Grating, inane, illogical, annoyingly addictive, gimmicky, disposable: the novelty single may be all these things, but without them the charts would be dull place. Unfortunately, the decline of the singles market has meant that the novelty single is no longer viable. Nowadays, the novelties of the pop world are attenuated until their songs are bland enough to sustain an entire album and thus the charts are full of boringly mature, catchy tunes, as sung by the unholy triumvirate of Gareth Gates, Will Young and Darius Danesh (as you can probably tell, I don’t keep up).
Just when all seemed lost, Martin White’s accordion covers of chart hits began appearing in his column on the Popjustice website, turning the base gold of Britney Spears’ Toxic and Radiohead’s Paranoid Android into the refined plastic of novelty accordiopop. Subsequently, White’s efforts have been endorsed by such luminaries as Charlotte Hatherley and Bjork. Even the sniping of Stewart Lee hasn’t soured his success. At this point, it would have been easy for White to milk whatever interest there was in accordion cover versions until everyone got bored. Instead he has extended the franchise by recording an album of his own songs for cult CD-R label, Kabukikore.
Mystery Fax Machine Girl consists of 12 songs: nine instrumentals and 2 Poe poems set to music. Only the title track has original lyrics, describing a doomed office romance with a panting accordion backing. And that’s it. White can hardly be excused of selling out. He has drawn out the potential of what you can do with nothing more than an accordion to its limits and in the process he has managed to make a novelty album that sustains interest.
Songs like ‘Accordiopop’ and ‘More is More’ are either pure pop stripped down to the level where melody exists on a conceptual level or avant-garde mood pieces. The reason why such songs add colour to one’s grey matter is, I hazard, because the accordion is the instrument that comes closest in sound and spirit to the human hum. When you hum a pretty melody, when it vibrates in the skull, it has a similar droning quality to that of the accordion. By tapping into this physical anomaly, White’s songs manage to be both affecting and superficial, jolly and melancholy.
Certain numbers (‘She’s Not Perfect’ and ‘I Will Follow You’, for instance), cry out for vocal augmentation, but then I guess that’s the nature of novelty pop: it doesn’t compromise.