Wednesday, April 05, 2006

2005 FLASHBACK: ANNIE


It was only a year ago that this sassy Norwegian pop princess piped up with her fantastic album Anniemal.

I instantly fell in love with her sunny mix of classic Madonna hooks, indie sensibilities and an ear for the dance floor. Here's a feature I wrote after speaking with Annie over the phone during a press day in New York.

It's been kind of grey around LA (and in my head) lately, so a little sunshine is just what the doctor ordered...

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Summer is never complete without at least one perfect pop song. In 2004 (a year woefully short on good pop music), Puerto Rican teen wonder twins Nina Sky saved the day with their infectious and dance floor-igniting “Move Ya Body” on the back of the ‘Coolie Dance’ dancehall rhythm, while 2005 is currently ruled by Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams’ minimal cheerleader explosion “Hollaback Girl” (although in a truly perfect world, it would be M.I.A. and Diplo on the cover of this month’s Teen People instead of Britney and Kevin Spederline y’all). But Gwen and her ever-controversial Hirajuku girls could have some stiff competition in the form of Norway’s new pop sensation, Annie, and her shining debut album, Anniemal (Big Beat/Atlantic). Delivering plenty of fun and fizzy dance-pop effervescence, it’s an upbeat grab bag of ridiculously smiley tunes that deliver plenty of guilty pleasure goodness, only without the guilt, given her hipster-approved pedigree (Both Royksopp and Richard X provide production on the album). But make no mistakes: Annie’s music is far too fun to be “cool.” This is the sort of thing we can only dream our many fallen American pop princesses could even fathom recording. Not even the beloved Kylie Minogue has sounded this effervescent in years. Skipping across years of pop culture influence, Annie’s album invokes wide-ranging acts like the Tom Tom Club, Human League, Saint Etienne and most specifically Madonna on the “Everybody”-sampling “Greatest Hit.”

“I love New York. It’s definitely one of my favorite cities. I’m so happy to be here,” Annie gushes in clipped English from a suite in the snappy Tribeca Grand Hotel, in town for her first wave of American press. There are a couple of performances and even a DJ gig at the ├╝ber-hip Misshapes dance party on her itinerary.

“I used to DJ a lot more,” she muses, “but I’ve been really concentrating on practicing the live show. I play quite eclectic sets. Lots of ’80s, New York disco, weird pop stuff and even some rock, basically everything that I’m into. I’m usually just playing records, but sometimes by accident I’ll make a mix,” she laughs.

“When I was very little, I was really into Madonna and all sorts of pop music back then,” she remembers of growing up and listening to music in Norway. “But I went through a lot of phases. I listened to a lot of hip-hop as well, like NWA and Public Enemy. Then I was into New York bands like Blondie and the Ramones. I’ve been into so much.”

By the time Annie turned 17, she was fronting her first band, Suitcase. “A really crap band,” she remembers. “We played one gig, which was awful. It was our first and last show. We were very ambitious, but not very good. As Annie, I haven’t been so ambitious, but all sorts of good things are happening, so go figure.”

She’s pensive when questioned about the universality of her music, which has topped the sales charts in Norway and far more critical ones in America, with her glorious live-action single “Heartbeat” coming in at #1 on the Pitchfork website’s best singles of 2004 chart (“I was completely shocked by that. It was amazing!”).

“I guess it’s a combination of catchy, melodic songs made with really great producers who are very interesting,” she says finally. “I was afraid that the songs would all sound very different with the different producers. But I think we’ve come up with a proper album, not just a collection of tracks. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

Despite the countless accolades and cool kid cache, there’s still the undeniable fact that Annie is coming to America at a time when pop is a dirtier word than it’s been in a long time, given the current climate for genre-crossing rock and all things hip-hop.

“Just the fact that I’m coming to America at all is really special and weird,” she counters evenly. “When I made the album, I never thought that it would be interesting to America at all. I thought they’d find it to European-sounding,” she adds. “I’m really surprised at how welcome I’ve been made to feel. On my website (www.anniemusic.co.uk) I have a forum, and I’ve been getting all sorts of responses from America and Canada.”

Which lends credence to the argument that the only reason pop is such a dirty word is that quality pop songs are difficult to come by. For every “Toxic” that Britney records, there’s an album full of awful songs that comes with it.

“I don’t see my album as pure pop, either,” she argues. “I’m so inspired by so much different music. I think I’ve put a lot of different things together. It’s not just pop.”

Granted, tunes like “Come Together” rides a classic disco rhythm reminiscent of Jamiroquoi’s Napolean Dynamite dance hit “Canned Heat,” while “No Easy Love” even goes for some R&B heat. Still, the pure pop-tastic splendor found in songs like the free love anthem “Chewing Gum” and the epic tale of fallen glory in “Me Plus One” cannot be denied.

She feels no particular kinship to any contemporary artists but to producers, offering that she’s been compared vocally to St. Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell (of which she’s a fan) and “The singer of the Twin Peaks song,” Julee Cruise. Annie has also dabbled in a bit of remixing, having retooled tunes by the likes of the Electric Six and Polyphonic Spree (“It’s a lot of fun!” she enthuses.).

While Norway doesn’t have much of a pop music scene, the nation is enthralled with Pop Idol, the Norwegian version of American Idol.

“I’ve met some of the contestants, and they’ve been so sweet,” Annie relates. “They tell me how much they look up to me, which I find very funny, since I can’t stand any of that stuff.” <

(Orginally published in Urb magazine, July.Aug 2005)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

FREE THE PEOPLES!




DILATED PEOPLES
20/20
(CAPITOL)

BY SCOTT STERLING

Wednesday, March 8, 2006 - 4:00 pm

Dilated Peoples are the J. Geils Band of indie hip-hop: They’ve earned their position the old-fashioned way — through years of relentless touring, honing an act that commands rabid crowds of hip-hop heads from here to Albany. The trouble is, much like Philly’s the Roots, they’ve mainly attracted the kind of fans who will line up all day to see them perform, then drag their feet when it comes to buying an album.

That’s partly why Dilated Peoples’ last album, 2004’s Neighborhood Watch (Capitol), wasn’t the industry breakout so many had predicted. Led by the top-shelf Kanye West production “This Way,” the fantastic album that was supposed to elevate the band into higher tax brackets stalled at the checkout counter. It didn’t help that the band’s hardcore constituency are among the savviest on the Internet, used to scoring copies often months before official release.

Ultimately, though, all these factors paled in comparison to the underground uproar around Dilated Peoples’ fast association with Kanye. Like any genre, hip-hop — particularly that murky domain known as “indie” hip-hop — is rife with purists. The way artists roll can be as important as the tracks they release. To hardcore rap fans, a staunchly underground L.A. crew cavorting with such a relatively mainstream star seemed like a crass attempt to cash in and, worse, sell out.

Of course, all such claims are ridiculous. Until Rakaa busts out in a pair of Mickey Mouse gloves, or Evidence starts trading verses with half-naked white girls, it’s safe to say they’re at least keeping it in the realm of “real”-ness. Still, for Dilated Peoples, the relative flop of Neighborhood Watch had to hurt, and proved the kids weren’t all right with how the band was rolling.

Which is why 20/20 stings like a slap in the face to anyone who cried sellout simply because a superstar like Kanye recognized their value. Setting the confrontational tone with “Kindness for Weakness,” rappers Rakaa and Evidence shred haters with their customary panache, featuring an apt guest verse from Talib Kweli, another rapper who knows something about the fickle nature of the indie hip-hop head. Evidence doesn’t hesitate to go for the throat in the ominous “Rapid Transit”: “Cats got weak/Come at me with a better line/I don’t respect rappers/I respect Kevin Federline.” After the similarly morose “Olde English,” incendiary reggae star Capleton almost overwhelms the dancehall-flavored “Firepower (The Tables Have to Turn)” with his immense vocal presence.

From there, the album runs like an Olympic skater hitting required marks. “The One and Only” gives it up for the DP DJ, allowing Babu to flex on the decks. They shout out their fierce weed-smoking contingency with goofy interludes from the pot-dealing “Dr. Greenthumb,” who sounds suspiciously like Cypress Hill’s B-Real. “The Eyes Have It” gives the conscious kids something to ponder. Sonically, 20/20 is a no-frills affair, with straightforward beats laying the groundwork for more histrionic lyrics.

Altogether, 20/20 plays like the consummate anti-sellout album, purposefully avoiding anything too radio-friendly (given the current state of “urban” radio, that’s a very good thing) and playing directly to the heart of the indie hip-hop nation. Therein, however, lies the rub. While 20/20 does everything “right,” it loses a certain something in the dogged determination to avoid mistakes, and to make sure the kids realize ain’t a damn thing changed. Then again, that’s kind of the album’s point. Consider it a palate-cleanser, a reaffirmation of the many reasons why Dilated Peoples are familiar with the heights of the underground hip-hop hierarchy. Maybe now they can kick back, blaze through a field of designer chronic and really take some chances next time. You know there’s more to the Dilated Peoples universe than they’re letting on to — for now.

(Originally published in the LA Weekly)