Tracey Thorn – Out of the Woods

After a gap of twenty-five years, filled only by an entire musical career with Everything But The GirlTracey Thorn returned ten years ago this week with her second solo album Out of the Woods.

It opens with the sweet, nursery rhyme-like Here it Comes Again. I haven’t heard her 1982 debut A Distant Shore, but I think it’s probably safe to say that it sounded a lot less polished than this. It’s laid back though, and lacks some of the electronic sound of her work with Everything But The Girl, so the opening riff of A-Z will be very welcome if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for. It’s a great synth song, very different but every bit as good as anything Thorn had done in the preceding couple of decades.

The lead single was It’s All True, a collaboration with Ewan Pearson and another great synthpop song. It’s a lot more playful than you might be used to, but it’s still extremely good. And the collaboration obviously worked out – Pearson produced the entirety of Thorn’s subsequent album Love and Its Opposite (2010).

Get Around to It is a cover of a song by Arthur Russell, which is a little harder to fathom than some of the other things on here, and then Hands Up to the Ceiling is a wonderfully ironic, largely acoustic piece about partying.

Thorn worked with a wide range of different collaborators on this album, and it shows, both for better and worse – it’s a deliciously varied collection, but it can be a little hit or miss at times too. Easy is one of the better pieces on here, full of atmosphere and melancholy, and Falling Off a Log may not be the catchiest ever, but it has an enormous bass part and some clever production too.

Nowhere Near passes you by fairly anonymously, but Grand Canyon, which rightly appeared as the album’s third single with a whole pile of remixes, is probably as close as this album gets to the likes of Missing – it has a catchy but sad melody, with an enormous house riff in the background, and frankly it’s fantastic.

The production on the more folk-flavoured tracks is fun too, and it’s probably fair to say this would be less of an album without them, but on the other hand By Piccadilly Station I Sat Down and Wept is definitely a lot less memorable than Raise the Roof, which follows, and also appeared as the second single.

Amazingly though, this is such a varied album that you probably didn’t notice this was the last track already. Digital editions added a beautifully broken down cover of Pet Shop Boys‘ King’s Cross, which later appeared as a single in its own right with a fantastic remix by Hot Chip, but you don’t get that on the CD unfortunately.

Apart from that notable omission, Out of the Woods is a great second album, and an extremely promising way for Thorn to revitalise her career.

Buy the digital version of Out of the Woods here, or buy the CD but then make sure you add King’s Cross on for yourself – it’s a key part of this album.

Apollo 440 – Electro Glide in Blue

Let’s be clear about one thing from the start: Apollo 440 are, or at least were, for an album or three, very very good indeed.  And 1997 saw them pretty much at their pinnacle.

Their second album Electro Glide in Blue opens with a sublime short instrumental Stealth Overture, before launching in earnest into the second single Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Dub. Largely built around a Van Halen sample with some lively drum and bass affectations, it’s both iconic and great, although I suspect if you weren’t there in 1997, it would be more than a little difficult to understand why.

Altamont Super-Highway Revisited is next, perhaps one of the weaker tracks on here, but it bounces along pleasantly enough until we get to title track Electro Glide in Blue, a dark eight-and-a-half minute odyssey full of self-doubt and angst.

From one epic to another, Vanishing Point is next, a gentle drum and bass piece with enormous vocal pads and even bigger bass. While most people were busy hanging around being sultry in soundalike indie bands, Apollo 440 were to be found creating seven or eight minute electronic opuses.

That is not to say that guitars don’t have their place here, as Tears of the Gods demonstrates, with a great vocal from Charles Bukowski, but the guitar work here is altogether more soulful than what most people were throwing around in the mid-1990s.

Final single Carrera Rapida is next, the theme from a computer game called Rapid Racer, and the single came with a great CD containing all the background music from the game, all built around the theme of this track. By itself, it’s lively, but probably not the best thing on here.

Then comes the lead single Krupa, an homage to a drummer called Gene Krupa, and so the focus of the piece is largely the drumming, with a couple of repeated synth lines over the top. It’s entirely unexpected, but very good nonetheless.

Following a quieter moment with White Man’s Throat, the finest moment on the album comes with the glorious Pain in Any Language, featuring Billy Mackenzie on vocals. It’s another long one, clocking in at nearly nine minutes in duration, but right from the start the slightly Asian sounding chimes and emotive vocals really make you feel something special.

That only leaves us to return to the beginning for an enormous pseudo-classical piece Stealth Mass in F#m, which with its choral vocals seems slightly out of place, unless you’re happy to accept that Apollo 440 were really just doing whatever they wanted here, a fact which is comfortably backed up by the bonus track on the end, the other single Raw Power, a hugely energetic piece that shakes you up rather after the gentler ending which preceded it.

All told, though, Electro Glide in Blue is a great album – if you’re missing the context of what it meant in the 1990s, you might find it helps to put some pictures of Tony Blair and the Spice Girls on the wall, and then you’ll definitely understand. Fantastic stuff.

You can still find Electro Glide in Blue at all major retailers.

Onetwo – Instead

In a parallel universe, Onetwo would have been an enormous electronic supergroup. The duo of Claudia Brücken, formerly of Propaganda, and Paul Humphreys from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and a collaboration with Martin L. Gore of Depeche Mode, really should have been enough alone to guarantee a couple of number one hits. But this is the twenty-first century, and anyone above the age of 25 who who keeps their clothes on is considered “cult”.

So Onetwo‘s brief career began in 2004, with an EP entitled Item, and three years later came the one and only album, Instead. It opens with the glorious two-part The Theory of Everything. A great introduction to the warm synth and simple vocals that characterise the duo, it is however somewhat overshadowed by Sequential, a beautifully evocative piece that must be one of the finest pop songs never to make the charts.

Home (Tonight) continues the theme, and while for the most part this is an album where the tracks work together to form something brilliant, rather than always trying to stand out on their own, there’s plenty to enjoy here too. Similarly Signals, one of just two tracks on here from the original 2004 EP, is another gentle and beautiful song.

The really unexpected moment comes with a cover of Pink Floyd‘s Have a Cigar, which works well and sounds great, but you are left wondering somewhat how on earth it came to be recorded and included here. There’s a certain logic when it mixes into another cover, this time of Cat Power‘s I Don’t Blame You, with Humphreys on lead vocals, a voice barely heard since, but just about recognisable from OMD‘s Souvenir.

Then comes Cloud Nine, definitely the best moment on here – in fact, it’s probably one of the finest songs of the decade, in spite of the opening “shalalalalala” from Brücken. Featuring the writing talents and guitar work of Martin L. Gore, somehow the chords and warm synth sounds come together perfectly. Also worth mentioning is that it features the synth work of friend of this blog Jon Russell, also known as Jonteknik.

If there was any doubt that Onetwo were in fact a synthpop supergroup, Andy McCluskey gets a writing credit on the lovely Anonymous, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a bit of an OMD feel to it, particularly in the chorus. Then Heaven has a bit of an end-of-album feel, even though there’s still plenty to come after it. There’s a pleasant ethereal other-worldliness to it, and while there’s not been anything particularly dark or violent up to this point, it still makes for a welcome change of pace.

It’s always nice to hear singers using their native language, and so it is with Kein Anschluß (which, interestingly, by 2007, was actually a misspelling). I suspect it’s partially intended as a nod to some of the duo’s influences from Brücken’s homeland, with its rhythmic electronic beats and almost Gregorian sounds. It’s easily one of the best songs on here.

After another downtempo moment with The Weakness in Me, you finally have to accept that it’s time for the closing track A Vision in the Sky, a sweet and memorable pop song with a gentle swing pattern and an enormous choral pad backing. This is entirely how this album should end – with something epic and unforgettable. If only it had sold a few more copies.

But ultimately Onetwo‘s downfall was that the seventeen year romantic partnership of Brücken and Humphreys meant an inevitable end to their combined musical career, but the 2006 reformation of the original line-up of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark had already put paid to most of Humphreys’s time commitments. So sadly, we’re left with just one album from Onetwo, completely forgotten but entirely brilliant, Instead.

You can still find Instead at all major retailers.

White Town – Women in Technology

I’ve often wondered what most people made of White Town‘s 1997 album Women in Technology. Released in haste after the sudden success of Your Woman, it almost made the charts but sold respectably. This week, it celebrates the twentieth anniversary of its brief fling with fame, which seems a good time to give it another listen.

It opens with second single Undressed, a good opener, as it showcases White Town‘s lo-fi charms with a particularly good song. If you came to this expecting twelve clones of Your Woman, you probably would have been disappointed, although contemporary reviews for the album were actually fairly complimentary, and this single did make the lower ends of the chart, meaning White Town don’t (doesn’t?) quite go down in history as a one-hit wonder.

Next is the more uptempo Thursday at The Blue Note, and while it does come a little closer to cloning Your Woman, by now you probably should have got that idea out of your mind. It’s a great indie party track, the highlight of which surely has to be the Derby-accented lady who speaks the title towards the end.

There’s an impressive variety of styles at play here, with the acoustic sound of A Week Next June coming next, and then the moment that you could probably be forgiven for waiting for, the number one hit single Your Woman.

It still blows my mind slightly whenever this turns up on the radio – in context, on the album, it makes some degree of sense as a song – you can accept that Women in Technology is an album for misfits, and that a man telling someone he could never be their woman is OK. Randomly heard on the radio in amongst early 1990s rock (as it often is), you might be left a little confused. The computer pips in the middle section are, of course, the finest moment of the song.

An updated version of debut eponymous single White Town follows, before some warped electronics introduce The Shape of Love. One of the more interesting things done on the album sleeve was to scatter the songs around a discreet image of a lady’s body. The Shape of Love is somewhere just above the left knee. The song is actually largely acoustic and fairly simple, with the grimy electronics just creating background atmosphere.

Wanted comes next, a grimy production which uses a female vocal sample as part of the rhythm track, and featuring a great lead vocal from Ann Pearson. This was at one point planned as the second single, but for some reason never appeared, which is a shame, because Vince Clarke‘s remix on the promo CD is great (actually I think it’s probably fair to say that it’s better than the original, although it definitely wouldn’t have worked as an album track). There’s also a very rare promo 12″ which includes remixes by various other synth legends, and is probably worth buying if you’re ever lucky enough to find a copy.

For every more forgettable moment on here (The Function of the Orgasm is fine, but nobody was going to buy this album purely for this), there’s another great track – Going Nowhere Somehow could have easily been another hit single if White Town had been destined for stardom. Theme for an Early Evening American Sitcom is a slightly daft instrumental, but The Death of My Desire is another indie/rock crossover for misfits.

That’s very much the theme of this album – it was clearly never intended to be the biggest seller ever, but there’s plenty to enjoy if you like honest, home produced but professional sounding music. And ultimately what more can anyone ask for? Women in Technology closes much the same way it opened, with a sweet song with enormous drumming, Once I Flew, then a matter of months later White Town and the record company parted company, and everyone got on with their lives again. But for a brief, fleeting moment, this was an album that offered a lot to it audience, and I suspect those who haven’t heard it might still find something to enjoy.

You can find Women in Technology at all major retailers.

Air – Pocket Symphony

Of all of Air‘s albums, 2007’s Pocket Symphony is definitely one of my favourites. The hits might have been eluding them by this stage, but the album was well received, and for me it remains Air‘s last great studio album (2009’s follow-up Love 2 has little to love, Le Voyage dans la Lune is a good extension of a soundtrack, and Music for Museum is a little too avant garde for my tastes).

It opens, as all good Air albums do, with something soft and gentle – in the case of Pocket Symphony, it’s the adorable Space Maker. There’s already a certain spaciousness to the piece, with a bit of melancholy as well – gone is the simplicity of the first album, and the daftness of the second – this is the sound of a group who are entirely comfortable in their skins and with their sound.

Lead single Once Upon a Time is the second track, with a lovely rippling piano arpeggio. In an earlier age, this would have been a huge hit single, but in 2007 it only got a French release and only had one b-side.

Of all people, Jarvis Cocker turns up to deliver the vocal on One Hell of a Party, and does an exceptional job. The melancholic side of Air – not really explored too deeply on earlier releases – is really rather beautiful, and Cocker’s lyrics and vocal performance are both sad and sweet.

But there’s also plenty of Air‘s traditional sound here – Napalm Love is a sweet love song, and Mayfair Song is a charming instrumental. Left Bank is another sweet, lonely acoustic piece, and their ode to pop superstars Photograph is very pleasant too.

The second and final single – and the only one in the UK, although you could have been forgiven for failing to notice its release – was Mer du Japon, a very simple one-line song which apparently was written to honour the Pacific Ocean. It’s a little too simple in some ways, but it’s a pleasant piece nonetheless.

The instrumental Lost Message follows, and then Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy fame turns up to sing the adorable Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping. It might not have been destined to be a hit single, but it’s a great song even so, and a very worthwhile collaboration.

By this point the album is pretty much over – the vocal Redhead Girl and instrumental Night Sight close the album in gentle fashion, and it’s finished already. This may not be Air‘s most famous works, but it’s definitely one of their most consistent and finest hours.

You can still find Pocket Symphony at all major retailers. There are a few bonus tracks, either on the digital versions or using “OpenDisc” technology (no I don’t know either) on the CD.

The Orb – Orblivion

The Orb are always a little bit odd – it probably goes without saying – and “odd” is definitely a good term to describe their fifth album Orblivion, released in 1997. Six years on from their debut, this album actually gave them their first US hit album, and also, with Toxygene, their biggest UK hit. As it celebrates its twentieth birthday, now seems a good time to give it another listen.

It opens with the pleasant Delta Mk II, which ripples along with arpeggios for a very soft and gentle seven minutes, before it mixes almost imperceptibly into the lovely Ubiquity. Whereas preceding releases Pomme Fritz (1994) and Orbus Terrarum (1995) had been downright silly and distinctly earthbound (respectively), Orblivion saw a return to the obscure science fiction-based aural adventure of earlier releases, and this is very audible on the first couple of tracks.

The tracks move so swiftly and smoothly from one to the next that you’re a good way through the album before you know it. Second single Asylum passes by with a friendly nod, and then the bouncier Bedouin arrives, full of dub reverb and otherworldly vocal samples. Molten Love brings a tribal rhythm and some overwhelming chimes, along with some gentle pads, and of course the normal array of entirely bizarre vocal samples.

After the short piece Pi comes the longer S.A.L.T., with some Mancunian Satanic readings, apparently borrowed from a Mike Leigh film called Naked. Out of context, as all good samples on The Orb‘s works are, it makes relatively little sense, but makes for an entertaining listen nonetheless. After a brief sea shanty, it mixes into The Orb‘s biggest hit single to date.

Toxygene, it is said, started life as a remix of Jean-Michel Jarre‘s comeback single Oxygène (Part 8), which was rejected because it didn’t actually contain any of the original. This is easy to believe when you hear the mixes that did make it – they’re generally huge dance versions that remain fairly faithful to the piece, and great though The Orb are, that really isn’t why you employ them to remix your single.

But whatever the backstory, Toxygene is great, and is entirely deserving of its place as the centrepiece of this album. It’s also the only commercial-sounding thing on here, so you can’t help but feel it was probably a good thing all round that things ended up the way they did. For pretty much the only time in their career, The Orb deliver a huge synth-driven hit single, and it’s absolutely fantastic.

Then it’s back to the slightly loopy samples with the short Log of Deadwood, and then the longer Secrets, and then Passing of Time opens with another crazy sample, I’m guessing from a film (it sounds like a housing advert from the 1950s, until the nice man tells us “the rocket is waiting”). The resulting track is laden with grimy synths, but as with much of this album, is lacking a little in melody.

72 is just a short sample, with a hidden track a few minutes later, and then Orblivion draws to an end. For me, it’s not as good as subsequent album Cydonia, but it does have Toxygene, which is a pretty good reason to track it down – as a minimum everything else on here is a bonus, and you might even find something you like in amongst the rest.

You can still find the two-disc special edition of Orblivion at major retailers.

Marsheaux – Peeka Boo

Just a little over a decade ago, the second album from Greek synthpop duo Marsheaux was unleashed on the world. After the understated pop of E-Bay Queen (2004), it really came out of nowhere. If you haven’t had the pleasure of listening to Marsheaux before, this is well worth tracking down.

It starts with some gentle synth murmurs, which grows a little to become Hanging On. By the chorus, it’s up there with some of the great electronic pop songs of history. Second track Wait No More is even better – it’s catchy, melancholic, and you could name hundreds of eighties acts who are being chanelled here.

There is, to use that awful term, a degree of “retro” here, and not just in the analogue synth sounds – the songs are a couple of decades behind schedule as well. But that’s far from a bad thing, and there’s still a freshness in the sounds and simple female vocals that make it stand out.

There are thirteen tracks on here, and with the perplexingly mis-spelt No Sence and the glorious cover of The Promise, it quickly cements itself as one of the finest synth albums of its era.

It’s worth a mention for the packaging, and ingenious although apparently ineffective marketing ploy, which unfolds into a large purple paper bag with eye holes, and instructions were provided by the record company to purchasers that they were to share photos of themselves with it on their head. Which is surely every bit as creative as anything anyone has come up with before.

What’s really surprising is that it doesn’t really get boring. It has its lower points, of course, but City of Lights leads to the fantastic Dream of a Disco – which absolutely should have been a huge hit single – and you realise you’re pretty much half way through the album already.

What a Lovely Surprise is good too, although quite what the relevance of the line about “fairies do not exist” might be is a bit of a mystery. But there are enough songs on here that you do start to forget which is which after a while. Home and What You Don’t Like are great, but Love Under Pressure is the one later track that really stands out, with its grimy disco vibe (yes, I said “vibe”).

Then comes People’s Mind, which might have been a b-side if there had actually been any singles, perhaps on the back of the next track, a great cover version of New Order‘s Regret. It’s not especially new, or different, but if nothing else it’s a worthwhile reminder that it’s a great pop song.

The last track is Heaven, full of subdued drum sounds and low pads. It’s an entirely suitable closing track to a brilliant album. The only downside now, ten years on, is the knowledge that little Marsheaux has done since gets anywhere close to being this good. But if you’re looking for that one synthpop album full of great pop songs and maybe some Mediterranean charm (don’t laugh – you might be) this is definitely it.

You can find Peeka Boo in a double-pack with debut album E-Bay Queen, still widely available.