Sébastien Tellier – Sexuality

The summer of 2008 isn’t exactly legendary, and never went down in history, but it did give us Sébastien Tellier‘s finest album Sexuality, and the quite crazy Eurovision Song Contest performance that went with it.

It opens with the glorious analogue arpeggio of Roche, a somewhat nonsensical track about how everyone wants to fall in love with Sébastien in the Biarritz summer. This is one of the most listened to tracks in my iTunes library, partly due to a quirk of good timing (it came out around the time I set the library up), and partly because it’s just so good – refreshing, uplifting, and just generally new. The production, by half of Daft Punk, is perfect, somehow both minimal and overproduced, laid back and quirky. Sébastien, meanwhile, is still dreaming of Biarritz in summer.

Kilometer is next, another raunchy track, unmistakably French, but with a strong R&B feel and a gratuitous use of silence. Look brings back the analogue arpeggios, but slower and much more relaxed this time. There’s really little to fault here.

What there always is, is a healthy dose of insanity, and the Eurovision entry Divine comes next, one of Tellier’s two minor UK hits, having peaked at number 106. I suspect most people in the UK just didn’t get it, as it doesn’t make a lot of sense outside of the context of the album, and frankly I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense here either. It’s fun, though.

The raunchier tracks are never far away, though, and Pomme is another – both brilliant and mad, with a slightly bonkers R&B bass line. Une Heure is less overt, apart perhaps from the lyrics, and bobs along pleasantly with a warping bass part and gently tripping drums. Then comes the long instrumental Sexual Sportswear, the track that originally launched the album on MySpace. Like most of the album, it’s entirely brilliant, and this time the only slightly insane thing is the title.

Some tracks are more forgettable – the gentle Elle fades away pleasantly into the background, but then Fingers of Steel turns up, a sweet song full of analogue riffs and gentle sounds. Manty is joyful, built seemingly around the sound of a woman laughing. And by then, the album is pretty much over already.

Then the slightly flanged piano work of L’Amour et la Violence appears. I’m not sure I could completely explain why, but this is my favourite track on here – the lyrics are very introspective (roughly translated, “tell me what you think of my life…” and the piano is played to perfection. It’s a perfect closing track, possibly one of the best I’ve ever heard.

Sexuality is daft – very French, often very raunchy, and almost always pretty silly – but it all works, somehow – it’s a fantastic album. Essential listening.

You can still find Sexuality through all major online retailers.


Björk – Debut

Björk is definitely an artist that I don’t listen to anywhere near enough. For me, as a newcomer to the world of music, she seemed to appear pretty much out of nowhere with 1993’s brilliant Debut, but of course to anyone who knew what they were talking about, she had been floating around the alternative music scene for six years already as party of The Sugarcubes. Actually, before all that, she was a child star in Iceland, having released her actual debut Björk in 1977, but this is not the story of her career, it’s a review of her Debut album.

But Debut, or perhaps more accurately, “comeback”, opens with the brilliant Human Behaviour, produced, as most of the album is, by the then-prolific Nellee Hooper, and released as her debut solo single in June 1993. It’s a great song, challenging in the way that Björk‘s songs often are, but also catchy and clever at the same time.

Next comes Crying, a slightly more generic but still enjoyable track that leads us through to the frankly brilliant Venus as a Boy, the second single in summer 1993. Producer Hooper had, of course, not long before, taken Massive Attack‘s Unfinished Sympathy into the upper reaches of the charts, and he’s definitely applying some of the lessons learnt here as well.

At the time, there did seem to be quite a lot of singles coming out from this album, although there only actually appear to have been five after all, so there are plenty of songs that would never have been hits, and There’s More to Life Than This is definitely one of these. It’s got a pleasant house-meets-disco feel, and Björk pronounces “ghetto blaster” adorably, but it’s not amazing, frankly.

Just three years earlier, she had collaborated on a partially jazz-themed album Gling-Gló, and it’s refreshing to know that she hadn’t turned entirely to the dance sound, as Like Someone in Love, delivered with a jazz vocal style, pulls together a manically strummed harp, seashore noises, and not a whole lot else actually.

Big Time Sensuality was the final single of 1993, a brilliant house piece coupled on the second CD with millions of remixed by the fantastic Fluke and Justin Robertson of Lionrock. It’s bonkers, of course, but this is one of the finest songs on here.

One Day is pleasant too, a gently chilled out dance track that bobs along very nicely indeed for a few minutes. Some tracks, though, such as Aeroplane, are less interesting. Pleasant to have on here, and useful within the broader context of the album, of course, but definitely less essential.

But you’re never far from greatness on this album – Come to Me is lovely, and Violently Happy, released early in 1994 as the final single, with more mixes by Fluke and Graham Massey of 808 State, actually ended up as the second biggest hit from this release. The Anchor Song is a bit of an odd interlude, but it just about works as the closing track of the original version of the album.

Play Dead closes the album, on all the modern versions – and rightly so. At some point after Debut was originally released, David Arnold worked with her and Jah Wobble on this track for the film The Young Americans. Justifiably the biggest hit from this release, it’s quite fantastic – and a great one to hide for the end of the album. I do feel a bit bad for the people who bought the original version and missed out on this on the end, but if you weren’t quite that forward thinking, you might have had to buy this album twice.

It’s a great album, though, and a fantastic Debut. Highly recommended.

You can still find Debut all over the place – just make sure you get the version with Play Dead on the end of it.

William Orbit – Strange Cargo

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.

Dave Gahan – Paper Monsters

It’s surprising in a way how long it took Dave Gahan to release his first solo album. After more than twenty years as Depeche Mode‘s frontman, he must have had a pretty good idea of how to write a hit, but never seemed to have got himself together. Or possibly was too busy with other side projects, such as taking narcotics.

Anyway, Dirty Sticky Floors was the dirty, grungy opening single, a fantastic track, which, if it weren’t for the bass line and of course the vocalist, could have been any contemporary pop-rock crossover act. It was, entirely justifiably, a substantial hit single, breaking the top twenty in the UK and peaking at number 6 in Germany.

But of course he could pull off a single – could he also extend that to a full album? Well, Hold On is pretty promising – not quite as catchy as the opening track, but still a strong and memorable bluesy song.

There does seem to be a bit of a downward spiral happening here though, as the mellow and forgettable A Little Piece follows. It’s pleasant enough; it just never really goes anywhere, and if the album had more like this, then it really wouldn’t be a great debut.

Fortunately, it doesn’t – final single Bottle Living turns up next, lifting the mood. This is, in style, very similar to the opening track, but a lot darker – there’s nothing electronic about this track, it’s rock through and through. Very good rock though. There are still valid criticisms, such as the fact that the lyrics don’t entirely make sense, but that’s alright once in a while.

“I’m back in the room with the two-way door,” isn’t exactly a great opening line either, but Black and Blue Again is a pretty good track otherwise. There’s some nice slide guitar work, and some very clear shades of Depeche Mode at times, but there’s nothing really wrong with that – he did have a clear audience for this release, after all.

This is a thoughtfully structured album, and Stay leads the second half, with strong echoes of Ultra. There are no drums really, more just gentle percussion. It’s a sweet, meandering song, with an ever-present air of grunge hiding in the background.

Then comes second single I Need You, which is, hands down, the best song on here. It’s a deliciously summery love song, and a gentle trippy electronic beat runs all the way through, with very understated guitar work and shimmering synthesisers. It’s really quite brilliant.

Bitter Apple is a bit of an odd song, but it works nicely here among its neighbours, including Hidden Houses. These may not be the best tracks that Gahan has ever recorded, but they should be reasonably high on the list, actually. Goodbye, too, hardly leaves you at the end of the album with an uplifted feeling, but it does round Gahan’s first solo work out comprehensively at least. Paper Monsters may tail off a little at times, but all round, it is an exceptional debut release, and well worth a listen.

You can still find Paper Monsters at all major retailers.

Deep Dish – Junk Science

For some reason, I never expect dance acts to produce good albums. For years, throughout the mid and late 1990s, Deep Dish had turned up creating dark and long house mixes of tracks by my favourite artists, and then in 1998 they finally recorded their own album, led by a single with Everything But The Girl. But somehow I still didn’t expect it to be any good.

It wasn’t until about fifteen years after its original release that I finally tracked down Junk Science, buoyed by just how good that single and a couple of the others were, and of course I was pleasantly surprised. Just a bit late to the party.

The opening track Intro: Morning Wood doesn’t bode well though – starting an album with a sort of cut-down version of another track is exactly what I would have expected. That doesn’t last long, though – and neither does the track. Before long, we’re into the brilliant collaboration with Everything But The GirlThe Future of the Future (Stay Gold), which also closed the folk duo’s 1999 album Temperamental. This version is longer, clocking in at nine and a half minutes, and is still entirely brilliant. The deep house beats with Tracey Thorn‘s vocals work perfectly together. What a song.

It’s not all deep house here though, as the dub elements of Summer’s Over demonstrate. Enormous reverb and warm warping synth sounds captivate you throughout the seven minute duration of this track, and even though it never really goes anywhere, it never stops being fantastic.

After all that, the more generic house beats of Muhammad is Jesus… are a bit of a disappointment. Much as I agree with the sentiments of the lyrics, there isn’t a lot of substance to the rest of the track. So Stranded is a bit of a surprise, a beautiful bluesy track with some gentle guitar and piano work and a great vocal. The omnipresent house beats of course take up a significant part of it, but there’s plenty of room for more soulful music here too.

The title track Junk Science makes a nice centrepiece for the album, some welcome time off work for the house beats, as this chilled out instrumental murmurs its way along. But sadly nothing else on here is really ever quite this good again – Sushi is another pleasant instrumental, this time with more of an electro feel, but it’s not quite up to the same standard. My Only Sin is alright, but it’s just a bit too repetitive to be especially memorable. This is probably the weakest track on here.

So it continues: Monsoon is a noisy instrumental with shades of drum and bass, which just drones on a bit too long to really be enjoyable. It mixes into Persepolis, which is pleasant, but also a little on the dull side, and mercifully short.

After all that, Chocolate City (Love Songs) is a bit of a surprise. It starts off by sounding like a contemporary chart dance track, before mixing elements of jazz, disco, and goodness only knows what else. It’s a fun mix, and while it still isn’t quite up to the standard of some of the earlier tracks, it does at least make for a bit of a change.

By this stage, the album is pretty much over – there’s a gentle dub version of Muhammad is Jesus…, followed by the obscurely titled Wear the Hat, which is a pleasantly punch house track to close the album out.

All told, Junk Science is a surprisingly good album, in spite of the slight disappointments of the second half, and definitely well worth tracking down. Even if you’re even later to the party than I was.

You can still find Junk Science at all major retailers.

Komputer – The World of Tomorrow

“Underwater cities / giant hovercraft / automated factories / trips to the stars”. There’s something about The World of Tomorrow that feels a bit like reading a space annual from the 1970s. And that’s the joke, really – Komputer brilliantly harnessed that combination of naïve futurism and scientific potential and married it with the slightly out-of-time electronic sounds of Kraftwerk to create something witty, ever-contemporary, and utterly fantastic.

Released two decades ago in the UK, as much time has passed between Kraftwerk‘s original career and this as has passed between its release and the present day. It really should sound a bit more dated than it does, but the huge swells of electronic rain that punctuate the opening title track somehow sound every bit as current now as they did all those years ago.

More Automation is gentler and less dramatic – definitely an album track, but a very good one nonetheless. What’s incredible in a way is just how natural this feels – just three years earlier, Komputer were Fortran 5, and were pulling together their third and final eccentric rave album. A decade before that, they were I Start Counting, making slightly wacky 1980s synthpop.

The common theme seems to have always been approaching their music with a slightly daft sense of humour, and so Bill Gates is entirely daft, with the Microsoft CEO’s name sung by a computer in a variety of keys and speeds to clean electronic backing. Valentina is less daft, and a very fitting tribute to Valentina Tereshkova, set against a beautiful electronic backdrop, although it does manage to entirely mispronounce her surname, which seems a bit unfair on her.

Next is the brilliant single Looking Down on London, which takes us on an auditory journey across the UK capital, including a brief pitstop in a pub, with some brilliantly authentic sound effects as accompaniment. This is absolutely excellent, and there’s no other way of looking at it.

Then comes Terminus Interminus, the centrepiece of the album, later released as a single as just Terminus. It’s an epic eight-minute electronic pop song about transport interchanges, with echoes of It’s More Fun to Compute. Which just makes Metroland‘s later It’s More Fun to Commute even more appropriate.

If you break it down, several of the songs here are just built around one or two phrases, and so Singapore really is just “Singapore / hear the tiger roar”, and while it really bears pretty much no resemblance to the island, it’s still a pretty good piece of electronic pop in the tradition of Neon Lights.

But whatever the slight flaws of some tracks might be, The Perfect Pop Band is pure perfection. The line “our songs are quite minimal” is entirely apposite, and there are plenty of other examples. It mixes into Komputer Pop, a similar track in many ways, but also another entirely brilliant one.

The lengthy instrumental Motopia rounds things out, before a short version of We Are Komputer right at the end. It’s another slightly existential track about who Komputer are, but it’s also a great album closer for a great album.

There may be little new on The World of Tomorrow, but what it does, it does exquisitely and with a wry sense of humour, and we really need more music like this in the world.

You can still find The World of Tomorrow at all major retailers.

Sparks – Exotic Creatures of the Deep

Sparks can be a bit of an unknown quantity sometimes. In 2008, they decided to celebrate their fortieth anniversary as a band with Exotic Creatures of the Deep. But Hello Young Lovers, released two years earlier, had been a bit of disappointment after 2002’s exceptional Lil’ Beethoven, so this could really have gone in any direction. Fortunately, Intro is full of a glorious repeated vocal, cello, and even some piano, and it opens this album in brilliant fashion.

The first proper track is the fantastic lead single Good Morning. Quite how, four or five decades into their career, Sparks are able to pull together influences from around them and create pop songs as great as this, is a bit of a mystery to me. On this one, they tap Scissor Sisters and show them how to do it properly, with such great lines as “Does dasvidaniya really mean good morning?”

Sparks have always had their daft side, and the bizarre swing of Strange Animal definitely fits in this category. It’s also rather good, though. Then there’s the exceptional and hilarious I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song, with its huge glam bass line. Then Let the Monkey Drive encapsulates more of the atmosphere of Pacific Coast Highway road trips than you might expect – it’s tempting sometimes to wonder whether monkeys are behind the wheel as drive that route.

After a brief reprise of the intro, we then get I’ve Never Been High, without any obvious lapse in quality. It does step up somewhat with the brilliant She Got Me Pregnant, though, a bizarrely sympathetic song full of strings and fun vocals. Then Lighten Up Morrissey is every bit as good as you might expect, a sweet song about someone who is feeling all the strains of being in a relationship with a Morrissey fan.

There’s no shortage of brilliance on here – This is the Renaissance is exquisite as well. The less superlative moments, such as The Director Never Yelled Cut, are far from bad, so this really is a great all-round album. This track, by the way, turns out to be where the Intro and Intro Reprise were extracted from.

What there is not, perhaps, is much new on here – Photoshop could have easily fitted on Lil’ Beethoven, six years earlier. The lack of beats, the piano, the string swells – it really would have been a perfect fit. It’s also a great song though, so it’s a struggle to see that as a problem.

The identity crisis that is this album comes to a close with the wonderful Likeable, in which someone tells us how much everybody else likes them, which of course smells very slightly of insecurity. The waltz middle section is adorable.

All in all, Exotic Creatures of the Deep is easily one of Sparks‘ finest moments, which is particularly impressive given that they were already forty years into their career at this point. Now, ten years on, some of the relevance of the glam and Scissor Sisters references may be less relevant, but it’s still an exceptional release.

You can still find Exotic Creatures of the Deep at all major retailers.