Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise

Barely six months after the release of Jean-Michel Jarre‘s first Electronica album, he was already back with the second volume. This time, of course, we start with certain expectations after the first, and it’s not a disappointment.

The second volume begins with the gloriously atmospheric The Heart of Noise (Part 1), a duet with the French electronic musician Rone, who I hadn’t heard of before, but who seems to have brought a lot of additional atmosphere to this piece. It steps naturally into Part 2, which curiously for a collaboration album features Jarre collaborating with himself.

You must have realised by now that I’m a pretty big fan of Pet Shop Boys, so it should come as little surprise that I was excited about Brick England, but it does seem a typical act of irony for the duo that what’s clearly their best song in a number of years didn’t actually make it onto their latest album, released just weeks before this one. But Brick England is just so good. If there were any justice, this would have been number one for weeks. It wasn’t even a single – actually, Jarre seems to have lost interest in this album as soon as it was released and gone onto recording Oxygène 3 instead.

Julia Holter turns up next for the sparkling These Creatures, and then the one track that I don’t understand, As One with Primal Scream. It seems clear that they didn’t bother turning up for this, so Jarre has collaborated with them in much the same way as rappers collaborate with bald annoying drummers – by taking their song and recording another one over the top. The results aren’t bad, but surely Jarre could have done better?

Some of the legends here are every bit as legendary as Jarre himself, and Gary Numan is surely one of the closest, and although I haven’t really felt he’s lived up to his status in the last couple of decades, it’s hard not to have a degree of respect for him. Here for You is good though – possibly even one of the better tracks on here.

Without the list of collaborators, it’s often hard to know exactly what’s going on, so the gentle Electrees (with Hans Zimmer) fades into the more violent Exit, largely a solo Jarre work until Edward Snowden suddenly appears out of nowhere to talk about privacy for some reason.

Next it’s the turn of Canadian singer Peaches, who confused me briefly when I wondered why I’d only vaguely heard of her, until I realised she’s basically never had a hit in the UK. What You Want is pretty good though, although perhaps not quite as good as Gisele, with the flamboyant French singer Sébastien Tellier.

Switch on Leon sees Jarre appropriately working with The Orb to express their deep love of synthesizers and electronic music, but ultimately here is little more than an interlude which continues with the pleasant and bumpy Circus, with Siriusmo.

The brilliant Yello turn up for Why This, Why That and Why, a strangely compelling track which, like Brick England, blows their own 2016 album Toy out of the water. It’s an odd one, but it’s definitely one of the best tracks on here.

Prolific experimental musician Jeff Mills is next, with The Architect, a pleasant instrumental before the brilliant Swipe to the Right, with Cyndi Lauper, definitely one of the best pop tracks that Jarre has ever been involved with. Then another French legend Christophe appears to deliver Walking the Mile, a pleasant pop song.

Right at the end are a couple of surprises – Jarre collaborates with himself again and delivers his own vocal on another great pop song, Falling Down, and then it closes with the track that started the whole project, The Heart of Noise (The Origin).

Ultimately both halves of the Electronica project are great albums, but I’d dare to suggest that The Heart of Noise is actually slightly better than The Time Machine. Needless to say, both albums are well worth a listen, and ideally a purchase, and hopefully, one day, even a follow-up.

You can still find volume 2 of Electronica at all major retailers.

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Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine

I don’t know, you wait eight years for a new Jean-Michel Jarre album, and then three turn up at once. Sorry, I know that’s an obvious thing to say, but it is amusingly apposite. The fun but definitely questionable Téo & Téa (2007) left a slightly iffy taste in a lot of people’s mouths, and apart from the re-recorded and questionably legal version of Oxygène that followed the same year, there was then an extended silence until 2015.

What he was doing, it turns out, was working with every other electronic musician under the sun to create a two volume album, Electronica. The first opens with the sweet title track The Time Machine, with Boys Noize, and then comes one of the opening singles, Glory, with M83. So far, so pleasant.

Both of these albums have been criticised for being a bit disjointed, which, while not entirely unfair, seems a bit of an odd thing to say – of course they are, they’re effectively compilations of collaborations. But the sequence is generally logical, and there isn’t really anything particularly bad on here, so it’s hard to be too critical.

Fellow French musicians Air turn up next, for Close Your Eyes. Some tracks seem to have a lot more of Jarre, and others have a lot more of his collaborators on them, and in general, this one ends up sounding like Air might if they employed Jarre as a producer. That is to say, pretty good.

The first time you can really call something here “brilliant” is on the two parts of Automatic, both collaborations with Vince Clarke. For Clarke, this sounds a lot like his recent solo and collaborative electronic projects, but Jarre’s influence is clearly audible here too, particularly in Part 2, and both halves of the track really are excellent.

The increasingly great Little Boots turns up next, pretty much the only musician other than Jarre to make the laser harp part of their live show, and their collaboration is If..! (yes, two dots). While it’s certainly true that Jarre did something on this one, it’s difficult to know exactly what, but it’s a great song nonetheless.

They keep coming – Immortals, with Fuck Buttons, is an excellent meeting of minds, and while Suns Have Gone with Moby may not be the high point of either artist’s career, you have to be glad that it happened.

It is undeniably an odd list of collaborators though – which is not to say that Gesaffelstein shouldn’t be here – after all, why not? Few might put him in their top thirty living artists of all time list, but the resulting track Conquistador is pretty good. This isn’t so true of Travelator (Part 2) (there doesn’t appear to be a part 1), with Pete Townshend, which I’m not convinced does the legacy of either great musician any particular favours.

That isn’t true of what is apparently Edgar Froese‘s last recorded work, Zero Gravity, which after so many decades finally brings us the joint credit of Jean-Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream, and it’s ever bit as excellent as it should be. It’s also nice to see Jarre revisiting his earlier musical partner Laurie Anderson for the decidedly odd Rely on Me.

Where these two albums both go a little astray for me is with the number of tracks – they’re varied, but after thirteen pieces of music and with no end in sight, you’re always going to be a little weary. Towards the end of the first volume, we get a fun trance excursion with  Armin van BuurenStardust, followed by the weirdly dubby Watching You, with 3D from Massive Attack.

Right at the end, John Carpenter turns up for the appropriately creepy A Question of Blood, and finally pianist Lang Lang accompanies an atmospheric piece on album closer The Train & The River. It’s a long, varied, and complex album, but in general it stands well on its own, and if you consider yourself a fan of any sort of electronic music, you should probably be a fan of this.

You can find part 1 of the Electronica project at all major retailers.

Róisín Murphy – Hairless Toys

It seems you can always rely on Róisín Murphy if you’re in the market for eccentric and oddball but brilliant pop music. She also seems to be getting more prolific, which for someone this well established in their career is very unusual – Hairless Toys is her third album, but it isn’t even her most recent any more. Still, it came out less than two years ago, which qualifies it for inclusion in the review section, and anyway I haven’t heard the follow-up yet.

Some eight years after Overpowered, it picks up pretty much where she left off, but deeper and darker this time – the opening track is Gone Fishing, a pleasant deep dub-infused track with a murmured vocal. Frankly it would never have been a number one hit, but neither do you find yourself reaching for the skip button, and at the right time of day it’s very pleasant indeed.

Evil Eyes explores some dark electro elements in amongst a contemporary house beat, and is also very pleasant. At this tempo you probably wouldn’t hear it in many clubs, despite the great disco sounds in the chorus, but in the right environment it sounds great.

It’s an engaging album, but it’s also mellow enough that you might find yourself tuning out from time to time. Turn your attention back, and Exploitation has started, with its weird warped synth backing and soft woodblock sounds. If you can stop yourself from shouting “it should be whom,” this is probably the best song on here, and it fills its nine minute duration comfortably.

But this is, in a way, something of a genre-defying album – Uninvited Guest has an almost gospel backing vocal, with a bit of whistling and weird yawny noises in the chorus. At the same time, the lounge electronic piano sound bounces along with a bit of a jazz feel, the tempo shifts, and the whole thing is very odd indeed. In a good way – somehow it all works together.

Exile is as close to electro-country as you probably ever want to find yourself – it sounds like the product of a country singer sitting on an alien planet with its curious percussive noises, and at four minutes it’s also by far the shortest track on here, but it’s very good too. Then the trippy pad-driven House of Glass follows, gradually growing into one of the most uptempo tracks on here.

It’s difficult to find much negative about this album, unless perhaps downtempo music isn’t your thing. Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt) could have easily been a huge hit single with different production, but the understated nature of this album makes it a gentle, drifting piece which sounds entirely brilliant too.

Finally, the album closes with the entirely appropriate Unputdownable, and Róisín Murphy‘s long-awaited comeback is over. It might have been a long time coming, and it might have been an understated release when it arrived, but it was definitely worth it.

You can still find Hairless Toys at all major retailers.

Leftfield – Alternative Light Source

It took Leftfield sixteen years to return with Alternative Light Source. In the 1990s, the duo of Neil Barnes and Paul Daley released just two albums, but their dark and exotic electronic dance music was both unique and enormously influential. They skipped an entire decade, before returning in 2010, now without Daley but with a score of guest vocalists instead, and toured for a couple of years before eventually returning with new material in 2015.

The third album opens with a brilliant robotic vocal from Tunde Adebimpe, on the track Bad Radio. It’s fantastic. The huge warping bass and eccentric synth sounds have echoes of Leftism (1995) and Rhythm and Stealth (1999), while at the same time sounding new and contemporary – and also very catchy.

Second track Universal Everything, with Georgia Barnes providing some other-worldly vocals, is simply banging. It’s a huge club piece, deeper and darker than anything on the first two albums, but still with a bit of an unusual twist.

Channy Leaneagh from Poliça turns up to deliver the vocal on Bilocation. It’s rhythmic and hypnotic, not unlike the last single from the second album, Swords. Then for perhaps one of the oddest tracks on here, Sleaford Mods turn up to deliver the exceptional Head and Shoulders, a bizarre poetic piece full of obscure words and even odder concepts, but one which comes together brilliantly.

Nearing the halfway point of the album, most of the collaborations are complete. A simple arpeggiator melody drives Dark Matters, referencing some of Leftfield‘s pre-Leftism material, and before Channy Leaneagh turns up again for another oddity, Little Fish, which bounces along with an almost contemporary rave feel for six minutes, and that theme continues with Storms End, the instrumental track which follows.

Leftfield always have something unexpected up their sleeves, and so the title track Alternative Light Source opens with a gentle strummed acoustic guitar riff, and although it gets big, it never really builds into anything too enormous. Honestly it’s a welcome break from the banging beats which have characterised the album up to now.

If you approach this album expecting to be rocked in the way the previous two albums changed your world, you might be disappointed – this might even be a better album for people who have never heard any Leftfield before – but it does have a sound of its own, and it’s unique in the way that Leftfield always were. It does have its low points though – Shaker Obsession is fine, but far from special, but prudently this album only has ten tracks, so you never really get bored, and this is the penultimate one anyway, so you should really know what this album is all about by now.

Alternative Light Source closes with the adorable Levitate for You, with Ofei. It’s deep and downtempo, and honestly I’d have loved a few more tracks like this. But what do I know? This is a great way to close the album, even if it comes on its own.

With a reputation as solid as Leftfield‘s, a lot of people were inevitably going to be disappointed by this album, but honestly it’s a strong comeback, and it does leave you hoping for more. If you want to stick with the two era-defining albums from the 1990s, that’s your choice too, but I’d definitely recommend the third one too.

You can find Alternative Light Source at all major retailers.

Little Boots – Working Girl

Three albums in, Little Boots is clearly brilliant. Actually, she was brilliant from the start, but with her third album Working Girl there really isn’t a lot you can criticise.

After a brief telephone Intro, the first song is the title track. It’s catchy, with a bouncy beat behind it, and a maturity that really ought to be very appealing. Unfortunately, each of Little Boots‘s releases has performed slightly worse than its predecessor, so while it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that this single failed to chart, the album’s low-end peak is definitely a disappointment.

The bouncy underground beats continue with No Pressure, which, like some of her earlier works, suffers a little in the verse, but builds into a great chorus. It still went down very well when she performed live, as did the next track Get Things Done.

The theme on this album is one of retro 1980s business, so Get Things Done sounds – I think intentionally – like the slogan of some kind of delivery company, a device which also frames a great song.

There are a few less memorable moments on here, and Taste It is one of those, although it shares a writing credit with one of Simian Mobile Disco, so it really should have been great. Real Girl is better, but probably not something you’ll be singing to yourself after the album finishes. Heroine will stick with you a little longer, and it has a bit of a melancholic disco sound, which makes it stand out somewhat too.

Things go a whole lot more disco with The Game, and then comes the plodding but surprisingly beautiful Help Too. By this stage in the album, in spite of a few ups and downs, it should be firmly lodged in your mind as a good one. In fact, while it doesn’t include Remedy or New in Town, it could be even better than either of its predecessors.

In a way, the oddest thing here is how consistent the production is – every track has a different producer, and on Business Pleasure it is the turn of the brilliantly named Com Truise to turn up, co-write, and turn the knobs. The result is one of the better tracks on here, and that’s also true for Paradise, which has a brilliantly epic feel to it as well as a certain simplicity which works extremely well.

There’s nothing epic about Better in the Morning – the simplicity is key to this track, but it’s also charming and quite brilliant. It doesn’t quite have a melody, and that would normally be a turn-off for me, but somehow this is different. And placing it right at the end is clearly genius – you’ll be chanting this one for weeks.

So Little Boots‘s third outing might have a few low points, but for the most part it’s another great pop album – possibly greater than anything she’s released before. If you can grab a copy that includes the bonus track Desire, that’s well worth having too.

You can find Working Girl at all major retailers.

Pet Shop Boys – Microsoft Theater, Los Angeles, 29 October 2016

Honestly, I had mixed feelings about Pet Shop Boys‘ latest album Super. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, of course, but somehow it just seems to feel like a difficult second album. 2013’s Electric was such a revitalisation, especially following just nine months after Elysium, and this latest comeback does feel a little bit like more of the same.

So I approached their latest tour with fairly low expectations, but the Halloween atmosphere at the Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live in Los Angeles was pretty upbeat, right from the start. The line for entry included plenty of hilarious costumes, including the girl dressed up as a troll doll, with her hair pretty much vertical in a cone, and, well, it would be difficult not to mention the two grown men dressed as bumblebees.

In fact, it barely took a couple of beats of Inner Sanctum before most if the audience were on their feet. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe appeared, standing in front of the Super circles and looking entirely as though they were about to have knives thrown at them. Second came West End girls, an odd choice for so early in the show, but it sounded exceptional, and getting the extra verse and a bit of a remix towards the end made all the difference.

As the night started to wear on, the party grew ever better. An unexpected rendition of In the night mixed seamlessly into the brilliant new track Burn, before we jumped back to 2013 for Love is a bourgeois construct. There were even a lot of surprises amongst the song choices. Long gone were traditional crowd pleasers such as Paninaro and Being boring – in fact there were no tracks at all from 1990’s Behaviour. But Pet Shop Boys always put on a good party, and so newer classics such as New York City boy and Se a Vida É (That’s the way life is) took their place, and went down astonishingly well.

Twenty-something was next, and the crowd – at least where I was standing – was really into it. The person behind me was enthusiastically attempting to use Shazam to find out what the song was called. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t work.

Highlights of the evening included the excellent new version of Love comes quickly, which deservedly had most of the crowd dancing and singing along, and later the brilliant and very brave quirky glitch acid version of Left to my own devices.

Of course, some moments fell flatter than others. Love etc had everyone bouncing along, just like in the original video from 2009, but somehow Neil’s delivery seemed to be letting the pace of the song down somewhat. The dictator decides, on the new album a dark and dramatic piece, didn’t quite seem to work live, and sadly neither did Inside a dream entirely, despite being one of their finest songs of recent years.

As Neil told the crowd, Pet Shop Boys have a long-held association with Los Angeles, with KROQ DJ Richard Blade having introduced them in the 1980s, and it was here that they recorded their 2012 album Elysium, which has subsequently been forgotten by all but the most die-hard fans. Even those fans bear an inexplicable hatred for the silly but fun Winner, which came next, in its infinitely better remixed form, but here, the audience just seemed to accept it as another great piece of pop.

Then the ambient version of Home and dry, which nobody really remembers any more, and which mixed into the instrumental The enigma, from their largely underperformed work charting the life of Alan Turing. Proceedings picked up again with Vocal, and then The Sodom and Gomorrah show, before excellent renditions of classics It’s a sinLeft to my own devices, and Go West.

Finally, the encores: an explosive version of Domino dancing, and a more traditional take on Always on My Mind to close. But then, somewhat inexplicably, a reprise of The Pop Kids – I think I see what they were doing here, trying to tie everything back to the beginning of the show, but I’m not sure this entirely worked as a closer.

All in all, though, a fantastic show – better than the Electric tour, which, while great, seemed to share a lot with the preceding Yes tour, and that would have been four years earlier.

Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?

One of the fundamental rules of modern music seems to be that every so often, when you’re definitely not expecting it, Hot Chip will reappear with another album that turns out to be quite fantastic. So it was with One Life Stand (2010), In Our Heads (2012), and their most recent album Why Make Sense? (2015).

It opens with the cryptically (and unpronounceably) titled Huarache Lights. Everything it lacks in melody – and that’s a lot, it’s basically a chanted refrain with lots of beats – it makes up for in charming nod-your-head-to-the-beats catchiness. We might have forgotten about them a bit over the preceding three years, but Hot Chip were definitely back.

Next is Love is the Future, apparently a collaboration with one of De La Soul, although I’m not sure you would know this if you didn’t read the credits. He turns up half way through to deliver a bit of rapping. Mainly, though, for long-time fans of Hot Chip, it’s comforting to hear them return to their very earliest days with the sound of this track.

For the most part, though, this just seems to be another Hot Chip album. Cry for You and Started Right are nice, of course, but there isn’t a lot here that grabs you by the throat in the way Ready for the Floor did all those years ago.

They do, though, still comfortably have a talent for the dafter song. White Wine and Fried Chicken is an unexpectedly fun down-tempo piece. Then Dark Night is probably the closest we’ve come yet to Hot Chip‘s real trademark sound, although even this seems to be being downplayed here. They used to love trying to shock us, but perhaps that’s a thing of the past now.

None of this is really a criticism, though. They still have an inventive spirit, perhaps most obviously illustrated by the album’s artwork, which changes slightly from one copy to the next to end up with over 130,000 different combinations. I wonder how many copies the reall fans ended up having to buy to satisfy their collector-urge.

But while the shocking moments might be lacking, there’s still plenty on here to enjoy. Easy to Get is understated and very sweet. Then Need You Now, the first “proper” single from this album, which is deep and soulful and again, much quieter than anything Hot Chip have presented us with in recent years.

That seems to be the general theme with the latter moments of this album. So Much Further to Go is nice, but you’re hardly going to write home about it. Final track Why Make Sense? is what you’ve been waiting for all along – it’s probably the closest you’re going to get to the slightly daft hit singles from a decade or so ago. It’s great, but maybe it’s just a little late for the party.

In the end, Why Make Sense? is a good sixth album, but the lack of catchy singles maybe renders it a bit less good than the fifth, fourth, or third. But either way, it’s good to hear from Hot Chip again.

If you can find the version with the extra disc, that’s the one to go for. Otherwise, the standard edition is still widely available.