Chart for stowaways – 8 April 2017

Here are this week’s top albums:

  1. Depeche Mode – Spirit
  2. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 3
  3. New Order – Lost Sirens
  4. The Human League – Anthology – A Very British Synthesizer Group
  5. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène Trilogy
  6. Goldfrapp – Silver Eye
  7. Dusty Springfield – Reputation
  8. C Duncan – The Midnight Sun
  9. Soft Cell / Marc Almond – Hits And Pieces – The Best Of
  10. David Bowie – Legacy

Artist of the Week – Sparks

The Artist of the Week feature on my old radio show Music for the Masses has proved a vaguely interesting source of features for this blog, although it does seem to contain some errors, hyperbole, and possibly plagiarism. This week, Sparks.

This week’s Artist of the Week is the ever-wonderful and ever-evolving Sparks. Now, unfortunately we can’t really afford to go into too much detail, otherwise we’ll be here all night, but anyway, the story goes like this… Ron Mael and Russell Mael formed their first band Halfnelson back in 1971, releasing their first (and only) album that year. The following year they crossed the Atlantic and started recording with a new line-up, now known as Sparks.

They first saw UK success with the seminal but not overly electronic This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, which peaked at number two in 1974. Slowly the hits began to die away, and by 1976 they were once more failing to reach the chart – however, they resolutely refused to give up.

In 1979, they managed a comeback when they travelled to Germany to work with Giorgio Moroder on the essential Number 1 in Heaven album. This brought them two further substantial hits, but unfortunately they failed once again to hold onto their success, as the follow-up album Terminal Jive flopped. However, it brought them hits in France, and in the early 1980s they finally managed to break their homeland, America.

In 1989, they began one of their most interesting chapters to date. After fifteen albums and countless singles on an almost infinite number of record companies, they decided to give up and make films instead. Sadly, the constant delays and broken promises of the film world led to them abandoning their new career after four years and returning to music instead.

Their comeback in 1994 brought them success across Europe, as they embraced the swiftly growing genre of Europop. The classics When Do I Get to Sing “My Way” and When I Kiss You both reached the top forty, as did a reissue of This Town released in 1997 with additions from rockers Faith No More.

Recent years have seen them once more failing to make the charts, but continuing to release album after album. Their most recent, their nineteenth album L’il Beethoven, was convincingly given five-star ratings across the board, and they even scraped a minor hit single with Suburban Homeboy, but the album itself failed to chart.

Rumour has it they are now working on a new album, as it’s now nearly three years since L’il Beethoven

X-Press 2 – Muzikizum

I don’t really know a huge amount about X-Press 2, apart from vaguely being aware of their presence in the mid-1990s, and of course the smash hit Lazy, taken from their palindromic album Muzikizum, which first appeared fifteen years ago this week.

Getting the title track out of the way first, the opener is a beatsie piece with some very familiar samples and a whole lot of house. If house isn’t your thing, you might well be struggling already, but it’s a varied enough piece, and you would at least find it mercifully short, at a mere six minutes.

Supasong is shorter, more repetitive, and definitely lacking somewhat in ideas. Somehow it doesn’t quite work: it isn’t deep enough to be deep house; it isn’t interesting enough to be anything really. Pleasant, but little more than that.

So the massive hit Lazy can’t really come too soon, although in its album form, rather than extending the song that you probably bought this for in the first place, X-Press 2 have instead just added a couple of minutes of house beats and sound effects to the front. When it does finally get going, it shouldn’t take you long to remember why you liked this so much. The piano introduction may sound like something from a decade or so earlier; the lyrics might be completely daft; but the melody is uplifting, David Byrne‘s delivery is great, and you’ll very probably identify with the theme as a whole.

What it isn’t, is particularly representative of the rest of the album, as Angel demonstrates. This is the closest we’ve come yet to deep house on this album, and for what it is, it’s pretty competent. The best just goes straight on and on, apparently. And it does – Palenque and Smoke Machine continue on a similar theme – catchy and repetitive, and pleasant enough to enjoy. But maybe not quite as memorable as Lazy.

Actually, pretty much everything on this album was released as a 12″ single at some stage, and I Want You Back was the follow-up to Lazy, and it barely managed that. Which is a great shame – Dieter Meier from Yello turns up to deliver a typically ridiculous vocal, and it turns out to be a good mix, with his low vocals and some deep house beats and effects.

Call That Love is next, and for the first time brings us some chirpy melodic elements from the start. Steve Edwards injects a soulful vocal, and after a bit the production goes completely wild – for the first time in about five tracks, we’re hearing melodic sounds; things other than drums and short samples. I’m not entirely sure that any of the words really make sense, but it’s pretty good if you can put that out of your mind.

AC/DC was another single, and another of the less interesting tracks on here, at least if you aren’t in a grimey sweaty club with lots of flashing lights going on. There are some nice disco elements at times, and there’s a lot to enjoy, but you do find yourself wishing there was something a little more substantial to it.

The Ending track is called the ending, and keeps up the slight disco theme, with a bit of dub as well as the deep house beats and structures. It’s a compelling mix, and yes, it may not be the best track ever written, but it works well, and it does exactly what it intends to.

Which is pretty much true of Muzikizum in general, actually. X-Press 2 needed an album to go with Lazy, and they pulled something together that did what they wanted it to. Not a lot more than that, admittedly, and that’s a shame, but if you can accept it for what it is, this is a good album.

The original album seems to be less available than it once was, but you can still find copies floating around.

Chart for stowaways – 1 April 2017

The top singles this week:

  1. Depeche Mode – Where’s the Revolution
  2. Goldfrapp – Anymore
  3. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Part 17)
  4. Depeche Mode – Cover Me
  5. C Duncan – Wanted to Want It Too
  6. Depeche Mode – You Move
  7. Delerium with Phildel – Ritual
  8. Depeche Mode – Poison Heart
  9. Depeche Mode – Going Backwards
  10. Depeche Mode – Scum

Artist of the Week – William Orbit

Time now for another of our archive Artist of the Week features, dating back to early 2005. Some of these do contain errors, and probably contain some plagiarism too. Apologies in advance…

This week’s Artist of the Week was born William Wainwright, and would ultimately go on to become one of the most important musicians in the world of electronic ambient and dance music.

He began his musical career in the early 1980s in the new wave group Torch Song, and while recording with the band started to learn studio techniques, and by the end of the eighties was making a name for himself by remixing and producing the likes of Kraftwerk, The Human League, Erasure, and Madonna.

His first solo album Orbit was released in 1987, but it was with the Strange Cargo project that he started to make a name for himself. The first part of the four-album epic also came out in 1987, and was followed by parts two and three at three-year intervals. It was with these that he kick-started the career of folk singer Beth Orton, who first featured on 1993’s minor hit single Water from a Vine Leaf. The fourth album in the set, Strange Cargo Hinterland, followed in 1995, and features some of his best material to date.

It was at this time he first recorded his legendary Pieces in a Modern Style album, featuring inventive new interpretations of classical pieces, but it initially attracted very strong protests from some of the composers involved, so he re-entered the world of production, apparently never to be seen again.

However, it was with his production work that he truly made a name for himself, being responsible for some of All Saints‘ later material, as well as Ray of Light, one of Madonna‘s best albums to date, and also Blur‘s acclaimed album 13. On the back of this, he returned to the studio to re-record Pieces in a Modern Style, which swiftly made its name as a modern classic thanks to remixes by Ferry Corsten and ATB.

As rumours of a new album continue, he continues to work with the likes of Pink and Eagle-Eye Cherry on production work, and we await his return with baited breath.

Depeche Mode – Ultra

In the four years since Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993), Depeche Mode had shed a member and come dangerously close to losing another permanently, as Dave Gahan hit an extremely low point and nearly died of an overdose.

So it’s hardly surprising that Ultra, released twenty years ago this week, is a dark album. From the very first opening sounds of first single Barrel of a Gun, you can tell they’re exploring grimey territory. But there’s also something overwhelmingly positive about it – the delivery is punctuated by a confidence and force that I’m not sure we had really heard before.

It is said that they only went back into the studio to record a couple of new tracks for a best of album, but discovered a new energy and ended up with an entire studio album – and it’s easy to believe. Working with Tim Simenon of Bomb the Bass as producer, they seem to have re-emerged from their life-changing four year hiatus with something quite extraordinary.

In a way, the album tracks are more interesting than the singles – The Love Thieves is a soft and uneventful track which is elevated to something beautiful by its production. Then comes Home – and remember that some of Martin L. Gore‘s more introspective songs in the past have taken an under-produced approach. Home definitely isn’t one of those; instead, it’s full of huge orchestral flair, making it one of Depeche Mode‘s most beautiful songs.

This leads us to It’s No Good, the second single and without a doubt the most commercial track on here. There’s still a definite air of darkness, but this is also a great pop song, and was deservedly a significant hit.

What makes this album stand out so many years later is its sense of spaciousness. Pretty much nothing on here is less than four minutes long, and everything has been expanded, so there are huge gaps between vocal lines and verses. The miniature instrumentals, like Uselink, had for many years been key to Depeche Mode‘s sound, but here they add to the experience on a basic level.

This makes it all the odder that when you first listen to Ultra, there’s a decent chance that you won’t like it very much. This is an album that demands at least four or five listens before it starts to get under your skin, but as soon as it does, it really won’t leave you alone.

Useless was the last of the singles from this album, and it’s with this track that you really find Depeche Mode‘s new sound – it’s rhythmic and danceable, but it’s very definitely rock. There are elements of many of their previous guises hidden in here, but it also sounds quite new. Honestly, even twenty years on, this wouldn’t sound too out of place today either.

Then we get Sister of Night, which could have easily kept its head down and just been another album track, but the huge, effect-laden melody that opens the track and reappears from time to time throughout really grabs you and makes you pay attention, and as you do, you realise that this is an incredibly beautiful song.

After Jazz Thieves, another of the little instrumentals, comes Freestate, an excellent opportunity for Dave Gahan to demonstrate himself to be a truly amazing vocalist, which might have been obvious to some a few albums earlier, but then the UK had never really given Depeche Mode the attention they deserved.

After that comes the daft but sweet The Bottom Line, starting off sounding as though it might be about a cat and punctuated by cat-like synth wails, and then the last proper track Insight, which echoes It’s No Good somewhat, but is otherwise a sweet and uplifting closer. Apart, of course, from the hidden bonus track, an instrumental colloquially named Junior Painkiller, which turns up a few minutes after the end.

Ultra was always emotional but mature, and every bit as good as Depeche Mode needed to be at that stage in their career, but it’s encouraging to see that it has aged so well, and it’s a relief that the three remaining members were all present and correct.

The 200x double CD reissue is the definitive version of Ultra, but if this is no longer available, go for the remastered reissue instead.

Preview – Steps

There’s a part of me that wonders about giving this the oxygen of publicity, but I know plenty of people who would never forgive me otherwise. Yes, Steps are back, with a new album called Tears on the Dancefloor. Here’s a taste. And they’re just as bad as you remember.