Listen to this track by experimental pop collective and repositioners of classic R&B songs The Flying Lizards. It’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”, a cover of the much-beloved 1959 Barrett Strong original. As often as it was covered, by both The Beatles and by The Rolling Stones among many others, The Flying Lizards made this one their own. After its release as a single, it eventually appeared on their self-titled 1979 debut album and became an (perhaps unlikely) hit single; number 5 in the UK, and number 22 on the dance charts in the States.
In some ways, it sounds as though this take on the song is trying to throw its own fight in the appealing pop music stakes. And yet somehow, the opposite effect knocked listeners out during the height of new wave when weirdly cool records were able to thrive as record companies, perhaps, were still trying to figure out the paradigm shift. Even in 1979, this sounded pretty weird coming out of the radio; a true novelty hit.
But beyond the novelty aspect of things, I think there is something underneath this version of a classic and well-covered R&B song that does more than just amuse us by being such a curiosity as a hit single.
Listen to this track by Chicagoan progressive pop-rock sextet Wilco. It’s “Deeper Down”, a gem of a song as it appeared on their 2009 album Wilco (The Album), their sixth LP.
At this point in their arc, the band as led by frontman and head writer Jeff Tweedy had drifted away from the more abrasive and experimental textures they had established at the beginning of that decade. In their place, they added more vintage AM/FM radio textures and more accessible song structures. But at the same time, the proficiency in the playing and in the arrangements were on another level from their past output. Thematically speaking, there was certainly a lot going on that was not traditional for rock songwriting.
In “Deeper Down”, and using various strains of rock music, particularly progressive rock, Tweedy takes on a subject that writers of all stripes have taken on for thousands of years; the mystery of life itself. Of course in this song, he goes one better. He doesn’t try to solve it. Read more
Listen to this track by Icelandic former Sugarcubes frontwoman turned electronica art pop maven Björk. It’s “Hidden Place”, the first single as taken from her highly acclaimed 2001 album Vespertine, released in the summer of that year. The album would go onto many a best-of-the-decade list, and stand as a significant change in artistic direction for its author.
The record was created while Björk was engaged in the creation of the soundtrack for the movie she starred in at the time, that being Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark. The movie was screened at the Cannes film festival in 2000, where Björk won an award for Best Actress. Along with the critical accolades however, her experience on the shoot was purportedly tense. Von Trier’s tight control of the project rankled against her own creative impulses in the lead role. As a result, Vespertine could be looked upon as an equal and opposite reaction to the action of starring in her first (and possibly last) feature film with another artist in Von Trier at the helm.
This wasn’t just about control. It was also about tone. In the movie, Björk’s character Selma after whom the companion album Selmasongs is named is an extroverted and driven character who becomes the tragic victim of circumstance. If this song has a character at the center of it, then she could be considered Selma’s opposite; a langourously relaxed, insular, and contented person. This is due to another force in Björk’s life at the time; new love. Read more
Listen to this track by Anglo-Gallic drone-rock analogue synthesists with a flair for retro-pop texture Stereolab. It’s “Three Women” as taken from their 2008 debut record on the 4AD label, Chemical Chords. The record hooked into principles Tim Gane’s and Laetitia Sadier’s interest in pop music of all kinds, including ’60s soul-pop, as it dovetails with krautrock, The Velvets, lounge music, and various retro-futurist sources.
And apart from the aforementioned analogue synth textures and their patented detached melodicism, In this song, we get to hear something of the band’s playful side. Yet, in their way, they’ve always been playful, taking discarded textures and set pieces from time’s past, and blending them together just to see what happens. An artistic environment in the ’90s when they debuted helped to encourage this kind of approach. That was a decade when sonic materials hitherto looked upon as being uncool seemed to be just old enough to be new again. By the 21st century, this approach is de rigeur across the board where experimental pop and indie music in general goes.
So, some things have stayed the same. But, what has changed? Read more
Listen to this track by former Roxy Music member, producer, and ambient art rock forseer Brian Eno. It’s “St. Elmo’s Fire”, a song as featured on his landmark 1975 album Another Green World.
When not playing the songs on the album completely by himself, he is joined by some luminary musicians from the prog and art rock camp, including Robert Fripp (who plays the squiggly guitar break on this tune), John Cale, and Phil Collins of Genesis, one of the many bands to which Eno would lend his sought-after production skills.
Eno’s feel for texture in the producer’s seat would also inform this record, which was looked upon as a crossroads album away from rock songs, albeit ones with unexpected angles, and into a more experimental space where minimalist mood pieces were more central. This song is one of five out of fourteen that contains lyrics, for instance.
There is a lot of talk about experimentation when artists put out records that diverge from the pop song plot. But, the question in this case is, was the experiment a success? Read more
Listen to this track by British singer-songwriter, producer, and neo-classical, electronica, art rock vessel Imogen Heap. It’s “The Listening Chair”, a single as taken from her latest record Sparks. That record began three years ago, when she began to collect sounds and subject matter to use as material to weave into its fabric, sourcing much of it directly from fans. The sounds themselves are field recordings of ordinary sounds, serving Heap as “sound seeds” for new songs. Even the cover of the album is a collage of footprints made by fans. The subject matter began to coalesce when she began to find common threads in the suggestions for songs made by fans her own age, and at the same stage of life.
On this song, a complex series of melodic and harmonic lines are created from her voice, with layer upon layer being added to create a song that can be described as being delicate, and full of existential darkness too, like that of a life itself. And funny that! This is Heap’s aural autobiography, from her early childhood to her 35-year old self, from talking to animals to making love, making money, and making a difference.
In any case, what does the listening chair represent beyond that? Well, it’s something that’s never been done before. Read more
Listen to this track by pop and jazz-inflected concern from Chicago The Sea & Cake. It’s “The Colony Room” as taken from their fifth record Oui released in 2000.
The Sea & Cake is something of a supergroup of sorts with each member stemming from local bands on the Chicago scene, including Archer Prewitt of the Coctails (guitar, vocals), Sam Prekop (vocals, guitar) and Eric Claridge (bass and synths) of Shrimp Boat, and John McIntire (drums) from Tortoise. The album was something of a comeback for the band, since all of the members had side projects to pursue after their last one from 1997, The Fawn.
But, what did all of those projects bring to this song once The Sea & Cake reconvened?
Listen to this track by London-based orchestral pop experimentalists the High Llamas. It’s “Checking In, Checking Out”, a favourite track off of 1994’s Gideon Gaye. The band is led by one Sean O’Hagan, formerly of ’80s concern Microdisney, forming the High Llamas in the early ’90s, when most record companies were tripping over themselves trying to find other acts that sounded like Nirvana.
In reaction to that, and with an interest in genres of other eras, and other countries too, the High Llamas went up another path. They pursued a bouncy, bright, cinematic, and lushly arranged sound, with this one being a great example.
O’Hagan’s interest in The Beach Boys, Bacharach/David, Love, and Jimmy Webb certainly played into the sound of this track, and the band’s sound in general, providing a pretty strong stylistic tie to sunny Californian landscapes as filtered through their experiences living in often less than sunny London.
But what led this Anglo-Irish group in this direction in the first place? And, how did a sound like this make it onto a major label? Read more
Listen to this track from transplanted-to-Britain American singer-songwriter and experimental popist Jesca Hoop. It’s “The Kingdom”, the second track off of her 2009 full-length record Hunting My Dress.
Jesca Hoop had contacts with the music world even before she herself started her professional recording career, being the daughter of folk-singing Mormons in Northern California, where she learned her craft for close harmony. Later on, she served five years as Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s nanny, of all things.
Subsequently after Waits championed her, she appeared as an opening act for artists as diverse as Matt Pond PA, Mark Knopfler, Eels, and The Polyphonic Spree. She’s sung back-up for Peter Gabriel. After having opened for Elbow, Hoop has moved to Manchester on the invitation of Elbow singer Guy Garvey.
She’s also worked on soundtracks, working up songs for the film Riding The Bus With My Sister, with soundtrack composer and drummer Stewart Copeland, who then appeared on her song, “Seed of Wonder“, which appears on her 2007 debut album Kismet.
But, Hoop has a singular voice of her own besides all of the artists with whom she’s had contact, with this song standing out for me as an example of her ability to balance weighty moods with light as air music. Read more
Here’s a clip of Japanese musical mixologist and experimental pop musician Keigo Oyamada, known in hipster circles as Cornelius. It’s “Music”, as taken from his 2007 album Senuous, and pulling in ambient techno, jazz, and soul music into something entirely of its own genre.
There is a narrow field of pop music grandeur that lies between melodic warmth, and experimental texturing. This is where, for the most part, Cornelius sets up shop.
Oyamada was inspired first by rock music, specifically centered around guitar playing, which is what he taught himself to do, starting out. But, in the same wave as the Pizzicato Five, Cornelius was born, the name inspired by The Planet of the Apes character as portrayed by Roddy MacDowell. What came out of these influences has been a throw-it-in-the-pot approach to techno music, with the hooks and overall appeal pop/rock music.