Issue #67: Stateless by Lene Lovich

May 30, 2017

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Stateless by Lene Lovich
Released In October, 1978
Released By Stiff Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Doug Nunnally

Even in 2017, I don’t think people really know what to make of new wave. Decades before critics and fans bemoaned the ever-growing umbrella of “indie” and “alt-rock,” there was new wave, a genre so bold that it told us bands like The Police and Oingo Boingo somehow occupied the same wavelength. Ask ten music fans who best represents the genre today and you’ll get ten wildly different answers, probably including Talking Heads, Duran Duran, Elvis Costello, and several more equally different artists. Refine it down to simply first wave and it’s still problematic as bands like Blondie and Television clearly share influence, but are still miles apart in sound. So how do you explain new wave to people when it can mean so many different things? I can’t definitively say, but I know a lot of the answers are found within Stateless, a record that might be the most accurate representation of new wave there has ever been, even if it’s as tough to nail down as the genre itself.

I’ll be honest — I’m at a loss to really describe Stateless and the music of Lovich. It’s not that she style-jumps around so boldly and freely with each song, but more that each of her songs (and performances) contain so many little layers and tricks that I feel like I’m constantly missing something. For example, put on some headphones, crank the volume up, and give “Lucky Number” a deep listen. What do you hear in the opening? Do you hear how some of the music drops out of one channel while the other part inexplicably layers itself? What is that? Seriously — tell me. Because I have no idea even though it’s amazing. It feels like a volcanic eruption of sound, something spastic that foreshadows the rest of the wonderfully erratic record. But then I remember this single was hastily put together to just be a B-Side at first. Could it be a mixing error then? Can’t be. Not on music this meticulously laid out. I mean, just look at Lene Lovich herself. Every bit of her is carefully assembled. As bizarre as her performances are, it’s clear she’s in complete control each time, more than you or I would ever be in that situation. But then we’re left asking why again and wondering just what else we’re missing. Moments like this are packed into every one of her songs, showing you the reason why I’m at such a loss.

Lovich defies conventions on Stateless, but more interesting is how much it set the stage for a lot of the music that followed in the next ten years or so. “Say When” and “One In A Million” both reek of Graceland-style structure and backing chants. “Too Tender (To Touch)” and “Tonight” feel like beautifully dramatic pop hits tailor-made for your Olivia Newton-John’s and Laura Branigan’s. “Writing On The Wall” had to have come across David Lynch’s desk at some point, maybe even inspiring the tone for that iconic scene with The Man From Another Place. More notably, while she wasn’t the first (or last) to cover “I Think We’re Alone Now,” there are plenty of new ways Lovich approached the song that must have caught the ear of Tiffany, especially since her initial reaction was the original wasn’t “hip enough,” something no one can say about Lovich with a straight face. It’s not to say that Lovich was first in any of these areas. It’s the combination of all them together on one record released during an explosion of musical exploration that makes Stateless‘s place in history so intriguing, if not baffling, something bolstered by the fact that this is considered a “lost classic.”

Ultimately though, what I take away most from Stateless is how fearless Lene Lovich is, on her debut record nonetheless, and how inspiring it is. She takes on anything she wishes, even as it flies in the face of what precedes or follows, while keeping her trademark charm strong throughout, ensuring it never feels out of place or character for her. The record is a great summary of how she approached her gorgeous life where she seemed to do what she wanted when she wanted, even if it led her in different directions. It’s a great path to follow too. You can do it all, achieve success, and still let your own personal voice shine through. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, nothing ever is, but the fact that she never once seemed to compromise herself shows that it’s doable and worthwhile. In this sense, she becomes a role model that I am going to make sure my daughter knows about as she grows up and a role model I wish I would have had growing up myself. Good news is you are never too old to be inspired by something and Stateless certainly provides enough musical inspiration, and discovery, to last a lifetime.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

In a time overflowing with eccentric personalities and artistic creativity, Lene Lovich was truly in a class of her own, with an approach still unique decades later.

I’m a lover of music. Discovering it, listening to it, pretending that I can play it really well… I love it all. I’m not entirely sure about the exact statistics here, but I’m almost positive that everyone who considers themselves to be a music lover has a list of albums that they wish that they had discovered at a younger age. These are albums that, for whatever reason, managed to slip through the cracks when you could have used them, but once listened to, you just know that they would have had a profound effect on your younger self. Stateless is the latest addition to my list. I never would have admitted it when I was 15, but like most people I was stuck between seeking acceptance from my peers while also wanting a sense of individuality that made me stick out from the crowd. A lot of my favorite albums toed the line between the mainstream and the underground, and Stateless gets that balance just right. With the inclusion of Lovich’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” and the piano driven “Tonight” (complete with a subdued sax solo performed by Lovich herself), Stateless flirts with mainstream accessibility, but it also has an off-kilter personality that keeps it rooted in the underground — the nonsensical vocalizing in “Lucky Number” is probably the biggest example (which is ironic given the song’s popularity as a single in the UK), though rompers like “Say When” and “One In A Million,” to me, are the product of an era when Devo were a rising name but had still yet to whip it good. It took me a few listens to come to this realization. My first few listens to this album, I was trying to put my thoughts into words and I was coming up with a lot of nothing. I knew I liked what I was hearing, but I didn’t know why. Then it clicked — it reminded me of high school, despite the fact that I don’t think I ever came across Lene Lovich’s name back then. However, I’m certain that if I had come across Stateless on one of my after school trips to Best Buy, where I’d browse through their CDs for hours on end before finally picking one to spend my allowance on, things would have been a lot different. Or, at the very least, I could have avoided that regretful month when I picked up that Papa Roach album instead.

Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie

“new wave,” which seemed to begin as a marketing term for record company people shying away from the confrontational aspects of the term “punk rock,” had become a bit of a catch-all by the early ’80s. Grabbing all of the experimentalists who were working in some form of standard pop songwriting but had too many little quirks to find their way into the mainstream, the term was an easy explanation for those trying to contextualize some pretty weirdo shit. I always think of Devo when I consider this fact, but Lene Lovich is another artist who could just as easily act as a synecdoche for the entire genre. She released Stateless, her debut, on Stiff Records, a punk-adjacent label that also initially brought the world Elvis Costello (and Devo, for that matter), but it isn’t straight-up punk by any means. Without being able to fall back on “new wave,” I honestly don’t know of any genre label I could use to easily explain it. The other term that easily comes to mind is not a genre but an adjective: quirky. Lovich’s elastic, melodramatic vocal gyrations link up with synth sounds that were relatively new at the time and can really only be explained now by using that same word, quirky. At times, she has a bit of a Patti Smith vibe (“Too Tender (To Touch)“), while at other moments, especially when she breaks out her saxophone, it seems she splits the difference between X-Ray Spex and Romeo Void (“Tonight“). The closing cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” helps further illuminate Lovich’s slightly retro tendencies, her subtle nods to the early days of rock n’ roll that show up at several points on this album. Meanwhile, the opener/big single, “Lucky Number,” features the synth blurts and vocal squeaks that make this record weird enough to be new wave in the first place. The album’s most peculiar moments, such as “One In A Million,” which sounds like the merry-go-round music at a bizarre German theme park, can slip past the limits of enjoyability. However, at her most straightforward (the aforementioned “Too Tender (To Touch)”), Lovich’s honest emotion, intelligent lyrics, and well-constructed sound connect. Even if it does have strong sonic associations with a very particular point in musical history, this is regardless an entertaining side trip, one that’s worth taking.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

I imagined a parallel universe in which Lene Lovich is my mother (they’re only a few years apart, after all). I imagined that she wrote “But my baby’s mind is like a TV / And everything I see make a fool of me” from “Telepathy,” instead of about a lover. I imagined that Kirsty MacColl held me as a baby and sang “Terry” to me. I imagined that mom thought about my future when she put a modern feminist spin on fairytales in “Sleeping Beauty:” “But don’t forget to wake me in time / You know I had a lot on my mind / These tired old eyes await a surprise / I wonder what the future will bring.” I became infuriated that we didn’t learn about mom in punk rock school. It felt really personal. Wasn’t “Lucky Number” as good as “Pump It Up?” Shouldn’t teenagers be practicing her “ya-de-ah-de-ah” from “Too Tender (To Touch)” in addition to Iggy Pop’s “la-la-la-la-lalalalala“? And why isn’t Stateless mentioned in the same breath with other classics from the same year (1978), like Jesus Of Cool and Germfree Adolescents? I hear mom in the music of Pill. I see her in the performances of Zola Jesus and PJ Harvey. While her name isn’t always spoken, she’s always there. Mom ended up quitting the rock and roll lifestyle for a while to raise my sister and I, and I am grateful for that, but I’m even more grateful that she returned to performing and being a theatrical new wave icon in her sixties, inspiring a whole new generation of artists.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

I first revisited Lene Lovich’s Stateless almost 20 years ago when the widow of one of my best friends offered to bequeath me some of his albums. I added it to my stack partly for nostalgic reasons — it was so emblematic of my quirky friend — but also musical curiosity. I remembered “Lucky Number,” of the signature songs of the early “new wave” era, but wasn’t sure about the rest of the record. It turned out to be a surprisingly solid album, definitely of its time, but more than just a single and filler. “Home,” “Say When,” and 60’s cover song “I Think We’re Alone Now” are almost as clever and catchy as the “hit.” The other songs were good, too, if not as memorable, and eventually I put the record away. So, when Doug suggested it for OYR, I was almost back at the curiosity phase but happy to have an excuse to give it another listen. My opinion has changed only slightly, in that I’m even more in awe of “Lucky Number,” and maybe less interested in the galloping “One In A Million” or the meandering “Writing On The Wall.” On the other hand, “Momentary Breakdown” is the perfect intersection of Elvis Costello and Pere Ubu, and the over-the-top bombast of “Too Tender (To Touch)” is both funny and captivating in equal measure. The fact that so much of the album is so durable almost 40 years later is remarkable, and a credit to the instincts and craft of Lovich and Les Chappell, her partner in music and life. “Lucky Number” is still the best example of their genius and a hook machine of at least as high an order as anything from Motown or Phil Spector’s studio. If I had more space I would detail every synth squiggle, drum flourish, and guitar lick that make it such a satisfying listen. It’s also impossible to not hear Lovich as someone who made the radio safe for other adventurous and unconventional singers such as Björk or FKA Twigs — not to mention left-field types like myself and my doomed friend. Listening to Stateless, or watching the video for “Lucky Number” – still addictive viewing all these years later – makes you think anyone can find a place in this world and make their mark.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Click here to watch the entrancing music video for “Lucky Number.”

Full of all the visual contortions that made Lovich as colorful in person as she was in recordings.

There’s something wonderful about the way Lene Lovich broke through as an artist in the late 1970s — how “Lucky Number” was supposed to be the B-side to her version of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and how the sides were flipped when “Lucky Number” shot up the charts. It reminds me of the story I read over the weekend about Patti Smith’s decision to record Bruce Springsteen’s “Because The Night;” in both cases, pivotal acts of reinterpretation catalyzed explosions of creative energy: Easter in Smith’s case and Stateless in Lovich’s. Listening to the latter after reading about the former got me thinking about the relationship between creation and interpretation, and Stateless is really interesting when viewed through that lens. You’d probably file Stateless under “new wave” in your record collection, but the truth is that it plays with genre like Brian Wilson played the studio as an instrument. “Home” brings Lovich’s punk influences into focus, with punchy, subversive lyrics delivered like they’re being thrown away, but “Too Tender (To Touch)” is downright torchy; no lack of sincerity there. “Say When” brings us back into a bouncy corner of new wave’s wheelhouse, but “Tonight” may as well be slow dancing at the Enchantment Under The Sea dance before Marty McFly did his Chuck Berry impression. This kind of stylistic variance does more than keep you on your toes; it entertains you while forcing you to look sideways at something familiar.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

Detroit’s Tommy James and the Shondells’ 1967 hit single “I Think We’re Alone Now” has run a lot of road over the years. Right around 1977, though, it was re-released by power-pop group, The Rubinoos, and then almost a year later appeared as a single by Detroit-born, and Hull, England-based Lene Lovich in the UK, and became a hit single once again. As the last song on Lovich’s strong Stiff Records’ debut, Stateless, in 1978, it’s an interesting take, performed by a fearless female vocalist and performer that not many can match in strangeness or tenacity. Lovich’s cover performance of the song is brilliant, using her trademark half-squeal, half-sung, and near-warbling style, and is a true gem that uses Meek-style moog and theremin giving the song a real “surf in outer-space” feel that makes it the perfect last track in a “lost in feeling” kind of way. This is actually the song that got Lovich signed to Stiff Records that year (along with “Lucky Number“). Second single, and first track, “Lucky Number” was the B-side to “I Think We’re Alone Now” but had to be re-released by Stiff after it became an instant hit for Lovich. It’s funny and cool to watch Lovich’s Top Of The Pops performance of “Lucky Number” again beneath the animated typed in info about Lovich which pops in like Pop-Up Video-style trivia about her European, and US to UK, beginnings. She is “exotic” and “shocking” with her braided plaits, ribboned hair, and punk-goth in-your-face antics; no one’s seen a woman performer who knows what she wants and makes the noises to express that “want” in such a sexual way, dressed as darkly and oddly as she is, on live television. It’s so real and in your face in such a great and expressionistic way. Lovich was true to her voice and signature look from the beginning, kind of like an older Ari-Up (Slits) and is still a voice and persona to contend with to this day. Stateless, though, was the expressive new wave album with the high squeal and romantic-new wave pop style that brought Lovich fame, and it hasn’t tired over listens, although the mastering at the time sounds quite compressed and dull compared to recordings made today. On these songs, Lovich writes about her strength as a woman, and as a woman who wants to be in control of what happens to herself sexually: all the pressures are there (“Sleeping Beauty,” “Home“), but she’s going to make the decision (“Say When“). I love that about this album. Strength and audacity from a woman’s perspective that’s way ahead of it’s time. For fans of Stiff Records’ catalog, this album is probably a no-brainer, but for those who haven’t given Lene’s daring debut a listen, this is the perfect place to start.

Carly Green (@gostsgnl)
Steadfast DIY Champion & Musician

Within the first fifteen seconds of listening to Lene Lovich’s Stateless, I knew I had found something special. Ever listen to something so good, you wish you had written it yourself? That’s the feeling I got with Stateless. Let me begin by saying that I don’t usually go for new wave. I’ve always had an affection for anything goth, however, so Lovich’s dark artsy-ness had me hooked from the first few notes of “Lucky Number.” Her voice is so witchy; so spooky and full of vigor. It’s mysterious and so thick in theatrics, but never short of melody and control. I could only wish that more singers had the same kind of delivery style as Lovich. What I found most surprising about this release was that it’s a debut. It holds the kind of maturity that could often be found in a third studio album from most artists. “Home” is another track that surprised me with its wonderfully danceable and dark attitude. It’s also chillingly fast-paced and high energy, to the point where it’s a challenge keeping up with Lovich’s essence. What really makes this album so special is how versatile it is. Each song is so completely different from the last. Some are tender and soft, others are dense, fast, and aggressive. It leaves so much room for its dimension and heart. Lovich has done something momentous on Stateless — a kind of sound that is just as fresh, despite its actual age. I feel intimidated. I think that was the point.

Catherine Dempsey (@coffincutieee)
Emo Kid Seeking Hardcore Band

Look past the peculiar exterior and you’ll find a gifted songwriter with a pastiche ability to master and enhance any style of music.

When we cover an album from more than ten years ago and I love it as helplessly as I loved Stateless, it leaves me with quite the conundrum. Is this an album/artist that I have somehow missed even though it’s something I should have been loving for years or has my taste been shaped by people who loved this album and I just never made the connection? The former would mean that I’ve gone years slightly less happy than I might have been which is sort of tragic. The latter seems the preferable option because it means that the album was influencing me and making me happy even if I didn’t know it, like some sort of hidden benefactor, though it calls into question my perseverance when it comes to musical research. I guess I am often operating under the assumption that the influenced work will be the most updated, enjoyable version of the sound. But, with Stateless, Lene Lovich proves that this assumption can easily lead to disastrous oversights. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Listen to this album and fall in love with it. Wrap yourself in the kookiness that somehow arrives at your ears as perfect pop music. Dance around whatever room you’re in. And pledge with me to endeavor not to let albums like this one pass by unnoticed for a lifetime.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

I have to wonder exactly when it was that Doug decided Stateless was going to be his next pick for the newsletter. The reason for my curiosity lies in the fact that this album by Lovich, which was released all the way back in 1978, has a distinct new wave quality to it and only about a week or so ago, Paramore released its new album, After Laughter, which has thus far been noted in several high profile reviews for its shift to disco and new wave style arrangements. Coincidence Doug? Anyway, while it might seem like I opened by focusing on Paramore, there’s a reason for that. Serendipitous coincidence or not, it’s true: new wave stylization and more specifically, Blondie — who is often touted as an unofficial poster child of the genre — do ring out clearly within the songs of Stateless. The opener of “Lucky Number” skirts around no corners in evoking the unique Debbie Harry, along with peer acts like The B-52’s (“Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster” vibes anyone?), Violent Femmes, and The Go-Gos. Here, Lovich’s vocals maintain a eminently quirky quality that resides between spoken, sung, and what I could only think to describe as a wobbly yodel of sorts (not terribly dissimilar from the vocal character exercised by Hayley Williams in After Laughter‘s lead single, “Hard Times“) Overall, Lovich’s vocal flexibility stands as the high point for me on this record as, going along, she seems capable of moving easily along the spectrum in deciding how much or little her delivery is sung in a traditionally melodic manner or not. She comes across as quite adept in adjusting how exaggerated she chooses to make her deliveries, and in what way that exaggeration may manifest. While new wave is a big factor on the album, tracks like “Say When” for example, showcase more vocal character but it’s much more along the lines of what now would be liked to a carefree Gwen Stefani (another present-to- past connection shared with After Laughter). Though Stateless is release from a few decades past, it’s clear Lovich aimed to pay homage to a few specific musical veins that have recently resurfaced in the present and as such, aficionados of either this time period and-or the styles at hand will love it.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

Lene Lovich’s Stateless is a quirky, slightly off-kilter set of new wave pop-rock. Just when you think the music’s about to go off the rails, however, Lovich reigns it all back in until you’re tapping your foot and nodding your head to the hodgepodge of influences (often vaguely Eastern-European folk-y) that weave their way into the songs without taking away their mass appeal. Lead single and opening track “Lucky Number” is far and away the best song on the record, but that says more to how absolutely dynamite this song is than that the others are lacking. Lovich yelps and squeals her way through the melodies, and it’s instantly memorable for her vocal performance alone. It’s when Lovich really lets loose with her manic vocal stylings as she does on the aforementioned “Lucky Number,” as well as tracks like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Home” that she’s at her most spellbinding. Consequently, more conventional songs like “Too Tender (To Touch)” and “Tonight” seem a little flatter, but there’s never a completely dull moment to be had here. Lovich is a clearly a front-woman of the highest caliber, and Stateless is fun, catchy, and just weird enough to keep you on your toes. What more could you ask for?

David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer

I didn’t fully grasp the impact of Wild Style, the monumental 1982 film showcasing the early pioneers of hip hop culture, until I put myself in the “way back machine,” and fully contextualized what it must have been like for kids all over the world seeing the film for the first time upon its release. Most of the world had never seen or heard anything like hip hop first hand. It must have been mind blowing. It must have been so inspiring. Before this week I had never heard of Lene Lovich, but I can damn sure guarantee you that Gwen Stefani and her No Doubt bandmates had. The striking similarities in vocal dexterity, and punk rock wit (see, “Say When“) leap throughout the speakers and grab you by the collar. So I got to thinking: what was it like for people hearing Stateless way back when? I mean, who sang like that forty years ago? Lene Lovich’s vocal acrobatics must have been mind blowing. They must have been so inspiring. Stateless also boasts some stunning dynamics musically as well. There’s the wild west, wall of sound feel to “Sleeping Beauty,” complete with big bells and tremolo guitar effects. Then there’s the stark contrast of “Too Tender (To Touch),” a mid-tempo ballad reminiscent of a Tom Jones romp under the boardwalk (and a killer piano solo between the second and third verse). And then all the aforementioned bells and whistles come together for the excellent “Writing On The Wall.” Music is usually at its best when you can’t quite put a song/album into a category. During “Writing On The Wall,” I continuously found myself asking “What is this?” Is it jazz? Is it reggae? Is it from a murder-mystery soundtrack? It’s, dare I say, stateless.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Next Week’s Selection:
Apparat Organ Quartet by Apparat Organ Quartet
Chosen By Davy Jones

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Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Laura Burroughs, Shannon Cleary, Catherine Dempsey, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Carly Green, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, & Jeremy Shatan

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