Monday, April 28, 2014

Sweet Tooth Jukebox: Echo and the Bunnymen

You guys, it's time once again to explore the musical touchstones of my award-not-winning new book Sweet Tooth, the gay diabetic memoir you've always wanted yet didn't really understand why. Up next: Liverpool's Echo and the Bunnymen. Now, truth be told, I probably would have fallen in love with these boys even if they didn't sound like mad romantic post-punk love fraggles. Reason #1: singer Ian McCulloch's hair. Reason #2: Ian McCulloch's lips. Reason #3: I just like the word "bunnymen." And reason #4: the hella handsome blonde rhythm section of Les Pattinson and Pete de Freitas. I mean, look at them. It's just... gah.

But the fact is, these attributes, however important and arousing, were just window dressing for some of the most exhilarating, operatic, and punchy music to come out of post-punk England. Echo and the Bunnymen's debut album Crocodiles is a classic, bursting with angular new wave classics like "Rescue"and, on the US version, "Do It Clean." The follow-up, Heaven Up Here, explored an icier pallet, with McColloch's sombre lyrical playfulness and the band's dramatic arrangements meshing to arrive at something more epic, yet just as raw. But it was on their third record Porcupine that they really justified their existence. From the swirling, mathematically precise strings on "The Cutter" to the staccato guitar and bouncy bass of "Back of Love" to the ode to Shakespeare contemporary John Webster (and the misnaming of one of his most famous tragedies, The Duchess of Malfi, which McColloch for some reason renders as "The Duchess of Malfior") on "My White Devil," through to the swaggering closer "In Bluer Skies," Porcupine is a frigid masterpiece.

And just when you figured they'd reached their high watermark, here came 1984's Ocean Rain, the quintessential Bunnymen album, with all the drama, spleen, and hooks of its predecessor, but with that ineffable, hard-to-pin-down, "I-don't-know-what" (as the French say) that pushed it into the official shortlist of desert island albums.

Did I listen to this album over and over while lying on my bed with my black light on? Would you even believe me if I said "no"?

Up next was the 1985 singles collection Songs to Learn and Sing, which featured one of their most swoon-worthy tracks, "Bring on the Dancing Horses." Also featured on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, this song spontaneously got high school boys and girls across the land pregnant, constantly.

You know what else did? The band's 1987 single "Lips Like Sugar." This track was from their self-titled album from the same year, on which the band incorporated lots and lots of crystalline keyboards. In my opinion, it's always a good idea to incorporate lots of crystalline keyboards, so this album made me a furiously happy fop.

Of course, all lead singers with giant pillow lips eventually wants to go solo, so Ian McCulloch left the band after this album to embark on a fully unremarkable solo career. Also, very sadly, drummer Pete de Frietas was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1989. Bizarrely, the band continued with a new drummer and singer, releasing the actually not embarrassing album Reverberation in 1990. Still, it wasn't the Bunnymen.

After a few years of other projects, the three original surviving Bunnymen regrouped in 1997 and released Evergreen, a solid, melodic collection that saw them settling very nicely into middle age. They've put out an album every few years ever since and continue to tour. And as it happens, they've got a new one called Meteorites coming out later this month.

Of course, the Bunnymen's dancing horses have long since returned to the stable to play canasta, and anyway it's Echo and the Bunnymen Version 1.0 that really matters. You can't be beautiful forever in this cruel world, but you can on YouTube, so let's sit on the floor, turn on the black light, and soak in "The Killing Moon" while teasing our hair into a fright wig in honor of Ian and his bunny boys.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sweet Tooth Jukebox: Sinead O'Connor

Folks, it's time for another dispatch from the '80s vortex, brought to you by my new book Sweet Tooth. Buy it now, monkeys--the NSA already knows you want it.

Anyway, onward to the rock 'n roll: was there ever a more ferocious and foxy dame to appear on our teevee screens in the eighties than Sinead O'Connor circa 1987's The Lion and the Cobra? Of course there wasn't. Two years later, Sinead would become extremely and exhaustingly famous for covering Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," for her rapturously received album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got (which I've always been kind of lukewarm on), for tearing up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live, and for getting yelled at by Frank Sinatra. But oh, in the glorious year of 1987, the world was all "wtf?" when a tiny lightbulb-headed woman with pipes for days and limitless spleen to vent burst onto the scene and was everything any angry and sexually frustrated teenager could want in a pop star.

Nearly a teenager herself, Sinead was raw and bald and gorgeous and angry and Irish and pale and terrifying and flawless and maybe a little nuts. She could move from a dulcet coo to a siren's wail in the span of one line, and you never knew which Sinead to expect from moment to moment. The first song on The Lion and the Cobra, "Jackie," a spooky lament for a (literally) lost lover, perfectly encapsulated the spitfire anger, sadness, and aching melodrama at the heart of the album. "Jackie left on a cold dark night, telling me he'd be home," she begins, donning the persona of the ghost of a dead sailor's wife who spent the last twenty years of her life

Washing the sand with my salty tears
Searching the shores these long years
And I walk the seas forevermore
'Til I find my Jackie, oh. 

Heavy! Here, have a listen:

Now, who among us hasn't found ourselves haunting the seven seas because we's lost our one true love in a shipwreck or a mutiny or a Scylla and Charybdis attack? It's the human condition!

The single "Mandinka" was a more upbeat rocker about "dancing the seven veils" and not knowing no shame, not feeling no pain and also, somehow, the Mankinka tribe in Africa. Sure, why not? It's also a song about a singer who can visit all the octaves, any time, whenever she wants. Don't believe me? Here:

Up next is Sinead's sex anthem, "I Want Your Hands on Me," which has the most air-drum-worthy beats in all the land. Truly one of the shwingiest songs of the decade, maybe even in human history, who can say? Did I listen to this song over and over while fantasizing about blowing the entire varsity soccer team behind the bleachers? You're awfully nosy!

But the song that really set Sinead O'Connor apart was the six-minute-plus epic "Troy," in which she had the audacity to compare a love affair she was suffering through to the sacking and burning of Troy during the Trojan War. (It's kind of like when in my diary I compared my teenage diabetic disappointment with Diet Shasta to the crucifixion of Christ, but this blog post isn't about me.) Thing is, she totally pulls it off, you guys. It all makes perfect sense. She was sacked and burned like Troy. She rose like a phoenix from the flames. And she gave hope to the rest of us, since we were all Trojans in the late eighties. Or something. The point is, the Internet is making it impossible for me to embed the video here because of "restrictions" or some shit. What is this, North Korea? So here's the lame youtube, audio only.

(Side fun fact: Did you know that Enya did the spoken word part on the song "Never Get Old"? I KNOW!)

Sinead went on to great fame and fortune with her next record, which catapulted her into the stratosphere on the heels of the gripping, dramatic video for "Nothing Compares 2 U," in which she gets so caught up in the emotion of it all that she sheds real tears. I, however, found this album pretty disappointing after the brittle majesty of The Lion and the Cobra. It didn't have the anger, the searing drama, the glistening, gorgeous mythos of her first. Though "Three Babies" and "Jump in the River" both nodded toward the lush and schizophrenic romanticism of her debut, the album as a whole was too tame, too prematurely adult.

Then, of course, Sinead became a pariah in the US overnight when she pulled the SNL stunt. She was knocked cleanly off her perch on top of the world and never regained it. Because when you've lost MC Hammer, you've lost... um, what exactly?

After her spectacular fall from grace, Sinead released a decent album of American standards called Am I Not Your Girl, which failed to do much for her in the marketplace. Her next album, 1994's Universal Mother, had some awesome tracks on it, but it was a little ponderous for the masses--Sinead had officially become a niche artist. She's put out an album every few years since then, none of them electrifying, some of them quite good, like her last one How About I Be Me and You Be You? 

But any thoughts I have about Sinead O'Connor and her music always come back to the place where I found her: walking the seas, a despondent ghost, sing-howling about her dearly departed Jackie over an epic swirl of beautiful noise. It never got better than The Lion and the Cobra. And I've been waiting for a reissue of it ever since it was first released, so hurry up, record company, wtf are you waiting for? We need B-sides, alternate takes, remixes, previously unreleased tracks, liner notes, high-minded analyses, and praise heaped upon her by other artists. Sinead has earned it.

Come on, Rhino Entertainment (or whatever record company-type entity handles reissues of Ensign/Chrysalis albums), don't make me sic ghost-Sinead on you, cause she's scary when she's pissed.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Publishers Weekly Loves Sweet Tooth, Thank God!

I knew this review was happening a few weeks ago but didn't know if it would be good or not. It's good! Not only do they describe Sweet Tooth as "lively and invigorating," they also use the word "man-candy," which I'm thinking might be a first for them? Maybe not, they're such saucy flirts over there at PW.

Sweet Tooth Jukebox: Cocteau Twins

Time for another Sweet Tooth Jukebox dispatch, you guys. Up next: Cocteau Twins, the trio from the Whitest Ever Planet, whose ethereal, otherworldly, transcendent, and [INSERT HIFALUTIN ADJECTIVE HERE] music made grown men cry, grown women wonder where all the heroes went, and grown children wet the bed.

The Cocteaus emerged out of the post-punk UK scene, taking their cues from the Banshees, Joy Division, and the other usual suspects, but they quickly developed into their own inimitable beast, putting out countless dark, blissful, gossamer singles and a steady stream of increasingly jaw-dropping albums. Their first full-length Garlands came out in 1982 and their last (Milk and Kisses) dropped in 1996. While they were with us, there was no more dependable band in the universe--fans always knew there would be new material if not every year then at least every other year. Then, as the nineties began drawing to a close, and after fourteen years together and, apparently, quite a bit of psychodrama, they broke up and, with the exception of one appearance at Coachella that almost happened in 2004 before singer Elizabeth Fraser backed out, they've never looked back.

The Cocteaus are without a doubt one of the most influential bands in the modern era--they basically invented shoegazing, and they've informed the sound of countless artists, everyone from Grimes, Animal Collective, and Beach House to Portishead, Bon Iver, My Bloody Valentine, Chvrches, and even the Internet's favorite punching back Lana Del Rey. (That's right, I said it.) Prince was a fan, and so was Madonna. Who else can say that? Not me.

I could wax on and on about Scotland's pastiest-ever exports, but I'm going to make it easier on myself and you by just stone cold reprinting an essay I wrote for The Nervous Breakdown a few years ago on Elizabeth Fraser, chanteuse extraordinaire and beautiful oddball. I can't really say it any better now than I did then. Enjoy:


The late eighties were a great time to be a fanboy of weirdo new wave ladysingers from outer space (mainly Britain). It seemed like every time you turned on your new favorite show, 120 Minutes, some wackadoodle dame dripping with otherworldly moxie was popping up sporting a leotard or a tutu or a completely bald head, leaving your mouth gaping in wonder at the sheer brilliance of it all. You had your helium-voiced ethereal fantasist (Kate Bush), your ferocious and feline Weimar Republic throwback/riding crop enthusiast (Siouxsie Sioux), your tiny elfin powder keg (Bjork of the Sugarcubes), your scary trannie android (Annie Lennox of Eurythmics), and your testy and tempestuous ingénue (Sinead O’Connor). All of these ladies had allure to burn and the musical chops to back it all up.

But there was one lady, from a very distant star (Grangemouth, Scotland), who truly stood head and shoulders above the rest in what she brought to the table. Not only was Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins an alabaster-skinned ice princess with a mystifying hairstyle--she also had one of the most gorgeous voices to which pop music had ever born witness. With a staggering range that took it from the gutter to the stars in effortless swoops, and an easy way with melody and multi-tracked harmonies, Fraser’s voice was downright operatic in the sense that, unlike all of her peers, she sounded as if she could actually acquit herself quite nicely in an actual opera. (Of course, it would be one performed by an orchestra of hologram robots and staged on the distant planet of Mongo, but it would still be an opera.)

The first glimpse I got of Elizabeth Fraser was in 1988, when the video for “Carolyn’s Fingers,” a single from Blue Bell Knoll, the Cocteau Twins’ fifth album—and the first to get major label distribution in the U.S.—was in regular rotation on MTV’s “alternative” shows, such as the aforementioned 120 Minutes and its daytime counterpart PostModern MTV. She was exquisitely weird-looking--her short mess of kinky hair was tamed with Dep (or whatever) and styled (sort of) atop her head like a lopsided valentine, and she stood against a spectral blue background dressed in an all-white ensemble so un-rock-‘n-roll that Ms. Fraser wouldn’t have looked out of place if she’d worn it to an after-service luncheon down at the Presbyterian church. Her bandmates, guitarist Robin Guthrie and bassist Simon Raymonde, were also alluringly pale and otherworldly, but this was Elizabeth’s show.

Her voice stopped me in my tracks, as did her ice blue eyes and her soft, smiling face. And the song itself was a gorgeous wash of glacial guitar and epic, angelic vocals beamed in from the celestial moons of Tatooine or some shit. But what were these mysterious words this woman was uttering that sounded so unlike any language I’d ever heard? Was she singing in Klingon? Elvish? Scottish?

After hearing this celestial chorale, I of course spent the next few months feverishly tracking down and buying up any and all Cocteau Twins imports I could get my sweaty little teenage hands on. And as I immersed myself in her band’s spacey, cold-to-the-touch back catalog, I learned one simple truth--there was no way Liz Fraser was singing any human language. She was just forming her mouth into sounds that sounded good and letting those sounds be the lyrics. Album after album, song after song, there was no telling what on earth was happening in her world. Was she singing about gumdrops and unicorns? Egg drop soup? Gang warfare? Yes. All of these things. Or none of them, maybe? Who knew? I had to travel far back in time, to the dark, primordial year of 1982, in order to hear Ms. Fraser utter any word you would find in a dictionary. A few songs on first album Garlands, amid all the twittery yelping and staccato-hiccup vocals Liz was once wont to engage in, included a handful of real phrases of English: “stars in my eyes, stars at my feet” – “I could die in a rosary” – “winged water, feathered river”. Your typical early Goth pap-- nothing that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bauhaus song. But after flirting with human language early on, Elizabeth Fraser dove headfirst down the rabbit hole and spent the rest of the eighties throwing the world’s linguists for a loop.

This was a revelation: that someone could dispense with language altogether and just use their voice as an instrument. It was also a singular self-effacement in the context of a decade that gave us such strong "Look at me!" attention hogs as Morrissey, Robert Smith of the Cure, and, yes, the ladies mentioned in the first paragraph above, not to mention the mainstream Queen Bees of the Me-decade like Madonna, Boy George, and Bono. We may not have been able to always figure out what all these singers were going on and on about (what’s a Lovecat, for example?), but they were most definitely singing real words used to convey any number of real meanings. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” – “Let’s Go to Bed” – “Love and Anger” – the singers behind all of these songs, delightfully weird as they may have been, were, when it came down to it, relatable as humans.

But Elizabeth Fraser? She was a blurry blotch of brilliant ambiguity, an otherworldly seraph floating on a cloud of compelling, vertiginous vagueness and hiding behind a veil of hyper-imaginative deflection. Liz gave away nothing about herself in her lyrics. Even her song titles, though written in Roman letters, were bizarre transmissions from an outer-galactic polar volcano, though they were mercifully transcribed into English on the record sleeves: “A Kissed-out Red Floatboat”? “Cherry-Coloured Funk”? “The Itchy Glowbo Blow”? “Ella Megalast Burls Forever”? Whatever are we to make of these phrases, Elizabeth? Sure, sometimes she came down to earth and threw us a bone with a “Love’s Easy Tears” or a “Sigh’s Smell of Farewell,” or, you know, perhaps a “Blood Bitch,” just to prove that she’s human like the rest of us (and, at heart, an adorable little Goth). But then she’d go all sphinx-like once again with ditties like “Fotzepolitic” or “Aikea-Guinea.”

In contrast to her contemporaries, Elizabeth Fraser was a completely blank slate. The only entry-point into Liz’s world was her voice. No one could possibly know what that voice was saying, but it sure was beautiful. Therefore, the songs—these gorgeous, majestic, spine-tingling cathedrals of sound—could mean whatever you wanted them to mean. Did you just get dumped? Liz understands. Grandma died? Liz’ll take care of it. Failed your driver’s test? Liz has you covered. Coming to terms with your terrible homosexuality? Let Liz handle it. Just woke up with blood on your hands in a strange hotel room? Liz knows and she’ll make it better. (You should probably call your lawyer, though.)

Interestingly, it was when Liz started peppering her songs with more recognizable English on the Cocteau’s 1993 album Four Calendar Café that the internal dynamics within the band started fraying. On several tracks on the album, Elizabeth, who was romantically involved and had a child with guitarist Robin Guthrie, sang of domestic strife and romantic ambivalence. “Are you the right man for me/Or are you toxic for me?” she sang on single “Bluebeard.” "Is this what my body says? Use me, drain me, fall around me," she sighed on "Theft, and Wandering Around Lost." Though she employed a bit of English on the band’s final album, 1996’s Milk and Kisses, she largely reentered the Cloud of Lyrical Impenetrability on most of the songs such as “Eperdu,” “Tishbite,” and “Violaine.” After this last triumphant album, Fraser and Guthrie’s relationship, as well as the band they had made together, imploded and receded into legend.

The Cocteau Twins released eight albums, eighteen singles and EPs, and a number of collaborative recordings during their fourteen-year run from 1982 to 1996. (The most memorable of the latter, by the way, is Liz and Guthrie’s cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” which you should watch immediately. Do it now.) That’s a lot of songs, very few of which giving us even the slightest clue as to the Mystery of Liz. To this day Elizabeth Fraser remains an enigma wrapped in a riddle folded into a puzzle and then combined with a larger riddle and magically reduced to a smaller but still quite complicated puzzle that morphs into a conundrum that then disappears into a black hole. This is obvious.

Criminally, Ms. Fraser hasn’t released a solo album in the sixteen years since she was a Cocteau Twin, with her most high profile musical outing being the three tracks she sang on Massive Attack’s 1998 album Mezzanine. For years it has been rumored that she was working on a solo album for Blanco y Negro records, but nothing has ever materialized. She released one song called “Underwater” in 2000, but nobody heard it because it was a limited edition of only 200 copies.

Some exciting news came in 2005 when it was announced that the reformed Cocteau Twins would be headlining the Coachella Festival in California. But it was not to be--Elizabeth pulled out of the appearance after realizing she simply couldn’t face working with her ex-bandmates anymore. In November of 2009 she released a lovely song called “Moses” as a tribute to a friend who had recently died, and chatter about a solo album began anew. But now here we are in 2012 2014, and it’s still radio silence from Our Lady Fraser.

In a 2009 interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Liz, was as hard to reach as ever, though for once, she laid out in plain English what was behind all her otherworldly warblings:

She has always struggled to write lyrics, she says, but suddenly something will click and she “goes with the sound and the joy” – that’s why she sings sounds and words that have no meaning, of which she can only make sense later. As she puts it, “I can’t act. I can’t lie.”

So when you were singing along with Liz Fraser as she chirruped some flibberty lyrical nonsense in whatever song—was that a Cherry Coke mention in “Iceblink Luck”? A reference to Sudan in “I Wear Your Ring”? Something about lettuce leaves and Lois Lane in “Summerhead”?—she didn’t know what she was saying any more than you did. Perfect.

Elizabeth Fraser may not have known what her subconscious was conveying in the vast majority of the songs she sang, but she still sang like she meant every word.

Come back, Liz. It's been way too long, and right now the world needs more of your sublime cherry-coloured funk. Or, you know, whatever you want to call it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Sweet Tooth Jukebox: Siouxsie and the Banshees

Welcome to another installment of Sweet Tooth Jukebox, a series of posts inspired by the music I memorialize in my new book Sweet Tooth, available now, just buy it already, Jesus. Sweet Tooth Jukebox is my chance to force you to watch videos of my favorite bands from back in the day and read my words about them because knowledge is power and you were probably listening to Starship in the '80s. (I secretly was too, sometimes.) Pay attention, there will be a quiz, probably.

Up next: Siouxsie and Her Banshees. This band got their start way back in 1976 when they played a hastily put together set at the 100 Club Punk Festival in London. If memory serves, Sid Vicious was on drums that night. (Can someone fact check that for me?) Their set included a decidedly sacrilegious version of "The Lord's Prayer," and they made a wonderfully god-awful racket, by all accounts. It took them two years to get a record deal, by which point punk was kind of over, so their debut album The Scream is perhaps one of the first post-punk records. Between 1978 and 1996, the Banshees released 11 studio albums that are amazingly varied in style. Their first two were angular and angry, they added some color and bounce to the mix on 1980's Kaleidoscope, and then basically invented goth on 1981's classic Juju, which featured the single "Spellbound," the video of which showed Siouxsie at her most feline and her eye-makeup at its most turbo-charged.

And let's face it, we all had huge crushes on Budgie the drummer. What was not to love? He was one of the best-ever rock drummers, he had bleached-blonde hair and alabaster skin, and he always walked around dressed like a Victorian carnie. My dream date!

The band cycled through a few more styles--whoozy psychedelia on A Kiss in the Dreamhouse and Hyaena (check out the video for "Dear Prudence" above, in which Siouxsie's rocking some hairy-ass armpits), slithery modern rock on Tinderbox--before releasing Peepshow in 1988, a collection of goth cabaret torch songs and tales of childhood panic/horror that spawned the absolutely bonkers track "Peek-A-Boo," which became their highest-charting single to date in the States. (Fun fact: if you want me to dance at your party like a drunk marionette, give me some booze and put on this song.)

Now, some Banshees fans will quibble with my giving prominence to the video for "Peek-a-Boo" up top, because at the time it was viewed by diehards as kind of a sellout to pop radio. People who think this are wrong. This song is genius, and the video is fun as hell. Siouxsie's got a Cabaret bob cut and some country/western leotard-type sleeveless body suit with long-ass gloves, the boys are dancing muppet-like in the shadows and wearing masks, there's a bunch of animated projections on faces and such, there are tassels, there are hella big feather fans. What else could you want from a video? The answer is: I don't know, maybe a shirtless Budgie?

The less said about the Banshees' last two albums, Superstition and The Rapture, the better, because damn are they awful (though Superstition did include one of their best-ever singles, "Kiss Them for Me" and The Rapture's second half tried mightily to redeem its first.). But let's just say that up through Peepshow, this band was pretty damn flawless. Even their meh songs had at least a groovy bass line you could ride, a prickly guitar refrain spidering all over the place, and/or some glass-shattering yelps from Our Lady Sioux. They were constantly reinventing themselves and never dragging their feet. And they had the best B-sides in the business, hands down. (Seriously, get their B-sides collection Downside Up and be amazed. If you don't swoon in your boots for "Tattoo" I don't even know what to say to you.)

In conclusion, Siouxsie was my fairy godmother in high school and she got me a date for the prom, the end.