Random jukebox – Bruce Haack

Remember, kids: don’t do drugs.

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Preview – Jean-Michel Jarre

Jean-Michel Jarre‘s singles in recent years have been intermittent at best, but he was responsible for one of this year’s Record Store Day releases, which will almost certainly have passed you by after you queued for hours and missed out on the one you wanted. Équinoxe Infinity Remixes was a limited edition 12″ and download, which included this, from Tale of Us:

The xx – xx

Of the many artists who have entirely passed me by, The xx are probably the best known. Somehow I totally missed their initial successes, failed to notice their huge cult explosion, and entirely avoided their moments in the limelight. That wouldn’t be so unusual now, but ten years ago, when this album first came out, that was a bit strange. But it’s no reason to avoid them now.

Their debut xx opens with Intro, a meandering guitar piece which strolls gradually along, with ethereal male vocals and a strummed bass line. Then comes VCR, a number 132 single in 2010. Meandering is the key – there’s a somewhat jaunty glockenspiel line, but otherwise this is a slow, almost plodding track with a vocal about watching old videos.

Their debut single was Crystalised, which just missed out on the Top 100 in early 2009. It gradually builds into a sort of lo-fi, less electronic version of New Order, maybe with a bit of a bluesy feel thrown into the mix. It’s good, and easy to nod along to, but it’s also difficult to reconcile with The xx‘s huge acclaim. This was a Mercury Prize-winning album, and they were winning awards left, right, and centre. Why?

Perhaps the answer lies in Islands, their biggest hit – to date, actually – having hit number 34 and reaching silver certification in late 2009. Not particularly, unfortunately. If you wanted to be unkind, you would pick up on another gently strummed guitar line and the self same instrumentation as the last few tracks. That’s not really fair, as the vocal delivery is interesting, and there are some nice electronic drums, but can you honestly repeat any of the lyrics? Seems unlikely.

These are short tracks, though, and already we’re nearly half way through with Heart Skipped a Beat. The ethereal feel that we had at the start is back here, with some softer, higher sounds. This might be my favourite track so far, actually.

Some of the songs would make for interesting film soundtrack moments – Fantasy is a bit vague still, but there’s a lovely gentle feel to it, and the sort of bass part that makes you want to check your heart is still functioning as it should.

But something still doesn’t quite seem right – I wonder if it is the lyrics, after all. Shelter contains the couplet “Could I be, was I there? / It felt so crystal in the air.” What on earth is that supposed to mean? It’s atmospheric, yes, but surely that’s pretty lazy lyric writing, isn’t it? Or maybe The xx‘s lyrics aren’t intended to be scrutinised quite that closely – maybe the mood is the thing here after all?

But if that’s true, it would be nice to have some variety – this is a nice album, but it is pretty samey so far. Well, until Basic Space, anyway – the electronic backing is muted, but it’s beautifully glitchy. It’s even got a nice, catchy chorus too. This came along just in time, didn’t it?

Infinity keeps it going as well – it’s got some wonderful percussion, punctuating the vocals, and the sauntering guitar work is well placed too. These last couple of tracks almost make that Mercury Prize win worthwhile! Or maybe I’m just starting to get used to it, finally.

You do get the impression that The xx might be best enjoyed live, in a dark club, probably with some plant-based narcotics on hand. Listening to the album feels a bit like fundamentally missing the point. Night Time is a bit of a mess of beats and Peter Hook-like strumming, but it’s a nice mess, nonetheless. Closing track Stars is spacious and pleasant, although still perhaps seems a little forgettable for a closing track.

So xx is either a mixed bag, or takes a bit of getting used to, but it does end up in a nice place. Ten years on, it still has its indie charm, even if it does feel a bit wrong not to see them perform any of this live. One day, maybe.

You can still find xx at all major retailers, although possibly only as an import.

Preview – Groove Armada

If, like me, you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air, or quaint little villages here and there, then it won’t escape your attention that Groove Armada have come of age, and are celebrating 21 years in the music business. Twenty One is their appropriately named compilation, and this is Look Me in the Eye Sister:

Bent – Best Of

It would appear that now is a great time to review Bent‘s compilation Best Of. Four albums in, and ten years into their career, they released this compilation pretty much exactly a decade ago, and after a disappointingly long break, they are finally Comin’ Back again. If you’ll pardon the pun.

It opens, appropriately, with Swollen, from debut album The Everlasting Blink – not their biggest hit, but their first foray on the UK charts, having hit number 87 in early 2001. As I imagine I’ve said here before, it’s an exceptional piece of music, thanks in large part to Zoë Johnston‘s moving vocal. Quite how this wasn’t in the Top 20 is a mystery to me.

Although honestly this is somewhat true for Magic Love too, a non-charting single from 2004’s second album The Everlasting Blink. Like all of Bent‘s more “magical” moments, it’s a sweet song which probably should have been a huge hit single. Then, from the next single, comes Beautiful Otherness, with the brilliant Jon Marsh on calm, collected, and deep vocal. Three tracks in, and we have here a quite exceptional collection of tracks.

To Be Loved follows, from 2006’s final album Intercept. If it’s a dip in quality, that means little when the bar is so high. From any other artist, this would probably be one of their best songs. From Bent, the calibre seems perhaps a little too high for this track to have its moment of glory.

Bent‘s chart performance was always a bit of a problem, and 2004’s exquisite Ariels provided just one minor hit single. More of that later, but for now, As You Fall is all we get from this album. It’s a lovely track, and does a good job here of representing Bent‘s softer and more melodic side.

Other album tracks follow, with Private Road taking us back to the 2000 debut Programmed to Love. Zoë Johnston makes a return to lead vocals, and while less moving on this track, the spirit remains. Then, with only four albums to choose from, we jump to 2004 again for the fun but poorly-titled The Handbrake. Even if you know Bent, you’re unlikely to remember which track this is, but it’s one of the better ones from Intercept. This is a perfect track for the midway point on this album, and frankly, if you don’t love this, you needn’t bother reading any further.

The first album was more sample-driven, and I Love My Man is a good example of this, a perfectly chilled out track, full of eclectic samples from goodness only knows where. It originally appeared on later editions of Programmed to Love. Then Comin’ Back follows, one of Bent‘s biggest hits, although that isn’t saying a huge amount – it hit number 89 in 2004. It’s a lovely song, with a sweet and powerful vocal. It’s a reminder, were it needed, that when Bent were good, they were very, very good.

The gentle and seductive Bewitched as I Am comes next, taken from their sneaky 2001 download-only album Downloaded for Love. It’s something of a special treat here, and a curiosity which will be known well by some, but not at all by others. Then from the first album comes the creepily titled instrumental Invisible Pedestrian.

But it’s Bent‘s full vocal songs that tend to hit the hardest. I Can’t Believe It’s Over appears here in its single version from 2004’s Flavour Country EP. Originally taken from the same year’s Ariels album, it was heavily reworked and turned from a fairly nondescript album track, albeit with a lovely vocal, into a dramatic and beautiful song, which should absolutely hold pride of place on the Best Of collection.

But there are, of course, many dimensions to Bent‘s music, and the jauntier tracks are another of their trademarks. Leavin’ Me takes another vintage sample and turns it into a disco track. It’s all a bit odd, and strangely brilliant. Trademark Bent.

The same is true of closing track Always, later murdered by Chicane. It’s another vintage vocal sample, but this time the arrangement that has been built around it is chilled out and beautiful. It was their second hit and their second biggest hit, peaking at number 84 in July 2001.

Which brings me to an interesting point – their biggest hit, and arguably their only true hit, having peaked at number 59 in mid-2003, was Stay the Same, which is notable in its absence here. Compilations always miss certain tracks off, and subjectively this is no major omission on this occasion – but surely it’s odd to miss your single biggest selling single from your Best Of compilation?

Either way, Best Of Bent is a good collection, and it’s nice that it was fairly restrained, with only fourteen tracks. There was a bonus disc of previously unreleased material too, for those who needed an extra nudge to buy it.

You can still find Bent‘s Best Of from all major retailers.