Thursday, 22 October 2020

Pandemic pop music: Or, why Allie X's Cape God should be up there with Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia in the end of year lists

Earlier this year, probably not long after the UK went into lockdown, a number of well placed and well respected music journalists in the UK began to remark upon a specific 2020 music theme: Party albums for the pandemic age. 

Lady Gaga's Chromatica, a back-to-my-roots slice of hedonistic turbo charged pop which was released in late May, was one example of the emerging oevre, but the main release people referenced again and again was Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia, which was released on 27th March 2020, four days after the UK went into lockdown. 

Listening to Future Nostalgia, it's easy to see why so many critics fell for it: It's exuberant, assertive, confident and stylish in tone. It's also good hedonistic pop music, providing positive vibes and escapism at a time when people were, and still are, unable to go out to nightclubs and dance the night away. It arrived at the perfect moment. Not only was the album positively reviewed upon its release but it was also shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize and will, undoubtably, feature highly in many critics and publications end of year lists. 

I have listened to Future Nostalgia a few times now and, while I do quite like it, I didn't really get why it had been given such a rapturous reception.

That was until I listened to Canadian art pop star Allie X's 2020 album, Cape God

Like Future Nostalgia, Cape God provides a confident serving of stylish and hedonistic pop music. But its overall mood is decidedly darker, foreboding and off kilter. Which might account for it receiving less attention than the Dua Lipa album.

Cape God was released on February 21st 2020, pre a lot of the world's Covid lockdowns and before many countries had fully realised the extent to which they were going to be impacted by the virus and what kind of a year it was going to be.

An album with moody, dark imagery that also features X's trademark subversive lyrics (this is the woman who rhymed 'Casanova' with 'Fuck me over' on 'Casanova' after all) it is clever, complex, sophisticated pop with many a dance floor banger ('Super Duper Party People', 'Devil I Know', 'Rings A Bell', 'Life Of The Party') but which also wraps discordant, complex themes in ambitious synth pop ('Fresh Laundry') and addresses a series of atypical relationships and related difficulties. 'Love Me Wrong' for example, a collaboration with Trove Sivan, is a swirlingly off kilter slice of pop baroque whereas the slinky 'Susie Save Your Love' sings of wistful bisexual longing in a duet with Mitski. Musically the song  nods to mid 1980s Prince and the Revolution as well as the Lady Gaga and Florence Welch duet, 'Hey Girl'. 'Madame X' meanwhile, presumably in no way related to last years Madonna album of the same name, is a gothic ballad featuring a modern day La Belle Dame Sans Merci at its heart. 

Perhaps the most haunting track on this most atmospheric of albums is 'Life Of The Party' a song which, at face value, is a turbo charged banger set to rival anything on Chromatica or Future Nostalgia. Listen to the lyrics though and the story takes a distinctly darker turn:

I was the life was the life of the party

They stripped me down like a Barbie

They say I kissed the king

But I don't remember anything

The troubling nature of this is underscored at the apex of the song with X's blurred and groggy muttering of the following:

Oh I'll never forget

But I don't wanna forget

Hope I never forget

Oh I wanna forget

Oh I'll never forget

But I don't wanna forget

I hope I'll never forget

Oh I wanna forget

It hints at sexual assault while delivering unyielding pounding electro beats, something Noga Erez also did with 2017's 'Pretty', which was about a sexual assault in an Israeli nightclub. The contrast between content and style in both cases making for pretty disturbing listening. 

In its attention to cohesion and detail Cape God comes across as a loving and ambitious homage to electronica, art pop and the LGBT+ community. It feels both dark and joyous, troubling and euphoric, and it builds on Allie X's earlier work in a very satisfactory way.

She has surpassed herself with this album and that should really be acknowledged. 

Monday, 12 October 2020

Fantasy Festival 2020: Looking back and summing up

I knew from late May/early June that I was going to need to evaluate the Fantasy Festival project come October. With such a big, long term project, it seemed like a good idea to reflect on the process of compiling these 21 virtual clipfests, and what I've found out along the way. 

For one thing, as we drew closer to October I found myself asking: Was it a good idea to create a series of posts that would run all the way from late May until early October? Yes, it would ensure that the entire festival season was covered, but would people also get bored? 

Looking at my stats, I'd say that that has not proved to be the case: The viewing figures are much the same at the end of the series as they were at the beginning. There's been peaks and troughs along the way, and certain festivals do seem to have gone down better than others (for example Patti Smith and Anna Calvi) but, overall, it's been pretty consistent. Which is nice. 

I've been thinking about whether I should do another series next year and, at the moment, I'm not sure. It will depend a lot on where we are as a country (UK) with live music by May 2021. At the moment, I suspect that festivals probably won't happen in 2021 or, if they do, they will be very, very different. If that's the case, it might not be worth running a Fantasy Festival series in 2021. Not just because there might be less to get riled about without the typical slew of sausage fest lineups (though, since I started the series in May, Reading and Leeds festival have already proved true to form in that regard, announcing a very sausage-y lineup for 2021) but also because I suspect that live music clips on YouTube will be valued much more highly than they are now and, for that reason, may well be less available on a free to watch basis. We will see. 

I imagine at home gigs will still be a thing post Christmas, and I've used a number of at home/lockdown shows in this series, and they can be good. Even the low budget ones. Really, what I've found with at home or lockdown gigs is that it's the the spirit or the performance that counts, and also the intimate rapport that the artist is able to establish with those watching from home. It doesn't have to rely on really expensive kit, it can be done cheap and still be good. Both Basia Bulat and Patricia Lalor's lockdown streams proved this.

My starting point when compiling these virtual festivals has always been to create lineups made up of a range of artists who I, to varying degrees, like. This could mean an artist who I've heard one or more song by and who I quite like all the way through to an artist I really love. And all points in-between. The process of compiling the festivals, and then the watching of the one song clips and full sets when the post is published, give me a greater insight into the artist, their backstory, and their back catalogue. Some artists I end up liking the same as I did previously, some I like less, but many I end up liking more. This year, there were a number of artists who I only had a casual interest in previously who I now love intensely. Allie X and Zoe Graham being two of these artists. I also discovered a band I'd never heard before while looking for clips of another artist entirely, and promptly added them to one of the bills. A rare, joyful, example of the power of YouTube. 

The downside of YouTube is the impermanence of a lot of the content that gets posted on there. I do try to pick clips, and full sets, that look like they've been uploaded by people who might either own the content or have some clue about permissions or copyright, but even so, I still had a case of a one song clip being removed from YouTube after I'd embedded it and the post had gone live. Which is annoying. Similarly, one other video was deleted before it could be posted but, seeing as how the replacement clip I found was much, much better, this might have been a blessing in disguise. Oh, and a few videos I'd linked to (as opposed to embedded as the main clip in the post) got taken down in the time between me scheduling posts and them being published. Which made for a certain amount of re-editing after those posts had gone live. Again; annoying. 

There were, as was the case in 2017, issues as regards sourcing good quality clips and full sets by artists.  In the case of new artists this ongoing situation has (inevitably) been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic: Many of those artists I couldn't get live clips for at all were poised to go on tour this summer, or earlier in the year, and not all of them were in a position to do lockdown gigs from home. 

As regards new or emerging artists, one really good source of high quality footage turned out to be the BBC, specifically their Introducing project. Because the big UK festivals (and some of the medium and smaller sized ones too) have BBC Introducing stages at which new UK artists are booked to play, there was a large recent archive of one song clips posted by the BBC on YouTube that I could use.

I relied on these clips a lot and, while I was very pleased to discover this archive, the BBC Introducing footage came with its own set of problems. It's not that the full sets (if there were full sets available for those artists) were only available on BBC Sounds, it's more a combination of other factors.

Firstly, a number of new and emerging artists, while perfectly good on small stages in pubs and clubs, come across as gauche and over exposed when placed on a much larger stage at a festival. Even if it's the new artists stage. This can make for some pretty un-dynamic footage. Perhaps recognising that this can be the case, the BBC Introducing footage quite often concentrates on catching an overall mood and vibe by including lots of footage of the crowd responding to the artists, rather than lots of close ups of the artist performing. This can have mixed results: If the artist isn't going down well with the crowd, it tends to be obvious and make for painful viewing. If the artist is playing an absolute blinder but the video edit still includes loads of crowd footage, it can detract from the artist's performance. If you watch Koffee's one song clip from the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury 2019, then watch her full length set from Rockpalast in 2019, you'll see what I mean. A good example of a great clip by the BBC Introducing film team is Self Esteem's one song clip of 'Girl Crush' from Glastonbury 2019 where, perhaps recognising that Rebecca Lucy Taylor isn't a total newbie and has an ease and confidence on stage that needs showcasing, they did focus on the performance over the crowd.

In general, I relied on far more BBC clips than I'd previously anticipated. This was particularly the case for festival clips from 2019 and 2020, by which time the issue of a lack of women being booked for festivals was definitely being discussed in a big way and (some) festivals were seeking to show themselves willing to book more women. As such, this seasons Fantasy Festivals did include a surprisingly large amount of one song clips from Glastonbury 2019 and the BBC 6Music Festival 2020, which managed to sneak in ahead of the main festival season in March, just before UK lockdown. 

As in 2017, this years Fantasy Festival's have been very dependent upon content sourced from live studio sessions, particularly those recorded for public radio stations and platforms in the US. I have been very grateful to the work done by KEXP, The Current, Paste and Audiotree when it comes to showcasing a mixture of new, emerging and established artists in a variety of live contexts from a variety of nations. Despite the studio settings, many of those sessions are amazing. Good examples would include Ibeyi and Miya Folick's live sessions, both for KEXP. 

On the downside, there are still artists where - despite their profile - it's been nay on impossible to source high quality live clips or full sets. Specific examples would include Stevie Nicks and Emmy The Great, albeit for very different reasons.

Compared to the Fantasy Festivals I created in 2017, I've sourced my clips and full sets from a much wider range of festivals (despite the predominance of both BBC UK festival footage and KEXP live sessions) and also a much wider set of geographical locations, which is great. I am now aware of inDnegev festival in Israel, TRNSMT in Scotland, the various different geographical locations used by Pitchfork Festival (France, Spain, US...), and Hodgepodge Superfest in Indonesia. 

Festivals in European countries beyond the UK need a special shout out too because I did include a lot of artists from the Scandinavian countries this year, as well as sets from non Scandinavian artists who just happened to be playing at festivals in Europe. I'm especially grateful to Roskilde Festival (Denmark), Gurten Festival (Switzerland), Rock Werchter (Belgium), Open'er Festival (Poland), and Ruisrock Festival (Finland).

I've really taken a kind of delight in some of the random locations and contexts I've found artist clips in this year. The odder the situation or context, the more interesting the final result in many cases. This has included watching The Raincoats perform a full set as part of an art exhibition, Sampa The Great performing 'Final Form' at what looked like a neighbourhood party in Brisbane, Lily and Madeleine performing to an audience of commuters on a bus in (I think) Indiana, Half Waif performing 'Keep It Out' to an audience of campers at a US summer camp, and Liines performing to a duffel coated (and very cold looking) audience at an outdoor gig in Munich. Not to mention the typically surreal spectacle of both Press Club and Mallrat performing on TV in their native Australia.

Because the festival season was swept away by the COVID-19 pandemic this year, any impact the Fantasy Festival series might have had in an activism context is pretty much null and void. I will finish by saying that I may have been unintentionally ahead of the curve in 2017 when I compiled the first Fantasy Festival series: In summer 2019, the BBC constantly referred to it's own curated (I don't curate: I compile) series of 'Fantasy Festivals' on BBC Sounds, scheduled to coincide with the weekends that they would usually be broadcasting live from Glastonbury and Reading & Leeds festivals. I don't claim copyright on the phrase, but their use of it did amuse me. 

Friday, 9 October 2020

Lady Gaga - Million Reasons (Live At Royal Variety Performance)

Because Lady Gaga released her most recent album, Chromatica, during lockdown, she hasn't really begun to promote it as yet. What live performances there have been have taken place over video conferencing software from home. As such, I'm turning to performances from the Joanne era as they seem more apt. This Royal Variety Performance was a surprisingly demure one by Gaga, but it's a powerful one in which she is possibly channelling her inner Bassey. In direct contrast to, there's a live film of the Dive Bar tour she did to promote 2016's Joanne album, which you can watch here.

Kelsea Ballerini - Homecoming Queen (Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park 2019)

I haven't been able to find a full live set by Kelsea on YouTube, so here she is performing 'Miss Me More' with Halsey at CMT Crossroads earlier this year. It is well worth watching.