Chart for stowaways – 26 August 2017

These are the top ten singles at the time of writing:

  1. Pet Shop Boys – Reunion
  2. Erasure – Love You To The Sky
  3. Saint Etienne – Sweet Arcadia
  4. Saint Etienne – Magpie Eyes
  5. Pet Shop Boys – Winner
  6. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Part 17)
  7. Pet Shop Boys – I’m with Stupid
  8. Erasure – Be Careful What You Wish For!
  9. Dave Gahan – Saw Something / Deeper and Deeper
  10. Pet Shop Boys – I started a joke
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Depeche Mode – Music for the Masses

“Taking a ride with my best friend,” could very easily be a description of Depeche Mode‘s sixth album Music for the Masses, released thirty years ago this week. Now, thirty years on, it all seems very familiar from the singles and the fantastic live album 101, but at the time in the UK, this was actually Depeche Mode‘s lowest selling album yet.

It opens with the second single Never Let Me Down Again, surprisingly only a moderate hit a month or so before the album came out. It’s strange, as it seems such an iconic piece for its time now, but apparently it didn’t seem so back then.

The haunting The Things You Said is next, with a Martin L. Gore lead vocal. Whereas the previous album Black Celebration had purposely tried to challenge listeners, Music for the Masses is, as its title suggests, very much about pop music – and although apparently at the time they thought of the title as a bit of a pun, I think it’s truer than they might have realised. Typically dark Depeche Mode pop music, but pop nonetheless. The Things You Said is slower and more mellow than most of the things on here, but it has a wonderfully soulful side too.

Opening single Strangelove is next, a curiously twisted piece about either hidden fetishes or accepting people for who they are. Towards the end there’s a hint of a bit of the late 1980s 12″ mix, before it mixes into the gloriously sacrilegious Sacred. There’s something beautifully ecclesiastical about it, although ultimately it grows into a fairly traditional Depeche Mode production. It’s a great song.

The France-only single Little 15 completes Side A of the album, an odd but beautiful choice for a single, full of warped strings and mournful piano and vocal samples, without a single drum. It’s difficult to know what could be done to improve it – this is complete perfection.

Side B opens with the other single, the fantastic Behind the Wheel. Again, this didn’t even scrape the top twenty in the UK (although it did make the top ten across Europe), but surely it has to be one of the finest road trip songs you can name.

Depeche Mode produced this album pretty much by themselves, with some help from Dave Bascombe, and this might explain how I Want You Now came to pass. It’s almost all built around vocal samples, which could have worked very badly, but instead it sounds fantastic, and turns what could have been an unusually mundane lyric into something quite fascinating.

Even more experimental is To Have and To Hold, a sweet track that’s built around enormous drums. It’s short, and at the end it slightly uncomfortably mixes into Nothing, a rocky track which here is built around digital synthesisers, but the later remix that replaced them with guitars was none the worse for the change.

Finally, we get Pimpf, the pleasant instrumental that still turns up from time to time as an interlude for TV programmes, and its miniature companion Mission Impossible, which appears right at the end as a hidden track. Honestly and without irony, this is probably as close as Depeche Mode had come to “music for the masses” since their first album.

The original CD release gave you a few extra b-sides, but these were relegated to the bonus DVD for the reissue, and honestly, good though they are, the album feels better without them. Music for the Masses marked a turning point for Depeche Mode, a point where they could pull off a massive 101-date tour closing at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and one which would lay the foundations for the fantastic Violator.

If you can’t find the reissue with the bonus disc, try not to be tempted by the original CD with its bonus tracks, as the sound quality is markedly worse than this 2013 reissue.

Saint Etienne – Finisterre

Have you ever been to a Harvester before? Saint Etienne, I suspect, have. One of their most electronic pop works, Finisterre, was first released fifteen years ago this week.

After the brief sound of an amateur football match and the quote I started this piece with, the album opens with first single Action, which is either typically brilliant Saint Etienne or a bit nondescript, depending on your perspective.

Second track Amateur is indisputably great. The huge dance bass line and catchy melody are punctuated beautifully by lyrics like “a piece of Farnborough looking like Tirana”. That’s not the kind of lyric you come across every day.

This album was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a success. The two singles peaked at number 41 and 40 respectively, and the album stalled at number 55. But despite this, it was well received at the time, and I think part of its charm is the vocal interludes from Michael Jayston. The next one talks about “the perverse possibilities of the Barbican,” and you’re reminded of just how firmly the Saint Etienne of this period were rooted in London.

The instrumental Language Lab carries us through to the wonderful second single Soft Like Me, featuring a guest vocal performance by Wildflower. Where the first single might have sounded very familiar, this is quite unique in the group’s catalogue, as Sarah Cracknell‘s crisp vocals accompany Wildflower‘s gentle rhythmic rapping.

Summerisle is a nice gentle interlude, and then Stop and Think it Over takes us back to the more 1960s-sounding pop that characterised the earlier album Good Humor. Then the fantastic Shower Scene, bizarrely released as a Spain-only single at the end of 2002. It’s tempting to wonder why this wasn’t the lead single instead of Action, but if nothing else it’s a nice surprise when you do discover it.

The instrumentals are often among Saint Etienne‘s most interesting moments, and so it is with The Way We Live Now, which for me always evokes memories of the children’s television series How We Used to Live (that’s almost certainly not unintentional either, given the single of that name on the preceding album). It’s not quite instrumental actually, but Sarah’s vocals are more of an accompaniment here than a focus.

New Thing really should have been a single too, with its enormous rippling synth line. It’s catchy, includes some heavily processed vocals, and still sounds very contemporary. Probably. Equally, B92 (the one with the lyric “this is our wall of sound,” in case you had forgotten) is a great semi-experimental piece which takes you back to the group’s 1992 second album So Tough at times.

After all of that, the lo-fi sound of The More You Know does come as a bit of a surprise – and that’s the key thing with this album as it turns out – there’s nothing particularly new, for the most part, but it takes a fascinating journey through the different aspects of Saint Etienne‘s sound. Title track Finisterre is evocative and strange, with a fantastic guest vocal from Sarah Churchill.

Honestly, Finisterre is unlikely to stand out to many when they try to re-evaluate Saint Etienne‘s career. While it’s true that it doesn’t have many catchy hit singles, it’s also one of their most complete, fully thought through albums. Definitely, one of their best. I just wish I knew what the ending was all about…

The newly reissued double CD version of Finisterre should still be widely available from places like this.

Dubstar – Goodbye

Twenty years ago this week, and just a year and a half after their popularity had exploded with Not So Manic NowDubstar returned with their second album, the huge pop collection Goodbye.

It opens with third single I Will Be Your Girlfriend, an edgy, acid-infested, guitar-driven piece which would sneak to number 28 on the charts six months after the release of the album. Then the curiously baroque Inside comes next.

Dubstar were always prolific – each single came with at least two or three b-sides – and this is the album where they seemed to have decided to push as much as possible onto the album, so you get fifteen tracks here in total. A lot of them aren’t too great, bluntly.

The opening single No More Talk is not one of them – easily the best of the three singles on here, it was actually one of their biggest hits of their career. Rightly so – it’s fantastic. This is what Dubstar should be: creative, inventive, and unapologetic pop music.

Polestar is pleasant, and then we get the catchy pop of Say the Worst Thing First, followed by the jaunty second single Cathedral Park, which just missed out on a top 40 placing shortly before the album’s release. Unfortunately its lack of success isn’t entirely surprising – it’s a fun 1960s pop-styled song, but it’s a little lacking in memorable hooks, and pop wasn’t exactly fashionable in 1997 anyway.

One of the most interesting things about Dubstar‘s first album had been its unique and provocative sleeve design, which was explored in more commercial terms across the singles as well. Goodbye continued this theme, with the somewhat disturbing electric armchair sleeve design.

In spite of the message, It’s Over is probably my favourite song on here – there’s something about the delivery, the creepy warped synth sound, and the rhythmic bass and drums, that come together to make something rather beautifully twisted.

Next we get an updated version of The View from Here, previously one of the b-sides to Elevator Song. Now fully perfected, it’s another great pop song – there are definitely plenty of them on here.

But there’s a lot of filler too – none of My Start in WallsendIt’s Clear, or Ghost are anything particularly special. Eventually we make it to track 12 of 15, the catchy Can’t Tell Me. Surely this could have been a single? Although quite what the sleeve artwork might have ended up looking like is anybody’s guess.

There are three more tracks after that – the entirely forgettable Wearchest, the catchier and snappier When You Say Goodbye, and closing track Let’s Go, which isn’t too memorable either. It’s definitely pretty much over by this stage. It’s not even a long album, either – but somehow there are a few too many tracks.

So Goodbye is a strong second album, even if it certainly could have done with a little more time being taken to get it right and trim out some of the filler. Where Disgraceful was a perfect slice of 1990s pop, and Make it Better was a challenging work, Goodbye definitely occupies the middle ground. For better or for worse.

You can still find Goodbye at all major retailers, such as this one.

Chart for stowaways – 19 August 2017

Here are this week’s top albums:

  1. Pet Shop Boys – Release
  2. Pet Shop Boys – Nightlife
  3. Saint Etienne – Home Counties
  4. Erasure – World Be Gone
  5. Pet Shop Boys – Fundamental
  6. Kraftwerk – 3-D Der Katalog
  7. Goldfrapp – Silver Eye
  8. Depeche Mode – Spirit
  9. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 3
  10. Pet Shop Boys – Format

Mercury Prize 2017

Well, the interesting thing about the Mercury Prize really tends to be the nominees, so finding out who actually won is often a bit anticlimactic. So here’s where we were a couple of months ago…

  • Alt-J – Relaxer
  • The Big Moon – Love in the 4th Dimension
  • Blossoms – Blossoms
  • Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone
  • Dinosaur – Together, As One
  • Glass Animals – How to Be a Human Being
  • J Hus – Common Sense
  • Sampha – Process
  • Ed Sheeran – ÷
  • Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayer
  • Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos
  • The xx – I See You

This year’s winner is: Sampha. Congratulations to him!