One Random Single a Day #112: “Wild World” (1993) by Mr. Big

I only really know the American band Mr. Big for one achievement – that being their 1992 chart-topping single “To Be With You”, which would prove to be one of the final hurrahs of the hair metal era. A supergroup formed from members of various bands assembled with help from Shrapnel Records, their second album Lean Into It proved to be a commercial breakthrough for the group. It’s especially remarkable that their two most popular singles at the time, “To Be With You” and “Just Take My Heart” (which reached #16), were distinctly hair metal ballads deep in an era where hair metal was out and grunge was in. For what it’s worth, “To Be With You” wasn’t anything special in its day, and it certainly isn’t much now. Its flimsy premise and ham-fisted lyrics are held together only by a powerful, singalong chorus with a melody line that, admittedly, isn’t too bad. It certainly is a relic of its time – though perhaps maybe a few years too late.

“To Be With You” is Mr. Big’s sole achievement in the world of popular music, and after a few quick listens to some of their other material, it’s clear to see why. Where sparse, shouty ballads would’ve sounded welcoming and refreshing in the 80s, their own material just sounds like every tired power ballad cliché in the book. It’s not totally awful – just painfully boring. Nonetheless, they achieved a string of hits in their time, one of which being a cover of one of Cat Stevens’ most revered songs, “Wild World”. I’ve never been a huge fan of the loose banality of the original, but at least Stevens’s unique vocal delivery brings something at least a little worthwhile to the table.

Much like “To Be With You” is only listenable for that anthemic chorus, “Wild World” is also only held up by the delicate melodies in the verses and chorus, courtesy of Stevens himself. By lieu of this being a cover song of a fairly well-known song, the familiarity factor gives this song an added push for finding an audience, since many might find themselves singing along with only the first listen. Nonetheless, as far as cover songs are concerned, this is one of the dull ones. Cover songs are generally not at all worth recording if the performer doesn’t add some interesting stylistic effects that would have listeners opting for this one over the original, even if only occasionally. Mr. Big’s version of “Wild World”, however, is practically identical to the original, making it practically useful for nothing but to fill up space on an album. There’s nothing in this that makes me want to listen to any more Mr. Big – and certainly nothing that would help me to remember this cover’s existence in the first place.

As I mentioned at the start, I’m not particularly fond of the condescension of the lyrics to “Wild World”, but at least the delicate delivery and decent guitar backdrop prevents me from immediately changing the dial right away. Here, the lyrics remain just as eye-rollingly trite, but with even duller and drabber production. The lead singer here is just so uninteresting, and the rest of the band are simply phoning in through the entirety of the record. At least there’s some semblance of energy present in “To Be With You” – here, it’s completely zapped out. I guess if you have any hankering to give a listen to “Wild World” (but really, why would you?), you should always opt for the Cat Stevens original to play it safe.

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One Random Single a Day #111: “Odyssey Europa” (2009) by Kirlian Camera

Although I am trying as quickly as I can to get through my backlog of reviews that I’ve been putting off for some time, I had to pay a particular amount of attention to this one – though, more for the band itself than for the specific song in question today. I guess I should introduce the artist itself first. Kirlian Camera are an Italian rock band that have been active since around 1979. They have undergone various lineup changes through the years, although the core of their creativity has remained with founder Angelo Bergamini through the group’s entire run. They have recorded and released a number of records, all while staying pretty much fixed in the underground goth electronic darkwave scene. They are described on their Wikipedia page as a “pioneering act of the Italian synthpop scene” and have remained pretty active to this day.

Now, this particular band is probably the most controversial group I’ve covered in this challenge so far. I’ve quickly found out that Kirlian Camera have been guilty of portraying some pretty seedy fascist elements in their music. Namely, they sampled a portion of a speech by nationalist Corneliu Codreanu in one of their songs, along with accusations of performing with Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia as a backdrop and even incorporating the Hitlergruß during concerts onstage. In 1999, they were cited by Alfred Schobert in Der Speigel as an example of a “neo-fascist element” that resided in gothic subcultures, along with contemporaries like Death in June and Sol Invictus.

As I mentioned in another review, I went through a bit of a goth phase in high school, though much of this was due to my particular penchant for dark dreary music to match the freshness of my teenage angst. Nowadays, while revisiting much of this music (along with newer stuff), I’ve become a little more skeptical about the connotations that may come along with the gothic subculture, though they usually are implicit and unintentional. It certainly does seem likely that the subculture would seem inviting to neo-Nazis. I read a great article on this particular topic, which notes that the gothic scene shares with nationalism “elements of esotericism, occultism and neo-paganism”, such elements often “exploited for the purposes of far-right propaganda”. It’s entirely true that members of the scene have appropriated Nazi symbols and clothing into their style; although it’s mostly out of pure ignorance, the door these actions opens up to legitimate white supremacists is a very real consequence. I’ve always saw the goth subculture as being more involved in a nihilistic worldview than anything else, but I can easily see how others could skew this ideology into one of cold nationalism and pure, hard fascism.

With that said, I am not accusing members of Kirlian Camera of being white supremacists. Despite accusations made against them, they have outright denounced the suggestion of far-right contexts in their music and have noted themselves as being totally apolitical (which doesn’t exactly fix the dilemma, but I’ll save that for another soapbox…). I listened to a few of their songs, and they all seem relatively fixed in the dreary, melancholy vibe implicit in darkwave. “Odyssey Europa” is particularly boring, with staticky production, predictable synths, and boring lyrics that add nothing new to the subculture that hasn’t already been covered hundreds of times. Given that English is probably not the lead vocalist’s first language, it’s hard to belief that she finds much meaning in incredibly vague lyrics like, “I’m lost to words, lost to everything” and “my identity will be cancelled”. Running under three minutes long, it doesn’t even feel like it’s worthy of a single release – it’s such an obvious example of filler material, it’s actually quite embarrassing.

I actually wish I was covering their much more interesting earlier single “Blue Room”, certainly exemplary of much of the best parts of 80s darkwave. Nevertheless, as I listened through a number of their other songs, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that listeners of the far-right would find some appealing nature in the dark, cold nature of their synth-laden music that lies cleanly across their entire discography. It’s almost as if those buzzing keyboards carry a weight of nationalistic diction of their own – though it’s certainly not the band’s own doing, the connotation is nonetheless present. The real problem comes into play when one’s music, whether or not it contains explicit white supremacist ideologies, is nonetheless welcoming to a large number of fans who adhere to fascist beliefs. In such cases, remaining apolitical isn’t an option – or at least it shouldn’t be. Even though “Odyssey Europa” isn’t necessarily an example of such, the goth subculture nonetheless has a Nazi problem, and one of the best ways to fight back is to make music that revokes the invitation of their presence.

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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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