Friday, September 19, 2014

Celebrating 25 years of Rhythm Nation

Like A Prayer, Raw Like Sushi, 3 Feet High and Rising: 1989 produced a lot of albums that have stayed with me well into adulthood. But none had a bigger impact than Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814.

I listened to my vinyl copy every day for an entire year. I taught myself to replicate the syncopated, computerised drum patterns. I even wrote an hilariously bad musical based on the songs (the villain was called Black Cat). Wisely, my drama teacher resisted my suggestion to stage it as that year's school production.

Rhythm Nation turns 25 today but it's an album that can still surprise me. Jackson and her co-conspirators Jam and Lewis crammed the album full of Easter Eggs - percussion that darts across the stereo field, virtuoso flourishes hidden deep under the mix and, in Love Will Never Do (Without You), my all-time favourite musical moment.

Listen to the final chorus (about 4'25" into the song). Janet starts to ad lib, rising higher and higher through her vocal register. Suddenly, somehow, her voice is replaced by a muted trumpet, which continues the riff up into the ozone layer. The transition is seamless. To this day, I can't work out where she ends and he begins. It is simply magic.

I was an idealistic 14-year-old (is there any other sort?) when Rhythm Nation was released, and I absorbed the record's socially concious lyrics like a particularly thirsty sponge.

"Prejudice? No! Bigotry? No! Ignorance? No! Illiteracy No!" Janet cries on The Knowledge. And, although it looks naive in print, her message was resoundingly powerful on record, thanks to Jam & Lewis's thunderous, bass-heavy production.

The title track, powered by a monumental sample from Sly & The Family Stone's Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again), actually makes the idea of a utopian nation united by dance seem like a practical and achievable solution to poverty, bigotry, racism and war. It is that good.

It's worth noting that Janet was only 22 when she wrote these songs. What's more, she was realistic about what they could achieve. "I know I can't change the world single-handedly, but for those who are on the fence, maybe I can lead them in a positive direction," she told US magazine in 1990.

"We have so little time to solve these problems,” she added in an interview with Rolling Stone. "I want people to realize the urgency. I want to grab their attention. Music is my way of doing that."

The lyrics were inspired by a constant diet of CNN, fed into the studio as Janet tried to follow up her breakthrough album, Control. Predictably, the label had demanded more of that record's defiant coming-of-age anthems. They went so far as to propose a title, Scandal, and a subject matter - dishing the dirt on the Jackson's family feuds. What's surprising is that Janet initially ran with the idea.

You Need Me, which became the b-side to Miss You Much, is an angry riposte to her dad: "Daddy he was distant. never there to hold my hand... Mother made up for him, always watching over me".

None of that material made its way onto Rhythm Nation - but Livin' In A World (They Didn't Make) contains the line: "We teach our kids rules that we don't adhere to ourselves". I wonder what serial adulterer Joseph Jackson made of that one?

In the end, though, no-one loved this album for its message. Even Janet abandons up her social studies dissertation after the first three tracks. "Get the point?" she drawls. "Good. Let's dance".

And then we're off: Miss You Much, Love Will Never Do, Alright, Escapade, Black Cat. Those songs allowed Janet to shatter her brother's seemingly unassailable chart record, scoring seven top five singles from one album. Rhythm Nation even produced number ones in three consecutive years (1989, 1990 and 1991) - a feat still unmatched in the Billboard charts.

Why? It's simple. Those singles are playful, succulent, life-affirming, genre-defining firecrackers. Escapade, which is Janet at her poppiest, is an effortless blend of good time Motown sentiment and the juddering Minneapolis funk. Not by coincidence, the video is set at a carnival.

The success of Rhythm Nation paved the way for Janet's multi-million pound deal with Virgin, which in turn produced the lush, sexy double album, Janet. That record may have sold more - especially in the UK, where Rhythm Nation is largely a footnote - but to my ears it was messy and unfocused. What's more, it marked the beginning of Janet's descent into R&B soft porn (one of her later albums contains a song called Moist, which says it all, really).

Rhythm Nation only gets steamy once, on the closing track Someday Is Tonight. A sequel to the chastity ballad Let's Wait Awhile, the song coos and teases over a sultry, candlelit bedroom groove. "No more fantasizing of how it would be," Janet sing-whispers, "Cause tonight all your dreams come true".

The last two minutes of the song are given over to a deliciously suggestive trumpet solo, courtesy of Herb Alpert, while Janet sighs and moans into your headphones. If the 14-year-old me fell in love with the dance anthems, the 15-year-old me wore a hole in my... er, vinyl listening to that track.

That's not a throwaway comment, by the way. My first copy of the album is virtually unplayable. And when I upgraded to the CD, I was stunned to find that it was very different.

Several of Rhythm Nation's songs, including the title track, had been edited to make the album fit the confines of vinyl. So suddenly, there were dozens of new hooks and musical motifs to learn. It gave the album another six months' life - presumably to the horror of my parents.

And let's not forget the album came with a superlative package of remixes, teasing the material out and revealing hidden moments. There's an infectious keyboard solo in Alright, for example, which barely registers under the clattering beats of the original, but gets promoted to centre stage in CJ Macintosh's sublime Ambient House mix.

I collected those imports and white labels religiously, and it's those versions I turn to when I grow tired of the album itself.

Sadly, most of the remixes are long out of print. A&M Records, timid about Janet's marketability after the idiotic Super Bowl furore, has been reluctant to honour the star with expanded anniversary editions of her career-defining albums.

The mixes aren't even on iTunes or Spotify but, luckily, a few kind souls have posted them on YouTube. So, in honour of Rhythm Nation's silver celebration, I've compiled a playlist of my favourites.

Impressive work, and one that's rarely given credit (in the UK, at least).

I owe my understanding of songwriting, and ultimately my career, to my teenage immersion in those songs and remixes - and I've been lucky enough to thank both Janet and Jimmy Jam personally. I know most people have a similar experience with an album, or even a single, at some point in their lives. I'd be interested to hear about yours in the comments.

Get the point? Good. Let's Dance.

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Video: The Veronicas - You Ruin Me

Aussie pop sisters The Veronicas spent five long years fighting their record label over the band's third album.

Last year, the label finally succumbed to reason and let them go.

Yesterday, it was announced the band's new single You Ruin Me had entered the charts at number one.

Jessica and Lisa responded with a simple tweet: "@WarnersMusic Haha".

Then they released the video. It's as beautiful as the song is bleak. Lots of ballet, a little bit of kidnapping, and some stunning visuals.

It's great to have them back.

The Veronicas - You Ruin Me

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Could this be Robin Schulz's third number one this year?

You might not realise it, but Robin Schulz has been all over your radio this summer.

Prayer In C. That was him. Originally a pretty-but-drab lament by French folk duo Lily Wood and the Prick, Schulz threw out the panflutes, ratcheted up the BPM and turned it into a dancefloor smash.

Compare the two versions here:

Lily Wood & The Prick - Prayer In C (original)

Lily Wood & The Prick - Prayer In C (Robin Schulz remix)

Waves. That was him, too. Again, Mr Probz's original version was a great song at completely the wrong tempo. But, with a wave of his glittery wand, Schulz made it palatable to anyone who wasn't in the grips of a crushing personal tragedy.

Here's the side-by-side again:

Mr Probz - Waves (original)

Mr Probz - Waves (Robin Schulz remix)

Both of those remixes hit number one in the UK, begging the question "could he do the same with his own material?" Well, here's the point where we find out, with a new single, called Sun Goes Down. This time, it's an original, with vocals from US R&B star Jasmine Sullivan. It lacks the hooky guitar licks of the previous two singles, but still has a pleasing end-of-summer comedown vibe.

I'm not convinced it's a future chart topper (I'm pretty sure we called a moratorium on the saxophone after Crazy Stupid Love) but as a middle-of-the-mixtape chill out track, it's pleasingly memorable.

Sun Goes Down is taken from Schulz's debut album, Prayer, which also features remixes of Clean Bandit's Rather Be, Coldplay's Sky Full of Stars and Lykke Li's No Rest For The Wicked -- the latter of which is pretty special (you can hear it at the end of this mixtape). It's out in the UK on 13 October for the bargain price of six pounds. Here's the pre-order link.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

The Staves are back, and they've brought Bon Iver with them

Last Christmas, after The Staves' triumphant, rapturous gig at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, Emily Stavely-Taylor told me two years of touring the band's debut album, Dead & Born & Grown, had taken its toll. "Playing those songs is like having sex with someone you've fallen out of love with."

So, after wrapping up that show, the band decamped to Wisconsin to dream up the magic all over again. Sitting at the mixing desk was folk-pop troubador Justin Vernon - who they'd befriended while on tour with Bon Iver. Here is the proof, lest you think this is all an elaborate ruse.

The first fruits of their collaboration is an EP called Blood I Bled, the title track of which appeared online today. Vernon upends a whole bag of tricks over the sisters' pin-point harmonies: Strings, handclaps, a brass section and, naturally, a banjo. But crucially, he does nothing to dilute the band's spine-tingling vocals.

In ambition and structure, it sounds like Eagle Song, the billowy, polyharmonic closing track from their debut record, but now it has added oomph. Or, at least, as much oomph as a mournful mid-tempo folk ballad can muster.

Simply beautiful.

You can pre-order the Blood I Bled EP on iTunes. And to pass the time until the 28th of October, when it'll appear in your library like a less spectacularly-unwelcome U2 album, here's a picture of Emily, Jessica and Camilla when they were little 'uns. Awww, bless.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Video: Jessie Ware - Say You Love Me

The idea of spending a fortune on Jessie Ware's new video must have been more tempting than that snake in the Garden of Eden. Say You Love Me is a career-making, crossover ballad with a gospel choir propping up the coda, and a lesser artist would have overwhelmed the song with fireworks and ticker-tape; allowing themselves to be shot in "tasteful" slow motion as the heavens exploded around them.

Instead, Jessie hired directors Luke White and Remi Weekes (aka Tell No One) whose pitch was simply this: Zero in on the vocal.

The camera never lets Jessie out of its sight, leaning in for the intimate moments and panning back when she needs space to breathe. For the first 60 seconds there are next to no cuts. And the climax is heralded by a single lighting change.

It's classy and engrossing and entirely befitting of the material. But it could do without the CGI sparrow.

Jessie Ware - Say You Love Me

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Stunning return from The Veronicas

Remember The Veronicas? That not-unattractive twin sister goth pop whirlwind, who released a clutch of thrilling pop singles half a decade ago.

This one was a top 10 hit in the UK.

The Veronicas - Untouched

And this one was even better.

The Veronicas - 4Ever

Sadly, they've been trapped in record label purgatory for the last couple of years - with Warner Bros stalling, delaying and eventually refusing to release their third album. "Its not because they didn't like the record," the sisters explained in 2012, "it's because they have been through 3 different CEO's and 4 different A&R, there has been no focus across the board".

Luckily, last year, they escaped and fled to Sony, who are "amazing" and allowing Jessica and Lisa to put out "the album of our dreams".

To be honest, I'd hoped they'd come back with a barnstorming pop banger - but, not for the first time, my instincts were completely wrong.

You Ruin Me is a bare-bones, gut-wrenching piano ballad. Written and recorded in just five hours, it sounds like an uncensored outpouring of grief.

"It's a heartbreaking song," The Veronicas confessed Aussie radio station B105 last night. "No silver lining".

It is also, I think you'll agree, a stunner.

Welcome back, ladies.

The Veronicas - You Ruin Me (radio recording)

The Veronicas - You Ruin Me (video teaser)

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