Tangled Up in Blue


This column (or at least this installment of it) is a mixtape. The songs in it are all hits. Its title sort of comes from a great honky-tonk divorce ditty, by Gary Stewart.

LFO: “Girl on TV” (Arista) » Long ago, and oh so far away, they fell in love with her before the second show: a male groupie anthem from three wicked pissers from Boston and Orlando, wishing on falling stars and (à la the Carpenters) superstars. When main hottie Rich meets his celebrity flygirl from the City of Angels, she’s got a green dress on—from Abercrombie & Fitch, one suspects. No idea what the Scooby Snacks (courtesy of Fun Lovin’ Criminals) have to do with anything, but God, these guys shooby-doo-wop (their word) sweet: Their acousticized rap flow is Everlast without the macho crap, and in the middle one guy winds his whitebread midrange into R. Kelly territory.

‘N Sync: “Bye Bye Bye” (Jive) » Prediction: This is the year teenpop really starts to kick. Classical strings at the start, like some early-’80s Jacksons track, then “I’m doing this tonight, you’re probably gonna start a fight”—a breakup song, or really, a kick-her-out-the-door song. Sixties garage in spirit—not nice. And though their five-man mesh of (mostly) high harmonies says ‘N Sync “don’t wanna make it tough,” over drum machine triplets as funky as Britney’s greatest hits they sound tough regardless. Maybe they’re saying bye bye to Miss American Pie. Who is sort of their audience, right?

Madonna: “American Pie” (Maverick) » For 28 years we’ve been on our own, and Kate Moss grows phat in Rolling Stone, but that’s not the way it used to be. Not as funny as last year’s Weird Al Star Wars version or Paul Weitz movie version or Rob Sheffield Rolling Stone Woodstock version (“as the flames climbed high into the night/to moonlight the sacrificial rite/I saw Kid Rock laughing with delight”), but not bad: Ms. Ciccone’s in Irish brogue mode atop light bright lounge techno, and she can still remember how the music used to make her smile. She excises all the stuff about the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens and Lennon reading books of Marx and February making her shiver with every paper she’d deliver, not to mention Don McLean’s “Stairway to Heaven”-genus soft-to-loud stairway climb. But how come in 28 years I never noticed the weird lyrical congruities with Led Zep (via “Book of Love” and levees breaking), or the blatant “That’ll Be the Day” reference, or all the Catholicism motifs (sacred stores, church bells broken, mortal souls saved, faith in God above)? No surprise that the three men Madonna admires most are the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. But I’m still not convinced she was ever a lonely teenage bronkin’ buck.

A3: “Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix)” (Columbia) » Good old boys drinking whiskey and rye, or as close to it as British techno-crats can come. Now it’s a Sopranos hit, but inits original album incarnation three yearsago it helped kick off an oddly-never-namedrootstronica trend that ranges from Lo Fidelity Allstars to Moby. Back-porch picking, barrelhouse piano, and scratchy vinyl effects; then a stoned but electronically embellished lowlife voice imagining the Trenchcoat Mafia: “Woke up this morning, got yourself a gun.” In and out of corny gospel born-under-bad-sign/bad-blue-moon-of-Kentucky-rising/Omen imagery, the guy drawls about your head going ding-dong regretting what you did the night before, about how when you woke up everything you had was gone: She’d taken the bed and the chest of drawers, and the boys blamed you for bringing her home. She’s crafty; she fucked and ran. Almost immediately you felt sorry. You didn’t think this would happen again.

Steps: “Tragedy” (Jive) » “The morning cries, and it all just dies,” just like with A3. Three smiling Barbie girls and two smiling Ken boys from England, so squeaky-clean you better be careful not to get any on you, but as with their role models Abba, there’s intense sadness underneath: “Here I lie, in a lost and lonely part of town, held in time, in a world of tears I slowly drown.” “You lose control and you’ve got no soul.” For the Bee Gees, who had soul most people didn’t notice, and whose songs were almost always tragic (check out “New York Mining Disaster” on the imminent Chumbawamba album), “Tragedy” was one of two chart-toppers (the other was “Stayin’ Alive”) to explicitly address “going nowhere.” Steps have to have a girl sing the Robin Gibb falsetto over the gurgle and thump, and she gives the suicidal melody as much screeching propulsion as he did. They’re falling, fast, out of the blue and into the black.

Eiffel 65: “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” (Republic/Universal) » Riding a boogie-woogie house beat, a white cyborg from Italy literally sings the blues: This is a song about color, and in great Thomas Dolby tradition, the most computerized parts are also the most melodic and emotional. He’s Mr. Blue, and these are Blue’s clues, and everything’s blue (not to mention redundant) for “him and himself”; even his little red Corvette is blue. The nonsense syllables in the subtitle make it sound like he’s repeatedly chanting, “I’m blue, and indeed I will die.” Turn me on, dead man.

Martina McBride: “Love’s the Only House” (RCA) » The best item on her current Emotion is blasphemously entitled “Anything’s Better Than Feelin’ the Blues,” which she pronounces more like “anything’s better than feelin’ abuse”—and she should know, since her best song ever, “Independence Day,” was about an abused woman burning down the house. But in “Love’s the Only House,” Martina tries to be “American Pie” ‘s girl-who-sings-the-blues anyway, a Nashville babe in upwardly mobile Sheryl Crow drag like Faith Hill or Shelby Lynne lately. She starts out in a supermarket, so you’re hoping that guy she’s been chasing all year will forget cranberries too, but instead she’s pissed about jerks sneaking 25 items into the express lane. Then she runs into a useless old ex on the street, then she crosses the river into the ghetto where kids wake up with guns, then she remembers that even back in the burbs kids grow up “in a culture of darkness.” So she buys poor ladies cartons of milk to assuage her liberal guilt, never realizing that the Stones she’s learned harmonica from and the Dylan she’s learned talking-blues cadences from represented a culture of darkness themselves—and not just because their words could be as hate-filled as Korn’s or Jay-Z’s. So maybe, accidentally, this is a song about color, too. On the back cover of McBride’s album, everything’s red for her and herself: her hair, her hitched-up skirt, her mouth, her bra strap.

Sisqó: “Thong Song” (Def Soul) » Speaking of underwear: This r&b smash by a weird white-haired Dru Hill associate is right up there with Third Eye Blind saying your little red panties still pass the test, or at least with “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” Jacksons/’N Sync-style violin orchestrations at the beginning, goofy spoken intro lying to girls that bathing suits are what boys really talk about, then this strange bumpy vocal rhythm, by way of Timbaland via drum ‘n’ bass maybe, totally infectious, and mostly I have no idea what Sisqó’s saying (“she had dumps like a truck,” what?), except when he represents about how her dress was scandalous and “she was livin’ la vida loca.” Most of the rest might as well be about lisping: “thong th-thong thong thong.” I mean, look at the title.

Apollo Four Forty: “Stop the Rock” (550 Music) » Four lads from Liverpool, and like A3 and Eiffel 65, their name starts with a vowel and ends with a number. “Are we a rock band or what?” they ask in the minute-long snippet leading into this song on their album, a challenge on the order of Funkadelic asking why a funk band can’t play rock music. Which challenge they live up to: Rockabillish riff, “96 Tears” keyboard fills, ba-ba-ba sung horn lines, frat attitude pushing too hard in a robot-muzik context. “Shake my paranoia,” they insist; it runs too deep. They’re “dancing like Madonna, into the groovy,” except Madonna didn’t do “Into the Groovy”—Ciccone Youth did. Finally Apollo give a shout out to their fellow Greek deity Aphrodite, tastefully never mentioning that she was born of the foam of Uranus. Still, very mythological. “You can’t stop the rock”: Like, they’re pushing it up a hill.

Static X: “Push It” (Warner Bros.) » At 2:36, possibly the most concise covertly scatological metal gutpunch ever to score on AOR, not to mention one of the most futuristic-sounding: The guitars all feel like synthesizers, if not static. Which is one way out of rock’s rut, and the old title from Salt-n-Pepa and the old high-top fade from Kid ‘n Play are two more. Ooh, baby baby.