Massive Attack – Collected

With a new Massive Attack album on the horizon and their compilation Collected celebrating its tenth anniversary this week, now seems an ideal time to look back at the first phase in the career of Bristol’s most legendary group.

Now with a history of nearly thirty years behind them, they had already been releasing albums for fifteen years by the time this compilation appeared, making it a solid and comprehensive collection of their singles from 1991 to 2006. It’s also very difficult to fault.

It opens with the exceptional Safe from Harm, their third or fourth single back in 1991, featuring a magnificent vocal from Shara Nelson. Although less successful in most markets than Unfinished Sympathy, it provided the group with their only US Dance hit, and is an entirely appropriate way to open this compilation.

The baton is passed smoothly to the brilliantly dark Karmacoma, this time with Tricky on vocals, the third single from the Protection album in 1995. There are those who would fault a non-linear compilation album, but if it’s compiled well, a clear narrative and listening experience can flow, and that’s definitely true here, as we move on to 1998’s deeply moving Angel, from their most successful album Mezzanine, with long-time collaborator Horace Andy.

Although it’s from the same album, this is a perfect counterpart to Teardrop, with Elizabeth Fraser‘s moving vocal. Always an exceptional vocalist, she is in her element here, delivering a curious but tactile lyric against the trippy electronic backing. Then comes Inertia Creeps, the final single from the same album, before Tracey Thorn turns up for one of her finest hours, the title track from 1994’s Protection, in its full seven minute glory.

This mixes across to our first taste of 2003’s 100th Window, the non-chart release Butterfly Caught. This was Massive Attack‘s darkest album to date, and this single is hardly joyful, but it has a grimy beauty which definitely allows it to earn its place here.

Definitely overdue by this stage is the iconic Unfinished Sympathy, and the only slight disappointment here is that they elected to include the album version – exceptional, but it’s already been on an album, whereas Nellee Hooper‘s single version is every bit as good, if not better, and has not. But it’s difficult to complain when the music is this good – their breakthrough hit from 1991, it definitely deserved considerably more attention than it ever got.

All that remains now is to pick up the leftovers – some of them substantial hits when they originally appeared, but mostly now better remembered as album tracks. Risingson is another gloriously dark piece, and then What Your Soul Sings with Sinéad O’Connor as the guest vocalist, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t actually a single, but fits rather nicely here nonetheless, followed by Future Proof and Five Man Army, which definitely weren’t singles.

Compilations rarely include particularly memorable packaging, and so this one is unusual – the double disc package is presented in a nice softback book, and the second disc, a collection of b-sides and rarities including the brilliant single False Flags, also turns out to be a DualDisc – flip it over, and you also get a DVD of all the videos.

There may be some surprising inclusions towards the end, and one particularly notable choice of version which you can question, but there’s nothing particular missing from here. Sinéad O’Connor‘s other guest vocal on Special Cases, which was also actually the only hit single from 100th Window is the only notable omission. Perhaps early singles Any Love or Daydreaming should have been on here, and personally I’d have loved to hear early EP track Home of the Whale again, but these are really very minor quibbles.

The last two tracks are Sly, which you had probably never noticed was in fact the first single from 1994’s Protection album, and then the exceptional Live with Me, with Terry Callier giving the group the best vocal performance of their entire career. If you’re ever unsure of how to close your compilation album, you should start taking notes from Massive Attack.

A triple disc version of Collected, with all the same material described above, is still available here.

Chart for stowaways – 27 February 2016

Let’s take a look at this week’s top ten albums, still with a profusion of Bowie, and rightly so…

  1. New Order – Music Complete
  2. Conjure One – Holoscenic
  3. Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine
  4. Roísín Murphy – Hairless Toys
  5. Little Boots – Working Girl
  6. David Bowie – Best of Bowie
  7. David Bowie – Nothing Has Changed
  8. David Bowie – Blackstar
  9. Leftfield – Alternative Light Source
  10. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts

Pet Shop Boys – Please

The culmination of a couple of years of getting their feet off the ground, Pet Shop Boys‘ debut album Please appeared this week thirty years ago. That is definitely cause for a celebration.

It opens with the curiously brilliant Two divided by zero, on which a sampled calculation error repeats itself throughout a hauntingly beautiful song about running away from home. In many ways it’s a very obvious way to open the album, and yet it always seems to come as a bit of a shock when you hear the drum intro and suddenly remember that it doesn’t start with West End girls.

That comes next, and is undeniably brilliant. Slightly longer and more spacious in its album form, it really sounds so good, so iconic. There aren’t many songs as good as this in existence – London’s underbelly is captured as dark and seedy, but ultimately beautiful and invigorating too.

When it was re-recorded in 1985 with Stephen HagueWest End girls shed its sillier side, and became much more atmospheric, and so it is fitting that Hague appears on the whole album. On Opportunities (Let’s make lots of money) though, he actually removed its darker side, turning it into a simpler pop song, which does it a lot of favours too. Somehow he seemed to instinctively know the right treatment for every song, and removing the “all the love that we had” coda was one of his better moves.

It would be difficult to argue that Love comes quickly is better, but it’s every bit as good. A disappointing chart hit, on the album it sounds so full of mournful energy that it’s difficult to ignore. This is not so true for Suburbia though – on this album, this is the one time that Hague let himself down a little, as the later single version proves. It’s still a good song in its album form, although it still suffers slightly from the overpowering samples that plagues all the versions, and the punchy bassline doesn’t quite seem right for the song.

The oddest moment on the whole album, which never actually appeared on the credits of the vinyl and cassette versions, is the thirty second reprise of Opportunities which opens Side B, before leading into the glorious Tonight is forever. It may not be single material, but it’s extremely good album fare, and sees Neil Tennant on particularly good vocal form.

Violence, famously reinvented at The Haçienda several years later, could so easily be vacuous and silly, but it isn’t – it’s haunting and beautiful. Its neighbour I want a lover fits perfectly too – if nothing else, this would be an exquisitely structured album, but that’s far from all that you can say for it.

Later Tonight is far from subtle, instead a strong and powerful statement full of emotional piano and pads. Perhaps inevitably, it fits perfectly, leading into the appropriately hoarse and euphoric Why don’t we live together?

For a debut album, Pet Shop Boys truly excelled themselves with Please, and the follow-up Actually, far from a difficult second album, managed to be better still. There are plenty of indications of longevity here, but it would have been difficult to predict just how important an album it might turn out to be.

At the time of writing, the definitive version of Please is the 2001 double CD reissue, which is only available second hand now. The single CD version is still worth having.

Preview – Andy Bell

Andy Bell is back with his follow-up to Torsten the Bareback Saint, entitled Torsten the Beautiful Libertine. If you haven’t been paying attention, that’s his latest solo project, and yields this spectacularly low-budget video for My Precious One:

Chart for stowaways – 20 February 2016

Here are the top ten singles this week:

  1. Massive Attack – Ritual Spirit EP
  2. Pet Shop Boys – Inner Sanctum
  3. Goldfrapp – Stranger
  4. Pet Shop Boys – The Pop Kids
  5. Conjure One feat. Hannah Ray – Kill the Fear
  6. New Order feat. Elly Jackson – Tutti Frutti
  7. Roísín Murphy – Exploitation
  8. Massive Attack, Tricky & 3D – Take it There
  9. The Human League – Don’t You Want Me
  10. Roísín Murphy -Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt)