The house lights go down. Popular music plays in darkness. A string-quartet emerges, picking out a faintly familiar refrain, from the rafters a distant voice creaks into gear, “there’s a place for us, somewhere there’s a place for us”. Even writing about the music of Popular Music, the pairing of former Parenthetical Girls band-leader Zac Pennington and Australian-composer Prudence Rees-Lee, it’s very hard not to sound like you’re writing stage directions.
After a build-up of many months of slowly drip-feeding singles into the world, the pair’s debut album, Popular Music Plays In Darkness, is out tomorrow. The album’s conception actually started some time ago, in a haunted apartment out in East Hollywood, a house designed in the Golden Age of Hollywood by musicians from the 20th Century Fox orchestra. It’s a place Zac found himself living after, “a cataclysmic collapse of confidence”, and a bout of writer’s block. There he persuaded Prudence to join him, an 8-track cassette recorder and, “a small arsenal of analog synthesisers”, and an idea for an album was born. The goal of the project was to reimagine a shortlist of films written originally for the movies, an attempt to deconstruct, “the musical language of 20th Century cinema”. It was a pretty ambitious move for someone who was at the time unsure of their next move, yet listening to Popular Music Plays In The Darkness, it seems a perfect fit.
The original ideas were eventually transported to a turn-of-the-century barn near the Massachusetts state line, the early cassette recordings reimagined with lush orchestration and live percussion into something quite remarkable. Across the record’s twelve tracks, the pair take on everything from quite possibly the saddest song ever written, Smile from the Charlie Chaplin classic, Modern Times, to a particularly wonderful rendition of Let’s Face The Music And Dance. Despite being essentially a series of covers, this is an album that feels so much more than that; a celebration of the dimmed lights, big screens and escapism of cinema, the way that music can transport us into a film and out of this world. This is a love letter to the movies, in all its sometimes troubling, beautiful glory as the band themselves sign off, “to Hollywood with love and horror”.
FTR: For those who don’t know who are Popular Music?
Popular Music is the duo of Prudence Rees-Lee and Zac Pennington. Prudence is a songwriter and composer from Melbourne. Zac used to be the main one in a group called Parenthetical Girls. The duo started in a haunted apartment on the eastern edge of Hollywood, which had once belonged to session players in the 20th Century Fox orchestra during the Golden Age — the wood-paneled walls saturated with a half-century’s worth of impromptu chamber string rehearsals. Now we live in a converted barn in a remote corner of Upstate New York. We’re about to release our debut record, which is called Popular Music Plays In Darkness — it’s twelve songs from the cinema, arranged for string quartet, analog synthesizer, cassette tape and lots of spring reverb.
FTR: What can you remember about your first show?
Our first and last show was played to a disinterested dog and a webcam in our living room. We filled the room with orange lilies.
FTR: Why do you make music? Why not another art form?
You can get away with saying just about anything, so long as the strings swell.
FTR: What can people expect from the Popular Music live show?
Zac has a 50-foot mic cable and Prue does most of the work. We play sad songs.
FTR: What’s next for Popular Music?
We’re preparing to return to Los Angeles, where we plan to finish our next record — this time with songs we made up on our own. We’re looking forward to the day when we once again feel confident enough to make plans beyond the end of the week.
They Listen To…
In the spirit of In Darkness, we chose a selection of songs borrowed (and bettered) from the cinema.
The Space Lady – Puttin’ on the Ritz (from Puttin’ On the Ritz, 1930)
The Space Lady puts her inimitable touch to an Irving Berlin by-way-of-Taco banger.
Nina Simone – Wild Is the Wind (from Wild Is the Wind, 1957)
One of Nina’s most devastating interpolations — just unreal.
Lana Del Rey – Once Upon a Dream (from Sleeping Beauty, 1959)
LDR is Los Angeles. We used this as a reference track while mixing several songs on our album.
Dusty Springfield – The Windmills of Your Mind (from The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968)
We put all of the original recordings of the songs from In Darkness into a Spotify playlist, and this was first thing the algorithm suggested. We’d both separately recorded covers of this song in past lives. That algorithm is extraordinary and terrifying.
Scott Walker – The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti (from Sacco & Vanzetti, 1971)
Originally written by Morricone and Joan Baez, and the best song on Scott’s “wilderness years”-era lost album The Moviegoer, which was an early conceptual inspo for In Darkness.
Mary Hopkin – Inch Worm (from Hans Christian Andersen, 1952)
This song has haunted me since I was a kid — Mary Hopkin’s McCartney-produced version gives me the creeps in the best possible way.
The Fleetwoods – Unchained Melody (from Unchained, 1955)
“Unchained Melody” comes from a prison movie no one remembers; there’s no rendition spookier than this acapella version by The Fleetwoods.
Frank Ocean – Moon River (from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961)
No one else should be allowed to sing “Moon River” ever again.
Patti Smith Group – Privilege (Set Me Free) (from Privilege, 1962)
Peter Watkins’ Privilege is one of my favorite movies ever, and Patti’s weird, shamanic re-write of its opening song is so good — and maybe the worst choice imaginable for a follow-up single to “Because the Night.”
Deerhoof – Midnight, The Stars and You (from The Shining, 1980)
Our friends in Deerhoof have been on a tear lately. They turned in this gorgeous cover as the b-side to their “Plays the Music of the Shining” single a couple years back, and Satomi’s voice has never sounded sweeter.
Popular Music Plays In Darknes is out November 20th . Click HERE for more information on Popular Music