Friday, February 14, 2014

A Mixtape for Valentine’s Day 2007

Originating from various Greek and Roman fertility festivals held between mid-January and mid-February, and subsequently codified as the feast day of the early Christian martyr St. Valentine, Valentine’s Day has metamorphosed (or some would say degenerated) today into a mass consumerist-endorsed orgy of grossly overpriced rose bouquets and ridiculously elaborate candlelit dinners. 

Let’s face it, present-day February 14 has become a day that attests much more to the triumphs of rampant, overloaded capitalism than any original notions of simple affection. 

One of the more grating aspects of this day of capitalism-sanctioned indulgences of Belgian chocolates and red roses is the propensity of giant record conglomerates to churn out numerous multiple-disc compilations. These various-artists collection invariably contains the usual predictable pop drivel from the likes of cringe-inducing, Lite FM-approved acts such as Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, or for the younger set, the wimpy, wussy James Blunt, the sickeningly slick opera boy band Il Divo or any randomly chosen, overproduced, over-rated American Idol alumnus. 

However, thankfully there are some credible acts, past and present, who have refused to bow down to the powers-that-be, instead producing top-notch songs that deftly bypass the customary clichés, and restore the necessary power and passion to the much-abused concept of the classic love song. 

So, in conjunction with Valentine’s Day 2007, here are 11 convincing examples of how a true love song should be, all adding up to a quality Valentine’s Day mixtape:

MESSAGE TO MY GIRL - Split Enz (Conflicting Emotions, 1983) 
A clear-cut, heartfelt ditty that is a real departure from Split Enz’s previous musical eccentricities, Message to My Girl is as close to a straight love song as the skewed Kiwi new-wave geniuses have ever done. Adorned with sparkling New Romantic-styled synth tinklings and a sincere Neil Finn vocal, it’s no wonder why this achingly pretty ode to a new love, which has lost none of its blissful lustre after 24 years, remains a live mainstay during Finn’s Crowded House, Finn Brothers and solo days.

JUST LIKE HEAVEN - The Cure (Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, 1987)
Goth-rock icons The Cure put out their most accessible (and commercially successful) record with 1987’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, and this magnificent, sky-scraping track is a specific highlight from that wondrous double-album. Anchored by a steady backbeat, a masterful guitar filigree and stately synth chords, Just Like Heaven was the band’s first real breakthrough in the impossibly insular American market, and a bona fide Cure classic that has popped up in myriad movie soundtracks since its initial release. 

BIZARRE LOVE TRIANGLE - New Order (Brotherhood, 1986) 
A rare love song from legendary post-punk pioneers New Order, Bizarre Love Triangle constitutes the most accessible moment from an otherwise difficult fourth album. A stellar example of the band’s then-newfound synth-pop direction, the track’s jaunty, streamlined backbeat and radio-friendly melody was highly at odds with its doubt-ridden, romantically ambiguous lyrical content. Nevertheless, it still managed to successfully penetrate the US dance charts, coming in at a respectable No 4. 

THE KILLING MOON - Echo and the Bunnymen (Ocean Rain, 1984) 
Echo and the Bunnymen’s most dramatic instance comes in the form of this intensely cinematic musical epic, the indisputable highlight of 1984’s Ocean Rain. Replete with detailed nocturnal imagery, supported by a theatrical string section, and fronted with a confident vocal from loudmouth Echo frontman Ian McCulloch, the desolate, windswept The Killing Moon is an atmospheric study in minor-key romantic melancholy, and used to superb effect on the soundtrack of the existentialist flick Donnie Darko. 

SOMETIMES ALWAYS - The Jesus and Mary Chain (Stoned and Dethroned, 1994) This often overlooked JAMC gem brilliantly creates a sense of drugged-out forgiveness between estranged lovers, brilliantly conveyed through the lethargic-sounding duet between William Reid and guest Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star. An agreeable recreation of the psych-folk proclivities of Paisley Underground luminaries like American Music Club and Cowboy Junkies, Sometimes Always is certainly a welcome change from the usual shoegazer-feedback aesthetics of the Reid brothers. 

VIA CHICAGO - Wilco (Summerteeth, 1999) 
Any love song that begins with the line “I dreamt of killing you last night, and it felt all right with me” has to be slightly unorthodox, to say the least. Extracted from 1999’s otherwise sunny Britpop-informed masterwork Summerteeth, the worn-out, country-folkish Via Chicago is one of that album’s mellower moments, but it still manages to draw out an exceptional, confessional vocal from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. 

EXIT MUSIC (FOR A FILM) - Radiohead (OK Computer, 1997) 
A darkly romantic number from 1997’s magnum opus OK Computer that played over the closing credits of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, this spooky, disconsolate crawl in the darkness tells a classic forced-separation tale through an apt musical melange of nervously strummed acoustic guitars, panicky fuzz-bass textures and a tense, clenched-teeth vocal from Thom Yorke. Arguably the most affecting tune in Radiohead’s vast repertoire. 

STAND INSIDE YOUR LOVE - The Smashing Pumpkins (Machina/The Machines of God, 2000) 
This self-assured, mid-tempo charge that sings unabashedly of the glories of love is from the Pumpkins’ ostensible final album, 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God. Here, the band boldly relive the glory days of 1993’s Siamese Dream, purveying the same sort of gleaming Technicolor guitar layers and carefully crafted white-noise sculptures. The whole thing is held together by an upfront but measured lead vocal from Billy Corgan, thankfully minus his usual voice histrionics.  

THERE IS A LIGHT NEVER GOES OUT - The Smiths (The Queen Is Dead, 1986) 
Some quarters might view Morrissey as a conceited, arrogant, self-promoting member of the musical intelligentsia, but there is no denying the empathic witticism that’s a distinguishing feature of his songwriting. A strong case in point comes in the form of this classic Smiths song, a virtuosic, gloriously miserable jewel from 1986’s The Queen Is Dead. Bolstered by a sympathetic string orchestration and a recurring, jangly guitar hook from Johnny Marr, lines like “I never, never want to go home, because I haven’t got one anymore” and “And if a ten-ton truck crashes into us, to die by your side, is such a heavenly way to die” takes on vibrant life. 

INTO MY ARMS - Nick Cave (The Boatman’s Call, 1997) 
An atypical instance that catches usually-fiery Goth Godfather Nick Cave in rare reflective mood, Into My Arms is a subdued, elegant piano ballad that has a startling positivity at its lyrical core. The song’s questioning, hesitantly hopeful tone is effectively expressed through a quietly confident vocal and a series of rolling, melodic piano chords that managed to keep it on track, without any lapses into mawkishness. 

LOVE IS BLINDNESS - U2 (Achtung Baby, 1991) 
A mournful, ominous lamentation that effectively acts as the ultimate anti-romantic love song, this closing number from 1991’s genre-defying Achtung Baby is painfully, brutally stark in its evocation of spurned love (“Love is blindness, I don’t want to see, won’t you wrap the night around me?”), and its intensely imagistic, feverish lyrics (“Love is clockworks, and cold steel, fingers too numb to feel”). The Edge’s cathartic guitar solo here is arguably the most emotionally upheaving performance of his entire career. 

VALENTINE’S DAY - Bruce Springsteen (Tunnel of Love, 1987) 
A dark theme for this lover's day of days, this highly ominous closer to Springsteen's decidedly personal-themed 1987 album Tunnel of Love is a far cry from the rabble-rousing stadium anthems that the Boss is usually known for. Couched in a dread-filled, solemn instrumental sheet of spare keyboard chords and moody acoustic guitars, and held together by Springsteen's uncertain baritone, Valentine's Day easily bucks the trend set by your usual commercial-radio Valentine's Day fodder. Portentous lines like "They say if you die in your dreams, you really die in your bed", "It wasn't the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me, it wasn't the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms" and "Tell me you'll be my lonely Valentine" suggest that the protagonist's loved one has departed for good, and perhaps even gone from this mortal coil.

Thursday, February 06, 2014


Latter-day, third-phase Genesis might not be as commercially succcessful as the Phil Collins-era line-up or as critically lauded as the Peter Gabriel-era assembly, but it does have its commendable qualities, if one looks beyond the rather ponderous, neo-prog rock compsitions and the dearth of chart-friendly material. One of the more defining characteristics of this particular Genesis unit is the distinctive, dark-hued baritone of new vocalist Ray Wilson (formerly of Stiltskin), reminiscent of Gabriel's expressive vocals, but having its own distinguishing attributes. An apt showcase for Wilson's voice is 'Congo', the first single from 1997's Calling All Stations', a mini-epic backed by found-sound chant-and-percussion samples, an appropriately ominous synth arrangement and jagged, menacing guitar riffs. Check out the cinematic video clip, featuring shots of the band performing the song in the midst of what appears to be a prisoner uprising in a bleak, post-apocalyptic prison camp.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Baby's on Fire

Ambient music might have a rather nebulous reputation, but musical polymath Brian Eno managed to bring a sense of structure and discipline to its inherently freeform nature by adopting his singular 'Oblique Strategies', which emphasised the concepts of theory and texture to shape his artistry. This unique sensibility has resulted in more than four decades of increasingly innovative works that have effortlessly taken in myriad elements like funk-infused beats, found-sound samples, ethnic-music sonics and white-noise dissonance, and this is not even taking into account his award-winning, groundbreaking production work for industry giants like U2, Talking Heads and Roxy Music. Check out a stellar example of his highly atmospheric material, 1974's 'Baby's on Fire', Eno's delightfully warped take on straight-ahead pop, infused with all manner of weird, electronically processed noises and intentionally arch vocal mannerisms.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

All Tomorrow's Parties

The Velvet Underground embodied the flipside of the coin of the mid-1960s Summer of Love era, wallowing in decadence and degeneration, bringing the dark underbelly of the epoch to the surface. Not for the Velvets LSD-tinged visions of euphoric bliss; their songs were shot through and riddled with unflinching references to hard-drug use, brutal sadomasochism, depressing alienation, transvestism, and other seedy aspects of the decadent East Coast musical landscape (particularly the CBGB scene in New York). However, they were also decidedly experimental in their performances, injecting a healthy dose of avant-garde and innovative sensibilities into their music. Amongst other innovations, The Velvets were responsible for extending basic chords into strung-out drones, playing havoc with stereo channels, adding non-traditional rock instruments like the viola (and playing them in an atonal manner), and introducing the highly alien (for the time) concept of guitar feedback to popular music. This sonic experimentation, coupled with their abrasive songwriting, made for an extremely confrontational posture that made them one of the most original rock bands of the 20th century. Check out one of the Velvets' signature numbers, the ominous 'All Tomorrow's Parties', a horrifying, slow-motion descent into hell with its too-descriptive portrayal of the depths of New York's avant-garde scene.

Monday, February 03, 2014



One of the less supercilious new-age pianists around is the incomparable George Winston, who has chosen to work within a conventional, simple framework, steering clear of grandiose, overstuffed arrangements, in favour of unadorned, almost austere pieces shorn of any self-righteous posturing. This is in direct contrast to other new age artists, who do convey an invariable sense of ennui through monotonous, rote compositions and the shoehorning of pretentious metaphysical "concepts" into their music. Winston's primary, simple approach to performing is to tap a neo-classical, starkly minimalist vein, turning out surprisingly ear-friendly melodies that recall the more accessible moments of romantic-era composers like Chopin, Liszt and Brahms, which he expertly melds with his own pastoral, folkish sensibilities. The self-described "rural folk piano" exponent has enjoyed a lengthy and reasonably successful career, which started in the early 1970s, and culminated with his highly acclaimed trio of seasonal-themed works, namely 'Autumn', 'Winter Into Spring' and 'December', which virtually set the benchmark for all solo-instrumental albums to come. Check out the emotionally resonant 'Thanksgiving', which purports to be inspired by the sights and sounds around Winston's hometown of Miles City, Montana.

Sunday, February 02, 2014


Living Colour defied all preordained musical conventions in their heyday, with nary a care for straitjacketed industry principles that threaten to pigeonhole them in one given genre or another. When the four New Yorkers first emerged in the mid-1980s, clueless record executives were flabbergasted as to what to do with them. On the one hand, all four members of the band were African-Americans, so they should, according to blinkered industry logic, slot neatly into one of the established “black” music categories, e.g. soul, R&B or rap. However, Living Colour performed a unique blend of rock that merged elements of so-called “black” music types with wildly disparate genres like hardcore punk, art-rock, and even avant-garde jazz into a seamless whole. Check out a stellar example of the archetypal Living Colour sound in the regimented, lock-step aggression of 'Type', a brutally efficient display of overdubbed guitar firepower that is perfectly suited for its denunciatory lyrical message targeting social apathy, political hubris and crass consumerism. Check out a brilliantly executed and pertinently forceful live rendition at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Saturday, February 01, 2014


Possibly the leading act of the Neue Deutsche Härte genre that first emerged in the mid-1990s, Berlin collective Rammstein professes a brand of industrial metal that is brutally efficient, highly disciplined and shorn of any unnecessary musical histrionics. What distinguished Rammstein from other like-minded acts is their penchant for incorporating inventive samples and synth-pop-influenced synth tones into their song structures, adding interesting textures to an otherwise straightforward artistic palette. This has earned them a small but fiercely devoted fan base that has eagerly lapped up the band's output since its seminal 1996 debut, 'Herzeleid', and also established them as one of the premier Teutonic metal groups, alongside contemporaries like  Laibach and Megaherz. Check out the video to Rammstein's creative cover of Depeche Mode's eletro-pop standard 'Stripped', replete with imagery heavily inspired by Leni Riefenstahl's controversial propaganda flick 'Triumph of the Will'.