[Music Monday]: Phantom Pop
This week in Monday Musical Escapism: a deep dive into the Hedgehog discography before the Beijing release of their latest LP on Friday
Music Monday is a weekly SmartBeijing column, serving up fresh audio/video streams from bands living and making music in China (or coming to China, or thinking about coming to China, or whatever).
Don't know about you, but I'm feeling pretty rough today! Lot of bleak shit going on out there. So let's start the week off with some musical escapism from China's best indie pop band, Hedgehog. This melancholic little number works well as an opening pitch:
"The Loneliest Day," indeed. Ah, Hedgehog. One of the great hopes of the Beijing indie scene. The trio is an inescapable fixture in this city's underground rock music culture, but if you're not familiar: Hedgehog got together in 2005, and really started to cut their teeth as part of the nascent D-22 scene along with all those No Beijing bands. While most of that group went on to sign with Maybe Mars — a label started explicitly to cater to this specific zeitgeist — Hedgehog jumped on the Modern Sky bandwagon, for better or worse. And while many of the early D-22 bands eventually buffed the more jagged edges off their sound and tried to write pop albums, Hedgehog's the one that's written at least one or two actually good pop tunes on every album they've released. That's six full-lengths in as many years (plus a few demos), making them the most prolific of the bunch as well. Here's the opener from their first proper release, 2007's Noise Hit World, which vaulted them into instant Indie Darling status:
Noise Hit World was a solid start, but the follow-up, 2009's Blue Daydreaming, is the one that made Hedgehog the household hipster name brand they exist as today. I rinsed the hell out of this song years ago and can't jam it too often these days, but it still kills me:
Gonna take a broody guy timeout to admit: I get goosebumps around the 3-minute-mark pretty much every time. Don't tell my harsh noise friends!
Hedgehog took a self-consciously dark turn after this record came out. They describe 2011's Honeyed and Killed as an album "about love and death, drugs and politics, credibility and integrity, and the lack of value and respect in China." As the album title subtly implies, they're careening into full-tilt Jesus & Mary Chain worship at this point. This is their most derivative album, in my opinion, but like I said: there doesn't exist a Hedgehog record without at least one world-class indie-pop ripper on it. It's like a law of physics that Newton missed or something. Here's H&K's big earworm:
Around the time Honeyed & Killed dropped, Hedgehog self-released a 7-track album of rawer tunes and demos called 2011 DEstroy meMOries. Think there was some label contract blues going on around this time and they wanted to work some angst out with pointedly less commercial jams. These two records came out within days of each other, Honeyed & Killed hitting the international distribution circuit via Modern Sky, DEstroy meMOries being hand-peddled by the band in a small issue of CDRs with xeroxed covers. Needless to say, I prefer the latter. This might be my favorite Hedgehog jam ever, obviously I'm a sucker for weird noises coming out of guitar amps:
Now it's time for me to make an obligatory comment about Hedgehog's drummer, Atom. Jesus does she smash the drums. I am literally more than twice her weight, and I've been known to hit those things pretty hard, but she's one of the best doing it. I guess that's the secret Hedgehog recipe. Guitarist / vocalist Zo has an uncanny songwriting talent and Atom just crushes every possible ounce of sound out of the drums live. Has a nice voice, too. Here's a punchy number from Hedgehog's 2012 effort, Sun Fun Gun:
Long side-note: Hedgehog was getting into the whole neo-psychedelic / experimental rock trend that was hitting an apogee in Beijing at this time, best characterized by Chui Wan. So there's some weird synthesizer stuff going on throughout Sun Fun Gun, sometimes distractingly so. Chui Wan's main dude Yan Yulong lent his noise violin to my favorite track on SFG, "The Loneliest Day." Also, the English lyrics can get funky on this record, as on the track above. But it's still catchy as hell, and what is the hallmark of a good pop song if not repeatability despite inane / grammatically sketchy lyrics and sounds borrowed, polished, and repackaged from a more experimental sub-stratum? That's pretty much what pop bands do. And Hedgehog does it very well.
Ok, back to the timeline. Riding the crest of that synth noise wave a bit further, Hedgehog dropped a B-side EP called Tesla last year. Guess it was supposed to be featured on a split 7" with a US band that never came together. Anyway, weird tune!
Well, that more or less takes us to today. Hedgehog's latest, Phantom Pop Star, officially came out in April. They've been touring pretty hard on that one for the last two months. Official Beijing release is this Friday at Mao. Maybe it's not fair for me to comment too much on it. I've been living with records like Blue Daydreaming for more than five years, but I've only had a few fleeting encounters with Phantom Pop Star. Not my shit. Seriously, is that auto-tune?
Hey, maybe this is what real pop music sounds like. I think this is pop so you should probably take my "music criticism" with a huge grain of salt. Here's the super twee video for Phantom Pop Star's title track:
Yeah, not feeling this record so much. Dunno. That's really beside the point. Hedgehog could start wearing Phantom of the Opera masks and become EDM DJs and I'd still love them. Nothing they do now can diminish my iTunes play count on the baker's dozen truly stellar songs they've churned out over the years. They're not Beijing's most technically gifted rock band. They're not the most progressive or the most edgy. They're not overly intellectual or pandering. They're just popular because they write good songs.
Hedgehog was in a self-imposed label limbo for a while, but I think they recently bit the bullet and re-upped their contract with Modern Sky. For better or worse, again. Hopefully that'll lead to more grimy, angst-filled B-side demos down the road. In the mean time, here's one more from the vaults — a live cut from 2011's Still Alive:
Catch Hedgehog live on Friday, May 30 at Mao Livehouse for the official Beijing release of Phantom Pop Star, their sixth full-length album. You really should do it because they barely ever play any more.