Friday, June 11, 2010

Making a Pretty Girl Ugly: Three New Releases

A pretty girl is like a melody
That haunts you night and day,
Just like the strain of a haunting refrain,
She'll start up-on a marathon
And run around your brain.
You can't escape she's in your memory.
By morning night and noon.
She will leave you and then come back again,
A pretty girl is just like a pretty tune.
--Irving Berlin
Has anyone described the nature and effect of a good tune better than Irving Berlin? His comparison is so perfect that you can chart our culture's opinion of both pretty girls and pretty melodies along the same trajectory. Today, both are loved -- but not too much. They are celebrated and scorned, often by the same people. In the case of a pretty girl, she can grace the cover of Vogue, with all her flaws airbrushed away, and then the cover of In Touch, with the most minor imperfection emphasized by a damning red circle. In the case of melody, pop divas exalt it, while experimental bands deny its very existence.

The relationship between popular music and Irving Berlin's pretty girl has been, well, complicated. The songwriters of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building judged the quality of their output by one criterion: marketability, i.e., tunefulness. Like prospective Hooters waitresses, ugly melodies needn't apply. The Beatles were a transition. Through innovative instrumentation, complex structure, and the beginnings of modern experimentation, they aimed at making the pretty girl smart, too. By the seventies and eighties, only hacks embraced melody without subverting it in some way. (But this was the case only at the time. Artists who, in the past, were seen as awful by critics of the day are now celebrated by the current elite. See: ABBA.) Today we've reached an unstable equilibrium. Kelly Clarkson can be openly loved by critics, but not as much as Animal Collective. Yet, even the Animal Collectives of the world often get their highest praise when they allow tunefulness to rise above their attempt at subverting it. (See: Merriweather Post Pavilion.)

As the line of demarcation between pop artist and critical darling has blurred, so has their output. Both seem uncomfortable in the other's clothes, but the "serious" artists seem more so. Three new debut albums exemplify this tension between embracing pop melodies and retaining indie authenticity: Male Bonding's Nothing Hurts, Sleigh Bells' Treats, and Ariel Pink's Haunted Grafitti's Before Today. All three are the aural equivalent of a nerd awkwardly wearing Juicy Couture. Or is it a jock posing in ironic thrift store attire?

Male Bonding is the most upfront with its melodies, insomuch as they're only buried in the mud of the album's mix and the low-fidelity of its production. The band's attempt at authenticity is tempered by the fact that its songs are bound to sound better (even great) live. I suspect by its third album, after having established proper indie credibility, Male Bonding will release a sparkling "breakthrough" record. Nothing Hurts shows how murky production can turn great material into a merely "good" album.

On Treats, Sleigh Bells take the immediacy of a simple dance-pop melody and turn up the volume to the point of near cacophony. The best description I've heard of the album was from an Onion AV Club critic. Before he heard Treats, he thought it would be something he could play at a picnic (given the glowing reviews that called the record "fun"). After hearing it, he imagined even the most musically savvy picnickers would demand to know what the hell they were listening to, as they rushed to turn off the stereo. Treats inserts its lovely melodies into your ear like a ice pick. (The gorgeous "Rill Rill" being the exception that proves the rule.)

Ariel Pink is a true oddball. He absorbs the best (or, some might say, worst) tendencies of eighties soft rock, and regurgitates them into his fractured pop gems. Throughout Before Today, Pink sends great melodies through a weirdo prism -- be it by randomly singing with a strange affect, or coupling pretty tunes with Zappa-esque bizarro lyrics (See: "Butt-House Blondies" and "Menopause Man"), or the various other tics that pop up all over the record. "Round and Round," one of the best songs I've heard this year, most deftly balances Pink's need to glorify and subvert a melody, often in the same breath. The song slyly slinks about before giving up a chorus so good that it's like a block of Velveeta liquefying in the microwave of your heart. Here, his restraint, his affinity to give us just so much of a good thing, pays great dividends.

As successful as Ariel Pink is, he can be as frustrating as Male Bonding and Sleigh Bells. All three clearly have the talent to give us great melodies, straight up. Instead, they often allow "authenticity" to mar tunefulness. Like a pretty melody, with a gigantic pimple on her nose.