Back in 1987, William Orbit was little known as a name – he would have been primarily recognised as a member of the underground alternative trio Torch Song, but having opened the year with his debut Orbit, by the end of the year he was already onto his second solo album Strange Cargo.
It opens with the glorious Via Caliente. Orbit’s trademark sound has always involved combining complementary melodies at different tempos, and acoustic guitar is a great medium for that. It’s something he has explored more than once on the Strange Cargo series. Clocking in at barely two and a half minutes, Via Caliente is definitely short, but it’s also gloriously evocative and mature.
It is also, unfortunately, far and away, the best thing on here. Let’s be clear about this – the first Strange Cargo album is far from bad, and it does exactly what it sets out to do, but it is just a little bit cheesy at times. Maybe it’s immature or dated, or maybe Orbit just hadn’t quite worked out what he was trying to do yet, but, for all the good tracks on here, there’s nothing quite up to the standard of the opening track.
Case in point: Fire and Mercy, which starts out with what would come to be the familiar Strange Cargo sound: slightly otherworldly, with deep and weird synthetic noises. Before long, though, it’s punctuated by late-eighties digital FM synthesis and naff sounding countermelodies. Just a few years later, it probably would have been great, but in 1987, it just sounds a bit misguided.
The tracks fly by quickly, though – Jump Jet is a very lively diversion, and then Silent Signals is a gentler piece, this time lacking most of the cheesy synth sounds, but also unusually lacking in any kinds of obvious hooks. The Secret Garden, though, is a soft, nursery rhyme-like piece that takes us meandering through the last four minutes or so of the first side of the LP.
The second side opens with the atmospheric and sweet Out of the Ice, which still has some slightly pained late eighties moments, but is generally very good. Scorpion is a short and punchy piece, followed by Riding to Rio, a catchy acoustic guitar-driven piece, which is probably as close as we come to the dizzy heights of Via Caliente during the rest of the album.
Strange Cargo, as we now know, got a sequel three years later. In fact, it ended up with four, the most recent of which appeared just five years ago. The sound that typifies the series is that weird, otherworldly atmosphere that I described earlier, and even Jimmy’s Jag has a bit of this at the start. It’s definitely part of the same series of albums, and it’s a worthy starting point, but perhaps just not quite at its pinnacle yet.
But by now, we’re nearly at the end of this first volume – The Mighty Limpopo meanders along sweetly, and then the gently rhythmic Theme Dream arrives to close the album out. Comparisons to other volumes in the series aside, this is still a good album, with a very unique style, and well worth hearing.
The first Strange Cargo album is still widely available.