Artist of the Week – William Orbit

Time now for another of our archive Artist of the Week features, dating back to early 2005. Some of these do contain errors, and probably contain some plagiarism too. Apologies in advance…

This week’s Artist of the Week was born William Wainwright, and would ultimately go on to become one of the most important musicians in the world of electronic ambient and dance music.

He began his musical career in the early 1980s in the new wave group Torch Song, and while recording with the band started to learn studio techniques, and by the end of the eighties was making a name for himself by remixing and producing the likes of Kraftwerk, The Human League, Erasure, and Madonna.

His first solo album Orbit was released in 1987, but it was with the Strange Cargo project that he started to make a name for himself. The first part of the four-album epic also came out in 1987, and was followed by parts two and three at three-year intervals. It was with these that he kick-started the career of folk singer Beth Orton, who first featured on 1993’s minor hit single Water from a Vine Leaf. The fourth album in the set, Strange Cargo Hinterland, followed in 1995, and features some of his best material to date.

It was at this time he first recorded his legendary Pieces in a Modern Style album, featuring inventive new interpretations of classical pieces, but it initially attracted very strong protests from some of the composers involved, so he re-entered the world of production, apparently never to be seen again.

However, it was with his production work that he truly made a name for himself, being responsible for some of All Saints‘ later material, as well as Ray of Light, one of Madonna‘s best albums to date, and also Blur‘s acclaimed album 13. On the back of this, he returned to the studio to re-record Pieces in a Modern Style, which swiftly made its name as a modern classic thanks to remixes by Ferry Corsten and ATB.

As rumours of a new album continue, he continues to work with the likes of Pink and Eagle-Eye Cherry on production work, and we await his return with baited breath.

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.

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.

Greatest Hits – Vol. 8

Every so often I like to take a little downtime and remind you about some of the posts that you might have missed recently. Here are a few…