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OMD’s “If You Leave” Can’t Get Out Of Here Soon Enough

This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)

THE SONG: OMD, “If You Leave.”
THE YEAR: 1986.
THE REASON: Hysterical at every level.

Like John the Baptist but cleaner and maybe funnier, polymath John Hughes prepared preteens buying Mr. Mister and Starship records for the Good News of college rock, to which older siblings had already been exposed. The soundtrack to The Breakfast Club produced a Keith “Hot Stuff” Forsey-penned tune called “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” that Bryan Ferry, with his usual exemplary taste, rejected. Everyone knows what happened next: Simple Minds landed their first and last American No. 1 hit and singer Jim Kerry got to out-Bono Bono before Bono did the same thing a couple years later.

As omnipresent and vile as “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” was, its parent album had loads of filler that has remained largely unheard since the days when G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero dominated afterschool TV watching. But the Pretty in Pink soundtrack was real manna. For the first time, the music reflected the tumult in the hearts of the characters instead of being applied like skin grafts. It was conceivable that Molly Ringwald’s Andie would listen to New Order’s “Shellshock” at older pal Iona (Annie Potts)’s recommendation; it’s easy to imagine Andie, desolate at the thought of never being moneyed enough for boring rich dude Blaine (Andrew McCarthy, dazed, as if he were looking to party with Bret Easton Ellis at the prom), filling mix tapes with Suzanne Vega and Smiths songs, the latter aestheticizing her misery, the former beseeching her to accept loserdom (euphemistically called “left of center” here) with a wry grin. She wasn’t alone. To show how left-of-center INXS could be, they misspelled a key word in their white-funk obscurity “Do Wot You Do.” But of course Andie got off better than Duckie (Jon Cryer), a ridiculous creation who codes as gay but gets no Blaine to crush on.

“If You Leave,” an American top five in the spring of ’86, encapsulates the perplexities of one of the most frustrating and overrated teen films ever. Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, the synth-pop duo responsible for intermittent flashes of excellence like “Enola Gay” and two songs devoted to “Joan of Arc,” had made their U.S. breakthrough the previous year with “So in Love,” a breathless electronic ballad baited with a strange gargoyle effect and Andy McCluskey’s mucous-y vocal timbre. I didn’t hear it until years later. All we got in heavy rotation was “If You Leave,” and even then it represented the nadir of synth pop; this song was massive in part because OMD wanted it to sound as huge as Mr. Mister. “If You Leave” starts promisingly: the string section, whether sampled or live, saws away then does this little flourish at the end of a bar that’s like the sound of Andie or Duckie’s trembling hearts. The lyrics are admirably straightforward—and, again, parse only if Duckie’s singing them.

Gradually the annoyances become menaces. The parts are garish, overstated; it’s a cluttered mix. The drums, mixed to sound like someone’s hitting a trash can lid with a brick, lack a bottom end. OMD add a gross fillip to the syrupy bass that was prominent on Thompson Twins’ immortal “Hold Me Now”: the synthesized equivalent of slapping it. But the song’s biggest culprit is McCluskey, pushing beyond his physical and emotional range. Crooning like a mulleted Sinatra, tugging at vowels like they’re gum stuck under a shoe, he leaves no mystery, no space in which listeners can project their own longings. A smarter performer would have whizzed past one of the worst lyrical howlers ever penned; instead, McCluskey savors each word of “Seven years spent under the bridge like time standing still” as if mulling over the idea of adding “and we’re through the fire as it cuts like a knife straight to my heart.” Surrendering to the drama, he wails DON’T LOOK BAAAAHHCK over the outro with the confidence of a man who swallowed a Fairlight sampler.

SO HOW IS IT NOW?
The best thing that could be said about “If You Leave” is that its ubiquity kept Psychedelic Furs’ desecration of their 1981 classic from clawing into the top forty. And I still prefer Mr. Mister’s “Is It Love.”

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Lindsey Buckingham: Still Weird and Beautiful, but Tedious, Too

Lindsey Buckingham’s contrarianism runs so deep that it subverts his much-vaunted aesthetic impulses, not to mention his common sense. The consummate weirdo who (quietly) sighs in interviews whenever he must forgo solo recordings for the sake of a certain supergroup that’s grateful, commercially and artistically, for the sacrifice, the singer/guitarist/producer of Fleetwood Mac records albums whose melodic smarts can’t compete with an asceticism so severe that it verges on apostasy. The results can be beautiful, sure: When he flexes his craft, he corrals multi-tracked vocals of himself that coast over static guitar arpeggios, like a priest who prefers to clack his rosary beads in his bedroom rather than pray aloud in a chapel with his peers. If there’s a Lord, he’s grateful for the devotion, but for eavesdroppers, it does get tedious—especially when we note how adeptly Buckingham’s talents unfold in a Top 40 context as famished for his haywire formalist submersions as his erstwhile bandmates.

In the fastest turnaround of his career, Gift of Screws comes two years after Under the Skin, and for the first couple of tracks, we want to stamp it “return to sender.” “Great Day” boasts guitar ripples we first heard on his disembowelment of “Big Love” from Fleetwood Mac’s live set The Dance, coupled with lyrics best described as verbal tags rather than coherent statements. A couple of songs exist as mere instrumentals: “Bel Air Rain” is Ottmar Liebert on Vivarin. “Did You Miss Me” comes closest to unearthing the romantic wanderlust that’s been Buckingham’s trademark since 1975’s “Monday Morning,” but as indelible as the chorus melody is, he could be directing his plaint to a mirror—or, heartbreakingly, to Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, whose harmonies would’ve reminded him (and us) of what he’s missing. The feisty title track, replete with look-at-me-now axmanship and oddball vocal effects, feels anchored to a recognizable eccentricity; it’s no surprise that Mick Fleetwood and John McVie constitute its rhythm section.

Alas, “Trouble” and the National Lampoon’s Vacation one-off “Holiday Road” excepted, not a single track in Buckingham’s solo period rivals “Go Your Own Way” for precision; he’s a human being with conflicts, lusts, and such only when he’s allowed to express them around and to other people. Here, “Underground” acknowledges the dilemma: “Say what you mean, but please don’t mean a thing” is not just a curt description of the Buckingham Problem, but a beautifully sung line from an artist capable of transcending limitations, yet content to bask in lapidary gestures. When he goes his own way, he wants it both ways—and goes nowhere at all.

Lindsey Buckingham plays the Nokia Theatre October 19

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Donna Summer’s Crayons

Donna Summer is special. You are not Donna Summer. All them other divas who flirted with paganism before discovering Jesus are just pretenders: Donna doesn’t even need to mention them by name. As the chant of ever-circling overdubbed Donnas surrounds you on the self-explanatory “The Queen Is Back,” one of the more memorable tracks on her first album since the first Bush administration, you feel sorry for Mary J. Blige and the other narcissistic infidels who continued Lady Summer’s practice of conceiving albums as installments in the life of someone better than us.

And she was. Blessed by the company she kept—including Harold Faltermeyer, Springsteen, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Stock-Aiken-Waterman, and someone named Giorgio Moroder—she essayed every popular genre of the day, her only discernible motif being that multi-octave bazooka of a voice whose buoyancy signified her sheer joy at being a star, singing these songs, and working with these people (the undimmed power of Summer’s voice scrubs lines like “The more you reject me/The more I want from you” of celebrity vampirism). We don’t identify with the famous—they bring us to them, inviting us to share their magnificence as we sit in our rooms gawking at the cover of Live and More. On Crayons, it’s like no time has passed at all, and of course it hasn’t: As Lloyd Richards says to Margo Channing in All About Eve, the stars never die and never change.

Fans who might balk at the T-Pain chirp in “Science of Love” or the ghetto demotic of “Stamp Your Feet” (“make a big-ass sound,” “you got game”) forget what an avid chart-follower she was back in the day. Summer’s enthusiasm for the big-ass arena-rock dynamics of “Stamp Your Feet” is thrilling to hear in a fiftysomething. Also hear the commitment: Tina Turner’s professionalism looks cynical in comparison. As if to remind us that her weird streak remains intact, Summer attempts the faux Tropicália of “Drivin’ Down Brazil” or the updated blues (complete with slide guitar and harmonica!) of “Slide Over Backwards,” the latter an attempt at Summer’s own “Nutbush City Limits” or something. Once Upon a Time and Bad Girls fans will both agree that Crayons’ second half is a victory lap with no Summer in sight—she’s already past us. She still rides paradoxes as adeptly as she rode Moroder’s sequencers; she’s human because she believes in staying superhuman.

Donna Summer plays the PNC Bank Arts Center June 18 and the Nikon at Jones Beach theater July 19, livenation.com

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Goldfrapp’s Seventh Tree

Sooner or later the ’90s had to return, and not fast enough for Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory. Their fourth album, Seventh Tree, perfects the boutique electronica in which they’ve specialized since 2000; if silvery female mumbles atop beds of keyboards is your thing, then you can put away that Sneaker Pimps record. The rest of us can mumble about the dubious pleasure of Goldfrapp’s taxidermy, especially when the likes of Roisin Murphy have shaken off embalmment and realized that “pretty” oxidizes into “fusty” when you’re listening with your ears instead of your feet.

This whole thing sounds great, though: rue, clenched fists, and closed eyes mixed at an arena pitch. “Cologne Cerrone and Houdini” isn’t a Green Gartside number, but the best example of what Goldfrapp almost gets away with, thanks to rain-cloud synth strings and the almost creepy way in which Alison seems to coo with nary a wrinkle showing around the cheeks. “Eat Yourself” digests the pinched melancholy of Portishead circa 1995, complete with pseudo vinyl-scratch sound effects. But any one of these tracks could stand the more arresting sonic finery of 2006’s “Ride on a White Horse,” whose insistent hook compensated for an anonymity the duo was too cool to challenge.

It’s tempting to think that this regressive product might be transgressive—while Kylie, Britney, and Roisin twist themselves into ever more beguiling aural contortions, here’s Alison and Will making like Everything But the Girl in 1996. But the tunes aren’t there, and neither is Alison: She’s committed to a kind of performative absentee balloting, wherein we note her name on the credits but wonder what—who—she is. The next Gallup poll must find out what constituency she represents.

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Mary J. Blige’s Growing Pains

As Queen Mary settles into survivaldom, sloughs of despond become mere obstacle courses, overcome by deft pole-vaulting. Her problems with drugs and alcohol formed chapters of a familiar narrative, one in which the pieties of the 12-step program were rewritten as a deluxe, jittery, go-on-girl version of The Four Agreements. It’s impossible to accuse Mary J. Blige of cynicism, though; it isn’t that she’s impervious to irony, but that she defines it as a series of unfortunate incidents, as Alanis Morissette once did. Since 2001’s Family Affair, Blige has sung as if she knew all about black clouds on rainy days. Just don’t remind her about flies, much less the chardonnay.

The title of Growing Pains says a lot about how these days Blige takes her cues about love and loss from ’80s sitcoms. But as her acting chops diminish, her command over plush, slightly jagged contempo r&b improves. Although she yields to couplets like “Feelin’ great cuz the light’s on me/Celebratin’ the things that everyone told me” on “Work That,” there’s a sense in which Blige, like Oprah, wants to share her treasure. If Mary could, she’d buy every listener a Cadillac, a wish confirmed by “Feel Like a Woman,” a rather nuanced ode to selfishness that’s nevertheless as direct as a drill sergeant’s command.

Lest we forget that Blige’s dominion ranges over the land of hip-hop, Ludacris, like Fiddy on 2006’s The Breakthrough, drops by on “Grown Woman,” to lesser effect. Ne-Yo and Stargate add their usual clickety-clack minimalism. Producers Tricky Stewart and the Dream add some of that sawtooth-synth action on “Just Fine,” interpolating what sounds like the sax hook from Steely Dan’s “Peg” and a repeated chorus stutter. Growing Pains could use more of this insouciance, or another song that harnessed all her gifts as well as Breakthrough‘s “Be Without You” did. Confusing confessions with wisdom, Blige would be more fun if she’d shut up for a while and luxuriate—and we know she understands what that word means—in the gorgeousness of a voice that’s as full and declamatory as ever. “I gotta start enjoying myself regardless,” she admits, as if she knew the score. Growing Pains, meet The Real World.

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James Murphy & Pat Mahoney’s Fabriclive 36

From beat-happy jokes to beat-happy songs, James Murphy’s evolution is a music fan’s dream: He courts the absurd and the vulgar, the squelchy and the smooth. He cracks about losing his edge before he’s released his first album, then pens “All My Friends” to remind Franz Ferdinand that he’s got his eyes set on a John Cale level of craft. On the evidence of
Sound of Silver, Murphy hasn’t yet recorded his masterpiece—a muse this restless may never hear past the self-amused synth squirts with which he still pads albums—but his obsession with musical chronicling suggests that he doesn’t want to escape history so much as become part of it.

Murphy and Pat Mahoney’s entry in the Fabriclive series sequences two dozen disco and post-disco tracks from the mid-’70s through 1983, at least half of which (if not more) are obscurities to all but DJ Shadow and other dedicated vinyl-trollers. Too abstract lyrically and vocally for a boho who flexes his wit as often as Murphy does, the mix foregrounds percussion, bass burps, and synthesized and real strings into a narrative as ethereal and euphoric as you could expect. Donald Byrd’s “Love Has Come Around,” which is like Chic playing 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” summons an ascetic side of disco not often heard on compilations or at clubs. The segue from Junior Brown’s sequencer-crazy “Dance to the Music” to the James Brown “Payback”-style riffage and organ swells of JT’s “I Love Music” is both seamless and unexpected—it demarcates several undiscovered presents, or maybe futures, if another consumer as avid as Murphy is listening. This is disco as soul-sonic force, sweat wiped from the forehead, eyes fixed on heaven.

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PJ Harvey’s White Chalk

No closer to answering the question she posed on 1998’s Is This Desire?, Polly Jean Harvey has watched it shed its rhetorical drag and assume declarative force. Although 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and 2004’s Uh Huh Her implied that “This is desire,” her unkempt guitar ensured that she would break these promises. Now, White Chalk‘s foregrounding of piano is her most iconoclastic gesture yet, a spooky reclamation of singer-songwriter monomania. Think Joni circa For the Roses, without the instrumental embellishments signifying acknowledgment of the outside world, and playing to middling results.

If Tom Waits hadn’t already made the genre his own, we’d call Harvey’s newest compositions “murder ballads,” with the victim being Harvey herself. Imagine 11 variations on the piano part in To Bring You My Love‘s menacing “Teclo,” sung at the very top of the singer’s register. The tension between her singing and the confessional nature of Chalk‘s material makes for the most excruciating music of Harvey’s career, in every sense. In “When Under Ether,” she recasts herself as Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, growing mad in a quiet room, her mind consuming itself. She reaches out to her grandmother in “To Talk to You,” and to folk-rock tropes (banjo!) on the title track. They’re not the only songs to allude to an unborn child—whether metaphorically or literally, most tracks here are descendants of 1995’s “Down by the Water.” This is strong stuff, and while it’s churlish to suggest that these songs would sound even creepier with a full band, it’s not wrong either: Repulsion dragged after a while, too. As usual, the excellent mix—opaque but sunlit—helps; as usual, we eagerly await her next album.

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Imperial Teen’s The Hair, the TV, the Baby & the Band

The most transgressive act of Faith No More’s career was allowing a hapless gold- fish to nearly flop to its death in the video for the Top 10 single “Epic.” Former keyboardist Roddy Bottum eclipsed it on Imperial Teen’s 1996 debut, Seasick, at least half a dozen times, in tunes whose unassuming hookiness and genial intra-band chemistry hid lyrics like the one stuck in the last minute of “You’re One”: “You kiss me like a man, boy.” Like Neil Tennant—the only song- writer in 1996 so up-front about man-love who was selling more records than Faith No More—Bottum and his mates delineated scenarios as often as they limned emotions that were both ambivalent sexually and ambivalent the way adult emotions usually are; like Luna and Pavement, the politics of indie semi-obscurity became their second great subject. Ebullience held age-inspired terror at bay.

If their subsequent output has failed to match “You’re One” or “Butch,” their fourth album, The Hair, the TV, the Baby & the Band, demonstrates that at
least they’ve become lapidary masters. The trouble is, who’s listening and learning? “A Room with a View” is The Hair‘s most memorable song—here’s one band that knows not just a thing or two about life glimpsed through a tour-bus window, but the unexpected (unwanted?) romances enacted behind it. It also includes the album’s pithiest lyric: “We’ll do the best to pretend we’ll be 20 for life.” The rest of the album gloomily skirts this wisdom, as Imperial Teen learn that the problem with lapidary craftsmanship is that for every supple Mellotron here and guitar crunch there, we have to accept that less is less. Still, ebullience hasn’t congealed into callowness yet; let them savor this well-earned victory.

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Heaven Knows They’re as Miserable Now as Ever

First things first: Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock has not turned into Morrissey. Nor, for that matter, has he turned into Bernard Sumner. In fact, the participation of a certain Smiths guitarist in the recording of Modest Mouse’s first album since their super-duper 2004 crossover Good News for People Who Love Bad News is innocuous by Johnny Marr’s standards. Confining himself to filigrees not usually heard on a Mouse album, Marr reprises the role of the journeyman sessioner who played on that Pretenders record no one much likes but me. The boilerplate dolor of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank‘s “Missed the Boat,” for example, preserves a pair of lovely solos that go from Byrds jangle to Chris Spedding twang faster than it takes Brock to crunch on syllables like cornflakes, and Marr’s experience arranging horn charts around prickly rhythm guitar had something to do with how fabulous first single “Dashboard” sounds.

Brock deals with the weight of expectations like you might expect. A guy who courts fear and trembling like Stephen Malkmus does bemused distance isn’t going to scare easily. But imagine the cheerful fatalism of “Float On” without the hooks, which is bizarre: Hooks would seem to be Marr’s specialty. The vertiginous sequencing doesn’t help. “We’ve Got Everything” seems like a manifesto, only it’s undercut by the rote imagery of “Fly Trapped in a Jar” and “Missed the Boat.”

It’s possible that Marr’s, shall we say, humility was a response to the incorrigible Brock. Croaking tales of roughing it in the rust belt like David Thomas, yelping like Lindsey Buckingham stuck in a bathroom with drumsticks and a pair of Kleenex boxes, he’s genuinely scary—a grotesque whose flashes of insight don’t assuage the impact of a nightmare from which he’s never awakened. “It was always worth it/That’s the part I seem to hide” is a lyric of startling precision; the fact that Brock still hides songs beneath clutter and clamor suggests that he and his new playmate still have more thinking to do.

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Hoboken Lifers Unveil More Evocative Vacation Slides

The long-married Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley apply the principles of bachelorhood to their music: persistence and endurance and abrupt change. On the defiantly eclectic I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, the couple makes genre-hopping look as easy as Saturday night, as touching as your beloved flipping through your record collection. What about dangerous? Not a chance, unless you take the album title’s implicit threat seriously.

“A restless imagination/But for now I want my feet on the ground,” Hubley whispers on “I Feel Like Going Home,” using the talk-singing that by now is as beyond Moe Tucker androgyne faux-wonder as Cronenberg flick A History of Violence was beyond the 23-years-older Videodrome. This album is a collection of photographs snapped at Budapest and Buenos Aires by your fiftysomething neighbors; they want you to admire their liberalness, their gumption, as they reassure you that they’d nonetheless never dream of leaving Hoboken. (To seal the deal they even bookend the album with a pair of their trademark interminable instrumentals.) But there’s pleasure in Kaplan’s approximation of Gimme Fiction–era Spoon cootchie-coo (“Mr. Tough”), his rediscovery of 12-string guitar skeins (“Song for Mahila”), his commitment to uncovering something irksome about Georgia (“Sometimes I Don’t Get You”). Fortunately, James McNew reminds them that this relationship is a triad. As “Watch Out for Me Ronnie” thrashes through all the appointed paces—a dervish indifferent to its own irrelevance—Yo La Tengo Ltd. bask in the certainty that we know that they know what they’re doing, and not a filigree more.