Saint Etienne, “Home Counties”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #99 – released June 2, 2017)

Track listing: The Reunion / Something New / Magpie Eyes / Whyteleafe / Dive / Church Pew Furniture Restorer / Take It All In / Popmaster / Underneath The Apple Tree / Out Of My Mind / After Hebden / Breakneck Hill / Heather / Sports Report / Train Drivers In Eyeliner /  Unopened Fan Mail / What Kind Of World / Sweet Arcadia / Angel Of Woodhatch

After the superlative song cycle Tales From Turnpike House, I couldn’t imagine what Saint Etienne would do next—apparently, neither could the band, at least not right away. Seven years passed before the release of their next album, Words and Music By Saint Etienne. Concerning the rituals and pleasures of pop music itself, the concept seemed ideal for a trio of self-avowed fans-turned-aspiring-popstars; in practice, it worked well enough, widely viewed as a comeback on both sides of the pond. It featured some of their very best singles (“Tonight”, “I’ve Got Your Music”) and, as usual with this group, exceptional album tracks that could’ve easily been singles as well (“Heading For The Fair”, “Last Days Of Disco”, “DJ” and the song this blog takes its name from.)

And yet… as a big fan myself, I found Words and Music not completely up to snuff with the four previous Saint Etienne albums I’ve covered here. For one thing, it has a substantial amount of, well, not filler, exactly, but lesser songs I rarely listen to in isolation (“Answer Song”, “Twenty Five Years”, actual throwaway “Record Doctor”); also, celebrating pop through the prism of London is more or less what this trio has always done, but by making it so explicit and upfront, they almost lessen what’s so singular and special about it. Again, for any band, Words and Music is a good album and for them a shrewd one to make after such a long absence, but it doesn’t add anything new to their catalog in the way, say, Tiger Bay or even Good Humor did.

Fast forward a few more years: there’s another band sabbatical during which Sarah Cracknell puts out a second solo album, Red Kite (solid singer-songwriter folk, and worlds away from the dance-pop of her earlier effort Lipslide) while Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs continue curating compilations of subterranean gems from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. When the trio commence work on new material in mid-2016, the world in is flux. Brexit has passed and Trumpism clouds the air. Their new songs aren’t especially angry (how inconceivable to think of an incensed Saint Etienne!) but these developments (especially the hitting-closer-to-home Brexit) have no small impact on the direction their ninth album begins to take.

For most Americans and non-anglophiles, the title Home Counties requires some explanation. The two-word term refers to the seven counties surrounding London—in other words, the suburbs. All three members of Saint Etienne grew up there before moving to London as adults; it follows that one can view the record as reminiscent and hyper-specific of a time and place as Fox Base Alpha and So Tough were of early ’90s London, only observed from a great distance instead of documenting it in real time. However, the album transcends childhood nostalgia because of the band’s obvious love/hate relationship with the region, elevated in no small part by that recent specter of Brexit hanging in the air—throughout the actual Home Counties, more people voted to leave the EU than remain, whereas London voted heavily in favor of the latter option.

The result is an intriguing push-and-pull for Saint Etienne: emphatic and celebratory as always, but now guided by hindsight and filtered through a sharper, critical eye. Initially, it resembles Good Humor more than anything else in the band’s catalog thanks to its live-band feel (the winsome yet enigmatic “Unopened Fan Mail” could easily slot into it) and the fact that Cracknell’s, Stanley’s and Wiggs’ coming-of-age years coincide with the AM radio gold the earlier album successfully emulated. However, Home Counties is no Good Humor II: a mosaic of instrumentals, spoken word interludes and tone poems along with the expected three-minute pop songs, it’s the band’s longest (19 tracks in 56 minutes, but they do fly by) and most varied album since Finisterre (maybe even So Tough)—it plays like a thoughtfully, lovingly compiled mix tape that coheres into a shimmering whole after multiple spins.

As you’d expect from a band known for their meticulous, often hand-crafted attention to detail, Home Counties has ultra-specific talismans woven throughout its fabric. It makes ample room for birdsong and a pastoral children’s choir (“Church Pew Furniture Restorer”), a spot-on Northern Soul simulation (“Underneath The Apple Tree”), a little harp and plenty of harpsichord (most prominently on “Whyteleafe” and “Take It All In”), and not one or two but three recreations of vintage radio transmissions, with quiz show “Popmaster” rather tongue-in-cheek in offering such decidedly modern prizes as “a digital radio or a blue-tooth speaker.” For a band whose early albums were liberally sprinkled with sound bites from classic films, this reprises a tradition of dropping references that will go over a majority of listeners’ heads but also lend much distinction and texture to the world depicted within.

Throughout, Saint Etienne can’t help but retain a certain fondness for where they’re from. In one song, Cracknell eagerly encourages us to “Take It All In” over a baroque retro-pop arrangement with a vaguely trip-hop beat, resembling a rather unlikely cross between The Association and Portishead. “Dive” is a memory of the kind of sensual, horn-driven funk workout one could get down to at the local disco or at a backyard, tiki torch-lit house party. With its clarion chorus and propulsive beat, “Magpie Eyes” encapsulates the bittersweet feeling of being young in a small town after summer’s gone with nothing to do but seek hidden treasure among what remains. Along those lines, “Out Of My Mind” further evokes both the euphoria and turmoil of adolescent infatuation, its ebullience and urgency rendering it a proud successor to such past triumphs as “Nothing Can Stop Us” and “Lightning Strikes Twice”.

Still, they just as often firmly (if considerately) resist suburbia as the utopian ideal. “Whyteleafe” may imagine an alternate universe where David Bowie never left home for London, settling into an ordinary life as a local businessman (Cracknell singing, “His sweet mu-ni-ci-pal dream” over a surging synth is one of the album’s most indelible hooks), but it’s merely a clever “what-if” scenario (and, a year after his death, a refreshingly unconventional Bowie tribute.) Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Something New” is desperately searching for “a sound that she knows could be fun”, and the song’s electric 12-string guitar and Mellotron-aping synth lends her support, especially as it gives way to the resolve and warmth of a brass coda. “Train Drivers In Eyeliner” sweetly advocates for more flamboyantly attired, Whitesnake-listening conductors in an attempt to gently shake up the status quo: “All over this land, that’s our plan,” Cracknell coos, as if stumping for the idea at a Town Hall meeting.

As Home Counties proceeds, it further scrutinizes suburbia, putting aside any notion of rose-colored lenses. Its primary hues purposely turn darker beginning with “Breakneck Hill”, a gorgeously drowsy instrumental that sounds straight out of Twin Peaks. Its spooky female sighs and Eno-esque ambient drone set the scene for “Heather”: a Hitchcock film in miniature, it recalls a neighbor or a childhood friend. Maybe she’s a ghost now, for “She comes and she goes like the warmth in the daylight.” Near the end, Cracknell repeats, “This house is haunted” as the sputtering but insistent rhythm and minor key synths swirl around her, almost fortifying her claim. Perhaps, this tale’s ghost is the narrator herself, wrestling with her past and present selves.

A few tracks later, laden with sweeping, urgent strings, “What Kind of World” fully acknowledges this identity crisis in relation to its milieu. “This is my home but I don’t feel at home tonight,” Cracknell declares before suggesting, “Let’s find another country / a better one,” and it has a thunderbolt’s impact—for many, the suburbs are a place to escape from due to their isolationism, conservatism and provincialism; Brexit enables the suburbs to uphold these tenets, legally cordoning off the outside world. It’s an easy explanation as to main reason why the members of Saint Etienne left the Home Counties, but it doesn’t necessarily shed light on why some people stay.

“Sweet Arcadia” makes an effort to elucidate on this. Opening with another talisman, a watery electric piano of the kind heard on such ‘70s hits as “I’m Not In Love” and “Just The Way You Are”, it’s another Cracknell spoken word piece in the tradition of “Teenage Winter” and “Over The Border”: “The trains took us away from the smoke,” she begins, narrating a travelogue through obscure, self-contained locales with names like Benfleet and South-End-On-Sea. A fetching, suitably locomotive rhythm moves us along as she recounts how the modern suburbs came to be. Over aching chord changes, she recites, “We built our own cinemas, we named our own houses,” charting the ever-forward march of progress until she concludes, “We took your land, and made it our land. Sweet Arcadia.” Her narration disappears halfway through this nearly eight-minute-long epic, consumed by extended flute and soulful organ solos as the beat slows to a wavering ebb-and-flow as if hovering on water.

After Cracknell mournfully sighs the song’s title repeatedly at the close, we’re left not with a resolution but unease. Saint Etienne have offered us plenty of reasons to both love and loathe suburbia; such a mass of contradictory feelings is more true to life than art that would either merely bask in the glow of its idyllic landscapes or only reveal them to be nothing but a cultural wasteland. And as much as this trio has forged a career on songs about transcendence and escape, Home Counties is a step in another direction, observing the world not just as it could be, but also as it is.

And why can’t we consider both simultaneously? If the penultimate “Sweet Arcadia” is to Home Counties what “Hello Earth” was to Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, closing track “Angel of Woodhatch” is this album’s equivalent to “The Morning Fog”. Its gentle woodwinds and sparkling wind chimes potentially suggest promise and renewal; here, with no lyrics to guide us toward a particular opinion, they could simply infer calm and stillness—a sweet surrender to a complex world with so many moving parts. Home Counties is Saint Etienne’s “mature” album for sure, but its richness and teeming ambiguities gives that off-derided term a good name.

Up next: #100!

“Out Of My Mind”:

“Sweet Arcadia”:

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2016: I Would Rather Stay Awake

This is identical to what I originally posted at this year’s end, along with a few bonus tracks running the gamut from Lake Street Dive’s retro-disco fun to a meditative Velvet Underground cover that ended up Brian Eno’s first solo vocal track in over a decade.

Instead of once again featuring the lead single from Leonard Cohen’s final album (which at the time summed up this cursed year aptly), I’ve chosen to highlight what was originally the final track, itself the last song on cult British brother duo Field Music’s fine album Commontime. A lullabye rich with ambiguity (it could conceivably be sung to either a child or a romantic partner), it promotes empathy and generosity, the act of putting others first while still reveling in the joy it brings to you both–a feeling its melody practically radiates.

Click here to listen to my favorite songs of 2016 on Spotify:

  1. Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker”
  2. Santigold, “Rendezvous Girl”
  3. Sylvan Esso, “Radio”
  4. The Radio Dept., “Committed to the Cause”
  5. The Avalanches, “If I Were a Folkstar”
  6. Martha Wainwright, “Traveller”
  7. Michael Kiwanuka, “Cold Little Heart”
  8. Ben Watt, “Between Two Fires”
  9. Whitney, “No Matter Where We Go”
  10. Parquet Courts, “Berlin Got Blurry”
  11. Bastille, “Good Grief”
  12. KT Tunstall, “Turned a Light On”
  13. Corinne Bailey Rae, “Stop Where You Are”
  14. Pet Shop Boys, “Burn”
  15. The Divine Comedy, “A Desperate Man”
  16. John K. Samson, “Prayer For Ruby Elm”
  17. Florence + The Machine, “Wish That You Were Here”
  18. The 1975, “Somebody Else”
  19. Wilco, “Someone to Lose”
  20. Andrew Bird, “Truth Lies Low”
  21. Roisin Murphy, “Ten Miles High”
  22. Junior Boys, “Baby Give Up On It”
  23. Eleanor Friedberger, “Because I Asked You”
  24. Paul Simon, “Cool Papa Bell”
  25. case/lang/veirs, “Best Kept Secret”
  26. David Bowie, “Lazarus”
  27. Tegan and Sara, “U-Turn”
  28. PJ Harvey, “The Wheel”
  29. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, “Midnight Rider”
  30. Field Music, “Stay Awake”
  31. Lake Street Drive, “Call Off Your Dogs”
  32. Mitski, “Fireworks”
  33. Bat For Lashes, “Joe’s Dream”
  34. Underworld, “I Exhale”
  35. Brian Eno, “Fickle Sun (iii) I’m Set Free”

The Radio Dept., “Running Out Of Love”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #98 – released October 21, 2016)

Track listing: Sloboda Narodu / Swedish Guns / We Got Game / Thieves of State / Occupied / This Thing Was Bound To Happen / Can’t Be Guilty / Committed To The Cause / Running Out Of Love / Teach Me To Forget

I’ll never forget waking up painfully early on November 9, 2016, reaching for my phone and confirming what I and many others had dreaded—the most inconceivable, worst possible outcome of a presidential election in my lifetime (to date, I fear.) Opening Facebook, I scrolled past one confused, incensed, disgusted reaction after another from assorted friends and celebrities until coming across a link to a YouTube clip from The Radio Dept. for their song, “This Thing Was Bound To Happen.” In that moment, as much as I was in a state of shock, I mentally responded, “Well, of course.” Months of anticipation and assuredness, gradually worn down and defeated by time, determination and dumb luck—all of it led not to the outcome we expected or thought we deserved. It all simply felt inevitable now, like the punchline to a bad joke.

That’s not to say The Radio Dept. necessarily predicted this outcome, but the song and its parent album, released less than three weeks before the election, undeniably tapped into themes and feelings analogous to that of the current American political climate. In fact, said album, Running Out Of Love is essentially an extended protest/warning against the rise of fascism in the band’s home country of Sweden. It was decidedly not an overnight development: one of its most pointed and savage tracks, “Occupied”, was initially released as a single back in the summer of 2015.

Before that, the band, which primarily consists of vocalist Johan Duncanson and multi-instrumentalist Martin Larsson was dormant for a number of years due to a legal battle with its record label. I had come on board with Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010; as comps go, it’s nearly up there with Pet Shop Boys’ Discography and The Go-Betweens’ Bellavista Terrace (it even has a lovely cover of the latter band’s “Bachelor Kisses”.) However, like most people, I had first heard them in 2006 on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Prominently placed in the film, their song “Pulling Our Weight” fit right in with a king’s ransom of new wave/post-punk classics from the likes of Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow and New Order. Upon hearing it, I guessed Coppola had unearthed a long-lost gem and was surprised to discover it was then only three years old.

On Lesser Matters (2003), Pet Grief (2006), Clinging To A Scheme (2010) and all the singles in-between, The Radio Dept. conceived of and came close to perfecting their own take on a drowsy but hook-laden, 1980s-inspired dream-pop, their distinct instrumental palette falling somewhere between The Cure’s reverb-drenched guitar attack and New Order’s bass-and-synth driven cerebral dance music. Sonically, Running Out Of Love edges towards the latter of those two poles, with the seven-minute “Occupied” a straight-up “Blue Monday” tribute in its insistent thump, thump, thump beat and klaxon-like pings that eventually build to an anxious, relentless fury.

The song’s lyrical content matches and often exceeds the sound in its vehemence. Duncanson’s an even milder-sounding vocalist than New Order’s Bernard Sumner, so when he sings, “It’s a shame how some people claim to be one thing or another / when in fact, it’s nothing but an act,” such brutal honesty is all the more unexpected and effective. This “speak softly and carry a big stick” approach is all over the album. On “We Got Game”, he complains, “So sick of hearing about that middle ground”, for it doesn’t exist with “racist loons / the kind of guys you wouldn’t like to spoon.” Later, “Teach Me To Forget” rhymes its title with the phrase, “’Because baby you’re so good at it,” as the song’s minor key melody and trance beat heighten an anger and disappointment the singer’s melodic croon can barely mask.

A steady rage courses through the bulk of Running Out Of Love. The single “Swedish Guns” proceeds as a call-and-response between the song’s titular objects and the things one can accomplish with them. “You need a helping hand? Get Swedish guns / Secure a piece of land / with Swedish guns,” Duncanson sings, and on and on over a martial/reggae beat. “This Thing Was Bound To Happen” happily buzzes along like vintage Human League, but it’s deceptive, for the resignation of the song title proves to be just a coping mechanism for utter despair (“Now I just want to get out of here / suffocate this fear.”) The Eno-esque instrumental title track consists of delicate synth and guitar licks and an brittle, singular note repeated, morse code-style for over three minutes. It certainly evokes loss—of love, time, perhaps life itself.

Fortunately, while The Radio Dept. never shy away from the horrors of totalitarianism, nor do they wallow in their misery. Their social commentary is steeped in empathy for the afflicted and a call for resistance. “Sloboda Narodu” (the title is a Yugoslav slogan that translates to “Death to fascism, freedom to the people”) is an energetic, percussion-bolstered anthem that kicks off the album on an upbeat note; “We Got Game” is nearly ebullient in its simulation of circa-1990 house music (Inner City, Technotronic) while “Can’t Be Guilty” gently floats along like a cross between ABC and The Blue Nile, its pretty melodic layers perfect for a melancholy scene in a John Hughes film, only one where a character says, “Wake me when the world has settled / then, just give it to me straight.”

This protest/pop hybrid reaches its apotheosis on “Committed To The Cause”. It begins with a melodic bassline overlapping with a second one, the twin hooks soon buoyed by a very early ’90s beat of the sort you’d find on a Happy Mondays or Primal Scream album (only darker.) Minor key verses shift into a major key chorus where Duncanson sings, “And they’re never gonna give it up,” repeatedly until getting to the title. The sublime melody and chord progression evokes potent feelings: defiance, resignation, a sense of the inevitable. Even during its extended instrumental coda, heavy with irresistible house-music piano and a synth filigree that could’ve been lifted off a Toto (!) record, the song’s momentum is sustained and deepened—you almost don’t want it to end, but it abruptly does, and the spooky title track carries these feelings further, all the way through the closing, quietly seething “Teach Me To Forget”.

I listened to Running Out Of Love incessantly before and after the election; admittedly, it didn’t seem especially more prescient or relevant after November 8 than it previously did—I’m even cautious to say it captured a specific moment, given that, at this writing, we’re decidedly still living in such a moment. Regardless, I seek pleasure in pop music as much as stimulation and provocation. Like most “political albums”, this one has plenty of the latter elements but crucially, just as much of the former. For good and for ill, the concepts The Radio Dept. confront and dissect here will always be relevant.

Up next: “We took your land, and made it our land.”

“Committed To The Cause”:

“Teach Me To Forget”:

2015: I Know That She’s Right

A standout year for new music—I know, every year produces its share, but 2015 was for me another 1992 or 2004. That I wrote about three albums from this year (the most for a single year in a decade) speaks to it, along with all the great ones I didn’t include: Edge of The Sun, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, How Big How Blue How Beautiful, FFS, Art Angels—all of them worthy of their own entries, denied primarily for space restraints (this project isn’t called 100+ Albums), each one represented here by a standout track, with “Nobody’s Empire” increasingly looking like Stuart Murdoch’s best song nearly two decades after If You’re Feeling Sinister.

At this year’s end, I even sent out an annual mix CD to friends, something I hadn’t done since 2010 (and haven’t again at this writing.) The first 17 tracks here more or less replicate that mix: a parade of perennials (Marling, Cracknell, Gryner, Sufjan, etc.) with a few one-offs and some newbies woven in (Vampire Weekend’s bassist’s side project Baio; Courtney Barnett cannily channeling The New Pornographers while still sounding like her eccentric self.)

The remaining 20-odd songs are split between good stuff I couldn’t originally fit on an 80-minute CD (Grace Potter’s disco-rock extravaganza, Listenbee’s EDM-folk mashup, the first good Madonna song in a decade) and, as always, gems I didn’t encounter until the following year or two: Susanne Sundfor’s superior Swedish synth-pop, Natalie Prass’ classy, out-of-time balladry, and of course, Carly Rae Jepsen. The much-praised E*MO*TION is more a solid collection of singles + filler than a Classic Album to me, but oh, what singles, especially “Boy Problems”: so blissfully, self-assuredly perfect and sophisticated teen-pop, it nearly got me through the following year.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2015 on Spotify:

  1. Belle and Sebastian, “Nobody’s Empire”
  2. Years & Years, “Shine”
  3. Florence + The Machine, “Queen of Peace”
  4. Destroyer, “Times Square”
  5. Laura Marling, “False Hope”
  6. Baio, “Sister of Pearl”
  7. Calexico, “Miles From The Sea”
  8. Robert Forster, “A Poet Walks”
  9. Sarah Cracknell, “Hearts Are For Breaking”
  10. Twin Shadow, “When The Lights Turn Out”
  11. Emm Gryner, “The Race”
  12. Jose Gonzalez, “Let It Carry You (Dino Soccio Mix)”
  13. Roisin Murphy, “Unputdownable”
  14. Sufjan Stevens, “Fourth of July”
  15. Metric, “Fortunes”
  16. Courtney Barnett, “Elevator Operator”
  17. Marina and the Diamonds, “I’m A Ruin”
  18. Hot Chip, “Dark Night”
  19. Jamie xx/Romy, “Loud Places”
  20. New Order, “Academic”
  21. Susanne Sundfor, “Fade Away”
  22. Lianne La Havas, “Tokyo”
  23. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Boy Problems”
  24. Matthew E. White, “Rock & Roll Is Cold”
  25. Grimes, “Flesh Without Blood”
  26. The Weepies, “No Trouble”
  27. Grace Potter, “Alive Tonight”
  28. Deerhunter, “Breaker”
  29. Natalie Prass, “Why Don’t You Believe In Me”
  30. Beirut, “Perth”
  31. Tanlines, “Pieces”
  32. Listenbee, “Nottamun Town”
  33. Madonna, “Joan of Arc”
  34. Lord Huron, “Dead Man’s Hand”
  35. FFS, “Piss Off”
  36. Christine and The Queens, “Tilted”
  37. The Radio Dept., “This Repeated Sodomy”
  38. Ivan & Alyosha, “It’s All Just Pretend”
  39. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, “I Need Never Get Old”
  40. Tracey Thorn, “Let Me In”

Christine and The Queens, “Christine and The Queens”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #97 – released October 16, 2015)

Track listing: iT / Saint Claude / Tilted / No Harm Is Done / Science Fiction / Paradis Perdus / Half Ladies / Jonathan / Narcissus Is Back / Safe and Holy / Night52 / Here

Readers following this project for any amount of time will likely detect my fondness for unconventional, quirky and sometimes just plain eccentric female artists. Kate Bush, naturally, is this category’s prototype and arguably still unmatched master, and one can easily draw a straight line from her to Tori Amos to Fiona Apple to Nellie McKay. Along the way, I’ve connected others whom, while not necessarily as original or perhaps weird nonetheless created spaces for themselves in the music industry while not fully conforming to its norms: Joni Mitchell possibly did this first and best, but don’t discount Aimee Mann, Liz Phair, Sam Phillips, Róisín Murphy or Florence Welch, to name but a few who forged their own paths.

As for artists emerging in the past five years, Héloïse Letissier, who records under the pseudonym Christine and The Queens, is the most promising addition to this list. Based in Paris, Letissier released her predominantly French-language debut album Chaleur Humaine (“Human Warmth”) at age 26 in 2014 and reissued it in America under the title Christine and The Queens a year later, rerecording many (but not all) of its vocals in English, and swapping out two of the original’s songs for three new ones. Complicating things further, this English version came out in Europe the following year with Chaleur Humaine as its title and was a massive hit, charting at number two in the UK.

As an American, it’s the self-titled version I know and love. Upon my first listen in late 2016, it wasn’t Letissier’s voice (better-than-average, if occasionally reedy) or sound (laptop enhanced, 80s-tinged electro-pop) or even playfully peculiar sensibility that caught my ear, although all these things would fortify my interest over time; no, what really struck me was Letissier’s way with a melody. Like Stuart Murdoch or Andy Sturmer or Emm Gryner, she just has a knack for catchy choruses and often equally captivating verses that are approachable and indelible without sounding derivative.

Christine and The Queens’ best known song, “Tilted” (called “Christine” on Chaleur Humaine), is a perfect example. Right at the start, that clipped synth hook (like a snippet of a warped vinyl record) commands attention, along with the “heh, heh” percussive vocal sample woven into the beat. Its bright, brief verses are melodically simple but effective in how their chords carry over to the sing-along chorus: “I am actually good / can’t help it if we’re tilted.” She switches to an irresistibly rapid French rap on the bridge before slightly altering the melody on the final verse: “I’m doing my face / with magic marker / I’m in my right place / don’t be a downer,” she repeats (along with soulful “yeahs” underneath) before it neatly reveals itself as a faultless countermelody to the chorus reappearing on top. “Tilted” is modern nonsense pop of the highest order—in addition to being superbly catchy, it’s also a bold and convincing declaration of self.

Occasionally, Letissier’s melodies absolutely define and drive her songs. I couldn’t begin to tell you what “Science Fiction” is about, even in its English version (its lyrical hook goes, “We’re spinning like Mike and Freddy”), but the agility it wrings out of two chords and her kinetic, razor-sharp vocals (particularly the wordless ones, like “na, na-na, na-na-na-na”) are so infectious it doesn’t matter. Similarly, dramatic closer “Here” sidesteps any pretense of delivering wisdom or revelation for pure, visceral emotion in how urgently Letissier repeatedly sings the song’s title in its fiery choruses.

Letissier’s melodic instinct and mastery of emotional shaping is most deeply felt on “Saint Claude”. The verses are sung in French—translated, it’s yet another song of love and devotion, interesting less for what’s being said than how it’s said, with certain words swiftly repeated in triplicate. However, it’s the ascendant chorus that whole-heartedly soars: “Here’s my station,” she repeats, as if both making a defense and offering an olive branch, but her poignancy develops each time before she reveals, “But if you say just one word I’ll stay with you.” At the minute-long coda, she mournfully concludes, “We are so lonely in this part of town”; although you feel she’s deliberately left out part of the narrative, it’s also difficult not to acknowledge that it’s all you need to hear to understand or feel its effect.

Still, it would be a disservice to overlook Letissier’s lyrical content, for it illustrates her breakthrough as a new kind of pop star. Identifying as pansexual, Letissier writes about gender fluidity to the extent an artist of an earlier generation might’ve done so regarding merely being a woman in a predominantly male profession. Leading off with “iT”, she confronts matters of gender identity head-on: “I’m a man now,” she brashly, almost matter-of-factly declares, “and there’s nothing you can do to make me change my mind.” Later, on “Half Ladies”, she adds, “Cause just when you thought I’d be still a little girl, I’m one of the guys,” sounding more vulnerable but still determined, backed up by gentle Fender Rhodes and finger snaps as the song shifts into its celebratory French chorus (“Laissez passer toutes Half-Ladies!”, which essentially means, “Let them all through!”)

Not surprisingly, the three new songs here are all in English (and the two left off from Chaleur Humaine are in French); more interestingly, two of them are duets. Featuring teenaged Nigerian-American rapper Tunji Ige, “No Harm Is Done” noticeably leans heavier towards contemporary R&B than anything on the album—it’s perfectly fine, but not particularly innovative given what surrounds it. “Jonathan” is far more arresting: queer male singer Mike Hadreas, an inspired choice of a partner (who also performs under a pseudonym, Perfume Genius), takes the entire first verse of this lovely, if straightforward ballad, with Letissier not appearing until the second verse. The other new song, “Safe and Holy”, is, after “Tilted”, her most explicit move for the dancefloor, combining gospel chords with a rock-disco rhythm not dissimilar to Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen”.

Letissier projects plenty of confidence at such a relatively unseasoned age: she interpolates Kanye West’s “Heartless” on the chorus of “Paradis Perdus”, titles one of her compositions “Narcissus Is Back” without lapsing into esoterica, and crafts music videos that are less promotional pieces than fodder for an art installation (see below.) Fortunately, her saving grace is an approachability one doesn’t always easily detect in art-pop. More than just “one of the guys”, she’s as relatable as a Tracey Thorn or a Jen Trynin. Inviting and inclusive, but also fiercely original, it’s not an easy balance to pull off, or to make appear as effortless as Letissier occasionally does here.

If anything, her second album, 2018’s released-simultaneously-in-English-and-in-French Chris, walks a trickier tightrope, with Letissier both visually and conceptually inhabiting the titular male persona throughout its entirety. Time may even prove Chris to be the superior album, with songs like “The Walker”, “Doesn’t Matter” and “What’s-Her-Name” sporting ever-sharper melodies and lyrics. At present, she carries the promise of Kate in 1982, Florence in 2009, maybe even Joni in 1970. Whether she makes good on it or not, I suspect she’ll be forever foraging her own path, and I eagerly await as to where she’ll go next.

Up Next: This Thing Was Bound To Happen.

“Tilted”:

“Saint Claude”:

Afternoon at Iguana Island

Five days into our Turks and Caicos trip, we signed up for an afternoon snorkeling excursion, part of which included an hour-long stop at Little Water Cay…

…also informally known as Iguana Island, for reasons that will soon be apparent.

A couple of bright orange-beaked birds near the shore.

Little Water Cay is long and narrow; squint and you might see the opposite shore.

Not every track came from a human.

Here come the iguanas!

They allow you to get pretty close, though I wouldn’t be in a hurry to stick out my hand.

The opposite shore, I think–we were easily turned around at one point.

Color like this is what I come to the Caribbean for.

Make that late afternoon at Iguana Island.

It wasn’t long before we had to head back to Grace Bay.

On the way, we docked near here and were invited to ride a water slide from the boat’s very top on down into the ocean.

Sunset approaching.

Grace Bay beckons.

We fondly look back at the setting sun after departing the boat. A half-day of sea, snorkeling, conch salad and plenty of rum punch comes to a close.

Róisín Murphy, “Hairless Toys”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #96 – released May 8, 2015)

Track listing: Gone Fishing / Evil Eyes / Exploitation / Uninvited Guest / Exile / House of Glass / Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt) / Unputdownable

After Overpowered failed to connect with a wider audience, Róisín Murphy seemed to be in no hurry to put out another album, even as Lady Gaga took its look and sound to the bank a year later. Instead, Murphy went on an extended hiatus: she became a mother (twice), occasionally surfaced as a guest vocalist (most notably on “Don’t You Agree” from the David Byrne/Fatboy Slim life-of-Imelda Marcos concept album Here Lies Love) and released a few alluringly titled one-off singles of her own (“Orally Fixated”, “Simulation”.) Mi Senti, an EP of Italian-language songs, appeared in 2014; the stylistic range across its six tracks spoke to her inclination to experiment and defy expectations, but it was only a mere inkling of what was to come when her next album finally arrived a year later.

Hairless Toys decidedly does not pick up where Overpowered left off; nothing on it is as radio-friendly as “You Know Me Better” or as danceable as “Movie Star”. Its eight tracks sprawl across fifty minutes with most of them hovering around six. When first single and opener “Gone Fishing” dropped a few months before the album’s release, I did not know exactly what to make of it. Murphy’s submerged yet steady vocals fluttered in, out and all around a collage of mechanical beats and synths, all of it layered as to feel peculiar but not entirely off-putting. With lyrics inspired by Paris Is Burning, a documentary about New York City drag culture in the late ’80s (she refers to “The children of LaBeija”, meaning the “house” of performer Pepper LaBeija), Murphy fashions a paean “to building another kind of family nest” for all those stigmatized by their own blood relatives (though the song title remains either a mystery or a pretty obscure reference.) Verse after verse, it percolates on, its hooks not reaching out to hug the listener but creeping along the sidelines, only to occasionally, suddenly, ever-so-briefly emerge before retreating back into the ether.

While certainly more cerebral than anything before it in Murphy’s discography, Hairless Toys is still, at its core, comprised of pop songs—leisurely-paced, heady, at times quixotic pop songs, but ones still sporting hummable melodies and verse/chorus/verse structures. Following “Gone Fishing”, “Evil Eyes” is a slightly sharper entry point for unassuming listeners. An introductory electronic bassline/heartbeat remains a constant throughout, its irresistible strut a solid foundation for Murphy’s dreamily gliding vocals on top (“ho…cus…. / ho-cus, po…..cus….”). It plays like slow-motion disco-funk, graceful but also tense enough that it’s genuinely thrilling when it hits that key change at the bridge at 4:27 and Murphy snaps to attention: “Gonna put those demons in their place!,” she exclaims, as a call-and-response with the phrase, “Get to know them!” (See the song’s bonkers music video below, and in particular, how she chose to visualize this part.)

“Exploitation” clocks in at nearly nine-and-a-half minutes and was still chosen as the album’s second single (albeit in a four-minute edit.) Kicking off with a boisterous, galloping, thirty-second-long synth-and-percussion fanfare, it deftly settles into a subdued thump-a-thon driven by a repeated three-note hook. “Never… underestimate / creative people / and the depths that they will go,” Murphy sings, again forever wafting through a scurrying beat, pausing to ponder the question, “I just don’t know who’s / who’s exploiting who?” in the chorus. The album version’s back half is entirely instrumental, shifting from house music to straight-up trance, the melody gradually dissolving into abstraction over a series of seemingly endless piano chords and electronic noise. Weird as it may be to some (most?), it’s less a line drawn in the sand than Murphy asking her listeners, “Why separate art from pop? Why can’t they co-exist?”

It’s a question Hairless Toys returns to often without making excuses or really any concessions for either side. Combining fat, heavy synth bass with flowery do-do-do’s over what roughly amounts to supper-club funk, “Uninvited Guest” is one of the album’s most playful tracks, particularly in its baritone “whoah, whoah, whoah’s” in the chorus’ background and its cheerful whistling hook; it also transforms into one of the most gorgeous songs here when, at the three-minute-mark, the backbeat suddenly vanishes and an extended bridge unfolds with luxuriant chord changes and lush layers of guitars and multi-tracked vocals, growing more impossibly lovely until the beat resumes a minute-and-a-half later.

“Exile” is arguably even more unexpected a left turn than the back half of “Exploitation”. An honest-to-god, morning-after torch song heavy with twangy guitar, reverb, a little pedal steel and briefly, an eerie, gurgling, horror-film synth noise, it resembles a country death song for a David Lynch film with Murphy speak-singing most of the lyrics rather than sounding off like a siren. And yet, it’s also the most traditional, straightforward tune here (also the shortest at four minutes.) Like much of Hairless Toys, it greatly benefits from extra space to breathe and further ponder one’s surroundings while also both paying homage to and completely subverting an entire musical genre.

While shorter than “Exploitation” by over two minutes, “House of Glass” is almost its mirror image: disclosing its most blatant hook right away, it still sounds tentative at first, a somewhat wispy tone poem. Thankfully, it builds up rather than drifts further apart, becoming danceable midway through. Murphy’s vocals alternately peacefully float through the air (“People / who live / in / glassssss / hou-sesssss”) and cut it like a fine blade (rapidly singing, “Little pieces of a broken dream / Scattered in a million different places.”) Layers accumulate as everything proceeds, from guitar riffs and electro-xylophone runs to drunken, elongated “loo / loo / loo” vocals. The pressure builds, but deliberately, it never really climaxes.

On another album, “Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt)” could be a delicate, heartrending ballad, its two chords gracefully buoyed by an acoustic piano or string quartet; here, its simplistic melody merely serves as a skeleton for an atmospheric wash of ebbing-and-flowing synths and various electronic textures, as Murphy’s vocals become less of a focal point and more just another element in the cavernous mix. As for that inscrutable title (what the hell is a “Hairless Toy”?), producer Eddie Stevens supposedly mistakenly heard those words instead of the song’s original title, “Careless Talk”. In a typically quirky Murphy move, it just stuck for both the song and the entire album.

Leave it to Murphy to also place her best song here at the very end. In great contrast to the preceding track, “Unputdownable” is, at the onset, pretty spare—just tambourine, Murphy’s vocal and a repeated, ascending eight-note piano hook. “You are my favorite book,” she sings, and proceeds with a series of clever reading-as-love metaphors: “You’re unputdownable / a story so confounding / the pages turn so easily,” and “I’m fully occupied / reading between the lines.” Sparse synth blips and bleeps materialize throughout, but there’s also an effective silent pause before a dramatic Spanish guitar strum transforms the entire song at its bridge and Murphy thrillingly wails, “Well, I’m left in confusion / by your epilogue.” This occurs again at the song’s climax and if anything, the out-of-nowhere guitar’s even further heightened by the introduction of a backbeat, some cowbell and a tart synth that together transform this into a glorious anthem: “If you’d allow me / to read your mind,” she sings, repeating those last four words over and over as “Unputdownable” simmers to a satisfying yet lingering close.

Rather than coasting on her past successes (and failures) as a member of Moloko and as a solo artist, Murphy chose to emerge from her hiatus with a leap into the unknown. Sure, one can detect isolated bits and pieces of Hairless Toys across her prior discography (parts of “Uninvited Guest” could easily slot into 2005’s Ruby Blue); strung together, however, they’re revelatory, collectively pushing the boundaries of what one could expect from her and, for that matter, of dance-pop in general. If 2016’s Take Her Up To Monto (culled from the same sessions as Hairless Toys) pushed them even further (occasionally to its detriment), her subsequent work with producer Maurice Fulton found a way to render her music as both fresh and familiar—particularly his radical remix of “House of Glass”, which turned it into a lucid slap-bass odyssey Alexander O’Neal could’ve sung in 1987. Releasing four 12-inch singles with Fulton in lieu of another LP in 2018, Murphy remains an iconoclast and, more than two decades into her career, still an artist to watch.

Up next: Post-modern, post-genre, post-gender, post-?

“Unputdownable”:

“Evil Eyes”: