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.”


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