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.

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Anthology Season

Logically, I should probably own a few anthologies – I’m the kind of person who would. But, despite having listened to New Order‘s Retro a few times, I remain decidedly underwhelmed by the concept. So this year’s influx of anthologies in our line of music comes as something of a shock to the system, and it’s worth taking a moment to consider what’s actually in them.

Marc Almond – Trials of Eyeliner – The Anthology 1979-2016

Marc Almond announced his first, and it finally enters the shops on 4th November. Here are some quick statistics:

  • Number of discs: 10
  • Number of tracks: 189
  • Retail price: £120

Discs 1-4 are History, a collection of Marc’s favourite album tracks over his impressively long career.

Then Discs 5-7 are Singles, a complete collection of the Soft Cell, Marc and the Mambas, solo, and collaborative hits.

Discs 8-10 are Gems, a set of fanclub releases, collaborations, tracks from soundtracks, demos, and previously unreleased recordings.

You also get a 64-page hardcover book full of photos and images from Marc Almond‘s personal collection.

More details here.

The verdict, for me: you probably need to be a bigger fan than I am.

Erasure – From Moscow to Mars – An Erasure Anthology

Erasure are currently still busy celebrating their thirtieth birthday with some lovely vinyl editions, and also this, released on 21st October:

  • Number of discs: 13
  • Number of tracks: 200
  • Retail price: £80

Discs 1-3 are Erasure – The Singles, another collection of all the Erasure singles. Since we only got Total Pop! in 2009 and another collection just last year, this seems a bit unnecessary.

Discs 4-5 are Erasure by Vince Clarke and Andy Bell, with one disc compiled by each. There are some interesting inclusions, and it would definitely be worth hearing, but probably not one that even the most devoted fan would pick up too often.

Discs 6-7 are Erasure – The B-Sides, an incomplete selection of Erasure‘s b-sides. There are a lot of gems on here actually, and it’s good to see so many of them in the same place at once. Probably worth a listen.

Discs 8-9 are just called Remixes, and are yet another selection of new and old Erasure remixes. There are some interesting looking new ones, such as Little Boots taking on Blue Savannah, but I think you would need to be a completist for this.

Disc 10 has been done before as well – Erasure – Live! is another edited selection of live highlights throughout the years.

Disc 11 is Rarities, some of which haven’t actually been released before, so might be worth the odd listen now and then.

Disc 12 is a nice inclusion, an audio documentary called A Little Respect – 30 Years of Erasure, presented by Mark Goodier from off of the olden days, and with contributions from various contemporaries.

Finally Disc 13 is a DVD release of The Wild! Tour, previously only released on VHS, so probably a nice addition for completists.

Pre-orders also get six unreleased bonus downloads, although it’s difficult to believe there’s anything to write home about among them.

More details here.

The verdict: despite the bargain price, I can’t see a strong reason to buy this one except for the b-sides collection. Hopefully that will come out separately one day.

The Human League – A Very British Synthesizer Group 1977-2016

The smallest of all the anthologies, and probably the one with the oddest artwork (see link below). Released on 18th November, the vital statistics look like this:

  • Number of discs: 4
  • Number of tracks: 92
  • Retail price: £80

There are just four discs on this one, although you do get a 58-page book too. Discs 1 and 2 are the complete collected singles from 1978 to the present, collected for the first time without any omissions.

The rest of the tracks are really just bonus material on a glorified best of. Disc 3 contains early versions of a lot of tracks, although many of them aren’t singles, so this is probably one for fans only.

Disc 4 is a DVD, containing every single one of their promotional videos and a collection of their BBC appearances.

There’s also a triple LP and double CD version containing just the singles, and they’re also touring the whole thing this Autumn.

More details here and here.

The verdict: very tempting, if the price decides to drop to something much more reasonable.

The best of the rest

Also coming out this Autumn are:

Sophisticated Boom Box MMXVI, an enormous 19-disc box set from Dead or Alive, including all the albums as two or three-disc sets, some of which have never actually been released in the UK before, as well as some DVDs and impressive packaging, all for just £118. Definitely one for bigger fans than me, but worth investigating if you’re into that kind of thing.

The Early Years 1965-1972, an astonishing 27-disc set from Pink Floyd, collecting albums, singles, unreleased tracks, singles, videos, and memorabilia from their early years, costing several months’ salary but possibly worth it if you’re an über-fan. More details here.

Depeche Mode take advantage of one of their many years off with a complete collection of videos, Video Singles Collection. This is a three-disc set containing the videos from 1981-2013, including a whole load of material that has never been released on DVD before, plus commentaries. Details here.

Artist of the Week – Erasure

Here’s another old Artist of the Week feature from my old radio show. It probably wasn’t researched very well, and so may contain plagiarism, errors, and omissions. My sincere apologies if so.

The story begins way back in 1981, when Vince Clarke was briefly a member of the gods of electronica Depeche Mode. After the first album, musical differences forced him out of the band, leaving just as their popularity was growing. Following this, he and Alison Moyet formed Yazoo, who saw huge success during their brief but stormy reign over the charts between 1982 and 1983.

After their split, Vince joined with producer Eric Radcliffe to form a group called The Assembly, where the intention was that they would produce tracks with different singers. After one huge hit, Never Never, and one flop, they called it a day.

It was during the auditions for The Assembly project [I’m going to add my own “citation needed” tag here] that Vince first came across singer Andy Bell. They started working together, and had soon completed the first album Wonderland. However, for whatever reason, the debut was never a substantial hit, and only yielded one minor hit single, so it wasn’t until the second album The Circus came out that they were propelled to the top end of the charts by the universal hit Sometimes.

Further albums followed, with The Innocents bringing more success, and, at the end of the 1980s, they turned away from their traditionally analogue sounds to produce Wild!, their second number one album, which also brought them four top twenty hit singles.

For 1991’s Chorus they returned to a very analogue sound to produce what is commonly thought to be their best album to date. Again, a further four huge hits ensued, and in mid-1992, they followed this with an obscure collection of cover versions which brought them their biggest hit to date, the huge summer smash Abba-esque EP.

Their return in 1994 with I Say I Say I Say brought them further hits, but by the mid-1990s, a combination of being overwhelmed by Britpop and spending too much time experimenting meant they were starting to lose their touch. This began in earnest with 1995’s eponymous album, which turned their previous sound on its head with ten-minute instrumentals and ambient tracks.

In 1997 they tried to get a foot back in the door with Cowboy, a collection of 3-minute pop songs, which were widely ignored by the record-buying public. In 2000, they tried to tap the remnants of the indie explosion with Loveboat, a predominantly acoustic guitar-based album, which barely even managed to scrape into the charts.

It was finally last year that they managed their comeback, through the all-too-popular medium of a cover versions album. The wittily titled but frankly awful Other People’s Songs managed to grab them a little bit of the limelight they deserve, and helped their second singles compilation into the top end of the charts.

So what now? Well, they’re still very analogue, and rumour suggests that they’ve now gone all electro on us, following recent successes from the likes of Röyksopp and Mirwais. The album is released on January 24th, preceded by the single Breathe on the 3rd.

Erasure – Wonderland

There is, as Andy Bell so wisely tells us, “something going on, something not quite right.” Because just a couple of years after Vince Clarke left the breathtakingly successful Yazoo, and not long before they were very near the top of the charts with Sometimes, Erasure were to be found right at the bottom with their number 71 hit Wonderland.

Who Needs Love (Like That) is, of course, one of the best songs of their career. Clarke had written it long before the two met, and Bell actually performed it as one of his audition pieces. It also gave them a minor hit, which isn’t something you can say for anything else on here.

Is that because they weren’t very good? Honestly, partly I think the answer is yes. Reunion and Cry So Easy both have nice enough melodies, but they seem naïve and a little empty. The production is probably the thing that’s most obviously lacking – producer Flood has made the best of a bad job, but if you consider for a moment what else was going on in the world of music at the time (the first Pet Shop Boys album and Depeche Mode‘s Black Celebration to name but two), this seems very empty – perhaps even rushed.

There are exceptions, in addition to the opening single – Push Me, Shove Me in particular, which didn’t actually make it onto the earlier US version of the album, is Erasure at their best. Perhaps they just needed slightly tighter editorial controls at the time.

It doesn’t last – Heavenly Action holds a special place in my heart, as I’m sure it does for many people who grew up on Pop! The First 20 Hits, but honestly it isn’t actually very good. What on earth is it supposed to be about?

The first few tracks on Side B aren’t much better either. Say What has a nice swing rhythm, but not a huge amount else – it might at least have been moderately contemporary at the time though. Love is a Loser is nice, but very cheesy indeed. Senseless is better – at least the chorus is fairly catchy, but you do have to wonder exactly what they were throwing away at this point if this is what made it onto the album.

After all that, My Heart… So Blue is something of a surprise. It might not be the best song that Clarke and Bell have ever written, but it’s pretty good, and paves the way well for the exceptional and entirely unexpected Oh L’Amour.

I think the first few times I heard it, it passed me by somehow, but over time I’ve come to see it as what it is – one of Erasure‘s finest moments, and its eventual chart success in 2003 was entirely deserved. For the first time on this album, I have to confess that there’s something truly beautiful here.

So finally, the album comes to an end, with the derogatory Pistol. Another one that was missed off the original US release, you do have to wonder slightly whether they were just making it up as they went along.

Wonderland is, at least, where it all began for Erasure, but it seems fair to view it as being closer to the lower end of the scale than some of their later works. Try to remember these were the same people who had a run of five number one albums starting just two years later, and you might see something in it. One for completists.

Having said all of that, there is a new deluxe edition of this album, which may well bring out the qualities that make it amazing. See here. Also available on vinyl.

Preview – Andy Bell

Andy Bell is back with his follow-up to Torsten the Bareback Saint, entitled Torsten the Beautiful Libertine. If you haven’t been paying attention, that’s his latest solo project, and yields this spectacularly low-budget video for My Precious One:

Erasure – Snow Globe

With Christmas quickly approaching, I thought it might be nice to review something festive. You were probably as surprised as I was a couple of years ago when Erasure suddenly announced they were going to release a Christmas album – and if you put your fingers in your ears and ignored it, you’ll probably be equally surprised to learn that it’s actually quite good.

The first track is the inadvisably named Bells of Love (Isabelle’s of Love), which must have seemed a hilarious pun at some point, but falls a bit flat here. That said, it’s not a bad song – after all Erasure‘s failings between Loveboat (2000) and Tomorrow’s World (2012) – there were many – the one lesson they really seem to have learnt is how to write a catchy song. This one even has a nice lyric to go with the melody, and it’s easy to nod your head along.

A cover of the traditional hymn Gaudete follows. I’m all for pop songs in Latin personally, and when they’re as gloriously silly as this one, you really just have to shut up and enjoy it. Andy Bell‘s delivery is brilliant (although quite what the Latins would make of his pronunciation is difficult to say), and Vince Clarke‘s synth work complements the vocals perfectly.

Recent Erasure efforts have tended to contain at least one song that reminds you of just how good they used to be back in the late 80s and early 90s, and Snow Globe is no exception. Make it Wonderful, a sad omission from their recent best of compilation, surely belongs alongside Love to Hate YouSometimes, and Always as one of their finest songs. A hugely uplifting lyric, accompanied by some brilliant synth lines – what else could you ask for?

It’s difficult not to admire Erasure here. To release a Christmas album of covers is one thing, and this could easily have been a failure of Other People’s Songs (2003) proportions, but impressively most of the songs on here are actually original. Sleep Quietly is one of the few exceptions, and despite being very heavy on the religion, it’s a lovely song.

Interestingly Clarke and Bell decided to revisit their earlier festive efforts when recording this release, and so God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and She Won’t Be Home both appears (in vastly inferior form) on the second disc. Which gives Silent Night, previously performed as a radio session way back in the early days, a bit of context here – otherwise, nice though it is, it would seem a bit pointless, although the soft ambient backing does make for a nice instrumental (also on the bonus disc).

There are forgettable pieces on here – you’re not likely to remember Loving Man or Midnight Clear much after Epiphany – and there are even some reasonably poor moments – There’ll Be No Tomorrow and the closing piece Silver Bells are pretty sub-par – so perhaps keeping this as a more concise EP might have been wise. But it’s difficult to get annoyed, because it’s just so festive.

The chiptune take on The Christmas Song is rather brilliant – you have no idea how happy it would make me to hear this in Tesco’s on Christmas Eve. Actually, Bleak Midwinter and Blood on the Snow are both pretty good too.

It only remains to mention the cover of White Christmas, which is pleasant – it’s still a lovely song – but lacks both the silly, gaudy qualities of Gaudete and the chiptune fun of The Christmas Song.

But all told, this is a pretty good album. If nothing else, it will be worth bringing out for a few Christmases so you can watch Granny rock back and forth in her chair and fall asleep to something different, fun, and very entertaining indeed.

We’ve been listening to the Deluxe Nutcracker Edition of Snow Globe, which is available here.

Retro chart for stowaways – 8 October 2005

Here are the top ten singles from a decade ago this week:

  1. Röyksopp – 49 Percent
  2. Andy Bell – Crazy
  3. Sugababes – Push the Button
  4. Goldfrapp – Ooh La La
  5. Liberty X – Song 4 Lovers
  6. Mylo vs. Miami Sound Machine – Doctor Pressure
  7. Röyksopp – Only This Moment
  8. New Order – Waiting for the Sirens’ Call
  9. Basement Jaxx – Do Your Thing
  10. Moby – Dream About Me