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

Monday, June 11, 2007

I find it immensely gratifying, not to mention relieving, that I can still embark upon a love affair with a great pop record. The fact that the music blogosphere is by and large not chairing Amerie’s “Gotta Work” on its shoulders and venerating and cherishing its magic is regrettable but hardly surprising; in a devalued era where writers will it seems do anything to avoid having to deal with life and the living, instead preferring to focus on haunted pasts, ghosts, spirits and other obedient corpses who won’t argue or talk back, you would hardly expect them to address, let alone embrace, the greatness of “Gotta Work.”

On its lyrical face it’s the usual you-must-strive-to-achieve/tell-that-to-the-call-centre-worker hohum hokum, but Amerie, by virtue by her sheerly screaming JOY at being alive, turns it into an anti-death anthem. “Sometimes it’s gonna be days like this/Sometimes it’s gonna be rain like this/Sometimes you’re gonna feel pain like this,” and her multifarious whoops and asides, not to mention the beautifully uneven forward propulsion of the music, are waved like crosses of garlic, to fend off death’s exhausted suffocation.

“Gotta Work” is “1 Thing” expanded and magnified to everything; the same sublime right-angulation of voice and song to rhythm and groove. But where “1 Thing”’s cautious glee was harnessed in the end by glacial synths, “Gotta Work” is driven by the best use of a “Hold On, I’m Coming” sample I’ve ever heard, beautifully juggled for added harmonic ambiguity. Every little detail makes the song bigger – the opening quatrain of drum triplets like a Reliant Robin stuttering towards you on the Fulham Road (see also “The Pedestrian” by Bent and pre-1983 Simple Minds passim), the roaring one woman call and response work, the way Amerie shrugs off yet reinforces the word “Damn!,” the very attractive semi-hoarseness at the top of her range which can make observations as hackneyed as “Life’s for living, so go and get it” sound like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the general feeling of resuscitating Michael Jackson (“give it to me!,” the incandescently stunning “uh-uh, uh-uhhh!” at 1.53-1.55), the dreamlike half-speed backing vocals halfway through and Amerie’s final improv assault on sterility, with its “Hey!,” its “Hahaha!,” its juicy “Mmmmmm-uh!” and her final, triumphant “Do it ‘cos I LOVE it!”

A few Saturdays ago I played “Gotta Work” sixteen times in succession and was so fixated and spellbound by it that tracks 7-13 of the new Amerie album cast a secret ballot and threatened to walk out on strike unless and until I gave them a fair hearing. While not approaching the forty or so plays I gave to “It’s A Sin” on the day of its release, still the record holder (though “Music Sounds Better With You,” played 35 times one Tuesday afternoon on the Oxford Tube coach all the way from Victoria to Gloucester Green, comes close), it does indicate that “Gotta Work” is a record of uncommon greatness, and surely the best and firmest repudiation of the ill-informed gripings of fortysomething ex-pop stars now living at a distance from pop and wondering why their Dansette needle doesn’t shine any more.

The good news is that the album, fittingly entitled Because I Love It (with its little but crucial heart emoticon annexed), is nearly all as great. Touch, the first Amerie album from 2005, was promising but still cautious and tended to flag a little whenever Rich Harrison wasn’t involved. But Because I Love It, with its shiny yellow cover, represents an ambition realised and fulfilled (so it makes some sense to include “1 Thing” again as a bonus track, as though to say this is the first Amerie album proper; it is an indication of the album’s quality that the track is now outshone substantially by its companions). There are two key reasons for this; firstly, although various R&B/hip hop rep reliables drop by to lend a hand now and again (Chris and Drop, The Clutch, Cee-Lo Green et al), the songs are largely written, arranged and produced by Amerie herself.

Secondly, as she says, she appears to do it because she loves it. Note the mischievous scowls and grins on the cover, and especially note her eyes, which are smiling all the time. She sings “Take control of me” but really she is singing it to herself; and by taking control and enjoying her genuine freedom she immediately rises above all those Beyoncés and Christinas who still insist on having words and notes shoved into their mouths, who loudly and harshly proclaim their independence in a way which would put one off democracy for life, not that they have any. Aguilera is a men’s fantasy of “adventure” and “experiment” (i.e. putting a few forties pastiches on her album as though Donna Summer’s I Remember Yesterday had been accidentally wiped out of existence by Ashton Kutcher in The Butterfly Effect) whose voice is only “powerful” in the sense that a Howitzer or a Sherman tank or a stealth bomber has “power.”

Amerie loves her Michael Jackson spirit, but there are also times, for instance on her splendid reading of Curtis Mayfield’s “Make Me Believe [In You]” or on the brilliant “Crush” where she can sound like the young Madonna, still brimming with life and expectancy, before success and Madonna beat it out of her. “Crush” starts off with a little crepuscular piano but when the synths rear up and stride into the song it is exactly the sort of thing you would have expected the Human League to do with Jam and Lewis, with the addition of some John Robie orchestral Roland VII blasts and a deeply caressing synth bass. It moves slowly and irresistibly in stages towards its climax, via the implicitly wet sensuality of “I wish I could taste your love/Lick it off with my fingertips” and the subtly poisonous humour of “I wish I could save your kiss/For some other girl to taste/To see expressions on her face,” with the emphasis very much on “face.” With a high-pitched electronic swoon of a tingle on the beat, Amerie moves into an escalating, coming four-part crescendo which she suddenly dusts off by diving back in deep and whispering “crush.” Her “lost” and “arms” in the line “I get lost in your arms” are sufficiently high and unearthly to warrant a NASA space probe – but then she lands in an oasis of processed vocal harmonies which gradually narrow down to her own angelic multiplicity, sounding exactly like Thereze Bazar at the end of “Give Me Back My Heart” crossed with the sublimely suave sex of Natasha Bedingfield, the other contemporary master/mistress of wanting it so openly but debating it in her head all of the time.

There is an unavoidable New Pop (Mk I) sense of renewed wonder about Because I Love It. “Some Like It” makes fantastic use of a Duck Rock sample (“World’s Famous”) with its sardonic perspective on relationships (“Drop to your knees and show gratitude,” she says, though more in a conspiratorial than dictatorial sense, i.e. far more Suzi Quatro than Beyoncé “To The Left” (as if) Knowles. She is an air hostess flying the jaded listener back to oceans of bewitching welcome – the sudden plunge into Horn and Dudley’s massed keyboard motif which accompanies her “believe me.” She switches between temptress (“Nothing too familiar,” “I’m not gonna bite you,” “I could do you damage”) and tempted (“Maybe excite you if I really LIKE you,” “So whatcha gonna do with it?” “Tell me where you’ve been/All the things you’ve seen”) and somewhere in between (“I’m waiting”). With her recurring “Some of them like it/Some of them love it” I even think of a belated pop retort to Ute Lemper and Scott Walker’s “Lullabye” (“You can tell, some are born to do it/Some are made to do it”). Ambiguously elating.

Throughout Because I Love It there is a determination – liquid rather than steely (dan) – to push oneself out of the morass; the “Forecast Intro” with its ebulliently screeching brass, sees Amerie briefly emulating Beckett’s Bim (“I, I, I,” “The, The, The”) before she swirls with the drops (“The rain keeps on falling”) and invokes an incantatory prayer (“I know that the sun will come out – it will come out, it WILL come out”) before going straight into “Hate 2 Love U” with its violently register-shifting organ, bounding bass and Fifth Dimension out-of-tempo harmonies. Again the singer’s conflicting feelings are reflected in the untranscribale; the trio of “got me”s in the line “But oh (and, ohhhh, what an “oh”) you’ve got me got me got me spinning,” the quintet of “er”s in the “over” of the phrase “I can’t get over” resolved by an ejaculatory “YOU!,” the two “good”s in the line “When it feels so good,” and above all her “I do-woo-hoo,” of which only one is required.

In “Take Control” itself, with its quite stunning fusion of Hall and Oates and snakehipped Tom Zé guitar (Cee-Lo making his presence very evident here), Amerie nearly comes one better, with five “never”s followed, in decreasing speed, by a definitive “ever” (the whole being a parenthesis in the line “And you’re never ever in a rush”). At times she delineates the essential dizziness of new-found physical love as few have done since the Mary Chain (“The way you kiss my neck in public/I try my best not to blush”) – you could swim in the “ooh” of her “ooh, I’m in love right now,” the “COME” of her “COME a little closer now” and the Goddess-like orgasm of “OH!” at 3.10.

Even (or especially) when the album systematically slows down as it progresses, its brilliance remains intact. “Crazy Wonderful” could almost be Stereolab remixed by Plaid with its Balearic guitar and dopily wandering synths and Amerie herself becoming deliriously lost in her own chorus of voices but still deliciously close up – “those lips of yours, so luscious,” “My lipstick always ends the same,” “cherry kiss” – climaxed by an unbelievable ballet of voices between 2.20-2.26 (“So! So so so so so so crazy!”), a sequence later repeated more mellifluously and more satisfied.

Meanwhile, “That’s What U R,” sounds like Cabaret Voltaire in Atlantis conference with Jeff Mills with its cracked beats and backwards electroflow. Amerie’s vocals here are off-beat – dazed, staggered, against Shirelles-in-a-spaceship choral girl group harmonies, submarine aquacity (“So sexual”) and (the punctum) “Don’t worry about a thing/It’s about to go DOWN” at which point the world seems to crouch with her. As it winds on (or winds DOWN) the track becomes more dissolute, opaque, the piano from “Moments In Love,” her “Me and you – oh!,” her softly breathing incantatin of “So beautiful/That’s what you are,” the “Tell me what you dream of” line from “Some Like It” after she’s been given the answer…all ending with an alarm clock, a low hum and a distant, distal laugh.

“When Loving U Was Easy” is the R&B ballad as Alexander O’Neal would know it (and therefore more than fine by me) with harpischord and organ lines giving way briefly to power ballad guitar thrash and then back to cascades of harp, with Amerie’s agony underlined, if not undermined, by seven “so-o”s, and a triptych of “Whoo”s. “Paint Me Over” is a breakup song scored by distant synthesised choirs, a diffuse ballad (again with hints of early Madonna in her delivery) which eventually, if reluctantly, resolves into one long weeping cry.

Appropriately, “Somebody Up There” begins as though Amerie is lying at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, painfully scraping herself up towards the gleamingly sunny surface. “Somebody up there must love me/’Cos He gave me you” she sings, alive again, with a glorious chord change in the chorus, refracted backing vocals from deeper down in the sea. Witness the uncanny way how, in the line, “I love the way you’re lovin’ me,” the “you” slows down at 3.08 to symbolise spiritual reunion. Her closing “Oh, take me back again” could even cue an R&B “Revolution #9.” That doesn’t happen here, but it doesn’t really need to; the closing “Losing U,” introduced by hyperactive drums, sees her still yearning – “All roads lead to you,” the hoarse edge of her upper range now accentuated, as if to explain that she can’t quite get to heaven yet but at least she is trying (this entire ballad sequence comes across as Amerie’s own “All Of My Heart”). At the end, the album dissolves into its individual components like a fading mirage. It may be that Because I Love It is in itself a mirage in the increasingly barren desert of contemporary R&B pop and that few, if any, will follow its lead. But it is by far the best contemporary R&B pop record since Brooke Valentine’s Chain Letter, one of the best pop records likely to emerge from any quarter of 2007…and it rains and it pains, but the sun of New Pop refuses to diminish and blot out entirely.

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