Preview – Ace of Base

Who were Ace of Base, exactly? One of the first acts of the 1990s Europop movement, and yet much more pop than most of the others. One of the earliest acts of the second huge Swedish pop wave. Were they a bit naff, or an inventive and influential pop act? Or were they a bit of a sad case, a family (plus one) pulled apart by fame and fortune?

Well, anyway – here’s Happy Nation, from Gold, out now:

William Orbit – Barber’s Adagio for Strings

If anything, in 1999, you would have known William Orbit for his production work on pretty much every pop hit of the year. Yes, they all had pretty much the same synth arpeggio on them – he loves synth arpeggios – but Madonna, All Saints, and plenty of others had benefitted from his work.

What you almost certainly didn’t know was that four years earlier, he had released an album of updated classical music, called Pieces in a Modern Style. Originally credited to The Electric Chamber, it had been speedily deleted following complaints from the estate of one of the composers. But now, with his new-found fame as a producer, Orbit was able to revisit the album, remove the two problem pieces, and replace them with some new ones. And, because he was now a mega-star, he also got two singles, the first of which came out twenty years ago this week.

That opening single was Barber’s Adagio for Strings, taking Samuel Barber‘s dramatic piece and bringing it to life in a modern way. The irony, of course, with Pieces in a Modern Style, was that they weren’t particularly – but with Ferry Corsten‘s intervention, the single version becomes huge. It opens with William Orbit‘s synth string work, just fattened a little, but then suddenly, after the first minute, it just ignites, with beats and a trance lead line. To describe it as anything other than explosive would be underselling it.

ATB takes much the same approach, opening with effect-laden strings, and bringing in his own trademark sounds after a minute or so. His reworkings only ended up being released in Germany, perhaps because they didn’t fit as well for the UK audience, or perhaps they just weren’t ready in time. ATB‘s sound was already well known at this time, and honestly his mix does sound very like everything else he had released. It’s nice enough, but does feel a little surplus to requirements.

Finally, it’s time to hear the original, cut down somehow from its nine-minute album form to be a four-minute radio-friendly version. I doubt this received much airplay, even on classical radio, but it’s good that the single gets the original in some form here. It’s a challenge for the listener, in a way, as many people buying this release would have done so for the first track, but you have to acknowledge that it’s a beautiful piece of music, realised perfectly here. If, perhaps, a little short.

The fourth track on the German single – and actually the lead track on the UK CD single – was Ferry Corsten‘s full 12″ mix. It’s great to hear him take his elements to a full club mix, but it’s also a little disappointing that he chose to open with a fairly dull introduction, with a bit of trance synth work, and a lot of beats. After the first couple of minutes, he just switches us straight into the radio version, which is entirely as it should be, but I could honestly have dispensed with the introduction there.

Finally, we get ATB‘s 12″ mix, and as with the previous track, it’s a little surprising that a piece of music that started off life with a duration of nine minutes seems so forced when turned into an extended dance mix. It’s a reminder, in a way, of how different the forms of classical and dance music have to be. Opening with a rhythm section just feels very dull, in this context.

Even if he didn’t create the single version himself, it was with Barber’s Adagio for Strings that William Orbit cemented his position as one of the finest producers and multi-instrumentalists of our time, and for that, we all owe it a lot.

We reviewed the German CD single, which is no longer available new, but can be found through various second-hand retailers.

Electronic – Getting Away with It

When they first appeared, three decades ago this week, Electronic must have been a bit of a revelation. True, New Order had been steadily evolving from rock to pop over the preceding decade, but a collaboration between Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr, the extraordinary guitarist from The Smiths, must have conjured up ideas of something guitar-heavy. It wasn’t – Getting Away with It was, in a way, both Sumner and Marr’s first experiment with true pop.

The single version is, as I’m sure you know by now, exceptional. It’s a pop song, with synth strings and sweet acoustic guitar work. There’s something a little quirky with it, of course, but it still holds together beautifully. On vocals, Bernard Sumner and Neil Tennant – neither of them particularly accomplished vocalists, but both great in their own way – harmonise perfectly, bringing a delightfully humanist quality to the song. It’s definitely nothing like New Order or The Smiths, and although it is a lot like Pet Shop Boys, the pop lyric doesn’t feel like something that Neil Tennant would have come up with on his own.

The definitive track listing appears to be the digital reissue, pulling all the different tracks together in one place, and that takes us next to the lead track on the 12″, the Extended Mix. This is an extended version very much in the 1980s style – take the first verse and strip it back a bit, add an extra instrumental verse, and mix original elements in, one by one. It’s a worthy version, but to a modern ear, there’s surprisingly little new here until the long breakdown section in the middle, which could honestly be dispensed with.

By 1989, artists were already sending tracks off for a multitude of weird and wonderful remixes, but Electronic seem not to have been especially aware of this, so the various singles of Getting Away with It are largely peppered with alternative versions. The extended Instrumental is lovely, and unusually for an instrumental version, it stands well alone. This includes the longer orchestral ending that would appear on later versions of the single mix.

There is a b-side, though – and this is perhaps a surprise, given that it seems to have since flown completely under the radar. Maybe this was intentional, as it was omitted altogether from the CD release. Lucky Bag is a beatsy, early house instrumental that provides occasional echoes of Bobby Orlando‘s huge bass lines. It’s hard to know exactly what Electronic would have been thinking with this, to tell the truth – it’s nice, but also instantly forgettable. Maybe it’s an extended experiment, or maybe it was always intended to be a b-side. Either way, it’s a nice diversion.

There are remixes here, but there’s nothing particularly great. For whatever reason, the common trend at the time with remixes was to cut the original back, add beats, add a few cheesy synth lines, and a bit of a calypso arpeggio, and call it done. So it is with Graeme Park and Mike Pickering‘s remixes. The Nude Mix is an uninspired dub version with weird down-tempo, almost rave-inspired synth lines dropping in all over the place. The Vocal Remix is, I would assume, their attempt to add the vocal back in for a more radio-friendly version, and while there’s plenty to enjoy here, both mixes really seem to fail on most levels. They’re nice, but just not quite good enough, and while the final fade on the second mix comes a little suddenly, it really can’t come too soon.

It’s nice to get another version of Lucky Bag to close the release, but the Miami Edit is a curious version – slightly more beat-driven than the one on the 7″, but far from different enough to really be noteworthy. On the UK release, this was hidden away on the second 12″, which seems appropriate – it’s a nice treat, but nothing particularly special.

So Getting Away with It is a bit of a mixed bag – a great track, but not, perhaps, such a great single. Electronic, for the time being, showed all the signs of being a one-off experiment, but perhaps inevitably, given the success of this release, they got back together for the 1991 Electronic album, which then inexplicably went on to skip Getting Away with It from its original track listing altogether. But with Getting Away with It, they assured us that there was something special about this collaboration.

We reviewed the US CD single. The five versions of the original track from here can be found on this digital release.