Tuesday, March 15, 2016

But Not Tonight by Æon Rings

The year is 1998 or 1999.  America's ill-advised flirtation with a rejection of the pop music model that had served it well for decades via the grunge, slacker-rock "Seattle sound" was winding down, but a few years of it had ruined the popular music scene.  Having found my preferred style of music was nearly stamped out, I had wandered into a few somewhat similar scenes; I focused on bulking up my back-catalog collection of 80s New Wave synthpop artists, including some that were more European and hadn't been widely disseminated in America, like Ultravox and Visage, for example.  I spent a bit of time exploring Eurodance outfits like C&C Music Factory and The Real McCoy, although I ultimately found that particular genre somewhat shallow and unsatisfying compared to what I really wanted more of.  I wandered a bit into electronic industrial—I'd already discovered Front 242 earlier, and a few others, but I wandered more into Frontline Assembly, and Sister Machine Gun, and Foetus and other more esoteric (and often considerably harder) outfits.  This was a decent time for that, actually, as Nine Inch Nails was making electronic industrial somewhat mainstream with Pretty Hate Machine, but I still didn't prefer this to synthpop.

Luckily for me, around that time I discovered A Different Drum, an indie label, store and email list-serve that catered to the underground market for synthpop very much like the kind that I had grown up with.  In the years since, even indie labels for music have become superfluous, where bands can record in a bedroom instead of a professional recording studio, and can self-release their own music and sell it via Kickstarter or even just stick it up on Amazon and iTunes.  This has led to a major wealth of selection and options, but in 1998 and 1999 the breadth of the genre was more limited.  I recall very specifically asking on the list-serve if anyone had any theories as to why there weren't more female vocalist synthpop acts—and someone responded somewhat flippantly because female singers don't sound enough like David Gahan.

It's impossible, even now, for the genre to step out of the enormous shadow of Depeche Mode.  Even for me, I evaluate synthpop by how good it sounds compared to the "golden years" of DM—by which I mean the early albums of the classic four-man line-up: Some Great Reward, Black Celebration, Music for the Masses, and although I differ from most in starting to see the decline in this one, Violator.  By the end of that run, Depeche Mode wasn't even making synthpop anymore at all, and more recently, it's a stretch to even call it electronic music that they produce, but they did, at one point in the mid and late 80s, quite literally define the genre to such a degree that vocalists had to attempt to sound like David Gahan to be taken seriously.  That was a semi-flippant response, but only semi-flippant, after all.  The album of that period that seems to have garnered the most serious critical acclaim over the years is Black Celebration.  I was quite surprised to learn, many years after I had been listening to it over and over and over again as a teenager and even beyond, that the ultimate track, the crowning achievement, the catharsis at the end of the symphony of despair, "But Not Tonight" was never actually intended to be released on the album at all, and was only done so for the American release at the American label's insistence, and against the wishes of the band itself.  The song was picked to accompany the movie soundtrack of a rather obscure comedy Modern Girls, and because the label thought that that meant it might be a hit, they prioritized including it.  The band itself was annoyed with the song, which they wrote and recorded in very little time, and considered it a throwaway pop song, not worthy of serious consideration (the non-album song that they liked much better, but which didn't really fit with the tone of Black Celebration as it evolved, was "Shake the Disease.")  Because the band never really cared for the song, getting remixes of it was challenging.  I bought an import single of "Stripped" from Germany because it included a remix as a b-side, although it was a simple extended version that added very little other than length to the song, by Robert Margouleff.  In the years since, I've not found anything else, even in the world of bootleg mixes.

That said, the song—in spite of the band's opinion of it—is clearly a classic and popular one.  What I've discovered is that although remixes are very scarce, cover versions are not.  Scott Weiland, vocalist for Stone Temple Pilots, made one of the most distinctive ones, but the one I've found for today is from indie-synthpop duo Æon Rings, from New York.  I've also got a cover version by Paradigm that appeared on the Your World in Our Eyes compilation, I've got a nice one by Jimmy Somerville, and one by Elegant Machinery.  I'm sure my collection of "But Not Tonight" covers is not complete, however.  I believe Color Theory did one as well.  Many of these add very little to the original, but the Æon Rings version is somewhat different; it's considerably more ethereal and dreamy than even the original.  It's a good cover.  One of my favorite right now, actually.

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