Elvis Costello wears a silly hat throughout this episode of Spectacle. It distracted me. (The offending accessory is a red, short-brimmed fedora that appears to be made from, ahem, velvet.) Is he attempting to be ironic, given that this episode deals with, among other things, pop standards—and, furthermore, that he opens the show with a winking cover of “If I Only Had a Brain”? (A performance that seems to say, Get it, if I only had a brain? Obviously I do have a brain, a big one at that; ergo, what I’m doing here with this song amuses me so.) Does he think that this sort of questionable fashion choice is, in fact, the sort of thing that would impress or entertain a gay man? His guest, after all, is Rufus Wainwright, who makes no mention of the hat, this velveteen red elephant sitting atop the host’s head in a cocked, taunting fashion. (Wainwright does, however, stumble through many an answer—behavior that one could logically attribute to the absurd trauma of having questions posed to you by a man in a funny hat.)
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The 1993 music video for “Gentlemen” was my introduction to the Afghan Whigs, who would quickly become one of my favorite bands. At first glance it might seem like a pretty standard-looking rock video, but on closer inspection it reveals itself to be something much stranger.
In the video singer Greg Dulli stalks around a house that looks like a set from Beverly Hills 90210, peering out the windows at the neighbors, snarling and looking more than a little like Joaquin Phoenix (young Joaquin, not new shaggy Joaquin). Behind Dulli, the band is rocking out with such force that it’s hard not to wonder why the Whigs aren’t brought up more as one of the truly great bands of the ‘90s. The song itself is an all-out attack, with Dulli not so much singing the words as spitting them. Recounting a relationship gone sour, you can hear the venom in his voice on lines like “We dragged it out so long this time started to make each other sick” and “I waited for the joke…it never did arrive.” The chorus has him pleading innocence: “Do you understand?! I’m a gentle man!” The delivery of these lines would lead us to believe otherwise.
As Greg walks through the house after peeping on the neighbors, something very strange happens. It cuts from him walking towards the camera, singing, to a large black man walking towards the camera, singing. It then cuts back to Dulli and then to an old (white) man walking towards the camera, singing. Both the big black guy and the little old man are dressed exactly the same as Dulli, suggesting that they in fact ARE Dulli. It’s bizarre and somewhat unsettling and what it’s suggesting is anyone’s guess. The whole video actually, from the sets to the editing, has a very ominous Twin Peaks-like, surreal quality about it. In other words; a great video and a perfect introduction to the Afghan Whigs.
Montreal’s the Silly Kissers are making the type of perfect ‘80s synth-pop that can only be made in the late 2000s. All songs are written and produced by the song writing duo of David Carriere and Sean Nicholas Savage and they perform the songs with vocalist Jane Penny and three others. The songs are almost always focused on love; whether it’s love lost, strong love, sad love, all love facets are covered here from male and female perspectives, and at times in a single song (that’s right: lovers’ duets). It seems that only with the passing of 25 years can the synth-pop genre be fully utilized in a stripped-down and self aware format.
Admittedly, this band is not really breaking new ground, but are creating keyboard-based pop music focused on the most salient and enjoyable aspects of the genre: interesting instrumentation and infectious hooks. The lyrical content often takes a back-seat to the hooks, and borders on the cliché cheesiness you’d expect from genre pioneers like the Human League, but the evident obviousness allows guilt-free appreciation. This is not to say that they’re insincere; the content that they touch upon is standard for any genre, but the abandon with which they tackle their theme is a tip of the hat to their predecessors. And there certainly isn’t any tongue in cheek in their delivery.
I’ve now listened to “Do You Want to Know a Secret” many times, read of its origins, and taken ample notes. Even so, I don’t think I could put together a commentary that aspires to be original or insightful. Throughout, I found myself insistently qualifying both the positive and negative reactions I had toward the song. As in: “Secret” doesn’t amount to much but it easily delivers a warm and modest pop pleasure. It’s hard to dislike but closer to forgettable than not. It’s lightweight but knowingly so. Such ambivalence can frustrate one’s attempt at lucid criticism.
The song itself is simple and fairly straightforward. Musically, the Beatles drew inspiration from an early ‘60s doo-wop hit called “I Really Love You” by the Stereos. What results is a tight but fanciful bounce of a song that moves along with a procession of lilting guitar plucks and a crisp, contained rhythm. The only twist comes right at the outset when the combined effect of minimalist spaghetti strumming and George’s earnest vocal produces a heavier, more uncertain tone. This dissolves within seconds though, giving way to the wispy amble that marks the song.
Lyrically, John borrowed from a tune in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which includes the line “Wanna know a secret/ Promise not to tell”. According to Steve Turner’s A Hard Day’s Write, the titular “secret” referred to how John “had just realized that he was really in love” with his first wife Cynthia. Strangely, he wrote this song a short time after his marriage to her, which would seem to undercut the sense of excitement and discovery that one might experience while harboring such emotion (and not wedding its target). But John couldn’t have felt too strongly about how “Secret” would convey these sentiments because the vast majority of the song is so breezy and also because he allowed George to take the lead vocal.
Perhaps this detail, that “Secret” seems like a bone which the band tossed to George, partly animates my mixed thoughts. It almost reinforces the song’s disposable feel or attaches a negating asterisk to any enjoyment you might derive. But this is likely just an instance of outside factors unduly influencing how a song is received. The effect is more contrived than anything. What isn’t contrived is that enjoyment, which, however qualified, doesn’t require a tedious explanation for its existence.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I cried because I was hoping so bad that they would show a real alien, and then they did. I couldn’t believe they went there. God bless.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Mutt Williams from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I thought I hated Shia LeBeouf going into this movie, but I changed my mind real quick. When he was swinging from the vines with the monkeys, that was right up my alley.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull soundtrack. I was so pumped that they got John Williams back to do the compositions for this soundtrack, just like with the first three movies. There’s some amazing and pioneering usage of a continuum on this album. “Ants!” is the type of tune I could never sick of, it makes feel good when things aren’t going so well. “Secret Doors and Scorpions” is another banger, such a a summer jam.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
I haven’t seen any Star Trek, plus Star Wars has Harrison Ford in it and was created by George Lucas. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had Harrison Ford in it and was created by George Lucas.
5. Your ideal brain food?
I’ve never had it but monkey brains.