Friday, August 17, 2007

Annie. Anniemal (2005).

Annie makes serious pop music. Serious on two levels. Serious in the sense that it's hardcore pop: brief, repetitive, insouciant, and ingratiating. But also serious in that some of the songs present a fragile vulnerability that is rather startling. Annie is from Norway, and although she seemed to come out of nowhere when Anniemal was released, she had already been a veteran musician, having been almost signed to a label by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne when she was only 16, singing in a band called Suitcase. Later she DJ'd for a while before writing songs with Tore Andreas Kroknes. She had released one single, The Greatest Hit when, at age 23, Tore died from heart problems. This haunting loss is reflected in the song My Best Friend, one of the lyrically arresting tracks from her CD.

Annie has been compared to early Madonna, Bananarama, as well as both of the Minogue sisters. Her vibratoless voice is as thin and transparent as an icicle, barely breaking above a whisper, but the intonation and rhythmic subtlety of her singing is marked by razor-like precision and accuracy. Again, in the song My Best Friend, the melody of the verse is rhythmically broken into irregular divisions that would present a challenge to transcribe even for a graduate student of music theory. Another surprise in the same song is how the verse modulates from the tonic to the supertonic for the chorus. It's unconventional, but not jarring.

On a purely sonic level, the CD is peppered with all manner of brittle, clicky, percussive claptrap, squirrelly synth parts, and slippery bass. The tracks are intruded by strange sci fi hits and accents, vocorder, pitchshifted voices, and cartoonish sound effects. Not too mention Annie's deadpan, Norwegian accented, spoken word sections. Layers of this cheerful noisemaking rush by at brisk tempos. Repeated listening almost always reveals at least a few more details missed the last time through. Headphone listening is not usually a requirement for pop music, but in this case it would be recommended.

It's fizzy and cute, no doubt. Chewing Gum, which reduces boyfriend turnover to the level of chewing fresh sticks of gum, is utterly addictive, and can hold the attention of a 4-year old. Daily. For months. (I know this as a fact). It starts with an unusual arrangement of beat phrases, a group of 6 beats, followed by a group of 8, then a group of 2. The lyrics are straight out of the Shangri-las' songbook. The sound combines a big buzzy bass, a percussion part that sounds like cowbells being spun in a frontloading washing machine, and a sputtery gated synth line.

A track like Heartbeat has a propulsive throb and a cycle of chords that refreshes itself by modulating to the subdominant, but because the last chord in the verse is the dominant, and the first chord in the chorus is the VI chord in the new key, the intervallic gap between the two sections is a tritone, and that harmonic shift is a surprise every time. The lyric to Heartbeat is about going out for a drink at a party on a Friday night and dancing with a guy for whom the girl has a growing attraction, although she doesn't know his name. That's about it. However, the song has the pull of a vortex and achieves the aching ecstasy of a Mahler symphony, in just 3 minutes. Skeptical? Let's have a look:

One last thing about Heartbeat: the drum track is identical to the one in Milk Bottle Symphony by Saint Etienne on Tales From Turnpike House, released the same year. Coincidence? I think not. It's evidence of a vast, world-wide indie pop conspiracy.

Every track has something notable, and unusually creative. The gritty sounds are the perfect foil to Annie's colorless soprano. The more introspective tunes like No Easy Love are never sappy, but have a boppy, funky groove that offset the heartbreaking lyrics.

Annie told Prefix Magazine last year, she would like to be remembered "as a songwriter and hopefully a good songwriter and just a woman that's making good music. As long as they think that, I'm happy." We already do, so you can be a happy little poplette! Annie will have a new album out by the end of this year.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Tune (Out)))side 2007 - the Wave Farm, July 7, 2007, Acra, NY.

I felt very lucky to be included in one of free103point9's tenth anniversary events, the Tune (Out)))side 2007, held at the Wave Farm in Acra, NY. On this absolutely radiant summer day, the Wave Farm hosted live performances by over 30 sound artists. This was a headphone festival broadcast on 4 different frequencies. Each attendee received their own little FM transmitter and a printed program which listed all the performers and performance times. Performance stages were set up at various locations. One could wander the fields and paths through the woods to visit various stages or just camp out and switch between channels.

I was in a group of sound artists that I've become acquainted with from previous performances associated with Phonography. Think of "phonography" as being analogous to "photography." We capture sounds from the world around us and present them back as they are, unedited and "unretouched." Taken out of their original context and reproduced without a visual component, the recordings reward the listener with a rich auditory experience. Being primarily a visually oriented culture, we tend to focus our attention foremost on what can be seen, often actually "tuning out" what can be heard, let alone what can be listened to with attention. Purely listening, without the "picture," as it were, is still to many an unfamiliar way to experience the world, but we're trying to change that.

Our stage was set up on a hillside in a pine forest, fairly removed from the action down on the field, reachable only by a 10 minute walk over a winding pathway. A generator humming in the distance provided us with the power for our laptops and mixers.
The ten of us took turns keeping our channel live for 6 hours, as we played raw field recordings, digitally processed field recordings, and a final, "anything goes" set. We finished in the dark, up on our mountain base camp, surrounded by the flames of tiki torches that gave us our only illumination and helped somewhat keep the mosquitoes away.

Because I was pretty intently focused on what I was doing, along with the others in my group I didn't hear too much of what was playing on the other channels. However I did spend time listening to Elliot Sharp and Shou Wang's guitar duo, which was as pretty as diamonds dropping on a glass floor. I also enjoyed seeing Edmund Mooney, Jonny Farrow and Andrea Williams do their sound experiments in clean suits. They were the only artists who brought a theatrical element to a performance. They went about taking notes on each other and measuring things in the weeds. I think one of them even checked me for radiation. They let me go.

I set up a flickr page of some photos of the event. Please visit here to learn more details about this particular event. free103point9 is an amazing resource for artists and listeners. Galen Joseph-Hunter and Tom Roe have an ever expanding and far reaching program for the promotion of transmission arts - read more about them here in Chronogram magazine.