Monday, November 22, 2010

Souvenir by OMD

I've talked a bit about what I like about OMD already, but "Souvenir" is one of the songs that most encapsulates their strengths in one, three minute byte. From their early CD Architecture & Morality, it showcased their wistful, ethereal, dreamy side, before they developed a more cynical pop structure and sound.

I read an interview of McClusky and Humphries, the two creative heads behind OMD's sound, and interestingly enough, they speak of that more commercial sound as an unhappy time for them, musically at least. Humphries in particular mentions singing songs that he didn't even necessarily like, but which he felt he had to do to appeal to his audience and generate sales, and because they "owed" it to the audiences or something. This is a little bit ironic, since Architecture & Morality was the most successful album OMD ever pressed, from a commercial point of view, although the follow-up, Dazzle Ships, must have really shaken them with its commercial failure.

This deepening malaise (one of my favorite words, even though I was too young during the Carter years to really remember when it was all the rage) contributed to the split at the end of the 80s between Humphries and McClusky, who oddly enough, remained good friends even as their respective lawyers argued about who was responsible for what, and what the value of the equity in things like the band name were worth and all that.

But, on "Souvenir" we see OMD at their finest, still pushing the envelope, still going in new directions, still happy and excited about creating the future of music. Unlike most OMD songs, Humphries instead of McClusky does the vocals. The band has also expressed disappointment in the video in recent years, since it is open to the possible interpretation that there are homoerotic undertones between the two musicians, which was not their intention at all. That said, the video did get heavy rotation in the early years of OMD, and it remains one of their most recognizeable videos today.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Suffer the Children by Tears for Fears

Nobody in the US remembers Tears for Fears much before 1985's Songs from the Big Chair which had hit songs "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," "Shout," "Mothers Talk" and "Head Over Heels" but in the UK, their earlier 1983 effort The Hurting was also a major success. One of the less remembered songs from it, however, is literally the first song Tears For Fears recorded, which went on to be a failed first single: "Suffer the Children." It was always my favorite The Hurting era Tears for Fears song. All of the songs on The Hurting were really pretty depressing; in fact, almost every song references primal therapy, a psychological tool meant to dredge up childhood trauma and relive it as a means of purging repressed pain, apparently a reflection of songwriter Roland Orzapal's own bitter childhood.

As a curious bit of trivia, John Lennon, James Earl Jones and piano player Roger Williams are all famous primal therapy patients. Tears for Fears themselves were very disillusioned when they met primal therapy creator Arthur Janov and he wanted them to write a musical to promote his practice.

Also; check out the fragile acoustic cover of contemporary Tears for Fears track "Mad World" on the Donnie Darko soundtrack if you get a chance. Beautiful song.

Tears for Fears later abandoned their synthpop sound. Some sources claim that only The Hurting itself is synthpop while Songs from the Big Chair abandoned that sound to become a contemporary rock album. I think that's a ridiculous statement. Have these guys not heard "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" or "Shout" or "Head Over Heels" recently? It wasn't until the 1989 release The Seeds of Love that Tears for Fears dropped the synthpop sound, and even then they used quite a few synthesizers still.

Safety Dance by Men Without Hats

"Safety Dance" is one of those iconic songs from the 80s. Men Without Hats themselves are almost exclusively remembered for it and it alone (which is a shame, because at a minimum, "Pop Goes the World" was just as good a song.) Part of that might be the bizarre, trippy video that they made for the song, which was a kind of Renaissance Festival Maypole celebration with a dwarf and a girl who danced like she was high the entire time.

Apparently the song was, of all things, a protest song about how New Wave pogo dancing fans were getting kicked out of clubs by bouncers because their dancing looked vaguely dangerous.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Crash by Mesh

Mesh, like De/Vision that I posted about last time, is a bit of a relic in some ways. They formed in 1991, and just missed synthpop mainstreamism. Their earliest material (which actually wasn't released for some time; it came in out 2001 on Original: 91-93) sounds very much like a product of this time period. Perhaps ironically, it's not overly Depeche Mode like, and in fact when Mesh finally got a release, in 1994, Fragile didn't sound very Depeche Modish at all either. If anything, it sounded like slightly more melodic and British Pretty Hate Machine era Nine Inch Nails. 1996's In This Place Forever was more of the same, although the melodic side was made stronger, and this is where some tentative comparisons to Depeche Mode start making sense.

Mesh did some compilation and live albums over the next few years, and 1999's The Point At Which It Falls Apart and 2002's Who Watches Over Me? are the two that sound the most like Depeche Mode albums to me, out-Depeche Moding Depeche Mode themselves (although the song "People Like Me (With This Gun)" is probably the most Pretty Hate Machine sounding song Mesh ever recorded.) With 2006's We Collide and 2009's A Perfect Solution, Mesh introduced some rock sensibility in the song structure and tone of some of the songs, while still remaining darkly synthpop on most of the rest. If anything, those later albums suffer from being over-produced at times; they're too lush and "busy." Some of the earlier, slightly more raw tracks have more punch. Although I will say that "Crash" is one of my favorite songs of all time.

So anyway, that all sounded pretty rambly and probably incoherent, right? Well, check out the song then, and don't worry about it. If you like it, I certainly recommend that you check out more Mesh. They're relatively easy to find nowadays, and you can get quite a few of their works as mp3 downloads from Amazon, or as cheap CDs on the used market.

EDIT: Curses! The user who posted the video I had closed his account! Anyway, here's a live version of the song. It lacks some of the fragility live, but hopefully you can still get the idea.

EDIT EDIT: Replaced the live version of "Confined" with the music video of "Crash." Maybe I'll upload "Confined" myself one of these days, since it's gone now.

Until the End of Time by De/Vision

I'm going to make two posts today that will change my format just a little; these are not 80s songs. But both of the bands I'll be highlighting in these posts formed in the 80s or earliest 90s, actually signed and released their first material in the mid-90s after it was too late for them to get major mainstream recognition for their work. They both did, however, go on to become major players in the post-mainstream synthpop scene.

They're also quite similar in style in many ways, and I consider the two bands I'll be talking about in these two posts, Mesh and De/Vision, to be amongst the premier "false Depeche Modes" out there.

Perhaps its not really fair to characterize De/Vision (and Mesh, but I'll get to them in the next post) as merely another Depeche Mode imitator, but certainly there's an element to that in their work. Despite coming up through the ranks as synthpoppers, they've gradually converged somewhat with the harder-sounding futurepop in many ways. De/Vision actually formed in the mid to late 80s, and although they wandered throughout Germany with some demos, opening acts and other live shows for a while, they didn't actually release anything until 1993. Their anthem for many years was the song "Try to Forget" which highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of De/Vision. Like fellow countrymen Camouflage, it was dark-edged, frequently danceable synthpop, very much in the same vein as mid to late 80s Depeche Mode except without (yet) any hint of guitars. "Try to Forget" is a catchy song, and an easily danceable one. It really sounds great. However, if you listen to it too closely, the fact that the songwriter and singer isn't a native English speaker becomes very obvious. The lyrics are often awkwardly written and sung with a strong accent. This is true of much of De/Vision's work even to this day. "Try to Forget" also tries too hard. The subject matter becomes melodramatic to the point of silliness. Yeah, OK, so the subject of the song is lonely. Is that really going to cause her to scream in horror?

In any case, in most respects De/Vision started off very strong and have continued to improve as time has marched on. They haven't changed too dramatically... starting with 1998's Monosex, their samples became much more organic sounding, picking up some "fuzz" so to speak, but that was common right about then, and it makes the songs sound more modern rather than the older, more sterile sound of the 80s and early 90s.

With 2000's Void they added a harsher sound and more guitars. A lot of synthpop fans rejected Void, and called it a betrayal of synthpop altogether, disparagingly labeling the effort a "rock" album. A lot of synthpop fans are pretty stupid, though, quite frankly. If Void is a "rock" album and not synthpop, then so is everything Depeche Mode has done from Violator on down, and so is the entire catalog of New Order. That accusation is both puerile and preposterously wrong anyway.

However, De/Vision were a bit gun-shy from departing too much from their trademark sound after that minor experimentation fell kinda flat with many fans. Although they did go a bit up and down in terms of how dark and depressing their sound would be, by and large the post-Void output of De/Vision is remarkably unified in style.

And De/Vision's output has been rather remarkable altogether. From 1993 to 2010, they've released no less than twelve studio albums, several compilations, remix albums, greatest hits and live albums. There's a lot of material out there, and much of it is very, very good; amongst the best in the modern, post-mainstream synthpop scene.

2010's Popgefahr is their latest album (not surprisingly, since it just came out this year) and has a lot of great songs. I short-listed four potential tracks (out of ten) to highlight in this post, and finally settled on "Until the End of Time" which is the final, closing track. Not exactly a dance monster, but certainly highlighting De/Vision's ability to craft these dark, melancholy tracks that see them so often compared to Depeche Mode. Hope you enjoy.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Only You by Savage

This is one of the funniest italo-disco music videos I've seen. Savage, a skinny, kinda nerdy-looking Italian guy who's made his hat into his signature look, has to stop his girlfriend from marrying a really sleezy looking fella in a strange computer cult ceremony with really bad English grammer.

While the video is mostly silly and unintentionally funny, the song itself is kinda nice; and highlights some of Savage's best features; he had a nice voice, could write emotional and memorable synth and vocal hooks. Of course, Savage had already demonstrated this with his earlier song "Don't Cry Tonight" which sounds so similar, in fact, that "Only You" is almost eerily deja vu in nature. He later went on to have a few other minor hits (that managed to sound a little bit different) including "Goodbye" and hey; apparently he chose his stage name after Doc Savage the pulp hero. Ya gotta like that.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Everyday is Halloween by Ministry

This is sadly belated; I meant to post it before (or on!) Halloween, but I was busy, plus I got a terrible cold over Halloween weekend and was laying around in bed half the day miserably. Ministry is best known as an industrial metal band, but they went through two earlier incarnations before that. 1986's Twitch was a hard EMB sound, not too unlike some Front 242, Nitzer Ebb or even Frontline Assembly of similar vintage, and before that, Ministry released the rather tepid synthpop album With Sympathy in 1983. It's not clear whether Arista pressured Ministry's Al Jourgensen to release a synthpop album because that's what they wanted in their stable at the time (for 1983, that doesn't seem unlikely) or if Al himself was doing that because he hadn't discovered the concept of "harder" music yet on his own. In any case, he certainly disavowed the album in later years.

Near the end of his synthpop era, in 1984, Ministry released the non-album single "Everyday is Halloween" which seems to be a song about being goth. It got a pretty cool (although also pretty faithful, really) cover version by Dangerous Muse more recently, and it's been covered by a variety of goth musicians in a number of styles since. After this release, Ministry left Arista and signed up with Wax Trax!, the famous industrial label, and put out some pretty dark and hard-edged EBM, before becoming even harder and more metal. This is by far the best of their synthpop output, though.

Pure Energy by Information Society

Back to the 80s again, here's Information Society's "Pure Energy." Oddly, the video and the music are out of synch in this version, but hey... close your eyes and listen if it bothers you.

I actually got to see Information Society live in 1993 or so... right about the time of the "Peace and Love, Inc." era. They played this song too, of course. As part of the American response to the second British invasion, this was a local home-grown dance music hit, reaching #3 on the pop chart and #1 on the dance chart. Although "Pure Energy" (or more accurately, "What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)") is probably InSoc's most iconic song, their debut major release album actually had four singles from it, and their sophomore effort had two decent hits as well. Peace and Love, Inc. on the other hand, was poorly supported by the label (despite having a #1 on the dance chart hit) and sank without much notice, no doubt due to the changing climate for dance music in general in the US.

It's questionable to what degree exactly Information Society was (or remained) synthpop, coming as they do out of the same "freestyle" tradition that I discussed briefly with Noel, but as I've also said, I think some of those genre splitting exercises are somewhat silly after a certain point.