Free mp3 of the week – Nina Sky

I don’t really know anything useful about Nina Sky, except that I really like this track – remixed by someone called Eli Escobar, you can grab a track called Day Dreaming completely for free from RCRD LBL here.

If you like that as much as I do, then have a poke around on the website and you’ll find more tracks featuring her as the vocalist.

Pet Shop Boys – Winner

On the eve of a new Pet Shop Boys album I thought it would be nice to spend a couple of weeks taking a closer look at their recent singles, so that’s what we’ll do. The first single from their last album Elysium was Winner. It was an odd choice, seemingly chosen because of the Olympics, but barely played once during the entire event.

As a track it’s good, but it’s probably fair to say that it isn’t great. Inspired, apparently, not by the Olympics, but by the Eurovision Song Contest, it’s very patriotic and flamboyant with a small f, but it isn’t entirely up to the lyrical standards with which we’re normally spoilt.

But any shortcomings of the a-side are more than made up for by the three bonus tracks. First up is A certain “Je ne sais quoi”, which is entirely up to the standard we’ve come to expect from Pet Shop Boys. It would have been good enough to go on the album, and probably would have fitted better than Winner, but let’s leave the artistic decisions to the experts.

Next up is The way through the woods, which Neil and Chris cleverly co-wrote with Rudyard Kipling. If you didn’t know this, as I didn’t at first, then you probably thought this track was extremely odd and out-of-place, which I don’t think was the intention. Armed with the knowledge, however, listening to this piece is a really interesting experience. Writing music to poetry isn’t something you come across very often, and I’ll raise my hat to Pet Shop Boys for this really rather good track. When the drums turn up towards the end and it gradually disappears, you realise there was something particularly special about it, and I’m envious of the Japanese fans, who got a shorter version tacked onto the end of the album.

It’s a trend which continues, as the final b-side is a cover of I started a joke by The Bee GeesPet Shop Boys‘ take on it is exceptionally good, another in a very long line of great cover versions. It’s got a lot of shades of Hit and Miss about it, but is none the worse for that, and it’s a very good song, which ends the CD single in style.

The remix package is rather less special. Producer Andrew Dawson‘s first take is a pleasant but slightly pointless dance version of the lead track, but the two that follow it, versions by John Dahlback and Niki & The Dove are lacklustre in the extreme.

This second package’s saving grace is the final track, the chilled out Extended HappySad Remix, also by Andrew Dawson. Many have said that it’s better even than the original version of Winner, and with its lush strings and gentle arpeggios it is tempting to wonder if that’s true. If you don’t bother with the rest of the remixes, you should definitely track this one down.

As a comeback single, Winner definitely had its disappointing side, but it also contained three great new bonus tracks and one very good remix, so it really wasn’t that bad at all.

If you missed it, you can read what I said about Elysium here. You can find all the pieces of Winner on iTunes here, and here. There’s also a CD version of the first package if that’s your preference.

Live – May 2013

Here are your highlights for the merrye month of May:

Portishead

Kicking off their tour next month with festivals in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Glastonbury in the UK, as well as a one-off date in Berlin.

Full list of dates at Songkick

The Prodigy

Just a very long list of festivals in Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, France, Hungary, Belgium and the UK, but they’re probably worth catching if you can.

Full list of dates at Songkick

Basement Jaxx

We seem to be concentrating on festival dates by acts out of the 1990s, so here’s another. The Jaxx (as I call them) can be found in Scotland, Croatia, Turkey, and England, with some one-off dates in London and Belfast.

Full list of dates at Songkick

Björk

Not so much touring as doing short residencies in California, followed by festivals in Tennessee, Ottawa, Ontario, Illinois, Japan, Taiwan, Ireland, and Germany.

Full list of dates at Songkick

Heaven 17

Appearing for a one-off in, of all places, Holmfirth, followed by a festival near London in August, and you also almost missed them in Sheffield and London with their B.E.F. hats on, but those dates have just been pushed back to October.

Full lists of dates at Songkick here and here

Camouflage – Sensor

Camouflage are a bit of an unusual band. Having spent the late 1980s treading in the footsteps of Depeche Mode and OMD and often having been quite a long way behind their forebears. But somewhere between those early releases and the 21st century, they matured into an extremely good group.

They still owe a lot to their influences, and I’d probably still group them into the surprisingly large number of German artists who want to be Depeche Mode, but that’s by no means a bad thing, as I think I’ve pointed out previously. They are clearly a group who has something to say for themselves, and really that’s all that matters.

The comparison with other acts is not unfair. Listen to their 2001 compilation Rewind (we will do here one of these days) and you hear recycled sounds of other artists every step of the way. Even 1995’s Spice Crackers struggles with its identity somewhat. But ten years ago this week, they returned from an eight year gap with their sixth studio album Sensor, and they really haven’t looked back since.

Sensor kicks off with Me and You, which still has very clear influences, and is very true to them, but is an excellently moody song nonetheless. There’s a slightly anthemic quality to the melody which is hard to resist.

The second track is Perfect by name and an extremely good song too – in fact, there is little to fault in the first half of the album. Harmful hints at Ultra levels of pain; while the catchy Here She Comes is gentle and sweet with a bleak, dark atmosphere which sounds nothing like the slightly daft pop of their earlier years.

It’s fair to say, then, that Camouflage had by 2003 matured into an extremely good group. Success outside Germany still largely deluded them – The Great Commandment had been a decent hit outside the English speaking world and had even made a bit of an impact in the USA, but that was as big as they had ever got. A shame really, because Sensor really deserved a bit more attention than it got.

I Can’t Feel You and particularly Lost are also strong tracks, although the latter contains one of their few moments of lapsed English (“feeling two foots tall”) which isn’t really a problem, but it does make you slightly question how much sense the lyrics are actually supposed to make.

From I’ll Follow Behind onwards, the album is a little less strong and a bit more variable. Blink is a particular highlight, with its brilliantly atmospheric analog synth backing, pulsing along. Even if I don’t know what a “receiver cone” is, the melody is rather brilliant too.

The first single from the album was the next track Thief, released a full four years before the rest of the record. It’s therefore tempting to put some trust in Wikipedia‘s [citation needed] claim that the album may have been recorded as early as 1998, but held back for some reason. Thief is not, strangely, among the strongest tracks in its album version – the original single version was much better.

It’s worth a mention for the curiously directed album cover, which shows the three band members as prints sitting on a bench in front of a mottled marble wall. It kind of works in its own way, but it’s tempting to suggest the photographer just said “oh, this will be an interesting photo.” The back cover is interesting, too, showing the band’s faces reflected in a puddle.

Together is another softer track with a strong production behind it, and the last track You Turn is an excellent closer (except for the hidden one that floats in afterwards). I’d suggest that there are probably too many tracks altogether – a couple of them are instrumentals, but fourteen is still a lot to deal with. But all in all, apart from a few niggling little flaws, Sensor is a pretty excellent album.

Sensor doesn’t appear to have made it onto iTunes, but you can buy it on CD via import in most parts of the world.

303

I noticed by chance a couple of weeks ago that I was about to hit my three hundred and third post on this blog, which isn’t a typical milestone, except for in the world of electronic music, where of course the number 303 makes us think of only one thing. And there’s really only one way to celebrate:

Eurovision Song Contest 2013

It’s a little bit tricky to know what to say about this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, as I haven’t actually seen it yet. To tell the truth, the chances are I’m unlikely to, as it’s not really the kind of thing you want to watch except on the night.

Anyway – here are a couple of highlights and observations. What were yours?

 

More than just fjords and rollmops

The Norwegian entry was performed by former Pop Idolstars Factor – The Rivals contestant Margaret Berger, who has been responsible for some great songs in the past, so inevitably it was going to be pretty good. It fought its way to fourth place:

 

Old Blighty

Despite their best efforts bringing back Bonnie TylerEngelbert Humperdinck and Blue from the dead, Britain still hasn’t been anywhere near the top for over a decade. They’ve even managed to finish in the bottom three an alarming number of times. This year Britain snuck a few points out of friends Malta and Ireland, as well as Spain, Romania, Sweden, Slovenia and Switzerland.

 

Trouble in the Caucasus

So what exactly happened in Azerbaijan? Did they really bribe people in Lithuania for their votes? Did a load of people really vote for Russia and then have their votes annulled? The suggestion seems to be that a number of very fishy things happened in the Caucasus this year, but you do have to wonder slightly how likely that is. Why would anybody go to that much effort to sabotage a song contest?

Well, they did manage second place in the end, so maybe.

 

Through Hell and high water

There are always suggestions of block voting. Russia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine all have plenty of neighbours, so by that argument it’s not surprising that they did so well again.

But it didn’t work so well for Armenia, Georgia, Estonia, or any of the other large countries languishing near the bottom of the table. They voted for one another, sure. But perhaps it’s got more to do with their cultures having a little more in common than some of the others.

And save a thought for France, who haven’t been anywhere near the top for a couple of decades now. None of their neighbours could be bothered voting for them. Although if they will insist on putting forward a song called Hell and Me, that may not be too surprising.

 

Returning to the top

Proof, perhaps, that your success isn’t solely dependent on your past performance. They haven’t been too close to a win for over a decade, and they even have to fight their way up through the semi-finals these days. This year’s winner came from Amelia of the Forest; the third ever win for Denmark:

B.E.F. – 1981-2011

It seems strange writing a review of something that in some cases is thirty years old, but this is a fully remastered reissue, and that’s how it has earned its place on these pages. Also, B.E.F., or the British Electric Foundation are back now with their third collection, which seems a good time to look back at what they did previously.

For the uninintiated, B.E.F. are pretty much the same people as Heaven 17, a side-project which came about around the time that The Human League imploded in 1980. They’re also responsible for the name of this very blog Music for stowaways, for reasons which are unlikely to ever become clear.

The beautiful box set 1981-2011 is pretty comprehensive, bringing together almost all of their output from the thirty year period. You get three CDs – Music of Quality and Distinction: Volume 1Music of Quality and Distinction: Volume 2; and a collection of oddities entitled Music from Stowaways to Dark.

The first disc consists of the original Music of Quality and Distinction: Volume 1 album (1981) and some bonus rarities. It opens with Ball of Confusion featuring Tina Turner. Apparently, the only safe place to live is on an Indian reservation. It’s one of the better tracks on the album, although I’m not the world’s biggest Tina Turner fan, and as with much of Heaven 17‘s work it hasn’t aged especially well.

The original Music of Quality and Distinction is an album which I’d probably consider important rather than actually good, and this is highlighted by some of its less enjoyable moments, such as Billy Mackenzie wailing all over the place on The Secret Life of Arabia and then again at the end on It’s Over, and Paula Yates making a total mess of the frankly awful These Boots Are Made for Walking.

The less dreadful moments are generally listenable, such as Paul Jones‘s version of There’s a Ghost in My House, although the sound is distinctly odd – I’ve not heard the un-remastered version, but listening to this version I don’t even want to think about how the previous CD releases must have sounded.

Spectacularly vomit-inducing is Gary Glitter‘s appearance on Suspicious Minds. Obviously we can’t just wipe him from history, but it is hard to listen to this without wandering how much money he’s just made from your purchase of the album. On the plus side, it’s largely unlistenable.

Side B of the original album sees a general upturn in quality, with Bernie Nolan‘s take of You Keep Me Hanging On and Sandie Shaw‘s pleasant version of Anyone Who Had a Heart. The high-points of the album, though, are both of Glenn Gregory‘s tracks. By the time this came out, he had already appeared as the vocalist on Heaven 17‘s debut album Penthouse and Pavement, and they were clearly rather more comfortable recording with him than with any of his contemporaries.

Wichita Lineman is a pleasant electronic-soul take on the original, with backing not unlike the Music for Stowaways cassette which had appeared the previous year, and Perfect Day, which must by law be included on all cover version albums, is a great version of a great song. The first volume is then closed out by seven “backing tracks” (largely instrumental versions, occasionally with a few changes here and there), which are often better than the originals without the intervention of the less good vocalists.

Having worked through all of that, the second volume of Music of Quality and Distinction is rather more of a pleasure to listen to. B.E.F. returned nearly ten years later in 1991 with Volume 2, which is this time tempered by the sounds of the early 90s, as you might expect. It opens with the brilliant Chaka Khan on an atmospheric take of Someday We’ll All Be Free, and this is smoothly followed by Lalah Hathaway performing Family Affair. The best track on Side A is Early on the Morning, performed by Richard Darbyshire, and this is followed by the distinctly better return of Billy Mackenzie for Free.

The second volume is not without its low points. It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding may have effectively launched the career of Terence Trent d’Arby, but it’s not great, and neither are A Song for You by Mavis Staples or Billy Preston‘s Try a Little Tenderness.

But for the most part, this is a pretty good album. In particular the moment halfway through I Don’t Know Why I Love You (vocals by Green Gartside) where it morphs into The Robots by Kraftwerk is pretty masterful. Tina Turner‘s return for A Change is Gonna Come is good too, as is Ghida de Palma‘s version of Feel Like Makin’ Love. The final track, Billy Preston‘s version of In My Life, is another of the best tracks on the album.

The bonus tracks for this album are equally pointless – you get a couple of acapella versions, an instrumental, an alternative version, and a version of I Don’t Know Why I Love You with a bit less of the electro middle eight. But in general the second volume is very strong.

The same cannot really be said for the third. Curiously titled Music from Stowaways to Dark, it essentially brings together the tracks from their early Music for Stowaways cassette with a couple of early demos from Volume 2 and the then-forthcoming Volume 3.

Unfortunately, much as I love the title and concept, the original Music for Stowaways is, frankly, pretty awful. Highlights are Wipe the Board Clean and The Old at Rest, as well as Honeymoon in New York which wasn’t on the cassette version, but the openers Optimum Chant and Uptown Apocalypse are dreadful, as is Rise of the EastGroove Thang, an alternative version of (We Don’t Need This) Fascist from Penthouse and Pavement, frankly just makes a mockery of the whole thing.

In fact, I’d possibly go as far as to say that the only good track on the album is the B.E.F. Ident which closes it. But then you get the three Work-in-Progress mixes which close the album – two apparently unfinished 1992 tracks, and one from the forthcoming album.

First up is Trade Winds, with a vocal by Mavis Staples, which is entirely pleasant, as is Co-Pilot to Pilot by Kelly Barnes, even if it does contain the word(s) “fiddle-dee-dee”, and the latter seems to have made such an impression on the artists that it now appears on the third full album Dark. Finally, you get an early version of Smalltown Boy starring Billie Godfrey, which is suitably excellent, and the box set is finally over.

Grab the CD or download version of the box set from Amazon if you’re in the UK or your local retailers if that’s where you’re at.

Did Depeche Mode ruin this year’s BRIT Awards?

A story which was bouncing around a month or two ago was that Depeche Mode had turned down an Outstanding Contribution award at the BRIT Awards 2013, saying variously “f*** them” or “b****ocks” depending on whom you believe.

It’s difficult to know what the truth of this story is. Certainly there wasn’t an Outstanding Contribution award this year, but could it really be true that the ceremony organisers wanted Depeche Mode to have it so much that they decided if they wouldn’t have it then neither would anyone else?

As far as I can make out, the story comes from an interview with UK tabloid The Sun, which quotes Dave Gahan as saying:

“Let me tell you a story. I will probably get someone in trouble, but we were told we were getting a new award this year. Most Influential Band In The Last 20 Years or something? Basically the old bastard, Lifetime Achievement Award — and we said, ‘Yes that’s cool.’
“Then we heard through the grapevine ITV wouldn’t broadcast our segment. So we said, ‘If they won’t play us on air, then we’re not going to be their most influential band.’
“How many other bands have had as many hits as us worldwide and been around for as long? F*** them then and b****cks to it.”

Unfortunately it’s a bit of a non-story, as that’s the total extent of the information we get. It was then relayed by NME (here) and various other outlets, but I couldn’t find any other information anywhere. You have to wonder slightly whether Dave Gahan was just letting off a bit of steam.

So did Depeche Mode really ruin this year’s BRIT Awards? No, of course they didn’t. But did they really turn down the Outstanding Contribution award? You decide. To make up for it, let’s watch Simon Mayo present them with the Best British Single award by proxy back in 1991: