Thursday, February 28, 2008

This House is Condemned

The final Pulp song to feature a lead vocal from Russell Senior, “This House is Condemned” also represents the band’s most committed attempt at acid house. These two facts seem unrelated, as Russell’s disengaged, stentorian spoken-word track exists on a wholly different planet from the busily computerized music. Imagine New Order if Ian Curtis had lived. They seem to be taking the word “House” rather literally. The storyline is another saga of low-income housing (see also “Mile End” and “Deep Fried in Kelvin”). Rather than try to compete with Jarvis with cuttingly witty observations, Russell gets his point across through repetition. I wouldn’t call this song a failure, but it does definitely end Separations on a note of “whaaa?” Even though the prior three tracks also featured plenty of digitally triggered backing tracks, the song still sticks out of what was otherwise their most fully realized, cohesive album to date.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Live On

“Live On” was performed on radio once and never “properly” recorded, sending it around the bootleg circuit. It’s another His ‘n’ Hers-era gem, proving again that the band had more great songs than it knew what to do with by this time. The band has mastered the effortless disco groove, insistent, cheesy keyboards and charmingly amateurish wah-wah guitar riffs. All of these provide a reliable support system for Jarvis to muse and work himself into a bother about, in this case, the lingering and torturing memories of long-gone lover. The band’s performance only gets tighter and tenser as Jarvis increasingly seems to lose his shit. These kinds of arrangements would soon prove to be very rewarding for Pulp.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Dishes

After the opening panic attack of “The Fear,” this song comes as palpable relief and proof that This Is Hardcore isn’t just about cold sweats, panic and loathing, but the sobering realization that, like it or not, life trundles along anyway. The loungy balladry of the music helps relax Jarvis, who goes to great, witty lengths to de-mystify himself. Not only performing the most mundane of household tasks, he’s also willing to go through whatever prosaic mating ritual you’d require – he knows he’s not God’s gift to women. Even when he risks some maudlin lyrical passages near the end – musing about heaven and earth, and making the best out of the latter – the sweetly sweeping music, with a heartrending string section rising, helps the song stay on the genuine and touching side.

Here’s a TV performance of the song.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bob Lind (The Only Way is Down)

The opening riff brings to mind “Show Me” by The Pretenders. But in every other way “Bob Lind” is a song that could only come from Pulp. The buoyant melody and arrangement are supported by a lyric that describe people at their seemingly lowest point – desperate and hopeless. But Jarvis also posits that these moments are when people can “fall in love again.” He drives the point home in the final verse, one of his most nakedly emotional: “When you walked into the room/ I could not breathe, I could not speak.” The lines that follow find Jarvis offering himself wholly and honestly. It’s genuinely touching and not at all sappy, not with lines like “Oh no, I am a fuck-up/ Just the same as you.” The song celebrates fuck-ups, because when you reach that state, you’re more likely to open yourself up.
Bob Lind was a soft-pop singer in the ‘60s. Jarvis explains his connection to the song at the bottom of this page.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.

For a time, I found this bump-and-grind opus to be the odd song out on Different Class (see also “Seductive Barry” on This is Hardcore). Then I focused on the key line of the verses: “It’s so cold.” The seduction scene in this song isn’t unattractive and disillusioning, but it’s focused on the unfamiliarity of it all, the sense of heading into uncharted territory, not just physically but emotionally as well. In that light, this is yet another song from Different Class’ second half that perfectly captures the uneasiness of the journey towards maturity, a trip always fraught with potential strife. (It could be argued, then, that in the three songs that follow, closing the album, the disenchantment truly sets in.)

Musically, “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.” stands as the album’s most overt lunge towards electronic experimentation, a direction in which the band frequently made overtures without ever really fully committed. Ultimately, they were always a song-and-lyric-driven act. I particular like this live version from the We Love Life tour.

Monday, February 18, 2008

97 Lovers

Jarvis’s liner-note description (from the Dogs Are Everywhere EP) sums it up best: Why 97? It could just have easily been 970 or 9,700. Just take a short walk around town and you soon lose count of the deformities. By the way, what's that growing on your back? In other words, this is another of the band’s goth workouts, with creaking violin and relentless kettle drums. The rudimentary Farfisa chords that open the song would later be reused for a more upbeat end on “O.U. (Gone, Gone).” As Jarvis’ note implies, the purpose of his rant is obscure if not completely irrelevant. It’s more about the overall feel of doom, like a permanent fog settling over Sheffield. Still, the song gets points for the effortlessly creepy image of a picture of Roger Moore that hangs over the bed of a couple living a textbook example of domestic discontent.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Whiskey in the Jar

Frequently during the ‘90s, Pulp recorded Black Sessions for the France Inter radio station. Back then, bands were asked to do cover songs for these sessions, to give listeners something special, I suppose. Pulp often rose to the occasion with some truly surprising choices, such as the Thin Lizzy version of the traditional Irish ballad “Whiskey in the Jar.” It’s not a perfect fit, but Jarvis’ acoustic guitar and Russell’s violin helped give the band an entry point to the song’s folky lilt. And the song’s themes of desire, deception and murder certainly fit with many of Jarvis’ lyrical preoccupations.

This radio performance subsequently came out on the Childline benefit compilation and as the b-side to the French “Common People” single. However, the best cover song Pulp ever recorded for a Black Session was their stunningly apt reading of Frankie Valli’s “The Night,” which unfortunately has yet to be officially released.

Monday, February 11, 2008

I Want You

The guitars intertwine agreeably and the backing vocals campily intone “ba-ba-ba-ba.” Here’s another Freaks track that feints towards pop. Nevertheless, Jarvis promises a scenario of mutual dissatisfaction, to put it mildly. Romantic obsession curdles into boredom by the second verse already. And, once the relationship has reached its inevitable conclusion (“You’ve got to stamp upon its head,” Jarvis instructs), endless regret will inevitably follow, which soon morphs back into romantic obsession. And we can where this is headed.

Not that the band was faring well in the music scene at this point anyway, but it probably didn’t help that Freaks came out the same year as Elvis Costello’s “I Want You,” an even more fascinating, slow-motion crawl through desire unhinged. Pulp’s song sounds positively breezy in comparison. Although it’s worth nothing that the demo of Pulp’s “I Want You” first came out on a compilation cassette in 1984, but I think it’s safe it reached a limited audience this way. “I Want You” is also one of the few Freaks-era songs that the band performed occasionally in the '90s and beyond.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Babies

It’s been quite a while since I’ve tackled any of Pulp’s truly definitive songs, so I figured I’d better get a move on.

“Babies” is such a potent pop song, it gave the band two lifts into orbit -- first as a successful indie single in ’92; then given a slightly different, brighter mix for the ’94 single which became their first UK top 20 hit. And make no mistake, even from my American perspective “Babies” sounds like a landmark hit because it marked their most perfect pop thus far. Simply put, every single part of the song is a genius pop hook, from the brilliantly rudimentary opening guitar hook (written by drummer Nick Banks) onward.

But you can’t discount that lyric, which perfectly, wittily captures the collision of lust, discovery and confusion of adolescence. And there are sisters. Plus, with Jarvis spending much of the song hiding in a wardrobe, you can think of it as Pulp’s own “Trapped in the Closet,” as a friend of mine once remarked. (“Babies” has but one sequel, which we’ll get to eventually.)

Appropriately, there two separate videos for “Babies,” a way-low-budget one and a glossier, mainstream-ready one. Plus, this strange “spoken word” version. Keep looking around YouTube and you’ll find plenty of live and TV performances as well.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Turkey Mambo Momma

Dismiss this as a novelty tune, thanks to the title, at your own peril. This entry from the band’s fabled first Peel Session in ’81 knowingly borrows a xylophone motif from Violent Femmes’ “Gone Baby Gone,” but that’s not all. Like that famed first album from Gordon Gano et al, ‘Turkey Mambo Momma” is thick with heady sexual paranoia. Detailing some sort of encounter in Seychelles (an island in Africa and popular tourist spot), the song at times verges on a delirious parody of harlequin romance novels. Jarvis ends the tale with a typically morbid flourish. “Impaled on the rocks as she tears me in two/ At last I’ve found the answer, and the answer is you.” In light of a song like this, the na├»vely romantic tone Jarvis pitched on It in 1983 sounds more and more like a mere aberration.