Music

Birdy: Birdy

On her debut album full of indie-rock covers, this 15-year old proves that she can really sing; but Birdy's appeal may depend on how much you enjoy desperate, aching piano ballads, because there are a lot of them here.


Birdy

Birdy

Label: Warner Bros.
US Release Date: 2012-03-20
UK Release Date: 2011-11-07
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Birdy, nee Jasmine van den Bogaerde, may be well-known to UK audiences due to her win on a Reality TV singing competition there in 2008. The fact that she was only 12 when she won Open Mic UK may have kept her in the public consciousness a bit more than the typical talent show winner. As an American, my first awareness of Birdy arrived with "Just a Game", her quiet, aching closer to The Hunger Games soundtrack album. In a bit of major label cross-marketing, Birdy's self-titled debut album for Warner Bros. hit North America on the same day as that soundtrack album. But Birdy was released in the UK back in November of 2011, and hearing it six months later in the face of "Just a Game" doesn't necessarily do Bogaerde any favors.

As befits most of the rest of The Hunger Games soundtrack, "Just a Game" is a stripped-down song written by Bogaerde, and producer T Bone Burnett knew well enough to let her do her voice-and-piano thing with minimal interference. Birdy, by contrast, feels like it was guided every step of the way by its three producers, despite mostly following the same formula of just letting Bogaerde sing and accompany herself on piano. The difference is that 10 of Birdy's 11 tracks are cover songs, and not all of them benefit from the stripped (and slowed)-down approach.

It's clear from the opening notes of "1901" that Birdy can really sing. Her voice is rich and soulful, and it's amazing that she's only 15. "1901" also sets much of the template for the rest of the album. Birdy or her producers chose an indie-rock or folk song, slowed it down, and hoped that her voice carries the track. "1901" actually features a full (albeit quiet) band accompaniment, and the novelty of hearing a buoyant Phoenix track morphed into something soft and passionate is a good one. The next song, Bon Iver's "Skinny Love", seems like a natural pick for Bogaerde to cover, and her performance is strong. You can almost see the record company suits standing behind the producer, rubbing their hands together in anticipation of unleashing "the next Adele" on the world. But the songs on Bon Iver's first album came from a really personal place, and no matter how well Birdy sings, it's hard to fully buy into a 15-year old having that same well of emotion. The question of authenticity is a valid one for Bogaerde, but it feels like she deserves at least more of a break on this than the typical TV talent show winner. It's much harder to be cynical about a 15-year old with an amazing voice than a woman in her mid-20's who'll do anything for a shot at fame. Her one composition on the album, "Without a Word", isn't great, but it's solid. Along with "Just a Game", there's potential for better things down the line for Birdy as a singer-songwriter.

What's more of a problem for this album is the lack of variety between the songs. There are only so many covers of indie-rock piano ballads or rearrangements of indie-rock songs turned into piano ballads that a listener can take. Cherry Ghost's "People Help the People" holds up reasonably well, but even the addition of drums doesn't really make Fleet Foxes "White Winter Hymnal" come to life in Birdy's hands. The pattern really starts to take hold in the middle of the album, when Bogaerde tackles the Postal Service's "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" and "I'll Never Forget You" by Frances and the Lights back to back. If the existing song was already a piano ballad, it's going to sound pretty good. If the original arrangement was more robust, there's trouble ahead. Dozens of artists have covered Postal Service songs since Give Up came out a decade ago, and while Birdy's attempt isn't bad on the level of, say Confide's "Such Great Heights", it's not particularly good, either. Substituting rudimentary drum machine beats for Jimmy Tamborello's complex programming is a bad idea, and slowing the tempo down and emphasizing the piano leeches most of the energy out of the song. "I'll Never Forget You", on the other hand, is beautiful and sounds heartfelt.

The one exception to this pattern is the National's "Terrible Love," which serves as the album closer. This is the one case on Birdy where the producers give Bogaerde a true, full arrangement, and it benefits her greatly. The song starts out like most of the rest of the tracks here, but gradually adds in strings as well as drums, guitars, and bass. It doesn't build to the big rock out that the original does, but that's okay. Instead the strings swell along with Bogaerde's voice, and that's an actual arrangement choice beyond "Here, Jasmine, play this on the piano and sing." If nothing else, Birdy shows that Birdy can handle herself when it comes to desperate, aching piano ballads. She's got that covered. This is a strong album on that front, no question. But if she wants to make this music thing a career, she should probably think about convincing her handlers at Warner Bros. in North America and Atlantic in the UK to let her sing some other types of songs in the future. Maybe a few that are not desperate, aching piano ballads.

5

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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