Utah Saints – Two

The seven-year gap between Utah Saints (reviewed previously here) and Two (2000) must have seemed interminable to Utah Saints fans at the time, although it pales into insignificance when compared to the fifteen-year gap which has come since. But in those seven years of one-off singles, Leeds-based Utah Saints managed to find a mature sound which failed to make much of an impact on the charts, but was excellent nonetheless.

Their second album (they clearly struggle with names), Two opens with a gentle piece called Sun before launching into the lively Power to the Beats, the third single from the album. It’s a good place to start, sounding not entirely unlike the Utah Saints hits of the early 1990s, although without the samples that made them so famous. It wasn’t a hit, although that was partly because the CD wasn’t eligible for the UK charts.

First single Love Song comes next, with its enormous pounding beats. It’s a great track, but the record buying public of 2000 clearly wasn’t too bothered, as it barely scraped into the top forty. Which is a shame – it may not have the catchy charm of What Can You Do for Me or Believe in Me, but it’s far from bad.

Final single Lost Vagueness is one of the best tracks on here, but was entirely overlooked on its release the following year. Chrissie Hynde‘s weirdly synthesised vocals mix wonderfully with the almost symphonic backing. It’s great, but in the context of this album it forms a part of something even stronger.

This was, perhaps, the problem with Two – commercial success tends to come from singles, and whereas Utah Saints had plenty, Two is a more coherent, and much more complete release. Few tracks stand out, because the general level of quality is so high across the board.

As a fun deviation, Michael Stipe from R.E.M. turns up on a number of tracks, including Punk Club, which samples him largely listing cities in the US, which makes for an odd track, but sounds great nonetheless.

More of that later, but for now the album’s one hit single Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On, which sees Chuck D singing over an enormous driving industrial dance beat. Although actually, apart from the vocal, there isn’t a lot to this track, so you could be forgiven for not being too keen. Again, in the album context, it fits very nicely indeed.

The pleasant didgeridoo-fashioned instrumental Massive follows next, and then another Stipe conversation in the form of the brilliant Rhinoceros. This must be as filmic as music can really be, with its silent movie-style piano backing, and the farcical story (Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On) told in the vocals. Truly brilliant.

This mixes into the lovely, deep and gentle Morning Sun, before they flirt again with their rave roots on Sick, which surely must have been considered as a single at one point. But with the later tracks on the album it’s easy to just slip into the music, and enjoy the way it all fits together – B777 drifts into Techknowledgy and the lovely Three Simple Words, and suddenly closing track Wiggedy Wack is upon you.

Two is a great second album – definitely better than its predecessor – but the last fifteen years have not been kind to it. Not because it’s dated in the slightest, but just that everybody has long since forgotten about it. But it’s long overdue another listen, and as soon as you pick it up again, you’ll realise it’s pretty amazing.

You can still find Two at your local high street record shop.

Random jukebox – Faithless

Amazingly I can’t find the original video anywhere, but this will do nicely – live at Glastonbury 2002, this is the legendary Faithless, with the legendary Insomnia:

Pet Shop Boys – Behaviour

This week sees the 25th anniversary of one of the most important and exquisite albums of the early 1990s. If you’re not a fan, you might not even have come across Behaviour – it was the least successful of their early releases. But ask anyone who knows them well, and they will tell you that this is one of Pet Shop Boys‘ finest moments.

It begins with the very soft introduction to Being boring, among many other things a poignant reminder of Christmases long ago. An unlikely festive hit, it struggled its way into the bottom end of the top twenty, and continued to slide around the lower reaches of the chart for the next couple of months.

Over the two minutes or so that it takes for the vocal to turn up, you really know everything you need to about this album. Whereas Pet Shop Boys‘ previous release Introspective (1988) had been a six track collection of extended dance mixes, this time around you would meet a cavalcade of string arrangements, synth pads, and joyous, melancholic lyrics.

Proceedings take a darker turn with This must be the place I waited years to leave, which sees singer Neil Tennant transported back to his school days in a dream. While the rare nine minute extended version has even more atmosphere, even on this shorter version the analogue synth and vocoder lines lend it a particularly mournful tone – Pet Shop Boys travelled to Germany to record much of this album with synth legend Harold Faltermeyer, which gives it a unique sound.

The quietest moment yet comes with To face the truth, which sees Tennant giving an extremely unusual vocal performance while Chris Lowe could almost be playing his pad section live. With its simplicity and understated vocals, it’s an almost unique song in Pet Shop Boys‘ back catalogue.

In a perfect transition, the uptempo How can you expect to be taken seriously? comes next. Much has been written about this song, knowingly contemplating who the subject might be, which we won’t touch on here – let’s just say it’s a satire on fame, fortune, and charity. Ultimately released as a double a-side single with hordes of creative remixes in the extravagantly named Where the Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You) / How can you expect to be taken seriously? package, the years that have followed have seen it largely forgotten, and sadly so.

Closing Side A is the lovely piano-driven piece Only the wind, which could only really be improved by being its Nightlife Tour version as found on the Montage DVD (2001), which is worth braving the unwatchable visuals to hear a hugely atmospheric remix. The original Behaviour version is still worthy of your attention, a lovely song which reminds you ever so slightly of the British obsession with the weather.

Side B opens with the haunting My October symphony, apparently the song that inspired November Rain. In spite of the vaguely Soviet sounding introduction and the repeated nods to the October Revolution, the lyrics reveal little directly about its deeper meaning, leaving much to your own interpretation. As it should be. But I’m tempted to wonder whether Tennant is questioning his socialist teenage self, and asking him to reinterpret his feelings about the revolution.

So hard is next, the lead single, with its enormous analogue synth backing. This was the era when digital synthesis was at its height, and Pet Shop Boys were, as always, to be found doing entirely the opposite. Commercially, they may have suffered, but their place in history was assured by this album.

Nervously seems to split listeners, depending on the degree to which they identify with the lyric. It’s probably autobiographical, with Tennant telling us how nervous he was as a teenager, learning about the excitement of the adult world without ever getting very close to it. If you do identify with it, it will no doubt mean a lot to you, but for me it’s always been a little dreary, and by far the least interesting song on here.

After that, you can’t help but see The end of the world as filler, and while it is a little vacuous compared to some of its neighbours, in the broader context of the album, Tennant is telling us about his teenage self learning that relationships come and go.

By the end of Behaviour, we’ve grown into adults, and so it’s time for one of the three songs from Pet Shop Boysoriginal 1983 demo. There, it was called Dead of Night, and was accompanied by two largely awful songs. Here, Jealousy is rounding off an exquisite album in appropriately grand fashion. Disappointingly, the strings on the original album version are from synthesisers, but even so, the middle section drops the listener into the centre of an enormous orchestra, with rippling harps and huge brass instruments.

Although it was released late in 1990, Behaviour really closes the first decade of Pet Shop Boys albums, the singles from which are collected so beautifully on Discography (1991). The era of deep and wistful introspection was over – next would come the computer age, with its bright lights, computer graphics, and Lego CD cases.

If you can still find the double CD version of Behaviour, paired with Further Listening 1990-1991, definitely go with that. If not, the regular version is available here.

Preview – Dave Gahan & Soulsavers

Soulsavers‘ last album, 2012’s The Light the Dead See came as something of a surprise, by (a) being fantastic, and (b) featuring Dave Gahan as vocalist on every track except the opening instrumental. Now they’re back, and Gahan gets a full credit, for Angels & Ghosts. This is All of This and Nothing:

Preview – Tracey Thorn

Tracey Thorn‘s solo material seems to have had its ups and downs, but when it’s up, it’s definitely up. This week sees her first solo compilation, creatively called Solo: Songs and Collaborations 1982-2015, which includes material from all of her solo projects before, during, and after she joined Ben Watt and became Everything But The Girl. There’s a nice array of collaborations too, most famously including Massive Attack, but also Adam F and The Style Council, among others.

As a taster, here’s a live version of Why Does the Wind?

Chart for stowaways – 10 October 2015

Here’s the latest singles chart. Let’s welcome New Order for a long stay back on the charts!

  1. Little Boots – Working Girl
  2. The Future Sound of London – Point of Departure
  3. New Order – Restless
  4. Jean-Michel Jarre – Remix EP (I)
  5. Jean-Michel Jarre & Tangerine Dream – Zero Gravity
  6. Everything But The Girl – Before Today
  7. Marsheaux – See You
  8. New Order feat. Elly Jackson – Plastic
  9. Little Boots – Better in the Morning
  10. Sarah Cracknell – Nothing Left to Talk About

Depeche Mode – Playing the Angel

In a way you have to respect Depeche Mode for not making things too easy for their listeners – after the gentle electronic blips and blops of Exciter (2001), the noisy start to Playing the Angel (2005) must have come as a surprise to many. But in the light of Sounds of the Universe (2009) and Delta Machine (2013), you could be forgiven for thinking Playing the Angel might be the last of the great Depeche Mode albums.

Released ten years ago this week – so exactly two decades after The Singles 81-85, there is little recognisable from the group who sang Just Can’t Get Enough a couple of decades earlier. Yet at the same time, A Pain That I’m Used To, the first track on the album and second single, is another classic piece of Depeche Mode, with its catchy melody and clever lyrics.

John the Revelator pushes the boundaries somewhat with its slightly daft rhymes (it doesn’t use “escalator”, “imitator”, “Rotavator”, or many of the other options), but interestingly seems to take heavy inspiration from a 1930s gospel blues song, which makes for an interesting mix.

By 2005, Dave Gahan had just unleashed his first solo album Paper Monsters (2003), and his songwriting on Playing the Angel makes for a welcome diversion, as final single Suffer Well turns out to be every bit as good as anything else on here, and the echoes of regular songwriter Martin L. Gore‘s works are very clear. Gore does have a fairly limited range of subjects in his songs, though, as The Sinner in Me demonstrates.

Every so often, though, Depeche Mode come up with something quite extraordinary, and Precious is exactly that. It’s a quiet, understated track by their standards, but it’s a beautifully pulsing piece of music, which really should have been a much larger hit than it was.

So Playing the Angel continues, with the curious Macro giving way to another Gahan-penned piece I Want it All, and then the lovely Nothing’s Impossible, the third and last of Gahan’s works on here. The dark-yet-positive lyric and melancholic delivery make for an exceptional combination. As I said at the start, Depeche Mode always challenge their listeners, and the sound of fans criticising their latest release is a common one, but I suspect most would agree that this album has matured into one of their best.

Then comes Introspectre, one of the trademark short instrumentals that many complained was missing from Delta Machine, mixing into Damaged People, with Martin L. Gore turning up as lead vocalist for just the second time on here (Macro was the first). Despite only being a three-piece (and bearing in mind that nobody ever seems to have entirely established what Andrew Fletcher‘s role in the group is), their switching of songwriters and vocalists makes for a varied mix of output, and therefore can only be applauded.

This leaves just two more songs – the other half of the double a-side single with John the RevelatorLilian, which on the album could easily be missed, but it provides a welcome uptempo moment in the latter stages of the release. Then finally the lovely The Darkest Star, a crescendo which brings the album to a close beautifully.

After two and a half decades of making music, it’s impressive to think that Depeche Mode were still capable of creating an album that was this strong. There aren’t many acts who can make a claim like that.

You can still find Playing the Angel at all major retailers.