eyes almost entirely obscured by liner and mascara. They might as well be drawings, or puppets – they have been curiously de-sexed. On the reverse of the cover there are simply the five abandoned microphones against a pitch black background. Yes, it’s true enough, you, your friends, anyone really, could be the voices of Girls Aloud. But does it matter?

As a pop record it’s great, of course. The gilded emptiness at the core of “No Good Advice” is not sustained – could not possibly be sustained for the value of anyone’s life or sanity – but as pop it gleams immaculate and is forceful in expressing its modest pleasures. The two singles come first, of course; when we arrive at “Some Kind Of Miracle” and its opening line of “Baby baby won’t you give me a chance” alarm bells momentarily ring, but it is superb post-1981 pop (think Ultravox’s Rage In Eden if Trevor Horn had been available to produce/mould it out of its essential naffness) with a heartbreaking Brian Wilson-via-Kim Wilde descending minor chord vocal harmony sequence 2/3 into the song which both confirms and justifies the song’s worth. The brilliantly-titled “All I Need (All I Don’t)” is determinable electro, better than the similarly-titled Basement Jaxx track on the latter’s last album, if only for the necessary parenthesis in the title. “Mars Attack” and “Boogie Down Love” both essentially rejig the components of “Sound Of The Underground” in entertainingly minutely different ways. “Stop” expands from its opening staccato pulse to another sunset of a descending minor chorus, somewhere between Kim Wilde’s “Stay Awhile” and All Saints’ “Black Coffee,” while “Girls Allowed” (heheh!) revisits the always welcome world of Now! Dance 1988 with a terrific old-school pop-house groove (and how quickly or slowly did that particular avant-garde become a tradition). One notes the presence of the Beatmasters and Betty Boo among the writers and producers, and indeed “Girls Allowed” is worthy to sit alongside masterpieces like “Numero Uno” and “Don’t Make Me Wait” (especially when aligned with its rapid-fire lyric which shreds Shania’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” to a twain). There are the obligatory naff ballads – “Forever And A Night” and the vaguely unsettling “Life Got Cold” with the latter’s world-gone-wrong lyric (“We smoke as we choke and snatch another Coke”) which disturbingly suggests that, as women barely out of their teens, life fled long ago (“summer slipped away”). And the chorus only just avoids being the bridge of “Wonderwall” – as well as the equally obligatory naff shot at R&B (“White Lies”) but even a comparatively run-of-the-mill track like “Don’t Want You Back” is rendered interesting by what’s going on behind it (those oscillating squiggles sound queerly like Evan Parker’s soprano – indeed John Coxon of Springheel Jack is apparently playing guitar on some of this record, though the sleeve indicates one “Shawn Lee”). “Love Bomb” is great, though, and though the rapper here sounds very much like Ms Boo herself rather than any of the group, it’s a cheerily cheesy mash-up of Kid Creole and Man Parrish. The album is generally a welcome addition to the tradition of intelligent girl-group pop last exemplified by All Saints (though, as I mentioned in Uncut, the Appletons’ surprisingly good debut album should not escape your attention either). Like all great girl-group pop, however, there’s a cancer at its centre; but the malignancy identified and diagnosed so accurately in “No Good Advice” would be hard for anyone to treat.


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Monday, September 09, 2002
SUGABABES – DON’T LET ALBUM TITLES GET YOU!

It’s an unpromising title for the second Sugababes album, Angels with Dirty Faces. The same title, coincidentally, which was used by Tricky for his underperforming third album from 1998. The labyrinth forms when you consider that the first Sugababes album was largely overseen by Cameron McVey, husband of Neneh Cherry, all of whom have at some stage been associated with Massive Attack. No sign of the Booga Bear on AWDF, and only one brief glimpse of one Massive Attack associate. And when you further ponder that Tricky’s AWDF was a rather brave yet unheralded attempt to form a new music – using his paranoia to try to fuse post-Cypress Hill hip hop noir with the rhythmic dualities of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time – you would realise not to let cliched album titles defer you from attending to them.

And, out of a seeming career ruination – dropped by their previous label, one member going AWOL to be replaced by an AWOL ex-member of Atomic Kitten – the Sugababes have by some miracle pulled off the second great British girl-pop album of 2002 (the first being Mis-Teeq’s Lickin’ On Both Sides – specifically the “Special Edition” with the 2-step single remixes). And, as with all of the extraordinary post-hip hop/swingbeat pop music of the last decade, it manages to be simultaneously avant garde (sonically) and still manage to be danced to and sung with on buses and in shops all over South London (or wherever). There are no theorems in this music; any innovation happens naturally, without having to be signposted, implanted or fought over, because it has evolved naturally from the pop which preceded it. Certainly this album will be a sober reminder to Andy McCluskey just how Atomic Kitten could have turned out, had he had just that tiny little bit more nerve.

The first four tracks on AWDF are as strong an opening to a pop album as I can recall since The Lexicon Of Love 20 years ago (the last time pop in general was this good). It of course begins with “Freak Like Me,” the album mix of which sounds slightly tougher than the single. I must rescind previous comments made elsewhere regarding this track’s perceived inferiority to the Girls On Top bootleg "original.” The dynamics demanded of mainstream entryism are different from those of informal bootleg clubs, and here producer Richard X meets them fully. Utilising and subtly resculpting Numan’s original backing track, this record could not have happened in 1979 – and yet Joe Meek would have felt entirely at home with the aesthetics of desire and the electronic whizzbangs; this is the sort of thing he would have ended up producing had he lived. The static which threatens to overwhelm the singers and the song at the fadeout is really of the same kin as that which gloriously drowns Cabaret Voltaire’s “Nag Nag Nag.”

Whereas Destiny’s Child seem to be about girl(s) wanting to impose themselves (herself) on the world, the Sugababes are lyrically more concerned about just getting on in the world – so there is a lifeline there with which listeners can identify, as opposed to idolising a cold monolith (although pop music would be unworkable without enough examples of the latter). So where DC are determinedly unlovable, the Sugababes really do want to be loved – albeit on their own terms; the uselessness and general scrubness of the male is ceaselessly returned to on this record, though balanced by simple expressions of love and companionship, or the desire for them.

The second track “Blue” definitely falls into the former category; attacking a male ambulance chaser, the refrain very negatively goes “The colour that suits you is blue” (of course there might be a hidden political subtext here – cf. Fine Young Cannibals’ song “Blue,” though interestingly Siobhan, the Sugababe who jumped ship, was a Tory supporter). Musically it demonstrates that Timbaland’s lessons continue to be learned. The co-producer here is Howard Jones – surely not THE Howard Jones? If so, it’s the best thing he’s been involved with since the title track of Human’s Lib. Hear how the clenched beats suddenly break into a cantering acoustic guitar riff in the chorus which is strangely close to Electronic’s “Tighten Up” – an exhilarating adrenal rush. Overall, though, the track echoes, both musically and lyrically, Neneh Cherry’s “Buddy X” from a decade ago (and thanks to the Belgian lass for reminding me of how good an album Homebrew was!), though with two crucial differences – the vocal vulnerability of the Sugababes is the exact reverse of the nice-but-don’t-fuck-with-me utter assurance of Neneh; and, conversely, the bitterness in the lyric goes further (“don’t fuck with me! – you’re lame, you’re broke!!”), its spleen fully directed at the freeloading man, though one suspects that the singer’s hatred and fear will eventually turn towards herself.

“Round Round,” their deserved second number one, with a rhythm/string sample angular intro which again calls Cabaret Voltaire to mind, before going straight into what they used to call a classic pop hook, superficially lively yet sung very solemnly against a nagging compressed grunge guitar line and purposeful percussion (Bananarama meets the Velvets) which becomes sinister by the ease in which “love” is being rejected in this song – “I don’t need no man/Get my kicks for free.” There is no exultation at liberation here; it’s a chant being used as self-defence against inflicted pain. Note how it slows down to the classic 6/8 soul ballad form in the middle eight, as the vocal meaningfully pronounces the question “Does it hurt when you see how I’ve done without you?” There is no smirk in her voice when she sings this, implying that she needs to know herself how she’s done without you. The very title is of course the seed of doubt – “round and round and round and round…” – one routine replaced by another. As with all great pop, this works on innumerable levels.

The fourth track is the big ballad “Stronger.” Co-composer is Marius de Vries (the aforementioned Massive Attack associate) and the trademark static but deep string section is very much in evidence, speaking the inarticulable yearning of the song. Right from the musical and lyrical parallel in its first line to the first line of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” this song talks about surmounting pain and entering a new phase in one’s life. The lyrics are not very original but the way in which the music expresses them is – the augmented minor-to-major chord change in the chorus underlines that she has not yet made it through the rain, as confirmed by the lines “I’m not the type of girl that will let them see me cry/It’s not my style/I get by/See I’m gonna do this for me.” Again, see how the beats suddenly magnify in the middle eight and start to swirl around the speakers, paralleling the confusion in the singer’s soul.

It is not belittling to say that the rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to this stunning opening quartet, as it’s still (mostly) very fine. “Supernatural” is a fantasma of decisive, stern vocals, orgasm-inducing synth bass and subtle “French Kiss”-style rhythm. The title track doesn’t let the record down, either; the “angels with dirty faces” is wisely qualified by “in the morning” and the refrain “you don’t know where we go.” We’d still like to know, though. “Virgin Sexy” moves the record towards more conventional R&B territory, but the semitone descent of the second half of the chorus is thrilling, even if the lyric “’Cos I’m virgin, virgin sexy/If you want me, jus’ text me” isn’t.

Even the dreaded Sting-sampling let’s-get-a-hit-in-America appearance of the track “Shape” (i.e. sampling “Shape Of My Heart” fairly heavily, to karaoke level really) works for me. It is the necessary balance to the sampling of “Are “Friends” Electric” in “Freak Like Me,” the contemplation after the thrill. “I live my life in chains…In this man’s land I can understand/Why I’m taking command” nicely subverts Sumner’s insufferable solipsism. The uncertainty is not tempered by arrogance. And I like the tune anyway if not the man har har.

Similarly, “Just Don’t Need This” is the ballad which bookends “Stronger.” This is noticeably darker but not, I think, as impressive. Lines in the line of “The way I’m feeling now is mental/The problem first starts in your dental” would frankly shame even Bernard Sumner at his Prozac-less worst!

Invoking Bob Marley is usually the signpost for the rest of the album tailing off, and sadly there’s no exception here. “No Man No Cry” is rather pedestrian, depending upon a hoary old reliable R&B melodic/rhythmic line (I can’t place the origin, but J-Lo has also been using it recently – hear it and you’ll see what I mean). “Switch” competently adopts Timbaland’s methods but doesn’t do much else. “More Than A Million Miles” revisits and reverses the career-or-love theme of Luther Vandross’ “Stop To Love” but one has to say NO to the ‘babes’ attempts at rapping. In this sense at least, Mis-Teeq they ain’t.

(Speaking of Mis-Teeq, which I shamefully haven’t on CoM very much to date, Alesha Dixon is truly a one-woman punctum – listen to the way she suddenly erupts 2:16 into “B With Me (Bump & Flex Radio Edit)” and fast-thrusts the entire song into another galaxy!)

The album gently winds down with an “acoustic jam” version of “Breathe Easy” which in its original (and better) form appears on the “Freak Like Me” single – in which manifestation, with the crowd sounds and crucial rhythm, it’s like Paul Weller doing “Whole Again.” But hell, I could never get through “4 Ever 2 Gether” on Lexicon of Love either.

People really oughtn’t to complain. For what Morley called “shiny yellow new pop,” this now has to be the best time since 1982. From LCD Soundsystem to Scooter, from Rob Dougan to Tweet, it’s finally looking as though the options are opening up again. And the Sugababes are up there with the best of them. This record will inspire in you open-mouthed astonishment and real love. You need this record.


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