The Human League – Tell Me When

Billy, we are told, was an inspiration, positive and kind. And while history doesn’t necessarily explain who Billy was, The Human League‘s late 1994 comeback Tell Me When is still pretty fantastic.

A little over four years after the broadly misguided and largely digitally-driven Romantic?, Tell Me When was the first single from The League’s brilliant 1995 comeback Octopus. This was the album where they regained control for the first time in over a decade – Crash (1986) had famously descended into fine, but often dull, American soul, and its 1990 follow-up had been the sound of a group who had fundamentally lost their way. It wasn’t until Octopus that they found it again.

The lead track is fantastic, and got plenty of airplay. It was not, perhaps, as big a hit as it should have been, but it was undisputedly the Sheffield group’s best hit since at least Human, if not earlier. The lyrics are typically daft, and the vocal delivery typically imperfect, but the melody is catchy, and the soft analogue sounds are refreshing and uplifting.

This was, of course, the mid-1990s, and so a slew of remixes were inevitable. First up on this single was Utah Saints, with their Mix 1. It’s a catchy dance-pop crossover remix of a kind that just wouldn’t turn up now, with heavy beats and rippling synth arpeggios. It’s dated, and here’s a particularly fun bit half way through, where Utah Saints do their normal chord change-heavy bit, which is almost hilarious, but the mix as a whole is still great for what it is.

We then get not one but two b-sides, the first of which is the 1993 collaboration with YMO, Kimi Ni Mune Kyun. With two great groups collaborating, I’d have had high hopes, but this is honestly pretty dreadful. It must be at least 20 bpm too fast, and just seems to be a bit of a mess of beats. It’s a shame, but it really isn’t great.

But then we get the delightful instrumental The Bus to Crookes, a delightfully Sheffield-oriented take on the now-traditional transport mode-based electronic music track. This was not, let’s face it, ever going to break any particular boundaries, but it’s a nice instrumental piece, nonetheless.

Disc two opens with Utah Saints‘ other contribution to this release, Mix 2. This one seems more fully developed, somehow – the sounds are all the same, but the attempt at a full vocal mix has gone, replaced instead by repeated vocal snippets and broken down sections. Both mixes are great, but this is the one that really hits its mark.

Red Jerry is next, one of the people who would record one of the less offensive remixes of Don’t You Want Me a year or so later. His take on Tell Me When isn’t great – it’s a little better than the manic happy hardcore that was floating around during this period, but not a lot. The mid-1990s seem to have been a period where it was acceptable for remixers to take other people’s songs and just put the same riff on every one of them, and Red Jerry does seem to have been a part of that crowd – it worked for other songs, but not so much for this one.

Next is the Strictly Blind Dub, a dull house mix from Development Corporation. It’s a bit faster than some house tracks, so doesn’t quite do the relentless plodding thing that a lot of unimaginative house seems to, but it isn’t particularly elevating either, and lasts at least two or three minutes longer than it should (it isn’t even six minutes long in total). The fact that one of the remix duo was in Urban Cookie Collective should probably have been a sign. The same duo were responsible for the Overworld Mix that follows, and that’s a little better, with a bass line that nods to Blue Monday and a lot of acid squelching, but unfortunately it doesn’t go anywhere more interesting in the end.

Inexplicably, the second disc also closes with Utah SaintsMix 1, so there’s little more to say here. It started off so well, but as was often the case in the mid-1990s, this single gave us a great lead track, a couple of interesting b-sides, and then a bunch of largely lacklustre remixes. But as a comeback release, this was pretty promising, and served well to herald Octopus.

The first CD of Tell Me When is still available here.

William Orbit – Barber’s Adagio for Strings

If anything, in 1999, you would have known William Orbit for his production work on pretty much every pop hit of the year. Yes, they all had pretty much the same synth arpeggio on them – he loves synth arpeggios – but Madonna, All Saints, and plenty of others had benefitted from his work.

What you almost certainly didn’t know was that four years earlier, he had released an album of updated classical music, called Pieces in a Modern Style. Originally credited to The Electric Chamber, it had been speedily deleted following complaints from the estate of one of the composers. But now, with his new-found fame as a producer, Orbit was able to revisit the album, remove the two problem pieces, and replace them with some new ones. And, because he was now a mega-star, he also got two singles, the first of which came out twenty years ago this week.

That opening single was Barber’s Adagio for Strings, taking Samuel Barber‘s dramatic piece and bringing it to life in a modern way. The irony, of course, with Pieces in a Modern Style, was that they weren’t particularly – but with Ferry Corsten‘s intervention, the single version becomes huge. It opens with William Orbit‘s synth string work, just fattened a little, but then suddenly, after the first minute, it just ignites, with beats and a trance lead line. To describe it as anything other than explosive would be underselling it.

ATB takes much the same approach, opening with effect-laden strings, and bringing in his own trademark sounds after a minute or so. His reworkings only ended up being released in Germany, perhaps because they didn’t fit as well for the UK audience, or perhaps they just weren’t ready in time. ATB‘s sound was already well known at this time, and honestly his mix does sound very like everything else he had released. It’s nice enough, but does feel a little surplus to requirements.

Finally, it’s time to hear the original, cut down somehow from its nine-minute album form to be a four-minute radio-friendly version. I doubt this received much airplay, even on classical radio, but it’s good that the single gets the original in some form here. It’s a challenge for the listener, in a way, as many people buying this release would have done so for the first track, but you have to acknowledge that it’s a beautiful piece of music, realised perfectly here. If, perhaps, a little short.

The fourth track on the German single – and actually the lead track on the UK CD single – was Ferry Corsten‘s full 12″ mix. It’s great to hear him take his elements to a full club mix, but it’s also a little disappointing that he chose to open with a fairly dull introduction, with a bit of trance synth work, and a lot of beats. After the first couple of minutes, he just switches us straight into the radio version, which is entirely as it should be, but I could honestly have dispensed with the introduction there.

Finally, we get ATB‘s 12″ mix, and as with the previous track, it’s a little surprising that a piece of music that started off life with a duration of nine minutes seems so forced when turned into an extended dance mix. It’s a reminder, in a way, of how different the forms of classical and dance music have to be. Opening with a rhythm section just feels very dull, in this context.

Even if he didn’t create the single version himself, it was with Barber’s Adagio for Strings that William Orbit cemented his position as one of the finest producers and multi-instrumentalists of our time, and for that, we all owe it a lot.

We reviewed the German CD single, which is no longer available new, but can be found through various second-hand retailers.

Electronic – Getting Away with It

When they first appeared, three decades ago this week, Electronic must have been a bit of a revelation. True, New Order had been steadily evolving from rock to pop over the preceding decade, but a collaboration between Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr, the extraordinary guitarist from The Smiths, must have conjured up ideas of something guitar-heavy. It wasn’t – Getting Away with It was, in a way, both Sumner and Marr’s first experiment with true pop.

The single version is, as I’m sure you know by now, exceptional. It’s a pop song, with synth strings and sweet acoustic guitar work. There’s something a little quirky with it, of course, but it still holds together beautifully. On vocals, Bernard Sumner and Neil Tennant – neither of them particularly accomplished vocalists, but both great in their own way – harmonise perfectly, bringing a delightfully humanist quality to the song. It’s definitely nothing like New Order or The Smiths, and although it is a lot like Pet Shop Boys, the pop lyric doesn’t feel like something that Neil Tennant would have come up with on his own.

The definitive track listing appears to be the digital reissue, pulling all the different tracks together in one place, and that takes us next to the lead track on the 12″, the Extended Mix. This is an extended version very much in the 1980s style – take the first verse and strip it back a bit, add an extra instrumental verse, and mix original elements in, one by one. It’s a worthy version, but to a modern ear, there’s surprisingly little new here until the long breakdown section in the middle, which could honestly be dispensed with.

By 1989, artists were already sending tracks off for a multitude of weird and wonderful remixes, but Electronic seem not to have been especially aware of this, so the various singles of Getting Away with It are largely peppered with alternative versions. The extended Instrumental is lovely, and unusually for an instrumental version, it stands well alone. This includes the longer orchestral ending that would appear on later versions of the single mix.

There is a b-side, though – and this is perhaps a surprise, given that it seems to have since flown completely under the radar. Maybe this was intentional, as it was omitted altogether from the CD release. Lucky Bag is a beatsy, early house instrumental that provides occasional echoes of Bobby Orlando‘s huge bass lines. It’s hard to know exactly what Electronic would have been thinking with this, to tell the truth – it’s nice, but also instantly forgettable. Maybe it’s an extended experiment, or maybe it was always intended to be a b-side. Either way, it’s a nice diversion.

There are remixes here, but there’s nothing particularly great. For whatever reason, the common trend at the time with remixes was to cut the original back, add beats, add a few cheesy synth lines, and a bit of a calypso arpeggio, and call it done. So it is with Graeme Park and Mike Pickering‘s remixes. The Nude Mix is an uninspired dub version with weird down-tempo, almost rave-inspired synth lines dropping in all over the place. The Vocal Remix is, I would assume, their attempt to add the vocal back in for a more radio-friendly version, and while there’s plenty to enjoy here, both mixes really seem to fail on most levels. They’re nice, but just not quite good enough, and while the final fade on the second mix comes a little suddenly, it really can’t come too soon.

It’s nice to get another version of Lucky Bag to close the release, but the Miami Edit is a curious version – slightly more beat-driven than the one on the 7″, but far from different enough to really be noteworthy. On the UK release, this was hidden away on the second 12″, which seems appropriate – it’s a nice treat, but nothing particularly special.

So Getting Away with It is a bit of a mixed bag – a great track, but not, perhaps, such a great single. Electronic, for the time being, showed all the signs of being a one-off experiment, but perhaps inevitably, given the success of this release, they got back together for the 1991 Electronic album, which then inexplicably went on to skip Getting Away with It from its original track listing altogether. But with Getting Away with It, they assured us that there was something special about this collaboration.

We reviewed the US CD single. The five versions of the original track from here can be found on this digital release.

Piney Gir – Peakahokahoo

Following her brief cult success as half of Vic Twenty, singer Piney Gir reappeared with the delightfully lo-fi Peakahokahoo, released fifteen years ago this week. It’s a short album – so short, in fact, that it’s difficult to review, as each track disappears before you’re really able to start writing anything.

Vic Twenty had been a wonderful act, for the short time that they lasted. A couple of years earlier, they supported Erasure, wore Russian military outfits, and released delightful short electronic pop music. Sometimes verging on chiptune, at other times just dark, grimy, simplistic synthpop, their little-known album Electrostalinist is well worth a listen, if you ever find a copy.

This, though, was Piney Gir‘s first solo album. It opens with Boston, carrying on the theme of absurdly fast synth lines and choruses that started in Vic Twenty. Good, but not entirely convincing yet.

Next is Que Cera Cera, a hilariously bouncy Casio keyboard version of the first verse of the classic, which leads us into the dark but chirpy Girl. It’s clever – atmospheric but still very lo-fi. It’s also long enough to be able to write more than a sentence while it lasts. If there were any obvious singles on here, this is probably where I would begin.

Creature is good too, though – its slow, crunchy beats and processed vocals are evocative and intriguing. There’s an element of teenage angst here, which is captured beautifully. Other things aren’t quite as clear – the semi-shouty rendition of My Generation just about works, but seems a little misguided. Same for the short and somewhat sweet La La La.

A couple of years on, Piney Gir was asked to play country versions of the songs on here, and thus the follow-up album Hold Yer Horses became an alt-country version of this album. That might have been an odd choice at the time, but it was extremely successful, at least in underground circles, and seems to have gained her a cult following and cemented her career since then.

But there were already hints of this direction on Peakahokahoo, and Greetings, Salutations, Goodbye is probably the first of these. It would open Hold Yer Horses, and several of the other key tracks from here made it on there too. It’s quirky and clever, and while the guitar work comes as a bit of a surprise after all the 8-bit hits, it’s a good song.

K-I-S-S-I-N-G is another sweet song, although the rhymes are a bit odd. The instrumentation is what makes this work, honestly, but it’s an impressive reminder of just how varied this album is – we’ve come from fast, frantic, synthpop to this somewhat haunting piece.

It is a little impenetrable at times, though – there seems to be a bit of a journey going on through this album, and so probably by this stage we’re hanging out with an angsty teenage Piney Gir, who is wondering why everyone else seems to be kissing in trees except her. In that context, Sweet maybe makes sense, but it’s difficult to be sure – it seems to be a dreamy love song for someone that the singer doesn’t really know, but you probably had to be there to be certain.

Nightsong sees Simple Kid turn up for an oddly moonlit jazz piece, again unlike anything else that we’ve heard on here so far. This is definitely an album that’s full of surprises. But Piney Gir is also not afraid of bringing elements back when they’re needed, and so Ruth is Coming to America takes us back to those catchy Vic Twenty countermelodies with a full-on Casio rhythm. It’s bizarrely great, and yet at the same time a little bit unlistenable. Intriguing, though.

Jezebel sees things turn a bit dark. Maybe this isn’t an autobiographical album, after all. This is a grimy glam rock piece in a sense, but with an absurdly laid back vocal that really shouldn’t fit, but somehow works well. I don’t think anyone has ever recorded a glam track that was this gentle.

Finally, the closing track is Janet Schmanet – it’s actually the thirteenth track on here, although barely forty minutes have passed. It’s probably the cheesiest of all the tracks on here – the vast majority of sounds on here come from a portable keyboard, but that’s intentional. The lyrics are entirely daft, but hey, why not? The “get your adverbs here” line is weird, but inspired.

For good measure, we get a theremin version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow to close. Because of course we do.

So that’s Peakahokahoo. It’s every bit as eccentric as the title would suggest, but for all its oddities, it’s definitely never boring. You can see how the simplistic synthpop of Vic Twenty must have seemed a little boring to Piney Gir – she clearly doesn’t like being pigeonholed, and probably likes being in control too. So why not let her take control of your listening for a few minutes, and hear what she has to say for herself? Just accept that she might be a little bit strange at first.

You can still find Peakahokahoo at all major retailers.

Heaven 17 – How Live Is

Heaven 17 famously never used to play live. It just wasn’t what they did. But somehow, in 1997, well over a decade since anyone remembered hearing anything new from them, they decided to tour, supporting Erasure. Released a couple of years later, the budget live album that recorded the first date on that tour, in Glasgow, has appeared under about ten different names now, initially as Live at Last through their own website, and then as How Live Is for the first commercial release.

This set opened with (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang, the 1993 remix performed live. Their debut single is, honestly, every bit as good, or as awful, as it ever was. The whole Penthouse and Pavement album is, for me, a bit like a joke that everyone else gets but you just can’t see why it’s funny. You probably just had to be there at the time – and the remix didn’t do this one too many favours for me either.

But what does strike you, even despite that, is just how good a vocalist Glenn Gregory is. He may have barely sung live at this stage, but he’s a natural, which is clearly going to pay dividends as this album continues. This is even clearer on Crushed by the Wheels of Industry, which follows, giving Gregory the chance to really shine.

We Blame Love was their latest single at the time, and while it never quite made it into the shops in the UK, it sold a few copies in Germany. The whole Bigger Than America album, from which this is taken, is a bit of a sad tale, really, as the songs are among Heaven 17‘s best for at least a decade, but it barely sold anything.

Time for another hit – they were just a support act on this date, after all. Come Live with Me seems very seedy indeed now, three and a half decades after its original release, and I imagine Heaven 17 have done some soul searching about its lyrics in recent years, but at its heart is what I think is intended, at least, to be a very sweet love song about an age gap that really doesn’t matter to either party. Even if it sounds as though it’s about a middle-aged man obsessing over a teenager.

New track Freak! is next, proving that they’re still capable of recording rubbish. You have to wonder what Erasure‘s audience were making of this at this point – I’m sure they loved hearing the eighties hits, but the applause at the end of this track seems a little surprising, given that I can’t imagine many would have known it, and fewer still would have liked it much. Maybe the visual performance made up for it at this point.

I should clarify my feelings about Heaven 17, as it’s probably coming across as though I hate them here. I really don’t – I think they have written a lot of great songs, and Gregory always delivers a good vocal. I just think they’ve tended towards repetitive, unmelodic chants a few too many times, and Freak! is another example of that for me.

What Heaven 17 do have is a decent collection of songs to fix this with, and so here comes the brilliant Let Me Go to the rescue. Such a good song, and barely messed around with here – they have added a few extra wizzes and bangs here and there, but nothing too major. It redeems the previous track at least, if not the last few albums as well.

Let’s All Make a Bomb, originally an album track on Penthouse and Pavement, has been given an overdue update. There’s actually another version on this release, hidden away among the enhanced video section, and that’s a better rendition, but this one isn’t bad. Proof that there was often little wrong with the actual songs in the early eighties – just a lot of overambitious production, perhaps? Even so, this does get a little overwrought during the chorus.

The nineties were not kind to Heaven 17, though, and while some of their 1992 remixes brought a degree of new life to the songs, the house version of Penthouse and Pavement didn’t even make the charts, so this lively performance is worthy but just seems very waily here. For fans, it must have been amazing to finally see them live, and they have certainly got better over time – I saw an exceptional performance of theirs about ten years ago in Manchester – but the performance on this CD sometimes just isn’t that good.

Every time you have that feeling, though, they rescue it with something, and this time it’s 1995’s comeback, the number 128 hit single Designing Heaven. Again, they go over the top with the vocals, and Gregory trills his Rs in “running” to almost comedic effect, but while this was never going to hit the top spot, it isn’t a bad track or a bad performance.

It would, of course, be pretty disappointing if they couldn’t get Temptation right, performed here in its jaunty 1992 Brothers in Rhythm remix form. The dance nature of the version means that much of the track is given over to backing singers telling us that they can’t see our hands, which is probably something that works better when you’re there in the room than listening on CD. But all in all, this is a great track, a competent remix, and a good performance.

The treats are all stacked up towards the end here, which is entirely appropriate for a support act. But it’s the final track that really packs a punch – for the first time, Heaven 17 cover The Human League‘s (i.e. their own) debut single Being Boiled, in its punchier album version form. Obviously nobody could ever replace Phil Oakey, but Glenn Gregory gives it his best, adding vocal power and punch to a brilliant track. It’s an exceptional way to close the concert, and in a way it’s a pity that there wasn’t more of this.

So How Live Is, or whatever you know the album as, is, appropriately for Heaven 17‘s career, a bit of a mixed bag. When they’re good, they’re very very good, but when they aren’t they’re pretty dreadful. I’d love to be able to recommend the recording of this first concert as a great introduction to the trio, but let’s just say they have made better setlist choices in more recent years. For all its failings, though, this isn’t a bad live album.

There are numerous versions of this album floating around with different titles – the latest appears to have returned to the original Live at Last, although it loses the video tracks, but it’s available here.

Sparks – Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins

Twenty-five years ago is, as you might have realised in the last few months, roughly the time when I started listening to music in earnest. I was discovering electronic artists left, right, and centre, and loving pretty much all of them. Perhaps my oddest discovery of that time, though, was Sparks.

I’ve written before about their curious fame in the UK – by this stage, they had already been having hits for over two decades, but for me, they arrived from nowhere, in late 1994 or early 1995, with an intelligent, witty, silly, and also American form of Europop, with When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”. It snuck into the lower reaches of the Top 40 twice, getting nothing like its just desserts, but the mystique that they held for me was incredible.

Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins was an easy album to miss, if you didn’t realise who Sparks were, and I did – I don’t think I heard the album until two or three years later, and even when I did, I would have been utterly confused by opening track Gratuitous Sax. It’s an acapella piece, which really serves little purpose except to bookend the album and remind you of who Sparks used to be.

After that, the hits – or what should have been hits, anyway – come thick and fast. When Do I Get to Sing “My Way” still sounds catchy and majestic, with its huge synth lines and beautifully underplayed witty lyrics. Second single When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing) brings an uncomfortably fast, entirely daft lyric. Unlike the earlier single, this probably shouldn’t have been a chart topper, but it should at least have been all over the radio – “For me it’s all just fine / Because she’s a Frank Lloyd Wright design,” must be one of the finest pop lyrics ever written.

The eighties had not been kind to Sparks – they had followed up the huge No. 1 in Heaven with the better formed Terminal Jive, but despite trying pretty much ever year after that, nothing had really lived up to their earlier material. But after a six year career break (they had gone off for their first attempt to break the Hollywood movie industry), Sparks had returned with some of their best songs yet.

Some of the best titles, too – Frankly, Scarlett, I Don’t Give a Damn is brilliant from the get go. By 1994, analogue synthesisers were making a long-awaited comeback, and the haunting warmth in the background of this song is particularly striking. Couple that with more great lyrics, and you basically have all the ingredients you need.

It doesn’t let up, either – I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car has a sillier feel initially, as the title is chanted a few times over, but there’s a huge acid bass line (I desperately want to describe it as “burping like a bullfrog,” which was stated of another Sparks single National Crime Awareness Week when that came out, but for some reason that didn’t make it onto this album). One you realise that and start enjoying the verse, you’ll realise that this is yet another excellent track.

By Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil, which closes Side A of the ultra-rare vinyl edition, it’s starting to get a bit silly. The quality really ought to have let up a little by now, but it really hasn’t. The opening lyric “I’m the wife of Clinton / I don’t have a problem with all of this,” is, of course, timeless, and the chorus is a bit anticlimactic this time, but the verses are adorable.

Side B opens with third single Now That I Own the BBC, which I think might be my least favourite track on here apart from the bookends, but that really isn’t saying a lot. More clever, instantly quotable lyrics, more catchy melodies – just a slightly cheesy house piano part that perhaps makes Motiv8‘s single mix the better version of this (which should probably be a surprise, given how rude I’ve been about him in the past).

Sparks were, though, clearly masters of their trade by this stage. There was no sign of any of the mistakes they might have made on previous albums – they were letting themselves be gloriously silly, while also being entirely professional and slick. This was, I think, the start of their time of being seen as legendary, which would probably peak with Lil’ Beethoven a few years later.

If you weren’t familiar with Tsui Hark at this point, it won’t take you long to catch up – he’s a film director, he’s made several films, and he’s won several awards for his films. This is a typically hilarious laid back track which samples Hark, interviewed by Bill Kong, and listing his films. Perhaps because of their LA upbringing, the movie industry has always played a big role for Sparks, but this might be the album where it really comes to a fore. Tsui Hark is a silly track, yes, but it’s great fun too.

The thing is, though, Sparks‘ silliness is always carefully played, and so while The Ghost of Liberace may joke about blinding drivers with shiny suits, it’s also a tender love song at heart, with a rippling piano line. Then Let’s Go Surfing, a catchy West Coast sunseeker anthem that always felt a little confusing to the teenage me in grey middle England. Now, it just feels triumphant.

There’s just one track left, the other bookend piece, Senseless Violins. As with the opener, you probably have to have a decent understanding of Sparks to understand why it’s here, but at worse you’ll think it’s a daft way to close the album, so it doesn’t do too much harm.

So Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is Sparks‘ grand comeback, after what was then their longest career break to date. Somehow in the meantime, they had found a confidence and strength that really shines on this album. There’s really little to fault here – sixteen albums into their career, and it must, surely, be one of their best?

The remastered edition of Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is still widely available, and while I’m not really sure about what they did with the artwork, this is probably the easiest version to track down.

Jean-Michel Jarre – Zoolook

By 1984, Jean-Michel Jarre‘s career had already taken some pretty extraordinary turns. After a few false starts, it had exploded with Oxygène from late 1976 onwards. The follow-up Équinoxe (1978), while great, had offered few surprises, and while 1981’s Magnetic Fields took three years to appear and saw Jarre explore digital synthesis for the first time, it still has a lot in common with its predecessors.

Then things had gone a bit crazy – he became the first western musician to tour China, to huge acclaim, and released an excellent album to chronicle the tour (The Concerts in China, 1982). The following year, he did both the most and least commercial things possible, releasing just one copy of Music for Supermarkets and immediately destroying the master tapes, and then reemerging with a somewhat premature compilation, The Essential Jean-Michel Jarre.

By 1984, Jarre’s exploration of sampling was probably somewhat overdue, but the things he was doing with his samplers were quite unprecedented. Zoolook opens with the disturbing deep choral sounds of the twelve-minute epic Ethnicolor. All the way through this album, the sounds that he throws our way are warped, bizarre, and often somewhat disarming. He has taken vocal snippets, tweaked and retuned them, and layered them frankly all over the place. If anyone else had done this, it would have been a total mess, but Jarre seems in control here. It’s not the most exciting or uplifting piece of music ever written, and it hasn’t necessarily dated well all the way through, but it’s definitely always interesting, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

One of the most interesting things about Jean-Michel Jarre is the way he uses his music to explore humanity, and Zoolook is probably the earliest tangible example of this, portraying 25 languages from the human zoo in the form of weird, layered sound. Prior to this, it had been much more subtle, with layer upon layer of synthesiser. Now, many of those voices were human, but sometimes barely recognisably so.

Diva had appeared the previous year on Music for Supermarkets, but unless you were the lucky buyer, who I imagine has never actually listened to it, or heard it on its radio broadcast, or bought one of the bootlegs that inevitably immediately appeared, you’ll never have heard it. Laurie Anderson appears at this point, chattering inanely over a slightly cheesy arpeggio. On an album of odd tracks, this is definitely one of the oddest.

What comes next depends entirely on which version of the album you have. Originally, and on most versions, it’s a version of the title track Zoolook. The track on mine is bizarrely exclusive, Zoolookologie (Remix), a reworked version of the second single from the album. It’s a delightfully chirpy track that was clearly never going to do much on the charts – in spite of being packaged as a double 7″ in the UK with Oxygène (Part IV) on the other disc, it still didn’t go far.

All versions put the delightful Aboriginal-inspired Wooloomooloo next, probably the best track on here so far, if quirky samples aren’t entirely your thing. Which is probably true for most listeners picking this album up for the first time now – you were no doubt thrown off your stride somewhat by the first track, and you might have enjoyed its atmospherics too, but this steady piece provides a welcome distraction.

Then comes the jazzy title track, apparently also in remixed form, although I can’t imagine many could describe what’s different. Once you get beyond the great construction of vocal samples, it isn’t a particularly inspired track – thirty-five years later, it just sounds like the theme tune from a sports programme on television. At the time, though, it must have sounded quite unusual.

Blah Blah Café is next, still using samples to heavy effect, and still with a slightly odd, awkward feel, but this time the melody holds things together well. It’s pleasant, although towards the end, you might find yourself wishing it was a little shorter.

The album closes with Ethnicolor II, a similarly atmospheric piece to the opener, but lacking the need to punch you in the face with samples, this track doesn’t build into anything as huge.

Even now, thirty-five years on, Zoolook is a fascinating album. It’s not necessarily always a good album, though – the sample work is intriguing, and sometimes beautiful, and there are plenty of classic Jarre elements, but sometimes it’s also unpleasantly cheesy, and occasionally it’s actually pretty awful.

For all of that, though, Zoolook has its place in history, as one of the first sample-based albums, and it remains one of the most interesting. It’s well worth a listen, even if the words above don’t capture your imagination. Listen to the voices, and make your own mind up.

As with all of Jarre’s back catalogue, various reissues of Zoolook are available, with varying changes, errors and problems. Start your research here, and see where it takes you.

Deep Forest – Made in Japan

By 1999, Deep Forest had already seen some huge hits with their first couple of albums, and had now settled into a somewhat comfortable space, pulling musicians together from around the world and adding electronic sounds and beats. So having taken many of the Comparsa guests on tour the preceding year, the live album Made in Japan was a natural next step.

It opens with Ekue Ekue, which is one of the better tracks from Comparsa (1998), and you can definitely hear an impressive live energy in the performance. Where it suffers a little here is from a fundamental cheesiness, and it’s the same for Green and Blue, too – it’s a good song, but not necessarily the best version of it. By 1999, Deep Forest had been supplanted by many younger and more successful musicians as France’s favourite export, and some of their melodies just sounded a bit naff. It’s sad, in a way, because you can hear that the singers are having a great time, but they do just sound a bit rubbish in places, particularly when the synth noodling extends a song by a whole minute.

The less energetic pieces are better – Deep Weather feels infinitely less frantic, while still retaining some of the live emotions of earlier tracks. While the Japanese version squeezes in another Comparsa track next, there is, fortunately, some space left for some earlier songs, as a series of tracks from Boheme (1995) follow. First is Bohemian Ballet, which is one of my favourites. The live vocal doesn’t quite work for me, honestly – despite the fact that I don’t speak any Hungarian, so can’t understand a word of it, the singer clearly can’t either, which means the emotion and energy feels a bit misplaced sometimes. It’s still a good song, but I’d maybe have given the singers a bit of a break at this point.

For Deep Folk Song, they do, and while it’s a bit of a mess at times, it’s pretty faithful to the album version. Then it’s back to the faux-Hungarian, with the lovely Freedom Cry. The delivery on this one is better, actually working pretty well, to my untrained ear. Yes, the accordion playing is a little bit too much on this one, particularly towards the end, but it’s a nice song.

The Boheme section closes out with Cafe Europa, a sweet instrumental from the tail end of the album. It’s strange, in a way, that they weren’t confident enough to mix the albums in with each other, particularly given the way that each seemed to have been a little less good than its predecessor. This is one of the better tracks from Boheme, though, and fits well here, although I wonder if the piano wankery at the end might have worked better visually than it does on audio.

Forest Power is next, taking us back to Comparsa. It’s a worthy performance, with a lot going on, but again, you have to wonder whether the visuals might have made a difference here – there just seems to be a lot of the performance that’s missing somehow.

By 1999, Deep Forest had already seen some huge hits with their first couple of albums, and had now settled into a somewhat comfortable space, pulling musicians together from around the world and adding electronic sounds and beats. So having taken many of the Comparsa guests on tour the preceding year, the live album Made in Japan was a natural next step.

It opens with Ekue Ekue, which is one of the better tracks from Comparsa (1998), and you can definitely hear an impressive live energy in the performance. Where it suffers a little here is from a fundamental cheesiness, and it’s the same for Green and Blue, too – it’s a good song, but not necessarily the best version of it. By 1999, Deep Forest had been supplanted by many younger and more successful musicians as France’s favourite export, and some of their melodies just sounded a bit naff. It’s sad, in a way, because you can hear that the singers are having a great time, but they do just sound a bit rubbish in places, particularly when the synth noodling extends a song by a whole minute.

The less energetic pieces are better – Deep Weather feels infinitely less frantic, while still retaining some of the live emotions of earlier tracks. While the Japanese version squeezes in another Comparsa track next, there is, fortunately, some space left for some earlier songs, as a series of tracks from Boheme (1995) follow. First is Bohemian Ballet, which is one of my favourites. The live vocal doesn’t quite work for me, honestly – despite the fact that I don’t speak any Hungarian, so can’t understand a word of it, the singer clearly can’t either, which means the emotion and energy feels a bit misplaced sometimes. It’s still a good song, but I’d maybe have given the singers a bit of a break at this point.

For Deep Folk Song, they do, and while it’s a bit of a mess at times, it’s pretty faithful to the album version. Then it’s back to the faux-Hungarian, with the lovely Freedom Cry. The delivery on this one is better, actually working pretty well, to my untrained ear. Yes, the accordion playing is a little bit too much on this one, particularly towards the end, but it’s a nice song.

The Boheme section closes out with Cafe Europa, a sweet instrumental from the tail end of the album. It’s strange, in a way, that they weren’t confident enough to mix the albums in with each other, particularly given the way that each seemed to have been a little less good than its predecessor. This is one of the better tracks from Boheme, though, and fits well here, although I wonder if the piano wankery at the end might have worked better visually than it does on audio.

Forest Power is next, taking us back to Comparsa. It’s a worthy performance, with a lot going on, but again, you have to wonder whether the visuals might have made a difference here – there just seems to be a lot of the performance that’s missing somehow, particularly as the guitar and vocal works draws to a crescendo towards the end. Then Hunting, with a great live vocal, but again, a whole load more messing around that probably worked well when you were there in person, and the crowd very obediently shout back at the singers when they chant random things, but really drags a bit on the CD, I’m sad to say.

That is, with regret, the general story with Made in Japan – it’s a worthy live performance, but the vast majority of tracks are taken from what I think most would agree is the least good of those early Deep Forest albums. Where are all the great hits from the debut eponymous album?

Oh, there they are. Forest Hymn didn’t quite make it onto the original release of Deep Forest, but made it onto later reissues, and it works well here. The thing is, there’s no reason why the early material wouldn’t fit amongst the works from Comparsa, and that’s illustrated well here. It’s definitely a Comparsa remix, but it’s an older and more established piece, and it entirely works.

Then, finally, comes Sweet Lullaby, although it starts in slightly odd form with a rippling acoustic guitar and vocal. After a minute or so, it’s back to where it belongs, with the original weird pad leads and vocal samples. It’s an interesting take, which would work well if it weren’t for the fact that this remains, still, Deep Forest‘s only live album. As it builds, it gets better, but you do have to wonder a little why they chose to release this performance above any others. Or maybe performing live was such an irregular occurrence that this, basically a live performance of Comparsa with a few extra bells and whistles, was the best we could have hoped for.

Quite why that was the penultimate encore rather than the last one is beyond me, but Madazulu, from Comparsa, is what we have to close the album. But having said that, Madazulu is probably the best track on the album, so maybe it isn’t such a questionable choice after all? Of all the decisions they made here, closing with this track is probably one of the least daft. You can hear all the energy of the performance here – maybe it isn’t such a bad album, after all?

Well, Made in Japan is a bit of a mixed bag, if the truth be told. If you like Comparsa, this is fine, but just not very different. If not, there isn’t a lot of other material here. Either way, the fact that it exists is fine, but it just seems a bit pointless without the visuals, that surely must have been amazing? Nice, but it’s fair to say that it’s a bit pointless.

This album is still widely available. There’s a Japanese version with some extra tracks from Comparsa, if you want them. I haven’t heard it, but I would struggle to believe it adds much.

Yello – Zebra

If you could pinpoint the period when Yello really found themselves, I think 1994’s Zebra would be a decent estimate. Now eight albums into their career, they had gone through the slightly silly novelty stage, tried serious pop, motorsport-inspired energetic electronic pop, and a very strong smattering of jazz. But it was with Zebra that they truly embraced dance music – maybe not quite for the first time, but it was certainly the first time they had dived this deep.

It opens with Suite 909, a big dance piece with trance bass and tribal beats. It does feel somewhat dated now – Yello were, perhaps, never quite the sonic trailblazers that their contemporaries were. It’s technically a prelude to Tremendous Pain, which we’ll hear later. If nothing else, as an opening track, it does make for a bit of a shock to the system.

It wouldn’t be Yello if it didn’t have its sillier moments, and second single How How is one. It’s catchy and clever – it fuses jazzy elements with acid breaks and dance beats – but you also can’t stop yourself from wondering who other than Yello would ever release anything this daft.

Night Train is probably as good as this album gets. It’s dark, with throbbing, tribal beats, and lyrics that echo the nocturnal feel of the track perfectly. The samples – I don’t recognise all of them, but Alison Moyet‘s cackle from her Yazoo days is definitely one of them – complement the track perfectly. This is quite brilliant.

Lead single Do It is next (although curiously it’s pushed back to track 2 of side B on the vinyl and cassette versions of the album). This is clever, actually – it’s a classic Yello track, but with clean, simple, dance production. It’s a great single to re-introduce us to the wacky Swiss duo after the three year break that preceded this album. Remixes on the single came from Thomas Fehlmann and Mark Picchiotti, so they were in illustrious company.

I… I’m in Love is next, another classic Yello moment with huge dance beats. As with much of this album, I think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t dated particularly well, so this is perhaps more a track for those who were there at the time than it is for people discovering this act for the first time. That’s alright, although I might have to revise my beginner’s guide recommendations.

S.A.X. is a bit of a surprise on an electronic dance album, full, as you might guess, of saxophone solos and chanted lyrics, among the tribal beats. It’s great, in its own special way, because you really can’t see that anybody else would have been doing anything like this. By itself, it’s hardly contemporary, but it is at least interesting.

But Yello have always had a more serious side to them, such as the huge Lost Again a decade or so earlier. Fat Cry is hardly serious, with its pitch-tweaked backing vocals, but it does channel that atmospheric sound. In a way I’m glad they don’t do things like that all the time, as it just makes them stand out all the more, but Fat Cry does grab you in a way that some of the earlier tracks may not have. In spite of the whistling in the melody half way through.

Final single Tremendous Pain follows, with some very confusing lyrics (“How do you spell / Suite 9-0-7?”) If you’re tied to the traditional structure of an album, you’ll probably struggle to reconcile this track with opener Suite 909, but then you’ll probably be struggling with Yello anyway – they had already been dropping remixes onto albums in odd places for the last couple of albums. Tremendous Pain is a good track, with a particularly catchy chorus, but as is also sometimes the case with Yello, the impenetrable lyrics make it a difficult listen at times.

Move Dance Be Born feels very Teutonic, as though they’re channelling a certain Düsseldorf quartet. It’s great, full of squawking processed vocal samples, more tribal beats, and lots of instructions to move, dance, and be born.

This is, in a way, a fairly short album, the second half of which is reserved for darker dance territory, as The Premix (How How) follows. It is, as the name somewhat confusingly suggests, a remix of the earlier track – this time with fast beats and acid bass, alongside bizarre squelchy beats. It’s an odd remix, and maybe the name tells us that it was actually recorded before the single. It’s different enough from the other version to comfortably secure a place here, but it is a strange inclusion.

Finally comes Poom Shanka. Yello have never been scared of throwing something completely unexpected at their listeners, and this is a fine example of that. For a Swiss group to bring Indian influences is really no less incongruous than someone from Liverpool doing the same thing, but somehow something doesn’t quite seem right here. If you put that out of your mind, what you have here is a beautiful, gentle piece of music which fits well on the end of this album, but the track might be over by the time you’ve really got the hang of it. I think, in the end, I like it a lot, though.

So Zebra is classic Yello in many ways – it’s not exactly groundbreaking, because you’ll have heard most of the sounds already on earlier releases, but it was contemporary for its time, and the mix of jazz and electronic influences is, as always, spot on. It has all the trademarks – such as crazy lyrics and insane vocal delivery, but for pretty much the first time, they have tapped dance culture in a way that would never really stop on subsequent albums. It’s an essential release for Yello, just perhaps a slightly impenetrable one for those who don’t know them well.

You can still find Zebra at all major retailers.

The Space Brothers – Shine

For a while, in the late 1990s, The Space Brothers seemed to epitomise dance music. They would appear, once or twice a year, with a one-off single that was just so catchy and memorable that you couldn’t stop yourself wondering who exactly these people were. Then, eventually, two decades ago this week, they finally appeared with their first and only album, Shine.

It opens with Your Place in the World, a sweet piece with trippy beats and heady vocals. This is not, however, a piece that would catch your imagination by itself in particular – you need to have a bit of a feel for what’s coming up already in order to understand its importance. It’s good – although some of the vocal effects are a little unsettling – and the vinyl noise particularly helps, but it wouldn’t grab you if you didn’t know what you had picked up.

The title track is different. This was the single that had launched their career just over two years earlier. The Space Brothers had already had their hands on some of the biggest Balearic summer hits at this point, and it’s apparent even just from the high portamento-driven pads that there’s something a bit different going on here. As it builds, you realise it has everything – the slightly (but not uncomfortably) acid-infused bass line, the clicking synth riff line, the huge drum builds, and, of course, that vocal.

The vocalist, for this and second hit Forgiven, is Miss Joanna Law, who was at this stage already a decade into her career. A year before Shine originally came out, she had appeared on Way Out West‘s seminal The Gift, and both there and here provided vocals that lifted the song far beyond itself. This is entirely brilliant, and provided their biggest hit, although it only just scraped the top twenty.

This is Love is next, with a surprise heavy sample from Jean-Michel Jarre‘s Oxygène (Part I). It’s encouraging to see that The Space Brothers have no shame in revealing their influences quite this openly, but it still comes as something of a surprise. It makes for a curiously understated track, with the sort of chanting that kept cropping up on dance tracks around this time.

By now, the tracks are mixing into each other thick and fast, so the huge effect-laden snares of fourth single Heaven Will Come should come as little surprise. Most of the other tracks on here star Kate Cameron on vocals, who appears to have starred on pretty much every trance hit around this time. This is one of the slower pieces, but probably one of the better ones on here.

After all of that, the guitar twirls and disco beats of I Still Love You come as something of a surprise. It builds into another bounding trance track, so whatever variety seemed to briefly be promised quickly disappears. This is not a particularly eclectic album, but it is one of the best and most coherent examples of Balearic trance to appear under a single artist’s name.

In amongst the other pieces, it’s The Light that particularly stands out. The lyrics may be a bit new age, but the vocal delivery is impressively commanding. For me, though, it’s the remix that blows me away – this album, probably appropriately, comes with a second disc, mixed by Paul Oakenfold, and featuring a remixed version of pretty much the whole album, and the trance remix of this laid back track somehow seems to work a lot better. On the main album, this is one of those pieces that builds and builds, with a lot of promise, but it never quite seems to know where it’s going.

But in spite of putting the wrong version on the main album, you can’t deny that The Space Brothers are masters of their craft. Forgiven, originally released as Forgiven (I Feel Your Love) in late 1997 (The Space Brothers seemed to be putting brackets on the end of all their singles for a while), you have to remind yourself that this would have been the difficult second single, following after Shine. It does share a lot of the same sounds, including the portamento, and even the same vocalist, but in many ways it’s a better song. Just maybe not the best choice for second single, unless you don’t mind pigeonholing yourself.

The Same Journey opens with another piece of Jean-Michel Jarre, the unsettling vocal sample from Zoolook. Having got that out of the way, it’s a spacious piece, with plenty of room for vocal acrobatics. Ultimately, it’s probably fair to say that it’s one of the less good tracks on here, but it’s not bad, by any stretch of the imagination. The bar is pretty high here.

Then it’s time for more portamento, with the third single, Legacy (Show Me Love). They set a solid formula on those first three hits, but ultimately I’m glad they deviated from it for most of the album. This is another great single track, though, and not a bad comeback after a longer break, or indeed a bad choice of single to preempt the album. It just does sound a bit as though you’ve heard it all before at this point.

After all that, closing track Beyond the Sun is anticlimactic, to say the least. Kate Cameron does her best, but she’s really only just repeating “remember” most of the time while another vocalist wails something unintelligible. This track would be filler on pretty much any album, and while it works reasonably well in context as a closing track, you can’t really see it ever fitting anywhere else.

Until that final track, though, Shine is an exceptional album – a now-timeless document of late 1990s Balearic trance, that while now somewhat dated, still stands up well. I don’t know where The Space Brothers are now, but I’d like to think they’re still sitting on a beach in Ibiza, and continuing to large it. Whatever that means.

Copies of Shine still seem to be floating around, here for example, but keep an eye out that you aren’t actually looking at the single of the same name, as there appears to be some confusion!