Archive forMay, 2003

AMERICAN, IDLE?

    The powers that be at American Idol had better not leave big winner Ruben out to dangle. I rooted for the large brutha to win Fox’s singing sweepstakes because I want them to make good on their stardom promise for someone who breaks the perky mold.

For the last couple of weeks, Emily’s been teasing me about my professed disinterest in American Idol. “So, are you coming over to watch tonight with Catherine and me, or are you going to continue to pretend not to care?”

The truth is, until the final night, I never watched American Idol alone. For one thing, I didn’t need to: between my addicted girlfriend and all the chatter in the media, I was kept abreast of the minutest movements in the weekly horserace. More important, there are so many things that offend me to my critic’s core about the singing contest: the institutionalized pressure to oversing, the lionization of songwriters like Diane Warren, the growing creepiness of Paula Abdul. But at a time when the music business is largely dormant, anything that gets people excited again about music-making – however schlocky – is, I’ve decided, a good thing. Over the last couple of weeks, I watched bits and pieces with Emily, and on Wednesday night, alone in my apartment, I actually caught the big finale while flipping from Law and Order.

This is the second time I’ve been wrong about the outcome of American Idol. I watched almost none of the first season, but as word got back to me about the final showdown between Kelly Clarkson and Justin “Sideshow Bob” Guarini, I predicted that Guarini, the goofy Teen Beat favorite, would prevail. I factored in the show’s enormous pubescent-girl fan base and the piss-poor tastes of the American public. I was wrong then, just as I was wrong this week when I forecast that ready-for-Broadway Clay Aiken would take the prize. I’ll give America a little credit – as Emily theorized, they may vote for all the wrong reasons in the early weeks of the contest, but in the final showdown, they get serious about the merits of the candidates. This explains how the clearly superior Clarkson won last year and the all-around more interesting Ruben Studdard prevailed this week. A more cynical explanation is that the voters in the early weeks are all starstruck teens and pop-schlock fans, and that people with relatively more refined tastes only tune in – or vote – during the final week. Please try to restrain your guffaws at my use of the word “refined” in the last sentence.

The other thing that’s been consistent about my Idol forecasts is that I’ve rooted for the least-pop of the two candidates. Of course, between Kelly and Justin, the choice was between pop and poppier. But this year’s contest offered a true apples-and-oranges choice – or at least, apples-and-pears, between Ruben’s and Clay’s two distinct kinds of schlock.

I joined Emily in rooting for Ruben. Her reasons were pretty straightforward: gentle-bear Ruben is so genuine, good-hearted and cute, you want to give him a hug. Emily practically cooed every time he came on screen. I can’t picture her saying “ohhhhhhh…” that many times unless she paused in front of a pet store with three dozen kittens in the window. The truth is, we both feel Ruben has a pretty wobbly voice – he can be powerful or erratic. But he’s got more soul, in every sense of that word, than Clay – he of the technically perfect, is-he-real-or-is-he-Memorex voice.

Ruben’s warmth won me over, too, but my main reason for rooting for him was I wanted to see the corporate behemoths behind Idol really tested. Let’s tally their score so far. In America, they’re one-for-one thanks to Clarkson. Her debut single (”A Moment Like This” backed with “Before Your Love”) topped the charts in a walk last October, and amazingly, the six-month delay in releasing her album didn’t hurt it at all, as Thankful debuted at #1 in April. The Idol juggernaut has had similar chart success throughout the world – the show is knows as Pop Idol throughout Europe, and several countries have had their own editions. In Britain, both the winner and the runner-up of the first contest, Will Young and Gareth Gates, have had chart-topping hits. But importantly, all of these big chart successes have come from squeaky-clean, white-bread überpop stars.

The svengalis behind Idol are BMG Entertainment and its family of labels, including RCA, which handles Clarkson; and British impresario Simon Fuller (not to be confused with the TV show’s host, Simon Cowell), whose 19 Productions conceived the show and owns the rights to all of its musical output. What these entities have in common is an innate understanding of how to market Euro or Euro-like megapop: power ballads, pop standards, chirpy boy-band-type hits. There’s no evidence, so far, that 19 knows how to market full-on R&B to an American audience; many of BMG’s labels have had tremendous success in this arena (BMG artists include Whitney Houston and R. Kelly), but the Idol promotional phenomenon is still relatively new to them, and there’s no evidence it will have the same effect on black/urban audiences that it had on middle-American ones.

Ruben Studdard is the test case. Immediately – wisely – BMG announced that Studdard would be signed not to its old-school pop label RCA, with Clarkson, but to J Records, Clive Davis’s two-year-old mega-boutique label. J has already succeeded in breaking Alicia Keys and was in the process of reviving the career of soul balladeer Luther Vandross before his tragic stroke last month. Pairing Ruben with the label of Luther is minor marketing genius – plus-sized, big-voiced Vandross is Studdard’s clear musical model. The press has been lazily referring to one of Studdard’s signature songs as “the Carpenters hit ‘Superstar’,” but the real reason Ruben covered that ’70s chestnut is that it was revived in the early ’80s in a huge hit remake by Vandross. (Besides, “Superstar” was one of the few Carpenters hits they didn’t write – it was penned by veterans Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett.)

The bottom line is this: The people have boldly chosen a plus-size, down home African-American as their American Idol; can BMG and J take him to the same lofty heights as Clarkson? You can sense the 19/BMG camps hedging their bets already. They’ve also signed runner-up Clay Aiken, to RCA. Both Studdard and Aiken will have single releases in stores in the next couple of weeks. This follows the U.K. model, where both winner Young and silver-medalist Gates scored hits and filled 19’s coffers. Interestingly, BMG and 19 have not done for last year’s runner-up, Justin Guarini, what they’re doing for Aiken. Theories abound – the two Simons never really liked Justin; the vote between Ruben and Clay this year was so close, they were effectively both winners; given Clay’s Disney-friendly voice, his career probably has a big Broadway upside. But I think the real reason is, Clay Aiken is (notwithstanding his rumored sexuality) a clean-cut known quantity, an easy-to-market white boy. I’m not claiming racism here; I just think it’s a simple case of corporate entities investing in their core competency while taking a flyer on a riskier proposition with equally big upside potential.

That said, if Ruben Studdard ends up being an official American Idol but not an actual American idol, we will have witnessed the limits of this star-making machine. It’ll be fascinating to watch. Meantime, over at Amazon’s music homepage, the #1 preorder for the past week has been the single “This Is the Night”/”On the Wings of Love” by Clay Aiken. Ruben Studdard’s “Flying Without Wings”/”Superstar” is #2, but until a couple of days ago, it wasn’t even in the top 10.

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MEMES: MELISMATA, MUSICAL TORTURE, MOHAWKED SNOBS

    Some links to articles that happened to appear this week, all suggesting the devolution of American musical culture.

Anyone with even a passing interest in popular music simply must read this witty, dead-on New York Times article from Sunday’s Arts section. (Hurry, free viewings will expire in a week and a half.) It’s about melismata, the singing phenomenon that, in its overuse, is destroying modern pop singing. This has been a pet theory of mine for years, and while other critics have shared my disdain for the tendency of modern singers to egotistically overemote, until now no one has pinpointed the problem as expertly as critic Jody Rosen does here.

My one criticism of Rosen’s superb article is that he does not fully explore who is to blame for this phenomenon – though he does hint at it. The usual, and rightful, suspects, Whitney and Mariah, are repeatedly invoked, but to me Rosen hits it on the head in this brief aside: “Stevie Wonder impersonations gone terribly wrong.” My long-held theory is that the line in the sand between the old Soul Era of Brother Ray and Queen Aretha and the modern Melismata Era is Stevie, whose ’70s work is without peer but who unfortunately taught an entire generation to oversing. Wonder got away with it because his material was so good (until “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” of course) and because he wrote it all, which allowed him to understand innately how his heavy-handed singing could serve the songs. But as wave after wave of modern pop and R&B singers invoke Wonder and Songs in the Key of Life as their models of great music, I have decided that Stevie was to singing what Sgt. Pepper was to albums: an innovator of great artistic merit and dubious artistic influence. Like Pepper, Stevie taught everyone who came afterward all the wrong lessons.

The second article I stumbled across this week that I had to share was this BBC piece, “Sesame Street breaks Iraqi POWs,” which is definitely a spit-out-your-Froot-Loops headline. Basically, the word from Iraq is that U.S. interrogators are using repeated plays of the themes from Sesame Street and Barney and Friends, along with heavy-metal songs like Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” to compel testimony from their captives. And Amnesty International has declared that this may qualify as Geneva-violating torture!

Rightfully, the debate is centering on the question of repetition and cultural interpretation, not the merits of the chosen songs, which are frankly all over the map. “Enter Sandman” is at this point a rock/metal classic, no matter how you feel about Metallica – it’s played at baseball games, fer chrissakes. But metal is poorly received not just by aging parents and classical fans, but also by certain non-American populations, for whom the sound of thundering rock is akin to punishment, both cruel and unusual. As for Barney’s “I Love You, You Love Me,” I doubt anyone would argue that even two plays of this song amount to anything less than torture. But Sesame Street? Obviously I’m biased, because my memories of that theme date to just after the womb, but it’s a pretty happy-sounding song that could only resemble agony after endless repetition; that chunka-chunka melody, those high-pitched kids’ vocals – sure, it’s grating, but not at first listen. Even John Lennon’s “Imagine” would sound like torture after several dozen replays. (More torturous would be the version of “Imagine” by American Idol’s lovable but melismata-addicted Ruben Studdard. Sorry, I’m digressing back to article #1.)

Finally, The Onion offers a sly bit of pop-culture satire this week: “’90s Punk Decries Punks Of Today.” This is one of those Onion bits that’s not laugh-out-loud funny but gets the tone so wonderfully right. It manages to lampoon punk snobbery, generational arrogance and the KROQ Weenie Roast all in one go. Of course, I shouldn’t talk – I bought all my punk records…um, CDs in the mid-’90s, and I think Sum 41 are poseurs, too.

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JOBS TO DO

    Steve Jobs has won copious praise for Apple’s pathbreaking iTunes Music Store, much of it well deserved. But somebody’s got to point out the store’s flaws, and it might as well be me.

I was certainly looking forward to the opening of the iTunes Music Store, but I never expected this: wildly positive reviews; technophobic record execs singing hosannas to Steve Jobs and his 99-cents business model; notable envy from Windows users. Least expected – by me or anyone else – was the store’s phenomenal first-week success: one million downloads sold, more than the other legal download services, combined, have sold over two years.

The reviews have been so uniformly upbeat that I felt an obligation to let a little air out of the balloon, now that the store has completed its second week of business. I’ve been using the iTunes Store since day one, and while I’ve had loads of fun with it, there are several areas for improvement. Since I’ve already declared my loyalty to Apple, this rundown of negatives should serve less as a rant than as a constructive to-do list for Jobs and his music team:

  • Inexplicable gaps in coverage – Apple managed to get 200,000 songs into the Store at launch, which is a fairly impressive number for a pure startup but leaves a lot of gaps. Famously missing are a handful of superstars – the Beatles and Stones, Zeppelin, Madonna, Metallica – who continue to refuse all the download services. Jobs made impressive efforts to woo these fogies (he reportedly courted Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney in person), and one or more of them should cave eventually. Also noticeably missing are the indie labels, whose artists would stand to gain the most from Apple’s cachet and artsy audience. Understandably, Jobs’s team focused on the Big Five at startup, and I’d expect a large indie like Matador or Sub Pop to announce its participation any day now.

    Less understandable are the artists with weird gaps in their Store coverage. Take R.E.M.: nearly their entire catalog is available, including albums from both ’80s indie I.R.S. Records and major Warner Music. So why are three of their 15 albums, Automatic for the People (1992), Monster (1994) and Reveal (2001) missing? There’s no rhyme or reason to exclude these three titles (not the band’s best- or worst-selling); it would be like releasing every Star Wars film on DVD except, oh, say, Jedi. And what about Moby? How come a guy who just shilled for Apple’s iPod in Rolling Stone is only represented by one pre-stardom compilation? It’s not just that Apple couldn’t get everything into the Store at launch – it’s that much of the missing music is so random: every Springsteen album but one, every Public Enemy album but two, every Prince album but Purple Rain. It makes browsing the Store almost as frustrating as searching Kazaa at the wrong hour of the day. Either include everything by an artist, or skip him.

  • Partial albums and weird restrictions – None of the reviews so far have noted it explicitly, but Jobs did make some devil’s bargains with the labels and artists to get so many titles up so quickly. Despite Jobs’s declaration that all the songs at iTunes are for sale a la carte, the Store is actually littered with a number of songs that are only downloadable if you buy the full album, including much of the classical and jazz selection. Far worse is the plethora of partial albums – some “albums” contain as few as one or two of the dozen songs from a CD release. You’d guess, cynically, that the hits are the songs that have been left off, but usually it’s some random track in the middle or at the end of the disc; it’s as if the labels wanted to assure that rabid fans would have to buy old-fashioned plastic to own a complete album. Finally, there are the dozens, perhaps hundreds of albums labeled “By Song Only” – you can have the whole album, but, perversely, you can only have it by buying each 99-cent song a la carte (albums are usually sold by iTunes at a discount; more on that in a second). For some artists, all these restrictions make the act’s presence in the Store a joke. Literally every one of Springsteen’s albums is either a “Partial Album” or “By Song Only” offering. If you want complete albums by the Boss, you’re better off driving to Sam Goody.
  • Irregular album pricing – Apple has been burying one of the best features of the Store in its advertising: most complete albums can be downloaded for $9.99. That’s a bargain for any album with more than 10 songs, a total steal for a greatest-hits. (The recent chart-topper Elv1s 30 #1 Hits can be had for 10 bucks.) Even better, albums with fewer than 10 tracks can be purchased for the cumulative a la carte price: John Coltrane’s complete, five-song classic Blue Train is on sale for $4.95.

    So why has Jobs breathed not a word about album pricing in his string of interviews (or in his hour-long launch presentation last month in San Francisco)? Because certain artists refused to go along with the $9.99 price approach. Coldplay’s two studio albums are available for $10.89 and $11.99 – the latter (for 2000’s Parachutes) a real ripoff, since it contains only 10 songs. Worse is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, 10 tracks for $14.99; and like Coldplay, they’ve made a track or two “Album Only” so there’s no way to build the full album song by song and pay less.

    Maybe I’m old-fashioned, liking albums and all, but I think Apple should push harder on the $9.99 price point; it’s a real eye-opener to people who’ve been ripped off at record stores for years. Persuasive as he is, Jobs can hopefully show those artists that won’t get in line behind $9.99 that other major acts are cooperating (all of U2’s albums are that price or less) and get them to play along. In the meantime, Apple will continue to hype the 99-cents-per-song price, which nobody has violated…yet.

  • Boring “exclusive” content – Jobs made a big deal at launch about the 20 or so artists who were so excited about iTunes that they gave the Store exclusive content. Apple has done a nice job with its featured artists, giving them a splashy page of their own that highlights the exclusive song they’re offering alongside their regular albums. Trouble is, an unreleased song is usually unreleased for a reason: it’s generally subpar material. A Coldplay fan, I downloaded the “exclusive” track “One I Love,” and I was underwhelmed. If Apple really wants to do music fans a favor, they’ll redirect their energies toward finding the rarities, B-sides and out-of-print discs fans really want. That would go a long way toward making iTunes the “legal Napster” everyone’s hoping it will become.
  • AAC instead of MP3 – Sure, AAC files probably sound better than MP3, and the file sizes are smaller, but don’t let Jobs fool you: Apple chose the AAC compression format because it’s got thicker digital-rights management (DRM) protections built in. I am not opposed to this per se, and I think Apple’s compromises with the labels are pretty fair: songs can be played on any three computers, burned to CD ad nauseum and burned as part of a playlist up to 10 times. But there should be an easier way to convert your songs to good ol’ MP3 – iTunes won’t allow you to do it directly, forcing you to burn to a CD and then reconvert back to MP3 (reportedly with a loss in quality). To be fair, Jobs’s hands may be tied here viz. his licensing deals with the labels. Hopefully some enterprising college student is coding an AAC->MP3 shareware application as I type this.

    Anyway, my only other comment on iTunes and DRM is that this set of rights had better be the baseline. My pal Brian Garrity reports in Billboard this week that the labels agreed to these freer DRM terms only because they know the Apple market is so small; as Jobs tries to launch a Windows-compaitble service later this year, the labels are already threatening to pull back: “Some executives want to see greater control over how many times a copy can be made or synched to another computer before making iTunes available for Windows.” Yuck! This would kill the baby in the crib, just as it’s saying its first full sentence.

  • A million downloads can be wrong – Apple’s press release about first-week sales sounded impressive, but Garrity’s article says most of the business was done in the first few days, probably by gearheads testing out the service. Notably, Apple has declined to reveal second-week sales. If they’re going to keep people coming back, Apple needs to rely on more than news reports and occasional TV commercials. They have to keep adding new material to the store and connect with rabid music audiences at places like MTV and concerts. Which reminds me…
  • Overemphasis on oldsters – The only way any download service will become a long-term success will be to connect with young audiences. Yes, they prefer free songs to 99-cent songs, but they acquire more music more often, and there have to be ways to get them excited about the Store and want to pay for content – exclusive remixes, perhaps, or artist interviews. An article at HITS last week noted that iTunes’ charts of the most-downloaded songs have quickly gravitated toward music friendly to soccer-mom and golfing audiences. That’s no surprise – adults have the most disposable income and have shied away from Gnutella wares. But unless Apple wants iTunes to be solely the province of Norah Jones and Sting fans, they need to keep their eye on the ball. Jobs himself is a Boomer and unabashed fan of ’60s and ’70s music, which he emphasized repeatedly in his presentation; he lobbied especially hard to get the Eagles on iTunes. Let’s hope he’s lobbying just as hard to land the White Stripes and Linkin Park.

My favorite iTunes download so far? Def Leppard’s “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak.” I didn’t feel the need to own an entire greatest hits album by these guys, but “Bringin’” is a power-schlock classic, and I’d never found a clean, decent download on Napster or elsewhere. The iTunes download gave me my 99 cents’ worth, blowing away the sonics of the crappy, low-bit MP3 I downloaded of the song two years ago. Finally, I can hear Joe Elliott’s adenoidal whine in crisp, clean fidelity. Thank you, Steve Jobs!

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ROTATIONS: DECONSTRUCTION, SELF-DESTRUCTION

    This week on the CD carousel: the Bad Plus jazzes up Kurt Cobain; Lisa Marie Presley cuts her teeth; Ms. Dynamite fills a Lauryn-size gap; Suicide do just that in front of a crowd; and the Postal Service hums with digital love.

My five-disc approach to music-reviewing is becoming ever more obsolete. Three days ago, Apple launched its iTunes Music Store to much fanfare. I am enjoying its wares already, but I’m not ready to review it yet. So for now you’re just going to have to read my reviews of some old-fashioned albums, on old-fashioned CDs, from my last-century CD changer. This week I survey four recent releases and one reissue from the ’70s.

Bad Plus, Vistas

The Bad Plus, These Are the Vistas – Bias alert: I’m a sucker for the piano, even in jazz. So this three-piece, anchored by Ethan Iverson’s boppy ivory-tinkling, immediately sounds warm and familiar to me. What’s also familiar are the songs: The Bad Plus cover rock-era material, which has garnered them an unusual amount of press hype for a modern-day jazz combo. Vistas isn’t dominated by pop songs, but when they appear, you won’t miss them: Blondie’s disco-punk chestnut “Heart of Glass,” Aphex Twin’s ambient “Flim,” and the most covered song of the ’90s, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” You admire the Bad Plus for their chutzpah, but it’s hard to make rock material swing, which is why jazz players usually stick to pop balladry – “My Favorite Things” and “Time After Time” better lend themselves to interpretation. Here, “Heart of Glass” suffers, as Iverson restates the main hook over and over; “Teen Spirit” is somewhat more successful, highlighting what a stellar melody Kurt Cobain wrote in the first place. The pop songs will sell this album, but it’s the rest of it that impresses, dominated by the combo’s more than serviceable original compositions, and boosted by the coolly ambient production of rock veteran Tchad Blake. This is not cutting-edge stuff – Henry Threadgill fans, look elsewhere – but for pop listeners who’d like a modern jazz CD in their collections, you could scarcely go wrong with the Bad Plus.

Lisa Marie Presley, To Whom...

Lisa Marie Presley, To Whom it May Concern– I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise, but Lisa Marie’s recorded debut impresses me mainly because it could have been a whole lot duller or dumber. I’d like to credit Lisa Marie herself for this, since she seems like a smart lady, but it’s been widely rumored that Capitol Records sunk a fortune in production and promotional setup into To Whom it May Concern. Producer/Capitol executive Andy Slater captained the project, and he brings the same pop shimmer to it that he brought to Fiona Apple’s 1996 debut. But Presley isn’t just window-dressing on her album; her voice – sultry, throaty, pleading – is the dominant factor. Maybe too dominant: as self-possessed as she comes off, her voice is so undifferentiated from track to track that the songs tend to morph into each other. One that stands out is “Lights Out,” the lead single. I’d heard it a month before the album came out and was pretty bored by it; then its hook, “Someone left the lights out down in Memphis/That’s where my family’s buried and gone,” took up residence in my brain. That lyric is a kind of proxy for the entire concept of a Lisa Marie Presley album: kitschy, trite, yet weirdly compelling and heartfelt – kinda like Daddy. Next time, let’s hope LMP invokes her pop’s spirit by letting loose and having a little more fun. Meantime, this is a surprisingly respectable debut.

Ms. Dynamite, A Little Deeper

Ms. Dynamite, A Little Deeper – Memo to Lauryn Hill: you snooze, you lose. As an army of fans await the proper follow-up to 1998’s blockbuster The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, British diva-in-training Ms. Dynamite stands ready to fill in the singing-rapper wonder-girl role Hill left open for half a decade. Though her album may not be as far-ranging or visionary as Hill’s, Ms. D’s brains, beauty, conscience and flow will win over any Yank who’s willing to give her a try. The upset winner of the 2002 edition of Britain’s Mercury Music Prize (a kind of Pulitzer for a U.K. album), A Little Deeper continues the shocking trend of England’s fast-growing hip-hop cred. Like her countryman Mike Skinner, a.k.a. The Streets, MC Niomi Daley makes the form her own by reimagining it in her own East End idiom: West Indian patois meets fluttery singing meets off-kilter, club-informed beats and clever samples. The cleverest appear on the killer first single, “It Takes More,” wherein Daley croons and toasts over an accordion sample that must’ve wandered in from a Rosemary Clooney record. The best thing about A Little Deeper is that, true to its name, it reveals layers of lyrical cleverness the longer you listen: sweetly delivered kiss-offs, sharply directed diatribes (”How many Africans died for the baguettes on your Rolex?”) and self-assured braggadocio you wouldn’t expect from a pint-sized fly girl. So while Lauryn’s off napping, Dynamite’s U.S. label is pushing her hard – a recent episode of UPN’s Platinum featured her music almost exclusively. Happily, she deserves the attention.

Suicide, 1st Album

Suicide, Suicide [first album] – I pulled this off my shelf after being inspired by the music video by these late ’70s post-punkers I saw at MoMA’s recent screening of classic clips. The 10-minute song that blew my mind, the harrowing “Frankie Teardrop,” chronicles a Vietnam vet’s murderous rampage and is the centerpiece of Suicide’s 1977 debut album, now considered the precursor to a generation of synthesizer-based music. If you grew up with technopop or Euro-goth, though, Suicide will sound utterly alien – minor-key, gritty, urban, there’s nothing geek about it. A true DIY combo, Suicide gave the lie to stereotypes of both punk and synth-rock, and like the Velvet Underground, they remain ahead of their time. This isn’t a record you put on as background, it’s a record by which to be aurally assaulted – by Alan Vega’s jittery scream-singing and by keyboardist Martin Rev ’s eerie digital hum. Though several mainstream rock acts profess a debt to Suicide – including the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, who later produced records for them – to say it’s not for all tastes would be an understatement. As if reinforcing the point, this 2000 CD reissue includes a second disc that captures a gig by the duo opening up for Elvis Costello around 1979. They were loudly booed off the stage, and the sound of their self-destruction is poetry, totally of a piece with their rampaging art-rock (and with other legendary live blowups like Dylan’s infamous “Royal Albert Hall” concert). Unlike the new-wavers or synth-poppers that followed them, Suicide started off remarkably un-self-conscious, and that’s why they fascinate me.

Postal Service, Give Up

Postal Service, Give Up – Speaking of destroying synth-pop stereotypes: This immensely pleasurable side project by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, along with Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello, shows how organic digital rock can sound. Bright but never overly perky, this debut as the Postal Service finds Gibbard crooning mellifluously over ’80s-esque synth beats, but with a richness of melody and counterpoint that belies the duo’s respective indie-rock backgrounds. Confession: I am only intermittently fascinated by the much-loved Death Cab; I always found their material a bit coy, not as sharp as either Belle and Sebastian on the witty-weenie side or Dismemberment Plan on the twisty-emo side. But the directness of the Postal Service’s approach hits my pleasure centers, and the album has made repeated trips through my CD player over the past two months. Some reviews I’ve read have reduced Give Up to “’80s synth-pop with updated beats,” but it’s sharper than that. There’s a playfulness to the record, typified by the quirky arrangements and heartbeat rhythms, that makes it clear the Postal Service isn’t on autopilot.

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