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: