by Eric J Baker
Indie-rock’s elder statesmen They Might Be Giants put on a free concert in Princeton yesterday in honor of National Record Store Day, a concept I can get behind emotionally, if not rationally. After all, celebrating the record store in 2012 is a bit like prehistoric animals throwing a Dinosaur Appreciation Festival two years after the asteroid hit.
But we can pretend iTunes doesn’t rule the music world, and no question the Giants are one of my all-time faves, so I’ll take the free show. The stage was set up at Hinds Plaza on Witherspoon Street and was sponsored by The Princeton Record Exchange, the historic town’s second most venerable institution (the most venerable one is busy trying to unlock the secrets of nuclear fusion and could not appear in this story). More on PREX, as they call themselves, in a minute.
For those who haven’t been there, Princeton is big on the plaza thing. It wants to be Florence, but with more boutique shopping and less Donatello. Anyway, the Giants played a 45-minute set of their peculiar sugary pop songs with uniquely bizarre lyrics to a mixed audience of pink-haired human pincushions, awkward nerds self-consciously wearing t-shirts that depict random objects, and white-bread families with toddlers. I felt like Malcolm in the Middle until I ran into some friends.
The band sounded tight and good, as usual, on old favorites like “Pencil Rain” and “Birdhouse in Your Soul” as well as on more recent numbers aimed at younger listeners. However, while I shouldn’t have the audacity to bitch about free entertainment, I must lament that could barely hear them. Perhaps town officials are OK with massive crowds jammed into tiny places, provided the volume knob remains on “2.”
After the set, the two Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh, who founded TMBG in 1982) headed over to the Record Exchange to sign autographs on a table in front of the store. Despite the awesomeness of this blog, I have yet to qualify for a press pass, and I wasn’t going to wait on a three-block-long line for a quote, so you’ll have to be satisfied with my eyeball report that both Johns looked to be in good spirits and fine health. Upon gathering that observation, I went inside the store and bought a Johnny Cash CD for two bucks. Yup. Two bucks.
The Princeton Record Exchange opened in 1980 and has since been a haven for vinyl collectors, though CD and DVD buyers will marvel at the deathtrap-grade quantity of new and used disks as well. The merchandise, stacked floor to ceiling, nearly spills into the dangerously narrow aisles, so I can quite easily imagine killing six or seven people simply by yelling “Fire!” on a crowded weekend. If you are willing to risk getting trampled, you can walk in that shop with a twenty dollar bill and walk out with a bag full of movies and music, so low are the prices.
Like any good independent record store, the employees assume that customers are clueless and have bad taste (a cashier once inquired, upon observing my selection, how I could buy such garbage). To get revenge, I used to ask for the most obscure titles imaginable, just to see the deflated expression of someone who thinks she knows every album in history and discovers she doesn’t. My go-to band for this was Goblin, an Italian art-rock group that played the theme song for Dario Argento’s 1975 Giallo thriller Deep Red. To be extra annoying, I’d refer to it in Italian. “You know,” I’d say. “They did the theme song for Profondo Rosso. Oh, you’re not familiar? Hmmm. Footlight Records in the Village has it.”
The other common theme of the indie record store is that all black artists who don’t play jazz are filed under “Soul,” including Prince. Because “When Doves Cry” is really just Marvin Gaye in a purple jacket, right?
On the subject of Soul, I guess the R&B crowd doesn’t shop much at the Record Exchange (the selection of new disks is heavily tilted toward alt- and indie-rock), since I was unable to find the latest release by Canadian singer Melanie Fiona there yesterday. I will go ahead and declare her This Week’s Brunette right now, since I’m going to talk about her anyway and want to prove that I’m more than just a lascivious, old creep with a lust for dark-haired women. Nay, I shall discuss Ms. Fiona from a perspective of artistic merit.
With seemingly every female pop singer out there trying to copy Adele or Amy Winehouse – or belting out generic R&B with endless Jennifer-Hudson-esque wails and vocal gymnastics that bear no relation to the lyrical content – Melanie Fiona showed on her 2009 debut, The Bridge, that it’s ok to lay back and let a pop song happen without succumbing to annoying vocal affectation and avoiding the urge to overpower the music (though she could if she wanted to). Check out her smoky, sexy vocalization on “Ay Yo,” a melody-laden song with a Caribbean vibe:
“Bang Bang,” a catchy alt-rock track, stands out as well, and “Give it to Me Right” is as bluntly sexual as one can get without a parental advisory sticker. And is it me, or does she bear a slight physical resemblance to a young Aretha Franklin? But only in the face. Sorry Aretha, I know you’re the queen of soul and all, but Melanie Fiona’s body is right out of Weird Science. I mean that in the most professional, artistically meritorious way, of course.
All that said, I’m not sure I would have picked up her new album, The MF Life, even if I had found it at PREX. I haven’t exactly fallen in love with the few tracks I’ve heard. Perhaps in a bid to grab a larger audience, Fiona has decided to act like a politician running for national office and moved toward the center. But playing it safe is much wiser for Mitt Romney than for a genre-bending musician. I hear a lot more drum programming and generic R&B arrangements and melodies this time around, which makes me hope she is merely dabbling with different sounds and not trying too hard to appeal to the casual listener at the expense of her own creativity.
Romney, on the other hand… I urge him to use more drum programming and generic R&B arrangements. That guy has more soul than all six Isley Brothers combined, and he needs to pull back before our heads explode from all that soulful goodness. Melanie, take notes from the master!
So, as we wrap up another STR8 Sunday here at Pure film Creative, I wish to remind you that I never said I was not a lascivious, old creep with a lust for dark-haired women. I said I was more than that. The “more” part already happened, so here’s yet another image of Ms. Fiona, whose got some serious legs on her, no?