Friday, October 12, 2007

When is a Pop Band like a Chandelier?

In August of this year, Alice Rawsthorn, the design critic of the International Herald Tribune, reviewed the "Nebula" chandelier, designed by Joris Laarman. The piece is a blown glass replica of a cluster of old lampshades that he found when browsing in local flea markets. Rawsthorn feels this chandelier expresses what is happening in design today. She goes on to delineate its defining qualities and how they are indicative of contemporary design trends.


The Go! Team. Thunder, Lightning, Strike (2005).

The Go! Team was originally a one-man, kitchen table electronica project by Ian Parton, which became a six-person collective of mixed race/gender for performing. The first time through this disc, the words that came to mind were "marginal," and "unlistenable." The nostalgic appeal of retro elements was not lost on me, but I thought it existed within too finite and narrow a
niche to withstand anything other than novelty status. However, something undefinable about it continued to haunt my memory, making me want to revisit it again.

When I came across the article by Rawsthorn I tried to think of any music I had heard recently that fell in line with the qualities she discerned as definitive of cutting edge design.
So, here is my side-by-side comparison of a chandelier and a pop band. Excerpts from Alice Rawsthorn's original article are in italics, my adaptation follows.

1. It looks familiar.

All of Laarman's designs are intended to forge an emotional bond between us and the object itself. By creating a new object from old ones Laarman triggers memories of things we remember from the past.

1. It sounds familiar.

The Go! Team does exactly this by sampling fragments of what appears to be soundtracks from tacky 1970's made-for-TV movies.

2. It looks cheap.

An equally important factor in the Nebula's fashionability is Laarman's choice of a coolly anonymous object - a cheap lampshade - as his starting point, rather than an expensive, "designerly" one. By doing so, he has created product design's equivalent of Miuccia Prada's fluffy take on the Crombie-style coats once beloved of skinheads, the 1970s British street gangs.

2. It sounds cheap.

Thunder, Lightning, Strike sounds like a mixtape salvaged from a landfill.

3. It looks like a mistake.

Asymmetrical, but harmonious though the result may be, it also looks fashionably haphazard.

3. It sounds like a mistake.

The impression is that it is an amateur's work, recorded in the red, compressed to the wall, and eq'd for the car radio of a 1971 Gremlin.

4. . . . but it isn't really.

The Nebula's idiosyncrasies give an initial impression of a naïve, almost accidental object, but if you look again, it's impossible not to notice the precision of the blown glass from which it is constructed.

4. . . . but it isn't really.

Ian Parton intended for his work to sound "dirty." When the record company said it wasn't dirty enough, he went back and made it even more corroded.

5. It looks surreal.

Surrealism is huge in design today, partly because we're bored by seeing so many things that seem neatly nice, and partly because technology is enabling designers to replicate the weird images they see spiraling across their computers in three-dimensional objects.

5. It sounds surreal.

It's not just the melange of what might be background music from children's TV shows, afterschool specials, game shows, toy commercials, and radio ads. It's the, "is it supposed to sound like this?" factor. The sound is crappy, and the vocals sound like bratty cheerleaders recorded from a distance on a portable cassette player.

6. And it looks as if it will last.

Timely though the memories, everyday references, endearing details, edgy technology and surreal styling of the Nebula may be, Laarman hopes it will also be something that we will grow to love and choose to use for many years.

6. And it looks as if it will last.

The Go! Team is only getting bigger. The album I originally thought was "unlistenable," has sold over a quarter million copies worldwide, and was nominated for the Mercury Prize in the UK. Their eventual deal with SONY allowed them to quit their day jobs and tour the world, even playing in China, as well as the major summer festivals like Lollapalooza, Glastonbury and Coachella. Their gig at the Bowery Ballroom at the end of this month is sold out. Catch them the following night in Brooklyn, before they move on to Paris, Milan, Dublin, Tokyo, and Australia.

Ian Parton can't be as old as the garbage heap LPs he samples. But, in spectacular fashion, he has channeled the sound of media as I remember it as a young teen in the early seventies. The forced optimism of commercialized teen culture, as produced and performed by studio musicians and arrangers, was full of these types of sounds. In advertisements selling everything from action toys and Barbies to bubble gum, we were bombarded by this brassy style of uptempo jingles on Saturday mornings. Parton hasn't just replicated this tinny junk, he has refashioned it as a messy, gritty version of a memory he is too young to ever actually have had, while mixing it up with early hip hop. But it brings me right back to those days like a time machine.

The conscious effort put into a project this idiosyncratic strikes me as the motivation of an artist compelled to pursue a personal vision, rather than fit into any hip, pre-formatted genre. I think it would be difficult to do this kind of work without falling into a satirical mode, but The Go! Team sound earnest and full of fun. They bring the uplifting zest and goofy ecstasy that will make you feel like you are living in a TV ad from 1972, running through a field of daisies in slow motion with your hands up in air, cheering about a new deodorant or soft drink.

Even their videos are in classic 70's, fast-food red, yellow and orange.

The Go! Team. Bottle Rocket (a song which may be in its own unique category, however it is a masterpiece of its kind):

Their new album, Proof of Youth, is, for better or worse, more professional. It's still scratchy as mohair, but they had to keep the samples to a reasonable limit due to the royalties needed for them. Parton's love of noisy guitars shows up right away and verge into, at times, his own kiddie version of Loveless. And he's become a better composer. But these songs seem created to showcase a band that must be able to put on a live show and play to a crowd, where the first album felt more of an outsider art project. It's brief at only about 36 minutes, but it comes with a bonus disc of 4 songs that are just as tacky as the others. I don't think it will be long before The Go! Team is asked to score a film, maybe the sequel to Napoleon Dynamite. Ian Parton will design T shirts to be sold exclusively at Colette, and he will eventually be asked to create a signature scent for Coty. I think it will smell like French fries and Twizzlers.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sophie Ellis Bextor.

If adults in the US had any appreciation for real pop music, Sophie Ellis Bextor would be heard and seen all over. She doesn't care that her CDs aren't even released in this country. She's content seeing herself as pretty much exclusively a UK artist, where she sells millions of albums, and is pleased with her dedicated following on the continent. That seems to be enough for her. She was brought up in a show business family and, at 19, she was performing and recording with theaudience, a well-dressed indie pop band that specialized in snarky social sarcasm, a la Black Box Recorder. They received eight offers of record deals after their first public gig.

theaudience. I Got The Wherewithal:

Sophie has a heart for causes, as well as a discerning head for marketing. She publicly pledged her celebrity support for "Lights Out London," a campaign to turn off appliances for an hour to raise awareness of global warming, and has also posed in a grisly ad for PETA ("Here's the rest of your fur coat"). She appeared nearly nude in an ad for the fashion chain Monsoon, but turned down a video ad for Agent Provocateur, deeming it too pornographic (Kylie ended up doing it instead). She also famously turned down an offer to tour with Robbie Williams when anyone else starting out would have jumped at the chance. She just felt he was too "Las Vegas cabaret."

Sophie is serious and sophisticated, stylish but not fussy, smart, full of exuberance, glamorous but not posh. Her voice does possess a certain snooty, blue blood, la-di-da quality, but that only adds another angle to her persona. And she's a hard worker. While being a full-time mom, she wrote about 80 songs in preparation for her third CD, Trip The Light Fantastic (truly a terrible title, but there it is). She specializes in simple, uplifting tunes that have a staying power past the first few listens. She has the talent for finding just the turn of phrase that feels comfortable but fresh, which is the trick behind every good pop song. Her most appealing work has a spunky energy that lifts it above and beyond the ordinary:

Although Sophie will occasionally veer into tragic or introspective territories, she is at her best when creating the equivalent of a romantic comedy in song.  Charm is very difficult to manufacture.  The audience will spot a fake as easily as a knockoff on Canal Street.  The video for Take Me Home is a delightful pastiche of images evoking Avedon-era Harper's Bazaar.  Sophie looks like she was born to wear 1950's couture here:

Sophie's new album is available now.  It's wonderful and full of energy, and only available as an import in the States, of course.