Chart for stowaways – 26 March 2016

Here are the top albums this week…

  1. New Order – Music Complete
  2. Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine
  3. Conjure One – Holoscenic
  4. Róisín Murphy – Hairless Toys
  5. Little Boots – Working Girl
  6. David Bowie – Best of Bowie
  7. Leftfield – Alternative Light Source
  8. David Bowie – Nothing Has Changed
  9. David Bowie – Blackstar
  10. David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
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Vinyl Moments – The Human League – 1980-1981

Last week’s vinyl moment ended with Heart, which provides us an opportunity to cross over to The Human League and listen to Open Your Heart, from their 1981 album Dare, which we listened to here in its entirety a long time ago.

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This era of The Human League provides some interesting opportunities, but I’ve started with the Holiday 80 EP. Exactly where it belongs chronologically is a matter of some debate, but it almost certainly doesn’t belong here – most of it was recorded around 1980, but it was reissued as a reminder of their earlier times in 1981.

The single actually includes an exclusive track, a version of Marianne, but it’s nothing particularly special, whereas Being Boiled definitely is, even in the less atmospheric Travelogue version which appears here.

Open Your Heart should probably next, but in my infinite wisdom, not having heard it for a while, I flip straight to Side B for Non-Stop. That turns out to be a bit of a mistake – it’s cheesy in the extreme. I can’t help but feel rather glad when it ended, as it gives me the opportunity to move on to Love Action (I Believe in Love).

Chronologically, this should have come earlier actually – I got a bit confused. My version is the 12″, which mixes from Hard Times into the title track over the course of ten minutes or so.

This turns out to be a particularly well scratched 12″ single (in fact, it almost looks intentional) so what should have been ten minutes is inevitably rather shorter. Both Hard Times and Love Action are good songs though, and the longer track did at least give me the chance to sit down and gather my thoughts.

It’s strange in retrospect to think that this was the second single from the album, giving them not only their first top ten hit, but also a top three smash. Don’t You Want Me, which we think of now as their definitive hit, wouldn’t appear as a single till the end of the year.

Love Action, meanwhile, has been happily skipping to itself. The LP version of Dare comes next, and unfortunately we don’t have time for the whole thing. I opt for Things That Dreams Are Made Of (no “the” on this release, for some reason) since it’s my favourite song on here. Finally, Dare, in its rather beautiful gatefold packaging, provides The Human League with an opportunity to sound as good as they can.

Since I skipped it earlier, I decide to let the album continue playing, with Open Your Heart. It’s so much better than its b-side – and gave the League a sturdy second top ten single back in 1981.

The final record in this set is the 7″ single for Don’t You Want Me, but in their infinite wisdom both tracks on there are lifted directly from the album. Since it’s easier to just turn the current record over, I decide to finish with Don’t You Want Me.

That turns out to be easier said than done. My turntable isn’t in the best lit part of the house – it does have a little light on it, but I’ve never found it to be a lot of use – and so locating Don’t You Want Me is a little difficult. Finally getting there, it’s difficult not to be struck by the song. It’s so good.

So this particular vinyl moment may have been a little confused, but in the end, it brought us to Dare, one of the best albums in the history of pop music. So no complaints here.

I do own more Human League vinyl, of course, but that will have to wait for another vinyl moment. This is the last in this series – the next should follow in the summer.

Orbital – The Altogether

Celebrating its fifteenth anniversary this week is Orbital‘s sixth album The Altogether. In commercial terms, they were somewhat on the decline by this point, having peaked five years earlier with the singles Satan Live and The Saint, but they were still very much in the public consciousness after devising Beached with Angelo Badalamenti the previous year for the film The Beach.

The Altogether opens with a bang, with the appropriately titled industrial instrumental Tension, before it passes on to the much softer, pleasantly rhythmic Funny Break (One is Enough). Personally, I think I probably know this track best from Orbital‘s subsequent compilation Work 1989-2002, where it blends in so well with the early 90s material that I’d actually assumed that’s when it was released. Listening to it now, I think that’s probably forgiveable.

Then comes Oi!, which mixes mid-80s sounds with acid bass, and ends up sounding something like a collaboration between Erasure and Yello. It’s good, but perhaps just a little iffy, but the timeless quality seems to permeate the whole album – next comes Pay Per View, a soft and pleasant, almost jazz-like piece with 808 drums and sampled wailing.

Without reading more about this album, it’s difficult to work out exactly what’s meant to be going on, and the artwork doesn’t give many clues either. But that’s just Orbital‘s approach to music – they seem to do what makes them happy, and don’t listen too much to what anybody else wants.

So it continues. Tootled could almost be an early 1990s rave track – there’s a bit of 2001 energy behind it, but a more lo-fi version recorded on 8-track would belong very firmly a decade earlier. Same for the charming Last Thing, which seems to channel some of their own back catalogue.

This feeling of timelessness continues with a modern rendition of the Doctor Who theme, originally released in 1963, and here extended and updated with some new sounds. It’s exquisite – every bit as good as Delia Derbyshire‘s original, but with a very refreshing twist. For the next track, the Doctor Who references continue. Is that really Tom Baker that they’ve persuaded to turn up and deliver a guest vocal? The Tom Baker? Well, not quite – apparently it’s sampled from an interview. Even so, this is a monumental moment in the history of music. Tom Baker.

If you can find her, Kirsty Hawkshaw is apparently a guest vocalist on the lively Waving Not Drowning, which bounces its way merrily along for a couple of minutes until David Gray turns up to deliver the vocal on the lovely Illuminate, the second single from the album after Funny Break. This is a great song – even if you had found most of the rest of the album a bit silly for your tastes, you would have to appreciate this one, in which Gray seems to show rather more emotion than he ever did on his solo singles.

Right at the end, the ten minute instrumental Meltdown takes things in rather different directions again – at the beginning it sounds as though it could be one of their early 90s hits, but then it all goes rather noisy. A couple of minutes later, it’s another epic industrial piece – in fact, it goes through so many changes over its duration that you have to wonder exactly what they thought they were doing. Yet again, Orbital just stuck to what they wanted to do.

In a similar way, I normally try not to take too much notice of other people’s opinions when I write these reviews, as I prefer to see where the music takes me. But when I reviewed the follow-up Blue Album a couple of years ago, I learnt from the comments that The Altogether is apparently “usually regarded as Orbital’s worst album”. Either the standard of their albums is particularly high, or the people who “usually regard” things are just plain wrong, because The Altogether is clearly very good indeed.

The best version of The Altogether is the US import, as you get a second disc of b-sides, and if you want that at a reasonable price you’re best to import it yourself – available here.

Chart for stowaways – 19 March 2016

These are the top singles of the week:

  1. Pet Shop Boys – The Pop Kids
  2. Massive Attack – Ritual Spirit EP
  3. Jean-Michel Jarre – Remix EP (II)
  4. Pet Shop Boys – Inner Sanctum
  5. Goldfrapp – Stranger
  6. New Order feat. Elly Jackson – Tutti Frutti
  7. Keep Shelly in Athens – In Love with Dusk – EP
  8. Massive Attack, Tricky & 3D – Take it There
  9. Conjure One feat. Hannah Ray – Kill the Fear
  10. Tiësto / Heldens / La Rose – The Right Song

Vinyl Moments – Pet Shop Boys – 1985-1988

As you’ll remember, the previous vinyl moment saw me thinking about taking a trip back to 1985, to listen to Pet Shop Boys not too long after the start of their careers.

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Inevitably, West End girls has to come first, but as you know I only listened to Please a couple of days ago, so I decided to go for the b-side, A man could get arrested. On Alternative, it’s a dark and atmospheric piece, but the single version, produced by Steven Spiro is a slightly vacuous pop version which makes me wish I’d started with Side A after all.

Fortunately, I also own the 12″ version, giving me the opportunity to hear one of my favourite versions of West End girls, the Dance Mix. Some of the extra bits detract a little from the atmosphere, but the longer form suits the song too, and the extra verses are a joy to hear.

The second single I own is Love comes quickly, a German version, where someone with no graphic design skills and frankly limited English has added the words “Original-Version” to the cover in a font that looks like the 1980s equivalent of Comic Sans. Again, having heard the a-side recently, I opted for Side B, That’s my impression.

This is exactly what I was looking for – dark and gloomy, and rather glorious too. There’s something about this period in Pet Shop Boys‘ history – they were definitely making pop music, but they weren’t afraid to put their own stamp on it either.

I wasn’t sure what to listen to from the Opportunities single, which must be, incidentally, one of the low points of Pet Shop Boys‘ typically wonderful design history, with a silver sleeve and not a whole lot else to say for itself. I’m sure that was the idea, but it’s not one I’d have gone for. In the end, I chose Side B again, Was That what it was?

Again, it’s deep and dark, and I always find myself wondering why on earth they hid things as good as this away on the back of their singles, but it’s definitely a nice present for the people who buy your records.

I should probably track down the double 7″ version of Suburbia one of these days, but for now the next single I own is the 12″ of Always on My Mind, and although I haven’t heard this recently I opted for the b-side, Do I have to? as it’s a great song (as you might be realising, Alternative is, perhaps improbably, one of my favourite albums).

This is a particularly crackly vinyl – definitely the worst of this bunch. I always take care to clean everything before listening again, but the vast majority of my vinyl was bought second hand, largely from obscure bargain bins in record fairs, so they have often been well loved long before I got my hands on them.

Do I have to? though, is definitive Pet Shop Boys – it almost explains some of Chris Lowe‘s photo poses, but it’s also an exceptionally beautiful piece of music. Always on My Mind is great too, but one for another time, I think. Although it’s worth a mention for the wonderful design on this single, particularly the sly joke at the bottom: “Not from the album, Actually.”

This particular journey has to end with Heart, and since I don’t know Shep Pettibone‘s Dance Mix on Side B too well (it never made it onto any of the later reissues), I decided to go with this version. As with a lot of Pettibone’s remixes, it’s just a little bit cheesy in places, but it is fun too, and it brings out some different elements in the song.

This isn’t the last we’ll hear from Pet Shop Boys in the Vinyl Moments series, but this has been a fun little journey for now. Where next? Well, from Heart we’ll move on to a group who just a few years earlier wanted to Open Your Heart – The Human League.