Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Kate Miller-Heidke – The Last Day on Earth

Australian lass proves somewhat divisive. There’s a first, eh…


Keane Tzong: This song would have stayed an album track forever were it not soundtracking advertisements for some soap opera. “The Last Day on Earth” is too good for that undignified fate, a five-minute Tearjerker-with-a-capital-T aided along in its blatant emotional manipulation by an instrumental that plays to all of Miller-Heidke’s vocal tics. Few pop artists can sustain melodrama of this level for five minutes, much less elevate the material to the point that it’s actually compelling; even fewer pop artists would be headstrong enough to avoid releasing this as a single in favor of songs about shit dancing ability and childhood bullying. Impressive.

Martin Skidmore: Dignified piano and classically-trained singing, and I can hardly diss the tunemaking skills of someone given a songwriting award by such idols of mine as Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Waits and Ray Davies. We’ve had a lot of acts who’d love to have been the new Kate Bush over the years, and I’m not convinced that this Kate is going to make it, but she strikes me as having a chance, which is rare. This is a bit too carefully classy and diffident to really grab me, but there are lots of strong moments.

Michaelangelo Matos: I should only hope my last day on earth goes on as long as this song does.

Spencer Ackerman: “Between the dust and debris/There’s a light surrounding you and me.” Your breakup is not a suicide bombing, lady.

Cecily Nowell-Smith: This is a song about a woman who has decided that an absent lover is as likely to come back to her as the world is to end, and that therefore one is a necessary condition for the other, and so she has filled her daydreams with apocalyptic scenarios. The sociopath-beneath-the-skin aspect is one of the things I like best about adult-contemporary pop, especially when it’s so cleverly disguised as musical wallpaper. Alas the disguise is just too clever– all tender coo and bland glurgey piano, ever so gentle and nigh-unlistenable.

Alex Macpherson: Dainty to the point of prissy, as pinched and bloodless as an empty-headed Stepford wife, Kate Miller-Heidke’s approach to her craft is infuriatingly devoid of merit. Tinkling the ivories like a minor Jane Austen character providing chamber muzak, Miller-Heidke sings like she’s decorating a cupcake: terrified of getting a hair out of place, too delicate to communicate any emotion deeper than a benign niceness. Poetry, beauty and insight are entirely absent from her lyrics, which are so uninteresting that they aren’t even clichés; her delivery of lines like “I love to lose my mind” and “I ache inside” is woefully and hilariously unconvincing. Seriously, though, what happened to the female singer-songwriter? What happened to women with creativity, cojones and chops who weren’t scared of putting everything out there, who used the form to express catharsis and grandeur? Did the trail blazed by the likes of PJ Harvey, Tori Amos and Courtney Love really lead us to the poverty of spirit demonstrated by this miserable Miller-Heidke creature?

Iain Mew: Could certainly do with ending at about the half way mark, but the beautiful dejection of the chorus is utterly irresistible. That is, I want to resist. The twist coming is sort of obvious and manipulative, that one-two of “you’ve come back to me” snuffed out by the second “in my dreams”. Doesn’t matter though. Handled just too well and the desolate verses have built up too much emotional momentum already by that point.

Chuck Eddy: Doesn’t she know it’s the end of the world? It ended when she lost his love. Oh wait, I guess she does. Also, she aches she aches she aches inside. Probably after hearing her own vibrato.

David Raposa: My threshhold for this sort of inoffensive wispy nonsense usually changes based on how shit my work day’s been, but while my day’s been free & easy, this consonant-dropping sack of mumble makes me wish I cared enough to actually get pissed off. As is, it’s taking all my strength to roll my eyes.

Alfred Soto: Very cute, especially the sparkles embellishing her voice and the way she sings, “You know me, I like to lose my mind,” but the song never really (ahem) soars.

Martin Kavka: KM-H is currently making the rounds of the intertubes with her song about being friended by an ex on Facebook. It shows that she doesn’t take especially well to being dumped, even years later. Who does? But to imagine, as this song does, that the apocalypse affords reconciliation with the person who dumped you — and to purchase a song premised on that image — is perhaps proof that one has been infected by a mental-wasting disease concocted by those mad scientists Søren Kierkegaard and Jerry Bruckheimer.

Anthony Easton: I used to really like Amanda Palmer, and then a few weeks ago, I listened to a few singles, and was just sort of annoyed, and was never quite sure why. Kate ended up on my Pazz/Jop last year, and the Facebook song might end up on the list this year, but I worry that it will end up being Ms Palmer all over again, which leads to the question of which Goth King she will sleep with.

Ian Mathers: The worst a song like this used to have to worry about would be getting co-opted into a horrific Sandra Bullock romantic comedy or something, but now that prime-time soap operas are grabbing up all the good songs about missing someone it’s hard to hear “The Last Day on Earth” without seeing images of photogenic professionals looking pensive about their love lives when it’s playing. But Miller-Heidke’s entry into the genre is unusually tuneful, restrained and interesting (honestly, at times she reminds me a bit of Kate Bush’s most mainstream efforts), and the result is something I honestly quite like, so I am doing my best to ignore the way that prospect makes me faintly queasy.

Anthony Miccio: A slow, pained cousin of Regina Spektor’s “Better” that even ends with “I ache, I ache, I ache”, in case her apocalyptic dreams aren’t obvious enough in their anguish. The way it maintains its glacial pace through a pseduo-rapping climax is kind of impressive, if you’re looking for a reason to play it all the way through.

Doug Robertson: Never before has the prospect of the blissful silence that the aftermath of Armageddon will bring seemed so desirable.

32 Responses to “Kate Miller-Heidke – The Last Day on Earth”

  1. 9 and 0 both seem like insane marks for this bit of overlong but pretty fluff – however I totally welcome this developing JUKEBOX BEEF.

  2. I recuse myself preemptively JUST FOR THE RECORD good god damn.

  3. Of course, I tempted fate by mentioning how well my day @ work was going @ the time of writing that blurb — shit hit the fan not 2 hours later!


    0 is probably overly harsh, but I actually got kinda angry when listening to this because it just reminded me how puny and impotent every new female singer-songwriter I check out these days is, and Miller-H seems to encapsulate everything wrong about them. I want recommendations, though. Are there any women out there with the vision, ambition and absolutely towering talent of the best of the ’90s generation? The kind of artist with the capacity for that kind of intensity?

    I feel like an old-skool hip-hop head complaining about how soft the genre’s become here. Hip-hop didn’t need a Death of Autotune manifesto, but the female singer-songwriter game sorely needs one or all of: Death of Quirk, Death of Ethereality, Death of Niceness.

  5. I have a strong feeling you hate Joanna Newsom, based on what I’ve read on this site, and I’m not sure it fits the singer-songwriter sphere, but ‘Ys’ is still my record of the decade. Vision? Check. Ambition? Of course. Towering talent? Yes. Melodies cleverly intertwined in one another in suites that are so rich and, well, classically beautiful that shouts of ‘pretentious!’ confuses me deeply to this day. She might be alone, but that album has enough vision and amibition for a decade.

    No actual recommendations as I’ve found it equally difficult to find anyone anywhere close to that level.

  6. Miranda Lambert and Amerie come to mind, lex.

  7. She’s not quite a singer-songwriter according to the classic model; she’s been writing songs with a partner (boyfriend?), Keir Nuttall, for years, and each successive album of hers has a greater proportion of uptempo tracks.

    It’s really a shame that this is the hit song; it’s the worst song on the album, imho. I’ve really loved “No Truck,” “Our Song,” and “Can’t Shake It.”

    Joanna Newsom’s voice makes me want to strangle puppies, but others’ mileage does vary.

  8. Joanna Newsom is profoundly loathsome, the first time in years i genuinely hated an artist.

  9. I was going to mention Joanna Newsom, actually: she’s undeniably immensely talented and has a genuinely interesting vision, not just “quirk” signifiers, I agree with Matias. Her voice isn’t a total turn-off to me, I have both her albums, but it is a barrier to really loving her.

    The other two I was gonna mention were Amy Winehouse and Laura Marling – with the former you get a sense of catharsis and real emotion even through the mannerisms and stylisation, while the latter has a real gift for lyricism which is both poetic and evocative but also really simple.

    Amerie and Miranda Lambert are fantastic but not quite what I mean…they don’t have that lone-wolf quality that Amos and Harvey had. In many ways I prefer artists like them with roots in a particular genre nowadays, but it’s the uncategorisable one-offs (with the talent not to just be a mess) that I’m missing.

  10. (Being “real” is as important, maybe even more, to the singer-songwriter than to the rapper; if you’re not communicating real, deeply felt emotion or real, unique vision, WTF is the point of the form? You’re just the dude down the pub or the chick in a university theatre club.)

  11. (Oh, if I’m counting Courtney Love from the ’90s generation, I should count Karen O too. But the YYYs have been going since 2001.)

  12. Amazingly, Kate is only the 43rd most controversial Jukebox entry of the year! Finally got back on the ball with those. I’ve started weighting scores based on number of contributors, though I haven’t perfected the Kavka Korrektive for outliers (I couldn’t think of something pithy enough with “Lex” in it). Anyway, the outliers are shirley a sign of controversy, no?

    The score so far:

    1. Christina Milian 2.75
    2. Blackout Crew 2.68
    3. La Roux 2.65
    4. Demi Lovato 2.64
    5. Electrik Red 2.63
    6. Aqua 2.63
    7. Lily Allen 2.61
    8. Lil Wayne 2.59
    9. Chicane 2.51
    10. KIG 2.5
    11. Grizzly Bear 2.49
    12. Depeche Mode 2.48
    13. Beyonce 2.45
    14. Blazin Squad 2.44
    15. Katy Perry 2.43
    16. Marit Larsen 2.4
    17. Matt and Kim 2.38
    18. The Eels 2.32
    19. Jay-Z 2.3
    20. Just Jack 2.28

  13. I don’t mind people liking singles I hated or disliking this one, which I liked, but I’m getting a bit confused. I feel I’m not understanding something here (honestly):

    “(Being “real” is as important, maybe even more, to the singer-songwriter than to the rapper; if you’re not communicating real, deeply felt emotion or real, unique vision, WTF is the point of the form? You’re just the dude down the pub or the chick in a university theatre club.)”

    So wait; because Miller-Heidke writes (or co-writes) her own songs, she’s held to certain standards that someone like, say, Demi Lovato* isn’t (except doesn’t she co-write as well)? Because based on lex’s two blurbs I don’t feel Lovato is being asked to perform at the same level or in the same way as female singer-songwriters are here, unless they ARE being held to the same standard and the difference I don’t notice is something like whether or not either is “communicating real, deeply-felt emotion” which is 1. really subjective, as shown by the fact that lex and I have come to opposite conclusions about Lovato and Miller-Heidke and whether or not the emotion in their songs is real and deeply held and 2. kind of a bullshit thing to require from music as I’m sure most of us (even, or maybe especially, lex!) would admit that there’s an element of performance that renders the “realness” of the emotions on display in at least some perfectly good or great pop songs kind of moot.

    Not trying to pick a fight or anything, just genuinely curious as to what lines are being drawn here. Either someone like Miller-Heidke and someone like Lovato are working in two radically different genres with different standards for what are good (in which case I want to hear more about what the distinction is, in musical and not other terms) or they aren’t and in that case, it seems to me that what I don’t like about Lovato is basically what lex doesn’t like about Miller-Heidke, details aside. To my mind, cultural context and the like aside, the Lovato song is a pop song and this song is a pop ballad (of course, we can go back to the first Lovato song we covered, which I also didn’t enjoy, for a straight pop ballad vs. pop ballad comparison), so whatever standards I have for why one is good seem like they should apply to the other.

    *I’m not trying to pick on Demi Lovato; I’m using her as an example because she’s recent and there’s been arguing about her, not because I have a grudge or am trying to make a point that only works for her. I think the comparison here works just fine against any other person making pop songs/pop ballads liked or loved by, in this case, lex, who by virtue of being quotable is going to have to stand in for a number of people (sorry!).

  14. Being “real” is as important, maybe even more, to the singer-songwriter than to the rapper; if you’re not communicating real, deeply felt emotion or real, unique vision, WTF is the point of the form?

    Maybe you just have a talent for writing and singing really catchy and memorable songs? (I can think of plenty of singer-songwriter hits I love from the ’70s, not to mention plenty of rap hits I love from whenever, that neither convincingly communicate emotion nor seem especially original. Though maybe just the mere fact that they stand out for me so much adds up to a “real, unique vision,” come to think of it.) (As for singer-songwriters from the ’00s, I’m not the one to ask. Unless country music counts, I guess.)

  15. Or maybe, as in the case of say the never very emotionally convincing yet pretty much undeniably genius (at least in the ’70s) singer-songwriter Elton John, their “real, unique vision” was just for making songs more catchy and memorable than pretty much anybody else’s on the planet. (But lots of singer-songwriter hits in the ’70s — best decade for the genre, by far — were just by one-hit-wonder hacks who never had another stroke of inspiration in their lives. So it’s harder to explain them, with perimeters that Alex sets.)

  16. (I definitely overrated this, but I hope my comments on the matter below explain why I did so, at least.)

    My first exposure to Kate Miller-Heidke was with “Can’t Shake It”, and my corresponding impression of her was that she was trying to be a Cyndi Lauper type more than she was trying to present herself as a straightforward singer-songwriter- that she was trying to fill some heretofore unidentified gap between “legitimacy” and “novelty”, with commercial success as the ultimate goal. This track stood out as a success to me from my first listen through Curiouser because it really, thoroughly succeeds at what I perceive the KMH goal to: sell and without losing “quirk” or “weirdness” or whatever it is that is supposed to define KMH as the Australian answer to Regina Spektor. (And it’s a good thing too, because Lenka has been around to pollute musical landscape since before this album was released.) The fact that I think the melody and instrumentation are particularly appealing only adds to my fondness for the track.

    I think I don’t expect as much of KMH as Lex seems to- she emphatically does not embody any of the particular overarching ambitions Lex would require a new female singer-songwriter to have. So yes, my standards might just be lower. (And I guess you can see that my answer to Ian’s question is that I do think female artists somehow manage to work in different genres without really meaning to, or at least I have to categorize them that way for my musical listening habits to function as they do.)

    NB: my favorite Hole album is “Celebrity Skin” and my favorites of all the female singer-songwriters are Aimee Mann and Liz Phair, both of whom you could argue possess none of what Lex is looking for either, so perhaps there is a fundamental, unresolvable disconnect.

  17. Best singer-songwriter album of the decade, for me: Marit Larsen’s Under The Surface. Actually, just best album of the decade.

  18. Kate Miller-Heidke is an absurdly talented artist… and no, The Last Day on Earth is hardly her at her peak, but she deserves better it serving as an overall impression of her music.

    I mean, listen to her satire of Australian Idol – angry and utterly hilarious at the same time. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zN6kkL4hONk – it’s probably exactly what someone like Lex is looking for.

    It’s just that there’s very much a divide between the weird and the more smoothed-out, commercial in her recorded output. The live show is really where she’s in her element.

  19. Martin, have you written about Under the Surface at length anywhere (including stuff I’ve perhaps already read but am currently forgetting)? I’ve been listening to it a lot (again) recently and have been meaning to read/write more about it.

  20. I was so very pleased, on finally hearing this tune, that it wasn’t infected with the quirk that is standard in KMH fare — see that nauseating claptrap Richaod linked to above. Rather, this is merely dull.

    (Also, I’m wondering why Australian Idol desperately demanded satirising. Is it because its winners don’t dress like four year olds?)

  21. Also, Lex, you could take a look at An Horse for some not-so-dainty female songwriting, even though the natural response to your “Where are all the ’90s songwriters?” query seems to be, “back in the ’90s.”

  22. Oh god I couldn’t get more than a minute into that other Miller-Heidke video…quirkiness, tweeness, pertness, everything which repulses me. Even worse than this. Nellie McKay could have pulled something similar off, but then McKay’s “quirks” weren’t so much the point as the edge they concealed. (What the hell happened to her, anyway? I still listen to about half of Get Away From Me.)

    Ian – the short version is that yes, I hold Demi Lovato to different standards, for the same reasons that I hold Amerie and Miranda Lambert to different standards. I guess what I’m looking for are singer-songwriters from the art/rock tradition, as those are the ones who are MIA right now. Which doesn’t mean that they don’t draw on the art/rock/confessional mode at times.

    Aimee Mann and Liz Phair are actually more supporting evidence for me, I was never as hugely into them as I was into Harvey or Amos, but both of them were fucking razor-sharp with their insight at their best.

  23. lex, i have it on good account that nellie is about to release an album of covers from fellow animal rights activist Doris Day (!!!) on Verve. Something to look forward to there.

  24. Dave: no. I can barely bring myself to write about music at the length I contribute here. I certainly don’t have the faith in my ability to come near doing a great album anything but a grotesque disservice. I did say a little in the last post on the old Jukebox, mostly about Don’t Save Me, but mentioning the album too.

  25. John

    More on McKay and Doris Day, please, thanks, love!!!!!!!

  26. http://www.directcurrentmusic.com/music-news-new-music/2009/8/4/on-the-radar-nellie-mckays-tribute-to-doris-day.html

  27. They’ve met and I think Doris has given her blessing to the project. See also:

  28. exciting

  29. I’ve always loved that NYTimes piece. But some of my favorite Day songs are both honest and as provincial as current doublespeak — “That’s What Makes Paris Paree” comes to mind as part of the heritage of “freedom fries.” And there’s some of her work that is strangely compelling because her honesty tries to break through the material, e.g. the entire _Latin For Lovers_ album (Day is many things, but “torchy” and “mysterious” are not among them). Others’ mileage, of course, will vary.

  30. Nellie does Doris news, via email:

    For Immediate Release
    August 10, 2009

    Nellie McKay gives Doris her due with
    Normal As Blueberry Pie – A Tribute To Doris Day
    (October 13th / Verve)

    ³Doris Day is an emblem of sunshine, communion with nature and animals, and
    common civilityŠ In a time when cynicism rules, her eager humanity is ever
    more preciousŠ² – Nellie McKay, The New York Times Book Review

    ³Ms. McKay has picked up not just antique musical styles, but also a tone
    that¹s even more elusive: arch but amiable, with teeth behind the giggles.²
    – Jon Pareles, The New York Times

    ³ Thanks to (McKay), the Great American Songbook has a living, breathing
    present as well as a glorious past.² – Joan Anderman, The Boston Globe

    For Nellie, producing, arranging, and performing Normal As Blueberry Pie was
    the natural outcome of all the years she has spent listening enraptured to
    Ms. Day¹s music. ³She was – and still is – ahead of her time,² says Nellie,
    who received the Doris Day Music Award in 2005 for ³The Dog Song² in
    recognition of her dedication to animal rights.

    Nellie reviewed a recent biography of Day for The New York Times, and is one
    of the few people in 30 years to be granted an interview with Ms. Day (The
    Bark magazine, 2007). ³What she possessed – beyond her beauty, physical
    grace, and natural acting ability – was a resplendent voice that conveyed
    enormous warmth and feeling,² writes Nellie (The New York Times, 2007).

    Normal As Blueberry Pie features 12 songs handpicked from over 600
    recordings by Ms. Day, with an original by McKay. Hailed as an ³old pop soul
    in her ability to draw so effortlessly on a remarkable range of styles² (LA
    Times) who is ³supremely gifted, charming and darkly funny² (Washington
    Post), McKay bridges the big band era of the Œ40s into Day¹s later film

    ³From time capsule to timeless, her humanity always shines through. Her
    canon combines modern freshness with reassurance,² adds Nellie, who plays
    several instruments on the album, and uses four different old-time mics to
    evoke various moods (all lovingly engineered and mixed by recording maestro
    James Farber).

    Exasperating, exhilarating, and altogether uncategorizable, this fourth
    album again showcases Nellie¹s fresh take on music and life with a curtsy to
    Doris, a nod to convention, and a unique twist all her own.

    * * *
    Doris Day is the # 1 female box-office star of all time, and one of the most
    prolific recording artists in history. In 1977, she became a leader in the
    animal welfare movement, an important cause for McKay. ³She¹s pursuing a
    change in the mind-set that allows human beings to treat other species as
    objects,² says Nellie. The Doris Day Animal League has more than 180,000
    members and focuses on lobbying Washington for pro-animal legislation.

    Nellie McKay has released three critically acclaimed albums: Get Away From
    Me, Pretty Little Head and Obligatory Villagers, and won a Theater World
    Award for her portrayal of Polly Peachum in the Broadway production of The
    Threepenny Opera, as well as contributing to The Onion, Interview Magazine,
    and The New York Times Book Review. Her music has been heard on Weeds,
    Grey¹s Anatomy, NCIS and Privileged, and she has dueted with Eartha Kitt,
    Trey Anastasio, Taj Mahal, and shared the stage with Odetta, Lou Reed, Elvis
    Costello and other notables in aid of various progressive pursuits.

    Normal As Blueberry Pie – A Tribute To Doris Day

    ³The Very Thought of You² (Ray Noble)
    ³Do Do Do² (George & Ira Gershwin)
    ³Wonderful Guy² (Richard Rodgers / Oscar Hammerstein II)
    ³Meditation² (Antonio Carlos Jobim / Norman Gimbel)
    ³Mean to Me² (Fred E. Ahlert / Roy Turk)
    ³Crazy Rhythm² (Joseph Meyer & Roger Wolfe Kahn / Irving Cesear)
    ³Sentimental Journey² (Les Brown & Ben Homer / Bud Green)
    ³If I Ever Had a Dream² (Nellie McKay)
    ³Black Hills of Dakota² (Sammy Fain / Paul Francis Webster)
    ³Dig It² (Hal Bourne, Johnny Mercer)
    ³Send Me No Flowers² (Burt Bacharach / Hal David)
    ³Close Your Eyes² (Bernice Petkere)
    ³I Remember You² (Victor Schertzinger / Johnny Mercer)

  31. Well it isn’t a song about a breakup mr spencer (even if i can see some self wallowing listening use for it), any listen would see, it’s about someone close dying. I read somewhere it is about a miscarriage. not defending what is an over sentimental blown up song but snide one line comments that don’t explore possibilities make you look like a pretentious git and don’t add to cosidered review of the single.

  32. black hills of dakota is a great song.