Friday, December 23, 2016

From the US to Korea, by way of Denmark

"I love music in every genre. Seriously, I love Ace Of Base just as much as Bob Dylan. To me it's all the same. The only thing I don't like is music without a point, when you play music just because you can. That's not really interesting."
— Thomas Troelsen, quoted in Sound on Sound

Back in the year 2000, several months later than the hippest of hipsters, I discovered that wondrous collection of tunes, 69 Love Songs, by The Magnetic Fields.  Like so many before and after me I was carried away by the amazing feat pulled off by one Stephin Merritt, of composing and recording three CDs full of songs about love—and actually making it fabulously listenable!    And, in that obsessive way I have of pursuing artists who interest me greatly, I started vacuuming up every bit of Stephin Merritt I could find: The Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, The 6ths, movie soundtracks...and appearances on compilation albums.

Yes, compilation albums.  That's the real starting point of this post, for you see, it is not Stephin (awesome and revered as he is) that I wish to write about today.  No, it is someone else entirely.  Someone from the far off land known as...Denmark.

One of the compilations which I bought, solely for the fact that Stephin Merritt appeared on it not once, not twice, but three times (as himself, with Future Bible Heroes, and with The 6ths—featuring Lloyd Cole, another great favorite of mine) was Reproductions: Songs of the Human League.  I was not a fan of the Human League in the 80s.  I thought of them mainly as the "Don't You Want Me" band, and based upon that song, I didn't.  Oddly enough, I was a fan (and still am) of Heaven 17, but for some reason that never made me think to give the early Human League a try.  More fool me.  Hearing the covers of several early Human League songs on this compilation did make me go back and explore their early albums, and I am glad that I did.  But this still isn't what I want to talk about!

I discovered a few bands through this collection, including Barcelona, Ladytron and Stars.  The band that somehow made the biggest impression on me, though, turned out to be the one that I had the most difficulty tracking down: Superheroes (who covered "The Sound of the Crowd").  Back in the year 2000 I still purchased music mostly in physical record stores, but search as I might I could not find anything by these "Superheroes".  Luckily for me we did, by that time, have this useful thing called the Internet, and I managed to locate a shop in Denmark, Vibrashop (which I think was actually operated by their record label, Crunchy Frog), that I could order Superheroes CDs from.  Order them I did.  Every album and single that was released by this intriguing band made its way to my mailbox.

Superheroes was led by Thomas Troelsen, a versatile singer, keyboardist, songwriter and producer.  I think that it was probably his unusual, reedy voice which first caught my attention, but I soon grew to love his songwriting and production skills.  Superheroes released three albums between 1998 and 2002: Dancing Casanova, Igloo and Superheroes.  Overall, I suppose that the first album is still my favorite, but there are tracks that I love on all three albums.  (And actually, as I review the track lists, the third album really does give the first a run for its money ....)  While not my favorite song by Superheroes (much as I do like it), I think that my favorite video by them is "Ocean Diver":

Now, the same year that Superheroes' last album was released, Thomas Troelsen was also instrumental in one of the very few times that I discovered what ended up being a hit song before it was known.  (I am much more often well behind the curve—see below.)  You see, Vibrashop pointed out to me that he had been producing tracks for a new Crunchy Frog band, Junior Senior, so I ordered their CD as soon as it was available and ended up being one of the first to hear ...

... "Move Your Feet"!  Not only was the song (and, in fact, the whole album D-D-Don't Don't Stop the Beat) produced and engineered by Thomas Troelsen, but he provides some of the memorable vocals (which many listeners believed were sung by a female) on this track.  Junior Senior became great favorites of mine, and I saw them live on more than one occasion (something which, sadly, I was never able to do with Superheroes).

Then I lost track of Troelsen for a few years, until 2007 when I found that he had a new band, Private, with their album My Secret Lover.  This album came as a bit of a surprise to me, though a pleasant one.  I honestly don't know how I would categorize the music of Superheroes, or who I would say it was influenced by, but I would not list primary influences as Prince and Michael Jackson.  Those are, however, two of the influences that I can hear on this album (though by no means would I say that those influences define its sound).  Who influenced the "Crucify My Heart" music video?  That I could not say.

So, Private were great, but nothing more seemed to come of them, besides a remix album the following year.  I once again lost track of Mr. Troelsen.  Then, earlier this year, I started thinking about him again.  I was sure that he couldn't have just stopped being involved in music, so I went searching to find out what he had been up to.  Well, it turns out that he has been writing and/or producing songs for a bunch of different artists, most recently including: Sarah Connor, Justin Bieber, Meghan Trainor, Charlie Puth, and so on.  That doesn't interest me too much.

However, from right around the time of Private, up to just a couple of years ago, it seems that Troelsen was working with S.M. Entertainment artists in that fascinating genre known as K-Pop.  And here is the promised example of me being well behind the curve, for although I had heard of K-Pop before, it was not until Thomas Troelsen led me to it this year that I actually listened to it.

"Love Like Oxygen" (above), "Sherlock" and a bunch of other tracks by SHINee.  Tracks by TVXQ!, BoA, f(x) and Girls' Generation, such as "Run Devil Run":

Several songs for Super Junior, including "Mr. Simple":

And then there was "History", by Exo.

Several of these tracks do, indeed, sound very Thomas Troelsen to me, and this is one of them.  This was the first K-Pop song to get intractably stuck in my head.  And it was also the beginning of my fascination with Exo.  I really don't understand their trousers in this video, or the portion of the choreography which specifically employs the odd feature of said trousers with their hands, but I otherwise find the dancing, and the general look of this video, extremely watchable.  This is the Exo-K version.  There is also an Exo-M version.

Exo-K?  Exo-M?  Turns out, when this group was put together by S.M. Entertainment in 2011 it consisted of 12 members: six members formed Exo-K, who sang in Korean and promoted in Korea, while the other six members formed Exo-M, who sang in Mandarin and promoted in China.  All twelve members appear in the music videos, all of which were shot twice.

That's their very first music video, "Mama" (the Exo-K version).  S.M. clearly had big plans for this group from the get-go, because this 6:13 video is truly epic, starting with a lengthy, animated exposition narrated in English which, along with the music video itself, introduces the mythology of this band of twelve.  Yes, they have their own mythology (and super powers!).  To get the full, cinematic effect, I recommend also watching the Exo-M version.  (Would it be going too far to suggest that this is a bit like whoever your favorite boy band is performing Carmina Burana in the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender with a guest interlude by Orgy?  I don't think so.)

The mythology of Exo continues to pop up in some of their videos to this day, but they have plenty of videos which are less lofty, if no less impressive.  This video, for "Growl", is almost certainly my all-time favorite single-shot, 12-member, synchronized dancing video:

Over the years, Exo has lost three of the members of Exo-M, shrinking the group to a paltry nine members.  They still record all of their songs and videos in both Korean and Mandarin, but all are simply identified as being by Exo (or EXO), now.  Their latest wildly popular music video (88,022,379 views on YouTube as I write this, a little over six months after its release) is "Monster":

That song gets stuck in my head, and I like the dancing, but the rest of the video is both incomprehensible, and rather unpleasant, to me.  I prefer to listen to it on the CD.  For yes, I do not just enjoy these videos, I actually like the music and buy the CDs.  (And not just by Exo.  Got7's mini-album Just Right has been getting a lot of play here lately, for instance.)

The most recent development from the Exoplanet is the "first" official sub-unit, EXO-CBX (what were Exo-K and Exo-M?).  It consists of the Exo members Chen, Baekhyun and Xiumin.  The first single from EXO-CBX is one of the most fun songs and videos I know, "Hey, Mama":

My eternal thanks to Stephin Merritt and Thomas Troelsen for leading me down the path which brought me here.  I think that I was in need of some good pop music, and Korea has done a great job of supplying it.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Surprise invasion of Japanese punk

A strange bit of synchronicity occurred in my life this week, courtesy of Netflix.  I have a two disk at a time plan with them.  (Yes, that's right, I still get actual disks mailed to me by Netflix.  I tried their streaming plan from the time it was introduced as a free add-on until sometime last year, when I decided that I had seen pretty much everything they had to offer that interested me, and that the new things they were adding nearly always failed to appeal to me.)

The first of the two disks that I received this week was Wild Zero (1999).  I have been adding things to my queue for years, at one point reaching about 400 titles.  As I have slowed down in adding—and recently, as Netflix has been deleting—my queue is down to fewer than 200 titles.  Sometimes I add something that I want to watch right away and move it to the top of the queue, but often I receive disks that I added to my queue years ago, which have finally percolated to the top.  Wild Zero was such a film.  I had no recollection of adding it (or, indeed, of ever having heard of it).  My purpose here is not to review the movie, so I will simply say: zombies, flying saucers, a gender confused love story, lots of rock music, Guitar Wolf.

Guitar Wolf is a band, the members of which—Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf and Drum Wolf—star in Wild Zero.  I do not recall that I had ever heard of Guitar Wolf before.  According to Wikipedia, they are "a Japanese garage rock power trio founded in Nagasaki in 1987. The band is known for songs with piercing vocals and an extremely loud style of noise-influenced punk which emphasizes heavy distortion and feedback."  I would say that is a reasonable description.  Not really the kind of music that I generally listen to, and I am not really feeling inclined to rush out and buy their albums (though for what they do, I would say that they do it well).

But the universe, it seems, wanted to make absolutely certain that I noticed them.  For you see, an entire movie starring them was not enough.  Just to make sure that I did not forget them, I was given a much more subtle reminder....

The second disk that I received from Netflix this week was another one that I don't remember adding, but I know that I did not add it at the same time as Wild Zero, because I moved it up in my queue from a much lower position while reviewing my queue a couple of weeks ago.  This was Times Have Been Better (2006, original title Le ciel sur la tête).  Unlike Wild Zero, this film does not noticeably feature music, save for Plastic Bertrand's wonderful "Ça plane pour moi" in an opening scene.  It is a film about a family's reaction to their adult son's coming out (despite the fact that he and his lover are in the forefront of the poster above, the gay son is hardly in the film at all—the film really is about the rest of the family, primarily).

However, there is one scene in which the son is at his childhood home, and he goes into his old bedroom to make a phone call.  He sits down on the bed, and the wall behind him is filled with posters and album covers from his teen idols: Wham!, The Cure, Culture Club, ... Guitar Wolf?  Can't be.  What would Guitar Wolf be doing in such company?  All I can see of the poster when I notice it is "ar Wolf", as the rest is behind the actor, but I have to know.  I rewind and watch the scene frame-by-frame, and sure enough, there are a couple of frames where the entire poster is visible.  It looks much like this:

I am mystified.  I truly do not see how Guitar Wolf fits in with the rest of the bands on the wall.  Therefore, I conclude that the universe is trying to send a message.  I am not getting the message, so I humbly share it with you, that it might hopefully reach the intended recipient.