July 16, 2024
White Town: Women in Technology Album Review

Sometime around 1978, Jyoti Mishra saw Pennies From Heaven, a BBC miniseries that interspersed period drama with actors lip-syncing old songs. In the second-to-last episode, a schoolteacher has resolved to return to sex work when her adulterous lover, a sheet music salesman played by Bob Hoskins, breaks out in a bleak lament. Titled “My Woman,” the song was originally by Bing Crosby, but the show’s version, recorded in 1932 by London crooner Al Bowlly, stands out for a funereal, three-note opening trumpet phrase. You might even know it: BUM, bum ba-bum, bum ba-bum, bum ba-bum.

Born in 1966 in Rourkela, India, Mishra emigrated with his middle-class family to the UK when he was 3, eventually settling in Derby, in central England. He endured bullying, racist and otherwise. “I was the annoying know-it-all kid at school, a title I held alongside fattest lad,” Mishra has said. He started playing keyboards when he was 12, and, as he tells it, quit school at 16 “specifically to go on the dole and play in a band.” During the 1980s, he began to identify as a revolutionary Marxist.

After attending a “life-changing” Pixies concert, Mishra formed White Town as a conventional guitar band in 1989, citing standard indie-rock influences of the time: the Wedding Present, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and My Bloody Valentine. At their third gig, White Town opened for Primal Scream. “The name White Town was a reference to growing up as an Asian person in Britain,” Mishra told Sound on Sound. “That’s not been depressing, but there certainly was a sense of alienation.” A government program for the unemployed, the now-defunct Enterprise Allowance Scheme, helped Mishra start his own label, Satya Records.

The funding enabled him to release White Town’s first single, 1990’s “White Town,” in a run of 1,000 7″ vinyl copies. “There are some things in life that have to be done regardless of success or failure,” reads a typewritten note tucked within the sleeve. The A-side casts a handy lens on Mishra’s nascent sensibility. He sings in a hushed voice that evokes quintessential Sarah Records indie-pop groups like the Field Mice, joined by cello throbs like Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” and propulsive streaks of MBV-style noise-rock. But the lyrics address a lover who, it’s implied, has left him under racist pressure from her parents. “If it’s not worth fighting for,” Mishra sighs, “it’s worth nothing at all.”

White Town were still deeply underground, but they caught the ear of Geoff Merritt, owner of Urbana, Illinois-based indie label Parasol, which put out several of the group’s subsequent records. The other band members drifted away, and Mishra recorded White Town’s full-length debut, 1994’s Socialism, Sexism & Sexuality, by himself on an eight-track. Fascinating if flawed, the album tends toward run-of-the-mill jangle, and though some of the songs are among Mishra’s catchiest, as a whole the 67-minute outing is uneven and overlong. But he also experiments with gender ambiguity on the buoyant “My Baby Will Love Me,” and rails against racists and fascists. In verbose sleeve notes, Mishra name-checks radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, while backing away from Marxism or any other orthodoxy. He sums himself up as “amateur philosopher, semi-pro songwriter, and career pervert.”

By 1994, Mishra was studying at the University of Derby. He has claimed that he’d long since given up “completely” on any youthful dreams of a major-label deal. But around this time, he acquired a sampler and began working with loops. “I was influenced by hip‑hop, Cabaret Voltaire, and musique concrete, and thought that the creative use of sound in avant‑garde was brilliant,” he has said. “It was a little bit like the Marcel Duchamp school of ‘readymade’ art: You find an object in real life, and you make it your own by putting it in a different place and context.”

Mishra’s most significant spin on the readymade concept was his treatment of “My Woman,” the 1932 jazz record he’d heard as a child on Pennies From Heaven. He spotted the CD soundtrack in the 1990s. “If I could remember the riff from all those years ago, I figured it must be catchy,” Mishra has said. He built an answer song around a sample of that nagging horn fanfare, drawing inspiration lyrically as well as musically: “The original song was so anti-woman that I wanted to twist it another way.”

The result, “Your Woman,” overflows with lofty ideas. The lyrics are coy about the narrator’s gender and sexuality; they also incorporate Mishra’s disillusionment with certain leftists he viewed as hypocrites. Off-kilter beats crunch like early hip-hop, and guitars stab toward Chic’s disco-funk, while bouncy keyboards bring to mind both vintage synth-pop like Bronski Beat or Yaz and the acid-house hangover of White Town’s fellow postmodernists Saint Etienne. (Mishra has mused that the song’s juxtapositions appealed to his “intertextualist” mindset.) But “Your Woman” also has a scruffy, underdog charm. Mishra made the record at home, taking up only five tracks on his trusty eight-track mixer, with gear he estimated as worth “about a grand.” His whispery vocals, often more like Paddington in a library after marmalade, are fey and even sultry, but they’re cloaked in distortion that could be from Jay Gatsby’s Victrola or a telephone booth down the block.

“With ‘Your Woman,’ I tried to mix ideology and autobiography and put elements of pop songs from the ’30s alongside those of the ’80s to come up with something meaningful for the ’90s,” Mishra has said. “But people listening to the radio don’t have to get all that, of course. They can just dance around to it. And if you couldn’t get people to do that, they wouldn’t listen to anything you had to say anyway.”

In 1996, Parasol released “Your Woman” on the four-song CD single >Abort, Retry, Fail?_, named after the error message Mishra’s computer kept giving him the weekend he tried to mix the tracks; ​the dreaded MS-DOS prompt “sort of characterizes what’s been going on for me the last few years,” he wrote in the sleeve notes. He was 30. Then one night, in Mishra’s telling, he was DJing in Derby when he noticed that people on the dancefloor “really, really liked” the new single, so he sent copies to five big labels and five radio DJs. On October 28, 1996, BBC Radio 1’s Mark Radcliffe started playing “Your Woman.” And kept on playing it. Suddenly Mishra was at the center of a label bidding war, and a few days before Christmas 1996 he signed with Chrysalis/EMI affiliate Brilliant!. More than a hard drive had been reset.

When “Your Woman” hit No. 1 in January 1997, becoming only the fourth “debut” single to do so since the UK singles chart began in 1952, delirium ensued. Major labels traditionally held a vise grip on the means of music’s production, distribution, and marketing. Now here was this chart-topper out of nowhere who refused to go on Top of the Pops or appear in his own music video. To the fevered British press, “Your Woman” proved that advances in technology had democratized recording to the point that aspiring artists no longer had to play in dingy clubs or suck up to label A&Rs. Mishra was “merely the first of the No. 1 bedroom superstars.”

The frenzy cooled a bit as “Your Woman” spread internationally, but the song’s popularity continued. U.S. modern rock radio was in its “faux-ternative” phase, a post-grunge interregnum where pop acts could pass for alternative before the forthcoming chokehold of nu-metal. Another unknown outfit, Primitive Radio Gods, had notched a sample-based hit the previous year. Beck’s genre-mashing Odelay was the incumbent critics’ darling. Prince’s decade-old “If I Was Your Girlfriend” still faintly rippled in the zeitgeist. With the original Star Wars films enjoying a theatrical re-release in 1997, some fans surely gravitated to the unmistakable similarities between the “My Woman” horn riff and John Williams’ Darth Vader theme. In a puritanical country where the Supreme Court was still six years away from striking down anti-sodomy laws, tabloids questioned the obscure White Town singer’s sexuality.

But maybe, as Entertainment Weekly put it in a track review lauding “Your Woman” as worthy of comparison to the Spice Girls (high praise, then and now!), the song was simply “powerful pop.” As a teenage Arizona transplant, I distinctly remember a letter from a friend back in my Northern California hometown hipping me to “that ‘I could never be a woman’ song.”

Women in Technology, which came out in February—only about two months after Mishra signed with Chrysalis—was no match for the “Your Woman” phenomenon. But it’s an eccentric, endearing album in its own right. An overjoyed and perhaps over-confident Mishra writes in the liner notes, “I hope you like this album. But hey—if you don’t, just go and record your own. It’s really not that difficult.” Such demystification was in the post-punk tradition of the earliest UK indie bands such as the Desperate Bicycles. But White Town’s wispily lovelorn synth-pop more closely resembled post-punk’s ’80s pivot toward New Pop glamour—in particular, fellow lapsed Marxist Green Gartside and his group Scritti Politti’s transition from skittery mess to electro-soul sweetness. Women in Technology was a gateway to the wider world of what Mishra has called “unpopular pop.” It’s still an odd, enjoyable listen, a horny, housebound cousin to the sublime Scritti of Cupid & Psyche 85, and a featherlight harbinger of cultural trends to come.

Nothing else on Women in Technology is like “Your Woman.” Still, some of Mishra’s best work comes when he experiments with similar abandon. “Thursday at the Blue Note” remains sui generis, with its melange of dreamy Indian instrumentation, distorted-to-hell drum programming, and night-out-in-the-life storytelling that prefigured the Streets (“Look, I know I’m no oil painting/But my face doesn’t need re-arranging,” Mishra sings). Another highlight, él Records-worthy bossa nova ballad “A Week Next June,” is when Mishra keeps it most basic, capturing his pleading vocal and nylon-string guitar strums in a single mic (with a lovely solo overdubbed by guitarist Robert Fleay, who guests on a handful of the tracks). Today you could compare it to early Belle and Sebastian, but back then not many people had heard Belle and Sebastian yet.

Most of the album, though, is in that peculiar synth-R&B, post-New Pop no man’s land (and no “Your Woman”’s land). “Undressed” opens the record with slow-jam drum machine en route to sweet nothings like “I’ve had too many one-night stands,” murmured between Theremin-like synth wobbles. Second single “Wanted,” buzzing electro-pop featuring guest vocalist Ann Pearson, was admittedly chosen to “defy hit parade expectations” and did its job only too well. “The Function of the Orgasm” delivers decent one-liners (“Is it me or him that you’re screwing?”), and “The Death of My Desire” is a chaste return to the punkish guitar of earlier White Town, but neither song is as memorable as their titles.

Still, a few glimmers invite the prospect of what might have been—if “Your Woman” had been a smaller hit, if the second single had been better selected, or if the entire album were simply more coherent. With shoegaze textures and another boom-bap beat, “The Shape of Love” is an alluring look at long-distance romance in the computer age (“I know the world is turning/I know it’s yesterday for you,” Mishra sings). The track that resonates most in a more socially conscious era is a reworking of that first 1990 single, “White Town.” This time, rudimentary guitar arpeggios and frosty drum machine provide the sole backing for Mishra’s stark lyrics, leading into a coda of gorgeous synth. The love interest’s name has been anonymized to “baby,” but the hurt lingers.

The world was as confused about Women in Technology as I remain, all these years later. By the numbers, it was a shocking triumph. Outside Britain, “Your Woman” also went to No. 1 in Iceland and Spain, peaking at No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. A month after release, the album had sold more than 120,000 copies in the United States alone. But reviewers, many presumably unaware of UK indie arcana, mainly seemed divided on whether the album showed White Town was or wasn’t a “one-hit wonder.” A sign of the times was a cringey Village Voice double review of Women in Technology with tender Australian pop duo Savage Garden’s self-titled debut album: “High school girls will buy Savage Garden,” Chuck Eddy opined, “but college chicks’ll opt for White Town.”

As time passed, “Your Woman” secured a minor place in the pop pantheon. The Magnetic Fields, cited in the sleeve to Women in Technology, returned the favor a couple of years later, with Stephin Merritt noting in the booklet to his 1999 triple album 69 Love Songs that “Your Woman” was one of his “favorite Top 40 songs of the last few years.” In 2010, Pitchfork ranked “Your Woman” as one of the Top 200 Songs of the 1990s, situating it alongside sample-based indie chestnuts of the era such as the Land of the Loops’ “Multi-Family Garage Sale.” But the album’s legacy feels unresolved; like “Your Woman,” White Town was at once overexposed and under-examined.

Predictions that White Town’s unlikely ascent heralded an overturning of the music industry order were right and wrong. No doubt quite a number of bedroom solo tinkerers took inspiration in Mishra’s wake. The internet clearly made it easier for musicians and listeners to connect—I recall Mishra responding personally to my request on a fan email list about how to play “A Week Next June” on guitar. In the mid-2000s, wide-eyed indie bands like Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and the Boy Least Likely To could spring up from relative obscurity, along with one-person twee pop factories like Jens Lekman or the Honeydrips, abetted by blogs and webzines.

“Pop is accessible,” Mishra said. “I’m a nerd, not Jim Morrison.” He was adamant that what mattered wasn’t the equipment used, whether good or bad, but the song itself: “You should judge things only with your own ears.” Another do-it-yourself auteur, Sufjan Stevens, would later espouse a similar view. But the Village Voice’s critique was right about one thing: White Town did present a false dichotomy in the liner notes, where Mishra writes, “I still believe that music is about emotion rather than fashion.” Of course, it’s about both. A new wave of bedroom pop led by Billie Eilish, Clairo, and Beabadoobee has generated its own seemingly overnight breakouts, fueled by an au-courant stylishness well-suited for TikTok virality. And why not? There was always a disconnect in presenting White Town’s major-label debut as authentic and unmediated. If anything, it’s the enduring commercial appeal of “Your Woman” that’s granted Mishra artistic freedom—most recently on this year’s Fairchild Semiconductor, billed as the soundtrack to an imaginary TV series. White Town’s own Bandcamp page self-deprecatingly quotes a biography calling Mishra “one of the more intriguing, although frustratingly inconsistent, musicians in ’90s indie pop.”

Maybe Women in Technology holds up best as a testimony to Duchamp’s notion that the ordinary can be elevated into art. Because of Mishra, the “White Christmas” guy collaborated across centuries with grime trailblazer Wiley, and Prohibition-era trumpet rings out on last year’s pandemic album by UK pop star Dua Lipa, herself a daughter of immigrants. Who knows what’s next? “I feel like I’m the luckiest person alive,” Mishra said in March 2020. He must’ve suspected as much when writing Women in Technology’s future-nostalgic finale, “Once I Flew,” which samples astronauts. “Though it’s easy to forget,” Mishra sings of a past brush with the infinite, “I don’t seem to have managed yet/And I don’t think I ever will.” Imperfect sound can last forever too.

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