In the leading pack of life’s crushing disappointments is the discovery that the default hottest girl group in the land’s new single is not a cover of Duran Duran’s brilliantly lumpenly funky quasi-career-killer. Mollie could’ve done a “No-“, then Rochelle could’ve done a “No-“, then Frankie, Una and the other one could’ve joined reedy forces on “NOTORIOUS”, and it could’ve all descended into Chic meets the Sex Pistols meets Red Hot Chili Peppers chaos. Just look at what you could’ve won.
Instead, “My résumé says I’m a bad girl”. It’s no “Who really gives a damn for a flaky bandit?”, is it? Where it pulls it out of the fire though is with the fruity electro pulse and vocals put through the ringer – it’s mechanised. The Saturdays are only bad girls, notorious, because they’ve been programmed to be so. It’s svengali’d by computer, a Space Odyssey Malcolm McLaren. Not a terribly wholesome, erm, whole but a functional thrill.
It’s brought here by mistake, the lucky conjunction of the girls appearing on So You Think You Can Dance? and Junior and I happening to be watching it. While I continued my ongoing study of career trajectories of girl groups, Junior copied every single dance move they made. One beat behind, but accurately. Recent clips from Rihanna and Lady Gaga have got me in a panic about just how knowing young girls can get. They sponge it up. Normally – to the odd sulky “awww” – I’d switch over, but there’s little overtly sexualised about The Saturdays’ robotic choreography. Thin end of the wedge though.
In Rainbows and Sound Of Silver were all well and good, but the best album of 2007 was, of course, Miracle Fortress’s Five Roses. The Canadian Prince Rogers Nelson – as no one has called him until now – Graham Van Pelt did it all himself, lovingly concocting a modern Beach Boys album set to shimmering bucolia (you know what I mean, sounds like a heat-hazed summer meadow) with, improbably, a devastating hook in every song. It was almost too perfect to sell. So it didn’t.
Four long years later, only endured by playing Five Roses at least once a week, Van Pelt is back with a new album Was I The Wave? that looks set to make a mockery of Adele’s chart feats. It’s a rather more electronic affair that I’ll be reviewing for millions of pounds in the next day or so, and ‘Miscalculations’ is the killer single. Actually, ‘Raw Spectacle”s the single – or “free download”, to give it its accurate title – but Van Pelt should see sense soon enough. You see, it had Junior doing a spontaneous hula dance which, as we’ve seen over the last five years, is the interpretive equivalent of holding up a card marked ‘Hit’. And about as successful as Jukebox Jury predictions ever were too. Hit!
Not her greatest single but her latest single – and we’re all about the new here at Jukebox Junior. Notwithstanding 90% of the time, when we’re offering well-worn observations about Duran Duran. Katy B speaks to us though, managing to be both pop and cosily innovative, her debut album a uniformly good collection of memorable songs and intriguing beats. It sounds an easy formula, but it’s all too rare that an artist scores that eureka. Robyn failed the test on any of last year’s Body Talks. She did. I don’t know if Miss B racks up the high points to match, but – like I say – uniformly good.
Junior bobs obediently, then perks right up for ‘Lights On’ straight after; “I like this one better.” That’s OK though, isn’t it? ‘Lights On’ is the better whole, but the pattering rush into ‘Broken Record”s final chorus is pretty ace. Like most of the album, it jacks your body whether you let it or not.
Perhaps not. Merrill Garbus’s debut album BiRd-BrAiNs was interesting at least, if a little raw in the middle. Ideas pinged off the walls, but one man’s slab of flibbertigibbet genius is a slightly more dour man’s tricksy mess – you could’ve filed Garbus under “challenging” and left her back there in 2009. So, hands up and amen for this dazzling heap of (pretty cohesive) joy.
The sound’s fatter this time and Garbus belts her happy defiance over what I’m calling human-marimba, rousing blasts of horn, saxophone and – hmmm – Zairean guitar. In short, the kind of thing Vampire Weekend might do if they kicked off their deck shoes, sank another couple of Martinis, replaced Andrew McCarthy with Annabella Lwin and had sex.
Junior’s hearing reverb and speed. Or, “I like it because it’s fast and her voice is echoing.” It’s a shot of get-up-and-go for a day’s school, and for the year in general.
Junior greeted this with what can most fairly be described as ‘interpretive dance’, expressing emotion – or “eeemwwwohhhshun” as Robo-George might have it – via complex hand signals and wafty Kate Bush arm movements. It was apt, really. ‘True Faith’ sounds like some kind of I Am Kurious Oranj re-imagining of the New Order original, built to soundtrack a ballet conceptualised around Barney Sumner’s clunky rhymes. It might just work. Get me Louis Spence.
Poor George. Opprobrium’s been heaped on this version. “I have a fucking question,” he drones. So does everyone else, George. A few, in fact. Why slow it down to funereal pace? Why in Hades do you want to be Jason Derulo? Why defile a song with a video everyone loves [I paraphrase]?
I’m not so precious. First up, I think I’m a topsy-turvy New Order fan, who’s never been that fussed about ‘True Faith’ but loves the apparently awful ‘Confusion’. Secondly, yep, most of you love the original because of a video so 80s Stuart Maconie can appraise it to camera in his sleep.
And thirdly, bit by bit, cell by cell, arm hair by arm hair, this is creeping up on me. It’s starting to work.
Junior meant the bass. Pretty soon I was feeling a slap at the back of my head as Junior’s mum clocked all the swearing. I was trying to cough over it, Adam Buxton-style, but the experiment didn’t last long.
A shame, because the track is pure pop, body-movin’ and unthreatening even as Florida-born Dominique bigs herself up. Her “glamorous touch” is hard-won. She grew up in a car, for crying out loud, and has the rough-ready sass to suggest she’s going to do something, wholesome or not. No album yet, but this is the title track of her latest mixtape, a flurry of electro beats, fast-spat rhymes and generous sprays of melody that proves she’s either got tracks to burn or simply can’t be arsed promoting a proper long-player. Let’s take what we can get.
Junior didn’t know this was called ‘rapping’. She declares it “clever”.
Behind all the soft-pedal vulnerability of Noah And The Whale, there’s a ruthless core. How else would you explain a creative trajectory from folky tweeness to panoramic country-rock to FM drivetime over a piddling three albums? That rat Fink knows where he’s headed, but do we? I imagine it depends on Last Night On Earth’s eventual success. If Springsteen-lite gets the tills ringing, perhaps he’ll settle down.
After the unfocused Peaceful, He Lays Me Down and lovelorn First Days Of Spring, the latest is the least challenging of NATW’s albums, a robust chunk of pop that sounds great on the radio. This lead single uses an old trick – ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’, ‘Y.M.C.A.’, ‘L.O.V.E.’ etc – to get a point across in the catchiest way possible. It’s a cheap hook (and few things are more effective than a cheap hook), and a message that continues Fink’s personal story, letting us know he’s moving on from his cri de coeur over Laura Marling. That’s good news for her too; few women in pop have had to endure so much embarrassment, from a whole album mooning over her, to her next beau’s stupid moustache.
Speaking of which, did you hear the one about Laura Marling and the posh bloke with the silly voice? No, the other one…
“Is this your favourite?” Junior asks, because she’s heard me singing it over and over, because I can’t help it, because it carves its own cranny in your brain. I just tell her I can’t help it. She gives the song the wishy-washy thumbs and I wonder where it falls down. “Because it spells it.” The hook’s too cheap for some.
Absolute, the new Scritti Politti best of, begins with the hits, modest on both sides of the Atlantic but big enough, for Green Gartside, to constitute a harrowing commercial breakthrough that meant Top Of The Pops appearances, attention fit for a popstar and – rather more welcome – acceptance from the sort of R&B legends he was loosely trying to ape. These first five songs came from Cupid & Psyche 85, an impossibly precise marriage of perfect pop and blue-eyed soul which opened unexpected doors: notably, the chance to write for Chaka Khan and the odd sensation of seeing Miles Davis first cover one of your songs then, gloriously, guest on one.
My early acquaintance with Scritti was intertwined with the law. I bought Cupid & Psyche 85 with the five pounds (five pounds!) I was given as a reward for clocking the numberplate of a thief making off with a local lady’s handbag. Three years later, I was loudly anticipating Provision at a party – quite the conversationalist, me – as the police turned up to suggest the houses nearby might not enjoy us having a bonfire, draining the EEC cider lake and smoking freight-loads of cigarettes in the field right behind them. They might have softened if they’d known how excited I was about Provision.
Moving on, the 90s dawned with ‘She’s A Woman’, an unexpected collaboration with Shabba Ranks that dumped all Green’s philosophical lexicographical automatic hydromatic games with the word “girl” (i.e. ‘The Word ‘Girl”, ‘The ‘Sweetest Girl”) to go distinctly non-meta with a Beatles cover. It was a blip, in design and chronology, as the man decamped to Wales and hunkered down in beer and darts for a decade before popping up with the candy-pop-meets-hip-hop semi-success of Anomie & Bonhomie, where Green sparred sweetly with Mos Def, Lee Majors et al and generally affirmed some B-Boy credentials. Here it’s reprazented by three of the form plus the gorgeous ‘Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder’ that harks back to perfect pop and shines a light on the harmonic dreaminess to come – again – many years later.
That return was White Bread, Black Beer, a curveball Mercury nomination that emerged slowly and shyly in 2006 as Green stepped onto a stage for the first time in quarter of a century under the playful Double G & The Traitorous 3 (Plus 2) sobriquet, to focus group the songs first in a Brixton pub, then in a quasi-residence at The Luminaire. The law butted in again, rather closer to home this time, as I was told I couldn’t abandon my baby daughter to go to Brixton, but I made it to the Luminaire a couple of times to watch these songs jump off the page – truly, from Green’s own music stand. None of WBBB makes it here, likely because of its Rough Trade release; but from before my time, we do get three from Songs To Remember (but no ‘Faithless’…) and the fidgety, complex and in this company surly ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’.
And that’s it – apart from two new songs, the ballad ‘A Place We Both Belong’ and this. I’m not sure how new they are, but for Scrittologists they’re exciting enough for being hook-ups with long-time/occasional SP man David Gamson, not seen since 1999’s Anomie & Bonhomie. ‘Day Late And A Dollar Short’ bounces on squelchy bass, teasing a funk from somewhere on the Scritti timeline between 99 and 06, and a chorus that rises and falls with customary pizzazz and – let’s remember what this blog is meant to be about – makes Junior do the hand jive. According to her, it’s “fun”, Which is a bit of a bloody relief because I haven’t half wasted enough time and text on it.
While on important business stashing old baby clothes in the loft last week, I discovered an even more crucial use of my time – rescuing some old self-made mixtapes from the dusty cassette drawers to take downstairs and not play because my tape deck’s broken, and therefore clutter up the dining room even more.
One that I can’t wait to enjoy again at some distant point is a gloomy mix made at the end of 1995. Starting off with Tricky’s oh-so-coolly-obscure ‘Nothing’s Clear’ and moving through Parliament Funkadelic & P-Funk All-Stars’ foggy take on ‘Follow The Leader’, Goldie’s ‘Inner City Life’, some acoustic Jhelisa and smoky D’Angelo, it’s sunshine all the way. I think The King Of Limbs would find kindred spirits here, and ‘Lotus Flower’ in particular would snuggle up to Ingrid Schroeder’s ‘Bee Charmer’, where DJ Muggs makes spooky trip hop all drum and bassy.
Separated from Thom Yorke’s daft, standing-on-a-live-rail dancing, ‘Lotus Flower’ is an eerie blues. Remove thoughts of Thom’s convulsions entirely and it’s almost sexy. Its final 30 seconds go higher and higher, a trance state whipped away as The King Of Limbs plunges into its fantastic three-song finale: deep, feet-planted chords and a hook place ‘Codex’ above cousins ‘Pyramid Song’ and ‘Sail To The Moon’; ‘Give Up The Ghost’ is devotional, somehow tender (or ‘Tender’); ‘Separator’ finds a groove in guitars that resemble George Martin’s speeded-up, ‘In My Life’ piano. There’s much to admire in the album’s first half, but it finds its feet with increasing assurance until it’s moving them with controlled joy.
All this analysis is peripheral for Junior, who cuts to the chase, to what we take for granted: the band’s name. “Radiohead? Radiohead?! You have a radio in your head.” She gets up and moves robotically across the room. “I-AM-RA-DI-O-HEAD.”
The litmus test of any new pop record is the opinion of a little girl who already loves the artist unreservedly and will brook no criticism.
So, into this treacherous arena went ‘Born This Way’, and first we gauged recognition: “Is it Lady Gaga?” One hurdle cleared. Further responses to Stefani’s hi-NRG dambuster included bouncing up and down from Junior (five-and-a-half), Junior 2 (two-and-eleven-twelfths) and Junior 3 (a week shy of one) – confirming Gaga’s all-ages appeal – and an unprompted round of applause at the finish.
Then the question we’ve all avoided. Yes, determined to mark ‘Born This Way’’s place in the Gaga pantheon, I asked which was better, this or ‘Bad Romance’.
All that without mentioning ‘Express Yourself’. Unjaded by the past, unworried that all the pop tunes might have been done and everything’s now just a swish rejig, Junior doesn’t hear Madonna in this. Nor does she catch a whisper of ‘Rio’, or Jesus Jones’s ‘International Bright Young Thing’ or even Maxine Nightingale’s ‘Right Back Where We Started From’.
Come to that, she didn’t spot a Joe Satriani noodle recast in ‘Viva La Vida’, nor a short refrain from an 18-minute Cat Stevens song in the same. Because no one really knew them and they weren’t really there.
And she doesn’t fret that Lady Gaga’s courting of the gay audience might be a hard-nosed ploy. Perhaps she knows Gaga’s got plenty of ground there anyway, or perhaps she knows Gaga’s still got some way to go and it’s all fair game. After all, my brother still belongs to Kylie.
Whatever could go through Junior’s head, she takes ‘Born This Way’ on its own immediate terms; a fiery, anthemic, infectious jolt. Let’s all do that.