Ah, college! Those glorious days of drunkenness, debauchery and decrepit, deteriorating dorms! The dorms were so shitty that a girlfriend and I lived off campus the last two years, and that’s when things really got hot and heavy. During my first real period of independence, I majored in eroticism and minored in music. Sex and music! What could be better?
Unfortunately, the college administrators refused to recognize fucking as a legitimate field of study, so I had to stop every now and then to attend classes in International Relations so I could get my degree, prove to the world that I had brains and justify all that money I borrowed from the government (and have yet to pay back in full).
Details was one of the albums playing in the soundtrack of my life back then, and it proved to be one of the albums that had the greatest influence on me. Thanks to Imogen Heap and Guy Sigsworth, I was finally able to articulate what motivated my desire to dominate the male half of the species.
I don’t think that’s what they had in mind.
My natural tendency is to take the lead and dominate intimate relationships. With chicks, triggering my sexual aggressiveness is easy. Chicks are hot! Female beauty activates desire and desire activates my dominance.
Guys, on the other hand, are kind of silly looking, and they don’t have tits or twats to provide additional options for entertainment. All they have is that ridiculous looking thing that’s flailing about aimlessly, disappearing into their balls or standing at attention as if expecting a salute. Don’t get me wrong, I love the feel of a penis inside me, and I’m not at all particular about size. They’re also fun to whack from time to time, though you have to be careful not to damage that sensitive skin encasing the blood flow or the little buddy will shrink into oblivion. Men are so fragile! Women can take so much more!
Anyway, during those years I began to wonder if my attraction to males had more to do with cultural norms than desire. Not that a kid growing up in San Francisco is saddled with too much in the way of heterosexual expectations, but still, San Francisco is a little piece of America and most Americans still prefer to see a man and a woman atop the wedding cake. I knew what I liked about the sexual experience with women, but even though I seemed to like having sex with guys, the exact words to describe what I liked about it continued to escape me. If all it came down to was clitoral-vaginal stimulation, I knew of plenty of excellent vibrators available on the market that would have allowed me a comparable level of satisfaction without all the noise of male insecurity.
The song that clarified it all for me is the first song on Details, “Let Go.” I don’t know if Imogen Heap was singing about letting go of one’s bullshit, letting go of one’s hang-ups or letting go of repressed emotions, but I tailored her message to fit my specific needs:
So, let go, let go
Oh well, what you waiting for?
It’s all right
‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown
So, let go, let go
Just get in
Oh, it’s so amazing here
It’s all right
‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown
There’s beauty in the breakdown. That’s what I love about fucking a guy: the moment when he gives it up. A hard cock makes a guy feel strong, manly and arrogant. Arrogance is just a mask for vulnerability, and I love ripping away that mask. All it takes is a look, a move, a word, or me playing with my tits in a certain way while I coldly and completely ignore his strenuous efforts . . . and he gives it up, every time. I love the feel of a penis collapsing inside me. There’s beauty in the breakdown.
Frou Frou was a one-time collaboration between Ms. Heap and Mr. Sigsworth, who had worked together before with the band Acacia and on her first album, I Megaphone. The name of the band comes from a poem by my favorite poet, Rimbaud (“frou frou” is onomatopoetic for the swish of a lady’s skirt). While Details did not sell particularly well, several of the songs would eventually find their way to spots in movies and television shows, most notably in the film Garden State. Since I generally avoid both movies and television, my path to the music was a bit odd. I bought the CD solely based on the name of the group because I recognized “frou frou” from the Rimbaud poem. I was both thrilled and relieved when I first sat down to listen to it. Details is a kaleidoscope of natural and electronic sound grounded in hypnotic melodies, memorable choruses and stimulating lyrics . . . and one of the few albums that I never tire of. It’s romantic, erotic and extremely pleasing to mind, body and soul.
“Let Go” opens with strings in the far distance, rising in volume until the curiously breathy and disarmingly innocent voice of Imogen Heap enters the mix. Her delivery is also unusual, somewhat on the staccato side, breaking down the syllables into tiny pinpoint bursts of sound with an uncanny sense of emotional timing. The build-up of strings and voice continues up to the first chorus, where the programmed rhythm section kicks in. Even with all the electronica, the music is full of life and the patterns are varied enough to create a very captivating and comforting soundscape. Much is made of Imogen Heap’s classical training, and while its influence shows here in the strength of the structure, the vocal flows in a less measured, more natural pace to give the piece a very human feel. Guy Sigsworth is classically trained as well, and I think the advantage Frou Frou had over many electronic artists is that they apply this training by exercising a very selective approach to sound. They don’t often muck things up.
“Breathe In” picks up the tempo slightly, a pleasing little number made more interesting by the scattered lyrics reflecting the scattered state of the narrator, flustered by a relationship and communicating in fragments. It’s a nice song, but I was surprised to learn that they chose this for the lead single, as there are better songs on the album. One of these is the fabulous “It’s Good to Be in Love,” featuring a wonderfully expressive vocal from Imogen that reflects the “falling” part of love, similar to Ani DiFranco’s “Falling Is Like This.” Her phrasing here is perfect: in the line, “When all of my clothes feel like somebody’s old throwaways” she inserts a microscopic pause between “old” and “throwaways” to give that word more velocity and a strong sense of her distaste and embarrassment.
Another strong number with fascinating use of breathy loops and swirling synth is “Must Be Dreaming,” a song loaded with ecstatic phrases of unbridled passion. The freedom one feels in love has rarely been celebrated more joyously:
The mood turns very, very dark with “Psychobabble,” a song where the female narrator is trying to end a relationship with someone who is a borderline stalker or date rapist. The ugliness of the moment is highlighted with slightly dissonant strings and the use of bells similar to Mike Oldfield’s work on Tubular Bells. “Only Got One,” refers to life, of course, and the human tendency to waste life energy on façades; this is the only track where I feel the drums are a too mechanical, despite their intensity.
My personal favorite (after “Let Go,” of course) is “Shh,” a wonderful song about a spontaneous intimate encounter that extends to the deeper belief that a loving relationship can form a sanctuary against a cold and demanding world:
Sunbeam stop tugging me
Pull that door shut quietly
Darling, what are you doing?
We don’t have time for this!
Crazy? Well ,what are you then?
Give me an hour and I’ll give you your dream . . .
Don’t make a sound–shh—listen
Keep your head down—we’re not safe yet
Don’t make a sound and be good for me
‘Cause I know they’re waiting somewhere out here.
This is the track with the most pulsing and steady rhythm, easily the strongest groove on the album, and it clears the way for the melody and harmonies to take flight. Imogen’s panting vocal on the syllables “Mmm dey mmm da mmm daaeeoo” is as pleasant an experience as listening to Ella Fitzgerald do scat.
“Hear Me Out” is a delightful exercise in soft romantic pop, with vivid lyrics that break with the schmaltzy tradition of the genre (“The smile I fake, the permanent wave of cue cards and fix-it kits/Can’t you tell I’m not myself?”). The vocals on the chorus, forming a sort of call-and-response pattern, are sheer delight. “Maddening Shroud” is also traditional pop made more lively by very clever panning on the sweet vocals. “Flicks” is still another catchy number with an Arab-flavored synth providing more diversity to the production. Details ends with the stark piano introducing “The Dumbing Down of Love,” a track that has the quiet of a Roberta Flack number but falls a bit short in its ability to evoke a comparable level of emotion.
Though Frou Frou would pass into history after this single album, Imogen Heap’s subsequent albums have earned her international recognition as one of the leading innovators in the use of electronics and software in music and in the collaborative possibilities of modern technology. And despite the stereotype of electronic music as a cold, robotic experience, Imogen Heap has never lost touch with her humanity, and her work continues to feature songs that explore what it means to be human, vulnerable and forever in formation. Details is the place where this fascinating journey took seed.
My clitoris doesn’t normally get all a-tingle when I hear electronic beats, but I have been known to make exceptions. One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from musicians I’ve known is how difficult it is to find and keep a good drummer. Oasis didn’t find one until their next-to-last album, and even then Zak Starkey refused to actually join the band. Given this challenge, you have to cut working musicians some slack and hope that the drums aren’t too robotic or too over-the-top. Even that self-proclaimed traditionalist Ian Anderson wound up using drum machines on Crest of a Knave, my favorite late-era Tull album, so electronic drums can work.
The problem with electronic beats is that with the advent of Garage Band, Pro Tools and Logic Pro, any moron can create loops and think they’re the greatest fucking thing since Gene Krupa. This universal availability of decent recording software has been great for the democratization of music but has had a negative impact on overall quality, particularly in the genre of electronic music: there are too many people doing it who at the core are not very talented musicians to begin with. In the hands of those blessed with musical gifts, like Brian Eno and Imogen Heap, electronic sounds can create soundscapes of great power and sensitivity.
So, yes, electronic beats and sounds can work, but I always approach them with justifiable skepticism.
Nonetheless, I was intrigued when I sampled Pyyramids’ debut album despite the dominance of electronica. There was something about the whole that triggered my curiosity. In reading the duo’s back-story, I found out that they had begun their relationship as long-distance collaborators, the second time this month I’ve run into this phenomenon of the Internet Age. They eventually got together live and in-person and did some live shows before heading to the studio to record Brightest Darkest Day, a fortunate decision that probably advanced their collaboration tenfold. Even though long-distance communication is possible and sometimes convenient, face-to-face communication is still the richest kind.
To fully appreciate Brightest Darkest Day, it’s helpful to remember that music can be interpreted from many different perspectives that have nothing to do with the technical or theoretical aspects of music. We give these perspectives names like mood, groove, feel and energy. These facets of music are partially the results of the notes, the tones, the time signatures, the cadence and all that, but descriptions like mood and energy are more about what we’re experiencing and what the artist intended for us to experience than the building blocks. Brightest Darkest Day is clearly a mood album that co-creator Tim Nordwind describes as “the struggle for happiness,” of “trying to ride the delicate balance” of being in an intimate relationship. The individual tracks combine to create a unique soundscape that is endlessly intriguing and becomes more accessible and enjoyable with each pass. The intrigue is heightened to the nth power by the other half of the duo, Drea Smith, who has a voice that oscillates between bubblegum and jazz, imbuing the work with a combination of innocence and unexpected bite. If there’s one criticism I have of the album, it’s that sometimes the arrangements and mixes crowd out her voice. Recording choices aside, Brightest Darkest Day is both hypnotic and satisfying on many levels.
The dominance of mood is established in the opening track, “Brightest Darkest Day (Intro).” Beginning with a simple loop punctuated with a single hit-per-measure on a deep-voiced tom, the dark sound of low piano chords enters the mix to expand and deepen the field. Drea’s voice enters, singing patterns of vowel sounds with occasionally dissonant harmonies. An organ appears, and her voice morphs into female-in-sexual tension; the visual impression is slow, seductive belly dancing. A killer opening.
The second track, “Smoke and Mirrors” is one of those tracks where the vocal is occasionally buried by a busy arrangement, curtailing the impact. That problem does not exist on “Don’t Go,” one of the strongest tracks on the album. The song opens with an African-tinged drum loop sweetened by marimba-like sounds, over which Drea Smith’s marvelous voice comes through sweet and clear as she sings to her ex:
I can’t stop these walls from fallin’ down,
Can’t keep you here, can’t pull you near, stand beside me
And I can’t will you back to hear the sound,
The empty room, the memory looms, you left behind
All the people are watching, looking and stopping—they all know
Oh, and we’re almost over, broken and sober—they all know.
Oh, please don’t go. Don’t go.
The second verse introduces background vocals and more complexity to the soundscape; as the verse fades, we’re treated to punchy, crunchy guitar hits before a truncated verse where Drea delivers her strongest vocal sequence on the entire album, an enchanting passage where her voice combines subtlety and strength. At this point you can’t help but stop and say to yourself, “Damn, she’s good!” I also have to compliment Tim Nordwind for an exquisitely sensitive arrangement here.
Next we get a dark dance number, “Do You Think You’re Enough?” a combination of electronica and kick-ass rock that Drea Smith sings with the sassiness that Gwen Stefani only wishes she had. The song deals with the human need to preen in accordance with others’ expectations (“You’re so good at playing make-believe/Try harder to pretend.”). About two-thirds of the way through, the song undergoes a complete transformation to an acoustic number with the repeated chorus, “Do you think you’re enough for them?” The transformation works because the fundamental theme is so strong; it’s like the first passage is about trying to strut your stuff to impress others and the second, quieter passage is the nagging doubt ringing in your ears telling you that you’re not pulling it off. The drum part in the rock passage, I have to admit, is frigging hot!
“Paper Doll” is another candidate for single status. It starts out sweetly with a mesmerizing guitar pattern leading to Drea’s relationship-weary vocal as she tries to deal with a male who has a control fetish:
I’m out of tune, I’m out of place
Can’t go back to you, I can’t see your face
It’s too much to know, can’t take it if I grow
You’ve got a heavy hand, you never let me think
I’m buried in the sand, you tease me with a drink
Either sweet on me, but nothing in between.
The arrangement explodes into heavy rock and then a passage that seems to mirror the turmoil this guy has put her through and her desire to be herself. Another killer performance!
“Everyone Says” extends the difficulty-in-relationship theme with a strong drum attack and flowing vocals arranged for a cascade effect; there’s always something interesting happening in the headphones on this number! “Invisible Scream” begins as darkly as Edvard Munch’s painting, an appropriate mood for a song about the difficulty of making oneself understood. The song lightens up slightly during the soulful chorus, a surprisingly catchy piece of music. “Time (Interlude)” follows, another instrumental piece that serves to alleviate the tension of “Invisible Scream” and open the way for the song “Time” and its spooky existentialism that is sort of a musical version of Waiting for Godot.
“That Ain’t Right” has a sort of nervous feel to it due to the steady clap sound and insistent guitar, but I love the way Drea phrases the vocal. The album officially ends with “Nothing I Can Say,” completing the relationship theme with the same message of endless difficulty and disconnection; it’s not quite different enough from the messages we’ve already heard to distinguish it from the better songs. There is a bonus track, an acoustic version of “Don’t Go,” an educational experience that tells you that “Don’t Go,” when stripped, is a solid song that provides endless possibilities for variation, as they proved on the main track. It’s one of those rare occurrences where the bonus track is not filler material but actually worth hearing.
Although I’ve taken up a lot of blog space writing about the individual tracks, I do want to emphasize that the reason why Brightest Darkest Day works so well is because of the mood these two talented artists managed to create. The mood is one I would describe as “hazy uncertainty with a few glimpses of light,” an apt description of the human journey to find meaningful relationships that allow all parties concerned to be themselves without any heavy bullshit getting in the way. The mingling of rock, soul, R&B and other influences feels fresh and alive, and my first gut level reaction when the album ended was, “I love these people for putting so much care into this.” You can tell that Brightest Darkest Day wasn’t just something tossed together for the hell of it, like a last-minute salad made of whatever’s left in the fridge. Brightest Darkest Day is a work of blessed originality, of edgy truths and endless fascination.
And best of all, despite of all the software that facilitated its creation, it’s a very human work. That is quite an achievement.