Caught in the Web
Like Howard Dean and Andrew Sullivan, Norwegian new-wave-dance-pop singer Annie and California hearth-pop duo Fisher both owe some of their success to Internet support. Way back in 1999 Fisher put their "I Will Love You" on MP3.com. The song, written for but excluded from the movie Message in a Bottle (which sucked just fine without it), found favor with bargain-mad fans of overwrought ballads, and has reportedly been downloaded 3 million times. Annie, big in Norway, midsize in England, hit stateside record shelves accompanied by Web-driven brouhaha. The same blogs and websites that earlier big-upped Dizzee Rascal and M.I.A. have noted and reiterated the transcendent blah blah blah of Annie's by turns bubbly and melancholic music. Some of those folks helped her "Chewing Gum" and "Heartbeat" place 31st and 32nd on last year's Pazz & Jop singles list, impressive showings for import-(download)-only specimens of continental girl pop. Pitchfork even named "Heartbeat" 2004's single of the year. "Haven't heard of it," retorted Usher.
Praise for Annie from the blogosphere (surely some of these people are shills) has been intemperatelikewise from British record reviewers, who are paid by the hyperbolic adjective. But let's not punish Annie for being overrated. An overrated good record is still a good record, and "Chewing Gum" may well have been last year's 31st best single. "Oh no, oh no, you've got it all wrong," she sings, "You think you're chocolate but you're chewing gum," a memorable hook written by Hannah Robinson and producer Richard X (an exception; Annie co-writes most of her material). Robinson and X are savvy retrofitters. For Rachel Stevens's "Some Girls" they underscored the kinship between '70s glam rock and '00s lady pop with a lemon highlighter. On "Chewing Gum," they hotrod the "Cutie Pie"-"Genius of Love" beat, wrap it in a sigh, and correctly surmise that some boys always go mad for dating songs centered on oral metaphors, even those involving mastication, expectoration, and trampling.
"Chewing Gum," proudly cute and disposable, is also singing to itself. Which isn't to say it won't sound fine in five or 20 years. Anniemal's "The Greatest Hit" is from 1999, and still parties as if it were. The song samples from and betters young Madonna's "Everybody," employing the reefer-toking cymbal from the original for the new tune's Puff the Magic Dragon conceit. "Greatest Hit" was co-created by Annie and her then musical and romantic partner Tore "Erot" Kroknes, who died of heart complications in 2001. If you're inclined to conjure it, Kroknes's ghost will haunt Anniemal and lend gravity to songs such as the wistful "Heartbeat" and the forlorn "My Best Friend." Unfortunately, neither Annie's singing (puerile, glassy, something like a less expressive Kylie Minogue, also something like the red Teletubbi) nor her lyrics (bland, hard to make out, occasionally charming) live up to the album's tragic subtext with any regularity, though "My Best Friend" is indeed a heartbreaker. And Kylie comparisons notwithstanding, Anniemal isn't long on gay-disco abandon, either. The double-time section of "Heartbeat" gets close, but the forced club epic "Come Together" sounds more like faking it alone.
Still, small pleasures are abundant here: the bent synth-bass on the great title track; the dub-style delayed snare on "Always Too Late"; the quavering mope-funk of "No Easy Love," written and produced with Röyksopp's Torbjørn Brundtland and an effectively slowed-down variation on that group's "Remind Me." If much of Anniemal isn't vibrant enough to move physically or resonant enough to move emotionally, its peaks suggest a worthy midway state. To expand on an image from "The Greatest Hit," this is music for moonlight drives with friends in rented convertibles, during which a certain baseline of despair is mutually understood and even savored. Or this is music for a car commercial depicting such a scene.
Speaking of which, "Beautiful Life" by Fisher is surely the finest song ever written for Toyota. Expanded into legitimacy for The Lovely Years, the song remains an outstanding jingle, irritating and irresistible. Its chorus harmonies are rich enough to sell or buy yachts. Kathleen Fisher is an affected but not humorless vocalist, while husband Ron Wasserman is a junior Lindsey Buckingham hiding in broad daylight. I'm an even bigger fan of "Biggest Fan," narrated by a likable star-stalker and given another textbook chorus, this one complete with horns imported from "Penny Lane" by Howard Jones. After that it gets dodgiersquishy new-parent ballads, something inspired by Sylvia Plath. But download "Life," "Fan," and the sweet "Be Here" and you might have the alt-MOR three-song EP of the year. For three bucks!
Annie plays Hiro Ballroom June 28 and Scenic June 29.
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