#108 – “She Was A Hotel Detective” (1994)

Back To Skull

L.K.: I have been in love with this song since 2006, when I first heard it on the semi-defunct TMBG Clock Radio.(I say semi-defunct because you can still download it and unless you have a Mac, it still works, but it hasn’t really been updated in ages…)

A.S.: Yeah, having had a Mac my entire life, this is a problem, but eh.
L.K.: Well, if you have a Mac with an OLD operating system it still works. Just not the newest one.
A.S.: Yeah having only been made aware of the Clock Radio not all that long ago is a bit problematic too
L.K.: All my computers run Windows XP (except my laptop, which runs Vista), so I tend not to notice problems caused by new operating systems… AND ANYWAY, YES, LET’S TALK ABOUT THIS SONG.
A.S.: Hey, speaking of being late to the game I think it hasn’t even been a year since I first heard this song, if my iTunes library is to be believed.  For some reason, the Back To Skull EP was one of the very last official studio releases from TMBG I ever heard. But holy hell this song was an instant favorite and it still is.
L.K.: I mean, I was instantly hooked by the fact that it’s in a minor key, but it’s got some interesting chords going on in the verse and then it has that killer chorus.
A.S.: Yep, a cool key change from F# minor to Bm
L.K.: It’s a really LONG chorus too, which is odd.
A.S.: And a really strange musical phrasing, changing time signatures and such
L.K.: Yeah, I think the shifting time signatures are used really, really effectively here. This song is “disco” in only the loosest sense of the word. It’s a lot more interesting than that.
A.S.: Well I mean, disco is a pretty broad term in the first place, ranging from the early Giorgio Moroder stuff to the slick studio Bee Gees tunes to whatever sort of disco is still being produced today.
L.K.: It doesn’t have any sort of funky groove thing going on at all though. It mostly just has a prominent bass and synth strings.
A.S.: It has that steady four-on-the-floor beat though, that pulsing bass drum driving the song throughout, time signature changes and all.
L.K.: It’s not particularly danceable music though, is the thing. Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible to dance to.
A.S.: It’s still very much disco, perhaps aesthetically similar to what Sparks did with No. 1 In Heaven (even though that was obviously much more significant musically and was of course done in collaboration with Moroder, the master himself). But I guess in a “weird-progressive-arty-pop-duo-make-some-disco” way it’s kind of similar.
L.K.: I want to dance to Sparks though. It’s disco in a more genuine sense of the word. This is maybe a little on the artier side. It’s like a paranoid, gothic version of disco.
A.S.: More disco in a genuine sense because they were actually working with Moroder.  It’s very possible that without him in the equation those Sparks records would have sounded a bit more like this.
L.K.: Yeah. The “sound” of No. 1 In Heaven doesn’t much resemble most of their previous work, so I would say that’s the producer’s doing.
A.S.: Another fantastic thing about this song is Linnell’s massive vocal range in it, altered as it was, from the falsetto in the pre-chorus to the bass harmony in the second verse.
L.K.: Yeah, he’s making pretty extensive use of pitch shifting here, but to great effect. Any time they performed it live though, the lower harmony would be dropped, and the higher part of the chorus would just be sung by Flansburgh.
A.S.: Which inspired him to write another song that we’ve already discussed at length.
L.K.: Of course. You know, I’ve heard two live recordings of this, and if I weren’t so unsure about Flans’s vocal range these days, I’d kill to see it live again. They might actually have an easier time performing it live now since they could just put Dan Miller on second keyboard to cover synth parts.
A.S.: Bah, I’d kill to see it live anyway.  Allegedly hasn’t been performed since 1995, which I suppose is understandable since it’s a bit of an obscurity but good god fans would go apeshit hearing this one live. And I agree, the current lineup would be more than adept to perform it.
L.K.: The problem with this song is that it’s almost impossible for people to hear though.
A.S.: How do you mean?
L.K.: All those Elektra-era B-sides and singles and rarities were never reissued in any other format.
A.S.: Oh, in that regard. Yeah, the Superfueled Freaksickle problem again.
L.K.: Outside of the Clock Radio, podcast appearances, and file-sharing, it’s pretty hard to come across most of the 90s B-sides.
A.S.: I guess we can all just hope that someday the band will have access to them and reissue them in some form. Then again, maybe some company will do it anyway without the Johns’ knowledge, similar to the new vinyl reissue of Factory Showroom – it’s unlikely but possible I suppose. So for all the wonderful things about this song, there’s one thing that I dislike about it. Actually, you can probably guess what it is.
L.K.: I’m thinking…. still thinking… nah, I’m stumped. Tell me.
A.S.: I’m really not crazy about the synth strings.  I’d love to hear this song with an actual string section – to have musicians to really play that part would add so much more depth to it.
L.K.: Ah, well you’re thinking much bigger-budget than TMBG was ever able to work with.
A.S.: Well until two years later.
L.K.: Bringing up Sparks YET AGAIN, I find their recent use of synth strings much more obnoxious than TMBG’s use of them here.
A.S.: I mean one song’s worth of synth strings is also not as bad as three albums’ worth.
L.K.: In the context of this particular song, fake strings hiding in the background might actually work better than the real thing. The song isn’t really about them; they’re just there for flavor/texture. The piano is fake, there are other synths going on, it’s just a whole bunch of fake instruments. It’s just not a naturalistic recording in general, for a number of reasons, so I don’t really notice the fakeness of the strings in the context of the bigger picture.
A.S.: The strings are the most obvious fake instruments here, though.  And usually I’m not bothered by synthesized instruments on early TMBG songs, but here it’s a bit different.  It might be a combination of a few factors – at this point I’m used to synthesized rhythm sections and fake piano sounds in TMBG’s oeuvre, but not so much fake strings (until then whenever they needed a bowed string instrument, they’d used the real thing as in “Kiss Me Son of God” or “Istanbul”).  Also in a replication of a classic late 1970s disco sound, I’d just expect to hear an actual string section.  I mean just think about how much weaker “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” would have been if the strings had been synthesized.
L.K.: But this isn’t trying to replicate the late 1970s. It isn’t trying to be actual disco or anything, it’s just appropriating aspects of it for its own usage. “Kiss Me, Son Of God” is a place where real instruments are necessary and essential, this is not. I am much more bothered by fake instruments most other places in TMBG’s discography, but not in this song. Really, the strings aren’t even used in this song that much to begin with!
A.S.: I guess, although I still feel like “She Was A Hotel Detective” is really a good homage to classic disco even with its TMBG idiosyncrasies, so I think it’d benefit by having actual strings, or hell, non-synthesized instruments all around.  I’d love to hear it recorded as such (and I’m a sucker for string sections in things anyway). And the synth strings are used enough to justify them being performed on actual string instruments – they play the main riff of the song and they’re as a constant harmonic bedding throughout.
L.K.: There are so many other places where reliance on samples and fake instruments resulted in vastly inferior recordings of excellent songs (i.e. most of Flood), but I am sticking to my guns on synth strings being not only acceptable here, but probably more appropriate than the real thing.
A.S.: Yeah, Flood‘s pretty crummy with a lot of that.  What do you think, dear reader?
L.K.: Between the vocal manipulation, the extreme echoey-ness of the drums and vocals, the synth strings and the synth everything else, I really feel like the artifice works in this song’s favor. Unlike, uh… the trumpet samples in “Birdhouse In Your Soul”.
A.S.: Even though it’s all there in the first place to replicate techniques and sounds used in classic disco hits.
L.K.: You know, those Sparks disco songs were full of fake instruments too and those were more disco than this.
A.S.: Oh yeah, but Moroder and Sparks were doing a much different sort of disco than the Bee Gees or KC and the Sunshine Band or Michael Jackson were, and I think the latter is more what “Hotel Detective” is aiming for.
L.K.: I totally do not think this song sounds like “Shake Your Booty” or “Stayin’ Alive”. I don’t think it was even trying to. You’re just splitting hairs now.
A.S.: It sounds a heck of a lot more like that than Giorgio Moroder’s music.
L.K.: It doesn’t sound like either.
A.S.: I still think it owes more to the AM pop disco hits than it does to electronic Italian disco.
L.K.: It’s probably ultimately more a fucked-up version of synth pop than either of those.
A.S.: I dunno about that. But either way, “She Was A Hotel Detective” rules.
L.K.: I still don’t think it’s trying to be actual disco though. I’d go to “Escape From The Planet Of The Apes” for that.
A.S.: Oh god, that’s uh.
L.K.: DISCO!
A.S.: Forgot that song existed. It’s pretty funky. I mean, again, I still wholeheartedly think that “Hotel Detective” is a tribute to disco, so we’re in disagreement on this which is fine, so let me throw another one out there. This song is TMBG’s interpretation of disco in the same way that “Barbarism Begins At Home” is The Smiths’ interpretation of disco.
L.K.: Oh man, but that is CRAZY DANCEABLE.
A.S.: True, but it’s a non-disco band’s interpretation of disco music. Or at least one of them (since in TMBG’s case, I’d also certainly argue that “Hell Hotel” is a disco homage).
L.K.: Hey, does ABBA count as disco or not?
A.S.: Yeah, ABBA were definitely disco.
L.K.: Because certain parts of this song vaguely remind me of “Gimme Gimme Gimme”, but again, ABBA is much more danceable. Real(?) strings but fake almost everything else, so I guess that furthers your argument.
A.S.: Yeah there we go, you just found a much better example supporting my argument than I did.
L.K.: I’m sticking to my guns though.
A.S.: That’s fine.
L.K.: Except now I’ll just do so with ABBA in my head.
A.S.: Disco’s a broad genre, despite it often getting very much pigeonholed and maligned. So then different interpretations of it by various pop groups such as TMBG, Sparks, and The Smiths can all also comfortably fit under that big umbrella. Hey let’s end this long-winded disco talk with a video of Morrissey and Johnny Marr dancing to their own disco creation.
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