1 Giant Leap – 1 Giant Leap

For me, the surprise hit of 2002 was 1 Giant Leap‘s debut album. Without warning, Jamie Catto, formerly of Faithless, and Duncan Bridgeman disappeared and travelled around the world, working variously with established western artists, stars of what I hesitatingly call “world music,” and less well known names, mixing together their vocals, instrumentation, atmosphere, and also (on the DVD, for this was also a “video album”) the visuals.

Being a mix of sounds from all over the world, it contains instruments and vocal styles that are almost totally alien to me, so I won’t try and describe the sound too much. But Dunya Salam, which opens the album, is gloriously atmospheric, with a deep synth sound, acoustic stylings, and what, if I had to guess, I would assume was a vocal from west Africa (having checked, Baaba Maal is indeed from Senegal).

The second track was also the first single, the brilliant My Culture, featuring vocals from Catto’s former band mate Maxi Jazz, and also Robbie Williams. The lyrics – particularly those delivered by Maxi Jazz – are typically expressive and evocative. With all the bits put together it somehow didn’t work too amazingly as a four minute pop song, but within the context of the album it works brilliantly.

“Only silence remains,” says the sample at the start of my favourite track The Way You Dream. The eastern stylings of the introduction gradually build over a few minutes into something very powerful. Without warning, it’s then Michael Stipe of R.E.M. who turns up to deliver the lead vocal.

I’m not sure I ever really appreciated quite how good a vocalist Stipe is, and he’s in extremely good company on this album. Also performing on this track, for example, is Asha Bhosle, as in Brimful of Asha, the 1997 hit from Cornershop. And the many other things which I should feel ashamed for not knowing her for.

If I had one criticism, it’s that all the geographical cross-mixing can make the album can feel a little disjointed in places. In the context of the “one world” theme of the album, the jump to Ma’ Africa is entirely logical, but the African gospel-style vocals of The Mahotella Queens could come as a bit of a surprise if you weren’t expecting it.

Next up is the second single, the slightly more complete but less catchy Braided Hair, with vocals from Speech and Neneh Cherry from off of the 1990s, which leads into the Maori sound of Ta Moko, with its incredibly moving spoken word introduction. Before you know it this has seamlessly passed the baton onto Bushes to kick off the second half of the album, and Baaba Maal is back with us again.

This is an album which definitely works best listened to in one go, without ever using the skip button, and while everyone will find quieter moments within it, the seventy minutes of music comes together to form something quite exceptional.

Bushes is possibly the darkest track on the album, with sudden unexpected industrial samples and moments of feedback, but in no way is it out of place. Passion, with its tropical conch-shell style percussion and a vocal from Michael Franti is excellent too, as it builds into a huge percussive crescendo. Daphne is tucked away a little unfair towards the end where you might forget it, but is great too.

Of the later tracks, All Alone (On Eilean Shona) is my personal favourite. Eilean Shona, the tiny tidal island on a Scottish loch, with its population of two somehow seems an entirely apt place to set this song. The vocals are fantastic, and the rather unexpected African vocal which turns up half way through does nothing to detract from the deep Celtic atmosphere. We are all of the same tribe, no matter what our background.

Racing Away features a welcome lead vocal appearance from the fantastic Horace Andy, and then already we’re onto the final track Ghosts. The vocal this time is performed by Eddi Reader, and finally, softly, gently, the album comes to a close in beautiful fashion, evoking the ghosts that haunt all of us. Sorry, I’m not sure why I suddenly went all philosophical there.

If, like me, you enjoy a bit of “world music” mixed with electronics, you’re going to get a lot out of this album. There’s really very little to criticise on here – every track brings something, even if it just adds to the general atmosphere.

Incidentally, the review above is for the album, because over a decade later I still haven’t got round to buying the video version yet – if I ever do, you will be able to read about it here.

You can find 1 Giant Leap at all major retailers as a CD or DVD. We previously reviewed the second album What About Me? here.

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August 2014 for stowaways

With summer fast approaching its peak, what lies in store for stowaways this month?

  • Our A-Z journey (let’s forget the fact that we skipped Q) through the first round of Beginner’s guides reaches the tail end of the alphabet, with W, X, Y and Z
  • We listen to oldies from Everything But The Girl, The Beloved, and more
  • Reviews of recent releases from Depeche Mode, Moby, and Röyksopp
  • We’ll take a listen to four more film soundtracks to complete the set for the time being
  • Plus all the usual charts, live highlights, previews, and you know the rest…

Goldfrapp – Tales of Us

I must confess, I do find it rather hard not to get very excited when I hear Goldfrapp have new material on its way. It’s true that the last time we heard from them was their totally lacklustre compilation The Singles (2012), and even prior to that, neither Head First (2010) nor Seventh Tree (2008) had really gone out of their way to blow the audience out of the water.

But when they’re good, they’re incredibly good, as their first three albums proved without a shadow of doubt. But could they reach those dizzy heights again, or were they forever condemned to churn out dull and unmemorable retro kitsch? Well yes they could, as it turned out, and no they weren’t. Tales of Us is quite exceptional.

The opening track is my personal favourite on the whole album, Jo. It’s really rather beautiful, full of pastoral charm and atmosphere. It’s driven primarily by an almost whispered vocal from Alison Goldfrapp, with gentle piano and string backing.

Annabel is another beautiful song, with bubbling guitar arpeggios and strings. Famously Alison started her career as an artist, and so it should be no surprise that Goldfrapp‘s speciality is a very strong line in concept albums, from the Alpine Felt Mountain (2000) to the electro-pop of Supernature (2005). On Tales of Us every track (except Stranger) is named after a person, and the gloriously rural mood makes the whole thing sound more like a small village than a pop album.

Drew opens with birdsong, before rippling its way into another beautiful acoustic track. As with the Goldfrapp of old, the lyrics are largely difficult to discern, and I’m not going to spoil the mood by looking them up – even so, the whole mood is beautifully evocative.

Ulla has a lovely choral vocal (something about caribou?) and a gently orchestral mood, but a less catchy chorus than some of the earlier tracks. Alvar – which is a pretty unusual name – has an odd darkness to it which is strangely compelling, and by the time it ends you’re half way through the album already.

The second half starts with the curiously chugging beats of Thea. The verses are a little drawn out, but they quickly build into a classic Goldfrapp chorus – catchy, slightly eccentric, and incredibly lovely. Likewise Simone, in which Alison tells us something about how “you’re insatiable,” has an incredibly sweet feeling to it.

Stranger, a melancholic love song for an unknown stranger, is incredibly evocative, and almost channels their 2000 debut single Lovely Head at times. This album really is a return to form in every sense of the term.

Laurel is simple and minimalist, driven solely by Alison’s vocal and a reverb-heavy piano. As the song goes on, strings and chimes appear, but the focus is simply on the cold and dark melancholy of the vocal. It’s truly beautiful.

The final song is Clay, although it’s difficult to know whether that’s the individual’s name or the material from which he was fashioned. After the sadness of some of the other tracks, this is positively jaunty, and while it’s still difficult to know what’s actually going on here without consulting the lyrics, it still closes off a very sweet album in appropriately lovely fashion.

It’s taken Goldfrapp nearly a decade and a half to get this close to the sound of their original album Felt Mountain, but it’s a welcome return. And finally we can say with confidence that wherever they take us next, it’s going to be pretty special.

There is a deluxe box set for Tales of Us, but I couldn’t work out how to justify the additional cost, so I’d advise just going for the standard edition from all major retailers.

Chart for stowaways – 31 May 2014

Here are this week’s top ten albums:

  1. William Orbit – Orbit Symphonic
  2. DARKSIDE (Nicholas Jaar) – Psychic
  3. Röyksopp & Robyn – Do It Again EP
  4. Moby – Innocents
  5. Röyksopp – Junior
  6. Dirty Vegas – Let the Night EP
  7. Enigma – MCMXC a.D.
  8. Tiga – Ciao!
  9. B.E.F. – Music of Quality & Distinction, Vol. 3 – Dark
  10. Komputer – Synthetik

Yes! That’s a new number one, finally!

Beginner’s guide to Utah Saints

You remember Utah Saints! They had all those hits back in the early 1990s! And then… OK, well they haven’t exactly released much in the last few years, but those first few singles were truly exceptional.

Key moments

Sampling Kate Bush for Something Good, or The Human League for Believe in Me. Utah Saints churned out hit after hit in the early 1990s, but their slightly off-beat style earned them something of a reputation as a bit of a novelty act. The second album started to earn them some brownie points, but then they disappeared again…

Where to start

There are only two albums to choose from, and which you prefer will depend on whether you lean more towards the 1990s or the 2000s. The first contains more hits, but the second is a more complete album.

What to buy

The eponymous Utah Saints (1993) includes all the singles you’ll remember from your childhood, whenever that was, while Two (2000) is an electronic masterpiece. Get both, throw in a few of the early singles, and you’ll have everything you need.

Don’t bother with

Most of the singles from after 1995 – there are a few highlights, but for the most part they’re just a tirade of fairly pointless remixes.

Hidden treasure

The early releases contain a number of key moments. Trance Atlantic Flight, on the b-side of Something Good is particularly good, and the non-album singles I Still Think of You and Ohio are both worth tracking down. Finally the Thunderbolt and Lightning edits of Lost Vagueness are both great.

For stowaways

Various Artists – The Next Best Thing

To be honest, it’s pretty common when I hear soundtrack albums that I haven’t actually seen the original film. And so it is with The Next Best Thing, a movie which probably has something to do with Madonna, and may or may not be any good.

What it does have is a pretty good soundtrack, kicking off with the fun – if largely incomprehensible – Boom Boom Ba by Métisse. When I say incomprehensible, I don’t mean because much of it is sung in what is presumably French – just that the vocal styles used on here are rather odd.

Of course, the same is true for Manu Chao‘s Bongo Bong, but its charming Latin stylings somehow never seem to grow tired. He may have spent most of his full albums going on and on about marijuana, but in edited form, he’s really rather good.

Madonna‘s hand never seems to be far away from this album, and so the poor grammar of Christina Aguilera‘s Don’t Make Me Love You (‘Til I’m Ready) is the first and only truly pointless inclusion on this album. Then Madonna turns up in person, with her widely derided cover version of American Pie.

Whatever you might think of it, you have to appreciate the production of William Orbit, which although perhaps a little formulaic by the time this album came out in 2000 is always a pleasure to hear. And frankly, if you’re not singing along by the time it reaches the chorus, then I’ll be very surprised indeed.

Mandalay may have very little to do with the Burmese city after which they name themselves, but This Life, which follows, is very good indeed. It’s an extremely sweet love song, which makes for a slightly odd contrast next to If Everybody Looked the Same, the 1999 hit single for Groove Armada. It’s at times like this that you find yourself wishing you had actually bothered to watch the film (OK, maybe not).

The narrative – of this album at least – seems to be a very simple one, as Moby turns up with Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad? sounding every bit as brilliant as it ever does, but bringing a touch of melancholy which continues into Olive‘s cover of I’m Not in Love, the one and only single from their not-entirely-successful second album Trickle, the story of which we should probably explore on this blog one of these days.

Another friend of William Orbit turns up next, with Beth Orton‘s exceptional Stars All Seem to Weep, brilliantly produced by Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl. Orton’s haunting vocal and the ethereal synth backing come together to make an absolutely perfect song here.

Next Madonna turns up again for the pleasant but ultimately rather dull and entirely forgettable Time Stood Still, before passing the baton onto Solar Twins for the ambient sound of Swayambhu. Finally, Gabriel Yared is brought in to close matters with the beautiful Forever and Always, and this album is already over.

So The Next Best Thing may – for all I now – be an awful film or a really good one, but its accompanying soundtrack album is definitely worth hearing. It’s a concise selection of just twelve songs, collected together to tell what seems to be a very simple love story, but which also makes a pretty good album.

You can still find the soundtrack to The Next Best Thing at all major retailers, including Amazon here.