4/22/2009

Is this fun for you?

I'm not a guy who is ever really up on current musical trends. I just don't pay that much attention to whose album is coming out, or what singles are the big buzz tracks on MTV or, for that matter, Pitchfork Media. Generally, if I know about something that's popular, I either found out about it way before anyone else did (in these cases, because the band put out several tiny indie albums, and I heard one or more of them), or long after everyone else did (because I just wasn't paying attention). Usually, in fact, it's the latter, and I have to fight my way upstream against some cultural backlash or another, repeating over and over, "No seriously, that record is really good!" I think I've got a chance to get ahead of this one, though, and I'm going to jump on it with both feet.

I first heard of Ida Maria in the review section of Rolling Stone. They reviewed her debut LP, "Fortress Around My Heart," sometime in the last couple of months, and called it "caffeinated Scandinavian garage-rock with a sonic resemblance to the early Pretenders and an abundance of drunkenly confessional lyrics" (I'm paraphrasing). It sounded so right up my alley that I downloaded the album immediately, and what do you know, it was fucking great. I played it a few times over the next few weeks, but, as is standard for me, I was coordinating an influx of many other tunes into my life at the same time, and so it got at least somewhat lost in the shuffle.

Today, though, a guy who posts on a message board where I also post was writing about videos he was watching on MTV, and he caught an Ida Maria video, for her song, "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked." He took a dismissive attitude towards it, to which I responded defensively that her whole album is great. As I was typing that, I thought, "...and I haven't listened to it enough, either." So I immediately turned off whatever I was listening to and queued up my digital copy of the Ida Maria album.

Like I said before, I thought it was great from the first listen. That stated, it hadn't really made an emotional connection with me quite yet. As I listened to it this morning, though, that connection was finally made, and made in a big way. Every time it's ended since, I've found myself starting it over. Not only is it an awesome record, it goes by way too quickly and leaves me wanting way more than I get from it. "Fortress Around My Heart" contains only 10 songs, all of which come in somewhere between two and a half and three and a half minutes, so that the whole album is just a shade under half an hour long. In an age when bloated, ridiculous 65 to 75 minute albums are the standard, it's a relief to run across a record that's this tight and focused, but every time it comes to an end, it kills me. I just got this thing, and already I want more. By the time she does another album, I'm going to have played this one completely to death.

That's OK, though, because I can't see myself getting sick of these songs. They're just too good. For starters, there's the single that my message board friend saw on MTV this morning, "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked." Its cheeky title and bouncy, upbeat music--which certainly does have more than a little resemblance to first-LP Pretenders, but probably a bit more to The Muffs or fellow Scandinavian female power-poppers Sahara Hotnights--might give the impression that it's a fun track about the joys of meaningless sex, but there's actually a lot more going on here. Ida Maria doesn't sing the lyrics like they're anything deep or poignant, instead singing in a peppy tone that often sounds as if it's about to dissolve into a bout of giggles. Clearly, she's had a few drinks. But as the lyrics make clear, the drinks were more in the spirit of liquid courage than an evening of fun.

She begins the song by declaring her inability to come up with anything to say: "All the clever things I should say to you got lost somewhere between me and you," she announces, then follows that up with a matter of fact declaration: "I'm nervous. I don't know what to do." She fumbles for something with which to fill in the space: "Light a cigarette. I only smoke when I'm with you." Now the music, never exactly sedate on this track, kicks into a higher gear, seeming to sweep Ida Maria along with it. As her backing band sings some classic punk-pop "Whoa-oh" backing vocals, she vents her frustration: "What the hell do I do this for? You're just another guy!" Then she giggles a little, and admits, "OK, you're kinda sexy," but hastens to add, "But you're not really special!" Now though, as the music drops back into a vamp, the time has come to lay it all on the line: "But I don't mind if you take me home--come on, take me home. And I don't mind if you take off all your clothes--come on, take 'em off."

At this point, we've reached the song's big payoff. The band comes back in at full power, backing Ida Maria up as she sings the chorus, in a joyful tone, at the upper end of her register. "I like you so much better when you're naked!" she sings, then follows this line with the ultimate giveaway: "I like ME so much better when you're naked!" As the chorus ends with a speedy, chugging bridge riff, she yelps and hollers "All right!" as if she's having a blast, and maybe that's enough to cover for what's really going on here, at least in some people's eyes. She's admitted what's really up already, though, and now she has to hope she can distract us from it. The narrative of this song leaves us with two possibilities: either Ida Maria has a completely irrational crush that she can't figure out but also can't get rid of, or she likes this guy way more than she wants to. Either way, she's frustrated with her crush, and she feels nervous about trying to make a real connection with this guy, so she goes for what seems like the path of least resistance: throw herself at him, and ignore her feelings of uncertainty and attraction in favor of pure, simple sex. If nothing else, once the guy is naked and, by extension, vulnerable, she'll feel a bit more in control of the situation. I'm sure this kind of thing seems like a great idea when you're at the club and you've had a few drinks; in fact, I know it does, because I've seen friends of mine act it out many times. Really, though, it usually just leads to a bigger mess in the morning. Nevertheless, Ida Maria's musical exploration of this dilemma makes for a really excellent song with an incredibly catchy hook.

It's hardly the only one here, though. Opening track "Oh My God" is another peppy, upbeat slice of garage-pop that, again, puts the lie to its uncertain, contemplative lyrics. This one tells way less of a story than does "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked," mostly consisting of Ida Maria repeating lines like "find a cure for my life" and "put a smile on my face," but revolving around a chorus in which the exclamation "Oh my God!" is hardly metaphorical. "Do you think I'm in control? Do you think it's all for fun?" she cries to the heavens, finally asking quietly, "Is this fun for you?" before tearing back into a final chorus that is even more intense than all that have come before, and which ends with wordless screaming and flailing at instruments by the band and Ida Maria herself (who plays rhythm guitar in the four-piece band that backs her on this record).

"Louie" is a jauntier, less punk-sounding track with acoustic guitars thrown into the mix as well as electrics, but it's still quite engaging, keeping the tempo quick in a manner that recalls folk-influenced groups like the Violent Femmes. Ida Maria's still singing about her troubles, though; she tells the "Louie" of the title that she's being evicted in the morning, and wonders if he's "got room for me." "I know I'm always drunk as can be," she sings without any hint of shame, and it's endearing enough that one can imagine Louie being persuaded to let Ida Maria crash on his couch for a few days. One can also imagine her stumbling in at 3 AM a few times and making him regret it, but in a way, this is part of her charm.

There are some more openly serious songs on the album, songs that don't cover for their lyrical complexity with upbeat tuneage and jaunty, singalong choruses. A great example is "Forgive Me," which moves quickly but uses minor chords in a manner that changes the musical tone to one more reminiscent of Maximo Park. This is a fitting musical choice for the single song on the album that focuses entirely on lost love and a relationship come to a bad end. Ida Maria's lyrics, directed towards a former lover, are knowing and accusatory. "You read about love in a book somewhere. Then you read out loud what you found in there. And you had me for days and you had me for months." Now, though, Ida Maria feels that she's finally learned what this boy was really like. And he doesn't have her anymore. She's pissed now. It's on the second verse that she really lets loose on the guy. "I'm treated with cold, cold kisses, and I'm treasured like an old piece of junk. I call you up to say I love you; you only call me when you're drunk." Her voice drips with bitter sarcasm on the chorus, and when she sings, "Forgive me for running down your door," she knows that she's not the one who needs to be forgiven. She ends the final chorus by declaring, "I promise I won't do that anymore," but on this particular line, she sounds less angry and more sad and resigned. It's a hint of what lies beneath the anger, what fuels it all in the first place.

While a lot of the songs on "Fortress Around My Heart" feature lyrics in which Ida Maria reveals insecurity, frustration, and depression, she doesn't usually come straight out with it the way she does on "Forgive Me." Instead, she couches it in the terms she uses on "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked"--humor, an outwardly upbeat presentation, and most of all, sheer cheekiness. While, musically, this album is a long way from the sound of "Reading, Writing, And Arithmetic" by The Sundays, lyrically, Ida Maria has much the same attitude as The Sundays' Harriet Wheeler. It's as if she's saying, "My life's a bummer, but if I take a step back from it, it's kind of funny."

The song on the album that most clearly represents this viewpoint is "Queen Of The World." It starts with a slow intro, over which Ida Maria begs, "Whiskey, please, I need some whiskey." But before too long, it's picked up speed to the typical upbeat tempo in which much of this album is played. As it does, the band launches into the chorus, and Ida Maria declares, "I'm the queen of the world!" only to follow that line with: "I bump into things. I spin in circles." "Why can't I stay like this?" she begs, then transitions into a second verse that is quicker than the first with the request, "Bring me home." "I've got no plans for tomorrow," she explains, then launches into a classic overshare: "I've got no plans in sight. In fact, I'm free this week. I'm free this month. I'm lonely this year. I'm lonely forever." Realizing how bad that sounds, she throws herself back into the chorus: "But today, I'm queen of the world. I bump into things!" It's cute, it's amusing, and it rings oh so incredibly true. God, if I had a nickel for every night I've had that turned out like that...

The album's final track, "See Me Through," is a huge tonal shift from the rest of the record. There are no punk or even rock elements to it, and in fact, it sounds more like the mellowest songs on Feist's "The Reminder" or Fiona Apple's "Extraordinary Machine" than anything else on this album. However, it's a fitting close to the album, summing up as it does all of the emotional difficulties detailed throughout, and doing so in such a manner as to remove any doubt as to Ida Maria's sincerity. Over quiet acoustic guitars, soft, occasional piano notes, and muted cymbals, she turns her attention to God, just as she did on the album's opening track. This time, though, instead of being frustrated, she sounds desperate. "Oh God, when's the time for me>" she asks of the almighty. "When will you see me through? My mind is eating my heart out. My heart is beating my mind up." It's stunning to hear something like this, a naked cry for some sort of sign that there is a benevolent higher power running this whole show, on an album that has spent most of its time dishing out high-energy punk-pop. If we've previously only been given peeks beneath the surface, "See Me Through" is the veil being forcefully ripped away to show us the beating heart at the center of this record. And at that heart is uncertainty. Ida Maria has a desire for something real to believe in, but that desire is not enough to stave off the evidence of her experiences, and what those experiences have left her with is doubt. "Oh God, I can't believe in you just because I'm afraid you're true," she sings over and over as the song and the album ends, rejecting Pascal's wager in a tearful tone that makes clear that such abstract philosophical concepts are the furthest thing from her mind at that moment. What Ida Maria really wants is what Christopher Simpson asked for over a decade ago on the first Gloria Record LP: "I just want something beautiful to happen here right now." Tellingly, the line that preceded that line on the Gloria Record's "Torch Yourself" is "I just want to trust someone so badly." Underneath the upbeat, caffeinated bounce of her usual music, one can imagine that this is what Ida Maria wants too.

Ida Maria - "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked," "Forgive Me," and "Queen Of the World"

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2 Comments:

OpenID Brad Nelson said...

Yo Andrew, that is some intense spam above me.

Anyway, I linked this post in my own insane ramblings about Ida, because it's a fucking good analysis you've written here.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Andrew TSKS said...

Yeah, all those spam comments I was getting in some Asian alphabet forced me to turn on comment moderation, which is a bummer but at least they won't make it to the blog now.

Thanks for the link. I look forward to reading your analysis.

5:54 PM  

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