One Random Single a Day #110: “Darkness” (1997) by Dance Test Dummies

I have no idea what I’m listening to right now, so I’m just going to keep it short. I don’t know very much about all the different forms of dance music there are out there (believe me, I’ve tried!), but I do have a pretty good idea of what sounds I tend to gravitate toward. In general, I enjoy the disco minimalism of house music, as well as the soft, melodic tendencies of trance. What I often veer away from, however, are the harsher sounds of hardcore techno and electronic dance music – while repetition isn’t an immediate turn-off for me in music, it’s often a bit tougher for me to really get into the intense, stabby vibes of much of this type of music. Not to say that it’s bad at all; it’s probably just not for me!

I’ve found out very little about Dance Test Dummies, other than the fact that they hail from Barcelona. They are also members of a very specific subgenre known as Makina, a distinctly Spanish component of the hardcore techno scene as a whole. Like hardcore, it contains elements of influence from EBM and industrial music, including faster tempos, intense atmosphere, and aggressive kicks in its saturated, bass-driven sound. I don’t exactly know how exactly it differs from hardcore, other than the fact that it’s specifically of Spanish origin, which might be an interesting note to consider if only I knew what exactly this entailed.

So, while “Darkness” begins with some intense, jagged handclaps, it only gets even more aggressive from there. Some stuttering vocal samples come into play, before the bass fully kicks in and sets the track into high gear. Later on, some high-octane synth sounds find their way into the mix, adding just another dose of euphoric energy to the mix. I’m not sure if I enjoy this, exactly, but it sure does make me move. I could imagine that this would sound even better when projected into its club atmosphere, which it’s so obviously made for.

As I mentioned earlier, though, this much aggression packed in a record that is supposed to make me dance is a little much for me. I’m really not in the position to dictate whether this is “good” Makina or not – it honestly just sounds like the stereotypical repetitive EDM that I’ve gotten hints of throughout the years. In any case, I’m sure it’s target audience could find some fun in this track that I honestly can’t really pinpoint, no matter how hard I strain my listening mind.

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One Random Single a Day #109: “Edge of a Dream” (1984) by Joe Cocker

While writing these music reviews, I’ve found that the hardest part of this task is not writing reviews of music I like or love, or even writing on music I dislike or hate. It’s definitely the music on which I have no strong feelings one way or another. I’ve been making my way through listening to the US releases of Now That’s What I Call Music! compilations. My most recent listen-through was on Now 42 – take a look at this tracklist. This is the blandest set of songs on this journey that I’ve come across so far. It’s just a vapid abyss of EDM and electro-pop nonsense, some faceless pop tracks, an uninteresting indie smash hit, a couple truly bland country tracks, and the mandatory bonus material, which are all just forgettable. These are all general buzzwords that definitely describe this particular compilation – yet they never quite seem to fully encapsulate the genuine sense of nothingness I felt while listening through this compilation. It’s just… nothing.

Now, while Joe Cocker’s music is a far cry from any of these dull gems in contemporary pop music, I think it’s fitting that I begin this review with this mention. Although Joe Cocker first came into popularity through his unique gritty voice and idiosyncratic covers and original tracks, his major break into the soft rock mainstream came in 1975 with his #5 single “You Are So Beautiful”. This appeal was pushed even further when, in 1982, his duet with Jennifer Warnes’ “Up Where We Belong”, helped by its inclusion to the popular An Officer and a Gentleman soundtrack, made it all the way up the top of the pop charts. Now, while I hate An Officer and a Gentleman with a fiery passion, the song is a bit better. Not that it’s a good song – in fact, if anything, it’s yet another example of the dull adult contemporary wave that took over the 80s and would continue throughout the following decade. But as limp as it is, at least the swell of the chorus is somewhat memorable enough to give at least a hint of why some people would find this a very meaningful recording in the first place.

But now we’ve got “Edge of a Dream”, another soundtrack song from Cocker, by himself this time. Although no one remembers Teachers – I’ve never even heard of Teachers before researching this song! Of course, this song went nowhere and it’s actually not too hard to see why. The production sounds like it could have been copy-pasted from any other R&B/pop-rock song of the 80s. It begins with a lone piano, becomes more and more intense with each verse, and then quiets down right before the climactic push of the final chorus – how original! The lyrics are generic as they come (“The closer it gets the further it seems / It’s always one step out of reach / On the edge of a dream”). Cocker has also definitely sounded better – his raspy voice is one of his most dominant qualities, but here he sounds almost like a tired parody of himself. It’s actually a bit depressing to listen to.

But despite all this, I’m not too certain is this song is really “bad”, per se. Unlike other bad songs, I don’t feel a profound sense of dread while listening. I just feel nothing. This sounds exactly like it was processed and pushed out in a short amount of time to make the deadline for the soundtrack’s release. I’m certain that they were going for an “arena ballad” thing here, but if this song were played during a concert, I’d probably find myself just falling asleep instead of singing along. I wish I had more things to say about this one – either positive or negative – but… well, I’ll just leave it at this.

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One Random Single a Day #108: “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” (1950) by Vic Damone

Yet another single where no image of the record sleeve, album art, or record itself are satisfying (or even exist online), so I must default to an image of the artist himself. It’s not worth much fuss, though. Vic Damone is an Italian-American traditional pop singer who released his debut single “I Have But One Heart” in 1947 to immense popularity. Soon enough, he wooed the pop ballad circuit enough to gain a number-one hit with his record “You’re Breaking My Heart”. While clearly indebted to Frank Sinatra for his smooth, delicate baritone vocals, the distinct cleanliness of his sound was definitely all his own. Although slow, sensitive love songs made up the majority of his early hits, he also made some big splashes as a performer during the heightened popularity of the big band era in the 1950s. It was also pretty cool to learn that he is still alive today, having battled a stroke and other health issues to live the up to his late eighties! Now, that’s pretty admirable.

Upon first listen, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” just sounded like a whole bunch of big band nonsense. When I researched a little further, however, I came to find out that this is actually a cover of a Hebrew song, originally written in 1941 by Polish emigrant Issachar Miron. While the original was quite a hit in Palestine, the folk group The Weavers recorded their own English-language arrangement, which went to #2 in the US in 1946. Damone recorded his own cover of the Weavers’ single – and here we are now! I listened to The Weavers’ version and Damone’s cover side-by-side and they are pretty much identical, save for the multi-layered vocals and slightly folkier rhythm. Damone’s version does contain some faceless female backup singers, but the arrangement itself is straight big band, no more and no less.

Even upon multiple listens, though, this song still is kind of nonsense. It’s fun and upbeat enough for an occasional listen, but I would not recommend listening to it multiple times in a row like I have. As Damone vibrantly advertises the exciting international party within the city square, the recording itself just runs out of steam rather quickly. About a minute into the track, one is already tired of the constant repetitions of “tzena, tzena, tzena” – much like one complains about “today’s music” being awfully repetitive and vapid. What’s more is that the song simply goes on for far, far too long – three minutes is a pretty lengthy time for a big band era song already, but even more when the bulk of it is just a constant repetition of the verses. It just folds upon each other needlessly, all the way until the penultimate key change, where everything is just overblown to the point of exhaustion.

I’m sure there are a ton of other big band & swing songs that are worse than this one, but the consistently uncreative repeat of itself is enough to sign me off this one for the rest of my life. It’s the kind of song that gets stuck in your head, but certainly not for all the right reasons. Damone even sounds pretty good, but his vocal delivery is just so engulfed in the overblown swing production and all-too-loud backup singers. It’s clear that the slower, softer ballads are more of his forte; if I ever feel the need to listen to another Vic Damone single again, I’ll be sure to make it one of those and stay away from “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” as much as possible.

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One Random Single a Day #107: “Día Negro” (1997) by La Barranca

I’m definitely falling way behind on this project… but I’ll keep persisting! I’ve been so caught up in the world of pop music lately, mainly with all the new stuff from this year, but also with rediscovering various pop hits since the turn of the 21st century. Among all the various hits and misses, one thing is for certain: rock music has practically become extinct in the Hot 100. I can’t even remember the last bonafide hit by a genuine rock band that wasn’t poppy nor folky. Was it Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” from 2008?? Maybe The Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather” if we’re being generous – but that was still 2013! It’s gotten to the point where rock music is something one has to actively search for outside of the mainstream charts. Although I enjoy a lot of modern pop music (and generally always will), I always feel a little special tingle whenever I hear an unfiltered electric guitar or drums (not a drum machine) in whatever song I come across.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the band and especially the song for today totally rocks. La Barranca are a rock band who formed in Mexico City in 1994 and have remained relatively active ever since. Their style ranges from traditional rock, to blues-rock, to fusion jam stylings, and all forms of their sound retain a bit of their traditional Mexcian folk influence to some degree. “Día Negro” comes from their 1997 EP of the same name, which has become an integral part of the band’s history, its popularity giving La Barranca its first taste of international appeal. Likewise, “Día Negro” remains one of the group’s most popular tracks.

From right off the bat, this single is hard-hitting, with dark chords coloring its intense midtempo pacing and smoky production. I even sense a fair share of influence from grunge’s surge in popularity in the 90s – although the cleaner sound of this particular recording may even hint at an early example of the post-grunge sound. The lead singer’s voice is pretty incredible, immediately foreshadowing a rich atmosphere of darkness and dread, even if listeners aren’t fluent in Spanish. “Día Negro”, of course, translates to “black day” or “day of darkness”, and while the lyrics are explicitly vague and non-specific, it’s clear that this isn’t a happy tune. This is already very present in the song’s bluesy chords and ghostly atmosphere, but the lyrics amplify this pervading sense of conflict by presenting themselves in apprehension of an unspeakable force that steals one’s identity, voice, and everything they own until there is nothing but blackness.

Surely, this must be a deeply political song with subtexts that simply go over my head at this point in time. But it’s certainly relevant to the world in which we are living now. You get that vibe even before really listening to the lyrics – the call-and-response style chorus simply sounds like a riot and the guitar solo, while incredible, just makes it even more clear that this speaker isn’t taking any shit any longer. It’s a perfectly paced rock song, clocking in at a little over five minutes, but never overstaying its welcome for a single second. I’d recommend this to anyone who is looking for a genuinely tasty rock single, when such music seems few and far between these days.

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One Random Single a Day #106: “Hablemos de amor” (1978) by Leonardo Favio

Today seems to be all about the foreign language fare! Before this, I’ve written about two foreign language recordings from two separate European countries – “Kansi kiinni ja kuulemiin” and “Ik zie de zon”. And now here comes a third… although this performer hails from an entirely different continent. Leonardo Favio was one of the most successful Argentine performers of the 1960s and 70s. He is probably best known for his intense romantic ballads like “Fuiste mía un verano”, “Ella… ella ya me olvidó”, and “O quizás simplemente le regale una rosa”, which all nail him down as a perfect symbol of the “latin lover” image. Before I even fully understood the lyrics to “Fuiste mía un verano” (Spanish for “You were mine one summer”), I could really pinpoint the shades of raw, emotional heartbreak found in the contours of his voice. Once I did translate the lyrics, I was even more convinced – that song is practically cinematic in its dramatic interpretation of lost love amidst a swelling emotional pull. The other two songs are no different: this man is quite a crooner, in every sense of the word.

So I was a little shaken up when, after listening to those three tracks, I gave a listen to the song for today, “Hablemos de amor”. Here, Favio trades in the romantic ballads for something a bit more poppier, the swelling guitar and strings replaced with more staccato flutes and horns. And even though he still performs a rather decent vocal delivery here, it’s less of the operatic intensity of his most famous songs and more fluttery and playful. His frequent utterances of “Uh-huh, mm-hmm” and “La-la, la-la” throughout the song should immediately give the impression that the subject matter here is something of a more light-hearted nature than previously found in his earlier work.

Much like “Fuiste mía un verano”, there is a story to this song, although while the former was a reminiscence on painful heartbreak, this one falls on the exact opposite side of the spectrum. Here, Favio plays a tourist in Mexico (presumably Mexico City) who, over the course of the song, falls in love with the beautiful tour guides showing him the various sites and landmarks of the area. Amidst a narrative that sprinkles in references to Diego Rivera and Teotihuacan, Favio’s character muses on the ways that he can transition the talk from more formal, historical conversation to something a bit more casual and enticing. In the end, he settles on just kissing her to end the conversation fully. While I’m not entirely a fan of this concept (just let the poor woman do her damn job!), I think Favio plays off the idea rather charmingly and even humorously.

While it is a bit of a risk for a performer to take a complete 180 in the type of material they take on, I think Favio succeeds with his attempts here. The song is so damn breezy, light-hearted, and immediately catchy, it’s hard keep from dancing from the very first listen. Moreover, Favio’s vocal performance is actually quite good throughout this one, offering a smooth balance between his traditional crooner style and a more lighter, talk-singing style, neither of which are particularly grating or jarring. The production is tinged with a wonderful summertime feel, and while the subject matter may not be the most morally conscious, at least it sounds like a good time, through and through. Against my better judgment, I actually like this song quite a bit – at least its offerings are somewhat less stale than Favio’s other somewhat stuffy ballads. It’s good, clean fun – what more could you ask for?

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