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Ruffled Feather Music: PC Music & More In This Month's Panpopticon
Amy Pettifer , May 12th, 2015 11:33

Amy Pettifer returns with her new pop column that this month takes a dizzying sprint from Years & Years to Will Young and Britney Spears and Ciara to Elle Exxe. And lock up your grumpy uncles! What's she got to say about the new PC Music compilation?

I was born on the eve of the 27th Eurovision Song Contest, a fact that has been cited ever since as some cod reasoning for my tendency toward impassioned singing and my eerie ability to recall lyrics. As grasping as that might be, it's true that the carnivalesque happening did play a key role in my formative listening years. It stemmed from a juvenile obsession with the relative successes of Sonia and Gina G, to the wild and dramatic Frances Ruffelle, to recent powerlessness following a flirtatious move that involved me, a boy I liked and Love City Groove's Wikipedia page.

All of this fondness is of course powered by the potent nostalgia for the time when your burgeoning maturity coincided with the pervading mood of the charts, and the above memories would suggest that the early 90s approached its entries with at least a nod to the contemporary pop music of the time. I can't say that I've even considered tuning in to Eurovision in the last 10 years, possibly (thankfully) because my ears have taken me elsewhere and definitely because of an inarguable downturn in our national contribution. While the rest of Europe has blazed forth with monster rock and celebratory transgender disco the UK has wept out a panoply of enraging novelties, most recently an Electro-Swing catastrophe that hopefully the public at large will never have to deal with again after the event on the 23rd May.

It's odd to have entirely stopped looking to the perfectly verdant landscape of contemporary pop for clues as to what might fly on such a stage, and strange too that the charts are now brimming with the irrepressible neon dazzle of dance pop and club classics, disco and neo-soul - sounds synonymous with those heady, early 90s springs.

If the yearly BBC 'Sound Of…' prize speaks to the current state of air play, then the music of 2015 winners Years & Years says it all. The heart and soul of the London three-piece is a kindred re-imagining of bright pop-house in the vein of Robyn S, The Original and Livin' Joy. Back in March their sixth single 'King', its pensive whistle wrapping around the taut vocal of lead singer Olly Alexander, became the first UK Number One of the year to properly deserve the title. Aside from the considerable talents of bassist Mikey Goldsworthy and synth player Emre Turkmen, it's his particular sound that is the lynchpin of the group's appeal - clench throated, treble heavy and soulful - running up and down scales and over lyrics of longing. 'King' brims with brittle beats, a pumping synth piano line and a non-stop chorus not a million miles away from Inner City's 'Good Life.' The video sees Alexander flung helplessly around by a group of sinister dancers - this physical, rubber ball choreography reflecting the tight elasticity of his voice.

Their debut album Communion isn't due for release until July 10th but if teaser track 'Worship' is anything to go by we can expect more densely layered songs of tension and yearning - celebrating a blossoming of the introspective, DIY quality of Years & Years' beginnings, to full blown, high-octane pop gold. You get the sense that this is the kind of music Alexander has always longed to vocalise, allowing the supple gymnastics that many able singers avoid in the name of casual authenticity, to run deliciously free.

Such a collision of R&B vocal and pop can be a beautiful thing, never truer than in the case of Ciara, whose career has arguably stuttered slightly since her emergence in 2004 under the puffa-jacketed wing of Missy Elliott. On early tracks like '1,2 Step' and 'Goodies', Ciara Princess Harris was beguiling and hard to read – keeping her vocals pinned down and sultry, dancing to the tune of a cooler Crunk&B and eschewing the showier elaboration of Destiny's Child. While things have been quieter since then, on her sixth album Jackie (released last week), it would appear that she has paid close attention to how artists like Nicki Minaj have rendered staunch individuality into something beloved of mainstream pop audiences, enlisting producer Dr Luke to polish her sound as he has – most notably – for Katy Perry.

It might be thanks to him that, nestled among the 14 tracks is the Europop smasher 'Give Me Love', which opens with a metallic shudder before dropping four-on-the-floor and pumping through blip and echo into a rousing chorus. It's her 'We Found Love', but there's something more controlled about the execution, this is not some feral flail – it's meant for dancing.

It's a fitting summation too of the entire record's bold spirit; an unabashed desire for some communion with the masses. It's all a treat, but the cherry is lead single 'I Bet' - perfect, bittersweet R&B with brittle staccato beats that snap in time with C's heartstrings. Her voice is at its crystal best on this track and the rhythmic lyric is genius - tugging and teasing you to croon along. It sounds like the kind of heart sore ballad often penned by Ne-Yo, but it also figures itself as a dark twin to Sade's 'By Your Side'.

In the video, the lone Ciara moves mantis-like; I like from 3:45 onwards, when the rigid marionette conceit gives way to mellifluous moves. C shakes her head frantically in the face of deception – the matching lyric “I cannot understand it” delivered with the exhausted repetition of a lovers quarrel – heads and hearts banging against brick walls.

If this isn't already your favourite song of 2015 it very soon will be.

If Britney Spears' new collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, a cover of 'Tom's Diner', was a sure sign of a new direction hands would be rubbing together with gleeful anticipation of her forthcoming ninth album. But 'Pretty Girls', a new single featuring Iggy Azalea which dropped last week, suggests a more familiar story.

This is a precocious girl gang anthem with slightly tired lyrics but a nonetheless infectious hook and nicely sparse production. 40% of the writing credit belongs to UK X-Factor winners Little Mix, and perhaps that's what gives this the feeling of Brit as the glossy main player in a group rather than foregrounding her singularity. But it's really a good thing; Britney needs people around her – a little warmth and respect – and Iggy is a faithful ride-along partner, her own rapped verse wry and melodic without taking the cake from Spears' now iconic sound, which slip-slides all over the place; the quavering apotheosis that launched so many others in its wake. 

'Pretty Girls' won't get a UK release until June 14th and the video - which seemingly has the pair cruising LA in a jeep – is still to come. But if you're hungry for some feisty-lady-in-car action in the meantime, then look no further than Elle Exxe who's debut single 'Lie to Me' released back in March, has her burning through the night, looking like Kelis' baby sister and wreaking a similar brand of noisy havoc.

Elle Exxe is gradually emerging from the pop underground, brandishing a forceful voice from a snarled lip. Hers is a grubbier, more soulful sound that smacks head on with Numan-esque electro to delicious effect. Her follow up single 'Lost In LA' - due for release on June 22nd but getting its PREMIERE here in the Panpopticon – blasts through guitar distortion, trash can drums and a blank/cool Waitresses-esque vocal, still managing to retain a pure pop spirit that rises to the surface on the anthemic whoops and hollers of the chorus.

Pop is great when its feathers are ruffled, either by dirt or drama or darkness, and Elle Exxe – powerful but unpolished - is one to watch, much like Norwegian artist Emilie Nicolas who provides similar, satisfying grist. Her spare, synth-based melodies bolster a very ethereal, very specific vocal that smacks of expansive stormy skies; her power lying in the contrast of this range against her wide-eyed, diminutive form. At a live performance in London at the end of last month, Nicolas - with her slight band of keyboards, samples and drums - succeeded in conjuring a thick, cloaking atmosphere of sound. The set, which showcased songs from her upcoming debut album Like I'm a Warrior, ebbed and flowed from silence to intensity, supporting a coruscating vocal that exists somewhere between Bjork and Liz Fraser. Her songs reveal such musical heritage; in places, harder, driving beats reveal a stormier intent and vocal bite, whereas in others, emotive, elemental singing meets the louche crispness of trip-hop – creating beguiling spaces for introspection.

Her forthcoming single 'Pstereo' (released June 22nd followed by the album on the 29th) however, is all about projecting out – opening your throat to a wide horizon and letting rip. The accompanying video visually splices rugged landscapes with a bit of Scandinavian wonder, Nicolas passing through it all observing and absorbing. This is a perfect pop single and Emilie Nicolas is a thoughtful songwriter with the ability to project far beyond her reach. Douze points.
While such dark drama may be easier for female artists to pull off convincingly, I've always admired Will Young's ability to re-cast himself from single to single, his visual conceits always chiming perfectly the music he makes, and always reaching for something beyond the obvious. From day one it was clear that he'd be irreducible to some syrupy ballad, he's too clever for that – and even at his most performative there's a certain restraint that - while reminiscent of Robbie Williams' brand of showmanship, is infinitely more appealing.

Young releases 85% Proof, his first album in four years, on 25th May, and the evidence to date showcases equal flipsides of his coin. 'Like a River' is moody, monochromatic, pensive – the dusty melody keeping Young's voice in its smoother register and the video full of visual references to Jean Cocteau and Kenneth Anger that are far from casual.

Then there's 'Love Revolution' which builds smartly around his brighter, more soulful tendencies – figuring him as a Sammy Davis Jr. style cult leader, just tongue in cheek enough to take the edge off the track's cloying 60s trappings. Young's identity and politics are firmly embedded in his musical persona and this, along with 'Joy' from the album, are forward looking pop anthems celebrating sexual equality and gay rights, just as much as they are a tonic to broken and healing hearts everywhere.

If that isn't enough of pretty boys and disco to distract you, then - to end at the beginning - it seems fitting to mention a recent release that appears to have vacuumed every anachronistic atom from both a novelty, Eurovisual legacy and a deep seated love of all things 90s, before sonically detonating them like a .gif glitter bomb. For some, PC Music – less a label, more a landing page – is pure sonic skullfuckery, in both the positive and negative sense of the word. Kingpin producer A.G. Cook is well respected amongst his peers, moving in ways that defy logic and beginning to step out from the shady anonymity of the label to provide remixes for mainstream chart acts such as Charli XCX. If you fall down on the side that finds the whole thing too creepy to deal with then either look away now or, even better, take a moment to consider Hannah Diamond – PC Music's most legitimate hope for chart success outside the confines of SoundCloud.

On PC Music Volume. 1, a compilation released on May 2nd, Diamond stands out as an artist fuelled by a genuine, all consuming passion for the sprightly, Kawaai innocence of Eurobeat and dance-pop past. While the figure of the bedroom genius, noodling and stabbing at samplers, tends to belong exclusively to men, Diamond is a genius of a different colour, a fan-girl investing time in the rehearsal and perfection of dance moves, the sourcing of the most specific item of clothing, the unselfconscious karaoke-ing of Spice Girls songs. You don't practice this kind of deference without becoming a dab hand, and it becomes – in itself – a creative act. A fact that is mirrored in Diamond's other life as a photographer, creating striking portraits (many of herself) that are Photoshopped to an eerie non-sexual perfection and are busting with punctum in the form of a well-placed North Face jacket or a frosted lip.

All this explains why her songs are the best on the album, playing the clever trick of being at once uncanny, endearing (in the amateur quiver of her singing) and finally, but not insignificantly, total bangers. Cook's hyper-produced, high octane electronica meets her apparently throwaway vocal and is transformed; the two things existing like separate stems that you could drag and drop at will, but that somehow inexplicably belong together. 'Every Night' feels like it has the greatest potential of breaking through among PC Music's offerings, and 'Keri Baby' – with it's catchy, gear changing hooks – exists on so many levels it makes my head spin. "I don't wanna be an Mp3" being the best lyric of romantic distain to ever exist in a 21st Century pop song. She might be a Visual Cultures student's dream - but she also belongs in this pop column and it would be fascinating to see her in the charts, rubbing shoulders with Years & Years, and other artists that exploit the same nostalgic passions but with less than half her relish. Maybe she will get there. Let's just see. The hairs are pricking on the back of my neck.