Air – 10 000 Hz Legend

You will have heard about the concept of a “difficult second album” before – I was even musing on it this time last week. There are times when it’s more apparent, and times when it isn’t.

By 2001, Air had actually done quite a lot since Moon Safari, including reissuing debut compilation Premiers Symptômes, and the entire soundtrack to the film The Virgin Suicides. But their second studio album was 10 000 Hz Legend, released fifteen years ago this week.

It opens with Electronic Performers, which is a nice song if you like Air, but probably seems pretty pointless if you don’t, and the template is set.

Unless you were in France, there was only one single from this album, but How Does it Make You Feel? with lead vocals by Whisper, one of the speech options on an Apple Mac, was released as a lovely transparent 7″ and frankly deserved better – it’s a lovely, if totally bizarre song.

The one single which did make a dent worldwide was the lovely Radio #1, which comes next. As with both its predecessors, it would be difficult to take this entirely seriously, but it’s a great slice of 1960s-style pop, with a catchy chorus and a great video too. The eerily loud backing vocals at the end were supposed to sound as though someone was singing along to the song on the radio – and then drumming on the kitchen pots and pans.

There’s nothing particularly bad about the collaboration with BeckThe Vagabond – it’s just a little difficult to comprehend exactly why it happened. Still, even though it drags a little, it ends eventually, to be replaced by a dull instrumental, Radian.

Perhaps by design, all the charm of the first album and its neighbouring side-projects seems to have vanished, to be replaced by Gallic oddness. This album is, bluntly, a mixed bag at best.

Lucky and Unhappy and Sex Born Poison are both pleasant and worthy, but largely forgettable in the context of Air‘s wider discography. Then comes another of the forgotten singles, a French 12″ whose tracks would ultimately appear on the Everybody Hertz remix album, People in the City. It’s a catchy song, and honestly if more of the album had been like this, it would have been much more difficult to fault.

But it wasn’t, and the entirely questionable Wonder Milky Bitch follows, every bit as iffy as the name might suggest. Then the final non-single Don’t Be Light comes along, and is entirely brilliant. It’s difficult to fathom why, when they were capable of songs as good as this, they let some of the others squeeze through. But maybe they just wanted to be different.

Final track Caramel Prisoner is better than it sounds, an avant garde instrumental which probably closes the album off in a more satisfactory way than it really deserves. This was pretty much the definition of a difficult second album – probably difficult to make, and certainly, at times at least, difficult to listen to. Definitely not bad, but nowhere near as good as Moon Safari.

You can still find 10 000 Hz Legend from all major retailers. Because not all that many people bought it.

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Chart for stowaways – 23 April 2016

Here’s the latest album chart:

  1. Pet Shop Boys – Super
  2. Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine
  3. New Order – Music Complete
  4. Conjure One – Holoscenic
  5. Róisín Murphy – Hairless Toys
  6. Little Boots – Working Girl
  7. M83 – Junk
  8. David Bowie – Best of Bowie
  9. Leftfield – Alternative Light Source
  10. David Bowie – Nothing Has Changed

Artist of the Week – Pet Shop Boys

Here’s another one from the archives, again from late 2004, from my old radio show Music for the Masses. In the fourth week, the artist of the week was Pet Shop Boys. Apologies in advance for any inaccuracies, oddities, unintended plagiarism, or anything else like that.

Pet Shop Boys were formed in August 1981 when music journalist Neil Tennant and dropout architecture student Chris Lowe met by chance in a London electronics shop. In 1984, after three years of recording rough demos, Tennant arranged a recording session with the New York-based electro producer Bobby O, with whom they recorded their first two singles, including the classic West End girls, which saw huge underground success.

Following this, they were signed to Parlophone in the UK, reissued West End girls, and the rest is history. The rest of the singles from the first album Please were less successful, but they still managed two more top ten hits. However, it was with their second album Actually that they really saw huge success. The album only reached number 2, but it yielded three number ones and two further top ten hits.

1988 saw the release of their third album Introspective, which would ultimately go on to become their best selling album ever*, yielding further hits, and they started the 1990s on top form with another studio album Behaviour and their singles album Discography.

Their return in 1993 saw one of their biggest hits ever with the smash hit Go West only just missing out on the number one position, and the album Very eclipsing the success of many of their previous albums.

The 1990s saw a steady decline in their success, but they continued to release some of their best material with 1996’s Bilingual and 1999’s Nightlife exploring between them aspects of dance and South American music. Their most recent album, unfortunately also their least successful to date, Release, saw a complete change in direction, with a guitar-based project.

They released their second singles collection PopArt last year, and this saw some success, and they are currently touring far-flung reaches of the world, as well as planning further events to accompany the live accompaniment to the film Battleship Potemkin which took place at Leicester Square in September. They will most likely be back next year with a new album.

This is repeatedly claimed by Neil Tennant in interviews, but I’ve come to doubt it in recent years – Actually seems a much more likely candidate.

Hot Chip – The Warning

Every once in a while, an artist’s first album will be completely ignored by the public at large, and it’s only their second that gets any attention. So it is with Hot Chip, whose wonderfully mellow debut Coming on Strong appeared in 2004, but was instantly forgotten.

So in 2006, they reappeared, satisfactorily reinvented, with The Warning, which, for the most part, is an extremely good album. In fact, its main problem is that it opens with the dreadful Careful. If they were trying to alienate the people who had bought their first album, or perhaps to scare anyone who thought this might be an album worth purchasing, this would have been an unabashed success. But it wasn’t then, and it still isn’t now – it’s just plain bad.

Fortunately, Boy from School (or, to give it its full album title, And I Was a Boy from School) comes next, and lifts the mood immediately. Perhaps for the first time in their career – and definitely not for the last time – they had come up with something quite exceptional. Even if there were nothing else on here, this album would be worth buying for the second track alone.

But there is, and third single Colours comes next, harking back a little more to the mood of their first release. It isn’t really traditionally catchy, but you will almost certainly find yourself singing along by the second or third chorus.

With songs as good as these on their breaking release, it isn’t difficult to see how Hot Chip have come to be quickly regarded as both groundbreaking and legendary.

Even their quirkier side is far from absent, as lead single and live favourite Over and Over commences with the words, “laid back? I’ll give you laid back,” which I’ve always imagined (admittedly with absolutely zero justification) must be a reaction to the press reviews of Coming on Strong. And the “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” part is, of course hilarious and brilliant at the same time.

The disco stylings of (Just Like We) Breakdown follow, before the daft but entirely lovely Tchaparian, complete with bendy synth sounds, a heavy Prince influence, and sampled cats (OK, some of that may not be true, but I hope it is).

Aside from the first track, the worst this album gets is when it’s just “nice”. Again, drawing on their experience with the debut release, Look After Me is nice. Actually, it’s very nice – I think my expectations were just a little high after the rest of the songs on here.

For a couple of songs, we find ourselves very much back in the territory of the debut release – very silly songs with extremely “laid back” music. The title track warns us that Hot Chip will break our legs, and then the livelier Arrest Yourself returns to the funkier 1980s influences. So Glad to See You presents us with a vocoder vocal and a slightly too uptempo drum pattern for its own good.

Picking things up again right at the end is the adorable final track No Fit State. This is what you’re looking for from Hot Chip – a catchy, silly, and memorable pop song, with retro synth lines and superficially awkward vocals. What a wonderful way to finish the album.

Except it isn’t – hidden bonus track Won’t Wash appears right at the end, a pleasant piece with wind chimes and gentle strumming, closing things off for good.

Their next release, by far their most successful, Made in the Dark, would see them enjoying worldwide success nearly a decade after their original formation, but was nowhere near as accomplished as this. It may not be their debut, but The Warning is an extremely good album.

You can still find The Warning at all major retailers.