Posts from August 2001

28
Aug 01

WANTED

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WANTED: Writers (also design help and illustrators) for Freaky Trigger’s new daily section. Pop sympathies, fresh opinions, good jokes preferred. Must be willing to contribute something, however brief, on a weekly basis. Current NYLPM contributors most welcome to apply. No money, at least until someone snaps all our ideas up and we become rich and famous. E-mail Tom if you’re interested.

26
Aug 01

aaliyah, r.i.p.:

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aaliyah, r.i.p.: when one watches the news, they’re welcoming anonymous tragedy into their lives: livery cab driver shot dead in brooklyn; raging fire claims the lives of three people; fifteen dead in bombing in the middle east. if anything has desensitized society to violence and death, it’s the news. which is why, when i had channel 4 on last night, hearing tale of breaking news from the bahamas where a plane crash claimed the lives seven, “a camera crew,” i looked up for a second before returning to whatever it was i was doing at the moment.

do we watch the news to hear this? or are we merely viewing it, looking out for our concerns, pricking our ears up when the names of the dead or indicted are revealed? when i woke up this morning, i went to cnn.com and saw the headline: “aaliyah dead,” followed by the words “plane crash in the bahamas.” it’s amazing how much changes when one substitutes “aaliyah” for “a camera crew.” now it’s universal tragedy; for most of us, she isn’t kin, but she’s someone we’ve brought into our homes, via her albums or watching her on television or in the movies. one’s initial instict is: well, it must be someone else. in this case, that’s dismissed quite quickly: how many aaliyahs do you know? and if aaliyah is the name of your daughter, sister, mother…only in a perfect world would her life be memorialized so.

it still hasn’t registered really. it’s difficult quite often for a celebrity’s death to resonate: she’s never been more than an image, a voice for the majority of us — how did we really know she lived in the first place? there is no void as there would be with a family member or friend, at least no physical void. it becomes doubly hard when it’s someone like aaliyah who’s only given us but a handful of years. but what years they were: along with collaborators timbaland and missy elliott, she’s given us some of the finest pop singles of the last five years. she never possessed the strongest of voices but through the force of her personality — she had that ineffable trait, “star quality” — and pure determination to make her mark, she became a megastar, selling millions of records and even receiving the call from hollywood (besides romeo must die, she was also to star in the adaptation of anne rice’s the queen of the damned and the upcoming matrix sequels).

at age 22, she seemed poised to become the next janet jackson — a mononymic multimedia star, lighting up the big screen and blowing up the radio. but now it’s all over — i don’t know how to stop writing, how to end this. it’s impossible to be poetic about this right now and yet it seems wrong to to end it so tersely, as stark as death itself. damn it. rest in peace, aaliyah, you had so much left to say and there’s so much left to say about you but death’s got my tongue and out of respect for you, i’ll not struggle to say anymore.

Aaliyah killed in plane crash

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Aaliyah killed in plane crash

Two things:

1. “Try Again” may have been, for a lot of us, the latecomer’s entry to both Aaliyah’s talents and Timbaland’s genius, but still, what an entry it was.

2. Please, please, please, whoever has any say in these things, no “I’ll Be Missing You,” no “Candle in the Wind ’97.” Let her own songs be her epitaph.

RIP

24
Aug 01

A Five Word Review of the New Michael Jackson Single…

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A Five Word Review of the New Michael Jackson Single, Which Has A Title That Is Too Eighth Grade Yearbook Lame To Even Consider Posting Here, Not To Mention A Celebrity Cameo And A Snooze-A-Rific Beat:
“The Girl Is Mine ’01”

Say you’re a winner, but, man, you’re just a sinner now….

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Say you’re a winner, but, man, you’re just a sinner now….

HYPE – Slang (n.)
– Excessive publicity and the ensuing commotion
– Exaggerated or extravagant claims made especially in advertising or promotional material
– An advertising or promotional ploy
– Something deliberately misleading; a deception

So now, we have Neumu presenting hype about the hype about the Strokes – specifically, quotes from Neumu readers and contributors addressing the issue of the abundance of supportive Strokes press. Some of the discourse is good, and some of discourse is not so good – as right as Jenny Tatone might be to note the tried & true trend of hipsters bucking against widespread publicity (and anyone attatched), it’s also good to note Anthony Carew’s comments regarding the Strokes’ surprising success in Australia – “You don’t debut at #5 with a debut record featuring no hit singles without some deft retail-fellating.”

Of course, Ms. Tatone’s commentary fails to recognize that the hipsters are balking at all this attention given the Strokes because of their sensitivity to such press. Yes, this hype is focused on specific media pockets, and isn’t as pervasive as naysayers would have you believe. However, if you’re even within shouting distance of these pockets, the din is deafening. Regardless of where you stand, it’s hard to take a band seriously if you’re first exposure to them is on the cover of NME, being hailed as The Most Important Band of the Past 25 Years. The British press has been known to fluff pillows in its day, but their treatment of the Strokes has been excessively egregious, to say the least.

Thankfully, in the US, the Strokes blitzkrieg is nonexistent. Not that such hype is unfamiliar in these parts. After Nirvana’s success, any band circa 1992 with a sliver of talent and a handful of that ever-elusive “indie cred” received dot-com like dollars to climb above ground and take a run at the ring. We all know what happened with that, though.

About five or six years ago, another NYC band (Jonathan Fire*Eater) found itself in waters similar to the Strokes – hyped to the gills, jumping from indieville to the majors in little time with little exposure (excepting their being in the Right Place), working their charismatic spooky garage mojo. One EP on the Medicine label (a small NYC-based outfit), one record on the Dreamworks label (yes, the Spielberg / Geffen / Katzenberg multi-media enterprise), perhaps a vinyl single or two as well, and they vanished without so much as a half-hearted wave. If you’re willing to dive into those dusty bins at your local used CD emporium, you’ll probably find copies of their work for cheap. I’d recommend giving them a chance, if you’re into that sort of organ-driven mysteriously-cool faux-gothic sneering sort of garage rock. (For those interested, members of JF*E have formed a new band – the Walkmen. There’s a bit of hype around them as well. Tread carefully.)

Of course, if you’re into that sort of music, I’d recommend giving the Strokes a chance, too – having FINALLY heard them, I can safely agree with Mr. Ewing’s assessment. They’re not bad; I’d go so far as to call them pretty damn good for what they are. (Granted, the Strokes remind me a LOT of Spoon, circa A Series of Sneaks, and I’d kill for Spoon, so take this as you must.) And maybe they’ll be able to fashion a career out of all this hectic speculation and hyper-promotion. Any press is good press – regardless of your reaction to THE STROKES, the name is out there. These meta-discussions help perpetuate this promotion as well, though it’s really just one extended round of Telephone. A pretty good band can become the next Velvet Underground and crap out in the time it takes for a full-length CD (or CD-EP, or various vinyl singles) to stop spinning.

Personally, I’m all for just ignoring the press-at-large and making up your own mind (which you can do, if you just click here), but then I’d have nothing to write about. Plus, I wouldn’t be able to quote Billy Squier lyrics in such a meaningful fashion.

22
Aug 01

THE CITY OF SOUND – Stephen Troussé gets carsick on the road with Paul Morley and Kylie Minogue

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WORDS AND MUSIC
A HISTORY OF POP IN THE SHAPE OF A CITY
BLOOMSBURY, £12.99, ISBN: 0747557780

If an ideal pop journal were to give me 1,864 words to take a tour of Paul Morley’s new ‘history of pop in the shape of a city’, there might be any number of routes I could take.

a) I could write the latest chapter in my ongoing essay on the embarrassment of fandom, titled, in the fashion of Nicholson Baker’s ‘U & I’, ‘Em’n’Me’. Following chapters where I creep-out Morley on an LBC phone-in in the 1980s, write him a betrayed-fan letter about his column in ‘Esquire’ in the 90s and interview him following publication of his memoir in 2000 (only to fail to write the interview up), this might be the chapter where we have a tiff.

b) I could chart a list of co-ordinates in the irresistible Morleyian cartography, locating W&M as the missing link between Chuck Eddy’s ‘Accidental Evolution of Rock and Roll’ and David Thomson’s ‘Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes’; between Camden Joy’s ‘The Last Rock Star Book or Liz Phair: a rant’ and Jacques Derrida’s ‘The Post Card’; between Lester Bangs’ ‘Blondie’ and Chris. Marker’s ‘Immemory’ or between Charlie Gillett’s ‘The Sound of the City’ and Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘Labyrinths’.

c) I could write a dutiful consumer report sensibly explaining how W&M is an idiosyncratic history of avant-pop from Satie to Kylie via John Cage, Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, which you might like if you were already a fan of the music writing of Richard Meltzer and David Toop.

All of these journeys would be more or less scenic, but I’m not sure how useful they would be, in the context of this particular journal, this particular conversation. And because W&M is about, among other things, negotiating the exhausting vertigo of The Arbitrary, usefulness might be our best guide. So I’ve resolved to spend my words thinking about the point of writing pop histories.

W&M begins with two tracks: Alvin Lucier’s obscure ‘I am sitting in a room’ and Kylie’s lucid ‘Can’t get you out of my head’. Morley’s history is the tale of falling down – or digging – the timetunnel that connects the two.

Well, you might lose patience with this story right here: it’s clear it isn’t going to be any straightforward, plausibly causal trip down memory lane. More like being taken for a ride by an errant cabbie via the spooked suburbs of some joker’s soundhoard. If we’re used to the idea these days that histories make sense through genre (and pop histories, from ‘The Sound of the City’ to ‘The People’s Music’ most often partake of tragedy or elegy), then Morley is making a pitch for sci-fi. This is a story that wants to go down rabbit-holes, through looking-glasses, via wormholes to possible futures – pop history as written by Lewis Carroll, Phil Dick and Steve Erickson.

Except it’s not so far-fetched. The best review of W&M would be if some clever bastard tracked down Lucier’s 1969 recording and mashed it up into a 21st century deconstructed Kylie instrumental. Don’t the best bootlegs make vivid what is implied in the most interesting criticism: that meaning or value is less a question of weighing up, marking and filing, but rather… making unlikely introductions across space-time and genre, seeing what chafes, what rubs up the right way, what sparks fly? Maybe if such a bootleg existed it might make clear whether W&M is formulating a genuinely fruitful equation or is just so much dry humping.

While we can enjoy even the most frivolous bootlegs for their daft novelty or disposable cheek, Morley has to gamble on our investment in his story, our suspension of disbelief, for over 300 pages. So he spends a lot of time talking up the tale he is about to tell, trailing a mysterioso mix of murder, magic and the weather, ‘an adventure in sound, in history, in love, in legend’. Our establishing shot finds Kylie, pretty much as she is styled in the video to ‘Can’t get you of my head’, cruising down an autobahn of dreams towards her – and our – destiny. It’s a classic noir beginning: you might think of Janet Leigh, full of high hopes at the start of ‘Psycho’, Oedipa Maas swept along into the paranoia of San Narciso or even lovely Rita’s route down Mulholland Dr.

You might… and you might be disappointed. From a provocative premise, the story takes a turn as listless as its chapter headings (‘Chapter 2: The journey continues’, ‘Chapter 3: The journey continues, ‘Chapter 4: The journey continues’). The compelling knots of narrative are smoothed over and the book becomes a kind of blog of recorded and unrecorded time, as linear as a motorway, as inevitable as teleology. To illustrate how up to her ears she is in history, Morley reveals a tattoo on the nape of the Kylieneck, a microdot in which is inscribed the history of words and music, from the first rumblings of the trogs to the release of ‘Now… 50’. Kylie meets some interesting folks along the way (John Cage, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Kraftwerk, Merzbow), there are some good jokes (1963: the White Stripes release ‘Elephant’) and there are some marvellous set-pieces (Morley on Tangerine Dream, on Simon Fuller, on ‘Metal Machine Music’), but the story lacks lustre, grows thin with list. If this essay were to have a soundtrack, the song for this paragraph would be St Etienne’s ‘Like a Motorway’: ‘dull, grey and long’.

It dawns on us that the terminus of Kylie’s teleocruise is Popopolis, as we now dream it: an eternal city which has forgotten how to forget, where all that was solid has fractured into frisky pixels, where someone is inventing postmicrohouse at the same time as someone else is discovering Son House, a city where geography is history and history is geography. Where the tunnel between Kylie and Alvin is a curious tube ride across town rather than cryptohistorical causality.

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21
Aug 01

This thread

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This thread got me thinking that I hadn’t posted here in a while and that my day yesterday would probably make a better story than that Shellac-and-Main bullshit in the archives so my day from about 3 pm August 19 went:

Sarah and I start drinking around 3. We were hoping to have some weed but we couldn’t find any despite Sarah’s best efforts (I’m more or less a parasite in this area). So we drink. I tell Sarah I’l turn off the shit that is on the radio and put on something with the soul of rock (Sarah likes to rock). I think it was Deep Purple’s Machine Head that I put on. Josh says he can see why I could find Deep Purple and Rush records for next to nothing but what does he know about it really, he likes boredom. I love “Highway Star” – it’s as everything-right-there as the Stooges. “Nobody’s gonna get my car/ I’m gonna race it to the ground/ Nobody’s gonna get my car/ I’m gonna break the speed of sound” while one chord jackhammers – he waits till the next verse to talk about his girl. There’s some nice jammy shit on the rest of the first side too. I like organs.

Sarah’s twit ex-boyfriend shows up dressed all homey talking a lot of shit about how he has three bitches ready to do his every bidding at any given moment. I put on the second side of Machine Head, which starts, of course, with “Smoke On the Water.” My friend Ross hates the song and the riff because he thinks it’s weak and light and faux-attitude but I like the way it motors, all in Gregorian parallel fourths too. So we finish the record, ending with the rightly titled “Space Truckin’.” The twit’s too cool for all this bullshit now, he puts on the hip new stuff he’s into now – Shaggy and Pink. Fine singles but I have a feeling that even if I were sober I couldn’t say a lot more for the albums sorry.

So Sister comes on. Sarah’s ready to concede that if it doesn’t quite have the soul of rock it has the soul of something, which is a step you know though I have been working on her since I moved in and she’s been the most tolerant person vis-a-vis my music taste I’ve met in my life (sigh I’ll miss her when I move). Twit accepts that it’s okay for mellow stuff but it’s not what he’d put on. What he’d put on is what he does proceed to put on which is Switchblade Symphony.

By this point most of the bottle of vodka’s done. A good portion anyway. So I don’t actually have much to say now about Switchblade Symphony, I don’t really remember a lot, I’m not sure I absorbed a lot at the moment other than that it was wimpy and I said “Oh, you’re into goth, let’s put on some goth that rocks.” And I put on the first side of In the Flat Field and the “Heart and Soul” side (which I’ve always played first but most people seem to think should be the second side just because that’s how the CD reissue was organized even though there’s nothing specified on the record) of Closer, which isn’t really goth of course but I love it and just want a reason to play it.

Somewhere in the middle of all this we listened to “Love to Love You Baby,” which right now I can accept as The Greatest Song Ever (TM). We close things with the first Zeppelin, of course. It thunders and pummels and sighs and howls, all so crudely resplendent and transcendent, yes. The profoundest truths are those understood by pre-teens, I still believe that.

Eventually the twit leaves and we go out searching for weed. The usual downtown source is dried up. We hang out at the Royal Oak for a while (they played rock, I don’t remember what). We ask these two guys if they have any leads. They don’t. One guy asks me if I’m an engineering student because I look like an engineer. I’m a little annoyed because just recently a supervisor thought I look like a comp sci major. She was surprised that I haven’t seen Star Wars not because everyone’s seen it but because I look like someone who must have seen it. I wonder what all this is supposed to mean.

We plan to take a 97 bus back but we take it the wrong direction and end up at Lincoln Fields station. These two kids who look 16 and say they’re 23 claim they have some because one of them has a biker father. We follow them to a house. They come back with our money, saying that cops must have raided and trashed the place, leaving nothing. They stare at Sarah’s feet a bit and ask her questions about her shoe size.

We take the 86, planning to get off at Meadowlands and Fisher. This unshaven guy in a baseball cap starts talking, saying he’s got cancer and only has one year to live. He says he’s picked out five things he wants to do before he dies (“three of them I’ve already done to one wonderful woman”) and won’t tell what they are. He tells us we need to grab life by the hair, pick out our own five things (“if they’re completely disgusting to other people, it doesn’t matter; if they’re completely degrading to other people, it doesn’t matter”) and do them. I’m already on the right path, he divines, but Sarah still needs to grab what she needs. Even if she’s engaged to a man at one point, he tells her, if she sees a guy walking down the street, she needs to grab it (“not him – it – grab your fantasy”). We miss our stop and have to take another bus home.

I put on Steve Reich’s Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ to lull me to sleep. It sways gently but firmly, with soft rings overlapping and locking and rocking like a hammock.

New archive additions

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New archive additions on Freaky Trigger: MJ Hibbett on local bands. Ned on Charles Schulz. Sterling on Americana. Me on 1977. Otis on John Fahey. It’s nice to have them back.

18
Aug 01

VERLAINES — ‘Hanging By Strands’ / ‘Joed Out’

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VERLAINES — ‘Hanging By Strands’ / ‘Joed Out’
BARBARA MANNING — ‘Hanging By Strands / ‘Joed Out’

A fox fur is an expensive accessory — it speaks of a life of privilege, prestige, and money. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect draped around the shoulders of an aristocrat, or a starlet. Cashmere, while equally exquisite and fine, is a more common fabric — you can buy sweaters, pullovers, and even scarves made out of cashmere at most clothing stores (assuming, of course, you’re willing to drop a few hundred dollars).

When Graeme Downes sings ‘Joed Out’ (available on the Verlaines’ Juvenilia), he describes his lovers’ hair as foxfur. When Barbara Manning covered this Verlaines song, she changes ‘foxfur’ to ‘cashmere’. It’s a small detail, but extremely crucial. A woman with hair as soft as foxfur is a rarity, a treasure, an intimidating beauty. This woman is something to protect more than something to cherish — given that, the relaxed paranoia of the song (‘It’s ten o’clock in the afternoon / You’d better come by here soon / Or I’ll go out / Of my mind’) isn’t surprising. After all, ‘it’s hard living your life / On a knife edge’ with such a person causing this inadvertent turmoil. Even when safe, and ‘I lie on your bed / and I touch your head’, any solace achieved is tainted with this cloying desperation.

But change that foxfur to cashmere — suddenly, this person’s more approachable, more down-to-earth. They’re a source of comfort, not conflict. Suddenly, this song about trying to hold onto something slipping away becomes a song about holding onto yourself. It helps that Barbara’s version is gentler and self-assured, the polar opposite of the herky-jerky nervousness of the Verlaines. And it goes without saying that they’re both great. (You can find Barbara’s version on Under One Roof: Singles & Oddities, which is what it purports to be.)

This isn’t the only time that Barbara and Graeme approach the same song from different viewpoints, though. ‘Hanging By Strands’ (another Verlaines song, available on their last album, Over the Moon) takes its sigh-ridden canter into the vaulted heaven it describes, even when the lyrics suggest otherwise — ‘You gotta see that it’s no good leaving it up to me to make you happy’. Even at their most downtrodden, Graeme Downes (a classical music teacher) dresses up his songs in soaring arrangements that often belie the songs’ actual sentiments. However, in the hands of Barbara Manning and the Go Luckys (Barbara’s new backing band), ‘Hanging By Strands’ cuts to the chase, stating its case with efficiency and directness. Instead of an organ swooping in amidst other meticulously arranged instrumentation, there’s just a guitar, bass and drum set, treating the song like a smart little Young Marble Giants number gussied up for the prom. “Gussies” meaning tattered jeans and Chuck Taylors, of course — I’m not sure the date would find a suitable place to pin the corsage. And I’m not sure the song would really care – “So why do I continue? It’s simply too hard to tell.”

16
Aug 01

Consequences: Two Songs About Sin

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CLARENCE CARTER – “Making Love (At The Dark End Of The Street)”

HEFNER – “I Stole A Bride”

Something missing from pop, maybe: a sense of sin. Sins we have in multitudes, of course – red-capped anger, ice-wristed pride, pigtailed lust and so on. But sin, the balance of deed and motor of consequence, is lacking. Rock prefers karma, on the whole – more universal and benevolent, not to mention fashionably Eastern. The exception though is the cheating song, and the why of this is clear: sin is essentially about judgement, pop is often about pleasure. Judgement and pleasure meet at the instant of the unfaithful kiss.

So Clarence Carter, with a voice like the roll of barrels, and Darren Heyman, with a voice like a damp kitchen in winter, come together as condemned men, and sing as if they know it. But sin is a deep thing, too base and abstract to confront directly (while staying interesting), and in both these songs the singer assumes a disguise in order to get the words out. For Carter, a Southern preacher. For Heyman, rather remarkably, the Trojan prince Paris.

The switches “I Stole A Bride” makes from the Helen myth to the shabby life of the 1990s indieboy are startling and odd. The gawky bathos of a lyric like “And was it her who wrote / “PORN IS WOMAN HATRED” on my overcoat / Christ, I need that coat” sits awkwardly with the Homeric decorations scattered through the song (swans and geese, big ships, princes and silver swords). But they rub off on one another too. The modern-day bride-stealer is puffed-up by association with myth-stuff. And also you’re reminded that while Helen has entered folklore for good as an archetype of beauty, her lover Paris skulks on folklore’s sidelines, the original infatuation junkie.

Paris’ dilemma and fate are forgotten, but they’re what really link ancient and modern: the sense of compulsion and dread the cheater feels. In Hefner’s song the emotional punch comes from the singer’s awful double realisation that not only will his affair inevitably destroy him, but that the woman he has stolen will not love him anyway. And a third, flickery, realisation behind these: that this changes nothing.

Sin is an equation: action and reaction, and neither side is negotiable. Clarence Carter’s sermon on infidelity never admits to the possibility of free will. Every creature on Earth, from mosquitoes upwards, likes “makin’ love”, and the way Carter says those words leaves you in no doubt that the urge under discussion is every bit as resistable as gravity. That urge is indiscriminate about how and who it strikes, for humans just as for the cows and mosquitoes. So you can hardly escape infidelity, but it comes at a price.

Carter’s voice is rich, and friendly, and wonderfully earthy, and he takes his time – three minutes or so – saying his piece. It’s a funny piece, too – a little bit dirty, full of home truths. The audience hear themselves in it, and laugh along, until Carter starts to sing and what comes out isn’t a preacher’s avuncular drawl but a dread baritone growl, and then the song flips in on itself and the audience melt away and you’re left with one man face to face with his sin: “They’re gonna find us, they’re gonna catch us, O Lord”. More is done in these three ludicrous minutes and thirty pitiless seconds than in the span of many soul men’s careers – the rest of Carter’s perhaps included. Because ‘soul’, often taken to mean the core of a man, something strong, also means something perpetually in jeopardy, at risk of being lost. And Carter sounds like he’s singing with that in mind.

Carter has crack players and a studio orchestra to back him up: Hefner has indie scratch-and plod, though “I Stole A Bride”‘s climax is almost as satisfying as “Making Love”‘s. Anyway, the instrumental paucity of a lot of indie records need not be a listener’s curse – it helps you keep in mind that indie, like soul, is often a singer’s genre. All of Darren Heyman’s allusions and intentions would come to nothing if he didn’t have the voice he does – quavering, sneering, a jumble of ugly vowels, the throat-and-tongue incarnation of desperate sexual bitterness (at least when the material’s good). In “I Stole A Bride” he sings “I’ve lived a lie” and he draws “lie” shudderingly out, until the thing he’s owning up to becomes the thing he seems to be clinging on to.

Helen of Troy, in a last and little-reported twist in the myth, was herself a phantom: the ‘real’ Helen spent the Trojan War in Egypt, sewing – a nasty commentary by some embittered Greek on how we idealise what we love. But as soon as Paris siezes the phantom Helen, she might as well be real: it is the action (itself as inescapable as a mosquito’s mating urge) which sets the inevitable in train. And this is why sin and pop so rarely mix: my hunch is that pop dislikes the inescapable, dislikes the notion of consequences. Pop is a sweetshop of situations, attitudes, experiences – some sour, to be certain, but none you can’t turn your back on. To listen to pop is to play-act your way through a bottomless dress-up chest of possibilities: to feel a sense of sin is to feel possibilities hardening into dooms. So I might listen to these songs as vicariously as ever, I might wallow in Heyman or Carter’s superbly-acted dread, but the thing that makes me rewind them is the reminder that there are things that cannot be rewound.