Speaking as someone who hasn't bought a piece of vinyl since going digital in 1986, the romance has gone out of the single. The 45's inheritor, "cassingles" (as they were known), were a complete joke, and the CD singles the followed them were way too much of an investment at five dollars a pop -- why not buy the complete record, right? But the 45s of my youth -- and maybe yours -- required a certain kind of commitment: usually, you fell in love with a song, played the shit out of the A side, then got up and turned it over to hear what kind of goodies (or horrors) your heroes put on the B. When I bought my first CD player, I sold all of my vinyl to my co-workers at the Carlsbad City Library -- but I kept my singles in the gray-white pinstripe box my Mom gave me, the frayed and ragged treasure chest in which she kept her Beatles and Herman's Hermits favorites in the '60s. Nowadays, my brother has it at his house, on curious display, and keeps asking me if he should give them away or sell them on e-Bay, but I never give him a straight answer either way. But I never play them -- I no longer own a turntable. And if I did, what would I do with scratched-up copies of Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You" or ABC's "Be Near Me?"
These days, the definition of what constitutes a single spans from what's on the current Billboard top 40, to a download-only goodie, or an album track that catches your ear, which is the general rule I'll follow for Public NME, the new singles column I'm penning for Odyshape. Compared to my album reviews for "A Downloader's Diary," these reaction shots will be quick and dirty -- inelegant from a literary standpoint, but completely apropos for the format. As advertisements for their respective records, singles should catch your ear, your heart, your spirit -- and if they fail that mission, I'm damn well going to bitch about it. Here's what I subjected myself to this week.
Coldplay: “Magic” (Atlantic) Hating Chris Martin has never seemed productive to me -- unless of course you happen to be Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s stuck sharing a mansion with the guy. But as far as legerdemain goes, “Viva la Vida,” his band's last impressive single, struck me as a real woman-in-the-box trick – slight as far as sleight of hand goes, but the presentation was lively enough to break these Scottish mope-burgers into the JABBA Theater at the Luxor, maybe opening for Criss Angel. The first single from their upcoming sixth record Ghost Stories is as tuneful as anything they’ve ever done, but simps like Martin don’t need tunes in of themselves -- indeed, a over-reliance on pretty melody is the simp’s standard problem – but rather necromancy that goes beyond the usual pick-a-card-any-card palaver. You know – rhythm? Spirit? Charisma? Even compared to “Viva la Vida” this is pure middle-of-the-road stuff, even-keeled, barely rising above a murmur for the weak payoff of a chorus, though the programmed beats admirably try in vain to be "current." And after a bit of shimmery-dimmery-do they disappear – but were they ever really there? Only Burt Wonderstone knows for sure.
Lake Street Dive: "You Go Down Smooth" (Signature Sounds Recordings) About as spontaneous as a middle school cotillion, this Boston-based hipster jazz-pop quartet makes the Squirrel Nut Zippers (look 'em up) look like great innovators, so don't give into the full court press hype -- I've seen numerous performances of this song online and every single drum fill, vocal filigree, perhaps even batted eyelash, duplicates the others. However, they do have two undeniable things going for them. One is lead singer Rachael Price, who might have been one of the great singers had music school not gotten in the way, and whose robust contralto dominates the band regardless. The other is this addictive song -- why do you think I hunted down numerous performances of this song in the first place? Meshing big Brill Building hooks with heavy swing and harmonies that I can only imagine had the band mates fighting among themselves who would sing that third, that fifth (ah, music majors), the song explodes with such kinetic energy that it overcomes any petty objections one might have to LSD's affected excitement. I mean, it sounds like they're enjoying themselves -- aren't they? Let me play it again.
Blake Shelton: “Doin’ What She Likes” (Warner Bros. Nashville) The video for this song reminds me of that book Porn For Women, in which cut beefcake types perform sexy acts of housework without shirts on. Granted, Shelton manfully elects to keep his flannel on for this one, but after showing off his rather embarrassing knife skills (don't lift the tip of the knife off the cutting board, genius), he crushes ice for margaritas, lays down a trail of rose petals, and lights watermelon candles that eventually send the upstairs bedroom into flames. Is that a metaphor for what goes on after he cooks Miranda Lambert his apparently world-famous fajitas? If it is, it’s cleverer than anything that goes on lyrically in this four-minute pander-fest to the fairer sex, though if I was to sing "She likes it when I call in sick to work/Spend the whole day hanging with her/I might get fired, but that's alright/I'm doin' what she likes” to my wife, she’d rake me over a pile of burning coals for being a passive-aggressive shit. All things considered, I'll take a beer-bellied schlub who harps on his old lady for preventing him from getting drunk while watching Sunday afternoon football in a minute. Actually, I could do without both, but we'll get to that next time.
Pharrell Williams with Justin Timberlake: "Brand New" (Columbia) We first heard Pharrell Williams' voice via a skit on the aborted Clipse debut Exclusive Audio Footage, planning to beat the shit out of some unfortunate b-boy who talked smack to the crew. Now he's singing the puerile theme song to Despicable Me 2. What a career arc! I mean, who would have thought in 1999 he'd be 2014's answer to Bobby McFerrin? Thankfully, the song currently under discussion is not that song, nor the catchy if muddled follow-up "Marilyn Monroe" ("I promise not to abuse you?" thanks!), but rather another cut on Williams' second solo effort Girl, said by the man himself to be a "pro-woman" concept album, I guess because there's a smashing young redhead on the cover next to two cool brunettes (diversity!). "Brand New" sidesteps one of the problems I have with the album as a whole, which is Williams' voice, functional for a verse or two on someone else's material, but completely lacking the panache or versatility to hold your attention for a full hour. Say what you will about The 20/20 Experience, but at least Justin Timberlake has the vocal muscle to put over the second-hand Marvin Gaye re-treads currently in vogue. "Like the tag's still on me" is my vote for cutest hook of the month -- almost enough to make me forget JT's regrettable "In the desert with no love/No cactuses, just dust." Cacti, dude. Succulents.