RUSSIAN GIRLS IN LOVE… It might be, as every music critic writing about them has skeptically suggested, just a gimmick that the Russian teenagers in t.A.T.u. are two lesbians in love. Of course these doubting Thomases wouldn’t raise a fuss if it were a boy-girl duo in love. And they didn’t question Ricky Martin’s singing about girls. Yes, the implausible duo is awfully showy about its relationship, and their kissing in the "All the Things She Said" video is tantamount to soft-core porn. But if it’s all a lie, it’s betrayed by a sparkling intensity of feeling on 200 KM/H in the Wrong Lane (Interscope). The brooding, emotional state of the music is a direct result of the sharp minor-key chord progression coloring every song — in a twisted way, nothing can brighten a day like a hard-charging, sad up-tempo song. They even redo The Smiths’ near-suicide song of yore "How Soon Is Now?" and, though it sounds far more hopeful than Morrissey would have ever had it, it’s still full of brilliant despair and mournful chords. The tenor of the moody, thoroughly melodious music with cushiony synthesizers and plucky strings does remind you of Ace of Base’s "Beautiful Life" and "Lucky Love." But t.A.T.u.’s sound is certainly a modern-day upgrade of the Swedish quartet, with significant rock ‘n’ roll, even punk, influences at times nearly overshadowing their dance-pop orientation.
And then there’s the fascinating delivery, which often comes fast and phonetic. (English is not their first language after all.) Lena Katina and Julia Volkova sing their hearts out and shift octaves occasionally to float to the heavens in ethereal, angelic sopranos that recall Bjork. Maybe it all is a marketing gimmick, right down to the meticulously produced music (by Trevor Horn, who’s worked with Depeche Mode, Grace Jones and Seal). Even so, t.A.T.u. (which isn’t, apparently, an acronym for anything) certainly is not speeding in the wrong lane. It’s just right, by us.
HER HEART WILL GO ON A CHRYSLER… Chrysler "wanted to show that music equals love. That’s who Celine is and who she stands for." Who else but Celine Dion‘s husband and manager Rene Angelil would say such a thing? Who else, indeed. Angelil was talking to the Wall Street Journal, which was reporting on Chrysler’s selection of Dion for a new series of commercials, in which the gas-guzzling vocalist will sing tracks from her forthcoming album (due in March) to the tune of nearly $20 million. First up is her remake of the Roy Orbison song, "I Drove All Night," best known as a hit Cyndi Lauper cover.
DIVA OVERLOAD… Just last Christmas the music industry had a severe case of diva overload, from Mariah to Whitney to Deborah to Toni. Who won, at least in sales? Well, so far, Shania, J-Lo and Missy are ahead of the game, with Christina doing surprisingly well for herself. But watch out, ’cause we’re in for another round, and this time it’s for real. Janet (yea) and Celine (nay) are both wrapping up new albums, as are three other wildly popular singers. Mary J. Blige is recording her next, due in a few months, with none other than Sean "P. Diddy Doo-Doo" Combs. By hiring him Blige is throwing her no-more-drama mantra right out the window. Combs did, though, work with Blige on her wonderful breakthrough album, What’s the 411? (MCA), ten years ago, so there’s hope yet. Britney Spears is at work on her fourth studio album, which better come out soon, since her star is being quickly (and inexplicably) eclipsed by the likes of Avril Lavigne. The most promising bit of news, is that Spears is considering enlisting Daft Punk and William Orbit — late of Madonna — to help craft her new work.
SPRING FEVERÂ… Also this spring, P. Dippity-do will bring back, on his suitably named Bad Boy label, a reunited New Edition, but without — don’t cry — the ultimate bad boy, Bobby Brown. And the amazingly original British dance duo of Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe, better known as Basement Jaxx, will drop its follow-up to 2001′s Rooty (Astralwerks). Finally, in just a few weeks the Pet Shop Boys will return to form with Disco 3 (Sanctuary Records). Whereas previous albums in the Disco series from the celebrated gay duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have exclusively featured remixes of the Boys’ hits, Disco 3 will include five new songs in addition to much-needed remixes of less-than-danceable tracks from last year’s Release (Sanctuary Records). One intriguingly titled new track: "Try It (I’m in Love with a Married Man)."
DISCO INFERNOÂ… Can you believe it’s been thirty years since disco first boogie-oogie-oogied? Well it has, and ABC has come to the rescue to commemorate it, with this evening’s The Disco Ball: A 30-Year Celebration. ABC touts the event as one in which the music “never stops” since it’s not — “NOT,” the press release emphasizes — an awards show. Don’t hold your breath: Each performer will be introduced by assorted celebrities on hand (including ubiquitous Bruce Vilanch), and you just know they’ll go on and on about how happy they are to be here and what disco meant to them and how much they look up to so and so, blah, blah, blah. And then there’s to be a disco-era fashion show – that could really drag on, so to speak. Still, with Gloria Gaynor, The Village People, Thelma Houston, The Trammps, Irene Cara and others from the disco era performing, along with more of-the-moment singers like Taylor Dayne, Mya, Usher and former Backstreet Boy Aaron Carter, there should be moments of true entertainment. Did I mention that Whoopi Goldberg and Martha Wash perform “It’s Raining Men”? Hallelujah, amen sisters. But why disco, and why an ABC prime-time special? It didn’t cost much, that’s why, since the network merely taped the event, which took place mid-October in Los Angeles. The event was for a good cause, benefiting AIDS Project Los Angeles. So why not?
IN THE WORKS: KIM ENGLISHÂ… She was supposed to have moved on from Nervous Records by now, but Kim English is actually prepping her next album for the label. Due out in a few months, the album — likely an EP, of about 5 songs — will be only her second album of original material, after 1998′s Higher Things. She’s not the slightest bit unhappy that she’s still working with Nervous even after she arranged to end her contract — she’s just happy to be working, she told us. And the label has encouraged her to pen her first ballad, something that she’s eager to do, since it would broaden her repertoire. Ballads notwithstanding, her biggest challenge is getting DJs to chance her original output, not just remixes. Why does everything these days have to be remixed by a big-named DJ to get club play?
A TAINTED LOVE INDEEDÂ… Soft Cell, the duo of Marc Almond and Dave Ball, has always been a hit-and-miss affair: a hit one day (“Sex Dwarf”) and a miss the next (“Numbers”). Actually, “Tainted Love” was the only hit they registered in the U.S. Which makes The Very Best of Soft Cell (Mercury Records) less of a memory trip and more of a journey through the sounds of electro-clash. (It’s almost worth it for the liner notes alone, telling us that the duo is “back in action with a new record deal plus a new army of disciples to subvert and pervert.”) The edgy synth-pop (or “sleazy listening,” if you prefer) pioneer is certainly the major influence on this current trend in dance music, from the hard-charging, minor-key melody and dissonant chords to its outrÃ© risquÃ© lyrics: “Isn’t it nice, luring disco dollies to a life of vice” (“Sex Dwarf”). The Very Best does include two new songs, both of which make the case for the duo’s heightened songwriting sensibility. “Somebody, Somewhere, Sometime” is on par with “Tainted Love” and sounds very much as the Pet Shop Boys did before they turned mellow. But the problem with even new-and-improved Soft Cell is that the music and the lyrics are often intentionally confrontational and jarring, with little in the way of melody and much that isn’t memorable. Like a high-school choirboy, Almond often sings beyond his range, never more so than on the older hits. Except for the new stuff — and could we please have more? — Soft Cell’s output is exactly what the duo rails against in “Monoculture”: mediocre.
BOYS OF SUMMER IN HELLÂ… DJ Sammy couldn’t leave well enough alone after gravelly voiced Bryan Adams. He had to go and rework gravelly voiced Don Henley, turning Henley’s “Boys of Summer” (Robbins Entertainment) into the most formulaic trance remix imaginable. “Heaven” was amusing the first time we heard it, millions of spins ago. We can’t even bear to hear Sammy’s latest a second time though. So heaven help us if it catches on the way his first effort with Yanou featuring Do “a deer, a female deer” did last year, part of the unfortunate wave of bad ’80s songs turned into worse ’00s remixes. To paraphrase from Sammy’s, it isn’t too hard to see: the gimmick of the summer has gone.
Soul Sessions 2
Has this happened to you? A friend asks you to recommend your favorite CD of the year. You give it some thought and two-handfuls of worthy examples spring to mind, so you cover your bases by letting your friend choose from among them. He thanks you, ready for purchase. The next day as your CD changer skips over to a dusty, little-played but much-loved disc, your mistake hits you as the jazzy, infectious rhythm kicks in. D’oh! Do you admit your mistake? Or do you let it go, unconcerned with the knowledge that one sale of an under-appreciated CD will be lost? Last week in this space, we identified the High and Low Tides of Soundwaves 2002.
But see, we made a mistake. In our review of 2002, we breezed right by two of the year’s best dance compilations. Moonshine’s Electro Nouveau collection is one. With tracks from electro pacesetters Felix da Housecat, Ladytron, Miss Kittin, Freezepop and others, this album actually bests Felix’s accomplished Kittenz and the Glitz album in fully representing the dance fad whose time has come and gone… well, actually it has just arrived in Top 40-land (with assists from Madonna, Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake and Nelly).
In danceland electro may be waning, and Chicks on Speed certainly sound tired of delivering ironic, vapid "Euro Trash Girl" lyrics. Still, Electro Nouveau shows electro is still hip and happening with lively tracks that evoke the ’80s in more than just a "look what sounds we can make with machines!" approach. But that is electro’s overriding characteristic, and nearly every song recalls a particular genre-defining ’80s pop act, be it Thomas Dolby, Thompson Twins, Pet Shop Boys or Nena.
The album features tracks focused, at least in the titles, on fears of the age: "Neon Rain," "Spaceship," "La Invasion," "The End Starts Today." And there are those concerned only with the carefree silliness that pervaded 80s pop. Laptop’s "Greatest Hits" is a rollicking trip through one man’s (David Bowie’s?) dating history. Producer Steve Levy has achieved something rare here: He’s made a Pez-worthy compilation stuffed with consistently flavorful candies filling out two whole discs, without the least bit of a sugar overdose.
Giant Step Records has also achieved a rare feat with its Soul Sessions 2. It may be a little too slow-burning metaphysical at first for much dancing. But by record’s end, it proves to be a dazzling chill-out and soul-house super-value combo. It’s at a rolling boil by the time former Fugees’ collaborator John Forte and Robyn Springer beautifully "Harmonize" together in their stunningly realized duet of a couple’s swan song. Then when you’re not looking for it, you find true "Love" that lasts — Koop’s remix seduces you with Latin jazz-inspired bass strings and xylophone before you even hear Rosey’s hypnotizingly springy voice rumba-ling down this roller-coaster rhythmic ride.
Boy George didn’t assemble this disc (Giant Step CEO Maurice Bernstein takes that credit), but as with the Boy’s recent Chill-Out Mix, you’ll hear eclectic musical influences drawn from old-school funk, R&B, jazz and gospel. Giant Step Records is known in the biz for helping identify up-and-coming soul music singers. Soul Sessions 2 is perfect to linger over as we wait for the next albums from Jill Scott, Massive Attack and Jamiroquai — just three artists Giant Step has helped establish in the U.S. And once Soul Sessions 3 arrives in another few months, we’ll take note of it right away. We’ve learned our lesson.
There was plenty of good music in danceland in 2002, but it just wasn’t selling. So record labels large and small cut back on dance product and cut loose dance artists, if they didn’t go out of business altogether. The factions making up modern dance music showed increasing signs of merging, as mainstream, vocal-flavored house incorporated elements of drum ‘n bass, techno and especially trance. House’s mutant strands (progressive, ambient, soul, global, garage) were also caught dancing with one another periodically, and newer varieties were hyped, from chillout to electro.
Out on the dance floor, we had Mary J. fighting drama with drama, Whitney stirring up drama in a battle with the press, and Madonna blipping and pinging her Mirwais way through a dance with the devil. We heard from other divas, but Denise and Barbara Mason were the most memorable: Denise with her euphemistic ode to a "yard man" in Masters at Work’s brilliant “Work," and Barbara with a Junior Vasquez-remixed tale of her man cheating on her with “Another Man.”
The year’s worst trend was the American Idol-fueled parade through the past two decades of pop purgatory. Let’s hope it’s already run its course — certainly Do’s "Heaven" and Mad’House’s “Like a Prayer” have. In many ways, this retro rehash was the logical flip side to the year’s best trend, the inspired revitalization of ’80s post-punk, synth-pop sounds known as electro and led by Felix da Housecat and his crazy Miss Kittin. Electro was also assisted by mainstream nods from the likes of Missy Elliott and Justin Timberlake (really, Timbaland and the Neptunes).
Felix was just one of several DJs creating his own kind of music this year. It didn’t always work (see Thunderpuss). Still, 2003 will be for the better if their output increases (here’s to you Tony Moran and Thievery Corporation). Let’s hope we also see more impressive full-length albums from dance acts than we did this year (we want more Morel, Underworld, Funky Green Dogs, Daniel Bedingfield and Puretone, to name five). Original work would fill the void of what’s sure to be a gluttony of mixed CDs, which in 2002 too often took a "Jack-Ass" tone: flamboyant noise, boastful adolescent talk and uninspiring behavior. Hex Hector repeatedly proved himself the year’s best remixer, and several upstart DJs positioned themselves as promising successors to the tiring celebrity DJ throne — though Dave Dresden needs to teach DJs Escape and Encore how to inject personality into their otherwise fetching mix CDs.
Kylie Minogue had her best year ever in America, and she captivated us with the winningly slinky come-on of "In Your Eyes.” Unfortunately, there’s a certain other bumbling song of hers in our heads that we just can’t shake. How she managed to crack the Top 40 while other deserving dance-pop artists (Moby, Amber, Kim English, even Cher) didn’t — well, some things we’ll never understand..
Soundwaves at High Tide…
Global Groove: House, Tony Moran
Remixology, Hex Hector
“Work It,” Missy Elliott
A Night In with Boy George: A Chillout Mix, Boy George
Kittenz and Thee Glitz, Felix da Housecat
“Two Months Off,” Underworld
“No More Drama,” Mary J. Blige (Thunderpuss remix)
Our Time Is Coming, Masters at Work
“Alive,” Kevin Aviance
…and at Low Tide
“Open Your Box,” Ono
Sound Factory Uncut: Thirteen on Thirteen, Jonathan Peters
“Head,” Thunderpuss & Barnes
Absolutely Mad, Mad’House
Round Trip, DJ Dan
“Amanda,” Brooklyn Queens
Party Groove: Winter Party (Disc 2), Manny Lehman
“Underneath Your Clothes,” Shakira
J to Tha L-O! The Remixes, Jennifer Lopez