Monaco – Music for Pleasure

Sha la la la la la la. Yes, What Do You Want from Me? is an extremely good song. Peter Hook is on great form, the lyrics are better than many of New Order‘s and singer and guitarist David Potts was on fine vocal form too.

Music for Pleasure, released twenty years ago this week, was Peter Hook‘s second attempt at a solo project after 1990’s largely forgotten Revenge project. Monaco, though, were pretty successful for a while, and of course What Do You Want from Me? is the single you remember, with its enormous bass guitar part and all the sha la la-ing.

The album followed reasonably quickly after the single though, and third single Shine comes next, still sounding a lot like New Order, or even Electronic during this period. It’s a bit more rocky, and Potts can’t quite reach the high notes, but it’s still a great song.

Getting the singles out of the way right at the start, we then jump to Sweet Lips, which came out just before the album, and was also a pretty sizeable hit. It’s much more dancey than either of the other singles, and it’s another fantastically catchy song. The album version is a slightly extended mix, which works well too.

1997 was, of course, just a couple of years after Oasis had turned up and persuaded everyone to dig out their 1960s record collections, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Monaco wanted some of the action as well. Buzz Gum is a pretty respectable imitation of all the other indie stuff that was going on in the mid-1990s.

It’s tempting to wonder whether loading all the singles at the front of the album was the best idea – it started off so promisingly, but Blue is pretty dreary, although it’s also mercifully short. Then comes Junk, a nine minute dance piece, which actually sounds as dated as the indie tracks now, but it’s pretty good.

Billy Bones is a slightly trippy slow-rock piece, which is pretty pleasant, then Happy Jack is another low-grade indie track, this time with a particularly average vocal as well. Tender is better – if you’ve forgotten the album, this is the one with the catchy “in my mind I live in California” line.

Sedona (which is in Arizona, not California) is the last track, and is the best thing we’ve had on here since the singles at the start. It’s a huge, and epic piece, bobbing along at a fairly leisurely tempo, and with some slightly naff synth reed sounds, but it’s a clever exploration of sounds, and makes for a great instrumental closing piece. After a minute of silence at the end, someone turns up to add “Oi! You can turn it off now!”

Strictly speaking, I could have done that three quarters of an hour ago, but I didn’t. Music for Pleasure is a mixed bag, but when it’s good, it is very good indeed. And it clearly must have had some kind of impact on me – I would never have suspected it when the album came out twenty years ago, but now I do live in California. Thanks, Monaco!

You should still be able to find copies of Music for Pleasure floating around, but I’m not sure I would pay that much for them…

Saint Etienne – Continental

Continental isn’t a real album. Not in the sense that anyone thought of it as a studio album when it came out, anyway. Initially released two decades ago this week, but only in Japan, this follow-up to Tiger Bay (1994) compiles highlights from the singles, compilations, and other bits and bobs that appeared during the group’s first wilderness period. But then in 2009, it got a surprise inclusion in Saint Etienne‘s series of deluxe edition albums, so now we get to enjoy it as a real album after all.

It opens with the lovely Shad Thames, a bright and chirpy synth instrumental which hadn’t appeared anywhere prior to this point. If you only know them for their pure pop songs, it might come as a surprise to know that Saint Etienne have a great line in quirky instrumental, sample-based, and also long tracks. It’s a perfect opening track.

Burnt Out Car is next, a fantastic song, and in common with the timeless nature of this album, it did eventually appear as a single, but not until the end of 2009, when it heralded the London Conversations compilation. Here, it’s in its original form which first appeared in 1996 on the Casino Classics collection, mixed by Balearico.

Sometimes in Winter follows, another track that appeared in remixed form on Casino Classics, although this time we get Saint Etienne‘s original take. It’s a sweet slice of 1960s-style pop – the kind of thing the group have a justifiable reputation for being very good at. Then comes Winter Melody, kind of a continuation of the previous track, as it takes elements of Psychonauts‘ remix from the earlier release and stretches them a bit. A slightly odd inclusion, but also very much in line with the rest of this release.

One slightly trippy oddity leads into another, the short drum and bass-inspired Public Information Film, and then comes The Process, which was one of the b-sides of He’s on the Phone, presumably the track that necessitated this compilation in the first place. It’s also the track that comes next, and it’s a difficult one not to love. It’s a Motiv8 production, and his mixes do have a tendency to sound pretty much exactly the same as one another, but this one is pretty much as good as they ever got. You’ll find it very difficult not to sing along.

Side B opens with Stormtrooper in Drag, the cover version which originally appeared a few months earlier on the Gary Numan tribute compilation Random. It takes a lot of inspiration from He’s on the Phone too, with a pulsating mid-1990s synth line in the background and occasional rippling piano, and honestly once you accept that it’s a little bit dated now, it’s pretty great too.

Then things go unexpectedly glam with Star, the first of two tracks here on which singer Sarah Cracknell shares a writing credit with Ian Catt, so it’s probably safe to assume that this grew out of her solo album sessions and then maybe gained a bit of Saint Etienne production along the way. Good, but not really up to the standard of most of the other things on here.

The next pair of tracks consists on Down by the Sea and The Sea, which are pretty much two parts of the same song again. The latter appeared on Casino Classics with a lovely spacious, maritime-flavoured drum and bass remix from PFM, whereas the former is a full, although slightly avant garde, song. Together, they make up around ten minutes of music, a fifth of the entire release.

After several minutes of frantic drumming, we’re left with Lonesome, the second Ian Catt collaboration, and closing track Angel. It’s a slightly alarming change of pace, as Lonesome is largely acoustic pop, but it’s rather pleasant. Then Angel is the Broadcast remix which had appeared already on Casino Classics, which is nice, and very ethereal, but definitely not quite as good as Way Out West‘s version which appeared on the same release.

So Continental may or may not be a real album, and it’s definitely a slightly odd mix of tracks, but it’s also rather good, and is definitely worthy of its insertion into Saint Etienne‘s back catalogue.

The double-disc version of Continental gets a reissue of its own in just a few days, and comes with a bonus disc of early and alternative versions from the period. It will be available here.

Chicane – Far from the Maddening Crowds

Twenty years ago this week, Chicane released his debut album Far from the Maddening Crowds. It’s a great album, probably still the best of his career to date, so let’s give it a listen as a celebration.

It opens with Early, an ambient piece which sets the scene appropriately. Unlike many of his later works, this album is largely instrumental, and Early is full of gentle pads and swells. It mixes into the lovely Already There, which introduces gentle Spanish guitar sounds, but is otherwise another pleasant, spacious track, which carries us steadily onwards.

This album was the culmination of a couple of years’ worth of work, and so we get two different versions of Chicane‘s early hit single Offshore – first comes the Original Version, a beautiful mixture of beats, guitars, and gentle synth pads, with a plodding rhythmic synth that always sounds distinctly summery. The second version comes later on.

Then comes third single Lost You Somewhere, built around soft vocal samples but otherwise broadly similar to Offshore until it suddenly grows into an enormous trance piece, roughly halfway through. This fascinating mixture of gentle, laid back, banging trance music continues with From Blue to Green.

Then comes the second single, Sunstroke, remixed by Disco Citizens (in case you were wondering, that’s someone called Nick Bracegirdle, who also goes by the name Chicane). Again, this is broadly in a similar vein to Offshore, but it breaks out into a tirade of dance beats roughly halfway through, and it’s entirely catchy.

By the time Leaving Town mixes into the deep dance of Red Skies, you will have your hands in the air, and have long since forgotten about the relaxing opening of the album. But it’s been a gentle, gradual change of pace, and one that is executed exceedingly well.

The original version of Sunstroke turns up next, considerably more laid back than the remix that we heard earlier, and then we get Offshore ’97, a bumped-up version with more beats and a moderately annoying vocal about nothing in particular from Power Circle. It’s difficult to get too annoyed though, as most of the spirit of the original is still there, but it might have been nice if Bracegirdle had taken the time to record something new instead, especially as this reissued single actually performed less well on the charts than the original.

That’s pretty much it for this album – only the gentle-but-beatsy The Drive Home remains. If you pick up the 2007 version, you’ll get another remix of Offshore, which is fine, but you can probably live without it.

So Far from the Maddening Crowd is a great album, with plenty of promise, and like a lot of instrumental releases, it’s difficult to put into words sometimes. But this is definitely one that I’d heartily recommend.

The best version to go for is the 2007 reissue, although that appears to be out of print on physical formats, but you should still be able to find yourself a copy.

Dirty Vegas – Dirty Vegas

I’ve talked a bit before about Dirty Vegas, an act who have always seemed to me to be a rock band trapped inside a dance act’s body. Fifteen years ago this week saw the release of their eponymous debut album, and despite some of the misgivings I have about their later career, it’s worth reacquainting ourselves with the release that kicked things off for them.

It opens with I Should Know, which starts off sounding like a gentle piece of pop-rock, until the beats kick in a minute or so later. It’s a great, catchy song, and a strong start to the album. Second single Ghosts is next, a catchy, throbbing dance track which had a great video too.

There is, of course, some filler on here – Lost Not Found isn’t great – but it never lasts too long, and we soon arrive at the brilliant Days Go By. There is, of course, nothing else on the album that’s anywhere near this good, although honestly I’m not entirely sure that its extended album version really does it too many favours – the charm was entirely encapsulated by the four-minute single.

Then there’s some deeper dance with Throwing Shapes, which is kind of fun, but I’m not sure how much it really adds to the album (it might have made a good b-side though?)

By this stage you should be pretty familiar with what this album is likely to offer you, and so Candles should either be great, or more of the same. I tend to err towards the latter with this one. Fortunately it’s very short, and then we’re on to All or Nothing, which is definitely one of the best songs on here.

Alive is a bit questionable though, as is 7am. There’s nothing phenomenally bad here, but you basically have to choose on most tracks between having something that’s interesting dance music, or a good song; rarely can you have both. The Brazilian is really just a very short deep house track with a bit of extra electronica and warped vocal samples.

But then something strange happens – we get an acoustic guitar, playing the chord sequence from Pink Floyd‘s Another Brick in the Wall (Part II). Which sounds pretty great actually, after some of the things that came before it. Simple Things, Pt. 2 is great – a new song based on the classic hit – so of course, this had to be the third single. In the end, it morphs into a cover version of Another Brick in the Wall. Fantastic.

For me, the best version of Days Go By is Steve Osborne‘s acoustic version that appears on the single, but the live acoustic take that turns up at the end of the album as a hidden bonus track is pretty great too, and definitely a good way to close the album.

So Dirty Vegas is a mixed bag, indisputably, but there are some great tracks on there. It’s definitely a cut above their second or third albums. You should buy only one Dirty Vegas album, and it should be this one.

You can still find Dirty Vegas at all major retailers.

Erasure – Abba-esque EP

Twenty-five years ago, this was number one in the UK for five weeks.

That’s really all you need to know – Erasure held on to the top spot for a very long time. They were huge, and they pretty much single-handedly managed to revive Abba‘s career as well.

There are just four tracks on here – firstly Lay All Your Love on Me, full of electronic flashes and squawks. If you don’t know Abba, you can just accept that this is one of Erasure‘s catchiest moments. If you do, you can enjoy a very different take on a great song.

Perhaps coincidentally, these tracks appear in alphabetical order, so the melancholic S.O.S. comes next, sounding equally brilliant. It’s fascinating to think just how busy Erasure must have been during this period – this EP appeared barely a year after the preceding album Chorus, and also turned up as a four-track video single, the production of which must have really put them through their paces.

Take a Chance on Me was the track that received the most airplay, and was logically therefore the one that appeared on Pop! The First 20 Hits a few months later. It’s great, and definitely every bit as good as anything else that Erasure ever did. Until, at least, MC Kinky turns up for a slightly inexplicable rap halfway through. She was unceremoniously removed from some of the promo radio versions, and I’m not sure she really adds much to the song, but then on the other hand it would be difficult to imagine it without her appearing and rapping about… well, whatever it is she’s going on about, because frankly I’ve never understood a word of it.

Closing the collection is the best of the lot, Voulez Vous. There’s an element of seedy underground darkness, which is of course, entirely as it should be. Four remixes were commissioned for club play, and, so the story goes, weren’t originally intended for commercial release, but were changing hands for such extravagant prices that a non-charting CD and 12″ release followed later. None of them are particularly good, to be honest, but Voulez Vous is probably the closest hint to what’s on there.

Before you know it, the backing has gone a bit crazy, and you’re at the end of this EP already. It’s a shame that it’s over so quickly, but what a fantastic collection of songs!

You should still be able to find second hand copies of this EP, but the original release is no longer widely available in physical form. Try here for starters.

Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 7-13

By 1997, nearly three decades into his career, Jean-Michel Jarre had finally achieved legendary status. All he needed to do was find a way to follow up on his debut chart hit Oxygène, and the world would be his oyster. So that’s what he did.

The album opens with Part 7, a bold, eleven minute piece which kicks off with single, bright synth notes, before building gradually into an enormous synth dance piece. Jarre was clearly in his element here – finally, mainstream music had caught up with him, and he was able to play along and show everybody else how it was done. He may no longer have been the cultish outsider, but he was really at his creative peak.

Jarre had already flirted with his past on 1994’s Chronologie, which had yielded a couple of hit singles, and so recording Oxygène (Part 8) must have been pretty straightforward. But this is so good! Somehow this is classic Jean-Michel Jarre, and yet he had never quite released anything like it before.

Part 9 is perhaps the gentlest piece on here, and the only one that strongly reminds the listener of the original album (although the same synthesisers were used, so the general “mood” remains the same across both releases).

Side B opens with Part 10, which was also the second single, albeit in a vastly reworked form. There’s something rather glorious about the melody, although somehow the backing is just a touch too cheesy to have ever performed well on the charts by itself. Then Part 11 is perhaps the least penetrable piece on here, and energetic, heavily arpeggiated piece, which fits perfectly in the album context, but might not have got too far if it had been released by itself.

Part 12 is brilliant though, and probably could have been a hit as well. Powered largely by a very bouncy synth arpeggio, the melody is cleverly hidden amongst the electronic chirps, and it’s an extremely beautiful piece of music. Then, finally, we reach Part 13, an even sweeter closing track than Part 6, which ended the original album. A simple and sweet pad melody with soft harmonies is accompanied by some slightly overwrought percussion, and that might seem like an unfair description, but I don’t think it’s too far off the mark. It’s still a fantastic piece of music.

When the original Oxygène album came out in 1976, he already had a handful of little-known releases under his belt, so it’s far from naïve, but this sequel is still infinitely more confident, and some might suggest therefore that it lacks some of the innocence of its predecessor. I don’t think that’s true – it may not be quite as close to perfection, but it’s still pretty darn close.

This second volume in the Oxygène series is still widely available, either in its original form, or retitled Oxygène 2 as part of the Oxygène Trilogy boxed set.

Pet Shop Boys – Release

An album which is often either overlooked or maligned is Pet Shop Boys‘ eighth studio release, Release, which came out fifteen years ago this week. Having seen a steady decrease in success for nearly a decade, and having also sat on the sidelines while indie rock took over the UK charts, they decided to go for a much more raw, rock-inspired sound. The fact that this coincided with a resurgence in electronic pop on the radio is a classic Pet Shop Boys move.

It opens, unusually for Pet Shop Boys, with the lead single Home and Dry, an understated lead track with a delightful synth line. It’s a great synth song – honestly it was never going to be a huge hit, and did pretty well to scrape in at number 14, but in the context of this album, it fits very nicely.

Second (and in many countries final) single I Get Along comes next, famously a song about Tony Blair‘s relationship with spin doctor Alistair Campbell. It’s a rock ballad, and didn’t cut down especially well into its edited single version form, but in full album form, it’s a great song, and could easily have fitted on any number of 1960s LPs.

Birthday Boy is another rock ballad, a fun pop song about Jesus. In retrospect, this surely deserved a place on their Christmas EP a few years later. One of the nicer aspects of this song is hearing Neil Tennant sing in a much lower register than normal – actually slightly lower than he seems comfortable with at times. But it’s always nice to hear male vocalists singing in a more natural range.

Then comes London, the German-only third single, a sweet, guitar-driven song about immigrants from Eastern Europe coming to the UK to look for work, and finding some of the excitement that the city can hold. Where I struggle personally with this song is its use of autotune – it’s already turned up a couple of times on this album, and already it’s starting to sound a bit overused. On London, it does start to jar a little (you can read more of my thoughts on the subject here).

E-Mail is next, and marks a definite end to Side A of this album, an extremely accurate and contemporary song about falling in love via electronic media. Unusually for Pet Shop Boys‘ 1990s releases, but in common with the theme of Release, there are only ten tracks on here, and some of the best tracks of the era (Always is perhaps the most notable) ended up as b-sides or on Disco 3, which appeared the following year.

But there are some more electronic moments here, and Side B opens with The Samurai in Autumn, a semi-instrumental dance track which actually fits nicely here due to its grimy production. It’s about the state of the duo’s career at the time of the preceding album Nightlife (1999), and sees them at their most introspective on this album.

The next two tracks are undoubtedly the best on here, and I’d be hard-pushed to choose between them. Love is a Catastrophe is an exceptional piece, and what it really highlights is that Pet Shop Boys have taken a very different songwriting approach with this album – it’s not just the songwriting that’s different, they have really never recorded anything quite like this anywhere else. Then Here, which really should have been called Home, had it not been for the opening track on the album. In many ways this is a return to their normal style, but done extremely well.

Most of the way through the album, its reputation as one of their poorer efforts is looking extremely unfair, but there are valid criticisms. One for me would be the way it was marketed – I’ve never really seen any good reason why it would have been called Release – it’s a good name, but it doesn’t really fit the music – and while the artwork, a series of embossed flowers, is great, that fits neither the title nor the songs.

But those are minor quibbles, it’s still a great package. Until The Night I Fell in Love, anyway. I do appreciate what they were doing here – someone did need to show Eminem that he can’t go around being mean to everyone else without some degree of comeback. It’s pretty clever too – suggesting someone so publicly homophobic would actually be gay is genius. The best comeback Eminem could manage was suggesting he had run Pet Shop Boys over in his car in Canibitch. Anyway, perhaps this might have been better as a b-side?

You Choose is the final track on here, another example of their having taken a very different songwriting approach. It’s a really strong closing track, which fits the theme of the album very nicely, and it features a typically wise Tennant lyric.

So Release might not be perfect, but it does have a lot to offer, and fifteen years on, it’s definitely worth giving another chance. You might still end up concluding that it’s Pet Shop Boys‘ least good album, but that’s no bad thing either – it’s up against some pretty stiff competition to be their best.

You should still be able to find copies of the original Release of release, but you might want to wait, as the rumour mill suggests a new reissue might be on its way.