Tuesday, December 27, 2011

800 Words: 35 Favorite "Cultural Stuffs" in 2011: #23

23. Imogen Heap/Regina Spektor

I was discussing Mozart operas with the McBee last night over drinks (as I’m wont to do when I have too much alcohol), and the McBee made an argument which I can’t totally refute. How can people who aren’t familiar with opera’s aesthetic not be put off by the literary silliness of it? Even a piece as great as Don Giovanni (which certainly has one of the better librettos) has a libretto (script) that can be charitably described as ’dumb.’
My only argument against this is that much of the pop music we love would be considered just as absurd if not more if we weren’t raised on its aesthetic. Unless you’re a talent on the level of Bob Dylan/Leonard Cohen/Neil Young etc., your lyrics are no less dumb than anything in opera. And musically, rock’s aesthetic is so simple and predictable that in two centuries, it shouldn’t surprise any historian if people look at the Stones or even The Beatles with all the same incomprehension to which so many in my generation give even the greatest operas.
It shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone who loves either Imogen Heap or Regina Spektor that they both grew up with the intention of being classical pianists. They are both top of the class exemplars of pop-rock’s latest (post-Bjork) generation: which bring a far heavier dose of classical music sophistication to pop music.
Imogen Heap won’t win any awards for lyrics in the next millennium, and her partnership with Guy Sigsworth in Frou Frou is nowhere near as good as her solo work, and even her last album was a bit of a letdown. Even so, Imogen Heap’s music has the clear elegance of a rare musical mind. Experiencing what Heap can do with music is a bit like a meeting with an encyclopedia. Her music should be used by less imaginative musicians as a manual of how to elicit sounds that would otherwise never occur to them. At her best, her albums strike a very rare balance: an attentive listener should be dazzled at the sheer virtuosity of how the music is put together, yet the technique rarely feels like overkill. In its own way and its own degree, the effect of her music is Mozartean.
For a lot of music lovers, Imogen Heap draws much more attention for how well she’s marketed her music than for the music itself. When she wrote her second album, ‘Speak for Yourself’, she used her website as a blog to update fans about the album’s progress. For her third album “Ellipse”, she used twitter to post updates, and acquired 700,000 followers in the process. Her latest album is being released piecemeal, each song as its own as soon as its completed with an accompanying music video. Four songs have been released so far, and at least two of them recall her best work. My favorite of the new songs is called ‘Propeller Seeds’, which has the fragile delicacy of a glockenspiel solo in The Magic Flute. Delicacy is perhaps the operative word in describing the Imogen Heap sound-world. Heap is an expert purveyor of delicate sounds, and that she does so in a music world where delicacy is often viewed as record sale poison makes her music that much more special.
It’s not saying much to state that Regina Spektor’s lyrics are better than Imogen Heap’s. But to say that Regina Spektor’s music is even better than Imogen Heap’s, while also saying that she’s also a reasonably good lyricist is probably to say that she has a once-in-a-decade talent. I’m not sure I’d go that far: her songs are deceptively simple. The harmonies are always effective, but they rarely go past the four-chord, simple meter pop song paradigms, albeit always arranged beautifully. Whereas Imogen Heap tries to stretch her musical imagination to the breaking point (and sometimes past it), Regina Spektor’s music stays on more familiar ground. She takes less risks, but within her more modest territory, she never stops being stunningly consistent. Spektor might be listed as a member of the genre, ‘anti-folk’, whatever that means...but she’s clearly a musical all-rounder whose vision is larger than any genre.
Whereas Imogen Heap’s music often thrives on sounding disquieting, like the strange music of a moon species, Regina Spektor’s music sounds completely unafraid of human sentiment. There are songs of hers that are almost shockingly self-revealing. To be sure, there are all sorts of oblique literary references, multi-lingual lyrics (she lived in Soviet Moscow until she was nine), odd instrumental flourishes that sound strange on first hearing, but underneath it is music that is more occupied with sounding human than sounding weird.
All sorts of big deals have been made about Spektor’s (rather familiar sounding) childhood, in which she grew up the piano-playing daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, solely interested in classical music. and discovered that she could write songs while on a trip to Israel. But this is partly because most people don’t realize how important it is that musicians can get some kind of proper training (and that people pay more attention to a musician when the musician is hot..). A kid classically trained as a musician can become a great ‘pop’ musician in adulthood, but it’s pretty much impossible to go the other way. In fact, perhaps this remnant of her classical background is her most impressive quality (and what makes her a featured performer in my dreams for the last year...). Begin to Hope has a classical musician’s long-range hearing which makes each song feel like just a small part of a cumulative whole that can take in everything from Joanie Mitchell, to Tom Waits, to Schumann, to Mussorgsky yet feel completely personal (call me!:).

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