Chart for stowaways – 3 May 2014

The top ten singles this week looks like this:

  1. William Orbit – Water from a Vine Leaf
  2. Pet Shop Boys – Flourescent
  3. Mike Oldfield – Sentinel
  4. The Grid – Heartbeat
  5. Dirty Vegas – Let the Night
  6. Sister Bliss feat. John Martyn – Deliver Me
  7. Röyksopp & Robyn – Do it Again
  8. Moby feat. Wayne Coyne – The Perfect Life
  9. B.E.F. – Party Fears Two
  10. Oi Va Voi – Dusty Road

Beginner’s guide to Pet Shop Boys

From a chance meeting in 1981 to an entire career of electronic pop – sometimes literary and academic, and other times just a touch camp. Pet Shop Boys have come to be extremely highly regarded by everyone who knows what they’re talking about as purveyors of exquisite pop.

Key moments

West End girls hitting the number one spot on its second attempt in 1985, and every single from their 1987 album Actually hitting the top ten. Or turning Always on My Mind into an energetic electronic number one. Or just missing the top spot with their cover of Go West in 1993. In short, there are rather too many to count.

Where to start

The 2003 compilation PopArt is the probably best of the three that they have released to date, collecting nearly all of their hits from the first twenty years, and only lacking a handful of recent hits. It isn’t in chronological order though, if you’re the sort of person who cares about these things.

What to buy

Move on to Very (1993) next, to hear them at the top of their pop game, and then jump back to fan favourite Behaviour (1990), which will introduce you to their more melancholic side. Finally jump right up to the present day with Electric (2013) and get ready to wave your hands in the air.

Don’t bother with

Initially, Nightlife (1999), Release (2002), or Fundamental (2005). Each has its moments, but you should work your way through the rest of their career before you get to these. The musical and ballet soundtracks Closer to Heaven (2001) and The Most Incredible Thing (2011) are probably for completists only.

Hidden treasure

Their other soundtrack, Battleship Potemkin (2005) is often overlooked but is worth hearing, as are the two b-side collections, Alternative (1995) and Format (2011), both of which are overflowing with fantastic hidden gems. And if you can find a copy of Relentless (1993) then you will be very well rewarded indeed.

For stowaways

New Order – Western Works

Another set of early New Order demos is Western Works, recorded in 1980. These are great quality recordings, taken directly from studio masters dating to September of that year, less than six months after Ian Curtis‘s suicide and the untimely end of Joy Division. The full story of the demos is related here.

The first two tracks are demo versions of Dreams Never End, one of the better tracks on New Order‘s debut album Movement (1981). While probably not among the band’s finest moments, both versions (with a quieter and then louder guitar part) are entirely listenable, and unlike some of the demos we’ve listened to previously, do show some promise.

Homage was, the last time we heard it, pretty awful, and the studio version isn’t an awful lot better either. It never got released officially, and perhaps that’s for the best – the chanted “in this room,” vocal is perhaps the track’s most redeeming factor, although the lyrics in general, when heard properly, turn out to be rather poignant and beautiful.

Ceremony didn’t make it onto an album either, but became a single in its own right in 1981. This demo version isn’t anywhere as good as the final release, but it is clearly one of the strongest on this collection. It started life as a Joy Division track, and is among the best of New Order‘s first couple of years, and it stands out even on this tape.

Next comes Truth, which would later appear on 1981’s Movement, and in this form starred what I can only assume is an early drum machine, and not a huge amount else. It’s raw, and it has promise, and it’s almost entirely unlike Joy Division, which was probably a good thing at the time.

The final track seems to be entitled Are You Ready Are You Ready Are You Ready for This? to which the obvious answer would be, “Sorry, could I have the question again?” Again, it mainly consists of some drum machine hi-hats, a PA-style vocal, and a few experimental electronic noises, and it’s every bit as bad as that sounds. And yet, for a band in the aftermath of their lead singer’s suicide, it’s also fascinatingly experimental, and really quite intriguing. Realistically it was never going to be released anywhere, but it’s also a truly fascinating listen – perhaps the most fascinating on this entire collection.

Saint Etienne – Tiger Bay

This week sees the twentieth anniversary of the release of Saint Etienne‘s third full album Tiger Bay. After the experimental electronic pop of Foxbase Alpha (1990) and So Tough (1992) and before the all-out sixties-flavoured pop of Good Humor (1998), it occupies an odd place in their discography. It includes three enormous hit singles, in the shape of Hug My Soul, Like a Motorway, and Pale Movie, and yet it was released a year and a bit too early to include the vastly more memorable He’s on the Phone, and also skipped the brilliantly festive I Was Born on Christmas Day.

The album opens, curiously, with the instrumental Urban Clearway, which is a great, uplifting track, but still a slightly strange track to open an album. It is followed by the acoustic, folk-tinged Former Lover, which – perhaps a little late – introduces the vocals of Sarah Cracknell to this release. At this stage she was still really only a guest vocalist who happened to be on all the singles, so she doesn’t turn up all that often on this album as a whole. But despite her appearance, this track isn’t Saint Etienne at their best, sadly.

Hug My Soul, however, is. It seems strange in a way that they would wait until the third track to unleash this one. The third single from the album, it was only a relatively minor hit, but is about as perfect a pop song as anyone ever could hope to record.

It is followed by the brilliantly dark Like a Motorway, in its full – nearly six minute – glory. Three albums on they may have been, but it’s probably fair to say that Saint Etienne were still finding their “sound” at this time, and this track is a wonderful deviation from anything they have done before or after, with its dim and slightly dirty synth bass backing. This may be pop, but it’s not quite pop as you ever knew it before.

Closing side A is the largely instrumental On the Shore, which features a surprise guest wail or two from Shara Nelson, and a fun slightly acid bass sound, alongside a very laid back instrumental flute-led track. It’s a very odd departure from their normal sound, but it’s very enjoyable nonetheless.

Marble Lions is closer to the traditional sound of Saint Etienne, with evocative lyrics about London and a catchy pop chorus. The production – largely just a vocal with a flanged guitar or two – makes for a slightly strange track when it’s listened to out of context, but the ingredients are all there.

Then comes the last of the singles, the exceptional Pale Movie. It’s uplifting, slightly Spanish in style, and entirely brilliant. It also deserved much greater acclaim than the number 28 peak which it scraped to on the charts. It is followed by a lovely instrumental in the form of Cool Kids of Death.

On the original release, Tankerville and Western Wind were confusingly presented as three different tracks, whereas the new reissue combines them all into one seven minute piece, which seems rather more logical. At each end, the traditional folk song Western Wind is a lovely piece, with the soaring strings and experimental electronics of the middle Tankerville section in between. Perhaps an odd combination, but a good one.

Finally, The Boy Scouts of America closes the album, again with some adventurous production which somehow doesn’t quite work. Cracknell’s vocal is accompanied by a warping electronic backing, and then strings and other instruments turn up for a crescendo between each verse. It’s an odd song, and a particularly strange choice of closing track, but it’s still fun.

Despite being released in the midst of a slew of exceptional singles, Tiger Bay still feels very much like a band trying to find its sound. Saint Etienne‘s experimental side is good, but somehow it just doesn’t feel like what they’re supposed to be doing. They also seem to have got the tracks in the wrong order, as the various international releases with entirely different tracks seemed to illustrate. But after four years of side projects, their comeback with Good Humor would entirely redress the balance.

The special edition reissue of Tiger Bay is still available second hand or as a download.

Ivor Novello Awards 2014

The 59th Ivor Novello Awards ceremony quietly took place on 22nd May at Grosvenor House in London.

PRS for Music Most Performed Work

Which is an oddly named award until you realise that “PRS for Music” is what the sponsoring organisation calls itself these days. Nominees:

  • Emeli Sandé – Clown (Shahid “Naughty Boy” Khan / Grant Mitchell / Emeli Sandé)
  • Passenger – Let Her Go (Mike Rosenberg)
  • Olly Murs feat. Flo Rida – Troublemaker (Claude Kelly / Oliver Murs / Steve Robson)

Winner: Passenger / Mike Rosenberg

The Ivors Classical Music Award

Winner: John McCabe

Best Television Soundtrack

Nominees:

  • Mr. Selfridge (Charlie Mole)
  • Ripper Street (Dominik Scherrer)
  • The Thirteenth Tale (Benjamin Wallfisch)

Winner: Charlie Mole for Ripper Street

Best Contemporary Song

Nominees:

  • Everything Everything – Kemosabe (Jonathan Higgs / Jeremy Pritchard / Alexander Robertshaw / Michael Spearman)
  • Disclosure feat. Sam Smith – Latch (Guy Lawrence / Howard Lawrence / James Napier / Sam Smith)
  • James Blake – Retrograde (James Blake)

Winner: James Blake

International Achievement

Winner: Mumford & Sons

Best Original Film Score

Nominees:

  • Captain Phillips (Henry Jackman)
  • Gravity (Steven Price)
  • The Epic of Everest (Simon Fisher Turner)

Winner: Simon Fisher Turner

The Ivors Inspiration Award

Winner: Jerry Dammers

Album Award

Nominees:

  • Arctic Monkeys – AM (Alex Turner)
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away (Nick Cave / Warren Ellis)
  • Laura Mvula – Sing to the Moon (Laura Mvula)

Winner: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

PRS for Music Outstanding Contribution to British Music

Winner: Jeff Beck

Best Song Musically and Lyrically

Nominees:

  • Palma Violets – Best of Friends (Will Doyle / Sam Fryer / Chilli Jesson / Pete Mayhew)
  • John Newman – Love Me Again (Steve Booker / John Newman)
  • London Grammar – Strong (Dominic Major / Hannah Reid / Daniel Rothman)

Winner: London Grammar

Songwriter of the Year

Winner: Tom Odell

Outstanding Song Collection

Winner: The Chemical Brothers

Lifetime Achievement

Winner: Christine McVie

PRS for Music Special International Award

Winner: Nile Rodgers

Visit the official Ivor Novello Awards website here, and you can see my summary of last year’s awards here.

The Postal Service – Give Up (Reissue)

In 2003, three members of different American rock groups worked together on a one-off project as The Postal Service. Unpredictably, the result was far from rock, although it might just about have scraped into the category that Americans call “alternative”. There was a certain charm to the dirty electronic sound which appeared, and it’s definitely an album worth owning.

The first track is the organ-driven The District Sleeps Alone Tonight, which is a strong opener, although it’s perhaps not the best piece on the album. From the beginning, you can hear that the influences are pretty unusual – the drumming and production in particular are quite unlike anything you’ll have come across elsewhere.

Next comes the lead single, the brilliant Such Great Heights. On the new remastered version of the album, it sounds fantastic – I’ve mentioned before that much as I loved this album, I could never quite get the hang of the sound on the original. The new version is totally different – the nasty overloaded grubbiness has gone, and for the first time it seems to be there in all the fidelity it deserves. And with its manic drumming and great melody, this song sounds every bit as fantastic as it should.

The acid nursery rhyme sound (yes, that’s a genre that I just invented) of Sleeping In is pretty compelling too, and while the song itself perhaps isn’t the strongest on the album, as a part of the greater whole, it fulfils its function perfectly. Then the duet Nothing Better is a bit odd too, but all the pieces fit together even so.

This album, Give Up, was relatively successful in the US, but only ever received a cult following elsewhere in the world, and so became a slightly surprising word-of-mouth success. A lot of potential fans seem to have dismissed it outright initially, while many others discovered it entirely by accident, and got a lot out of it.

The first half of the album closes with the lovely Recycled Air, full of soft and gentle charm, and a compelling description of air travel, which ultimately gives way to the less exciting Clark Gable, a slightly odd movie fantasy which takes place on the London Underground.

Then comes my favourite track on the album, the brilliant We Will Become Silhouettes. Quite what’s so good about it I’m not sure – I think there’s something rather special about the chord change in the chorus which just grabs me every time.

The rest of Give Up is less compelling – This Place is a Prison brings some entertaining drum work and some odd lyrics about trying to get a drink in this place. Brand New Colony has a nice 8-bit feel, but not a huge amount else, and Natural Anthem is just a bit noisy really. All very pleasant, but hardly Such Great Heights or We Will Become Silhouettes, and not even really a worthy trio to close the album.

The tenth anniversary special edition of Give Up also gets you a bonus disc, which is a slightly hit-or-miss collection, but includes some great b-sides and remixes, so is definitely worthwhile. Plus, as I mentioned before, the sound quality is infinitely better than the original, so if you’re only discovering The Postal Service for the first time now, this is definitely the version you should be hearing.

You can still find the double disc reissue of Give Up at all major retailers, such as here.