Solex vs. Pandora: Elisabeth Esselink Reviews Her Own Pandora Station

Elisabeth Esselink


To quote Alvy Singer in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, who in turn paraphrases Groucho Marx while attributing it to Sigmund Freud:  “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member. That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.” If it’s true for Alvy and his women, it’s certainly been true for me in terms of bands or musicians I’m usually associated with.

A lot of the people who like the albums I’ve made as Solex tend to like female vocalists––particularly singers with naïve childlike voices. I hate to say it, but if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s the girlie “I’m-innocent-and-still-a-virgin” thing. I’m not talking about French singers like Françoise Hardy, Jane Birkin and the like–– they’re anything but innocent. They can drop from a full-on croon down to a sexy whisper or throaty purr. They do what every good singer should do: seduce and engage. Even Madonna looked like a veteran when she sang “Like a Virgin.”

My voice has never exactly sounded wrinkled and mature but, believe me, that isn’t something I treasure. I hate it when people think they’re hearing a 10-year-old sing.  On one song  I even tried grunting to shake off the under-aged tone in my voice. Needless to say, the result was horrible.

When listeners log onto Pandora, they pick a song or musician they like and Pandora serves up songs with similar qualities. According to a recent New York Times article about the internet radio service, “Pandora’s 48 million users tune in an average 11.6 hours a month…Its library now has 700,000 songs, each categorized by an employee and based on a choice of 400 musical attributes, like whether the voice is breathy, like Charlotte Gainsbourg, or gravelly like Tom Waits.”

As I read that, my heart went out to the poor boys and girls who do this for a living. They’re almost certainly devoted music fans but I fear they will suffer professional deformation after some time. A bit like the proverbial “doctor who takes your pulse while shaking your hand,” for the rest of their lives they’ll screen every tune that passes by, analyzing its particular set of qualities, and will never again be able to enjoy music the way they had before.

I live in Holland and unfortunately Pandora is blocked in Europe due to the music licensing agreement between the site, the record labels and the musicians. When I try to enter the site it offers a surprisingly emotional apology: “We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for listeners located outside of the U.S. We will continue to work diligently to realize the vision of a truly global Pandora, but for the time being we are required to restrict its use. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative.”

Nevertheless, Fanzine was kind enough to provide me with a list of the songs that appear on Pandora’s ‘Solex Radio,’ as well as the description of the characteristics the site uses to classify my music: “Solex’s musical style features electric rock instrumentation, basic rock song structures, electronica influences, a subtle use of vocal harmonies, mild rhythmic syncopation and extensive vamping.” The description is a bit vague and technical but that’s probably also why it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t really say a thing does it? It would fit lots of very different songs. While it isn’t mentioned in the description, the primary thing that the songs played on the ‘Solex Radio’ station seemed to have in common is their female vocalists. And so, in a way, Pandora’s selections here don’t seem to differ very much from my existing impression of what Solex fans listen to.

Here are some of Pandora’s picks from “Solex Radio” minus my own songs:

“Ankle Injuries” by Fujiya and Miyagi:
This is a pleasant, easygoing tune with traditional electronic elements that passes by without any pleasant surprises. It’s pleasing but unfortunately not very dangerous. You can easily follow a conversation at the same time; the song will not distract you.

“The Police and the Private” by Metric:
Great song title and nice production. It’s a shame about the lame drum machine––it’s frigid. A good song makes me want to shake my hips. Although this song is fresh and doesn’t have a clear song structure––both of which are things I really like––it hardly makes me want to tap my feet.

“Young Lungs” by Stereolab:
This is a great, adventurous song that lasts over six minutes but still makes you believe the fun is over way too soon. I love the looseness.

“Recovery” by New Buffalo:
This song has a very nice atmosphere. The percussion is the spine of the song and its rhythmic loop doesn’t dictate the perfect length or conclusion and so it more or less ends the way it begins. It’s a good piece, but I hope they also have songs on their repertoire that build up a bit more along the way. I’ll definitely check out more by them.

“That Time” by Regina Spektor:
Again a female vocalist. My own record collection just has a handful female artists and after hearing this song Regina Spektor could be one of them. “Hey remember the time when I found a human tooth down on Delancey.” I like it a lot!

“Rocks” by Loquat:
Spooky song spiced up with electronic bleeps that don’t seem to be very functional. The angelic vocals only serve to please the listener and nothing else. This one is not for me.

“Knock That Door” by Enon:
Energetic and playful. Nice! Loved the live version I watched on You Tube better, it’s less ‘girlie girlie’.

“Slide” by Home:
Never heard of this band. Most likely because they chose the most impossible band name to Google. The song is a one minute and 43 second treat. Wish there were more bands who could get a message across in so little time. A welcome surprise!

“Human Behavior” by Bjork:
Obviously Bjork is groundbreaking and incredibly talented. As with most artists who have a long history, some songs I absolutely love (the beautiful  “It’s Oh So Quiet” which was actually written by Hans Lang and Erich Mede), and some songs I find quite irritating. Unfortunately, “Human Behavior” is one of the latter.

“Deus” by the Sugarcubes:
Hey…Bjork again? Maybe singers with heavy accents are also an attribute in selecting songs for the channel. If this were the case, it could be a tough one in the process of ‘globalizing Pandora.’ Great song by the way.

“Setting Sun” by the Howling Bells:
Never heard of them. I seriously need to catch up. It’s a stunning song. I can imagine they’re an amazing live band. It drives me crazy; this song sounds so familiar but I don’t know why.

“Hard to Say” Heidi Mortenson (from Denmark):
I am so pleased Pandora introduced me to Heidi Mortenson. Not only she has a great voice, she also knows how to make an unconventional song with the right doses of humor. Heidi uses electronics and undefinable sounds in a very musical manner. I hope one day she’ll become a world famous star and set new records with her talent.

“One in Every Crowd” by Viva Voce
I checked out Viva Voce’s MySpace page and heard some really good songs. Songs that made me smile, dance and made me excited to hear more. I hate to be an ‘azijnpisser’ (literally translated from Dutch it’s a ‘vinegar pisser,’ meaning: someone who always criticizes and focuses on the negative aspects) but this particular song is going nowhere. I can’t hear any excitement, any fresh melodies or instrumentation. Rhythmically it’s nothing special and it sounds as if the musicians were a bit bored themselves when they made this song. Except for these things there’s nothing really wrong with this song and the musicians are probably the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

When I make music, I try to make the kind of music I’d like to hear. After listening to the songs Pandora picked, I’m afraid most of the time Pandora and I don’t share the same view on what makes a song a great song. I don’t mean to sound arrogant. Most of the songs Pandora picked are nice, especially if the radio would play them, but for the most part they don’t blow me away. I wouldn’t want to buy the record based on what I’ve heard here or if I wrote the songs, I wouldn’t put them on my own record. For me buying a record or recording a song just takes a little bit more. Too often Pandora seems to oversimplify the types of things that to me make a song interesting: the ways a song can play with its own structure or surprise the listener. Nevertheless, whenever I take the time to listen to new music I discover things that make me interested and excited and these tracks from Pandora were no exception. While I didn’t necessarily feel like they had nailed what my music was about, it did make me curious about some of the musicians I heard there.


Solex official site.

Related Articles from The Fanzine:

Kelis Has Gone All Fourth of July on Us Mofos

When Disco Was the Soundtrack to Martial Law: David Byrne and Imelda Marcos

And Now for Something Less Funky: A Fan In Search of Joanna Newsom’s Elusive New Epic