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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: March 1--April 2, 2010

Tuesday, March 9, 2010:

As one of the world's leading aficionados and practitioners of human folly, I recently spent $2.50 on one of the St. Clair Entertainment Group's "Essentials" compilations entitled The Best of the 80's Decade, which was released in 2004. Far from being another predictable regurgitation of '80s-for-dummies standards like "Too Shy" and "99 Luftballoons" that everyone already owns on four compilations apiece, this one runs so counter to all expectations both of content and quality that it piqued my curiosity. 

First off, the title itself does a pretty good job of illustrating the caliber of the package. Even discounting the misplaced apostrophe in "80's," it's pretty wonderful that they added the word "decade" to clarify that this CD does not contain unusually memorable murmurings of octogenarians. But that's still not what makes this disc such a monumental rip-off that it begs to be analyzed in scrupulous detail.

The reason we're discussing it here, and the reason I picked it up in the first place, is the tiny disclaimer on the back of the digipak: "New stereo recordings by the original artists except selections marked (*) are live recordings." So the versions of the songs contained herein are not the versions made famous on the airwaves 20 to 30 years ago. They're... different. And yet, rather than simply assembling a cheapo house band to record soundalike covers as Madacy Entertainment does in an effort to hoodwink unsuspecting record buyers, St. Clair bothered to hire the songs' original artists to submit new tracks... in an effort to hoodwink unsuspecting record buyers.

It's a counterintuitive capital expenditure, to be sure--particularly since, although I have never contacted a record label to get a quote on licensing a popular old single, there are plenty of '80s chestnuts that are ubiquitous enough to suggest that their use isn't cost prohibitive. For example, the familiar studio version of the Vapors' "Turning Japanese" has appeared in compilation series ranging from Rhino's typically elaborate Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the '80s to Priority Records' spartan Rock of the 80's. I grant that you might not be able to afford the rights to, say, "Hungry Like the Wolf," but if you're a label like St. Clair who has (apparently) made a successful business of repackaging proper studio recordings of artists like Van Morrison and Bob Marley, surely you have the budget to at least assemble a facelessly serviceable collection of second- or third-tier singles like "Der Kommissar" or "Tell It to My Heart" in their comparatively desirable, original incarnations.

It's just a very weird gambit, not as consumer-screwingly cheap as it could stand to be, but simultaneously not the slightest bit respectable. The whole compilation is so crappy and odd that it actually provides a bit of insight into the represented artists themselves, though it's up to interpretation whether their presence indicates a desire for quick cash, a particularly sad bid for relevance and rediscovery, or an easygoing willingness to play along with anyone who wants to release their music. So let's go track by track:

1. Irene Cara: "Flashdance (What a Feeling)" Ms. Cara, of D.C. Cab fame, is given the lead-off spot on this disc because she audibly entered the studio with the intent of creating a fairly precise facsimile of her original single. Even 20 years after the song's initial release, her voice is in fine fettle, and the new arrangement is faithful to the old one right down to the beats per minute. Though the purpose of The Best of the 80's Decade is obviously to fool the listener, Cara seems to gamely have tried to deliver a recording as close to what the listener thinks she's getting as possible, and I don't think most casual observers would notice the subtle differences in synth tone and the like. Sadly, her respect for the audience ultimately serves as misdirection, because the big switcheroo is about to become evident...

2. Berlin: "Take My Breath Away" (Remix) ...And here's where the naive buyer will realize she was cheated. Rather than being welcomed by the iconic, swollen synth bass that you're envisioning, this wholly new recording (not actually a remix) opens with that figure timidly pecked out on a piano, and it's quickly joined by a muffled beat and breathy backing vocals straight out of Enigma's atrocious "Return to Innocence." A little later, the band attempts to scuff things up a bit with trip-hop keyboards and distorted drums--and it's enough to make me think a full-on Portishead retooling would have been somewhat interesting--but it doesn't come close to penetrating the wax atop the adult contemporary cheese here. (Incidentally, the defining moment of this entire sorry CD occurs at 2:02 here, where the engineer evidently bumped the master gain knob by accident, because the song suddenly and inexplicably gets a lot louder than the first half was. Quality control!)

3. Bret Michaels & Friends: "Every Rose Has It's Thorn" [sic] (Acoustic) This collection does not contain any specific credits for the recordings, so it's impossible to say who these mysterious "friends" backing Bret up might be. Given that the accompaniment consists of a single acoustic guitar, I would wager that the "friends" rubric encompasses exactly one person. I have an inkling of how the discussion of artist billing proceeded, too. Let's say the guitarist's name was Pete Strumhands:

PETE: So what name should we publish this recording under? "Bret Michaels featuring Pete Strumhands"? "Bret Michaels & Pete Strumhands"? "Bret 'n' Pete"?
BRET: It's just going to be "Bret Michaels."
PETE: Well, uh, but doesn't that imply that you alone recorded this song? I mean, I'm the one who actually had to bring some musical skill into the studio, whereas you just distractedly mumbled your vocal track while filling out a bunch of "bill me later" magazine subscription cards under C.C. Deville's name.
BRET: Fine, you prima... vera! Fine. It'll be "Bret Michaels & Friends." You happy?
PETE: Couldn't I get an actual credit? Especially since you're paying me for this session with a check that's postdated to 2013, I feel like I should get some sort of acknowledgment in return.
BRET: Oh, sure, because that's going to make the difference between someone buying this CD and not: whether Paul Dicknose is listed on the sleeve. It's "Bret Michaels & Friends" and you're lucky you're getting that.
PETE: Shouldn't it be "Bret Michaels & Friend," singular, since it's just me?
BRET: [exasperated sighChicks like me, man. Female chicks. I don't need them thinking you and I are, like, doin' it.
PETE: How does that make--
BRET: I do too have friends! Lots of... friends...

At any rate, since Poison's original single was about as edgy as a billiard ball, it really doesn't lose much if you strip out the electric guitar, keyboards, and rhythm section. Obviously it's here only to serve nostalgia needs, since your memory would have to be troublingly faulty to remember "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" as a song of any merit, and it'll serve that purpose just fine. Still, can we all please make a pact to doing a universal find-and-replace on this song, instead swapping in Arab Strap's melodically similar yet completely superior "The Week Never Starts Round Here" any time the Poison track might seem called for in life? I have to think that would extend our planet's lifespan by at least 50 years.

4. Night Ranger: "Sister Christian" (live) If I thought The Best of the 80's Decade's tracklist was consciously assembled to give a broader view of the decade's popular music than most new wave-heavy compilations do--and not just a catch-all for any band willing to contribute, regardless of genre--I might be inclined to give the St. Clair folks a few points for including this slick power ballad. Which isn't to say it necessarily deserves a second life with a 21st-century audience, mind you, but I certainly remember hearing egregiously overinflated arena rockers like this all over the place when I was a kid, and its presence is a nice nod to the fact that '80s radio wasn't all whipping it, becoming blinded with science, and coming on Eileen. An appreciative Japanese audience roots Night Ranger on as they sweatily proffer Elton John-derived verses and hilariously clumsy lyrics like, "Where you goin'? What you looking for?/You know those boys don't want to play no more/With you/It's true." Even so, it's far from unlistenable. The tempo lags and Kelly Keagy's vocal flourishes are predictably silly, but it's crisply recorded in a way that does justice to the anthemic harmonies. I could see myself putting this on a mix for a friend, just to be slightly obnoxious, and yet not feeling like I've totally wasted that space on the CD.

5. Stray Cats: "Stray Cat Strut" I suppose studio chatter has a rarefied use on commercial releases: The "You fucking die!" bit on the Pixies' Surfer Rosa nicely amplifies the album's (and Frank Black's, in particular) half-joking aggression, and the Ramones' mercenary, unsentimental approach to recording is pretty well exemplified in the hysterical intro to "Danger Zone" on Too Tough to Die. However, an interminable two minutes of the Stray Cats uneventfully discussing which song to play, tuning up, and then launching into the song only after a false start basically just ensures that no one will want to listen to this track twice. Big fans of the slinky jazz-pop hit--and I don't count myself among their numbers--will at least be pleased to know that by passing it by, they will only be missing out on a bloodless run-through that sounds like it was recorded onto a ratty, tinny cassette boombox.

6. Bow Wow Wow: "I Want Candy" I'm not sure of Malcolm McLaren's involvement in Bow Wow Wow these days, but the band's submission to The Best of the 80's Decade is so cynically misguided that it's only logical to place the blame with the man who arguably holds more claim to the phrase "cynically misguided" than anyone in the entertainment world save Uwe Boll. Though this isn't noted as a remix (which I suppose makes a backward sort of sense, given that the non-remix "Take My Breath Away" is indicated as such), it does include Annabella Lwin's original husky vocal track from the 1982 single. Nothing else is even close to that source, however; gone are the ricocheting rhythms and the ingratiating surf guitar, and along with them everything you might have liked about the song itself. Instead, it's stupidly rebuilt as a dour, mainstream-industrial track, with monotonous sequencers and glossily heavy guitars that sound about as daring and current as the music from Mortal Kombat. My guess is that this was McLaren-or-whoever's gormless attempt at a zeitgeist grab, but by 2004 this sound was popular only with the producers of CBS procedurals whose more squalid scenes required noisy songs that wouldn't be abrasive enough to prompt the viewer to turn the volume down before the next commercial break. At any rate, its joyless thumpery completely betrays the rollicking good cheer of the '80s version.

7. Todd Rundgren featuring Tony Levin: "Bang on the Drum" I have no idea why this song isn't listed as "Bang the Drum All Day" (its actual name), nor why the name of bassist Tony Levin is listed in a larger font than Rundgren's. The song's overstimulated spirit is here, from Rundgren's staccato yelps to Levin's percolating solo, but the production pushes this thing over the line from being an agreeably goofy pop whirligig to an active nuisance. Given Rundgren's bona fides as a producer both of his own pristine-sounding albums and of others', it wouldn't surprise me to learn that this determinedly chintzy arrangement was a joke; that the awful slap bass and cheesy synth horns are part of a sarcastic exercise in poor taste. Which would be a funny enough idea, but only in an academic way that doesn't require actually listening to the final product. Thanks to those inescapable and insufferable Carnival Cruise Lines commercials that feature John Krasinski smarmily narrating atop the original song, the past few months have met my "Bang the Drum All Day" requirements for the next 40 years, but even if that weren't the case, I would never want to sit through this headache again.

8. Gary Numan: "Cars" (live) I have nothing but affection for "Cars," Numan's ode to the human disconnection and isolation that would thrive in earnest in the '80s, thanks to technology like the home computer, the Walkman, and, of course, the increasingly cocoonlike interiors of automobiles. It may not be as eloquently conceived as something like Kraftwerk's Computer World or as cutting as Devo, but "Cars"' jerky assembly line rhythms and believably automated arrangement make a fine case for both the charm and soullessness of the plastic age. The live arrangement is tight and nearly identical to the single version, though to my mind the song loses some of its passionless fiberglass charm when you remove it from the hermetically sealed studio environment. (Numan himself seems unable to resist investing his vocals with a frankly unwelcome degree of humanity.) I doubt most people would care, though, and it's still the smartest, most genuinely enjoyable song on the album.

9. Night Ranger: "Rock in America (You Can Still)" (live) So if this disc is to be believed, Night Ranger was responsible for a solid 20% of the '80s decade's most resonant and enduring music. Not a bad batting average. I couldn't say for sure that I've ever heard this song before, though. It seems to be from the same Tokyo show as the "Sister Christian" recording above (so no points for guessing whether Night Ranger doubles their list of nations in which rocking remains permissible, to the raucous delight of the crowd, by song's end), but this song plays up macho rock excess over obsequious power balladry, with equally dumb but less memorable results. It's not as expertly mixed as their previous entry either; the keyboardist doesn't have much of a part during the verses--just a couple plinky notes per line--and yet that's the instrument that stands out above the chugging cock-rock guitars, at least until the whole thing devolves into an uproar of technically impressive but musically inutile guitar gymnastics. (The sort of thing that even hard rock ironists like the Electric Six avoid soiling their songs with.)

10. Go West: "The King of Wishful Thinking" (live) And what better way to cap St. Clair Entertainment's discriminating, definitive treasury of '80s essentials than the second-biggest hit from the Pretty Woman soundtrack, which was released in 1990? I remember very much enjoying this song as a 10-year-old, but the state fair live performance captured here is so astonishingly lame that I can't even understand or excuse my previous fondness by pointing to a stunted prepubescent sense of music appreciation that also led me to purchase cassingles by Another Bad Creation and Tony! Toni! Tone! (Did the Pretty Woman arrangement have that godawful pan flute-style synth I'm hearing?) Peter Cox's vocal range seems to have slipped a few notes in recent years, so a female vocalist is brought in to double his part on the chorus, but neither singer seems to want to bear the load of the song's hook, so they sort of hesitantly coo their way through. Cox did get a couple good laughs out of me, though, with the incongruously celebratory way he grunts lines like "You made a hole in my heart!" but overall, this is an appropriately embarrassing end to an embarrassing collection.

Finally, I should also note that the scant liner notes include an unhelpful rundown of the decade's prevailing trends before presenting a random list of "some of the most popular groups and recording artists to come from the Eighties" that strangely includes Tina Turner and ZZ Top(!) alongside such influential megastars as T'Pau and Sheena Easton. (It also lists both George Michael and Wham!)

So what are we to make of this CD? I haven't a clue. There's obviously no shortage of cut-rate music product out there that attempts to turn a conservative profit via the resale of songs whose popularity has long since settled to an unexciting level of consumer regard that's just on the favorable side of "aloof." But I have never come across a collection whose approach and existence is so baffling to me. The numerous mistakes in the tracklist point to an inexcusably half-assed assembly, but by seeking the approval of the songs' performers rather than their (presumably less emotionally invested) labels, surely someone at St. Clair was interested in releasing a quality product, right? In fact, since '80s pop has got to be the most frequently anthologized subgenre since the invention of compact discs, it almost seems like the "new recordings by the original artists" concept could have been a means of differentiating this collection from the dozens of interchangeable, K-tel-style compilations available. But if it were intended as a selling point, you wouldn't bury it in 6-point font toward the bottom of the CD case. Nothing about The Best of the 80's Decade makes the slightest bit of sense.

So congratulations, St. Clair: Whatever contradictory cocktail of cynicism, incompetence, desperation, innovation, and/or apathy you were gulping when you put this package together, I cannot begin to fathom the recipe. The Best of the 80's Decade is nothing if not unique in the world of bargain-basement pop cannibalism, and I'm happy I purchased it instead of using that $2.50 on half a Frappucino.

CURRENT MUSIC: The In the Fishtank EP by Sparklehorse and Fennesz.
CURRENT MOOD:
Continuing to feel broken by Mark Linkous's suicide. And not in the lovely way that his music always makes me feel broken. Listening to Sparklehorse feels like watching time-lapse photography of a neglected church collapsing and eventually sprouting new, green life. It's a slow, serendipitous ballet of decomposition and entropy that, if you stare at it long enough, is revealed to contain all the gloriously futile secrets of life. Hearing that Mark couldn't find enough of that beauty in his own life to want to keep living it, conversely, feels like being blasted by an underwater mine; an explosion of violent hollowness. It sucks.
CURRENT FAVORITE OBSERVATION:
From Jess, re: a publicity still of a teenage Nicole Kidman starring in BMX Bandits: "Nicole Kidman was a hideous teen! Gah! I bet she smelled like kool-aid and b.o."
TIME:
5:28 p.m.

Doot?

Monday, March 1, 2010:

Some of my friends named Amanda question why Bev and I devote so much time to watching Sandra Lee's "put blindly selected ingredients in a pile and call it a recipe" cooking shows. I've tried to explain all about the baby food muffins, the Hannukah hams, the fever dream that is the "Sunset Clambake" episode, the manic fugue state our host enters whenever she detects one part per million of alcohol in the surrounding air... And still the entertainment value seems to elude them.

Well, this oughta convince the doubters. For her daily Cocktail Time, Sandra made a concoction of lemonade, heavy cream, and vodka, and then took a generous gulp in anticipation of something delicious. Her face tells a different story, as you can see in this frame-by-frame video Bev and I assembled.

(This is the second take of the video. Bev's laughter shook the camera so hard during the first one that the result reached Cloverfield levels of nauseousness.)

TIME: 8:42 a.m.

Doot?

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