Friday, February 18, 2011

Lift Me Up

Unjustly vilified as a lightweight synth-pop relic that belonged squarely in the 1980s, the prosaically-named Howard Jones did manage to move beyond the strictures of that rather belittling stereotype in the 1990s and beyond, and in the process, adopting a more mature approach to music-making. The first fruits of this newfound sensibility was neatly encapsulated in 1992’s ‘In the Running’, a firm fan favourite which was not given its proper due by the charts. The artistic essence of ‘In the Running’ was a sea change from the MIDI patches and Casio polyphonic tones of yore, instead relying on studied, yet easy-flowing piano chords (brilliantly displaying Jones’s underrated pianistic skills), judiciously placed organic instrumentation, and a more thoughtful, considered lyrical focus. Check out the lead single, the surging ‘Lift Me Up’, with its triumphant (real) horn charts, skilful piano arpeggios, and a video clip that slyly splices the unassuming Jones amongst ancient footage of old-time entertainers from the 1930s and 1940s.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Hunting High and Low

Veteran new-wave popsters a-ha have certainly come a long way since their embryonic days in the mid-1980s. When they started out back then, they were, rather unjustly, lumped together with the other groups populating the teenybopper-act community. What the detractors failed to realise (and still fail to do after all these years) is that a-ha are markedly different from their contemporaries, mostly in terms of the nature of their compositions and, just as importantly, in their distinctly singular worldview. What separates Morten Harket, Magne Furuholmen and Pal Waaktaar from the rest of the 1980s rank and file is the innate melancholia that permeates the majority of their songs, perhaps nurtured by a youth spent enduring bleak Scandinavian winters. This quality comes through most clearly in Waaktaar's elliptical, elegant, oftentimes abstract songwriting, his lyrics dealing with glum subjects like mortality, failed and/or twisted romances, and Kafkaesque existential angst. It’s all deceptively filtered through some accessible radio-friendly melodies, dextrous and polished production, and the secret weapon in a-ha's arsenal: Harket's charged, theatrical tenor. No wonder the critics were fooled. Check out a dynamic live version of one of the group's avowedly splendid classics, 'Hunting High and Low', a sweeping, almost desperate account of chronic loneliness that undoubtedly ranks as one of the best examples of a-ha's unflagging penchant for musical drama.