Jun 13

LIVIN’ JOY – “Dreamer”

Popular130 comments • 4,668 views

#721, 13th May 1995

A dance music confession: I never, quite, intuitively grasped what counted as House and what fell under Garage. The bumping, cut-up rhythms and vocals that begin the remixed “Dreamer” feel like garage, for example, but as Janice Robinson takes the song into its urgently blissful chorus I want to call it house – or even go more specific and say handbag house, that showy, uplifting offshoot that strutted across superclub dancefloors in the mid-90s.

These sort of divisions are the meat and drink of dance music – social markers as much as genre markers, guides to who might dance to what – and, in the case of handbag, what might be safely dismissed. Otherwise knowledgeable and thorough histories of dance music wave mid-90s house away as mere disco (as if disco was ever mere), a crowd-pleasing sideshow away from the main action. In terms of ‘progression’, perhaps that’s right. In terms of pop, it’s way off.

After all, most of what you really need to know about Livin’ Joy is in the band’s name. “Dreamer” is indeed the year’s most joyful, delightful, vivacious number one so far. But it’s not just about joy – the song’s chorus is a concentrated blurt of fierce hope, a fantasy of togetherness so intense but so impossible that Robinson takes it in double-time, like she’s trying to grab a moment – or a dream – before it vanishes. The song slinks and builds up to that point, its loping bass and keyboard figures giving Robinson space to stretch out a bit and approach lines like “Love, life and laughter is all I believe” with the lived-in relish they deserve.

It’s an old pop trick, as old as “I Feel Love” at least – the European producers adding a bit of class to their work with a jobbing American soul singer. But the men behind “Dreamer” – on a roll at the time, with Alex Party’s infectious “Don’t Give Me Your Life” to their credit – got lucky here: while never stepping outside genre boundaries, “Dreamer” is one of the great house diva vocals. It captures the thing house, and handbag house, do better than almost anything: condense all the hopes, fears, desperation, and fantasies that a dancefloor magics into being, leaving an intense hit of pop that stays in your mind long after the night ends.



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  1. 101
    enitharmon on 7 Jul 2013 #

    [FX: raises bat to acknowledge bringing up the century for this thread]

  2. 102
    punctum on 8 Jul 2013 #

    #100: A “really” good song should be highly destructible, I think. How else would one reassemble it?

    “the best song ever” is 100% subjective, and therefore pop-valid. Much rather have that than Derek Dull-style “objectivity” (and actually DD was anything but).

  3. 103
    enitharmon on 8 Jul 2013 #

    Oh Marcello @102, contrarian as ever, spoiling for a fight when we’re saying the same thing!

    “Indestructible” = take it apart, reassemble it however you want, and it’s still a good song.

    Let me nominate another of my (100% subjective, because I still maintain it’s silly) candidates for BSE: Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight, seeing as my collection contains five examples. In evidence I bring you:

    Exhibit A: Tony Martin, playing it straight.

    Exhibit B: Billie Holiday, filling it with exquisite pain.

    Exhibit C: Frank Sinatra, swinging it.

    Exhibit D: Peter Skellern, camping it up.

    Exhibit E: Sonny Rollins, tearing it up, throwing the pieces in the air and putting them together in such a way that it’s almost unrecognisable.

    Each and every one of these exhibits a little miracle. Could you do that with Dreamer?

    I rest my case, m’lud.

  4. 104
    punctum on 8 Jul 2013 #

    Everywhere else it might be about what you think and what you say. In my little part of the garden, however, it’s about self-awareness – “why” rather than “what.”

    My comments were a conclusion, not an assumption (“it seems to me,” “don’t you think?”).

  5. 105
    Mark M on 8 Jul 2013 #

    Re 95: On this months British GQ, there is a coverline that reads:

    ‘In Defence of Taylor Swift
    (Yes, really)’

    Whether you call it rockism or something else, there’s still a battle to be fought.

  6. 106
    punctum on 8 Jul 2013 #

    I call it misogyny, mixed with a bit of residual class snobbery, myself – it’s an extension of Inverdale’s “comment” on Bartoli and probably the still rather muted response of Henman Hill types to Murray’s win.

  7. 107
    swanstep on 9 Jul 2013 #

    @Rosie, 103. I have two thoughts about ‘The Way You Look Tonight’. First, I think it’s one of the few songs that Sinatra really butchered. The underlying song’s harmonically amazing with a really sweet melody weaving through a huge number of complex chords, but Sinatra loses all the sweetness, changing the melody line and the odd word so that the song feels arrogant and swaggering, and not especially pleasant to listen to. I’m convinced that there’s no way the song becomes a standard if Sinatra’s version had been the original. Second, to me TWYLT is one of the less lyrically inspired of the songbook standards. Notwithstanding Dreamer’s various clangers and slovenly repetition of verses, I still think I might give it the lyrical edge. A half-speed, piano accompanied version of Dreamer that allowed all the rushed chorus lyrics a chance to stretch out and be actively interpreted would be worth constructing I think.

  8. 108
    Tom on 9 Jul 2013 #

    I used to have a tumblr tag “best song ever” or some such, for something that gave me that best-song-ever rush in the moment I was playing it. I definitely recognise the rush, that feeling that listening to music really can’t get any better than this. I would get it about once a month or so. My idea was that I would write down the records which I experienced this to, then once I reached a nice big number I’d write about them on here. Anyhow I never got around to it and can’t now remember what they were, except I think one of them was by Propaganda.

  9. 109
    Tom on 9 Jul 2013 #

    This Pitchfork column from a few years ago touches on it.


  10. 110
    enitharmon on 9 Jul 2013 #

    swanstep @107: agreed that Sinatra’s version of TWYLT is much my least favourite of the five versions here. And it’s the contribution of Jerome Kern (genius) rather than Dorothy Fields (some way short of genius) that makes it for me.

    Tom @108 – I know that feeling, it’s the one I get every time I hear Peter Skellern’s version of TWYLT. But then he did it with the Grimethorpe Colliery Band and I’m a sucker for a proper brass band. When I’m invited to appear on Desert Island Discs it with be the One that I will be clutching on my way to exile, because it represents not one but three of my enduring favourite things: Kern, Skellern, and a brass band.

  11. 111
    Mark G on 9 Jul 2013 #

    TWYLT reminds me of ‘Peter’s Friends’ nowadays

  12. 112
    swanstep on 10 Jul 2013 #

    @111, Mark G. One problem with the songbook standards is that, for many of us, we first encounter them through versions that range from characterless to genuinely awful. For example, I’m pretty sure that I first heard an unctuous Elton John version of ‘But Not For Me’, and shrugged. Sarah Vaughan’s 1958 version then came as a revelation. And once you really get into whole genre then favorite periods and specific recordings even among acknowledged masters quickly emerge (Ella F’s 1950 ‘I’ve Got a Crush on You’ makes one melt – late ’50s and ’60s Ella F versions – normally so very very good – are for this especially coquettish song just OK in my view). My own experience is therefore somewhat orthogonal to Rosie’s idea (with which I nominally agree!) that these songs are on one level indestructible, endlessly coverable and reinterpretable. In practice, that is, I tend to find that all of the attention paid to these songs by generations of great talents has just allowed me to become fussier and fussier. At least when it comes to listening to recordings at home, I only want to hear one of the very few (by my lights) absolutely optimal, transcendant versions. Anything else starts to feel like a defilement or needless destruction. I want my BSE rush and nothing else will do. Having to listen to even a 90% great version (a frustrating BSE-rush-near-miss) of ‘Strange Fruit’ or ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ or ‘Happy Days (Are Here Again)’, etc. is a kind of spoilt person torture!

  13. 113
    Dan Quigley on 10 Jul 2013 #

    A Great American Songbook discussion amid a Living Joy entry is one of the innumerable things that make Popular comments so wonderful.

    While I wouldn’t use Fields’ lyric for ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ to try to convince someone sceptical about pre-rock pop, I think her relatively artless words beautifully ground Kern’s modulations in and out of the B section. And she could do sharper stuff when the occasion called for it, as ‘A Fine Romance’, from the same Rogers/Astaire film attests.

    P.S. ‘Dreamer’ and ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ (and their respective ilks) are non-overlapping magisteria in my book. Eight for the former, and a very high 10 for the latter (if we need to pick a recording I’ll go for the Fred Astaire original, although re:112, I find that the definitive version of a standard is almost always a mash-up in my mind of bits from fix or six different versions.)

  14. 114
    swanstep on 10 Jul 2013 #

    @113, Dan Q. I’d go for Astaire’s original of TWYLT too (and the original scene with Rogers overhearing, shampoo-in-hair is a doozie, and Swing Time is a helluva good film overall). I subscribe to the rough theory that it took 15-20 years for people to figure out how to best sing and arrange most of these great songs, but the delicacy of TWYLT seems to make it an exception – lightness and slight formality, the original ’30s’ metier really suits it.

  15. 115
    Dan Quigley on 10 Jul 2013 #

    @114, swanstep, I am perhaps a little more indulgent of ’20s and ’30s pop’s trappings than you (and would say that as vocalists Louis Armstrong and Connie Boswell already had a pretty good idea what they were doing with the emerging canon by 1930), but I know what you mean – it can be startling to hear how manic and/or stiff many of these songs sound in their original arrangements, especially pre-1930.

    By the ways, the two tracks you link to in @112 are glorious, and well support your contention. I like Ella’s songbooks, especially the Berlin and Rodgers and Hart sets, but I think that Decca Gershwin mini-LP trumps them all.

  16. 116
    ciaran on 11 Jul 2013 #

    Never was fully convinced by this.Inescapable too for the most part of that year.Would have preferred to be discussing ‘dont give me your life’ but even that seemed ultra-camp for some reason.

    Took them a year to release ‘Dont stop movin’ by which time the momentum had gone.Id prefer that to dreamer but not by much.

    This would get a 6 from me.9 is a very high mark for a track that is largely forgotten.Certainly not a justified 9 that chaka khans i feel for you would have been over a decade earlier insofar as dealing with a club favourite.

    Certainly wouldnt have moved me on to the dancefloor back in the day.

  17. 117
    punctum on 12 Jul 2013 #

    Is that a qualitative judgement, or an age thing?

  18. 118
    ciaran on 16 Jul 2013 #

    More qualitative (for me of course!).Not that I dislike it anywhere as much of 95′s other number 1′s LCBAB,DS (WW),BBB,YANA for example

    I was just 12 when this was released which would normally push a memory with a certain fondness up to at least a 7 but I got tired of hearing this quickly with its high profile.

    Just on the dancefloor thing – There was just a little more pleasing to me going on elsewhere. wake up boo,these sounds fall into my mind,keep warm, alright,guaglione,in the summertime to name but a few.Maybe not all ’7′ records to some but ones I would prefer to this.

    As tom once said before in La Bamba though ‘maybe he can now understand just how bad his tastes were back in his teenage years.

  19. 119
    Erithian on 15 Sep 2013 #

    Speaking as a non-clubber who was probably too old for this the first time round (and no doubt a bit of a rockist too) I think this is an excellent diva vocal, better song than LMBYF, a very fine record but, bloody hell, I’d always take a point or two off for that generic house keyboard sound that infects a lot of stuff from that era. Same with the tedious “rapper guest spot” which I’m going to be fairly controversial about a few years down the line.

    Incidentally, isn’t it the rule that whatever era a song belongs to, there’ll always be someone commenting on YouTube that it’s so much better than what’s out today? In the comments to the “original edit” clip someone says “this shits on modern robotic monkey music!”

  20. 120
    Lazarus on 15 Sep 2013 #

    Generally compared unfavourably to Justin Bieber, in particular.

  21. 121
    weej on 16 Sep 2013 #

    #119 – The “the best music came out when I was 15, everything since then has been a letdown” thing is a massive cliche but still pervades most music-related internet comments I come across, with very little in the way of awareness that since everyone else of whatever age is saying the same thing it much be entirely subjective. Having said that, take a look at “Rave video comments will restore your faith in humanity” if you haven’t already.

  22. 122
    Patrick Mexico on 3 Nov 2013 #

    Another bizarre post: structurally this sounds like “Faster” by a certain intense Welsh band who we’ll get to shortly. Yes, perhaps in respectively their most pedestrian and generic singles. But hey! They talked about the Spanish Civil War at the height of “Er ner, Tony Blur’s in powerr, cheese for cheese’s sake!”

    Better that than the Everton FA Cup squad single, or also released in May 1995, Mark Oh – Tears Don’t Lie – the kind of happy hardcore trolling that handed dance music to the kind of people who laugh in court about beating up pensioners.

    Both Faster and Dreamer try to write the ultimate single by shoehorning too many lyrics into a classic primal genre structure, and it’s a beautiful kind of tension. I’m not sure if Janice Robinson ever thought she “had a gun to her head, forced to condense everything she believed in into one final four-minute edict” (in Simon Price’s delicious prose.) Yet F&D have the kind of freewheeling desire deported from the charts in recent years not so much by Autotune and X-Factor, but the stage school “tasteful” acoustic mafia, unaware of the damage they do through fetishising empty self-examination and apologism over pop’s need to actually want something. (So did the New Acoustic Movement at the end of the nineties, but that’s what false relief about getting a “good egg*” with strange cheekbones into office after years of stifling conservatism does to some. Americans, be smart.. you have been warned.)

    Better to be Faster or a Dreamer than being “freed from desire” (nothing wrong with that song, another excellent Italo-house hit two years from “now”; it’s just the phrase is an unfortunate metaphor for the outcome of the Blair years and rather confused sequence of number ones we’ll see towards the end of the decade. But as I’ve said before, it’ll encourage the spiciest debate. Tom.. what you waiting for?)

    * Before they bomb anyone, obviously.

  23. 123
    @Patrick_Mexico on 3 Nov 2013 #

    I compared Manic Street Preachers’ Faster to Livin Joy’s Dreamer and lived to tell the tale.. http://t.co/pZ0hYqUGl5

  24. 124
    weej on 1 Apr 2014 #

    I keep seeing this floating round the internet this week, and thought people might “enjoy” it based on the conversation above – http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/03/18/music-criticism-has-degenerated-into-lifestyle-reporting.html – tldr; lifestyle journalism has killed my precious rockism, we need to save music journalism from the 21st century by droning on about the petatonic scale and modulating keys.

  25. 125

    I had that piece a little in mind when I was writing this: and Owen Pallett has been doing sterling work in the days since it broke writing pieces about high-end chartpop that deploys music analysis in an interesting, entertaining and informative way.

    (Pre-this, Gioia was an OK-ish jazz historian and critic…)

  26. 126
    Tom on 1 Apr 2014 #

    Technical knowledge applied in an interesting way is about as hott as non-fiction gets, for me. But WHY OH WHY OH WHY do all these pieces assume that technical knowledge about pop music begins and ends as musicology. I don’t just want musicology nerds up in my pop writing, I want sociologists, choreographers, economists, marketers, historians, dressmakers, shop owners, hairdressers, programmers, graphic designers, and a hundred others TOO. And the moon on a stick for pudding.

  27. 127
    Tom on 1 Apr 2014 #

    (So to back myself up the bulk of the entry I’m writing now is a potted history of ideas about branding. Sorry everyone.)

  28. 128
    weej on 1 Apr 2014 #

    Sure, I agree – nothing wrong with knowing your musicology, but music (especially pop music) isn’t the reserve of an elite group of musicologists, it’s everyone’s – and it’s telling that he compares it to business studies and football commentary as if *that’s* the desired standard.

  29. 129
    Cumbrian on 1 Apr 2014 #

    Sports commentary is a particularly odd one, to be honest. The best, most insightful analysis on sport is not being done by sports commentators (even though Gary Neville has moved things on somewhat). I know my rugby union and the guys on the TV talking about tactics and so on are talking about rugby union tactics, it is true, but not at a standard that should be held up as something to emulate. The best work is being done on blogs and by some journalists, as far as I can tell – and isn’t that the case with music too? I don’t really see a difference.

    Also agree with Tom that there’s room for all kinds of stuff in this analysis, both in music and in sport (the whole sabermetric movement in Baseball is entirely about getting economists/mathematicians into analysis of the sport). The internet is so vast, I guess I just look at complaints like those in the linked article at 124 and think: why can’t we have both? And more besides?

  30. 130
    iconoclast on 1 Apr 2014 #

    #124: An interesting read, although I do side more with Tom here: IMHO the only meaningful test of a piece of music is what happens on the way out – its effect on its listeners – rather than what happens on the way in. Otherwise you get music to look at (evaluate by reading the score, or the “score” if you’re being deconstructionist), not to listen to.

    However, I do think the author makes a valid point in there somewhere about the decline in the quality of music criticism. I think he may be mistaking cause for effect somewhere along the line, though, and it’s a symptom of a fundamental change in the part music plays in daily life now compared to 20 years ago.

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