Donkeyboy gets ambitious

I’m afraid of using names like a-ha in my opening sentence in case I lose a few readers, so if you’re afraid reading further might endlessly loop “Take on Me” in your head, you might want to check out now. But I’m less prone to judge musical outfits based on country of origin (in fact, one of my favorite bands is Swedish and I think we can all agree that “Velkommen til Medina” is catchy) and after hearing their debut single, the song you really won’t stop humming is Donkeyboy’s “Ambitions.” It’s the type of song ABBA would have written if Benny and Bjorn were actually Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe: purposeful pop, with hints of regret before the decisive act even takes place. It’s a stunning debut single made loopy by the fact that it stayed at #1 on the Norwegian charts for twelve consecutive weeks while the band remains irritatingly low-key before the release of their album. It makes me wonder if they’re riding the wave out as long as they can before we find out the rest of their repertoire consists entirely of Smiths covers.

There’s nothing inherently different about “Ambitions,” though I’m compelled to voice a sidebar for personal situations; like any teen anthem, it’s both acutely hopeless and poignantly anticipating. The music video features a cast of characters from different age groups who suffer from a disease that occurs when one gives up his or her ambitions, but the party in the woods for the social drifters who are wilting faster than their rashes can cover them is reminiscent of preteen escapades and rowdy dorm parties. Losing one’s ambition can occur at any age, but the video seems to illicit more sadness towards the young, who never got a chance at all.

The text of the song is a bit deceiving: there seems to be two “yous” in question and both sort of flip-flop during the chorus. The “you” can either be a sarcastic look at the ability one has versus the motivation to utilize it, or a call to let someone more deserving step in. Though a sort of trite homage to 80s Euro-pop, the song itself denotes none of the earnest enthusiasm of the decade. It’s more miasmatic than merry, setting the droning, repetitive beat to a future of repetitive days like all the ones before and after it: sparse, simple, increasingly empty. It’s the kind of troubling, scratchy one-liners you stumble upon in a teenager’s diary that continue to haunt you after you’ve shrugged it off. After all, maybe you just settled, too.

Official Site

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You got the fire: 2NE1

I was all about Rain when he released “Rainism,” a genuinely great, classically Korean pop song: flavors of hip-hop, smoothed over with plenty of techno gloss and synth spackle. Until I saw him perform it live. All the charm of the faux arrogance, and the wet delivery of lyrics like “I’m gonna be a bad, bad boy” suddenly seemed so…manufactured. It would be stupid not to expect that in pop music, but the sheer translucence of live performances always makes me stop and wonder why they don’t even bother trying anymore.

Korean quartet 2NE1 released their (digital) debut single at the beginning of May with all the similar basic elements (the good, but not great dancing; the appropriate, but tacky costumes; the catchy, but limited single “Fire,”) to what seems like positive reception. Though they’re relative nobodies, they’ve got the right people behind them who have even solicited a collaboration with massively huge impopsters BigBang on a song appropriately titled “Lollipop“: it’s colorful, sweet, and gone in a couple dozen licks. The music video is stunningly bright, like every ’09 pop cliche amplified: laser lemon and electric lime clothes of various designs, patterns, and fabrics that only match the equally pizzazzed backdrop, psychedelic haircuts, and outrageous sunglasses propped on garishly painted faces; this is the first group that has made me feel both so young and so old. Much like the Jonas Brothers, whose demographic is catered to a completely new set of teens, 2NE1 is targeted to the same audience, albeit in what is both elements of current acts and a fostering of a brand new set of principles that will one day signify culture of the 2010’s (see also: Japanese group w-inds.’s “Rain Is Fallin'”).

2NE1’s musical choices have been very smart so far. Though they only have two songs available (and one being a duet), “Fire” itself, is a great single, and even “Lollipop” is ultimately fun and likable. The group as a whole presents an in-your-face attempt at girl power while catering to the youthful fantasy of living beyond one’s age (I’m no native Korean speaker, but the English shouts of “I gotta drop it like it’s hot” are pretty clear). It’s a sort of rebellion to the unsullied Korean pop acts of yore, like Koyote, and even Baby V.O.X., that  already seem kind of trite, though strategically so; there’s a new youth culture on the loose and it begins here.

Lost 80s nostalgia: Fun Fun

Happy Station (12″ Mix) / Baila Bolera (12″ Mix)
Fun Fun Mega Hit Mix

The 80s was a great time for music and I sometimes find myself believing there was no greater era for it. Sure, it’s all subjective and most can argue for the 60s (rock n’ roll and the great precursors to just about everything else) or the 70s (stoner rock, woo-hoo), but when synth pop made its debut at the end of the 70s and perfected in the 80s by big names like New Order and Tears for Fears, that was about the time I started developing an interest in genre-based music. Growing up, one of my favorite activities was listening to the radio, finger poised over the record button, waiting for a favorite song to come on so I could forever capture it on tape. Sometimes I would sift through some of my mother’s old tapes that she received from friends or long-forgotten work acquaintances and this is when I discovered The Greatest 80s Tape Ever©.

The 60 minutes that comprised the tape were filled to the brim with huge 80s synth/electronic music. As a kid without the Internet, I could only dream of knowing who sang these songs, as they were mostly obscure and without a proper tracklist. I would listen to them over and over again, ingraining them in my mind and later forgetting about them completely as I moved on to other, better sounds, attempting to desperately keep up with the fast pace of changing music trends. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, discovering that I could record tracks from tapes into my portable music player and going on a rampage, sifting through old boxes full of tapes and recording songs to share with friends who might (hopefully! please!) recognize these unknown tracks.

I was ecstatic when someone was able to point me in the direction of the artist and song titles for several songs, whereupon for a particular group, I promptly ordered the CD, no questions asked. It turns out that one of the greatest 80s synth purveyors were none other than Fun Fun, an Italo disco duet who Milli-Vanillied their way to European popularity and were never heard from again (which is basically the only information I could find about them). A best collection was released in 1996, chronicling their short success, and I have yet to see a single song of theirs on any American-made 80s compilation. This is astounding to me, as I find some of the greatest pop music from the 80s actually came from Europe, forever lost to a generation of Duran Duran worshippers.

Although there were plenty more songs from European pop groups on the tape, Fun Fun always stood out to me, with their bouncy, nonsensical lyrics (“Station! Happy station! There are special people! You can meet at the station!“) and catchy melodies that all sounded exactly the same, save an extra piano tinker here or there. It still boggles me that this group was not more popular here, so if you’re looking for some amazing music from the 80s but are fucking sick of “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” I highly recommend these tracks.

Buy Color of Love: The Best of Fun Fun

Artist spotlight: Under the Influence of Giants

In the Clouds / Mama’s Room

Once again, I rue the day I composed a top songs of 2006 list because even days before 2007 sets in, I am already discovering great music I missed out on for the year. If I went back to revise my list, you can bet I’d put Under The Influence of Giants on there. No longer just an indie group, they have taken their genre to another level with the 2006 release of their second LP, a self-titled work of alternative dance wonder.

The first time I heard “In the Clouds,” I didn’t even know how to react. Some of the greatest songs I cherish for years aren’t usually insta-hits with me. Some take a few extra listens or even a complete intermission while my tastes develop and I go back and think, My, how could I not have simply loved this before? But probably from the second I put this song on, it grabbed me. “In the Clouds” wastes no time on a fancy introduction or build-up that comprises most of Bloc Party’s discography. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Bloc Party (”Pioneers” does the build-up thing and it’s simply a brilliant track), but sometimes you’re in a mood where you just want things to be sped up a bit more quickly. The chorus, the echoes; it’s so catchy it’s almost ridiculous. Not sure how much this will account for its relevance in the long run, but I refuse to be stressin’ over absurdities like that at the moment.

Some of their other songs are a bit more subdued. “Mama’s Room” still has an upbeat feel, but it’s not something you would get up and bust a groove to instantly. “Stay lllogical” has a similar moody atmosphere, but is equally lovely. The synths are subtle; we’re not talking The Knife here, not by any means. The Scissor Sisters comparisons do it some justice, but altogether, it’s the uniqueness of this band that I enjoy the most.

So yeah, once I’m again, I’m the last one to hear an absolutely wonderful release from the year. Do I wish I could revise my 2006 list? Certainly. Just now I’m hearing the releases from Simian Mobile Disco and Midnight Juggernauts (“Tombstone” blew the roof of my house two days ago), but there’s not much I can do at this point but continue to share the love, or in this case, the absolute brilliance of a band gone crazy good.

Official Site
Buy Under the Influence of Giants

Artist spotlight: This Et Al

Wardens

There’s something comforting about returning to musical sounds that inspire a bit of nostalgia, regardless of whether or not you can pinpoint the exact memory your brain is attempting to conjure. Music has the power to do that, to make you remember feelings rather than specific moments and This Et Al is one such band, aiding in your loss for words. The moment “Wardens” started up, I could swear I was remembering some better time in my life, though when or where, I have no idea. Admist the riffs and hectic direction of the lyrics, the song is a tumbling trip through a sort of peaceful chaos, and to top it off, it manages to capture and blend the catchy, utopian world of early rock with the edgy approach of punk, or rather, post-punk now, I guess. Remember when it was OK to have a chorus you could sing along to? “Wardens” makes it OK again.

The release of the limited edition Baby Machine (which you can purchase from their official site with a release in 2007) brings even more loud, grunge tunes that rival even the intensity of “Wardens.” “Solemn As My Rifle” comes to mind, as it slows the tempo down a bit, mixes in those drum build-ups and ends with a rather melancholic guitar melody that proves this band is more than just another post-whatever indie band with a few clever hooks and thoughtful lyrics. Although that particular song is only available for preview on their MySpace, “Can You Speak European?” does a well enough job of translating that same experience, with perhaps a bit more angst.

If this album is any indication of the group’s potential success, they have some pretty great things to look forward to. And on a personal level, I am really digging it.

Official Site

Artist spotlight: The Shanghai Restoration Project

Miss Shanghai Close Up / Pudong New District
Babylon of the Orient

About a month ago, someone asked me what I thought were the best albums released this year and I actually stated that there were too many good releases to pick just two or three. However, when I sat down to begin making my list of best releases as the obligatory end of the year editorial, I skimmed the list and came up with basically nothing. Maybe that isn’t 100% correct, though. Maybe it’s just that as the year prorgressed, my musical tastes changed dramatically and looking back, the things that once impressed me immensely now just feel mediocre. At the beginning of the year I was still very heavily into rock, post hardcore, and acoustic indie like Letter Kills, The Receiving End of Sirens, and Death Cab. However, since the end of summer, my musical tastes have taken a sharp turn to the electronic, synth, and post-punk. Cut Copy, Junior Boys, Joy Division, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, The Changes, Venus Hum, Jesus & Mary Chain…these are the bands that have taken the heaviest rotations on my mix CDs and iRiver playlists. And of course, the Shanghai Resoration Project.

The Shanghai Resoration Project is headed by David Liang, and if you completely ignore his reason for producing this music, you will enjoy it. “There is a void of Chinese American music given all the recent political and commercial attention on China. My aim with this project is to capture and reflect that tension while introducing new sounds that result from the fusion of the two cultures.” If you look at the music that way, all you see is American hip-hop/electronic mixed in with stereotypical Chinese elements, such as ethnic lutes behind catcalls of “Just holler. C’mon and holler back,” which just makes David Liang seem like he honestly has no idea that modern electronic and hip hop is already being produced in China and they don’t need a foreigner to show them how to write what would have made an equally stereotypical soundtrack to Rush Hour 2.

But if you ignore all that and just appreciate the cultural backdrop set admist good electronic beats, then you end up with a phenomenal album, Reinterpretations, a likable candidate for the greatest 2006 release. “Miss Shanghai Close Up” is a beautiful serenish groove with light female vocals that invite you to sing a long to the “Lalas” as you play it at an obnoxious volume in your car. “Pudong New District” is another beautiful dance rhythm to compete with “Li Xun Revisited (Watch Me Dance)”’s own late night sound. Good shit, man.

And bcause I can work Ayumi Hamasaki into every blog entry this week, check out some of the Princess China Music Orchestra’s traditional, yet modern take on her tunes. They are an authentic Chinese musical group, by the way.

M / INSPIRE / ourselves

The Shanghai Project Official Site / Buy their albums
♫ Buy Ayumi Hamasaki Meets Princess China Orchestra

Artist spotlight: The Changes

When I Sleep / Such a Scene

I happened to stumble across The Changes as if in a dream. I was sorting through some old files I had downloaded but never got around to labeling when I took a listen to “When I Sleep.” I’m not usually big on the whole mellow groove reminiscent of what some call The Police or some call new wave with a jazzy feel, but this song hit the spot oh so blissfully. Most of their songs don’t actually sound like this, which makes it a rare pleasure. Songs like “When I Wake” and “On A String” have more of a boppy pop feel, not unlike The Boy Least Likely To or The Russian Futurists or perhaps whatever a band with a late 60s or 70s influence wants to protrude on a serene, city evening. Need a song to listen to as you linger on the city sidewalk and press your jacket closer to trap in heat? Hit up “In the Dark,” a classically indie tune tailored to fit that city sequence perfectly.

The Changes released their first full length, Today Is Tonight on September 26 and it’s a perfect addition to any autumnal mix tape or playlist your grooving this season. Don’t believe me? Check out this delicious sound sample page and note the subtle changes in the image and tell me that’s not clever. Furthermore, The Changes are now on tour again and for those in the Chicago area, they’ll be performing two shows on the 25th of this November; get ready to spend the most useful $12 of the Christmas season (granted you’ve already bought Dir en grey tickets, but that’s a given).

Official Site
Buy Today Is Tonight