The Opiates- Hollywood Under The Knife & Rainy Days and Remixes Reviews

Posted November 17, 2011 in

A long time in the making—with years between demo versions and the finished project—the Opiates full-length debut, Hollywood Under The Knife, was worth every single second of wait time. With a world-weary truth—yet never at the expense of lacking compassion for them—the album’s mostly female protagonists emerge song by song with their faults and weaknesses laid bare for the listener. Some of these, as the title suggests, are literally under the plastic surgeon’s knife, some with their masks still on, and all with some sort of psychological baggage. This, at least in theory, sounds like some heavy and serious listening, not necessarily the stuff that popular music is generally made of, and certainly not of the electronica/dance variety. But as it works its magic and emblazons itself upon the listener’s brain, this ultra-sophisticated concept album triumphs as one of this year’s finest releases.

It’s no surprise then that the exceptional German vocalist Billie Ray Martin is the brains and voice behind this project. Working with musician Robert Solheim, the duo have fashioned a modern electronic album that retains an often-missing sense of intimacy for this genre that is as memorably haunting as it is delicately chilling. In this big bad world of fake celebrity and media whores—from Kardashian to Hilton—our current culture is certainly rife with examples of this type, and yet Martin’s seemingly disparate characters live in these tracks mostly anonymously. Take the narrator of opener “Rainy Days and Saturdays,” depreciatingly staring at herself in the mirror and reflecting “a face for the world to see/seems like a simple dream to me,” lamenting her wish that life could be like the idealized “Hollywood album,” or “suburban postcard,” but actually realizing that it isn’t like this in the real world.

Culled after Roman Polanski’s disturbed character in his own film The Tenant, “I’m Not Simone Choule” is one of Martin’s greatest achievements. Intimately conspiratorial—with its lyrics sung almost as a whisper—seemingly references a troubled soul (of undisclosed gender) who likely committed suicide. “There’s a ghost called isolation/it’s a tenant in my home,” it observes with icy delicacy. You will not hear as potent a song on any release this year, even as its album companion “Oprah’s Book Of The Month Club (Part Two)” comes quite close. It tells the tale of another tragic Hollywood reject recalling her troubled past in speak-sing tones confessing “where a girls gotta do what’s to do and be what she’s not.” Dating back to Martin’s 2003 New Demos album—where it was already a highlight there—the finished song is simply stunning.

This being a Billie Ray Martin project, the breezy rush of “Candy Coated Crime” comes closest to a proper dance song the likes of which Martin has always excelled at. With an uncommon attention to the vocals and lyrics, the thrill-seeking narrator courts danger with the lyrics “who cares if I get arrested/I’m only playing CSI,” surrounded by a hypnotic backdrop created by Solheim. Even better is the album’s bonus “Alternate Version” that really elongates (à la an ‘80s “extended version”) the electronica and Martin’s vocals rather than simply distorting either, as remixes often do.

Peering into other’s deep reflections is one of the album’s biggest feats. The plastic surgery victim of “Anatomy Of A Plastic Girl” offers some wisdom in observing that “under the plastic shell/there are a thousand holes,” even as she peers at herself and can’t see anything “but a face and name.” Wry TV observations also play a part in two tracks here: the finished version of 2003’s demo of “Silent Comes The Nighttime (Again)” explodes with stark inner thoughts of an obsessive TV viewing insomniac juxtaposed against some of the album’s loveliest vocals. Martin—possessor of a gloriously unique vocal instrument—seems to purposely have toned down the vocal theatrics, and really only belts it out on “Reality TV,” about the crushed dreams of a dejected 15 year old X-Factor/Idol-ish contestant.

Speaking of vocals and vocalists, when they write the record books, and after all the tallies get tallied and lesser singers have come and gone, Billie Ray Martin will still be standing. Her inflection and tone on this album is especially noteworthy and often with dance music divas, it is easy to overlook the technical skill some possess since this is often distorted or lost in the beat. The precision with which the vocals are is presented on this album highlights Martin’s sophisticated élan that remains mostly unmatched in the electronica genre. When the first of these tracks were released in 2008, the duo was dubbed “The Carpenters of electro” which is rather an apt description and obviously in reference to how Martin’s voice is so carefully miked on these recordings.

The fantastic “Jalousies and Jealousies” offers a summation of all the inner demons of these women, as its narrator is again contemplating herself in a mirror, where windows freeze and frame the desolate isolation like a cage. This track also highlights Solheim’s electronic contribution to the duo: the keys are slightly bright and almost chirpy, which contrasts quite nicely to the heavy lyrics. One of the most stunning tracks is a gorgeous, nearly ambient cover of “Dinah and the Beautiful Blue.” The stark electronic instrumentation is a perfect complement to Martin’s mesmerizing vocal performance. Originally culled from Thomas Feiner & Anywhen’s 2001 albumThe Opiates (get it?) Martin and Solheim’s version is reverentially faithful and yet uniquely its own, which is quite an accomplishment for such a revered title.

Arriving in September, the first official remixes of any of these tracks arrived via the digital Rainy Days and Remixes EP. First up is the radio edit of title track “Rainy Days And Saturdays,” but the real highlights are the three remixes. Hercules And Love Affair’s Kim Ann Foxman’s delicious take on “Jalousies and Jealousies” features distortion, a yelp and an ominous dark vocal presence over an entrancing reworking of the original track’s beats. The always-welcome sounds of Throbbing Gristle’s Chris & Cosey highlight “Anatomy Of A Plastic Girl,” where the vocal sounds are compressed then reprocessed and the narrator sounds slightly robotic, as its title suggests. Xtra Hype Krew’s fantastic “Stepford Step-Off Mix” of “Silent Comes The Nighttime (Again)” with its progressive dubstep sound completely transforms the original version, but plucks out select vocal elements to compliment the heavy drum and bass elements.

It is always exciting when Billie Ray Martin, the grande dame of German techno, readies a new release, whether it be album, single or both, as the case is here. Having already released two major singles under her own name this year, this is quite an accomplishment. The package as a whole is beautifully designed and presented, with previously unreleased Wolfgang Tillmans’ photographs of Hollywood illustrating the cover and booklet. The entire thing, including the design by Philip Marshall, comes off as “high art” rather than merely an album, making it that much more unique and special. The physical CD is available as an import from Amazon on Martin’s own Disco Activisto label, her own site, and digitally from all the regular outfits.