Reality Killed the Video Star
What does a pop star do when they’re a pop star no more? The shine on Robbie Williams has been getting progressively more dull since the giddy heights of 2000’s Sing When You’re Winning: the intervening
years spent with EMI trying and failing to make him a star in the US, the departure of his long-time ‘songwriting partner’ (or, to put it another way, ‘song writer’) Guy Chambers, and finally the relative commercial misstep that was 2006’s Rudebox. There’s a lot of pressure on Reality Killed the Video Star to re-establish Williams as a contender in the market, so it’s a shame that it’s an enormous disaster of an album.
‘Deceptacon’, thankfully, isn’t a cover of Le Tigre’s magnificent single; instead it’s an awful ballad that still won’t buy its makers a slot on the next Transformers movie soundtrack. ‘Difficult for Weirdos [sic]’, meanwhile, suffers the same problem as recent Duran Duran songs: ex-pop stars still convinced that they know how to speak The Language of the Kids and come off looking like the tipsy uncle trying to be cool (see also the hilarious declaration in ‘Starstruck’: ‘You laugh at us, we’re different/We laugh ’cause you’re all the same.’ Sure thing, grandpa).
The return of Chambers on the awful ‘Blasphemy’ doesn’t stop lines such as ‘The Egyptians built their pyramids/The Romans did what they did’ and ‘What’s so great about the Great Depression?’ turning up, throwing away a lovely string arrangement on what sounds like a third-rate song from a fourth-rate musical. Other lyrical clunkers include ‘In this bag of stuff/I brought to you’ (‘Won’t Do That’), ‘Bring some wine and some Sensodyne’ (‘Do You Mind’) and ‘The village drunk/Sadly passed away/It was a shame/I never knew his name’ in the opening would-be epic ‘Morning Sun’. That said, the music on ‘Last Days of Disco’ goes for retro electro synths a la early Depeche Mode and is a definite highlight.
That, and that alone, is why this review gets a star at all. The whole thing sounds pleasant enough though, thanks to producer Trevor Horn (former frontman of Buggles, whose sole hit is referenced in the album title). He and arranger Anne Dudley do professional work on these generally worthless songs, although it’d have improved things dramatically had they pulled out some of the moves they had as 50 per cent of the Art of Noise. But the (ahem) reality of Robbie Williams 2009 is that what sounded like devil-may-care cheeky-chappy playfulness at the start of the decade reads leaden and moronic today. Maybe it’s time for Williams to make that bridge-building phone call to Gary Barlow.
Andrew P Street. Available in stores.
Glitter and Doom
It begins with a sound akin to a skunk hawking up a furball, features a ballad so moving it will make spines tingle within a two-mile radius and finishes with an entire CD of between-song patter about rats’ teeth and vultures. You don’t get that with Robbie Williams. This is the paradox of Tom Waits. For some he is too weird, too wild, too damn Waits to handle, yet at the same time he is one of the most charismatic and straightforwardly entertaining live artists you’re ever likely to hear.
While his previous live albums have placed music and conversation together in one indistinguishable Waitsian jazz/stand-up comedy soup (ie the beyond-laconic Nighthawks at the Diner), Glitter and Doom has taken the forced-separation route: pick disc one for uninterrupted junkyard blues and bewilderingly tender crooning; choose disc two for trivia and lies dredged from the back pages of The Fortean Times, and delivered sans songs with the impeccable timing of a seasoned professional still in love with the stage and his audience. While the tunes – taken from 10 shows on his 2008 tour – are sometimes spellbinding, particularly the ‘Get Behind the Mule’/’Fannin Street’/’Dirt in the Ground’ triptych and an outstandingly surreal ‘Circus’, it’s the second-disc musings that really add value. Waits hinted at this sort of thing on the spoken-word ‘Bastards’ tracks of his Orphans set, and here it reaches its gloriously illogical conclusion. Step this way for ‘Tom Tales’ about Spam, spiders, lost bags, Oklahoman law and the smell of the moon.
Peter Watts. Available online.
Hunting My Dress
Every now and again, something lovelier than the family kitten will leap into your lap. The UK debut from US émigrée Hoop is just such a surprise. Alluringly warm it may be, but it’s far from fluffy and is utterly incapable of outstaying its welcome. Hoop’s name might be familiar to Elbow fans; Guy Garvey was an early champion of the gifted singer-songwriter and lends his soft-scuffed soul tones to ‘Murder of Birds’.
This gorgeous record will inevitably attract comparisons with Bat for Lashes (for its glittering, pagan sensuality), My Brightest Diamond (for the crystalline operatics) and with Kate Bush (for the burnished beauty of some of its arrangements), but Hoop’s roots are in the folk round-singing tradition rather than in pop, and her spirit and vigour are very much her own.
‘LA is hot as f***,’ she observes on ‘Bed Across the Sea’, which suggests CocoRosie backing Tom Waits in the Australian Outback, and when she sings of ‘The shape of home-baked bread’, you can almost smell it. Devastatingly delicious.
Sharon O’Connell. Available online.