One thing La Roux decidedly isn’t is young, foolish and green (it’s a touching lyric in her new single Let me Down Gently). It was five years ago La Roux won a Grammy, had world-wide hits with In For The Kill and Bulletproof and was a red-headed Annie Lennox re-incarnate with an 80s new wave quiff and a sound to match. Then it all went silent. For f-i-v-e years. It’s a touch of self mocking irony the new album is called Trouble in Paradise. For La Roux it seemed to be a case of be careful what you wish for. After the success of the hit filled debut album, Elly split with her songwriting partner, (the other part of La Roux, Ben Langmaid) suffered debilitating panic attacks and lost her ability to sing. As she says in an interview with the Guardian: “I thought my career was over.” Whatever those troubles were, they seem a long-lost memory now. Elly Jackson is back! And she is just as seductively Annie, although a bit softer in the emotionally charged Let Me Down Gently. The tone is muted, but the spirit is as blazing as the red bullet of hair charging through the foggy moors in the elegant video. I heard someone describe Let me Down gently as forlorn, but I don’t hear the sadness. Only courage in the face of inevitability. He has already decided to leave.
The very first thing I want to offer you is an explanation. I Made You A Mixtape has been silent for better part of three months now. Oh, I have thought of you often. I have berated myself many times for having the inclination but not the occasion. I have felt the pull of the silver strings and the frustration of music slipping by. In the end my explanation is a very prosaic one. I have started another website with a friend of mine, and the setting up and creation of a whole online presence has been time-consuming, an all-embracing learning curve of a bonanza. And the whole time I felt a bit sheepish, like I was cheating on I Made You A Mixtape, even though I always knew I would return to my first love, music. So, Marthafied is now up and running and doing its own thing and I am finally back from the cyberspace trenches, so… whadda’ya say- shall we dance?
Imagine the tiled dance floor that lights up with different colours in time to the beat. Maybe there’s a disco ball glittering up above, and the smoke surrounding the floor is the tobacco kind, not the dry synthetic kind. That’s Nile Rodgers riffing on the guitar. The groove chugs along as you close your eyes and try to remember some Travolta moves, but in the end it doesn’t matter anyway, the rhythm is gonna move you. But then you wake up…hang on a second… what year is it?! It’s 2013 and Daft Punk are breaking Spotify streaming records with their chic disco ripple, their first single in eight years. They do have disco legend Nile Rodgers on guitar and the falsetto toned Pharrell Williams on vocals and according to some, also possibly the biggest (and most anticipated) album of the year in their hands. Wether it’s because the music landscape has missed these electro robots (Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter from Paris, France) or they are spinning one of the most successful promo campaigns in modern history, (a cookie crumb trail of teaser clips during SNL and Coachella which out buzzed the bands actually performing there) many are hailing Get Lucky the first big hit of Summer of 2013. Whilst most of the artists on the charts try to sound like it’s 1990s again, Daft Punk are playing with the past. Literally. Not only do they have the already mentioned Nile Rogers on board, they hired 80s session pros to fill in the musical puzzle. Y’know, the guys who were the slick machine behind Michael Jackson and his peers. In an interview De Homem-Christo said “The 70s and the 80s were the tastiest era for us.” For you and me both, brother, for you and me both.
Simplicity isn’t simple. It simply burrows to the brain quicker, stays there longer and delivers it’s impact in shorthand. The indie talent delivering a straightforward wallop as synth pop trio Divine Fits is staggering. All the more so as I have never heard of any of them. Google them and words like “gods” and “supergroup” ping like baseline volleys from one site to the next. I naively thought I had discovered a fresh little band from LA reminding me of Soft Cell circa 1981. Britt Daniel of Spoon, Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade and Sam Brown of New Bomb Turks (I believe you blog world, but seriously who?) are taking a break from being indie royalty by flexing their new wave muscles on “My Love Is Real”, a no frills love song much in the vein of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love“. Maybe its my ‘no attention span nor tolerance for bullshit’ middle age years that made me take to this song like duck to water. You don’t need all the bells and whistles when all you really need to say about love is right here. Isn’t it always real until it stops?
If you walk down Great Queen Street today, what you’ll find is a relatively quiet street in the West End with a perfunctory Starbucks and a nondescript Italian restaurant chain. Stop in front of number 4 Great Queen Street, and there are no blue heritage plaques, (buildings of historical value can be awarded a ‘blue plaque’ by British Heritage) or exulted scribblings by zealous fans like on Abbey Road in North West London. I am surprised, for number 4 Great Queen Street is where the 80s were born. The fishnets, the neon make-up, the New Wave music, the big hair and the ruffled shirts, they all started with a group of flamboyant kids in the late 70s and early 80s gathering at The Blitz Club (the most famous ‘Blitz Kid’ being Boy George) who were also known as the New Romantics. The club had its own house band, 5 working class lads from Islington who pounded away on a small basement stage night after night, shaping the look and sound of a decade. There were always flashier bands in the 80s, some with bigger worldwide pop appeal but none more integral in my opinion than Spandau Ballet. ‘Round and Round’ did not make much of a dent in the charts in 1984, but in its sweet simplicity it was always my favorite, and sounds just as poignant to me today. And Martin Kemp’s icy blue eyes… I could still drown myself in those.
Neon Trees look like timetravelers recently returned from 1980s London where Boy George was let loose on their hair and leather jackets were donated by Depeche Mode. Then somewhere over 1995 they thought better of it, engaged a tone-it-down Utah filter and walked out of their time machine as bona fide 2012 pop stars. I had never even heard of Neon Trees until I asked a true hipster on the scene, my partner in crime Christian in Ohio who I should be listening to, who have I completely missed on my radar. In a matter of hours my inbox pinged with a dead-on bullseye with Neon Trees and their hyper charged “Everybody Talks” pop number. I love the experience of discovery. I love the rush of revelation when the initial introduction gets your heart smiling and your adrenalin pumping and then you almost don’t want to continue in case the rest of the material does not live up to your expectation. Neon Trees delivers to me on all fronts, it’s like finally a band gets me. You’ve got your glam rock, your pop punk, your blue collar disco, all coming together in bombastic choruses to make one *old* lady very happy indeed. A perfectly crafted pop song must be one of life’s greatest pleasures. The 3 magical minutes when all the stars align and capture the moment in sound… life really does not have to be more special than this.
Four years ago Ladyhawke did the unimaginable. She released an album so authentically 80s, it was like I hit the snooze button and woke up in 1985 with watermelon lip gloss matted to my pillow and Dire Straits on a hellish loop on MTV. She came skulking from the plains of Wellington, New Zealand like a reject from Shermer High School, eyes smudged black declaring a rebel attitude and a back pocket full of Breakfast Club songs for a new generation. The follow-up has taken not only longer than expected but a move to London and a stint in South of France, holed up in a studio producing what I call “Ladyhawke, the college years”, or the more mature sounding “Anxiety”. The first single “Black and White and Blue” has some serious guitar slinging in addition to an Abba-esque chorus, appealing to the nostalgic in me, but also enough punch to make it a thoroughly modern classic. With the sad news of Whitney’s passing this week I am probably more sentimental than normal, but I think I speak for a generation when I say- back in the day who would’ve thought we would one day live in a world where Whitney didn’t reign, Michael wasn’t indestructible and it was Madonna who grew old. I’m just saying.
When talking about Friendly Fires it seems to be mandatory to mention fellow indies the Klaxons and the Foals in the same sentence. All 3 bands inhabit the same hallowed space in the rock critics’ repertoire where superlatives like high-end fizz, euphoric synths and balearic bliss are bandied about like baseline volleys at Wimbledon finals. Each band has been nominated for a Mercury Prize and comprises of young men in gravity defying hairdos so indistinguishable from another, you could swap members at will and be none the wiser. Out of these 3 bands, Friendly Fires seem the most commercially successful, based on nothing more scientific than me not being able to name even one track by the other two bands, but trying to swat away Hawaiian Air by the Friendlies all summer. However, these St Albans lads have finally seduced me with their 80s influenced Hall and Oates sounding dance funky “Hurting”, which is like giving a parched girl a bottle of bubbly to quell the thirst. In the end the way to this girl’s heart is straight and simple. A rolling 80s dance groove combined with a few modern jangly bits and an effortlessly feel good vibe are what my pop fantasies are made of.
It’s been said the spoils of age become apparent when the past seems idyllic, the present incomprehensible and the future a reason for fear. Simon Reynolds has written a whole book on the subject “Retromania”, all 500 pages of it, on how popular music is addicted to its own glorified past. He throws in a lof of examples of retro compulsion; La Roux’s 80s synth infused sound, Gaga’s ‘trying to re-invent the wheel’ Madonna aspirations (OK, that was me) and even the folk infusion of Crosby Stills and Nash on the Fleet Foxes guitar laden ballads. We’ve all seen it and heard it, what I fail to grasp is, why should we disapprove of it? Hasn’t music all eternity plunderd the past for inspiration and influence? Reynolds seems to hark back to his own glory days of the early 80s when bands locked themselves up in basements and emerged blinking into the daylight with two new quitar riffs and a modish attitude, ready to lead on the rock revolution of the neon decade. And I was there. And it was exciting, new and mind blowingly fabulous, simply because we were young. It is blatantly unfair to claim young artists have lost all sense of innovation in favour of ripping off the golden oldies on Youtube. Reynolds may be perplexed by the present but I suggest a visit to the Woon–Blake frequency of now to alleviate those fears about the future of popular music. Midnight Lion, two twentysometings from Glasgow, have released a debut single so Tears For Fearsingly Simple Mindsy it offers a bitter-sweet nostalgia trip for the 80s generation, whilst keeping one foot deeply rooted in the electronic pop of 2011. Above all, this is now.
I’m a sucker for fist-pumping, feel-good, we-are-all-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket-but-devil-may-care pop anthems. Starship excelled at those in the 80s, churning them out for Brat Pack flicks and monster air-play hits. It may have been raining, every day may have felt like Groundhog Day Monday, but by God, if your city was built on rock’n’roll you were invincible and walking on air. The Hoosiers are the cheeky chappies of British oddpop (their term, not mine) who unabashedly borrow from the 80s winner-vibe. Two albums and some record company drama later, these sonic Marx Brothers are stepping out on their own and taking a road trip through the desert with a ‘Bumpy Ride’, a Hangover type caper complete with Vegas Elvises, Rosewell aliens and some uhm… bowling. Their comedy hi-jinks videos and ridiculously addictive pop hooks have always divided opinion between those who find Steve Irwin and Co. nauseatingly cheesy and those who worship at the altar of eighties influenced pop fizz. Well, I’m all about the snap, crackle and pop of the eighties and Bumpy Ride makes me wish I could jump into the Professor’s Delorean and take a ride back in time to a future that was so bright we had to wear shades.
The jazzy feel of The Bird and The Bee just begs to be played during cocktail hour, in the dusky twilight of a fast disappearing Saturday. Preferably someplace twinkly and glamorous that’ll gently lull you into the day of the night before. “She’s Gone” from The BB’s Hall and Oates tribute album (“Interpreting the Masters Vol. 1”) finds me either smiling wistfully or dropping heavy nostalgia teardrops into the champagne, depending on when the song hits me; at the beginning or end of the evening. The original appeared on one of Hall and Oates’s earlier albums “Abandoned Lunchonette” in 1973. Can someone please tell me if it really was always sunny in the 70s? Or have the passing decades conveniently erased everything but eternal summers and Italian beach holidays from my memories? Inara George’s soft and sexy vocals are intoxicating on this note perfect reconstruction of the disco decade’s version of blue-eyed soul. When we get to the second verse and she coos “my face ain’t getting any younger” the words circle my ribcage and hit a bullseye right where it hurts the most, in the middle of my heart. The album is full of mellow MOR gems. “Kiss On My List” is straight from a 70s roller rink party and “I Can’t Go For That” is a pure synth disco sparkler. Can’t wait for Interpreting the Masters Vol.2.