Music

Lights: The Listening

Jer Fairall

True to its title, The Listening is an album in love with the simple joys of listening to pop music.


Lights

The Listening

Label: Sire/WEA
US Release Date: 2009-10-06
UK Release Date: 2009-10-06
Artist website
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iTunes

Lights, the appropriately incandescent alias of 22-year-old Canadian singer/songwriter Valerie Poxleitner, made the best pop record that you probably did not hear in 2009. Despite what would appear to be a reasonably marketable pop-pixie image and smooth New Wave-lite sound capable of evoking both fond nostalgia in older listeners and fashionable cool in kids weaned on The Postal Service, she has yet to receive much exposure beyond Canadian music television, where several of her colorful anime-esque videos have been in consistent rotation since she released her self-titled debut EP in 2008. It leads one to wonder if perhaps there is a small danger of the sheer retro-ness of her image—she plays a keytar, that moldy artifact of '80s cheese, with the same breezy lack of irony with which she drops a lyrical reference to “Ice Ice Baby” into one of her songs—making her difficult to locate amid the increasingly complex landscape of 21st century pop.

Indeed, Lights foregoes the tendency among today’s crop of young female pop stars to make themselves comfortably amorphous in the hands of superstar European knob-twiddlers or American R&B beat-savants in favor of a sound that, for all of it’s glistening studio sheen, feels warmly, almost quaintly, homemade. And as far as studio pop goes, it may as well have been: Lights writes or co-writes as well as co-produces all of her material, in addition to designing her own album art. Make no mistake that Lights is a pop construct every bit as self-aware as Lady Gaga, equally evocative of the various popular innovations of '80s music and culture, but more fixated on New Wave’s retro-futuristic take on melodic pop than on the decade’s expanding possibilities for trend-establishing dance music. Think of Lights, maybe, as Gaga’s introverted kid sister, more at home in her bedroom scribbling adolescent poetry than sneaking into clubs.

The Listening imports four of the six songs from the earlier EP in slightly (if unrecognizably) tweaked forms: the graceful, humming “Drive My Soul” gliding like a Moby-scored luxury car ad humanized by Lights’ yearning pleas; the jerky, robotic synth beats of “Ice” matching the song’s cool sass with Lights’ inherent compassion; the gently encouraging “The Last Thing on Your Mind” shifting smoothly between a mid-tempo twitch and melodramatic American Idol-style showpiece balladry; the tasteful, very of-the-moment Postal Service-style glitch beats underscoring a chorus of epic heartbreak (“my arms get cold / in February air / please don’t lose hold of me out there”) that would have sounded timeless in any pop generation.

Two years ago, these songs sounded promising enough, refreshingly catchy and sincere slices of retro-pop in a mainstream that, for all of its exciting embrace of avant-leaning production techniques in recent years, sometimes felt like it had traded off the ability to craft simple, indelible melodies as a result. Here, woven into the fabric of her debut album, their familiarity (to those of us who heard them the first time around) has rendered them as classic as a childhood favorite. The Listening does little more than add eight more shimmering pop gems to Lights’ small catalogue, but it doesn’t have to do anything else. Opener and lead single “Saviour” shifts between meticulous pitter-patter verses and a chorus hook as blissful as any since “Manic Monday”. “River” follows a nearly structurally identical pattern, but increases its epic reach by several degrees. “The Listening” itself is like a halfway merger between Kate Bush and Kylie Minogue (both of whom Lights resembles vocally at various points), the former’s breathy ethereality wrestling with the latter’s retro-disco mid-tempo groove.

“Pretend” is a strategically placed mid-album ballad that is nevertheless wise enough to recognize that Lights’ songs always require a strong pulse at their center (something that, in the album’s only severe misstep, the closing piano reprise of the song does not). The busy “Second Go” (containing what is, coming from her, the scoff-worthy lyric “how can you love me when I am ugly?”) offers comforting advance proof that Lights’ songs are solid enough in their melodic foundations to survive their own inevitable dance remixes. “Face Up” is awash in inspirational sentiment, but Lights’ naïve conviction and powerful sense of sonic dynamics completely sells it. “Lions!” integrates an expertly processed Edge-like guitar chime into a sturdy dance-floor groove, an object lesson in why so much of the Pink/Kelly Clarkson branch of “pop rock” sounds, at least to this frequently beleaguered pop fan, so needlessly drab. The squeaky, cartoonish “Quiet” is enough to suggest that if Lights is the true heir to any veteran pop star, its Cyndi Lauper.

If The Listening is steeped in a past that pre-dates the artist herself, if just barely, Lights has nevertheless made a record that strikes a balance between that past and her own era in a way that would not have been possible in any other. The Listening is, finally, an album that combines the bedroom-intimacy and childlike enthusiasm of indie-pop with the no-expense-spared production values of blockbuster studio pop. It is the album that Liz Phair or Nina Gordon might have made had they explored their mainstream impulses at a much younger and less savvy age (and, in Phair’s case, had better taste in collaborators than the Matrix), and the album Britney Spears might have made if she had ever heard of Sarah Records, an album that connects pop’s grandest impulses with its quaintest. More than anything, it is an album that, true to its title, is in love with the simple joys of listening to pop music.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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