By Mark Abraham | 28 October 2006
Lily Allen’s cute blog pop might have been neat for about five seconds, Regina Spektor might be trying to reinvent herself as a Tori Amos for the khaki set, Justin Timberlake might have dumbed down his squeaky-clean pop to a squeaky-clean message wrapped in boring retreads, the Junior Boys might put all the right pieces in all the right places, Kelis might still be bossy, a Nelly Furtado single might be spinning somewhere right this second, but fuck ‘em all—this is my pop album of the year. And I might as well give fair warning, because, like with Taiga, Paper Televsion is the kind of album that forces me to take the hyperbulle by the horns. Let’s examine why:
Mark likes post-punk +
Mark likes house and techno +
Mark likes glitchy experimental music +
Mark likes well-developed and executed politics +
Mark likes an album with more than three or four (or two) good songs =
Mark likes whatever the hell it is the Blow is cross-hatching together with the finest nub size available.
Consider: how often do you actually get to hear something that rocks a punk aesthetic with a Prince attitude on a bedroom budget? And then, on top of that, delivers a coherent and specific political message without being polemical? Khaela Maricich and new bandmate and electronics wizard Jona Bechtolt won’t receive any plaudits for “ornate” orchestration, but the tracks here are still busier than Beyoncé’s bedroom hysterics and do something individually and collectively that I haven’t heard pop dance tracks do with conviction in a while (sorry, “Maneater”): say it with some fucking grit.
Of course we’re not going to hear these tracks on the radio, and nobody should be under the impression this album sounds like B’Day or FutureSex/LoveSounds. But who cares? When a vocalist can mellifluous their way through a metaphor as awesome as “When you’re holding me / We make a pair of parentheses” and follow it up with “If something in the deli aisle / Makes you cry” only to reverse the polarity and suddenly isolate a brutally uncomfortable assertion—“You’re not a baby if you feel the world / All of the babies can feel the world / That’s why they cry”—as a conclusion to all the previous and hilarious asides? That’s both incredibly depressing and entirely awesome! And even more awesome is that the wicked lyrics aren’t the only reason this works, because “Parentheses” might just be a sweet little indie take on surf music if it wasn’t surrounded by “Pile of Gold” and “The Big U,” which bump like that dodgeball game in the first episode of Freaks and Geeks where you’re Sam, the only geek left in the game, four-foot-nothing, having just caught the ball, and suddenly every jock led by (the then-massive) Ron Lester is throwing two dozen balls at you and there is absolutely no way to not get hit. The two bookends make the book in between more readable, because Maricich and Bechtolt are playing with so many styles—while wrapping them all in the same clever production, and emphasizing the same basic lyrical themes—that the songs cross-pollinate, reinforcing and rearranging each other until the whole thing functions like Exile in Guyville (1993) produced by Ellen Allien.
I don’t think I’m over-exaggerating here, either—to pull a similar example, you can prop Mu all you want, and they are obviously awesome, but it’s really hard to pull off the sort of percussion work that Maurice Fulton does on Afro-Finger and Jel (2003) and not relegate yourself entirely to the freak section. I’m happily sitting there, but I think I could bring the Blow to the next table, or maybe even all the way across the cafeteria to the popular table. I’d play “The Long List of Girls,” and everybody would just get way the fuck down. And that makes me a little afraid, ‘cause I think people will listen to this and hear just another neat conflagration of electronic music with indie pop. But it’s way more important than that, because—even before I start ranting about how awesome the politics are—it’s executed so incredibly well, and this is another album like Jamie Lidell’s Multiply or Robyn’s Robyn (both 2005) that doesn’t care about genre, or cred, or whatever, which means this is exactly what I hope the future of pop music sounds like: honest, thoughtful, intelligent, and fit for parties.
It wouldn’t work at all if the songs weren’t so crafty. The first line of “Pile of Gold,” where girls sit on the titular subject, starts with the patriarchy’s commodification of the female body, but quickly rephrases the source of capital to commodify everything: sex, “it’s economics.” And it absolutely is, which is why Maricich’s wicked analysis of export and free trade and the “heavy social taxes” that create homophobia are so absolutely poignant, launching the track far beyond a rote Peaches shock-attack into a realm of brilliant social commentary, ‘specially since Bechtolt’s production is so danceable, and this is the economic transaction of the dance floor: people in charge of their own bodily commerce, and the gender roles in between are simply the trade agreements enforced on pleasure by a governing body that can’t entirely control the capital once it’s in play. Again, with apologies to Furtado and Timbaland—this is the price of promiscuity, which is the knowledge of how “boys” and “girls” are paid for in the first place. The music and lyrics cohere brilliantly—check the way Maricich slows up her vocals for “boys we love you,” making clear the sarcasm—as Bechtolt rocks jungle percussive noise under a Prince minimalist aesthetic with some Gang of Four sensibilities thrown in for good measure. “Big U” rearticulates the ambivalence, blithely talking about threesomes with the universe, but mostly just trying to navigate the complicated relationship between fears of being alone and the social commerce of trying to connect. The melancholic tone is offset by Bechtolt’s blurping backing track, all thudding bass swoops and creeping crinkles of sound, and the segue into the marching band brilliance of “The Long List of Girls” is even sweeter, as Maricich essentially tells “boys” to calm the fuck down, and to not use her body as a fire hydrant just because she smiles at them.
Bodies and ownership are critical subjects throughout the album. “Bonjour Jeune Fille” retells the story of Buffalo Bill—and that opening vocal/music box duet is pretty creepy—as the addressed female subject is transformed into “a suit of clothes” to be worn “in strange towns,” where the “girls will try to rip [her] off” the narrator. These inverted evocations of the fragility of flesh are plastered over an upbeat mess of panned hats and theremin-led bass figures, not quite as danceable as the previous two, but then this is the most pointed attack on the album: it notes that “Upstairs / We’ve heard the sounds of your love / We’ve also heard the sounds that didn’t come down.” The “come” has to be a pun, but is it he or she who is making noise and he or she that isn’t? Since it’s the addressed woman who is going to “come come come” along with the narration, the answer seems pretty clear, and the insightful message—that the patriarchy’s bait-and-switch for their inability to provide sexual pleasure for women is to objectify them—is made more playful by the homoerotic overtones that run throughout. Which stakes are pushed further, when Maricich deliberates on where she would be without indoor plumbing (we all know where we would have “ended” up, or at least where our “ends” would be), fur (which, giving the cunnilingual imagery, must be pubic hair), and sweat (“now I lay here steaming”) in “Babay (Eat a Critter, Feel It’s Wrath). In other words, sexual bodies—the same bodies certain power relationships want to objectify—are also the same bodies from which we shit, sweat, and grow hair. Maricich manages to broach the same politics as Peaches without the concomitant “look at what I’m talking about!” factor that often deflates—or at least numbs—the politics in the first place. Meanwhile, Bechtolt is pulling off complex interpolations of off-time pulse snarks, flitting percussion, and slow, languid chords that suck through the chorus. It’s the most awkward beat on Paper Television, but deliciously so, because our bodies are awkward too.
The weakest part of the album centers on the next two tracks. “Eat Your Heart Up,” for all of its cannibalistic fantasies and hilarious blood imagery, seems like a placeholder. It’s a forgivable misstep, since something has to be the worst song on the album, right? It’s still pretty fun, all growling patches and more body manipulation, with a few quirky bongo fills embedded for fun. Meanwhile, “Pardon Me,” if we assume the songs are all related, is the one where Maricich deals her most conflicted lyric; whereas elsewhere the narrative voice is assured, here we see doubts about the distinction between love and sex, and it works mostly because even the most confident individuals have moments of doubt, which is exactly why the political and social bullshit that the rest of the album spends time tearing apart is so prevalent and powerful. That said, the music lags a bit here; it seems Bechtolt wasn’t quite sure how to handle this track, and gives it a similar backing as “Pile of Gold,” but the juxtaposition just doesn’t work as well. Which is fine, because the final two tracks more than make up for the slight lag.
“Fists Up” is the most complex lyric here, delivered through a fucking wash of brilliant melodies, spiraling through the entire history of humanity, more potential puns about coming and dick size and the mess of patriarchy and retaliatory humiliation thereof, all to make the most simple and clear point on the album: nothing about us exists meaningfully, be it gender, sexuality, our bodies, our histories, or whatever, if those things only exist as a way for us to “prove it,” “it” being what we are. Because, if that’s the case, they only exist in the proving, and never in the way we actually satisfy ourselves. And the eloquent way the track says that, with its harmonies-of-Maricichs coda slowly becoming a capella? Beautiful. Fortunately, the album doesn’t take the easy way out, and, again becoming sad, “True Affection” is of course about anything but, where the net result of the bullshit hoops we need to walk through to date or love or exist at all is that we are often separated from the objects of our affection: “I never felt so close / I never felt so all alone.” It’s the most clichéd lyric on the album, but it also recognizes the reality that we often live our lives in clichés.
Maricich and Bechtold manage to interrogate every rule of love and sex and dating while actually reinforcing the reasons we do those things in the first place—because we like to fuck, and like to love—and it’s inspiring, because it isn’t preachy, or dumbed down, or particularly polemic. It’s vulnerable, conflicted, angry, assured, sad, brash, happy, and hopeful, and even if the ending to this particular story is unhappy, it’s only unhappy at the same time that it is hopeful, born from the realization that it doesn’t have to be this way—that boys and girls and boys and boys and girls and girls can interact without having to “prove” that they are whatever those things mean, without having to guard or promote their bodies like a “Pile of Gold,” without playing by the rules of our present sexual economy. Which is why this type of commentary goes far deeper than, say, Christina Aguilera deliberating on the objectification of women. Maricich gets that society’s maintenance of gender imbalance is a critical site against which we can lobby dissent, but just as critical is the way we all objectify ourselves, trying to “prove” what we are. We are often the problem, just as much as we might be oppressed.
And I don’t think the Blow are criticizing us; instead, they’re gathering us into their arms, they’re eating our hearts and trying to get the blood and fluids to flow from person to person, because if “Eat Your Heart Up” says anything by employing the mixing of blood as a metaphor for the pooling of ideas, it says that we shouldn’t care what people might think if we are seen with each other in ways that contradict their image of the “correct” or “normative” sexual economy. So they’re bringing us all together—each of us, with our own valid desires—and hosting a party where we can all work this shit out, because it’s easy to “know” these things in the classroom, but what happens when the blood starts pumping? And that, right there, is why I love this album the most: the concept of sexual arousal between bumping, sweating bodies is built into the fabric of the politics presented and the music itself. Paper Television is a simultaneous acknowledgement of everybody’s right to party, fuck, and have a good time as well as an indictment of the price we pay if we ever assume that a party is devoid of politics. So you can’t say, “who cares? Isn’t this just good party music?” Because if you do, it’s already crossed your name off the guest list.