White Town – Monopole

Let me guess… you’re surprised to hear there’s a new White Town album out? So you should be. Surprised, and very, very pleased.

White Town is the musical name used by Jyoti Mishra, a Derby-based solo artist with a very strong line in lo-fi synth and acoustic pop. At least, that’s the best description I can come up with – maybe you could do better…

His story really begins in 1996. With a self-released album (Socialism, Sexism and Sexuality, 1994) already in the can, he recorded the unbelievably catchy Your Woman, and sent out promos to all manner of DJs and promoters including BBC Radio 1’s Mark Radcliffe and Mark Riley, who started playing this quite intriguing pop song immediately. The rest is history – in 1997 he signed to Chrysalis, went to number 1, released a second album Women in Technology, nearly released the brilliant Wanted and then followed up with Undressed, and finally got himself dropped again.

Free of his commercial shackles but now with a significant underground fanbase now following him around, further albums followed. Peek and Poke (2000) has moments of total brilliance while Don’t Mention the War (2006) is a very cross album indeed.

Now, at the risk of preempting my entire review, Monopole positively bristles with perfect three-minute pop songs. The whole album is barely half an hour long, but that’s definitely OK. It kicks off in fine fashion with its first single Cut Out My Heart, which is as catchy as anything you’ve ever heard on the radio. This leads into She’s A Lot Like You, with its smart alec chemistry-based lyrics, and the album is already moving in the right direction.

There’s a lot of soul-searching and a bit of bitterness at times too with tracks such as I Don’t Want to Fall in Love Again and Have I Gone Too Far? But for me the change at the halfway point is totally unexpected – although the turn to a slightly avant garde instrumental works well in audio terms, emotionally the album seems to shift mood completely as it moves into Theme for Turku Central Station, as though the distressed love story told by the album up to this point just became too complex to explore further.

But by a long shot, the finest track on the album is Invisible Elastic, and at 3:47 it’s also far and away the longest track on the album. The one thing White Town does with alarming regularity is beautiful pop songs with grizzly basslines, and this is a great example. Similarly, as with many of his previous tracks, the lyrics are just a little impenetrable (“Now you can’t meet my eyes / ‘Cause of what you showed me in your grandmother’s bed” is an interesting example).

You Fill Me Up and How Love Feels are worth special mentions as they both suddenly and surprisingly throw out guitar and synth lines which somehow transport you straight back to the late 1980s (oh, in a good way, if that’s possible). And towards the end Missing Her Again draws together an eighties bass line with a distinctly Teutonic rhythm and turns out to be a curiously brilliant song.

So for me, Monopole is a slightly curiously structured album, but it’s difficult to dislike anything on here. If you want to love its cheeky little pop moments, it’s easy enough to do so, and if there really is anything to dislike then it really doesn’t last for long. If you’ve got half an hour to spare, you could definitely waste it in worse ways.

The best place to find Monopole is on Bandcamp, and it’s yours for only a fiver too.

Live – Gary Numan

Do I really need to say anything else? He was in The Mighty Boosh. He’s a pop star, with a pilot’s licence. Oh, and he also had a few hit singles and albums. And is very good.

Gary Numan seems to be just about to return from a brief mid-tour break, and is now back for more dates around the UK. Details at Songkick.

B-Tribe – ¡Fiesta Fatal!

There is a very obvious question which has probably occurred to you by now, which is how on earth I pick which albums I’m going to review on this blog. The truth is, it’s largely random – I let them pick me. There’s a bit of a focus on things which have entered my possession recently, but other than that it’s driven by whatever I feel like listening to and writing about.

B-Tribe are one of those acts about whom I know very little. From my radio days, I have a promo copy of their 1999 ¡Fatal Fatal! single, and it is excellent, so when I saw a full album of theirs in the $1 section of my local record shop, it seemed an obvious one to try.

I’ll be honest before we really kick things off, it’s a bit of a disappointment. By no means is it bad – it’s all relaxing and pleasant, but there’s nothing up to the standard of ¡Fatal Fatal! on here, confusing though that may be. And a fiesta this is not.

After a brief intro, ¡Fiesta Fatal! opens with the the title track, which has three very clear influences:

  1. Flamenco music
  2. Enigma‘s first album
  3. Depeche Mode‘s Waiting for the Night

If you want to try and imagine this song for yourself, combine those three influences in your head, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it sounds like, right down to the heavy breathing and beautiful Spanish guitar meddling. It’s an odd formula, but actually it does work pretty well.

It’s also a general theme which continues throughout the whole album. Nadie Entiende (“nobody understands”) mixes a violent flamenco melody with Enigma‘s panpipes and a very cross sounding lady repeating the title of the song while one of the Gipsy Kings wails over the top.

By Lo Siento I was starting to wonder what on earth was going on here, as the formula was so clearly set out, and it was at this point that I discovered that B-Tribe are exactly the same German producers responsible for Sacred Spirit, an equally formulaic Native American flavoured offering from out of the nineties.

By which I do not mean to imply anything particularly bad about this album – it’s formulaic in the way that only German producers seem to be, but there are also plenty of high points to be found. Una Vez Más (“once more”) is a curiously pleasant if slightly schizophrenic moment.

Love, Tears, Heartaches + Devotion, with its distinctly Enigmatic title, is a particular highlight sitting exactly at the halfway point of the album. Its influences are still clear, but their combination somehow seems to work particularly well on this track.

What the latter half of the album lacks in new ideas, it more than makes up for with repetition, and it’s easy to get pretty bored with the whole thing by this stage. After a series of interludes, reprises, and remixes, you finally make it through to the end of the album with a couple of alternative versions of the title track ¡Fiesta Fatal!

As a bit of an epilogue, though, I thought I should also reacquaint myself with the ¡Fatal Fatal! single. I don’t know quite what it is, I must admit – they seem to have pulled bits from across the entire album for this one track, which is perhaps proof that it may not have needed to be a full album after all. But somehow, straight from the intro, it just works infinitely better than anything on the original album. If you’re going to listen to anything of theirs, I would therefore recommend the single above anything else I’ve heard so far.

B-Tribe (or The Barcelona Tribe of Soulsters, apparently) are, therefore, a bit of a mixed bag. Having started off as a cash-in on the success of Enigma and Deep Forest, they seem to have subsequently found their right niche. But this debut album, although definitely pleasant, could probably be avoided.

This album can be found on iTunes just there.

The Clarke and Ware Experiment – The House of Illustrious

Vince Clarke and Martyn Ware‘s gentle experimental collaboration project has an illustrious (ha!) history, having started with a 3D audio commission for the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield (now Sheffield Hallam University’s student union) back in 1999. The beautifully gentle full album Pretentious followed, as did its even mellower companion Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle (2001). A few oddities on the Electroclash compilation (2004) are their only other release to date.

But they have actually been recording huge volumes of material over the last fifteen years, mainly for one-off performances and special works. So it’s about time for this – they now release a ten-CD box set containing the first two albums and the entirety of their back catalogue.

As a taster, here’s I Think I’m in Love from the first album Pretentious:

Why Music for stowaways?

Time for a bit of general housekeeping, and some background on why I chose this name. It’s fairly simple, actually: nobody had it yet.

I used to do a radio show called Music for the Masses, actually in two different forms: a mid-morning daytime show on Aberystwyth’s student radio station Bay Radio back in 2001, and then a late night (and subsequently early evening) electronic music show for Leeds’s LSR in 2004. It was a brilliantly pretentious name for a show, which seemed to say everything I needed it to say.

After literally years of intending to start a blog, I toyed with using it for a third time here, but loads of people are using the name already for different purposes, so a rethink was in order.

As you probably know, Music for Stowaways was a 1981 cassette album for Heaven 17‘s side project B.E.F., and I was lucky enough to pick up an original copy at a record fair in Derby a few years ago. I say lucky – to be honest it’s a pretty awful album, and it’s probably not something we’ll be reviewing here in a hurry, but it’s a bloody good name. Apparently the original name for the Sony Walkman was the Stowaway, which was what inspired them in the first place.

For my part… well, I’m a stowaway. I’ve been living outside the UK for the last few years, and music is one of the things that ties me back to the Motherland. I spend far too much time listening to music, and I’m afraid the whole point of this blog is therefore to allow me to put some of it into words. To be honest, it was that or listen to KROQ, which is fine if you like Nirvana. I don’t.

Oh, and to seal the deal, I decided to fix the album name according to Pet Shop Boys capitalisation rules. So it’s Music for stowaways. Plain and simple.

Incidentally, in case you hadn’t noticed we seem to now be settling into the following pattern:

  • Monday – newbie
  • Tuesday – oldie
  • Wednesday – live
  • Thursday – review
  • Friday – freebie
  • Saturday – catchup
  • Sunday – chart

Introducing Hugh Doolan

As much as anything I wanted to write this series of posts on unsigned acts to challenge myself, and this is a great example. Thanks to my own ignorance and closed-mindedness I probably wouldn’t have come across Hugh Doolan if he hadn’t got in touch with me, but I’m very pleased he did. He describes his music as “Earthy & atmospheric guitars fused with assorted live and sampled instruments covering many genre, from acoustic to orchestral and electronic; and with a voice tinged with folk soul velvetness!”

Hugh started making music aged sixteen, and went busking around Europe when he left school. After leaving university he moved to Berlin, and started touring across the continent before finding work as a sound engineer in Dublin.

He’s done music for two recent documentaries, including award winner Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey, and he’s currently working with a Chinese company to put eight albums worth of material online, including film music, jingles, and electro-acoustic songs.

In the meantime, he kindly picked three tracks to put online via this blog. First up is Dirt Birds (1996):

This track is intriguing, I think mainly thanks to its slightly trippy feel. It’s also an unusually strong vocal for an unsigned act. With Soundcloud you can easily press stop and jump to whatever’s next, but if you do that here you’ll miss something pretty special.

The second track is The Glove on My Hand (2011):

Again, from the start of this I assumed it was going to have a rock feel, but this was totally thrown to one side as the electronic sounds mixed in, leaving a fascinating mix of electronic blues with jazz influences too.

Third is Maiden… Speech

Dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, I actually felt a bit of a Pink Floyd vibe on this one, although maybe that’s unfair. I suppose the drawn out avant garde style guitar playing is what put that in my mind. It’s a very sweet track.

There’s something quite intriguing about Hugh’s music, and that was also apparent from his answers to my questions. I sent these out solely to get more of a feel for who the artist was, and where they were coming from, and Hugh’s answers achieve that particularly well:

If I forced you to do an exclusive cover version, what would it be?

I would cover a song that fits my style generally, but which may surprise the listener by way of the twist I could give it. I would choose I Have a Dream by Abba because there’s a lot of scope in it musically and the melody is so familiar a lot could be done to twist and turn it into something familiar but fresh and alternative.

Nobody really listens to music any more. Discuss.

Too much noise in the world – not enough space for music! Plenty of music, but not enough pin-pointed meaningful listening!

People hear music but do not have the attention span to either listen to the end of a track, or re-listen to allow time for it to be digested properly. This is down to factors like web streaming and / or trigger-happy remote control of a radio or TV dial, as opposed to a physical product that gets inserted into or onto a player to be played without interruption; with an element of sanctity and performance/event status in a comfortable space.

Having video content layered on to the music (on the web most music is listened to on youtube) will also distract or make the viewer / listener led by the visual imagery as much as, if not more than, the music itself.

Where lyrical content and themes are concerned the initial impact of the singer-songwriter in popular music’s heyday (1960’s) whose message was earnest, albeit sometimes naïve, gets to be received in a blasé almost cynical fashion these days. The power of the lyric is being diluted; either the imagery used is overly sexualised in mainstream music or the songs with integrity and beautiful imagery wash over the listener all too quickly, leaving its intended impact in its wake.

Which (existing) movie would have benefitted from having your music on the soundtrack?

I wrote a piece called Maiden Speech inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi‘s release from house arrest so I guess the movie made about her The Lady could have benefited hugely from it; largely because the confluence of eastern / western sounds in the track sums up her Burmese origins together with her experiences in the west (study in UK).

Thanks to Hugh Doolan for agreeing to appear on here and for those fantastic answers. To hear more from him, head to his Soundcloud page here.