Their 20 charting hits are now mostly more than 20 years in the past, and while the bulk of them were super sweet and catchy, they also seemed easily forgettable. Pop cotton candy. But in 1992, Erasure put out an EP with four of the Swedish act's songs called Abba-Esque, and now A*Teens have released The ABBA Generation, an album of 11 ABBA songs, updated with modern synthesizers and beats for the 21st century.
Included are "Mamma Mia," "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)," "Super Trouper," "Voulez-Vous," "S.O.S.," "Dancing Queen," "Take a Chance On Me," "Lay Your Love On Me" and more. Singers Sara and Marie create a luscious mix of youngish, sweet harmonies and do the ABBA catalogue proud. This album should introduce a whole new generation to the cotton candy pop that ABBA made so well.
While the younger generation is discovering the treasure trove of ABBA pop, they can now also discover the musical comedy of a bygone era. Rhino Records has just released a box set of Tom Lehrer titled The Remains of Tom Lehrer.
The 71-year-old math teacher created a string of comedy classics in the '50s and '60s, based around his piano and razor wit. Lehrer financed and released his first record, Songs by Tom Lehrer in 1953, skewering the uppity, often effete Ivy Leaguers in "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" and talked of Boy Scouts tucking away marijuana in "Be Prepared."
Lehrer's disc slowly took off thanks to word-of-mouth, and after the teacher did a stint in the army in the mid-'50s, he returned to the States and spent a couple years as a full-time performer before deciding he'd rather concentrate on teaching math. In this period, he produced his incredibly funny second album, More of Tom Lehrer, in 1959.
The popular "Dr. Demento" radio show has helped bring most of the songs to the generations growing up in the '80s and '90s — the disc includes "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," "Bright College Days," "Oedipus Rex," "The Masochism Tango" and "We Will All Go Together When We Go," all of which Demento has played regularly on the show. The box set compiles both of these albums on one CD along with two 1990s recordings, "I Got It From Agnes" and "That's Mathematics."
The second disc of the box set includes Lehrer's live albums covering the same material, Tom Lehrer Revisited (1960) and An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer (1959). He recorded the latter before his second studio album, but then decided to record studio versions of the same songs and offer both versions to the public.
The third disc in the box includes the album That Was The Year That Was from 1965, which includes his best known song, "New Math," as well as "The Vatican Rag." This third box set disc also includes his 1971-'72 sessions for "The Electric Company" TV show and three new recordings from 1999.
While not a prolific humorist, as Dr. Demento notes in the 80-page booklet that accompanies the set, "Tom Lehrer is the most brilliant song satirist ever recorded." While his first album is just "amusing," his subsequent work is consistently dryly hysterical.
Juliana's Pony: Total System Failure
Quite honestly, Hatfield is a more persuasive balladeer than rocker. The former Atlantic Records hitmaker has released two distinctly different albums at once this month on the independent Zoe/Rounder Records group (you can find them as a special edition combined set, if you look hard enough).
Beautiful Creature is exactly what its title implies — a CD of beautiful melodies and lightly strummed rhythms supporting Hatfield's waifish and evocative pipes. For fans of her mid-'90s hits "Spin the Bottle" and "My Sister," this is the disc to buy. While the guitars do occasionally crank into a distorted groove, the focus here is on harmonies and lyrical yearning, typified by the opening track, the sinuous "Daniel," the soaring "Cry in the Dark" and "Somebody is Waiting For Me," a classic '60s-sounding ballad with churning organ and guitar strums and a plaintive chorus echoing the song title.
This album is loaded with sweetened radio-ready hits, though given her independent label status, you probably won't hear them on the FM dial soon.
Juliana's Pony: Total System Failure is the complete flipside of Beautiful Creature — probably Hatfield's own reaction to her happy side after being cooped up in a studio for a year recording Beautiful Creature's sugary "ahhs." Recorded quickly with a different band shortly after the completion of the other disc, Total System Failure cranks up the distortion and lyrical bite for a dozen songs (and a track of 15 seconds of guitar "thrash"). While on Beautiful Creature she covers romantic themes in songs like "Close Your Eyes," "Cry in the Dark," the Chris Isaak-esque "Hotels" and the tender hymn "Until Tomorrow"; on Total System Failure she rants about the dark part of humanity in a steady stream of diatribe about victims, irritating "breeders," boys in leather and more. In "Houseboy" she gets on top of a strutting bass rhythm and tells a lover what errands she'd like him to do for her ("little white boy, you make a great slave" she taunts.) Later she sings of the negative "bride-from-hell" aspects of marriage in "Let's Get Married," and in "The Victim" she paints a pathetic picture of those who don't take responsibility for their own actions, singing "someone knocked me up again ... can someone make me beautiful and thin."
It's all done with tongue-in-cheek (or maybe tongue stuck out), but the songs on Total System Failure rest on one-dimensional stomp riffs, whereas Beautiful Creature opens itself to deeper textures and musical explorations.
Either way, both sides of the Hatfield coin prove that the high-voiced singer still has a lot to say, even if the major label-driven "hits" may seem behind her.