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

Sunday, November 27, 2005

In the hospital where I work the League of Friends have a monthly sale of discounted goods. The most recent was a week ago last Friday. Amongst the bric-a-brac on offer were a pile of new CDs "Donated For Charity" by various record companies – mainly Universal – retailing at competitive prices, none of them having managed to sell many or any copies at more competitive prices. At the bottom of this particular pile – and even in this company looking somewhat ashamed; reduced circumstances, but at the bottom, as an afterthought, as ballast? – was Come And Get It, the recently-released second album by Rachel Stevens, yours if you’d wanted it for £1.99, complete with a bonus DVD of seven videos, all featuring the lady voted last week by the readers of Smash Hits as Most Fanciable Female. Were this not sufficient humiliation, a few weeks previously – in fact, on its first Saturday of release – I had witnessed, in the HMV shop at Oxford Circus, a crowd of typically Saturday Top Shoppers openly congregating around and laughing at the album, which was not conspicuously displayed in that week’s selection of new releases; a spectacle last seen by me in 1989, when punters were pointing and sniggering at Terence Trent D’Arby’s underperforming second album, Neither Fish Nor Flesh. Overheard comments included: "Who does she think she’s kidding?" "Does she think she’s Goldfrapp? She’s fackin’ S Club and always will be!" "It’s embarrassing, it’s like your mum." In the mainstream broadsheets and the specialist music press the album was either ignored or given rave reviews on the proviso that it wasn’t going to sell. The album accordingly made an unspectacular, and nearly unnoticed, entry into the album chart at 28, and quickly made its excuses and left, despite Ms Stevens doing the blanket rounds of chat shows and teen television over the previous fortnight. Or perhaps because of her doing so.

So what happened? Why did one of the most outstandingly creative and discreetly avant-garde pop records of 2005 become, essentially, stillborn? When I first heard the finished version of Come And Get It in September I thought I had borne witness to the herald of the second coming of New Pop Mark II. Goldfrapp’s Supernature had sounded surprisingly alluring when heard on a blindingly hot summer’s day in Brighton, but this far surpassed it. Every track contained at least half a dozen ideas for a pop future. But then I thought the same about Anniemal a year ago, and that particular masterwork persists in its reluctant residency in the bargain bins. Is it that some pop just goes over the heads of today’s consumers? Or is it another indictment of the British music industry’s craven inability to handle female talent properly?

With Rachel the problem may have been more deeply rooted. "Some Girls" hit number two last year on the back of a Sports Aid charity tie-in and residual S Club fan interest, but apart from a dull cover of "More More More" which is pointedly absent from her album, subsequent, more complex singles have typically foundered at around about the number 11 mark (which in 2005 singles chart terms is the equivalent of number 41 in old chart currency) pretty much in inverse proportion to their musical interest. Did The Kids get confused by Rachel’s ad libs in the Kim Wilde-does-"Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" knockback of "Negotiate With Love" – "Can you turn down the track a little bit please?" etc.? In fact these asides add to her endearing vocal qualities; her playing with phrases actually mirrors and refracts the playing around of the Other of which the lyric complains and she sounds like she’s having fun if periodically being politely bowled over (that almost apologetic out of breath "negotiate with…love" at the start of the final chorus). What was it, indeed, that record buyers didn’t understand? Similarly "I Said Never Again (But Here We Are)" is an utterly charming mindfuck of a pop song (listen to those "1-2-3-4"s – they make you want to hug her!) which was universally derided as an "Antmusic" ripoff. Unfortunately the nay sayers neglected (a) to check the songwriting credits, whereupon they would have found that one of the writers was Rob Davis, formerly of Mud, so it’s fair to say that Rob was simply taking back what "Antmusic" took from "The Cat Crept In" (Mud’s 1974 #2 follow-up to "Tiger Feet") in the first place; and (b) to recall that Antmusic was a gloriously unapologetic exercise in pilfering and reshaping elements of Link Wray, Morricone, Roxy and so on.

The invention continues throughout Come And Get It. "Some Girls" was a typically filthy Richard X production, of course, its subtle duplicity (a would-be pop princess being ripped off by a mentor more incompetent than sinister) virtually unnoticed. In the context of the album it’s one of three exercises in schaffel-pop – the bitemporal approach (a fast, light 6/8 superimposed on a hardcore dance 4/4 beat) pioneered by the likes of Akufen and Vitalic at the turn of the millennium, reviving a form which in pop had become lost to follow-up – previous historical examples of the same rhythmic matrix would include Blondie’s "Call Me," Amii Stewart’s version of "Knock On Wood," Elvis’ "Way Down" and, for those who really have lived long enough, Polly Brown’s "Up In A Puff Of Smoke" (and Gary Glitter, lest you forget – those "Rock and Roll" chants bolster up the closing seconds of "Some Girls"). The other two are "Crazy Boys" – a noticeably cleaner Richard X production which sounds like someone applying sparkling polish to the Goldfrapp template, gleamingly striding through hitherto inaccessible hotel lobby connecting doors, wiring up James Bond ("nobody does it better" indeed!) with Christ ("Forgive me, I know not what I do") – and the terrific "Every Little Thing," another Rob Davis co-write which sounds like Eno producing Clodagh Rodgers doing "My Coo-Ca-Choo;" check out the lovely quadrangle of "Oh! The sting of your kiss! Mwah! The twist in my touch! (Beep!)" in the second verse.

And yet here is an album which finds its artist at the start assertive and slightly threatening ("I like to watch you suffer ever so slightly" she croons on the sprightly "It’s-Just-Like-Kylie!" opener "So Good"), but by its end she is virtually on her knees, pleading for love and understanding of her façade ("Dumb Dumb"). Despite the aemotionalism perceived by the album’s critics, her ballad singing is touchingly fetching in a Thereza Bazar-had-she-been-Art-of-Noise’s-lead-singer kind of a way. She betrays exquisite fatigue on "Funny How" which effectively undermines the determined Luomo-out-of-Kylie rhythmic bounce with a lyric which references both the Pet Shop Boys/Patsy Kensit and the KLF ("The night got cold/It’s way past three/Take these fools away from me") and acts as a curious cold rationalist counterpart to the painful poignancy applied to the same subject matter on Sing Sing’s "Going Out Tonight" (a song which in itself has proved to be the missing link between Slowdive’s "Catch The Breeze" and the Streets’ "Blinded By The Light") even as it then goes on to cite Nomad ("I wanna give you devotion") and the Four Tops/Joy Division ("so don’t walk away"). Her reading of Alexis Strum’s superb song "Nothing Good About This Goodbye" is also sublimely hurt, wandering in a limbo between Air and Emma Bunton. But perhaps deepest of all is "I Will Be There," a song which many thought should have closed the album, and which is very nearly the last will and testament of Thereza Bazar on that videotheque screen before she truly mutates into a ghost. Rachel sounds on the verge of tears on the treadmill of "Round and round we go/Here we go again" before coming as close as this record dares her to do to becoming nakedly emotional – "We can live forever/This doesn’t have to be the end" – before evading her body entirely. "Is it OK if I meet you in heaven? Is it alright if I’m with you forever?" a chorus of Rachels sing, as smooth as the blanket swept over to cover the pain. And that unearthly, tender chord change on the third line of the chorus ("I will be there…") is enough to make a tender soul wish to evade Earth altogether. Watch Kylie cover this next year when she’s recovered. The poignancy will be, literally, unbearable.

And all of this appears on an album which hasn’t sold, or has been purposely undersold, is laughed at in shops and buried at the bottom of charity piles. Why?

Some possible reasons:

1. "She doesn’t mean it!"

As said by Chris Evans on Radio 2, dismissing "I Said Never Again." "Not like Charlotte Church! She means it!" This ties in with the Guardian music critic’s observation that Rachel Stevens possesses "the personality of a boiled egg." Not to mention "Who the hell does she think she is?" The overriding impression would appear to be that with Come And Get It, Rachel has proved herself to be a fish out of water, someone dabbling with things The Power Of Which She Does Not Know, your mum doing the Twist to LCD Soundsystem.

This theory cannot be entirely dismissed. What was sorely evident on her numerous television appearances was the extreme disinterest Rachel exuded when it came to the music she was supposed to be promoting, if not championing (and if not championing, then why not?). As I’ve said previously, she came across like a Young Conservative who’s accidentally walked into an electropop(ist) club night; a bit above it all, perhaps, desperate to get back to the David Gray and Dido she really likes. Her snooty air on the children’s TV show hosted by public school alumni Dick and Dom didn’t exactly encourage floating voters, either.

And as far as "meaning it" goes, it’s probable that she hasn’t been afforded the opportunity to show what she "means" – the general consensus is that she’s still the Baby Spice equivalent of S Club (indeed, one outraged Telegraph letter-writer – is there any other kind? – complained about how he was to explain to his eight-year-old daughter why squeaky clean Rachel Stevens now only wore knickers on TV!) and hasn’t really proven herself as an independent particle. Charlotte Church, however, gives a well-known history; with her it’s the classic teen idol-becomes-adult conundrum, but it’s one she’s handling exceptionally well. The twinkle in her eye is ever present; she makes no secret that she’s having a ball playing this game; her eyes smile when Rachel's evidently do not. And her strategy is better thought out, such that the startling futurism of tracks like "Let’s Be Alone" (one of 2005’s most sheerly pleasurable pop songs, including that "Enola Gay" quote in the final chorus) or the sneakier futurism of the likes of "Crazy Chick" (whose opening handclaps are as stridently sensual as Amelie’s heels tap-tap-tapping to your door in "1 Thing") come across as heartfelt and genuine as the straighter-edged ballads (though the latter still convey a weird aura of the Manics going R&B). The Sugababes, too, have had a chart-topping triumph with their splendid new album which is just as futuristic and Wire-friendly in its own way as Come And Get It. But then again, the Sugababes also now have a background story to tell – fans have never known them as anything other than Sugababes, they have to an extent grown up with them, are still interested in the paths of their lives, so are able to connect with them on that elementary but still vital level.

Nonetheless it remains rather unfair to dismiss Rachel for not "meaning it." I think her voice is the right one for the tenor required by the songs on Come And Get It; light but not drowning, vulnerable but never terminal. She possibly simply needs to learn to convey that emotionalism visually.

2. "Madonna is Madonna and that’s what makes her Madonna."

Ah yes, the elephant in the living room who refuses to be ignored. So here is Madonna, who is Madonna who is anybody or anything you want her to be in any given financial quarter, crassly digesting Rachel and Goldfrapp and maybe even Linda Lamb, for those who haven’t lived long enough, and she does the double – number one single and album, Hung Up On A Dancefloor – which seems to sneer at Rachel, look, kid, this is how you do it and here is how you don’t give a shit, which sees her swallowing up No Wave for the second time and regurgitating it as a handy, yummy revival as if Cristina had never revived "Is That All There Is?" (where is where Madonna starts, in the same sense that Patrick Hernandez’s "Born To Be Alive" is where Madonna starts) and views her swallowing up the future of music from the perspective of those of us who never forgot the Young Gods and who thought that the possibilities of sampling meant a million new possibilities for music, Bartok against Duane Eddy, Braxton with Bonzos, except that the future of music has turned out to be the astute Mylo who has correctly divined that we don’t really want music to have a future, just an endless, easy past, that we deserve no more from the limitlessness of sampling, that instead of plunging into a sexy abyss of chaos we clutch back "Bette Davis Eyes" and ooh do you remember the school disco and deelyboppers and the Kids From Fame and isn’t it a laugh and then you scream DOES EVERY FUCKING THING HAVE TO BE A LAUGH but then you go down the route of Celine (Ferdinand or Dion, it all ends the same) by thinking that.

So Impressions On A Dancefloor superficially sounds impressive and mighty and up to the second as long as you’re listening to it two rooms away from where it’s playing. You could briefly chortle at the little Gwen Stefani tick-tock jibe which opens the album ("Time goes by so slowly" – will our Gwen be singing "Unchained Melody" when she’s 47?) and hey, here’s how to play the game because Madonna asked Abba nicely and the KLF didn’t and turns the hi-energy sleepless heartbreak of "Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)" into an irritation which can be relieved with a dash of Nytol. In the same way, you might think that "Future Lovers" revs up "I Feel Love" to speeds and power unimaginable in 1977 if you’d never heard what Mark Stewart did with it on "Fatal Attraction" in 1987, which was rather more than superimposing a "Ray Of Light" rewrite on its top. And "I Love New York" seems to swoon with improbable modernity if you’re not familiar with Dakar and Grinser’s cover of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" (the latter is less In Your Face than the former, but then the former loses among many other things the deviously subtle Dark Magus keyboard curlicues). After a while the UP-ness refuses to let you relent – rather than being celebratory, listening to the record is like being battered over the head with a weighty exercise bike 120 times per minute. Confessions Of A Hangman will not allow the listener to breathe as ultimately it does nothing more than billboard the joyless John Knox work-and-nothing-but-work ethic without which Madonna would have to look in her own mirror, and we can’t have that, can she? If anything the album’s "downbeat" second half is even more pestilent than the first half, for herein we find a shameless farrago of self-pity, self-glorification ("I guess I deserve it," she coos imperiously on "How High" apropos her career and money, not in that order) and self-love masquerading as selflessness ("Push" wherein she sings "You push me" while staring in the mirror rather than looking her audience in the faces), perhaps reaching its nadir in the interminable Kabbalah recruiting advert that is "Isaac" – think "Frozen" remixed by the Afro-Celt Sound System and pass the Imodium, Alice – before concluding with the inevitable, if loveless, schaffel of "Like It Or Not" whose message is "You can love me or you can leave me," alongside other subsidiary Wittgenstein-esque homilies such as "Sticks and stones will break my bones," "Better the devil you know," "Can’t get you out of my head" and "OK I made that last one up." That a purple leather jumpsuit is seemingly enough to get her to number one in this reduced world of ours asks why other musicians even bother trying, but not in the Aerial way.

3. "The British music industry cannot handle female musical talent properly."

And by that, I mean British. Perhaps Annie From Norway should have done a few more Popworlds and a few fewer Shoreditch DJ sets, but her record company had absolutely no idea how to market her and thus was a great pop album lost. Even with Charlotte and Goldfrapp there is the aura of "hedging their bets," albeit markedly reduced. But I’ve also been listening to a couple of very fine ‘60s girl pop compilations which came out this year – It’s So Fine: Pye Girls Are Go! and Sassy And Stonefree: Dreambabes Volume 6 – which between them contain some 70 pop gems, two of which were hits. What happened there? The sleevenotes more or less give us the answer; whereas in America talents like Carole King, Jackie De Shannon, Ellie Greenwich, Toni Wine, Carole Bayer Sager etc. etc. were given room to flourish and develop, in Britain the likes of Barbara Ruskin and Val McKenna – both considerable talents, and in the case of Barbara Ruskin a seriously awesome, lost talent, as singer, songwriter and producer – were marginalised; only Jackie Trent, by dint of being Mrs Tony Hatch, thrived (and the Trent/Hatch reinterpretation of Scott Walker’s "Such A Small Love" on It’s So Fine has to be believed to be heard). Otherwise it remained a boys’ club, and fantastic Northern Soul stompers like Nita Rossi’s "Untrue, Unfaithful (That Was You)" were routinely buried on the B-side of slushy MoR fare which it was decided – by the men in suits, many of whom had been in the music business since the days of Al Bowlly – The People Wanted. You realise just how important Suzi Quatro was as a symbol when she came along; but that was all she was – she was from Detroit, her hits were written and produced by men, and the wave of women who followed in her immediate wake – Patti Smith, Joan Jett – were Americans. Is it an exaggeration that we had to wait for the Slits and Siouxsie for British women musicians to finally have their say? And is it because 49-year-old men still think they know what’s best – i.e. women singers and musicians are only marketable as come-on R&B fodder or breathe-on-me-and-I-break vulnerables – that genuinely vulnerable people like Rachel Stevens end up being pushed and pulled any way as though on a pinball table, with the inevitable lack of jackpot?

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