Beginner’s guide to Ladytron

If you only ever watch the top forty, you won’t have come across Ladytron before, because they have never actually been there. But quietly, in the background, they have been around for fifteen years, producing dark and slightly subversive electronic pop music.

Key moments

Their only truly commercial release, Witching Hour (2005), with its exceptional singles Destroy Everything You Touch and Sugar. And probably those remixes that they did of your other favourite artists, such as Dave Gahan, Goldfrapp, Kings of Convenience, and plenty of others.

Where to start

Skip their 2010 best of album and jump directly to the high point of their career, Light and Magic (2002). Give it a bit of time, as it may not be the easiest album to listen to initially.

What to buy

Roll back to 2001 for their brilliant debut 604, then Velocifero (2008), and then Gravity the Seducer (2011), and you’ll have nearly everything you need.

Don’t bother with

Any of the singles – even the occasional b-side is not worth the bother, and the remixes are rarely of any interest. Each album has an accompanying Remixed and Rare collection, but these are really only of interest to absolute completists. And surprisingly, unless I was just very unlucky, they turn out not to be very good live.

Hidden treasure

The patchy Witching Hour (2005) includes a couple of exceptional singles. Tender Talons, a bonus track from the Extended Play mini-album (2006), is an unexpected pleasure.

For stowaways

The Future Sound of London – Lifeforms

Sadly forgotten by many, this week marks the twentieth anniversary of a groundbreaking piece of ambient music. The Future Sound of London‘s second full album (if you don’t count the Tales of Ephidrina side project from the previous year) was entirely unlike the first, and was truly exceptional.

It opens with the electronic chirrups and chirps of the exceptional Cascade, previously reviewed in its full forty minute form here. In an era when electronic music was only just becoming the norm, FSOL essentially threw all the rules out of the window and created a beautiful, ethereal sound, in a way that nobody else ever quite had before. There had been plenty of attempts, but Lifeforms succeeds in ways that their predecessors had only dreamed.

With just over ninety minutes of ambient music, this double album seems to weave its way, dreamlike, from jungle to ocean on some far flung alien world. Ill Flower washes its way into Flak and then Bird Wings, each bringing slightly different elements to the fore.

The rippling piano arpeggio of Dead Skin Cells seems to mark a change – after four tracks the album is beyond its introductory phase, and we’re ready for something a bit more familiar. Still heavily washed by otherworldly soundscapes, the piano and drums seem to gently guide us on a path towards civilisation.

Which, by the time of the title track Lifeforms, we have very clearly reached. The human voices and huge pad sounds are joyous, uplifting, and part of a quite wonderful piece of music. This mixes into Eggshell, with its melodic percussive sounds and bizarre warped electronic wizardry. Finally, the first half of the album closes with the slightly disturbing beauty of Among Myselves.

The science fiction theme of Lifeforms becomes altogether more sinister with the second disc. It’s a little more abstract and less melodic, so it may require a little patience at times, but having set the mood with the first disc, you should be ready for it by now. After the brief but strangely very familiar introduction Domain comes the exquisite and entirely disturbing Spineless Jelly.

It is difficult to talk about Lifeforms in the past tense – in many ways it sounds every bit as contemporary as it ever did. That is to say, not very – the otherworldly qualities of it somehow place it entirely outside time.

The middle part of the second disc is entirely ambient, with the quirky electronic infrastructure of Interstat mixing into the very gentle panpipe sounds of Vertical Pig. Then Cerebral introduces a bizarre processed guitar sound. Life Form Ends channels the earlier title track, but this time with added warped technological backing amongst the tribal chanting.

Vit brings things very much back to earth, with a touch of feedback, a lot of 303 acid noises, and some very familiar sounds – was that a cow sample? Perhaps this weird alien world has some kind of synthesised earth captured within it? Or maybe it is earth after all? Or maybe it would help not to think too hard at this point.

There’s something particularly compelling about Omnipresence, as it brings together many of the themes that we’ve enjoyed over the previous hour or so of music. This is, for better or for worse, a long album, and the reminder of quite how brilliant it has been is very welcome. The three tracks which follow – Room 209, with its retro bass stylings, Elaborate Burn, and the brilliantly titled Little Brother wind things down to a very gentle close.

So Lifeforms is an album which can be enjoyed on many levels – within the music are hidden depths and ingenious plot twists, but beyond that, if you have a little imagination, lurks a compelling science fiction story which is every bit as good as any Hollywood movie.

For some reason Lifeforms does not seem to be available directly from the FSOL website, but you can find it at other download stores instead. You can also read the Beginner’s guide to The Future Sound of London here.

Saint Etienne – Casino Classics (Reissue)

Casino Classics had an odd genesis, as albums go – originally released as the limited edition bonus disc for Saint Etienne‘s 1995 singles collection Too Young to Die, it was then reissued a year later with a second disc of its own, and was a pretty comprehensive collection of the remixes of the first few years of their career.

Now it’s back, as a two-disc or four-disc special edition, with a bonus collection of download remixes too. Each with a completely different track listing from either of the original remixes, attempting to bring together the best mixes from the entirety of Saint Etienne‘s career to date. Let’s take a listen to the new two-disc version.

Unfortunately, things have got a bit confused. All the tracks have been shuffled around from the original release, but some of them have also gained bits from their previous neighbours. I’m not as familiar with these as I ought to be, but Andrew Weatherall‘s Mix of Two Halves version of Only Love Can Break Your Heart has stolen about fifteen seconds from somewhere; I think at the start. It’s still a good mix, fascinatingly almost entirely unlike the original in the style of a mix from the late nineties until the second half, when some slightly dubby pieces of the original start to turn up.

But even in two disc form, this is an enormous collection, so I need to cut myself short here, otherwise I won’t be able to mention The Chemical Brothers‘ quite fascinating version of Like a Motorway or The Aloof‘s take on Speedwell.

But honestly nothing on disc one really blows me away particularly. Highlights include Peter Heller‘s charming Midsummer Madness mix of Kiss and Make Up, Monkey Mafia‘s remix of Filthy, and Gordon King‘s lovely – if ultimately rather dated – take on Avenue. Aphex Twin‘s version of Who Do You Think You Are? still leaves me a little underwhelmed, even a couple of decades on.

Towards the end of disc one comes Underworld‘s sweet and mellow version of Cool Kids of Death, and then right at the end is Hug My Soul, remixed by Sure is Pure. Both have lost a little of their duration to other tracks, but together they close the disc in rather good fashion. But on the whole, this disc leaves me feeling that a bit of editing might be beneficial – there are three tracks approaching the ten minute mark and nothing under five, and while the musical merit of many of them shouldn’t be doubted, some do drag a little.

Disc two kicks off on fine – if even longer – form, with David Holmes‘s thirteen minute dark acid version of Like a Motorway. Then comes a blast from the past, in every sense, with Motiv8‘s extended version of He’s on the Phone. Ultimately I’m no fan of Motiv8 – in fact I think his habit in the mid-90s of churning out the same mix again and again for everybody who was anybody was more than a little irritating. But there was a reason why his formula was successful – it was actually pretty good – and I think He’s on the Phone is probably the best of his series of identikit mixes.

We then get PFM‘s frantic drum and bass version of The Sea, followed by a couple of dull mixes of Angel and Sylvie, before Paul van Dyk‘s great version of How We Used to Live. Then finally, as things always should with Saint Etienne, they take a turn for the brilliant with Hybrid‘s remix of the brilliant Boy is Crying. It may be seventeen tracks into the album, but it does feel a little as though everything was leading to this.

Having persevered through two hours of overlong and often dated fare, all the good stuff seems to be clumped up at the end – you get Two Lone Swordsmen‘s brilliant version of Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi), and then Mark Brown‘s truly exceptional extended single version of Burnt Out Car. The closing track sees Richard X extending his own Method of Modern Love and making it a little less good than the single version, but it’s still pretty special, and really not a bad way of closing the album.

If you go for the four disc version, disc three is distinctly patchy, while disc four features some incredibly good moments, but you’ll be pretty exhausted by the time you make it there. There’s also a bonus disc’s worth of downloads too, which include a couple of forgotten gems, so it is a good collection all round.

Casino Classics is an odd remaster though, and it is a little patchy in places, so I maybe wouldn’t advise first time Saint Etienne listeners to bother with it. As a collection of remixes from one of the most important pop acts of the last couple of decades though, it’s pretty good.

The version of Casino Classics we’ve just listened to is this one, but if it’s still available and your pocket is feeling a little heavy, you could just go with the four disc version, which boasts twice as much music and some lovely DVD sized packaging. Don’t forget the bonus download disc either!

Preview – Róisín Murphy

Roísín Murphy is back with what seems to be an EP of cover versions in Italian, Mi Senti. Which is a slightly odd concept for the Irish singer formerly of Moloko, but why not? It’s not quite in the style of her brilliant 2007 album Overpowered, but it’s still very good.

I couldn’t find any official videos, but this one for Ancora Tu is pretty appropriate:

Chart for stowaways – 29 March 2014

After a bit of a break while the album chart went a bit bonkers, it’s time for its return. It’s not a lot less bonkers:

  1. Moby – Innocents
  2. B.E.F. – Music of Quality & Distinction, Vol. 3: Dark
  3. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Organisation
  4. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Architecture and Morality
  5. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
  6. Chicane – The Best of 1996-2008
  7. De La Soul – AOI: Bionix
  8. Deep Forest – Deep Forest
  9. Enigma – The Screen Behind the Mirror
  10. The Clarke and Ware Experiment – Pretentious

Beginner’s guide to Kraftwerk

The most important musicians to come out of Düsseldorf, Kraftwerk really only spent about fifteen years inventing electronic music – the last couple of decades seem to have mostly involved remastering, re-recording, performing live, taking long bike rides, and probably sitting around not doing much. Which probably makes them sound a lot less essential than they are.

Key moments

The UK number one The Model, which finally reached the top spot in 1981, three years after its original release; the gargantuan Autobahn (1974); their theme to Tour de France (1983); or perhaps just that time they invented the entirety of modern electronic music.

Where to start

Perhaps wisely, they have never released a proper ‘best of’. If you’re interested in finding out the roots of modern electronic music, start with Trans Europa Express (1977). If you want something a little more contemporary, try The Mix (1991).

What to buy

Make sure you get the German versions rather than the English versions. After the two albums I mentioned above, go with Die Mensch-Maschine (The Man Machine, 1978), and then Computerwelt (Computer World, 1981). Autobahn (1974) and Radio-Aktivität (Radio-Activity, 1975) are both essential too, but take things one thing at a time. Alternatively, just to stock up with the Der Katalog collection (2009) and get all the main albums in one go.

Don’t bother with

Most of their pre-Autobahn output, unless you’re ready for a history lesson in early 1970s avant-garde electronic music. Most of the singles just contain slightly pointless edits, although some of the remixes are of interest, particularly those by François Kevorkian.

Hidden treasure

The 1999 single Expo 2000 was largely forgettable except for the excellent 2002 remix, and some of the remixes of Aérodynamik are pretty essential too. The 2005 live album Minimum Maximum is great too, but probably wouldn’t be the best release for first timers.

For stowaways

Client – Zerox Machine

Let’s once again pick up a feature I accidentally invented a while back, which I considered calling the Random Jukebox. Basically I get iTunes to help me randomly select something, and then show you the video. No daft theme, no particular desire to hear it on my part – just something interesting.

This week, it gave me one of the few good tracks on Client‘s Heartland album, Zerox Machine:

Moby – Play

If there was ever an album which appeared in more films, television shows, and adverts than this one, then I don’t know what it was. Cue screams of “sell out!”

It would probably be fair to say, though, that Play would never have been much of a success if it hadn’t have been for all the promotion – the soundtrack slots, or the eight singles. Over the course of two and a half years, the charts belonged to Moby. Now, exactly fifteen years after the album’s original release, it’s time to see whether it’s still as good as it seemed at the time.

The thing is, Play is very, very good. It kicks off with a bit of drama in the form of lead single Honey, blending old gospel vocals with energetic piano backing. Apart from the high pad strings, this was almost all new territory for Moby. For Belgian-only single Find My Baby, the piano is replaced by a guitar and bass riff, but the vocal is equally repetitive, while the backing builds its way through verses and choruses.

The huge single Porcelain is next, with a full vocal delivered by Moby and a whole load of pads and piano sounds. It’s almost tempting to wonder how exactly this was such a big hit – but it does seem to have a particular magic about it.

Piano chords then mark the opening of the brilliant Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad? It almost feels dated now – not because there’s anything particularly to age it in its sounds, but just because it was such a key soundtrack of its era. That’s OK though – it really is quite brilliant.

Next comes South Side, only released as a single in the US – perhaps correctly, because it does feel as though it belongs in Moby‘s then hometown of New York. I wonder how many non-Americans would cite this as one of the more memorable tracks on the album?

There’s then a brief chillout moment in the shape of the inappropriately named Rushing, before second single Bodyrock turns up, a quite brilliant hybrid of electronic hip hop with a flanged guitar effect running all the way through. Closing the first disc of the eighteen track double-album vinyl version is the brilliant single Natural Blues.

The second half of the album kicks off with Machete, channelling somewhat Moby‘s earlier dance-meets-chillout sound. But in general, the latter tracks on Play are much gentler and more laid back than the earlier ones. 7 is just a very nice bit of noodling, and then the early single Run On, while totally brilliant – possibly even my favourite track on the album, with its quirky styling – is very gentle indeed.

There’s something quite ethereal, as the short, soft music floats past you – Down Slow becomes the slightly urban flavour of If Things Were Perfect, which rolls into the acoustic sound of Everloving. Track by track, things seem to slow down further. The suave sound of Inside, and then comes Guitar, Flute and String, where the title really says it all. Then The Sky is Broken, with its lovely spoken vocal, and you should probably be asleep by this stage.

Finally comes My Weakness, one of the best closing tracks on any album. If you wanted to break it down, you could probably argue that it’s just some strings and sampled chanting, but somehow it’s also uplifting, beautiful, and entirely representative of the album as a whole.

Play turned Moby‘s career around, and in a couple of years he from being largely viewed as an eccentric nineties dance star to becoming a widely recognised and admired musician. It’s a fantastic album even now, fifteen years on, and should have a place in every music collection.

If you’re in the right part of the world, the best deal for Play is at iTunes, where you get a copy of the excellent Play: The B-Sides thrown in for free.