Dave Gahan – Hourglass

His 2003 solo debut Paper Monsters had been an uncertain affair, as Dave Gahan for the first time wrote his own tracks. Two decades of huge stadium rock showmanship at the helm of Depeche Mode meant he had a good understanding of how to write the music he wanted to make, but he maybe hadn’t quite got the hang of how to pull it off yet.

The follow-up Hourglass is very different indeed. Right from the first notes of Saw Something, you seem to hear a confidence that didn’t seem to have been there last time around. It’s fantastic – there’s a cello! There’s guitar work from John Frusciante!

Lead single Kingdom is next, every bit as good as any of the Depeche Mode singles of the last couple of decades – but not quite as successful. Whereas all three singles from the first album had reached respectable positions, this one stalled at number 44, and during a period when his contemporaries were still doing reasonably well. There’s nothing at all wrong with the song – it just didn’t quite do its job at promoting the album.

The third track is the dark and grimy Deeper and Deeper, released as a non-chart-qualifying double a-side with Saw Something early in 2004, which narrowly failed to reach the UK Top 100. It might be somewhat lacking the charm of some of Depeche Mode‘s noisier moments, but it’s still a catchy piece of electro-grime.

The rock track 21 Days that follows is great – it’s another grimy piece, but with a rhythmic and vocal quality that works extremely well. Gahan still isn’t really trying to do anything new here, but it’s a great example of what he does best.

There’s plenty of that in show here, anyway – for Miracles, we get a bit of “faith” and some “devotion” for a sweet, slow rock track with a particularly good vocal performance. But that’s the key really – if you’ve listened to Songs of Faith and Devotion, you’ll have already heard most of the ideas on here – add on Playing the Angel, and it should all sound very familiar indeed.

In spite of being pretty much exactly the right length to fit on one LP, it was inexplicably released as a double album, so I don’t even get to refer to Use You as the start of Side B (it opens Side C instead). It’s another grimy rock piece, with some nice effects work and a catchy chorus.

Insoluble is one of the weaker tracks on here, but that isn’t really saying a lot. Endless is better, with its dirty swing beat, but it’s A Little Lie that’s the last real moment of genius on here. It’s another slower piece, with lots of huge drums and another huge vocal performance, and it somehow comes together brilliantly. And then finally, the album ends with the pleasant but largely forgettable Down, the one where Gahan tries to channel Creep but doesn’t entirely pull it off.

So Hourglass may, in retrospect, be just a touch unambitious – but it is a good showcase of Dave Gahan‘s vocal talents and relatively new-found songwriting skills. It may not be essential for everyone, but if you like Depeche Mode, it’s definitely well worth owning.

You can still find Hourglass at all major retailers.

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Pet Shop Boys – Disco Four

The interesting thing about Pet Shop Boys‘ “disco” series is the fact that there’s really no rhyme or reason to it – despite using the same branding, they seem to reinvent it every time. Disco (1986) was a collection of six 12″ mixes and b-sides from the debut album Please, then Disco 2 (1994) was a megamix of tracks, mainly from VeryDisco 3 (2003) was the dance accompaniment to the previous year’s guitar-driven Release, and finally (to date) Disco Four (2007) is a compilation of Pet Shop Boys‘ own remixes of songs by other artists. Well, some continuity might be nice here.

Anyway, having got that out of the way, let’s give Disco Four a listen. It opens with the Stars Are Blazing mix of The Killers‘ Read My MindNeil Tennant has a habit of adding his own backing vocals whenever they remix other people’s tracks, which doesn’t always work, but here it does. This isn’t so much a remix as an electronic re-thinking, as for the most part it’s probably more radio than club-friendly, but it’s pretty good nonetheless.

David Bowie turns up next, with a version of Hallo Spaceboy that had only appeared commercially for the first time in 2004 on the double-disc reissue of Outside – for some reason when the single appeared originally it was demoted to a promo-only version. It’s great to finally hear this version of one of Pet Shop Boys‘ finest collaborations in its full seven-minute glory.

Next they turn up with one of their own, the download-only single (and minor hit) Integral, heavily reworked for this release. Depending on your perspective, this is either a nice inclusion or a bit of an oddity, as they suddenly turn up remixing themselves.

Yoko Ono might be spectacularly crazy, but Walking On Thin Ice is a pretty good track, and the Pet Shop Boys remixes that accompanied the 2003 reissue are truly exceptional. Here we get their Electro remix, with an enormous LFO bass line and huge synth swells. It’s completely and undeniably fantastic.

Next Madonna turns up, with Sorry, from 2006. Pet Shop Boys were clearly in their element around this period, taking other people’s tracks and throwing huge 1980s bass parts and robotic voices all over them. It’s difficult to fault, unless you want to pick at Madonna‘s awful pronunciation of “sorry” in various languages, and that was hardly the remixers’ fault.

Next are Atomizer, whose 2002 single Hooked on Radiation appeared on Pet Shop Boys‘ own record label, including this, the Orange Alert mix. It’s a catchy track with a great synth line, but nothing particularly special. Perhaps unsurprisingly, pretty much nothing has been heard of Atomizer in the decade that has followed.

Rammstein, on the other hand, had long since achieved legendary status when Pet Shop Boys turned up to remix Mein Teil in 2004. It’s an interesting piece, as PSB have never really delved too deeply into the world of industrial metal, and here they take the opportunity to cross genres with a bit of electroclash. In general, it works well, and doesn’t sound too awkward.

Finally, they bring us back to one of their own recent hits, I’m with Stupid, from the same year’s studio album Fundamental. The Maxi-mix is longer, full of electronic breakdowns, although somehow it loses a lot of the “fun” essence of the original.

So all in all, Disco Four is an entertaining diversion. It’s nice to see some of the various remixes by Pet Shop Boys gathered in a single place, particularly for those like me who hadn’t been particularly diligent in collecting them as they appeared. But there’s also something a little pointless about the whole thing – were these tracks collected together for any particular reason? Ultimately, I suppose it doesn’t matter much.

Surprisingly, Disco Four seems to have fallen out of print in the last decade. Most of the tracks are available on other releases.

Lemon Jelly – Lost Horizons

Celebrating its fifteenth anniversary this week is Lemon Jelly‘s groundbreaking debut Lost Horizons. Following a number of early singles and the exemplary 2000 compilation Lemonjelly.ky, the first full album finally appeared in 2002, heralded by the brilliant single Space Walk.

As with the first album, the theme here is very much one of long, spacious, laid back music – there are just eight tracks in total, and two of them clock in at around nine minutes. One of those is the lovely Elements, a long and gentle piece built around a somewhat liberal list of elements. Eventually, it mixes into the glorious child-like chimes of Space Walk, which scraped into the lower reaches of the UK top 40 just before the album appeared. It’s not a likely hit, but it is a wonderful track.

I’ve commented before on the exquisite nature of Lemon Jelly‘s packaging – and it doesn’t just apply to the albums, as I can’t think of anyone else offhand who has packaged a single in denim. Lost Horizons is no exception – the cartoon landscape unfolds beautifully over the three-face gatefold sleeve.

There’s really nothing to fault on this album, but my favourite track is probably Ramblin’ Man, perhaps just because it resonates with my travels over the last few years. It arrives with the loud sound of a passing car, and continues in wonderful style, as actor John Standing (who also turned up as the voice of Elements) lists the places he has travelled in his lifetime. In a rather brilliant Easter Egg, one section halfway through the lyrics spells out “Bagpuss sees all things” if you take the first letter of each place name. Yes, really.

This mixes into the rhythmic Return to Patagonia, a nod to Homage to Patagonia, from the previous album. It’s still pretty relaxed, but a lot more manic than anything we have heard so far on this album, and the slightly menacing Soviet-style men’s choir that appears towards the end is a brilliant touch.

Nice Weather for Ducks was, of course, Lemon Jelly‘s big hit single, peaking at number 16 in February 2003. On the album, it appears as an extended version, and has a distinctly odd feel – you can immediately see why it was a hit, but at the same time it’s tempting to wonder why on earth what’s essentially a children’s song got quite so much radio airplay.

After a nice bit of noise from a vinyl repeating groove, we get the distinctly creepy Experiment Number 6, a slightly jazzy and very experimental piece which mixes into the drifting Closer. It’s hard to escape the feeling that on any other album these might be standout tracks, but the level of quality is so high here, that they seem to fade into the background slightly.

Finally, we reach the longest track on the album, The Curse of Ka’Zar. This is one of the more rhythmic pieces on here, but doesn’t rattle along at anywhere near the pace of some of the others. It’s a great, laid back closing track to a fantastic album.

After Lost HorizonsLemon Jelly reappeared a couple of years later with one last album, ’64-’95, before disappearing, seemingly for good. With the benefit of age, there’s a part of me that wishes that they don’t try to mount a comeback at some point in the future, as they really were so good while they were around, but then they also deserve to be much better known than they are. Maybe one day we’ll hear from them again.

You can still find Lost Horizons at all major retailers – try to find the gatefold version if you have the choice.

Depeche Mode – Music for the Masses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Etienne – Finisterre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dubstar – Goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ladytron – Light and Magic

Fifteen years ago this week saw the initial release of Ladytron‘s second album Light and Magic. The UK release wouldn’t follow until close to Christmas time but did add some extra tracks, so we’ll focus on the initial set of fifteen.

The album opens with perhaps Ladytron‘s noisiest piece to date, True Mathematics, in which Russian spoken vocals repeat over an exquisitely noisy backing track. This leads into the opening single, the glorious Seventeen, which was a minor hit in December 2002. It’s a piece about the throwaway attitudes in the world of fashion, and gave the group their first taste of the official UK charts when it peaked at number 68.

Flicking Your Switch is a gloriously dirty piece of electronica which harks back to early 1990s dance – a genre which was considerably younger then than this album itself is now. Which is a sobering thought. Fifteen years later, this sounds exquisitely timeless – perhaps because it was always out of time, it has dated surprisingly well.

Fire is a strange one – it’s catchier than most of the tracks on here, but somehow it doesn’t quite work as well for me. The retro disco sounds and cowbells of Turn it On, on the other hand, are undeniably brilliant.

By 2002, Ladytron were on the verge of hitting the big time – after the first album featured one single just outside the UK Top 100 and one just inside, this time they were close to hitting the top 40. Second single Blue Jeans was very nearly their breakthrough hit, peaking at number 43 in March 2003. Unfortunately that commercial breakthrough never really happened – to date, that’s still their second biggest hit. Which it probably should be, just a little higher up the charts, ideally.

There are a lot of tracks on here – probably way too many, actually, although many are short, such as Cracked LCD, which only clocks in at a couple of minutes in length. But often the longer tracks aren’t quite up to scratch somehow – Black Plastic definitely isn’t as good, anyway.

The third and final single was Evil, which appears here in what initially appears to be a much more spacious five-and-a-half minute form. It’s a good song, but on balance, it probably isn’t quite as good as Blue Jeans, although you can see how it might have resonated with some people at the time. It turns out anyway that most of the extra space is taken up by an untitled bonus track which got trimmed off the single version.

Startup Chime is one of the more melodic tracks in Ladytron‘s catalogue, more of which is always welcome, although there’s something brilliantly catchy about NuHorizons too, even though it doesn’t really feature any singing. Then Cease2xist restores that particular balance, albeit hidden behind a lot of processing, with a great synth-driven pop song.

By this stage you should have just about got the hang of Ladytron – they’re challenging, and often quite loud, but often also reward you with a great song or at least some interesting noises. You’re also irritatingly close to the end though now, and so Re:agents feels a bit like filler too.

But it’s the penultimate and title track that pulls the biggest punch of all. Light and Magic is completely fantastic. The bass arpeggio seems to be completely out of sync with everything else, but somehow it works together wonderfully. It’s catchy and brilliant, and somehow feels as though it belongs at least four decades earlier. I’m not sure I would want to see them try to perform it live though.

Closing the album is another catchy piece, The Reason Why. When the vocal counter-melody comes in a minute or so from the end, you might find you get one of those moments where you hope the album never ends. Truly glorious.

For me, Light and Magic is far and away Ladytron‘s finest work, but as I’ve been told many times on this blog, it isn’t my opinion that matters, it’s what the public think, and for many their first exposure to the quartet would have been when Destroy Everything You Touch was all over the radio, so of course it is 2005’s Witching Hour that they remember. Either way, hopefully we can agree that Light and Magic is an excellent second album.

The version that you want of Light and Magic is probably the 2011 remaster, although honestly I much prefer the artwork from the original UK release.