MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Abba, Joni Mitchell, Body Unltd

Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

The songs of ABBA are like comfort food — and that’s meant as a compliment. On the one hand, you can say it’s safe and predictable. But on the other hand, it leaves you so happy and satisfied. That’s probably partially why ABBA’s return with a new album, Voyage (Capitol) — their first in 40 years — was greeted with such rapture; after the past two years of uncertainty and stress, anything delivering a dose of feel-good familiarity is most welcome.

ABBA never officially announced they were breaking up after the release of The Visitors in 1981, but as the years passed they gave no indication had any desire to release new music. What changed that was their involvement in a high-tech live show, opening next year, where they’ll be recreated as “Abbatars.” They so enjoyed recording new songs for the show it was easy to make the decision — why not release a whole album?

Voyage (Capitol) picks up where The Visitors left off, at least in sound. But it’s an older and wiser Agnetha Fältskog and Anna-Frid Lynstad singing the songs; a bit bruised by life perhaps, but with ABBA’s trademark optimism nonetheless intact. It’s something nicely summarized by the line “I’m not the one you knew/I’m now and then combined” (“Don’t Shut Me Down”). Or consider “Keep an Eye on Dan.” If this was ’70s ABBA, the title might make you think of a boyfriend with a wandering eye. But on Voyage, it turns out to be Fältskog’s instruction to her ex-husband as she drops their son off for the weekend.

In short, don’t expect the giddy spirits of “Bang-A-Boomerang” or “Take a Chance on Me.” This is a more reflective ABBA. The lush “I Still Have Faith in You” can be viewed as a song of two people overcoming adversity, or an assessment of ABBA’s own legacy. “Bumblebee” is a quietly restrained song about climate change. The Gaelic-flavored “When You Dance With Me” takes a relationship that failed to take off as a means of contemplating the passage of time.

The music (all songs written by the “Bs” in ABBA, Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus) are as toe-tappingly catchy as ever. And if some think the sentiments get mushy at times (e.g. the Christmas song “Little Things”), the album closes with the yearning “Ode to Freedom,” a prayer of hope for the future. As ever, ABBA, thank you for the music.

Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971) (Rhino) takes a deep dive into Mitchell’s breakthrough period as a recording artist. The first volume in the Archives series covered the years 1963-1967, before Mitchell made her first record. The new set offers a look at the work that went into creating her first four albums: Song to a Seagull, Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon, and Blue.

Though a number of tracks are outtakes from studio sessions, most of the songs are drawn from other sources: home demos, radio sessions, and live performances. She’s heard putting together the track listing for Clouds at the New York City apartment of her friend Jane Lurie; “Instead of being such a personal album, this isn’t nearly as personal an album as the last one,” she observes, as she reminds herself to add “Both Sides Now” to the album.

While there are alternate versions of songs that were later released — such as a lovely version of “Ladies of the Canyon” with cellos — it’s especially interesting to hear the songs that might have been. Like poignant ballad “Jesus,” another demo recorded at Lurie’s apartment, Mitchell accompanying herself on piano. Or “Midnight Cowboy,” a melancholy portrait of the would-be hustler Joe Buck, written but not ultimately used for the film of the same name.

Among the live recordings is a March 19, 1968 performance at the Le Hibou Coffee House in Ottawa, Ontario recorded by an unlikely tape operator — Jimi Hendrix. A big fan of Mitchell, Hendrix had arrived at the club after his own gig in the city, bearing a reel-to-reel tape deck and asking if he could record her. She agreed. As a result, 53 years later we can delight in hearing Mitchell promoting her soon-to-be-released debut album, and the poetry of “Michael from Mountains,” “The Pirate of Penance,” and “Sisotowbell Lane.” Archives Vol. 2 is a fascinating look at a songwriter in the midst of her artistic development.

Genevieve (self-released) is the debut offering from self-described queer electro-noir twosome, Body Unltd (Irene Barber and Vox Mod). The six-track release has the clean, crisp sound of electronic devices pulsating like a metronome. But the warmth of the human voice tempers the chill, singing of desire, of the need to make a connection.

The songs evolved with Mod first creating the instrumentals, then sending them to Barber who added further music and lyrics. The words of “Coasts” touch on the isolation we’ve all felt during in recent times: “How was the long weekend?/Was it with friends, or you alone?/Is it okay I’m doing very well?” It’s not surprising that desire results from all that pent up emotion. “Where You Want to Go” is a seductive invitation to push past all your boundaries (“I give you all that I am/I got soft hands….”), but are you being taken for a trip or for a ride?

The vocals are beguiling, luring you in on “Pathways” and “Arrival.” There’s a sly humor at work too, on “Helluva Light,” an encounter with Lucifer’s daughter, who doesn’t seem that menacing; she’s just looking to have a good time. And ageless “Genevieve,” a shining star inviting you to join in the celebration and dancing until dawn.


Somewhere in a parallel universe lives a Karma Comedian, a Cheerio Girl, and a one-winged dove. Dirty deeds are done by Thunder Chiefs, and Tony Danza holds us closer…so close. This is the Land of Misheard Lyrics, and it is a silly, silly place. Yet it is a place we are all familiar with, having suffered varying degrees of humiliation during our visits there.

For this installment of Only Noise, I reached out to my friends and fellow music journalists to ask: what lyrics have you tragically misheard in the past? And oh, how the gems rolled in. Some misinterpretations were almost universal in their familiarity. Take one colleague’s aural rendering of a Manfred Mann mega hit: “The best one has to be ‘wrapped up like a douche,’” she said. “I thought those were the lyrics to ‘Blinded By The Light’ for half my life.” I’m still convinced that’s what he’s saying, personally. In fact, if you played that song through text dictation, I bet five dollars the “douche” version would end up on your phone.

Some misinterpretations directly correlated to the age of the listener. For instance, a friend of mine admitted: “I used to think, as a child, that Prince’s ‘I Would Die 4 U’ was ‘Apple Dapple Do.’” Another pal misheard ABBA during “Take a Chance on Me.” “I used to think, when I was a kid, that the lyric ‘Honey I’m still free’ was ‘Olly oxen free.’” And perhaps my favorite instance of pop-music-through-the-ears-of-a-child: Madonna’s chart topping smash hit about a balanced breakfast: “Cheerio Girl.” Madonna wasn’t wrong (she rarely is) when she sang, “We are living in a Cheerio world/and I am a Cheerio girl.”

Similar such nonsense insisted that Steve Miller was not in fact singing “Oh, Oh big ol’ jet airliner” in “Jet Airliner,” but rather, “Bingo Jed had a lina,” whatever the hell that means. Who is this “Bingo Jed” anyhow? Some kind of gambling tycoon at the local retirement home? And what in God’s name is a lina? Only parallel universe Steve Miller can tell us.

The Land of Misheard Lyrics can be goofy, for sure, but it is also a realm of longing, proven by groups such as TLC, who once pleaded, “Don’t go, Jason Waterfalls!” And we must never forget the picturesque isolation painted by Stevie Nicks when she sang, “Just like the one-winged dove/Sings a song/Sounds like she’s singing/Ooo, ooo, ooo.” Those “Ooos” were merely the painful cries of a newly one-winged bird. Now she’ll have to apply for bird disability, and I don’t even know if that’s a thing.

If sad and silly are high rollers in the Land of Misheard Lyrics, then absurdity is king. Remember when Mick Jagger swore he’d never be “Your pizza burnin’,” or when ‘90s dance sensation Eiffel 65 confessed: “I’m blue and I beat up a guy”? Me too. Or what about the time all those “Dirty Deeds” were done by “The Thunder Chief”? Or how ‘bout that darn Karma Comedian, who was perpetually coming and going, for six choruses and a bridge? Ugh. Comedians.

But that’s just the PG side of things. Some folks heard lyrics that Freud would have a grand old time picking apart. Take Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ love ballad, “Sweetheart Come,” which a fellow music writer heard as, “Sweet Hot Cum.” To be fair, I don’t blame her for thinking that. I mean, have you ever listened to the lyrics of “Stagger Lee”? Pervy-ness abounds in the Land of Misheard Lyrics, where Ziggy Stardust can be found “Making love to an eagle,” and Sir Mix-a-Lot likes “Big butts in the candlelight.” Not fluorescent. Not incandescent. Specifically, only in candlelight. To Sir Mix-a-Lot’s nonexistent point, candles are the sexiest light source.

My personal best example of misinterpreted lyrics occurred at age 10, upon the release of “Jumpin’ Jumpin’” by Destiny’s Child. “Ladies leave your man at home,” Beyoncé and the other three sang, “the club is full of ballers and their COCK is full grown.” Say huh? How did this get past the FCC? I wondered. Did my mom, from whose car and therefore radio we were listening to such filth hear what I heard? Furthermore, if the club was full of ballers, and “their” cock was full grown, did that mean that these ballers possessed one, collective cock? The peoples’ cock? I needed answers. All I knew was one thing: you can’t say “cock” on the radio! Or could you? Was this profanity Beyoncé’s fault? Or the DJ’s for not bleeping out the “cock” word? Or was it as the great Jimmy Buffett once sang: “Some people claim that there’s a walnut to blame”? We may never know.

ONLY NOISE: Shiny Happy Pop Songs Holding Hands


One side effect of obsessing over music for a living is the ability to compartmentalize your own tastes into pre-measured doses of sonic mood modifiers. Saying “music is my drug” is irrevocably corny and should be left to the bumper sticker manufacturers of the world, but it’s not an erroneous statement. I’ve written about music and mood before, and it is a subject I find endlessly fascinating. There have been numerous studies analyzing music’s influence on brain chemistry – studies that will teach you far more than I can by relaying personal, uncontrolled experiences. I am no neuroscientist, but I’ll do my best to discuss the subject in my own, pop-culturally referential way.

But this is more a gander at the inverse; not how music dictates your mood, but how your mood dictates what you decide to listen to. Mood doesn’t always consciously affect my listening choices. Sometimes when I select a specific record to put on, it is purely because that’s the album I’ve been spinning relentlessly. Last Thursday I listened to Smog’s Red Apple Falls four times in a row, and that would have been five or six if I didn’t have to run errands.

Sometimes the decision to listen to Prefab Sprout is rooted in a logic no more complex than: I’m just in a Prefab Sprout phase right now. A phase can last weeks, sometimes months. I think I listened near exclusively to The Smiths for about a year. I binge eat artists, albums, and songs, but unlike food, the repetition of great pop music never makes me nauseous.

But there are of course moments when I Spotify playlist myself, trying like an algorithm to switch or indulge my mood. I typically indulge, which I do not suggest as a method of catharsis. Unless you like crying alone while watching Joanna Newsom artfully play harp.

If I am depressed, angry, despondent, vengeful…oh DO I have a playlist for those moments. I have entire records for those moments, box sets and anthologies. When it comes to finding the soundtrack to a bad day I’m practically Ariel from The Little fucking Mermaid showing off her endless archive of sad knickknacks. You want Joni Mitchell? I’ve got plenty. You want anguish in B Flat? I got whosits and whatists galore, ok?

So what does one listen to when suddenly inundated with…nice feelings? One might want perhaps, to not ruin it with the entirety of 69 Love Songs? What if your reference library is stocked with Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Roy Orbison, and artists of similar ilk? And furthermore, how do you write a column about it? I’ve run into countless occasions where I happen to be happy, and therefore want to maximize that feeling with some aural reinforcement – but I come up blank. Nick Drake, anyone?

“Happy songs, happy songs…” I mutter to myself, remembering only the bummed-out Aldous Harding track I’ve been listening to incessantly. A friend once asked me to make a playlist for her birthday party. I laughed and wondered how well this person knew me or my morose musical tastes. Everyone else in my circle has crowned me the worst party DJ ever, mocking my interest in listening to records in full and my affinity for seemingly anti-party music (what do you mean The Birthday Party isn’t a great thing to play at a birthday party?!). More than once have I spent hours carefully constructing playlists to my own birthday parties, only to have them intercepted by guests and supplanted with Top 40 jamz before the clock strikes 12. But I get where they’re coming from. No one shakes their ass to The Jesus and Mary Chain.

“Feel-good music” has never been a tag that excites me. Songs shaped into balloon animals to distract you from good-old-fashioned suffering. Pop trickery that manipulates your mind with chimes and pitch correction. But in the event of spontaneous elation, if you or anyone you know is at risk of having a good, even lovely day, I want you to know: it is going to be all right.

Whether we want anyone to know or not, joy does occasionally break through, and we just have to deal with it. I could far more easily fashion a playlist of breakup songs, funeral anthems, and frightening German noise bands. But setting aside my eternally teenage heart for the purposes of letting myself be happy (for now) is a tall but necessary order.

I’m getting better at admitting to shortcomings such as this. I’ve even found a way to label it (a writer’s favorite thing to do). Since the band’s inception, critics have often described The Smiths as “miserablists,” and while I won’t stand behind that point entirely – they were far too self-aware and satirical to be reduced to such a limiting word – I kind of love the term. “Miserablist.” It’s an absurd word, as if misery were a political party, its spokesperson being the lugubrious Moz, of course.

Involuntarily or not, I may be a card-carrying miserablist myself. To the extent that when a desire for more beatific, up-tempo, major scale pop music bubbles through all of my petty brooding, I have a slight identity crisis. But I am working on it.

In the same way it is ok to let yourself be happy (I hear), it is also ok to let yourself listen to happy music. Shiny happy music. But who am I really telling this to? You probably already know that.

I have appointed myself with the task of making a playlist of songs I enjoy for their sheer mood-erecting abilities, which was harder than you might think.  They can’t just be any peppy pop songs. I have to love of course. I may be in a good mood, but I’m still a snob.

In situations like these, I first look to ABBA. They are perhaps the only group in my collection whose “sad,” or “grave” ballads hold no interest for me. I turn (or twirl) to them for disco bangers alone, songs written for the purposes of merriment and cutting fat checks, not enriching the poetic canon. I wouldn’t call theirs particularly substantive music – though it was made with a depth of technical talent – but it sure as shit makes you wanna dance.

“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” is perhaps one of the most asinine and catchy cuts out there. Even Madonna couldn’t resist that ridiculous synth…pan flute? riff when she sampled it in 2005’s “Hung Up.” And neither can I.

The rest of my playlist follows a similar rule. As I construct it I realize that every song is void of guilty associations – those autobiographical kernels of nostalgia embedded into every song an ex showed you, or your mother used to sing in the kitchen. These songs have somehow become mine, no matter how they came into my life.

From what I can see of the end result, what makes me happy musically is pretty in step with real life. Absurdity (“Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”), idealism (“Tenderness”), love (“Funny Little Frog”), and funk.

I guess a little positivity won’t kill me. Yet.

ONLY NOISE: Pop Anonymous

The Smiths

Someone I used to date always said that I only hated everything that existed.  I fucking hated that guy, but he may have been on to something.  I’ve long been called many things; a contrarian, a hater, overly opinionated, and my personal favorite, too intense.  But while those assessments can ring true, they don’t take into account my aptitude for eating crow, a skill best exemplified in my musical flip-flopping over the years.  Lengthy is the list of bands I used to “hate” and now adore.  Changing your mind is a simultaneously painful and elating metamorphosis to endure.  Especially when it requires letting go of a pre-teen ethos deeply rooted in punk rock; a genre that is constantly evaluating it’s own badassness.  My leading question as a 14-year-old closet pop-addict being: does liking ABBA make me less punk rock?

Before my musical diet broadened exponentially, before I caught myself enjoying a Taylor Swift song here and there, or found out that I did in fact like hip hop, The Cardigans, and Kate Bush, I pretty much only listened to punk.  I wanted music with anger issues.  I was allergic to melody…or so I thought.  There was a specific regimen of sloppy, fast, and distorted a song had to abide by to catch my attention.  It was a closed mindedness I’m shocked anyone was able to put up with.  My mom would softly chide me as I furiously jabbed the radio tuner in search of something to appease my limited tastes, “variety is the spice of life, you know.”

And she was right!  But I couldn’t even see the variety so intrinsic to punk rock at first: jazz, ska, rockabilly, country…they all found homes in the tedious sub-genres of punk at some stage or another.  But at the time it had a narrow definition, and more importantly, existed in a vacuum.  Whenever my dad would try to relate to me by voicing observations such as: “hey, this is really just sped-up pop music!” I would defend its “hardcore” integrity with a spiny vengeance.

Pop was also burdened with a slim definition.  Pop meant flaccid and saccharine.  Pop was the noise that bubblegum made.  Pop was the opposite of punk, unless it was pop punk, a genre I absolutely indulged in but would go to painstaking lengths to rename as “skater punk” or “neo-punk” because semantics and titles meant that much to me.  I wonder why.

There were countless bands that I tossed aside in my one-woman-war against melody.  The Smiths were top of the heap.  Did I really hate The Smiths because I’d patiently, painfully sat through full albums and just couldn’t stand the irresistible brightness of Johnny Marr’s guitar, or Morrissey’s delicious voice?  Or did I stop my investigation  short of listening, scoff at the flowers in Moz’s pocket, and turn away the moment I realized that everyone else loved them?  As we know, pop is short for popular, and with discriminating ears I’d decided that “popular” was synonymous with “crap.”

It took me a long time to realize that hating something because of its popularity is just as lame as liking it for that reason.  Concept, I’ve learned, can be the enemyThose little placards next to the paintings at museums can never communicate what it is that the canvas does to you.  It may seem funny that a music critic is telling you to not listen to the ideas surrounding music, but before a critic I’m a listener, and one thing I  know is that diving in on your own, swimming around, feeling the temperature and the texture of a song…that’s all that really matters.  Gleaning significance from a concept-a synopsis really, no longer interests me…I want the meat of the thing.  And it was with this abandonment that I was finally able to enjoy a whole slew of music I would have shrugged off in my younger years.

If concept is the enemy, context is a friend.  After all, it was context that first tricked me into liking The Smiths.  I was on an ugly grey balcony in Seattle, the balcony belonging to a friend’s hip older brother.  It was the summer before I moved to New York and I found myself dating hip big brother’s college friend, a coy Brit who played with his bangs too much.

The brother, being a musician, had a hoard of instruments strewn about his apartment, along with plenty of friends who could play them.  What college apartment would be complete without the requisite acoustic guitar, after all?

Though I grew up in the midst of musicians and have been witness to my fair share of casual-setting sing-alongs, I’ve never taken a shine to them.  Too intimate.  Too showy.  Mostly too intimate.  This occasion was no different.

Some guy with a fashion mullet and a purple zip up hoodie started strumming away on a six-string, and though I already wanted to run far away, I remained board-stiff in my deck chair.  The song was requested by the Englishman, who shortly began to sing:

“stop me, uh-uh-oh stop me, stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before…”

My ears perked up-I hadn’t heard this one before.  I loved it.  I wanted to know who wrote it so I could hear the original version as soon as humanly possible and wash the sonic imprint of this “stripped-down” cover from my skull.

“Whose song is that?!”  I demanded.

The two men looked at each other with mild disgust that I didn’t already know.

“The Smiths,” replied a thin British accent.


It was the beginning of an ongoing love affair that peaked mid-college, at which point I effectively ruined The Smiths for my first New York boyfriend after playing their catalog too much.  I probably have friends who think I still hate The Smiths.  Don’t tell them.

My newfound love of the Salford four might suggest a wellspring of new interests on less aggressive terrain…say Belle and Sebastian, for instance.  Not so.  I found Stuart Murdoch’s voice too whispering, the music too soft, too…wussy.  For years I scoffed at the mention of them, never realizing that Murdoch’s lyrics were just as divisive as Morrissey’s, Elvis Costello’s, and Paddy McAloon’s.

But the battle against Belle and Sebastian would be lost to one song: “The Blues Are Still Blue” off of 2006’s The Life Pursuit.  I was studying in Milan and sharing a mini apartment with a friend from school.  The two of us were practically married, sharing a bedroom, class schedule, and groceries.  We would cook for each other and spend hours at our tiny kitchen table smoking poorly rolled cigarettes and finishing off bottles of three euros red.  Wine-stained and enthused, we would exit our circular debates about religion and politics, opting instead to play music we suspected the other hadn’t heard.  This was much easier for her, as she was Brazilian, and could pretty much stump me with anything other than Sergio Mendes or Os Mutantes.

And yet her greatest victory in this game was Belle and Sebastian, which took her months to secure.  “No.  I don’t like Belle and Sebastian.  I can’t stand Stuart Murdoch’s voice.”  I insisted.  “Ah, but you have to hear this song” she would counter.  It hit me like a kiss.  There was no denying it was a fantastic song; dripping in hooks, with a chorus you couldn’t stand not to sing.  I admitted after a few listens that it was pretty catchy, but just because I liked one song didn’t mean I liked the band as a whole.

Within weeks I was secretly listening to other songs off The Life Pursuit, then the entire album, and eventually, older Belle and Sebastian records.  Right before we graduated I conceded to my persuader.  “You did it,” I reluctantly grunted.  “You made me like Belle and Sebastian.  Are you happy now?”  She smiled with purple lips.  I still can’t get her into Nick Cave.  She doesn’t like music that is too angry.