Music

Bette Midler: It's the Girls!

With her latest release, the Divine Miss M takes on girl groups from the Andrews Sisters to TLC and a little bit of everything in between.


Bette Midler

It’s The Girls!

Label: Warner Bros.
US Release Date: 2014-11-04
UK Release Date: 2014-11-17
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Throughout her career, Bette Midler has proven herself a versatile vocalist capable of tackling everything from bawdy cabaret to saccharine-sweet adult contemporary fare. On It’s the Girls!, Midler finds her muse in the works of girl groups from the Andrews and Boswell Sisters through to the Ronettes and Chiffons through to TLC. It’s a somewhat scatter-shot approach to the notion of the girl group sound that ultimately works perhaps a bit better than it should given the disparity of the acts represented. But this “greatest hits”-style approach to the history of popular music is not out of place in either Midler’s career or the cabaret scene from whence she came.

With It’s the Girls!, Midler shows a great affinity to the girl group sounds of ‘60s, but is clearly most comfortable operating in the looser, more cabaret-indebted style in which she came up in the 1970s. In between Wall of Sound-era gems from the likes of the Ronettes, she jubilantly flaunts her way through a pair of tunes by the Andrews and Boswell Sisters that better suit her brassy, more freewheeling style. While her voice proves more than adept at tackling the prime ‘60s girl group cuts here, her strict adherence to the original source material of each (from the phrasing on down to the vocal tonality of each) feels restrictive and lacks the necessary personality required to transcend the originals and play as anything more than a glossy homage..

Throughout, the arrangements give the feel of a big glossy production, stripping away any and all organic quality inherent in the originals. A minor sonic quibble, but if the producers here (veterans Marc Shaiman and Scott Riesett) sought to reproduce the feel of the songs Midler attempts to replicate virtually note-for-note in some instances, they overshot the mark with fussy arrangements that take some of the fun out of the original “teenage symphonies” helmed by the likes of Phil Spector. The arrangements here possess none of the wild-eyed innocence of the originals and instead possess the sharp focus and surgical precision of the more contemporary notion of music production.

The somewhat misleading opening one-two of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Chiffons' “One Fine Day”, each rendered in a rough vocal approximation of the original, creates the impression this will be a straight ‘60s girl group homage with Midler inhabiting the lead role in each. But then comes a version of the Andrews Sisters' “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”. Though not nearly as anomalous is it would initially seem when taken within the full context of the album, it’s appearance immediately following two well-known girl group classics feels a bit jarring. That said, it seems to loosen Midler up some, finding confidence in her more stylistically appropriate, theatrical approach to popular song, an act honed over the course of her formative years.

While the chronological detour is brief (it’s followed up by the Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You”), it seems to free up both Midler and her accompanying musicians from strictly adhering to the original versions’ arrangements. Applying a more balladic approach to “Baby It’s You,” Midler hits a stylistic sweet spot between straight-up contemporary reinterpretation and original take on an oft-covered classic of the era that perfectly suits her abilities as both a performer and interpreter.

With her focus primarily on and the bulk of the material coming from the heyday of the girl group sound of the early-to-mid-‘60s, Midler’s brief forays into more traditional and, conversely, contemporary material with her cover of TLC’s “Waterfalls”, unfortunately feel out of place and come across almost as afterthoughts.

Using the overarching tag of “girl groups” in the loosest sense of the term serves her point of including groups from the Andrews Sisters on up through TLC, but too often proves a somewhat uncomfortable listen. Going from a maudlin, overblown cabaret take on “Waterfalls” to a straight country reading of the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” works thematically insomuch as both were originally performed by popular girl groups. Beyond that, it’s an odd pairing and even odder stylistic arrangement of each that, regardless of where either would have been placed in the album’s running order, would have sounded out of place.

On “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”, Midler invites original girl group vocalist and one-time Spector associate Darlene Love in to duet, creating an exuberant pairing that further supports the notion that Midler should have stuck solely with the golden age of the girl group sound rather than periodically straying in order to cover a broader range stylistically. Their voices well suited to one another, it’s a fine pairing that shows each still has plenty to offer.

But ultimately Midler clearly feels more comfortable with the older material, imbuing the Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman” with a youthful vitality and level of theatricality not present on much of the rest of the material here, allowing for a more organic approach to the song’s reading and giving Midler the chance to go off book more than once. It is here in this freer, more improvisatory setting that she shines both as a performer and interpreter of other people’s material, truly inhabiting the performance in a manner making it her own rather than simply rehashing an existing framework to vaguely recast it in her own image.

Even though not everything here quite works, the tracks that do are a great deal of fun and show Midler in fine form. One of the most amusing moments comes during a seemingly ad-libbed exchange on the outro “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” wherein Midler subverts the tough-guy notion of the original’s love interest, recasting him as a nonagenarian whom she’s “known since the first time this record came out” and needs to be returned to his room at the ICU lest the nurses worry unnecessarily. It’s this lack of self-seriousness that makes Midler such an endearing performer and shows why some of her best work and, most notably, the work for which she is best known, spawned from the looser format of her nightclub act.

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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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