X-Press 2 – Muzikizum

I don’t really know a huge amount about X-Press 2, apart from vaguely being aware of their presence in the mid-1990s, and of course the smash hit Lazy, taken from their palindromic album Muzikizum, which first appeared fifteen years ago this week.

Getting the title track out of the way first, the opener is a beatsie piece with some very familiar samples and a whole lot of house. If house isn’t your thing, you might well be struggling already, but it’s a varied enough piece, and you would at least find it mercifully short, at a mere six minutes.

Supasong is shorter, more repetitive, and definitely lacking somewhat in ideas. Somehow it doesn’t quite work: it isn’t deep enough to be deep house; it isn’t interesting enough to be anything really. Pleasant, but little more than that.

So the massive hit Lazy can’t really come too soon, although in its album form, rather than extending the song that you probably bought this for in the first place, X-Press 2 have instead just added a couple of minutes of house beats and sound effects to the front. When it does finally get going, it shouldn’t take you long to remember why you liked this so much. The piano introduction may sound like something from a decade or so earlier; the lyrics might be completely daft; but the melody is uplifting, David Byrne‘s delivery is great, and you’ll very probably identify with the theme as a whole.

What it isn’t, is particularly representative of the rest of the album, as Angel demonstrates. This is the closest we’ve come yet to deep house on this album, and for what it is, it’s pretty competent. The best just goes straight on and on, apparently. And it does – Palenque and Smoke Machine continue on a similar theme – catchy and repetitive, and pleasant enough to enjoy. But maybe not quite as memorable as Lazy.

Actually, pretty much everything on this album was released as a 12″ single at some stage, and I Want You Back was the follow-up to Lazy, and it barely managed that. Which is a great shame – Dieter Meier from Yello turns up to deliver a typically ridiculous vocal, and it turns out to be a good mix, with his low vocals and some deep house beats and effects.

Call That Love is next, and for the first time brings us some chirpy melodic elements from the start. Steve Edwards injects a soulful vocal, and after a bit the production goes completely wild – for the first time in about five tracks, we’re hearing melodic sounds; things other than drums and short samples. I’m not entirely sure that any of the words really make sense, but it’s pretty good if you can put that out of your mind.

AC/DC was another single, and another of the less interesting tracks on here, at least if you aren’t in a grimey sweaty club with lots of flashing lights going on. There are some nice disco elements at times, and there’s a lot to enjoy, but you do find yourself wishing there was something a little more substantial to it.

The Ending track is called the ending, and keeps up the slight disco theme, with a bit of dub as well as the deep house beats and structures. It’s a compelling mix, and yes, it may not be the best track ever written, but it works well, and it does exactly what it intends to.

Which is pretty much true of Muzikizum in general, actually. X-Press 2 needed an album to go with Lazy, and they pulled something together that did what they wanted it to. Not a lot more than that, admittedly, and that’s a shame, but if you can accept it for what it is, this is a good album.

The original album seems to be less available than it once was, but you can still find copies floating around.

Depeche Mode – Ultra

In the four years since Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993), Depeche Mode had shed a member and come dangerously close to losing another permanently, as Dave Gahan hit an extremely low point and nearly died of an overdose.

So it’s hardly surprising that Ultra, released twenty years ago this week, is a dark album. From the very first opening sounds of first single Barrel of a Gun, you can tell they’re exploring grimey territory. But there’s also something overwhelmingly positive about it – the delivery is punctuated by a confidence and force that I’m not sure we had really heard before.

It is said that they only went back into the studio to record a couple of new tracks for a best of album, but discovered a new energy and ended up with an entire studio album – and it’s easy to believe. Working with Tim Simenon of Bomb the Bass as producer, they seem to have re-emerged from their life-changing four year hiatus with something quite extraordinary.

In a way, the album tracks are more interesting than the singles – The Love Thieves is a soft and uneventful track which is elevated to something beautiful by its production. Then comes Home – and remember that some of Martin L. Gore‘s more introspective songs in the past have taken an under-produced approach. Home definitely isn’t one of those; instead, it’s full of huge orchestral flair, making it one of Depeche Mode‘s most beautiful songs.

This leads us to It’s No Good, the second single and without a doubt the most commercial track on here. There’s still a definite air of darkness, but this is also a great pop song, and was deservedly a significant hit.

What makes this album stand out so many years later is its sense of spaciousness. Pretty much nothing on here is less than four minutes long, and everything has been expanded, so there are huge gaps between vocal lines and verses. The miniature instrumentals, like Uselink, had for many years been key to Depeche Mode‘s sound, but here they add to the experience on a basic level.

This makes it all the odder that when you first listen to Ultra, there’s a decent chance that you won’t like it very much. This is an album that demands at least four or five listens before it starts to get under your skin, but as soon as it does, it really won’t leave you alone.

Useless was the last of the singles from this album, and it’s with this track that you really find Depeche Mode‘s new sound – it’s rhythmic and danceable, but it’s very definitely rock. There are elements of many of their previous guises hidden in here, but it also sounds quite new. Honestly, even twenty years on, this wouldn’t sound too out of place today either.

Then we get Sister of Night, which could have easily kept its head down and just been another album track, but the huge, effect-laden melody that opens the track and reappears from time to time throughout really grabs you and makes you pay attention, and as you do, you realise that this is an incredibly beautiful song.

After Jazz Thieves, another of the little instrumentals, comes Freestate, an excellent opportunity for Dave Gahan to demonstrate himself to be a truly amazing vocalist, which might have been obvious to some a few albums earlier, but then the UK had never really given Depeche Mode the attention they deserved.

After that comes the daft but sweet The Bottom Line, starting off sounding as though it might be about a cat and punctuated by cat-like synth wails, and then the last proper track Insight, which echoes It’s No Good somewhat, but is otherwise a sweet and uplifting closer. Apart, of course, from the hidden bonus track, an instrumental colloquially named Junior Painkiller, which turns up a few minutes after the end.

Ultra was always emotional but mature, and every bit as good as Depeche Mode needed to be at that stage in their career, but it’s encouraging to see that it has aged so well, and it’s a relief that the three remaining members were all present and correct.

The 200x double CD reissue is the definitive version of Ultra, but if this is no longer available, go for the remastered reissue instead.

Luke Slater – Alright on Top

In a way, it’s a strange thing to be a fan of a record company, rather than the acts who are on it. But Mute has always been such an eclectic and open-minded organisation, and has had so many excellent artists on its roster, that it’s difficult not to be a fan.

So it was that I came across Luke Slater, and his most successful album to date Alright on Top. It first appeared fifteen years ago this week, and I think I fell across it a year or two later.

Alright on Top opens with lead single Nothing At All, which for some might be world changing, but I suspect that many, like me, will find it a bit droney and dull. It’s a decent noisy electro track, but I don’t know as I would have bought the album just because of having heard this.

Interestingly though, the singles are not as good as this album gets – You Know What I Mean is a sweet mixture of noisy electronics and a catchy pop melody. It might not exactly be contemporary any more, but it was at least great for its time.

It’s the huge analogue sound of Stars and Heroes that really grabs you. The enormous chugging synth arpeggio that runs throughout the entirety of this track is unmissable, but this is also a real song, not just some anonymous electronic noise. If it could have found an era to belong to, this really should have been an enormous hit.

But it wasn’t, and neither was the brilliant I Can Complete You, which was released as another of the singles. It’s a love song, delivered by a robot alongside another enormous analogue synth line and some slightly trippy and rock-inspired drumming. It really is brilliant.

This is a multi-faceted album – it has degrees of darkness, but also some cheery performances too, and unlike some of Luke Slater‘s earlier works, the focus is definitely on the songs. Only You is a sweet love song – if you sat down and read the lyrics it would be difficult to conclude anything else. But combined with enormous beats and deep and dark electronics, it becomes something much more complex.

By this stage you should be pretty much ready for the enormity of Take Us Apart, which ripples from ear to ear with complex synth lines while a huge bass line bounces along joyfully in the background. Again though, this is definitely a song, with a vocal that just about manages to keep up with the slightly manic synth work.

So it continues with Searchin’ for a Dream, and then Take Me Round Again, both dark and melodic, and in the case of the latter, full of acid squawks and tribal drums. There are hints of every form of electronic music here, even right back to the fifties and sixties at times.

Finally, the twisted but adorable Twisted Kind of Girl leads us to closing track Doctor of Divinity, which gives us pounding beats, punctuated by crisp and dull electronic sounds. It may not be the most exciting piece of music ever by itself, but closing this album it sounds exceptional.

This album represents pretty much all I know about Luke Slater, but I’m glad to have found it. Play this alongside pretty much anything else from Mute Records’ back catalogue and you’re guaranteed a fascinating listening experience.

You can still find Alright on Top at all major retailers.

Erasure – Cowboy

When you hear talk about an Erasure album being twenty years old, it’s easy to assume it’s one of the early ones that’s being discussed. But this week we celebrate the coming of age of Cowboy.

The late 1990s weren’t entirely kind to Erasure. Before Britpop came along, they still held enough sway to reach the number one spot with their 1994 comeback album I Say I Say I Say, and the following year’s eponymous album also charted respectfully (at that time, even a number 14 album in November would have easily sold enough to have reached the top 200 of the year).

A little over a year later came Cowboy, released in the traditionally quieter first quarter of the year, and thanks to some creative scheduling it scraped into the top ten and delivered a couple of respectable placings for its singles.

This is an album characterised by three or four minute pop music. It starts with Rain, a perfect four-minute song which really does put most mid-90s pop to shame. This was also released as the third single, although the German release failed to chart, and the UK release followed in the steps of the previous year’s Rock Me Gently by appearing only in chart ineligible versions. It definitely deserved to be a hit.

For perhaps the first time for nearly a decade, this album saw Erasure concentrating on what made them great – short, snappy, catchy pop songs. Worlds on Fire is followed by Reach Out, before we get to the understated but beautiful first single In My Arms.

It’s a strange one, in a way – think of what else was on the chart at this time, and you realise just how good this was, but it also doesn’t quite have the drive that you might expect of a lead single. Not for the first time, I think Erasure got their strategy slightly wrong – maybe if the first two singles had been switched around, things could have gone even better for them?

The second single comes next, the extravagantly titled Don’t Say Your Love is Killing Me. It’s difficult to think of exactly which of their previous hits they’re channelling here, but somehow this sounds entirely the way you would expect Erasure to sound. Which is fine – that seems to have been exactly what they were trying to do with this album.

Think of this, perhaps, as a last cry for acceptance. Followed by the “guitar album” Loveboat, then the cover version album Other People’s Songs, it would be close to a decade before they produced anything anywhere near this good again – even two decades before they resumed their previously consistent form.

Which is difficult to swallow around the middle of this album, as Precious and Treasure are both brilliant – the latter bringing shades of their 1991 album Chorus. In retrospect, this was even a fairly contemporary album – Vince Clarke may have still been delighting in sequencing his backing tracks on an antique BBC computer, but as we saw earlier, there were plenty of similar but less competently produced songs on the charts.

There’s nothing particularly downtempo on here, but Boy is one of the gentlest songs, and also turned out to be the fourth single from this album when the acoustic version was released a decade later.

There is a bit of room for Clarke to do a bit of silly synth work, so that’s how How Can I Say kicks off, building into another fun song before the brilliantly flamboyant Save Me Darling. There’s really nothing bad on here, and at barely forty minutes it’s nice and compact too.

Closing the album is the stunning Love Affair. It’s also somewhat understated – in the hands of another producer, this could easily have been an enormous, anthemic piece. Erasure gave it 808 cowbell sounds. But why not? It sounds amazing, and as always, Andy Bell‘s vocal performance really brings it to life.

It’s easy to feel a degree of sadness now when listening to this, knowing just how long it would take them to do something this good again. But it’s also an extremely good little album – and what more can you ever really ask for?

The original release of Cowboy is still widely available, and it’s also now available in a nice heavyweight vinyl edition too.

Erasure – The Circus

Having failed to make much of an impact with debut album Wonderland (1986), Erasure returned thirty years ago with their second full-length release. This time, it was heralded by two enormous hit singles – Sometimes had appeared out of nowhere the preceding autumn, making number 2 in the UK chart, and then It Doesn’t Have to Be came out just before the album and gave them their second top twenty hit.

It is that second hit that opens the album, in brilliantly uptempo form. It’s funny now to think of a time when Erasure weren’t well known, and with that in mind it’s impressive that It Doesn’t Have to Be performed as well as it did on the charts. What on earth is that middle section all about? (According to Wikipedia it’s a reference to Apartheid, which is of course fantastic, but I can’t honestly believe many people realised that at the time.)

The cheesier moments of the debut album still exist, and Hideaway deftly walks the line between that sound and being a fantastic pop song. It feels as though a 2017 re-recording of this song would do it a lot of favours, but it does show a lot of potential on here.

Don’t Dance and to a lesser extent If I Could both tread similar paths, sounding good but still very immature. It’s almost as though Wonderland was just a collection of demos, and this was their first proper album, but even that ignores the fact that Vince Clarke was already a very well-established musician. It’s very strange to say the least.

There’s definitely a bit of an agenda here, as Sexuality demonstrates – it comes across as a fairly innocent pop song charged with a lot of desire. But it’s the pure pop moments that hit their mark the best, as third single and second side opener Victim of Love demonstrates.

Unusually for Erasure, most of the hits are loaded on Side B here – second track Leave Me to Bleed wasn’t a single, but it definitely should have been – it’s probably one of the best songs on the album, and unlike some of the earlier tracks it doesn’t suffer too much from its production.

Sometimes is next, and is obviously exceptional. Oddly, having worked through the rest of the album, it’s easy to find yourself pulling holes in the production of this track too, but on its own this is flawless, and easily one of the best songs that Erasure ever recorded.

Fourth single and title track The Circus is the penultimate song, a curiously dark but happy piece, full of little circus acrobatics. It’s beautiful and haunting, and sadly overlooked as another of the best songs of their early career, although the single version is definitely tighter.

Right at the end comes Spiralling, which is definitely an appropriate closing track, but doesn’t quite have the atmosphere it seems to want, particularly when the circus-inspired Safety in Numbers turns up to close the album. Nice, but I think that’s about as far as you would want to go with this one.

If nothing else, The Circus shows a lot of promise which would be quickly realised on subsequent album The Innocents (1988) and wouldn’t really let up for another couple of decades. But you can also enjoy some great early songs from one of the most important duos in pop, so definitely it shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.

If you can find copies of the 2011 special edition of The Circus, which should still be available here, that’s the version to get.

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.