Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Request Line: “That’s What Love Can Do,” “Murder Reigns,” “Elvira,” “Life is Life”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 2, 2010

Reader Keith writes:

Hate to add to the backlog of requests, but I’d love to see what you do with an absurdly random song selection :)

Boy Krazy – That’s What Love Can Do
Ja Rule – Murder Reigns
Oak Ridge Boys – Elvira
Laibach – Life is Life

That is…impressively random. I’ll see what I can do.

It blows my mind a little bit that this was a hit in the year 1993. When listening to “That’s What Love Can Do” in preparation (I had it in my mp3 collection already so I must have heard it before, but had no particular memories) I assumed it was late-80s, or maybe from the very beginning of the pre-C&C Music Factory/EMF 90s. But 1993? I mean…this was the year of Ugly Kid Joe and Soul Asylum. Did we really still have room for these supernaturally chipper, synth-horn and cheesy piano-led dance pop tunes from the whitest of white chicks? Well, of course we did–Ace of Base was just around the corner, after all–but even still, Boy Krazy seems like they should have been one of the hundreds of acts whose faces were instantly melted, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style, by the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” If only pop music was truly like it was in Behind the Music, I suppose.

Anyway, can’t say I’m a particular fan of this song. The chorus is monotonous, second-rate Jane Child stuff and bears remarkably little musical connection to the verses (which sound like a weak knock-off of Mariah Carey’s “Emotions”). Plus I hate it when songs start off with the chorus–it’s a crutch that speaks to the writers’ general lack of confidence in the song to hold interest while unfolding naturally. The only really interesting thing about this song is that it appears to finally sound the death knell of that bizarre late-80s trend of repeatedly pitch-modulating one syllable of the song’s hook until it sounds like a hook itself–think just about every freestyle song ever. Here the gimmick gets basically an entire verse to itself, demonstrating just how absurdly pointless the pitch-modulating thing is without some sort of context or grander scheme in mind. Yes, “I Can’t Wait” was a classic, but not even Nu Shooz could manage to pull off the same trick twice, so what chance could Boy Krazy have possibly had? Tsk, tsk, Stock/Aitken/Waterman.

My last grievance with this–do you really need a whole group of singers to pull off a song as unextraordinary as this? I mean, I don’t know what the rest of Boy Krazy’s talent level was like, and it’s possible that chiming in with rudimentary chorus harmonies and performing overly lyrically-explicating back-up dance moves was as much as they could handle. It just seems wasteful to me, though.

I do wonder sometimes what Ja Rule would do if he were given a chance to 2001 and make the decision over again about whether or not to record the “I’m Real” remix with J. Lo. That song, and the subsequent puppy-love duets he would record with Lopez and labelmate Ashanti briefly grant young Jeffrey Atkins more pop success than any other rapper of the early 21st century, but would also cost him any chance of long-lasting hip-hop credibility or, somewhat ironically, any pretensions he might have had to true Realness. It’s entirely possible that we would never have been able to take Ja seriously even without the He Said, She Said numbers, but let’s say at the beginning of the 2000s that DMX had made a bunch of sappy duets with Aaliyah while Ja Rule had made a coked up, ultra-paranoid party anthem with a surreally incomprehensible music video and a whole lot of whistle noises. Could the two have traded careers? Would Atkins have preferred it that way? It’s not exactly Oden-Durant, perhaps, but to me it’s a fairly intriguing What If.

Songs like “Murder Reigns” make it pretty clear to me that it’s something Ja Rule gives a fair amount of thought to as well. “My style is a little too savage to not be / Looked upon as one of the illest to MC,” raps Ja, almost as if he actually believes it. The entire song belies Ja’s Delusions of Hardness, rapping about hitting enemies in drive-bys (“Leave yo’ mind on yo’ windshield”) and living in perpetual danger (“Even though I live it close to the edge / I’m getting closer to death, with every little step”) while repeatedly promising that it’s “gonna rain down murda” (though who it is that’s actually performing and receiving the murdering is left up to listener reputation). Yet Ja doesn’t seem to realize that it undercuts his case somewhat when he whines in the third verse about being “raised as an only child, lonely, poppa disowned me” and wishes that “the good lord would come down and hug me.” You might not be the first guy to ask heaven for a hug, Ja, but that guy didn’t exactly avoid coming off ridiculous with that one either.

And oh yes, the Toto. It’s actually not a bad choice of sample–“Africa” always had one of the better dark grooves of the 80s, although it’s more brooding and moody than explicitly foreboding, which is probably more of what Atkins was going for. But still…Toto? This is your big testament to your own badness, your too-real-for-TRL video (in the all-too-proud legacy of “D.A. wanna box me in, but somehow, I beat them charges like Rocky”-type hip-hop videos) and “Africa” is the best you can do? Sometimes you just have to ask whether it was ever in this guy to begin with.

Ooh boy, is this a fun one. I’ve never really understood much about this song or where it came from (apparently the Oak Ridge Boys had been around since the 40s, but didn’t even start with country until the 70s or so), but the number of things I appreciate about it on face value is pretty tremendous. For one thing, I love how whiny the verses are. Given a chorus as down-homey as that of “Elvira,” I would expect the verses to be similarly gruff and good-ol’-boyish. Instead, they come courtesy of this thin, nasally, high-pitched bleat with no discernable southern accent whatsoever. (Not to mention that in the above video, it’s sung by a guy who looks like a cross between Freddy Fender and Kirk Hammett–more on that later). That all sounds like it should maybe be a bad thing, but I love how out of place the verse sounds–it ends up fitting the chintzy-sounding backing track, actually–as long as it keeps coming back to that chorus, anyway. (One question though–when the main ORB says he’s going to meet Elvira at the Hungry House Cafe and give her all the love he can…does he mean he’s gonna do that at the actual cafe? Weird. )

And of course, the song will forever be best remembered for that breakdown, the “Ooom-pa-pa-mow-mow” section so unforgettably delivered by Richard Sterban. It’s a joy to attempt to imitate, although few could approximate his impossibly deep bass, or his fantastic performance in the song’s video for that matter (every time he delivers the climactic mow-mow, he points to the audience and gesticulates subtly, as if we’re meant to believe that said mow-mow is the sound of him plowing into Elvira herself). Speaking of the video, while watching it, doesn’t it seem like the entire thing would make more sense if everyone involved slid down one microphone? Super-bearded super-country guy seems like he should be the one mow-mowing, while the slickly-dressed Sterban looks like he should be far better suited to be singing lead, and so on. In any event, I appreciate that all four guys kinda have their own thing going on–I bet you the Oak Ridge Boys was one of the more popular group costume ideas back in ’81. (Speaking of which, October is just around the corner, and some ideas never REALLY go out of style…anyone feel like practicing some harmonies?)

So good–thanks for the reminder. Definitely on the list for future karaoke endeavors.

I do love the Opus original version of this–one of the bouncier arena-type anthems of the 80s, with one of the great singalong hooks and a drum intro that really should’ve been sampled by someone by now. So I was super-excited to hear that there was some German industrial cover version of it out there, and listened gleefully under the anticipation of it being one of the most insane things I’d ever hear. Well, not too far off, but not really in the way that I’d hoped. Mainly, the song isn’t really German industrial as much as it is just…German. In that sort of old school, Viking sense. Removed thoroughly is the original’s bounce, along with anything else that was explicitly enjoyable about it, replaced with what was probably supposed to sound like some sort of fascist marching anthem. Maybe there’s some point to be made here–or maybe Laibach just weren’t big Opus fans and wanted to shit on the song as much as possible, who knows–but amusing as this may have been in a conceptual sense, I can’t imagine ever listening to this again.

Dunno, I just find myself oddly humorless about “Live is Life.” I enjoy the “na na, nanana”s a little too much.

3 Responses to “Request Line: “That’s What Love Can Do,” “Murder Reigns,” “Elvira,” “Life is Life””

  1. Keith said

    Thanks for taking up the challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your take on these tunes. If I ever come up with a second round of requests, I’ll make sure there’s a well thought-out theme.

  2. Al-2 said

    Love the analysis – I always kind of liked that Boy Krazy song. Here are four 90s songs that I have always liked:

    Tom Cochrane – “Life is a Highway”
    Shakespeare’s Sister – “Stay”
    Aimee Mann – “That’s Just What You Are”
    VAST – “Free”

  3. humanizingthevacuum said

    I had the same thoughts about “That’s What Love Can Do” in ’93 (“how is this a hit NOW?”). I liked it a bit more than you — nostalgia for the era that had just ended.

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