Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Night That Minnie Timperley Died

“Cocker’s fascination with doomed young women is approaching the Lynchian.” So wrote Dennis Lim regarding this track, in The Village Voice in 2002. In fact, you could probably make a mix CD, possibly two, of Pulp songs about alluringly troubled women and send it to David Lynch himself. “Minnie Timperley” is one of his most eerie of these songs, all the more so due to its anthemic pop-rock sound, with a sparkling, perfect balance of programmed and played instruments. The chorus is so big and proud, I often delude myself into thinking this could’ve been a hit, in America even.

But songs with incredibly detailed and morbid storylines do not become hits, not in any country. This is why I do not work in A&R.

At any rate, the lyric is one of Jarvis’ most vivid and inventive. It opens with a quote from Minnie, and from there, he lets the details unfold with truly cinematic fluidity. The rhymes come effortlessly yet unpredictably as well (“Oh, the football scarves/The girls drink halves”). When the awful title act is about to occur, we pull away to a chorus that takes the rock language of triumph and makes it sound mournful and tragic.

Perhaps the Lynchian aspect of this movie is due to the entire scenario coming to Jarvis in a disturbingly vivid dream (see the interview excerpt here).

Saturday, July 28, 2007

All Time High

This is one of the few bright spots on Shaken and Stirred, movie composer David Arnold’s collection of covers of James Bond movie themes. It’s not really Pulp per se – Jarvis, Steve Mackey and Mark Webber are supported by Arnold, an orchestra and a session drummer.

Shaken and Stirred came out about five months before This is Hardcore (but only a month before the album’s teaser single “Help the Aged”). In many ways, Pulp’s “All Time High” (originally recorded by Rita Coolidge for Octopussy) is of a piece with Hardcore. The lush setting is undercut by a seedy, gasping, mannered vocal from Jarvis. “All Time High” becomes another of his slightly ironic lothario portraits. The original version was sung to Bond. Jarvis sings it as Bond, simultaneously meaning and not meaning the pledge of eternal devotion. In particular, his delivery of the second verse – “In my time I've said these words before/ But now I realize/ My heart was telling me lies/ For you, they’re true” – contains an oddly poignant flavor.

A few months after this album’s release, the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies came out, with a score by David Arnold. Pulp were among the acts invited to “audition” a title theme. Their submission did not make the cut, but they eventually found a good use for it, so it’ll get reviewed here eventually.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Please Don't Worry

When they make the Jarvis Cocker biopic (he’ll be playing himself for most of it, although Bill Nighy can play Future Jarvis), the first key scene will show his 18-year-old self gawkily but bravely presenting a demo tape to legendary BBC DJ John Peel in the fall of 1981. One quick month later and the enthused, youthful amateurs of the first Pulp lineup (Jarvis, Peter Dalton, Wayne Furniss and Jamie Pinchbeck) are recording their first Peel Session. For most nascent bands a Peel Session was often the first step to indie-bred acclaim. As Jarvis would wryly note years later, for Pulp it resulted in a 12-year period of struggles, frequent line-up changes and near-constant indifference from the UK music scene. And they didn’t record another Peel Session until 1993.

Of the four songs from that first Peel Session, “Please Don’t Worry” shows most clearly the roots of the classic Pulp sound. A fairground organ lurches drunkenly onto center stage, while a comically large synth-drum sound punctuates each measure in the verses. He’s not even 20, but Jarvis is chronicling a lifetime of disillusion; it appears that drinking, sex (or the lack thereof) and financial issues have already been preying on his mind for some time. And for the chorus, he just repeats the line “Please don’t worry, I feel fine” till you can’t tell if he’s mocking or trying to convince himself and others.

The pop hooks never let up on “Please Don’t Worry” and the whole thing is perfectly timed at 3 minutes and 21 seconds. Seriously, you mean to tell me not one indie label owner in 1981 wanted to put out a 7-inch of this?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Pink Glove

Even by Pulp’s standards, this is a song title rife with provocatively sexual connotations. Jarvis certainly seems to relish every last “uh-uh-uh-uh” and lines like “You’ll always be together/ ’Cause he gets you up in leather.” But it’s the seething jealousy and regret of the chorus (“I know you think I’ve got to be joking/ But if you touch him again than I’m going”) that really sticks in his throat. The pink glove becomes a metaphor for all the ways people compromise themselves in relationships, leading to behavior that’s infuriating, funny, pathetic and sad. “Wear your pink glove, babe/ You put it on the wrong way.”

The His ‘n’ Hers version displays the unique recorded sound of the early ‘90s lineup (Jarvis, Russell Senior, Candida Doyle, Nick Banks, Steve Mackey). No one in the band was a virtuoso really, but by this time they had hit upon a winning strategy: If everyone plays very simple parts on their instruments, and just right amount of reverb gets added, the results would be incredibly powerful. Just listen to the chorus: Candida’s one-note organ part, plus Russell’s clanging guitar chord on the one, plus the relentless Banks-Mackey rhythm machine – there’s little doubt that this is a band that Jarvis is in.

Meanwhile, the live versions of “Pink Glove” from this era remove the reverb and copious overdubs, boiling the song down to it’s tightest, tensest possible form. If you’ve heard the version on The Peel Sessions, you know what I’m talking about. This TV version is an equally perfect example.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Boats and Trains

The shortest song in the Pulp discography and therefore something of an anomaly, “Boats and Trains” is the only song-sketch the band ever did. I think of song-sketches as very short pieces that nonetheless manage to feel complete and even tell some sort of story. For example, “Her Majesty” by The Beatles, “A Pretty Girl is Like…” by The Magnetic Fields, “Love and Kisses” by Sam Phillips and “Through with Buzz” by Steely Dan.

Despite its brevity, “Boats and Trains” is one of the finest entries on It and an early inkling of Jarvis’ subversive writing abilities. Acoustic guitar, organ and (for one time only!) mandolin gently make their way through an ingenious set of chords. Jarvis softly warbles about his secret fears and the futility in opening up about them. “You’d be sure to leak it/ You couldn’t keep it inside/ No matter how hard you tried/ On Boats and Trains and/ And Boats and Trains and/ Funny things and…” Are the boats and trains (and funny things) a way for him to imagine his private thoughts spreading far beyond the relative safety of his Sheffield home? Already, the paranoia that would infiltrate many a Pulp album has begun to set in.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

O.U. (Gone, Gone)

What people think of as the “classic” Pulp sound, it begins here. Sure, before that, there was “My Legendary Girlfriend” and Separations, but much of that work was made before the band truly coalesced as studio performers. On “O.U. (Gone, Gone),” some key elements of the Pulp sound emerge. Candida Doyle’s reliable Farfisa organ no longer signifies low-rent horror; now it’s something glammy and kitschy, yet oddly uplifting. And drummer Nick Banks finds a way to fit his style into the band, by combining Moe Tucker-like simplicity with the disco-rock rhythms of Blondie’s Clem Burke.

Jarvis’ vocals and perspective mark the biggest change. Finally, the guy has cheered up a little. He’s still talking about a busted relationship, but his attitude has completely shifted. He’s not mulling over the shattered remains, he’s scheming to get her back. He’s referring to himself in the second person, like he’s trying to narrate his life story, give it some drama, for additional motivation. He’s begun to develop his penchant for idiosyncratic vocal interjections. I believe this is the first appearance of “Ma ma ma ma ma ma ma…” and he ends the song with some euphoric “Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, oh yeah”s. By the end, he just sounds really fucking happy to be alive, not necessarily related to the story of the song, more because he can barely believe he and his struggling band of oddballs actually came up with such a joyous pop song.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Life Must Be So Wonderful

Of course, you know, the title is meant sardonically. Like the other songs on Pulp’s difficult second album, Freaks, the mood here is dour, the imagery almost oppressive (“And now blind eyes watch you bleed/ You rot in your bedroom, you cry on the phone”). And Jarvis struggles to eke out a tune with his tight, two-note baritone voice. Maybe “sardonically” is the wrong word; it implies a certain amount of humor that’s actually in woefully short supply on this song.

Nevertheless, “Life Must Be So Wonderful” is no lost cause, not quite. Arguably the most impressive element is the rhythm supplied by then-drummer Magnus Doyle (brother of Candida). Whereas most of his stickwork was loose and haphazard, here Doyle cleverly utilizes supple, Al Green-style beats in an unlikely setting. And the rest of the band has already begun to hit upon a unique skill in dramatic sweep, as the song lurches from sweet to dissonant and back again.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Since this is quite possibly Pulp’s slickest, most facile song, they deserve some sort of credit for perversely letting it languish as a b-side. Or maybe they were just too aware of how tossed-off the song is. True, it’s the b-side of one of their most commercial singles, “Disco 2000,” but that song is a truly glorious pop moment, filled with aching emotion alongside its big production and bigger hooks. Conversely, “Ansaphone” sounds thin and just a little too eager to please to be a truly worthy moment from the band. Sure, the frothy keyboard arrangement has charm, and Jarvis sounds almost sweet, listening forlornly to an ex-lover’s answering machine, hoping one day she’ll leave a message on his. But ultimately this is as close as Pulp ever got to the more soulless end of Britpop.

Perhaps this is why, on the 2006 double-disc Deluxe Edition of Different Class, the demo version of “Ansaphone” is featured instead of the commercially released one. The two versions don’t differ all that much, but at least the demo feels considerably less fussed-over.

“Ansaphone” also brings to mind the Different Class paradox. The sessions of His ‘n’ Hers and This Is Hardcore yielded many grade-A quality b-sides. Different Class, not so much. I think this is mainly because the band saw DC as their do-or-die moment; therefore, all the best songs from that era are on the album itself.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Death II

This song is the sequel to “Death Comes to Town,” a Pulp song that, curiously, is more readily available as a remix, under the title “Death Goes to the Disco.” But if “Death Comes to Town” finds Jarvis attempting to half-imagine the Grim Reaper hanging ‘round a dance club, “Death II” seems to dispense with this scenario. Instead, it appears to be another Jarvis ode to the after-effects of love lost in Sheffield.

The lyrics contain some Jarvis staples: off-kilter interjections (“Let’s do it now”… “Oh, Jesus Christ now”); more off-kilter descriptions of fairly commonplace actions (“So I go out and fill my eyes with other women/ Oh, they look good to me and I think that I might kiss them”). However, lines like “The touch of your skin is a legend” suggest that the woman he’s singing about is deceased. Or maybe it just feels that way.

Musically, “Death II” is one of the Separations songs largely built with computers, drum machines, etc. Nevertheless, it’s a credit that the band retains their musical personality – that vaguely low-rent disco-pop mélange they were just beginning to master – pretty much no matter what equipment they used. Despite the fact that it’s debatable as to how much the band knew what they were doing with this technology, “Death II” still surges with an impressive amount of drama. Future entries on songs from this album will examine this oddly unique sound.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Party Hard

“Party Hard” opens with a phalanx of overdriven guitars and a pounding, resolutely unsubtle rhythm section. As with the rest of This Is Hardcore, the production is state-of-the-art, nary a note without digital polish and finesse. It’s just this side of antiseptic – and that’s entirely the point. “Party Hard” is one the album’s portraits of a costly, finely wrought and seductive version of hell.

As you might have guessed from its title, the song describes the whirling adventures of Jarvis on the scene, a möbius strip of loud music, dancing, sex and drugs. But his voice – processed through vocoders and other synthesized effects – is pure disaffection, dripping with weary disdain. You can easily imagine George Sanders sardonically proclaiming the opening line: “I used to try very hard to make friends with everyone on the planet.” In his book Britpop! (titled The Last Party in the UK), John Harris notes that “Party Hard” bears a musical resemblance to David Bowie’s “Look Back in Anger.” True, but the been-there-shagged-that attitude brings to mind “Love is the Drug,” by Bowie’s contemporaries Roxy Music.

“Party Hard” is also one of the most prescient songs on the album, set in a land of sensory overload, conspicuous consumption and instant gratification, of moremoremore. Let’s just say the song isn’t exactly what you’d call dated.

Pulp: The Peel Sessions contains a relentless rendition of the song from a live show at the Birmingham Academy in October 2001. Here, Jarvis’ voice is processed until it sounds like he’s swallowed every microphone on the stage.

The video for the song – quite possibly the campiest the band ever made – can be viewed here. (Watch all the way through – the best jokes are in the last ten seconds.)

Monday, July 2, 2007

Have You Seen Her Lately?

The first verse contains some excellent lyrics, as a vampiric and insidious lover “directs all the dreams you are dreaming.” Upon further examination, however, this is a somewhat puzzling song.

I saw a friend of yours today,
She called me over just to say:
"I don't know if you've seen her lately,
but god, she's looking rough"

Why derive the title from this quote if the song is actually in the second person, directed towards the woman “her”self?

For that matter, as Jarvis describes this man as a child, why does he think she should “teach him how to walk”? Maybe he’s just stressing that she needs to get this man out of her life, but the metaphor doesn’t hold too well, a rare occurrence in the Pulp canon. And the payoff line – “He's just a piece of luggage that you should throw away” – just doesn’t have the necessary, venomous snap.

Fortunately, musically, “Have You Seen Her Lately?” holds up better. A swooning ballad blown up big with billowing reverb, the recording affirms the band’s ability to blow kitchen-sink drama up into a lovingly grand, but no less human, affair.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

My Lighthouse

The first Pulp single and first song on their debut It, but not the first significant recorded work by the band… but we’ll get to those eventually.

This is virtually unrecognizable as Pulp music, and not just because this lineup broke up shortly after the album’s release. On “My Lighthouse,” Jarvis croons uncomfortably, and his lyrical stance is not sardonic and witty, but callow and virginal.

Nevertheless, there are hints of his future songwriting prowess. The opening line is charmingly and knowingly awkward: “Come up to my lighthouse for I have something I wish to say/It can wait for a moment; well, in fact, it can wait all day.” The song itself is pretty beguiling piece of soft folk-pop, with an opening mix of seagull sounds and chiming guitar riffs that shows an early facility for evocative arrangements. A simply but catchy keyboard part enters mid-song, something very similar to keyboards on later Pulp hits. It’s just that Jarvis can’t sing yet.

Things you learn from Wiki sites: The “My Lighthouse” single was released on April 18, 1983, almost exactly a month before the release of the first Smiths single, “Hand in Glove.” (May 13, 1983). I just thought you should know.