Sometimes, the gods — otherwise known as music label execs — smile down upon us, and we're blessed with a great moment in pop. I don't know if our current moment is one for the ages, but it is really fucking enjoyable. In the U.S., Gotye's weirdo Sting/Zombies mash-up earworm, "Somebody That I Used to Know" is No. 1 for the sixth week. We love that song. Carly Rae Jespen's "Call Me Maybe" is at No. 2, poised to take over the top position whenever Gotye falls. That's another song we love. And Adam Lambert is the first out artist to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Trespassing, his sophomore effort, is yet another thing we love. (Update: Lambert falls to No. 12 on next week's chart. But let's live in the moment?)
And this week, at least three new just-under-the-mainstream releases — Saint Etienne, Scissor Sister, and Azealia Banks—all revel in pop. Come, let's explore and cleanse our palates of EDM.
According to English trio Saint Etienne's website, Words and Music by Saint Etienne "is about how music affects your life. How it defines the way you see the world as a child, how it can get you through bad times in unexpected ways, and how songs you've known all your life can suddenly develop a new attachment, and hurt every time you hear them."
Virtually all of the songs on the group's eighth album are meta, covering topics like iPods ("I've Got Your Music"), message board discussions ("Popular") and attending concerts ("Tonight"). But the entire thing is also about aging, about getting to a place where you are comfortable enough to explicitly state what you love about what you love, and about knowing that those statements are inherently in flux. In the gorgeous, folky/housey opener "Over the Border," lead singer Sarah Cracknell waxes nostalgic about her early engagement with pop music ("I used Top of the Pops as my world atlas") and how it changes: "When I was married and when I had kids, would Marc Bolan still be so important?" Nope.
For about 20 years, Cracknell's entire mode of communication has been melodic variations on a wistful sighing, and her music has caught up. This band has been so good for so long, and still Words and Music is easily their most effective reconciliation of sophistication and fun (the six or so house songs comprise the best EP that Kylie Minogue never released), and it reveals that they've aged better than synth pop titans like the Pet Shop Boys or Erasure.
For all of the overt rhapsodizing, Words and Music by Saint Etienne's greatest sign of affection is unspoken: it is a gorgeously arranged, delicately balanced design of sound that bubbles and purrs and zooms and bounces at perfect levels at all times (at least part of the thanks goes to the band's co-producers, including pop genius Richard X). Without that sonic underpinning, this album would be bunch of hot air, but the music produced does music proud.
The Scissor Sisters' fourth album, Magic Hour, is a little less romantic in its musings but no less obsessed with music. If I only had one word I could apply to the New York band, it would be "reminiscent." They sound like the Bee Gees on warped vinyl and sweat and ‘70s hairiness.
That's broadly speaking, though: on Magic Hour, the Scissor Sisters sound like a lot more than that. It's a cliché at this point for a modern dance album to wantonly traipse through the past 30 years of dance music, but Magic Hour has a specific focus on the particularly ugly and cheesy relics of years gone by. So we hear some housey ranting in the form of so-called "bitch tracks" (especially "Let's Have a Kiki," which may irritate some for being too cutesy, but sounds just plucky enough to my ears), some freestyle flourishes, and some rapping that sounds alternately inspired by Peaches and early Euro house fare. Even the Pharrell Williams-assisted disco ballad "Inevitable" sounds sleazy.
Most fascinating is that Magic Hour marks the place where the mainstream meets one level below – for the second single, "Only the Horses," the Sisters have employed mega-DJ/producer Calvin Harris (responsible for Rihanna's "We Found Love") to work right alongside them. And Alex Ridha (also known as Boys Noize) co-produces virtually the entire album. "Horses" is trancey and of course contains a beat drop, but also a lot of heart – one big enough to accept the commercial and the obscure. Magic Hour is an assault on snobbery.
Finally, Harlem rapper Azealia Banks' Interscope debut, 1991 (named for the year of her birth), is a four-song EP of the most unadulterated hip-house available since DJ International was cranking out rappers who were relatively militant about rapping over house beats in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. This is not the giant, banging, synth-screaming stuff you hear on the radio – Banks and her producer Jef Martens' willingness to go deep and turn out tracks more along the lines of back-in-the-day Jersey garage house feels audacious.
Maybe she's just cocky and thinks that she can get away with exploring other sonic options still under the umbrella of the all-powerful house music. Maybe by the time her debut album comes out, she will have received a more radio-friendly makeover. Regardless, get Banks while she is hot and raw – in a twisted way, this don't-give-a-fuck aesthetic is reminiscent of so many other young, unpolished solo females whose diamond-in-the-rough early work inevitably eclipses the streamlined stuff they go on to do (think Mary J. Blige, Keyshia Cole, and K. Michelle).
Banks often employs a Missy Eliott-esque tambre, but she's about a tenth as articulate. Her swift delivery and lacking annunciation makes her at times very difficult to decipher, and when you can, the nimbleness of the word play is usually way beyond the content (from her viral sensation "212": "Fuck him like ya do want to cum / You're gay to get discovered in my two-one-deuce / Cock-a-licking in the water by the blue bayou / Caught the warm goo in your doo-rag too, son?"). But whatever, it's not like anyone else is saying much of anything anyway, and Banks' enthusiasm is a cure-all. She sounds in love with both herself and the music that is an extension of herself. It's absolutely infectious.