Category Archives: synth pop

The Art of the Cover, Vol. 1: Psychic TV and Califone

Haven’t updated this blog in about nine months, but that’s probably for the best; no one should have to read my drunk, incredibly depressed take on “100 000 Fireflies.” Anyway, I’m going to do a few short, Perfect Pop Sidebars on some of my favourite songs that have inspired equally great covers.

The cover is a tricky thing to master. The masturbatory fantasy of most every rock critic is to form a huge band and then push his favourite obscure artists on the unsuspecting masses, thus creating the stickiest of double whammies: publicly playing the best songs while having the best taste (or being Yo La Tengo, basically).

Course, as many artists over the years have demonstrated, doing a proper cover is a challenging art. How to make it different enough to not be redundant, while retaining what made the original worth covering? Here’s one take:

Psychic TV – “The Orchids” (1983, Some Bizzare/CBS)

Psychic TV’s plinky, delicate original is to psychedelia as microhouse is to house music; tiny-sounding and almost anodyne, but too self-assured to be dismissed as sleepy “quirk” or gimmick. Psychic TV were an offspring of the legendary Throbbing Gristle and continued that band’s uber-arty conceptual bent, albeit in a more digestible format, even venturing into pop territory from time to time. “The Orchids” was recorded using the quack-ish “holophonic” technology best known from a few of Roger Waters’ loopier ’80s ventures; whether or not the holophonic production can be credited (it purported to create an “acoustic hologram” in the listener’s brain), the total effect of the music is immaculate and serene. I remember attending a workshop with the poet John Steffler where he spoke eloquently on what he called deep observation; studying something nonhuman in an attempt to understand it on its own terms, fantasy not as escapism but as an honest attempt to empathize by projecting one’s own mind into another organism and then writing the experience. I feel like Psychic TV’s lyrics achieve something like deep observation in their strange imagery:

“when all the numbers swim together
and all the shadows settle
when doors forced open shut again
a flytrap and a petal

my eyes burn and claws rush in to fill them;
and in the morning after the night
I fall in love with the light
it is so clear I realize
that here at last I have my eyes”

As a flower opening to the sun is consumed entirely by the act, so does “The Orchids” reach a quiet, sweet understanding; it’s an ideal soundtrack to one of those time-lapse videos of a plant growing into bloom (like this, only with better sounds). And I’m a sucker for that breathy, wordless singing at the end.

Califone – “The Orchids” (2006, Thrill Jockey)

If Psychic TV’s greatest trick was to create such a perfectly green space with largely synthesized instruments, Califone’s was to translate it back into a vocabulary of traditional, “rootsy” acoustic instruments while maintaining its distinctive, almost alien atmosphere. Cited by the band as the inspiration for their excellent 2006 LP Roots and Crowns, Califone’s take on “The Orchids” is dimly reminiscent of The Books‘ folktronica sound, or the most abstract moments on Wilco‘s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; gorgeous, spare banjo, guitar and percussion swaddled in a haze of reverb, backwards loops and clipped harmonica. Its form perfectly reflects the lyrics’ repeated references to “the orchid and the metal”, the analog musicians augmented by the buzzing machinery of the studio.


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Filed under 1980s, 2000s, alternative, contemporary folk, covers, indie, psychedelic, synth pop

Vol.28: Vienna

ultravox, synth pop, vienna, 1981

Ultravox cordially invite you to misery.

Ultravox – Vienna (1981, Chrysalis)

Why It’s Perfect: When I was younger, I somehow got it into my head that Vienna was actually Austria’s national anthem. Can you imagine if there were a country whose anthem sounded like this? What a strange place it would have to be. The thoroughly processed majesty of its chorus sounds like a kitsch Also Sprach Zarathustra, the climax of an old commercial for high-end consumer electronics: BEHOLD the new Phillips Magnavox CD player! The most pristine digital audio device on Earth, now no larger than a toaster oven!


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Filed under 1980s, new wave, synth pop

Vol.24: Teenage Dream

Off in the distance, Katy catches a glimpse of how ridiculous this cover will look in fifteen years.

Katy Perry – Teenage Dream (2010, Capitol)

(hopefully you won’t have to watch a Vevo ad before it starts)

Why It’s Perfect: Whenever I read William Blake’s Jerusalem, I’m always conscious of the fact that the answer to every question posed in the hymn is no. No, the Lamb of God was ne’er sighted gallivanting amongst Glastonbury sheep, nor did the Countenance Divine contrive to undertake radical changes to Sunderland’s urban planning. (I mention this because I’m a pretentious fuck who has to make reference to reading high brow lit before defending shit pop music. No, sorry, that was just an outburst of self-deprecation; I’m seeing a counsellor to deal with that.) Anyway, I mention it because the speaker in Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream is likewise almost certainly wrong about a great many things; We can dance, until we die (unlikely), We’ll be young forever (probably not), Every February, you’ll be my Valentine (outlook dim). But being wrong is not a sin, as Blake knew, nor is hoping and loving.

Teenage Dream is about surrendering to the moment and feeling of first love, the breathlessness of experience and the memory of fire. It’s no regrets, just love and walls come down and most crucial of all, let you put your hands on me. Great teenage love songs exist to give this euphoric sensation some sort of expression, something outside your fluttering stomach that feels like you do; hormones as a hum. And golly but fuck, Teenage Dream is a great hum.

Many of Perry’s biggest singles are based on blocky, percussive sorts of melodies (You! Make! Me! *pause* Feel like I’m livin’ a Teen! Age! Dream!, or Cal! If! Ornia! Girls! You’re Un! Denia! Ble!) that allow her to play to her fist-pumpy tomboy strengths. The verses, by contrast, have Perry straining at the top of her range (almost falsetto in fact), giving them a fragility and softness that gradually develops into confidence and swagger as she grows more certain of her love, most notably on the absolutely sublime bridge. That bridge is the apex of feeling, openly accepting her lover without reservation. Perry’s not a superb singer, but she can emote and project, and as such this is a perfect fit for her.

The production trio of Dr. Luke, Benny Blanco and the legendary “Sugar Swede” Max Martin (I made that nickname up) don’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but the music is a nice synthesis of all the trends of today’s pop, without really subscribing to any of them. There’s a glossy, subtly processed effect on Perry’s vocals, with some of those ‘80s retro keyboards everybody digs these days, and a sexy disco hook hidden in the chorus; its great accomplishment, aside from being catchy as all hell, is that it is both pristine enough for modern mechanically-inclined pop audiences, and heartfelt enough for some dagger of feeling to slice through the manufactured bombast.

So, allow me to crown Teenage Dream as the pre-eminent teen (and hell, probably pre-teen) panty dropper of its time. It’s probably not love, and Christ still probably never chilled on Brit foothills, but for 3:48 it feels okay to be together a while, and dream.

Defining Moment: I love the way the bridge (Let you put your hands on me in my skin-tight jeans…) comes in and takes the chorus melody in another direction, really up into a realm of pure melodic sweetness that can rarely be endured for a whole song, but feels wonderful in such brilliantly timed increments.

Other Great Songs by Katy Perry: If I watched the I Kissed a Girl vid twenty-seven times it wasn’t for the music, but it supported its shock value appeal with a kind of Soft Cell-esque New Wave groove that got into your ass and elbows. It’s not a great song like Teenage Dream, but it’s probably her second best. In lieu of other great songs, here are the most outrageously hot pics from the first page of the Google image search, in a transparent attempt to garner some prurient search traffic:

Okay, perhaps this one is tasteless and exploitative.

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Filed under 2010s, electropop, max martin, synth pop

Vol.15: Hollaback Girl

How did this merit a parental advisory sticker?

Gwen Stefani – Hollaback Girl (2005, Interscope)

Why It’s Perfect: Hate to kick off with an anecdote, but to hell with it. My senior prom was the year this song was on its way to becoming huge. I’ll never forget the way practically every girl in the place hit the floor at the beck of Gwen’s first catcall, the way they no-bullshit stomped out that huge Neptunes beat, stilt-like high heels be damned. Beyond the initial, reptile-brained “Damn” factor of seeing so many dolled up girls getting down, I feel in retrospect like that moment drove a stiletto right through my previous understanding of pop music. Whether you like it or not, Hollaback Girl is the sort of song that forcibly resets your biorhythms to a common time, and there’s a very good chance that no matter what you are doing while Hollaback Girl is on, you will do it either along with or in deliberate opposition to the song.

The track’s construction, of course, is perfect. There’s a tendency to refer to the Neptunes’ signature production style as “skeletal,” given its minimalist aesthetic and the prominence of the beat (the foundation of all hip-hop/contemporary R&B). If the production is indeed skeletal then Hollaback Girl is made of elephant bones, because this beat is as thick as any Williams and Hugo ever devised. Prince has often rightly been cited as the originator of this kind of cyber funk cool, and Hollaback Girl is notable for flipping one of The Artist’s most notable artistic breakthroughs: where Prince replaced the traditional funk horn section with synths and keyboards to create a hypermodern take on the classic sound, the Neptunes have exchanged their traditional synth stabs for the blare of brass. And not just a horn section, but an entire goddamn marching band! Stefani is aiming for Queen-level bombast, as the brief We Will Rock You-quote attests, and the sheer weight and size of the band ensures she strikes true. Of course the “marching band” sound is entirely constructed in the studio, but the way the artists manage to mimic the aesthetic effect (i.e. size, enthusiasm) of a school band is nonetheless impressive. Combined with the mesmerizingly circular guitar figure and those evaporating bass plunges during the verses and you’ve got a track fit for club and grandstand alike.

Stefani’s lyrics are, of course, nonsense, but as far as this song goes that’s completely appropriate; anything of substance over such a purposefully dumb, blunt beat would be absurd and incongruous. She offers a focal point for your voice just as the music offers a blueprint for your feet and hips: hard, (playfully) aggressive and, above all, energetic. Not that any of that had anything whatsoever to do with the way this song slowly converted me, back in those last dwindling days of adolescence.

Defining Moment: One of those tracks where it’s all in the intro. The drum sample is so ridiculously crunchy and compressed that they might’ve gotten it by chucking a snare into a garbage compacter.

Other Great Songs by Gwen Stefani: Gwen of the Immortal Abs has a really spotty solo discog, obviously, but there are a few gems here and there. The Sweet Escape gives Hollaback Girl a fairly serious run for her best, and What You Waiting For? is an awesome dance-rock fusion that shames most of No Doubt’s attempts in the same direction. Oh, and Eve’s Let Me Blow Ya Mind (which Stefani features on) is still a fantastic tune, if anyone was wondering.


Filed under 2000s, neptunes, synth pop

Perfect Pop Singles Vol.7: Bad Romance

Translucent fabrics have been scientifically proven to increase eyestrain in nipple-seeking men by as much as 97%.

Lady GaGa – Bad Romance (2009, Interscope Records)

Why It’s Perfect: It’s the sound of a very personal sort of artistic (or at least, aesthetic) vision crushing everything else on the airwaves under its diamond-encrusted stiletto heels. Given the recent ascendance of low quality mp3s and cellphone ringtones as revenue streams for the struggling record companies, contemporary pop production often skews towards a more streamlined, one-dimensional sound that better survives a loss in audio fidelity. It’s the musical equivalent of a McDonald’s McFlurry. Lady GaGa’s Bad Romance is by comparison this towering, sumptuous layer cake, so rich that “baby it’s sick.” It’s easy to be weird on an indie label, but when you get an artist as idiosyncratic as Lady GaGa on a major, you know you’re dealing with someone who aims to icon status; after hearing Bad Romance’s gonzo, stadium-thumping “GaGa, oh-la-la” intro, can you doubt her hubris?

But hey, if pride comes before a fall, it’s also the means by which you get high enough for said fall to matter. Bad Romance stands above its peers in just about every fashion. On one hand, it’s bold and forceful enough that it virtually pushes lesser songs off the airwaves to make space for its sprawling ambition. But on the other, it’s neither blunt nor crude; it skips from idea to idea with madcap abandon, with production leagues deep, chalk full of strange scuttling percussion and weird synth vamps that sound like they’re being run in reverse. You can enjoy this as a ringtone, sure, but it’s only when you hear it bumping through pricy club-quality speakers that you get a feel for everything producer RedOne has woven into it.

The lyrics have a pupil-dilating oddness about them, answering to some muse far beyond, say, Cascada’s ken. (As an aside, what is a listener meant to draw from Evacuate the Dancefloor anyway? “There’s a potentially fatal infection in the club? Is it H1N1? Bitch, slam that drink, we’re getting the fuck out of here!”) Like Justin Timberlake’s SexyBack, Bad Romance’s words have just the right suggestion of deviance and depravity that the bizarre Ultravox-on-crack soundscapes require; “want your leatherstudded kiss in the sand” and “want you in my rear window” are two of the better queasy-sexy come-ons since Prince became irrelevant. As a whole, it simply pleases me that millions of teenagers in Middle America have been drawn to something so baroque, so inflected with GaGa’s performance art sensibilities, so unconcerned with taste and politics. This is like the Bohemian Rhapsody of pop smut, and seldom has an artist managed to so guilty pleasure the charts. If she can keep pushing the envelope with innovative efforts like Bad Romance, she’ll have her manicured fingers diddling the world’s unmentionables for some years.

GaGa, oh la la indeed.

Defining Moment: Having moved effortlessly from the glory notes on the chorus through the chanting reprise of the intro, GaGa is at her throaty best on lines like “I want your horror, I want your design / ‘Cos you’re a criminal as long as you’re mine.” Then it hits, that groaning and dragged out “I want your love / Love, love, love / I want your looooove-UNNN.” It’s like being sung a lapdance. Whether or not the line attracts you, it’s got such a guttural, musky delivery that the synth lick which follows comes like a shudder.

Other Great Songs by Lady GaGa: I think Bad Romance is her stone cold classic, but the similarly propulsive Poker Face is a less creepy, if equally strange trip through similar territory and Just Dance is as sure a floor-filler as anything released in and around 2008.

On that note, a premature happy birthday to Ms. GaGa, who turns 24 tomorrow. Makes me feel bad to be just scribbling reviews at 23…


Filed under 2000s, electropop, synth pop