Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Review: Robyn's Body Talk series

Perky Swedish popstar, Robyn, made a lot of new friends this year by reinventing the wheel with her Body Talk series. After a slew of electro-pop releases, she’s funneled all of this hard work into a new record that plays like a year-end best-of, cheekily challenging the standard album structure in the process.

In the arena of popular music, the album is a troublesome format. In an industry that only splurges on big producers for a handful of singles, few listeners wade through the mire of same-y album tracks. Instead, piecemeal downloading is de rigueur, snatching up singles on itunes then making playlists out of the amassed nuggets. This compiling was predated in the 1990s by the compilation CD, commercially exemplified by the ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’ series (currently in its 36th stateside incarnation, 77th in the U.K.), which clustered various chart busters onto one disc. That series got the balance right, basically serving up radio (or TRL) in CD form, ensuring that all of that season’s songs were present and accounted for. There, the CD became something of a time capsule.

With Body Talk, Robyn embraced such behavior from the start, releasing numerous affordable installments throughout the year. Fans on message boards and blogs assembled makeshift compilations out of those early recordings, live appearances and single versions, awaiting a third release to expand this omnibus album. Relying on online hype channels, timely remixes, and two stellar 8-song pop records released in tandem, what lands in our laps today assembles those best tracks alongside some new cuts. Like the countless online playlists, this third installment listens, as Robyn puts it, like a “turbo version of the Body Talk album.”

By this point, the mini-Body Talks have grown on attuned ears through club play, t.v. appearances and online downloads. The songs from Body Talk parts 1 and 2 certainly became my soundtracks to summer and fall, respectively, beckoning from just about every music site and tastemaker blog. As good popular music does, these tunes expanded in these contexts, becoming ensnared in popular (not to mention personal) memory. A year-end round-up does not merely make the most of a festive buying season, but listens like a collection of signature tunes, amassing the best of Robyn’s output in a new deluxe package. Some new beside the tried and true. Robyn, who runs her own label, Konichiwa Records, has explained her desire to include fans in the recording process, generating a more open-ended creative period, “to try and figure out a more organic way of making music. A way that is unbiased and has it’s starting point in what feels logical to me, but also to the listeners.”

First known as a cross-over artist, the teen Swede brought her oh-so-1997 “Show Me Love” to every international radio chart imaginable. But Robyn parted ways with her megalabel after they tried to pin her as the next Christina Aguilera. She had more electronic aspirations in mind, see. Without the marketing bucks of a big label, the resulting LP [Robyn] made use of hype and the delay of international release dates to attain commercial and critical success. Breaking through at #1 in Sweden in 2005, Robyn did not find a UK release until the singer had added more single-worthy tracks by 2007. After sweeping that territory with her #1 “With Every Heartbeat,” Robyn skipped across the pond to release an EP of material preceding Robyn’s 2008 US release, in which it rounded out the Billboard top 100.

This February, Robyn broke news of her auspicious plan to release 3 albums in 2010. “I got all these great songs so why not?” she wrote on her blog. “It’s been 5 years since Robyn and I didn’t want to wait with a release until they are all recorded, so I decided to start putting them out right away.” Reintroducing herself to the pop market, a new tune was leaked each month leading up to the June release of Body Talk Pt. 1. By the time her first proper single found its way to DJ booths, she was no longer another past pop darling but a burgeoning sensation. And did the single help! “Dancing On My Own” is still the chosen track on television spots (Gossip Girl) and promotional performances (Nobel Peace Prize Awards, MTV’s Video Music Awards).

That song epitomizes the Robyn canon. Like past hits “With Every Heartbeat” and “Be Mine!” “Dancing” plays on the contrast of a slow-burning, minimal beat with an emotional, heavy-hitter delivery. Disco lasers catch tears in her eyes as she spies her crush/ex stepping out with someone else. “Stilettos on broken bottles / I’m spinning around in circles / I’m in the corner watching you kiss her / I’m right over here, why can’t you see me?”

Body Talk Pt. 1 already felt kind of like a collection. 4 of its 8 tracks had been leaked or serviced to itunes as singles, and its range of genres only built on this feeling. Techno-funk, Disco, Dancehall, Rap, and Ballad, Body Talk Pt. 1 is aggressively appealing, spinning through many popular styles (and demographics) in its trim 30 minutes. To seal the deal, both Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 closed with acoustic renditions of the following album’s lead singles, “Hang With Me” and “Indestructible.”

The acoustic “Hang With Me” was a skipper, in my opinion. But when the video landed online, it was over. I was hooked. The beyond-endearing promo for this second single opened in her hotel room, showcasing Robyn’s live tour and assuring that it would be a pleasure to “hang” with the polite and diminutive star. “Leave it to Robyn,” writes Ryan Dombal on Pitchfork Media, “to take a tired video concept – the "on-the-road" clip – and turn it into something worthwhile.” Released in September, Body Talk Pt. 2 was a much more consistent album, wowing critics less (they were still quite favorable) than the previous gathering of single-ready tunes. Still, it landed Robyn her best US charting to date (#41). I was on assignment at the time, staying in San Francisco’s Castro district, and that CD was in EVERY shop window.

But the baiting system that Robyn developed for her singles somewhat backfired with her third [and current] promo. “Indestructible,” a fan (and personal) favorite in its acoustic form on Body Talk Pt. 2, did not quite translate into a dancefloor delight. “Hang With Me” was above-and-beyond its acoustic rendition, so expectations were high for this already-very-good tune. The single sits uncomfortably between slow-burner and club anthem, never quite differentiating itself from the acoustic version enough with an odd instrumental interlude that sounds, to these ears, like the Dynasty theme.

Perhaps a better choice would have been the new, Max Martin-produced “Time Machine.” A killer pop track, the song cleverly re-pairs Robyn with the producer that shot her to fame in 1997 with “Show Me Love.” It also literally refers to a DeLorean the singer wishes she could hitch, to take back a fit she threw at a lover. This and the dazzlingly mature “Call Your Girlfriend” (a song that basically says, “this is how you respectfully break up with your current girlfriend in a loving, supportive and adult manner now that I’ve walked into your life”) are the standouts on this final installment of the series, which, despite good intentions, does feature some filler towards album’s end (“Get Myself Together” and “Stars-4-ever”).

Assembling the best picks from the crop, the now-familiar songs fare well, side-by-side. And ultimately, it is in Body Talk’s best interest to play like a compilation, embracing the frequently varied production process of pop records. Most big albums enlist a roster of heavy hitters for a few sure-fire singles, generating a heterogeneous feel, incidentally. Literalizing that process and keeping me engaged – or better yet, guessing – for the better part of a year, Robyn has succeeded in creating a forward-thinking event album, a string of hit tunes and a self-reflexive post-modern pop trilogy. Further still, the final result is a carefully constructed record that assembles the wealth of songs that played throughout the past year, with personal favoritism opening out the known material and ensuring a product that is both familiar and thrilling. It speaks droves that the experimental release pattern has found her with the most successful campaign of her 20-year career. Revitalizing the popular album format and breathing life into an otherwise staid commercial market, it’s truly fabulous that Robyn can live up to her boast on the Snoop Dogg collaboration, “U Should Know Better,” that “the whole industry knows not to fuck with me.”

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Talking Pictures...

Goodness. It's been a busy week with screenings and assignments. In an extended Claire Denis orgy staged by IFC to excite for the release of the fabulous White Material, I attended Wednesday's screening of No Fear No Die with artist, Jake Davidson. The film, one of Denis few unavailable on domestic shores, is a sparse account of two brothers from Benin, Africa, who preen and coach roosters in the basement of a restaurant for rounds of suburban Paris cockfighting. No-Fear-No-Die is the name of one such cock who doesn't heed this message for long. While there's a mildly precious air to the manner in which Denis treats the special relationship that brother Jocelyn (Denis' constant collaborator, Alex Descas, from Trouble Every Day, 35 Shots of Rum) has with his preferred cocks, by keeping her camera trained solely on the bare-bones narrative, there's an ugly and tortured heart at the center of the package, and its not easily explained away by narrative circumstance of individualism. The movie mounts to a claustrophobic confrontation in the cockfighting ring, between Jocelyn and the men that swarm the abandoned building of this distant banlieue. There is, of course, far more at stake than the life of his beautiful white cock. And the drunken venom that he spews, addressing the crowd as pigs, while swaying in this makeshift circle, ends in the only way it ever seems able.

We were in the wrong theater, it seemed, since downstairs, Yony Leser, a kid who Jake and I knew from undergrad art school, was presenting his documentary on William Burroughs: A Man Within. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge was also there to talk about her experiences with Burroughs. After our screening, we ran into the curator of NP Contemporary Art Center, Wesley Stokes and his partner in crime, Pamela Tietze, in the lobby who were headed over to the Jane hotel. But my tired ass headed home.

I was on assignment for a review of Robyn's new Body Talk album, which will post on The Fanzine in the next couple days. Such an amazing album. Between edits, at the suggestion of poet Nathan Austin, I watched this lovely (if not somewhat bleak) Christmas-themed film, Remember That Night (1940). The film was the first pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurry who would get all teary in Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow (the poster of which hangs over my computer) and all bloody in Double Indemnity. A very stirring film, though I'm increasingly offended by non-Hollywood endings, and the moral ramifications of this one were admirably messy for a studio picture.

It was a slightly quiet weekend, even given my reading at Brother, My Lover. In truth, I was surprised at the lack of boisterousness exhibited by the crowd. The piece, "Schooled," is a gabby farce, only intended to be taken half-seriously. Perhaps, as D suggested, it was too much an indictment of Southern California culture, too pointed. Whatever.

Oh, and we saw the New Photography show at MOMA (D's parents were back in town for a 24-hour stint). Elad Lassry exhibited some lovely images, works that uncannily recall advertising photos but each isolated image seems encrusted in its own aesthetic hermeticism. The work is funny; extremely self conscious in terms of coloration, the individual images seem to close in on themselves with frames to match their vibrant colors, but it is in the cluster of their small frames that they gain in meaning. The works are sized as magazine spreads, with obvious gay references and aesthetics, reformulating slightly random images in a strangely accumulative space. Amanda Ross-Ho, rather ineptly included in this photography show, has taken her aesthetic as far as it can go. I championed her earlier work, in which she brought the studio wall, itself, into the gallery, smeared with paints, thumb tack holes, and gold leaf. Exhibited as a secondary wall for context or even as art objects themselves, this early model had a fascinating charge, an indexical quality that worked. But now, in her art superstar role, these gestures only evince a hyper-aesthetic, are antiseptic and moot. Her work stood out here as incredibly banal. I would like to like Alex Prager's work cause, on the surface, what's not to like? These images are juicy, colorful and pretty. A wall text describes her devotion to Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk and The Red Shoes, but reiterations are dull unless they bring something to the table. The MOMA installation crew slyly delivers the death blow by allowing Prager's immaculately staged pop pulp to be spied from the adjacent gallery where a Cindy Sherman centerfold can be visually compared in the same sightline to these Pragers, showing, ultimately, who's boss.

And finally, Kelis is trotting out a new single from Flesh Tone with a quite-classy video, so, of course, I'll post that here...

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Oh, Mariah!

For better or worse, the new Mariah Carey christmas album, Merry Christmas II You, is on at my house, nonstop. Meanwhile, the Annie Lennox Christmas album, Christmas Cornucopia, is something of a dud.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Face(s) of Genesis

I attended last night's Queer/Art/Film screening of If... presented by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. Gen, who now lives in New York, has been getting around a lot lately. She is, of course, part of some seminal noise institutions (Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, the latter of which will be hosting a Xmas-timed show this year in Bklnd) and exhibiting a great deal as a fine artist (with a recent show that opened at Invisible Exports last year on my birthday). I saw her stint on Vaginal Davis' live talk show "Speaking from the Diaphragm," a performance in which Gen held her own since Vag couldn't hold her liquor. That night was a beautiful collision of styles. Vag swaying on the floor, literally so drunk she could not stand up, and Genesis taking the reigns of this self-imploding variety show.

Last night was a tad different. The event was very much a place of worship (and catharsis) for and of Genesis, whose major project in the wake of her Industrial acts, is a physical fusion of Gen with his recently passed wife, The Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge. In life, the two used plastic surgery and affected behavioral tactics to become, physically, the singular soul they felt they embodied in two parts. Now that their bodies are separated, indefinitely, Gen takes it upon herself to house the souls, referring to herself as "we" and answering for the Lady Jaye as quickly as for Gen (or so I understand it; there was a charming disclaimer at the evening's start that Gen had just begun referring to herself as we and, should she slip up, it is only on account of the tyranny of habituation). The film seemed a slice of life with which I was none-too impressed. But no one was there for If..., really, and that was for sure. Instead the event focused on Genesis' recountings of bullying and conflict in British Public (which, there, is our private) school systems. It seemed something of an exoneration or cathartic scene for Gen who stuck little to the accounts in the film, intermixing her lived experience with the narrative strife that the picture depicts.

The accounts wore on and, from where I was sitting, I could only make out Gen's face in profile as she answered questions, expounded on her bullied experiences and explained her self-designated gender formation with the Lady Jaye, pandrogeny: "Pandrogeny is not about defining differences, but about creating similarities. Not about separation but about unification and resolution." I've seen Gen a few times since moving to New York and I don't hold the same Holy opinions of her that some of my dearest friends (and some fiercely in-vogue art gays) do, and have been mildly skeptical about the devotion she inspires, but once she turned to address some questions on my side of the room, I found myself lost in the contours of her face. It might seem shallow or silly, that after very poignantly worded manifestos of the project on her pretty great website, it takes a face for me get drawn into the project. Perhaps it was a contact high from the devotional energy that clouded through the room. Genesis is very good at commanding a room and ensuring that the logic that she spins around her endeavors is not only sound, but gospel.

And perhaps I'm still slightly skeptical, but in that moment I was overtaken by a particular beauty, an evident and remarkable success in the fusion of these faces. Perhaps I got totally ruined by my obsessive use of Walter Benjamin's chapter "Allegory and Trauerschpiel" from The Original of German Tragic Drama in a Grad school essay on Maria Montez, but to facades and faces, I can't help but read the passage of time there written as allegorical, a kind of index to the tragic and momentous events there witnessed. Benjamin finds the apotheosis of this evocative quality in the ruin or, better yet, the facies hippocratica (the face of death) whose wizened dessicated countenance exists as an associative link to the entire narrative that has contributed to this present mask. These surfaces are narrative, not merely surfaces but physiognomic, moral spaces. This was the wave that I became swept up in, marveling at Gen's work last night. It's all written there and, as her manifesto on Pandrogeny attests, this life is a work, a very successful work, if I am to take her body, her beautiful and telling face as the primary medium of this life as art.

(Photos by my friend, the fabulous Celebrity photographer Greg Garry)

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Various Updatedness

Consider this a revamp. Being Boring will soon be changing form. More a platform for culture and ideas than encyclopedic, check in for daily musings and leave with a nugget or two.

Today, I have slight bits of news to report. One of which being a lovely surprise which I discovered when putting my 'All the Lovers' 7" picture disc single on for the first time. I forgot to switch my player to 45 from 33 1/3 and came up with a new wave goth version of Kylie's recent hit.

In more pressing news, I will be reading a Cookie Mueller inspired piece called 'Schooled' at this month's Brother, My Lover. And by Cookie Mueller-inspired, I guess I mean, I-was-reading-CM-and-thought, "gosh, why don't I have cool life stories to report like Cookie's" and-then-thought, "well, there was that one time..." 'Schooled' is an art school farce about group sex and black face. NP Contemporary Art Center 131 Chrystie Street Friday, November 19th, 8 - 10PM.

Until then...