Music

Counterbalance No. 121: Blondie's 'Parallel Lines'

The 121st most acclaimed album of all time is cold as ice cream but still as sweet. Dry your eyes, Sunday girl, and join us for another edition of Counterbalance.


Blondie

Parallel Lines

US Release: 1978-09
UK Release: 1978-09
Label: Chrysalis
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Mendelsohn: Well, Klinger, I didn't really expect to come across Blondie's Parallel Lines hanging around just outside the Top 100 on the Great List. The only thing I really knew about the band up until a little while ago was that they had helped push hip-hop further into the mainstream consciousness with 1980's "Rapture" and that Deborah Harry worked as a Playboy Bunny waitress in the 1960s, neither of which really prepared me for the rather pleasant surprise waiting for me on Parallel Lines. Most of it was pleasant, after a while the tail-end of the record starts to just blend together. But it is hard to argue with the unbridled energy and hot pop licks that come flying out of the speaker with "Hanging on the Telephone" kicking off side one. It has been a while since a Side One/Track One has really caught my attention.


Klinger: Yeah, that's a good one. "Hanging on the Telephone" was written by Jack Lee of the LA power-pop group the Nerves, and I recall hearing a story that he was living in struggling musician-style poverty, about to have his electricity cut off, when he got the call from Debbie Harry asking if Blondie could cover that track. They also recorded Lee's "Would Anything Happen" for what turned out to be a worldwide blockbuster LP. Mysterious ways, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: Right on. And as it turns out, before Parallel Lines was released, Blondie was also struggling a little—what we might consider an indie rock band, paying its dues in the underground of the New York music scene in the mid-1970s with the likes of Talking Heads, Television, and the Ramones. The band had met with some marginal success in the UK, due mostly to the reggae inspired rock that spotted their early records, but were unable to breach the American air waves until 1978's Parallel Lines. There were a couple of things that had to happen for Blondie to make that transition from CBGB regular to world famous. But before we go there, I'm wondering how do you view Blondie? New Wave mega act? Underground New York rock pioneer? What are they?

Klinger: I was about 10 when "Heart of Glass" became a ubiquitous hit single, so to me Debbie Harry has always been the woman who guest-starred on The Muppet Show, and Blondie has always been a top-selling group whose songs periodically get stuck in my head. Some of those songs ("Heart of Glass", "I'm Gonna Love You Too", "11:59") pop up toward the end of this record, so I'm a little puzzled by your earlier statement that this record trails off, but that's neither here nor there. What is clear is that Parallel Lines brought Blondie a level of critical respectability that they hadn't enjoyed before.


Mendelsohn: It's not so much that the back end of the album tails off, I just kind of get bored by the time I reach "Sunday Girl". And it's not that songs like "Sunday Girl", or "I'm Gonna Love You Too", or "Just Go Away" are terrible. They aren't really. Like everything else on this record they are well executed exercises in pop rockery. There's just so many New Wave grooves a guy can take and my limit comes somewhere in the middle of "Heart of Glass", the song that arguably made Blonide the New Wave band du jour. I'm not going to defend myself. The best I can do is point out that some of those songs are almost too slick, "Heart of Glass" included.

You mentioned the mysterious ways music comes together earlier and I would like to take a moment to expand on that. There was very fortunate series of events that helped catapult Blondie into mainstream success—some of it was just dumb luck, some of it as right place right time and whatever was left came down to a talented group of musicians emerging from the creative primordial ooze that was the New York music scene in the mid-1970s. Right off the bat you have Harry, who was real easy on the eyes and that always helps, along with guitarist Chris Stein and Co. who are working with high energy pop licks while incorporating some reggae, punk, and hard rock influences as they trade stage time with innovators like Television and Talking Heads. After a couple of records the mid-’70s have turned into the late ’70s and disco is becoming the next big thing. Enter producer Mike Chapman, who helps refine the Blondie's sound, pushing them from just another New York rock band with an average sound to a slick, well-produced hit making machine by tempering the rock and punk influences with the lush synths and dance beats of the burgeoning disco scene. Blondie was the recipient of some incredible luck by being in the music scene when they were, agreeing to let Chapman take the helm in the studio and incorporating just enough dance sensibility to make their music undeniable catchy. Mysterious or well executed, the result was the same.

Klinger: True, critics from day one have acknowledged the influence that Chapman's production had on Blondie's sound. Their former producer Richard Gottehrer had the early rock bona fides (not only did he co-write "My Boyfriend's Back", but he was also a "member" of the faux group the Strangeloves, whose "I Want Candy" became a big '80s staple via Bow Wow Wow), but his approach could easily have led down the path toward novelty act. Chapman's approach was more contemporary (he was behind the Sweet, produced Nick Gilder's "Hot Child in the City", and would later man the boards for the Knack), and he wisely shone the spotlight on Blondie's two most exciting features: Clem Burke's crashtastic drumming and Debbie Harry's voice, about which I can't say enough.

Listening to Parallel Lines all the way through, you hear how adept Harry was at adapting her voice to fit the mood of the song. She's icy cold on "Heart of Glass", scrappy tough on "One Way or Another" (I melt when she drops into that guttural tone for the last verses. Melt.) and then pretty much invents Madonna on "Fade Away and Radiate"—and that's just the beginning. It's really unusual to hear a rock singer bring that kind of diversity throughout one set of songs. Perhaps it's her experience with both cabaret and folk-rockers Wind in the Willows. Regardless.

Mendelsohn: We all melt under the vocal gaze of Debbie Harry, Klinger, all of us. Harry's vocals really make this album for me and for all the reasons you just listed—especially her stellar work on "One Way or Another". We have made it fairly deep into the Great List and I'd be hard pressed to single out a lead singer who could go toe-to-toe with Harry. She has the sensuality of Dusty Springfield and the rock swagger of Mick Jagger and Joe Strummer combined—plus looks to boot. She is almost the entire package. If she had the song writing talents of someone like Carole King, Blondie may very well have rivaled the Beatles. Although her name does show up in the credits for almost half of the songs on the record.

Klinger: Ooh, sounds like someone's a smitten kitten! While I think you might be overplaying your hand a little bit, I do admire your enthusiasm. And I don't blame you one bit, of course.


Mendelsohn: Of course I'm smitten and that's causing me to be a little excessive, please pardon my transgression. But then, I wouldn't be alone in wanting to be alone with Debbie Harry. In fact, the unrelenting attention Harry received was part of the reason the band fell apart. I'm just wondering if Blondie's influence reaches beyond 1985? Are they the forgotten band from the 1970s New York music scene? Are they marginalized by mainstream success and perceived pop novelty status? I keep trying to tell myself that Blondie is critically acclaimed and deserves this spot on the list, but it still feels weird.

Klinger: Well, it's important to note that in the early '80s, Chris Stein was stricken with a very rare debilitating disease, causing Harry to take time to care for him and preventing the band from enjoying the momentum they'd been building up. I've long been of the impression that the entire "serious" pop world had a very convoluted relationship with Blondie, and a lot of that may be down to two factors: 1) the seeming ease with which Blondie got themselves out of CBGB ghetto in which so many bands were toiling, and b) the fact that Debbie Harry is in fact a very attractive woman.

The Ramones may have gotten signed first, but their albums went nowhere on the charts. Blondie got a good amount of attention and a smattering of hit singles in Europe, which practically made them Abba compared to, say, Patti Smith. There was some degree of professional jealousy and when Blondie did actually become worldwide celebrities with full-fledged hit singles and everything, some of those folks could be forgiven a little ambivalence. Along the way, I'd be surprised if critics weren't to some degree compelled to choose up sides. And critics, who are mostly male and, well frankly a little nerdy, seem to have the same issue that a lot of insecure young men have with attractive women. A good case in point might be a statement I remember some old-timey critic making to the effect that he couldn't conjure up a single pornographic thought about Debbie Harry—as if that's her damn job. (Was it Lester Bangs? Maybe. I can't remember, and I'm not about to Google "Debbie Harry" "pornographic" and "Bangs", thank you very much.) I could go on about the nature of nerd rage in re: pretty women, but I'll leave that to someone with more expertise.

Mendelsohn: Ah yes—sweet, sweet nerd rage. Where would music criticism, or the Internet, be without it? Thankfully, nerd rage has yet to silence Blondie.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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