Elisabeth Kaplan

Singer & Songwriter

Sunday 12 April 2015

Schick Schock (Album) - Bilderbuch

Each year Austria’s music industry pats itself on the back with the Amadeus Austrian Music Awards. And although there hasn’t been all that much to celebrate in the past few years (a cynical me would say decades), there is currently a new surge of energy, a new spirit, and new talent, which truly gives cause for hope. Wanda, 5/8erl in Ehr’n, Conchita Wurst or Parov Stelar, to name just a few, show how much diversity and what a high standard Austrian music has to offer at the moment.

What I couldn’t understand, though, was how Bilderbuch could be so completely overlooked by the Amadeus people (nothing less than Band of the Year would have been appropriate as far as I’m concerned). This is a band that plays to sold-out crowds throughout the German-speaking area. A band that – together with Wanda – has triggered a state of euphoria in the country and given Austrians something they can be proud of, or even – and this is virtually unheard of – brag about. And Bilderbuch’s album “Schick Schock” is an achievement in itself: an album that sounds thoroughly international (apart from the language), is flawlessly produced down to the smallest detail, that oozes humour and intelligence – one might even call it a pop masterpiece.

Much has been written and said about the band’s image and attitude, especially that of lead singer Maurice Ernst. So cocksure, so irresistibly arrogant, so sexy … but at the end of the day, we mustn’t forget, in the midst of all that praise, that these four young men from Kremsmünster have also made a brilliant album.

These are my top 5 “Schick Schock” moments:

5th place
There are so many memorable lyrics on the album that I can only pick out one or two on behalf of the rest. “Du hast den Schick Schock / Weil dich mein Schick schockt” (“You’re in chic shock / ‘Cause you’re shocked by my chic”) is just one example of Maurice Ernst having fun with words and sounds. The same goes for the line “Ein Rebell, Rebell, Rebell / Wie ein Hund auf der Jagd” (Feinste Seide), where the repetition of the word Rebell simulates a dog barking (bellen). Humour and intelligence – a magnetic combination.

4th place
The unconventional (in pop at least) use of mixed metres in Barry Manilow. The guitar intro is normal enough, but when the vocals come in, the bars are put together like this: 4/4 – 4/4 – 2/4 – 4/4 – 2/4. And inserting the title “Barry Manilow” into the first of these 2/4 bars creates a kind of spaced out moment in which we’re drawn out of reality, only to be plonked back in two seconds later. I have no idea how Bilderbuch got the idea for it, but it certainly proves that they have musical intelligence.

3rd place
The song Schick Schock starts with Maurice Ernst trying to get a girl to admit that she was checking out his ass. This is followed by the “plop” sound made by the volume key on a Mac, as if there were someone going “Wait. Did he really just say that??” Love it.

2nd place
At just under 4.5 minutes, OM can certainly take its time building up – and does so with relish. New elements are introduced at regular intervals, such as the guitar riff at 1:25, and the swelling synth sound that adds density at 1:58. But the wickedest moment is 3:06, when, after a break, a new riff takes over and M.E. adlibs over it. Instructions for use: Must be heard at a sufficiently high volume!

1st place
Maurice Ernst’s first “Yeah” in Maschin. Just says everything.



Bilderbuch on YouTube:

Sunday 30 November 2014

Band Aid 30 - Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Ugh, Uncle Bob has dug out some leftover Christmas fruitcake from last year – no, wait, from 1984 – and thought it would be okay to serve if he just sticks in some new raisins and slaps on some fresh frosting.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure  in 1984, is currently in its fourth incarnation. The song itself is mediocre at best. Sure, we’ve heard it so often by now that of course we can hum along, but the melody is actually kind of clumsy in its construction. It also doesn’t give singers a whole lot to work with, which is what makes it so hard for them to hit the right tone. Either they go for a simple, “honest” interpretation, in which case they tend to come off as bland and rather unfeeling; or they go over the top, seeking an “emotional” approach, and ending up with totally overwrought performances that just come across as insincere and show-offy.

In comparison: Just months after the initial “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” came out, USA for Africa followed the UK’s example and recorded “We Are The World”. It may be cheesy, but it is a perfect cheese. Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, it is doubtless the superior song. You can tell it was authored by singers, because it gives the vocalists enough substance to work with and allows each of the many guests to truly shine and deliver ultimately legendary performances.

But back to Band Aid. These are the four versions you can choose from (although the 1989 version flopped and is, to my knowledge, no longer available):
BandAid (1984); BandAid II (1989); BandAid 20 (2004); BandAid 30 (2014)


To help you choose your favourite, here are my personal awards in six categories:

* Best vocal performance:
Chris Rea in Band Aid II: With his voice, which sounds like the vocal personification of a hot toddy in front of a log fire, he really doesn’t have to make any sort of effort to sound fabulous.

* Most OTT vocal performance:
Without doubt, this one goes to Sinéad O’Connor in the 2014 version. Maybe she's having some kind of seizure brought on by her extreme embarrassment at having to sing these lyrics. On the up side, she is practically unintelligible, preventing us from having to actually understand the lyrics at this point.

* Singer who looks most pissed off about being there:
Although with his do-gooder image today he would never admit it, the 33-year-old Sting of 1984 looks like he couldn’t care less. He’s probably just mortified to be singing those lyrics (he even has to sing the line with the word “sting” in it. Ouch).
Second place in this category goes to Angélique Kidjo, “Africa’s premier diva”, in this year’s version. Boy, would I love to see a thought bubble over her head. It would probably be filled with words this sweet lady would never actually utter. Apparently, she wanted to change the lyrics and did in fact sing various versions, none of which made it past Sir Bob’s censorship.

* Most boring vocal performance:
1984: Paul Weller. Sorry, dude, but even if you’re hating every second, you have to at least pretend to be making an effort.
1989: Big Fun. Who’s that, you’ll most likely be asking. Well, this trio was one of the less successful acts from the Stock Aitken Waterman flock. They got half a line to sing – “… we can spread a smile of joy”. It’s depressing to think that what we hear in the final version must have been their best take …
2004: Sugababes. My oh my. Do these three girls really not have a shred of personality? Yawn.
2014: One Direction. Yikes. Maybe they went straight from a party to the studio. These boys sure seem to be half asleep when they’re singing the critical first line.

* Best production:
For me the most cohesive version in terms of production has to be the Stock Aitken Waterman version of 1989 – yup, the one that flopped. Unfortunately, it has an awkwardly inappropriate party vibe going on. Besides, SAW’s star wasn’t waning at this point, it was crashing.

* Least embarrassing lyrics:
Dear me, where to begin. For me, the most mortifying line in the song is “The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life”. (This year the line was replaced by “A song of hope where there’s no hope tonight” – not much of an improvement to be honest.)
As for the least embarrassing, maybe “At Christmas time, we let in light and we banish shade”. As clichéd as it may be, it’s possibly the only line that isn’t either somehow objectionable, nonsensical or simply clumsily crafted.
The line that understandably caused the most uproar through the years, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”, was changed in the current version. I’m thinking Bono finally got his way. Apparently, he already objected to it 30 years ago.

And that wraps up my personal Band Aid Awards. Maybe now you’re so curious, you’ll get straight on iTunes and buy all the versions! (Except 2004 – I wouldn’t want you to have to hear that perplexing “we-need-to-attract-hip-young-buyers” rap section).

You can read the German version of this blog post at www.zartbitter.co.at

Monday 22 September 2014

Thriller – Michael Jackson

Did you know …
… that “Thriller” went through quite a bit of trial and error and quite a few rewrites before it became the song that was finally presented to the public in late 1982? If you listen to one of the previous versions of the song, a demo called “Starlight” (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_kimWJ7128), you’ll appreciate why Rod Temperton (a song-writing veteran who has written for all the greats, including Donna Summer, Aretha Franklin, Herbie Hancock, Mariah Carey) decided to scrap his initial lyrics, which were rather generic and lacked a clear central message, in favour of something more unique.

Genius last-minute lyrics
The lyrics he then came up with for “Thriller” are full of strong imagery, immediately conjuring a vivid picture in the listeners’ minds. Temperton puts us right in the middle of this horror scenario (using direct address, “you”), and waits until the 3rd verse to let on that we are in fact just watching a horror film (“I’ll save you from the terror on the screen”). The directness of the lyrics is what makes them so accessible. Temperton doesn’t challenge us with hidden meaning, allegory, juxtaposition, metaphor or the like. He doesn’t try to make the song more than it is – with a satisfying result.

If I could be so bold as to voice one minor gripe (how dare I?): The bridge section (“Night creatures call …”) stands out musically – the harmonies suddenly shift, the triplets in the vocal melody make this part smoother and more lyrical compared to the rhythmic verse and chorus. Which is why the horror imagery (“night creatures”, “dead”, “jaws of the alien”) doesn’t feel right to me in this part. I’d have seen this bridge as an opportunity to introduce the idea of cuddling in front of the TV screen. In fact, I quite like the lines from Starlight: “Light up the world / Let the love start / Take charge of this masquerade”. As it stands, the music in this section gives the creepy lyrics a kind of sweetness, effectively rendering them harmless. Then again, perhaps it was Temperton’s intention to tone down the scariness here – to prepare us for the subsequent revelation that it’s all just happening on the screen?

THAT iconic bass hook
Musically, being intrigued by songs that have long, virtually unchanging sections, I wanted to find out how much of the song is made up of the famous bass hook that characterises the entire song. If you take just the main body of the song – Intro/ Verse 1/ Chorus/ Verse 2/ Chorus/ Bridge/ Verse 3/ Chorus (excluding the coda with Vincent Price’s legendary “rap”) – which makes up 117 bars, and count the number of bars built on the bass hook, you’ll find they make up 77% of the song! But thanks to the harmonic and melodic development, we don’t feel that the song ever gets boring or monotonous. Also, thanks to Quincy Jones and the world-class musicians playing on the track (I especially love David Williams’s tastefully restrained guitar lick, which adds so much density and rhythmic depth in all the right places), “Thriller” is a prime example of when to add and when to leave out small details that can make all the difference.

Back to “Starlight”: If I look at my copy of “Thriller” (the album) and mentally replace the song “Thriller” with “Starlight”, it changes the entire feel of the album. “Starlight” would have been no more than a catchy, but inconsequential interlude on an album whose makers intended it to be edgy. But in a moment of sheer brilliance, Temperton came up with a title that would go on to define an album, a year, a decade, a generation, the artist himself. 

German version here: http://zartbitter.co.at/kultur/unter-der-lupe-thriller-von-michael-jackson/







Copyright © 2014 Elisabeth Kaplan