(From yesterday: songs 25-16)
Last week, Vulture ran a piece comparing and contrasting Katy Perry and Ke$ha, positioning the former as a callback to America’s beautiful, pin-up past and the latter a reflection of the country’s dirty, harsh reality (to reduce the argument quite a bit). It resonated with me, because one of my major problems with Ke$ha is how nihilistic the entire motif is: we’re dirty, we’re crass, let’s fucking party. Is that really the terms on which we’re dancing these days?
Now, I don’t have many good things to say about the direction of Perry’s second album, but I have many wonderful things to say about its title track, a breath of fresh air on the pop charts this year simply because it actually seems to be about something, even if it’s only love. It’s also brilliantly constructed around Perry’s vocal limitations: it keeps much of the melody tightly wound, so that when it reaches the bridge—“Imma get your heart racing in my skintight jeans”—she doesn’t have to break out all that much to sell the hell out of it.
If you first heard the rolling “Rill Rill” and immediately thought of the Beta Band’s “Dry the Rain,” you’re not alone. The song’s acoustic strums and drum-machine swagger made me immediately remember track one of The Three EPs, famously immortalized in High Fidelity when John Cusack boasts that the song’s playing over the store PA system alone will sell five copies of the record.
I’ve yet to experiment with “Rill Rill,” though I would suspect a similar outcome. Instantly warm and inviting, the song is a joyous mid-album repreive from Treats’ ear-splitting distortion-and-beats cheerleading, while still somehow maintaining the same noisy magic in an entirely different register. There’s so much going on in the track, but none of it is flashy or showing—its simplicity shows a Cusack-like confidence in the power of a good melody.
Though This is Happening lacks a centrepiece as stunning strong as “All My Friends”—and let’s face it, the odds of James Murphy matching THAT masterpiece were slim at best—“All I Want” comes closer than I expected. It also snuck up on me: on first listen, I found its lead guitar and keyboards too overwhelming, hiding the rhythm track that I felt was really the song’s core.
Of course, with time, I realized that the window-dressing was actually the song’s centre: Murphy is playing Bowie a bit here, pulling away from grounded, earth-bound dance music and stretching into the pop stratosphere. The song’s noisy conclusion only further disconnects the listener from its base elements; just like the sputtering longing that’s driving it, the song’s loose, fluttering noise is more powerful than anything simple, organized or primal.
FINALLY. Carl Newman, you are a wonderful mastermind of pop bliss, but while we really enjoyed hearing Neko Case become the voice of your ballads on the last couple of Pornographers records, you have no idea how much we wanted to hear her friggin’ belt that shit out again.
Now, “Crash Years” isn’t totally akin to the unkempt passion of “Letter from an Occupant,” but that’s understandable: the Pornographers are a very different band than they were ten years ago, and in their embrace of nuance and subtlety, a more compelling one too. That “Crash Years” never quite explodes is part of its power; it uses the string section and Kurt Dahle’s inspired drumming to push the song just to the edge, and then lets Case echo into the cliffs below. And as always, she echoes magnificently.
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