Random jukebox – X-Press 2 feat. Dieter Meier

You might not have noticed at the time, but for the follow-up to the megahit LazyX-Press 2 worked with Yello‘s legendary Dieter Meier to create this rather nice piece:

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Heaven 17 – Bigger Than America

Poor Heaven 17. By 1996, nearly two decades into their careers, they really hadn’t produced anything new of note under that name in over a decade. After their fame subsided with the reasonable How Men Are album (1984), just two studio albums and a couple of compilations had followed, and so Bigger Than America was truly a comeback.

But Dive is brilliant. It starts with some subtle analogue warbles, and builds into something that’s every bit as good as Let Me Go. The line that mixes “hear” with “here” could easily be tacky and awful, but somehow it works perfectly here. What a great opening track!

First single Designing Heaven follows. Unsurprisingly when you hear it, it wasn’t an enormous hit, but it’s reasonably good, and probably deserved a place somewhere in the Top 40. If you’re ever bored, track down the single to hear the laughably bad German version Den Himmel Designen.

Second (and final) single We Blame Love comes next, actually perhaps a better choice of single than the first, but it didn’t get any attention outside of Germany, where all your favourite eighties acts went to die.

Another Big Idea is next, and is largely fantastic. It might have been a while since Heaven 17 were this good, but they definitely had the right idea. In fact, the first reminder that they had been lost in the wilderness for over a decade at this point is on track 5, the pointless Freak! It contains the lyric “You’re an X and I’m a Y / Just take a look into the sky”. Which is pretty much all you need to know.

Changes are definitely afoot at this point in the album. You might have been wondering what exactly the title was about, but it isn’t until the title track that you really get a clue. Bigger Than America seems to be an attempt to poke fun at the USA, but a fair proportion of the lyrics don’t really make sense unfortunately. The chorus is good, though (despite rhyming “car” with “Ameri-car”), and the analogue squawks are fully in attendance.

From here onwards, my memory was suggesting the tracks would all start to merge into one, but that isn’t really true. Unreal Everything is a nice track, if somewhat forgettable – the only thing you’ll really remember here is the pleasant theremin (or portamento?) line that makes it sound like something out of a 1950s science fiction film. The Big Dipper takes some more cracks at the USA, this time hitting harder and arguably hitting the target more accurately.

Do I Believe? is really brilliant – fueled primarily by enormous analogue noises, but there’s a great song in there as well. Resurrection Man is a bit misguided, but towards the end things become pleasantly mellow, with the sweet and gentle Maybe Forever and then the uplifting An Electronic Prayer. The electronic howl that closes the album is an exemplary way to finish matters.

So this was Heaven 17‘s contribution to the 1990s. It was good, but was largely irrelevant and went ignored by most people. What it does seem to have done is spurred them to start playing live for the first time in their career, and so, a decade or so later, they finally came to be seen as the legends they are. As long as they stick to playing tracks from their better albums, anyway.

The CD version of Bigger Than America has long since fallen out of print, but you can still find digital downloads and second hand copies in most places.

Chart for stowaways – 13 August 2016

Here are this week’s biggest albums:

  1. Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise
  2. Clarke Hartnoll – 2Square
  3. I Monster – Bright Sparks
  4. Wolfgang Flür – Eloquence
  5. Pet Shop Boys – Super
  6. Shit Robot – What Follows
  7. New Order – Music Complete
  8. Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine
  9. Chicane – Twenty
  10. David Bowie – Best of Bowie

Peel Sessions – The Shamen, 12 February 1991

The Shamen‘s fourth and final John Peel session was recorded in February 1991 and broadcast several times that same year. The Shamen had long been featured on Peel’s radio shows, and he seems to have even stuck with them once they transitioned from psychedelic eighties “alternative rock” to the rave-pop-dance that they were so fond of in the early 1990s.

The session opens with a pretty good version of En-Tact‘s Hyperreal, already available in the shops for a year or so at this stage. It seems to have gained some slightly daft sound effects which weren’t there on the quite brilliant original version, and it’s notably lacking the input from William Orbit that made the US album and subsequent versions so good, but it’s still pretty strong.

Make it Mine had already been a single in 1990, and this version seems to have undergone a slightly ill-advised reworking, with a pointless middle section and a length rap from Mr. C. It’s interesting to see them exploring some slightly different directions, but they really don’t seem to know what they’re doing. The input of The Beatmasters that would characterise the next album seems long overdue.

Possible Worlds is a nice inclusion – definitely one of the best tracks from En-Tact, it offers them a chance for some musical exploration without going completely off the rails. There’s a bit more freestyle rapping (including rhyming “brain pattern” with “Saturn”), which is definitely unnecessary, but in general it’s pretty good. Just not quite as good as the original version.

Then comes In the Bag, which I think I’m saying was never released anywhere else. It’s a pretty nice ambient piece which is entirely lacking in melody, but it’s a strong inclusion nonetheless. In a way it’s pieces like this rather than the better known singles and album tracks that make it worth hearing these sessions.

You can read more about The Shamen‘s relationship with the John Peel show here. This session is available on The Shamen‘s 1993 compilation On Air, which is still widely available.

Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?

One of the fundamental rules of modern music seems to be that every so often, when you’re definitely not expecting it, Hot Chip will reappear with another album that turns out to be quite fantastic. So it was with One Life Stand (2010), In Our Heads (2012), and their most recent album Why Make Sense? (2015).

It opens with the cryptically (and unpronounceably) titled Huarache Lights. Everything it lacks in melody – and that’s a lot, it’s basically a chanted refrain with lots of beats – it makes up for in charming nod-your-head-to-the-beats catchiness. We might have forgotten about them a bit over the preceding three years, but Hot Chip were definitely back.

Next is Love is the Future, apparently a collaboration with one of De La Soul, although I’m not sure you would know this if you didn’t read the credits. He turns up half way through to deliver a bit of rapping. Mainly, though, for long-time fans of Hot Chip, it’s comforting to hear them return to their very earliest days with the sound of this track.

For the most part, though, this just seems to be another Hot Chip album. Cry for You and Started Right are nice, of course, but there isn’t a lot here that grabs you by the throat in the way Ready for the Floor did all those years ago.

They do, though, still comfortably have a talent for the dafter song. White Wine and Fried Chicken is an unexpectedly fun down-tempo piece. Then Dark Night is probably the closest we’ve come yet to Hot Chip‘s real trademark sound, although even this seems to be being downplayed here. They used to love trying to shock us, but perhaps that’s a thing of the past now.

None of this is really a criticism, though. They still have an inventive spirit, perhaps most obviously illustrated by the album’s artwork, which changes slightly from one copy to the next to end up with over 130,000 different combinations. I wonder how many copies the reall fans ended up having to buy to satisfy their collector-urge.

But while the shocking moments might be lacking, there’s still plenty on here to enjoy. Easy to Get is understated and very sweet. Then Need You Now, the first “proper” single from this album, which is deep and soulful and again, much quieter than anything Hot Chip have presented us with in recent years.

That seems to be the general theme with the latter moments of this album. So Much Further to Go is nice, but you’re hardly going to write home about it. Final track Why Make Sense? is what you’ve been waiting for all along – it’s probably the closest you’re going to get to the slightly daft hit singles from a decade or so ago. It’s great, but maybe it’s just a little late for the party.

In the end, Why Make Sense? is a good sixth album, but the lack of catchy singles maybe renders it a bit less good than the fifth, fourth, or third. But either way, it’s good to hear from Hot Chip again.

If you can find the version with the extra disc, that’s the one to go for. Otherwise, the standard edition is still widely available.