Jean-Michel Jarre – Zoolook

By 1984, Jean-Michel Jarre‘s career had already taken some pretty extraordinary turns. After a few false starts, it had exploded with Oxygène from late 1976 onwards. The follow-up Équinoxe (1978), while great, had offered few surprises, and while 1981’s Magnetic Fields took three years to appear and saw Jarre explore digital synthesis for the first time, it still has a lot in common with its predecessors.

Then things had gone a bit crazy – he became the first western musician to tour China, to huge acclaim, and released an excellent album to chronicle the tour (The Concerts in China, 1982). The following year, he did both the most and least commercial things possible, releasing just one copy of Music for Supermarkets and immediately destroying the master tapes, and then reemerging with a somewhat premature compilation, The Essential Jean-Michel Jarre.

By 1984, Jarre’s exploration of sampling was probably somewhat overdue, but the things he was doing with his samplers were quite unprecedented. Zoolook opens with the disturbing deep choral sounds of the twelve-minute epic Ethnicolor. All the way through this album, the sounds that he throws our way are warped, bizarre, and often somewhat disarming. He has taken vocal snippets, tweaked and retuned them, and layered them frankly all over the place. If anyone else had done this, it would have been a total mess, but Jarre seems in control here. It’s not the most exciting or uplifting piece of music ever written, and it hasn’t necessarily dated well all the way through, but it’s definitely always interesting, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

One of the most interesting things about Jean-Michel Jarre is the way he uses his music to explore humanity, and Zoolook is probably the earliest tangible example of this, portraying 25 languages from the human zoo in the form of weird, layered sound. Prior to this, it had been much more subtle, with layer upon layer of synthesiser. Now, many of those voices were human, but sometimes barely recognisably so.

Diva had appeared the previous year on Music for Supermarkets, but unless you were the lucky buyer, who I imagine has never actually listened to it, or heard it on its radio broadcast, or bought one of the bootlegs that inevitably immediately appeared, you’ll never have heard it. Laurie Anderson appears at this point, chattering inanely over a slightly cheesy arpeggio. On an album of odd tracks, this is definitely one of the oddest.

What comes next depends entirely on which version of the album you have. Originally, and on most versions, it’s a version of the title track Zoolook. The track on mine is bizarrely exclusive, Zoolookologie (Remix), a reworked version of the second single from the album. It’s a delightfully chirpy track that was clearly never going to do much on the charts – in spite of being packaged as a double 7″ in the UK with Oxygène (Part IV) on the other disc, it still didn’t go far.

All versions put the delightful Aboriginal-inspired Wooloomooloo next, probably the best track on here so far, if quirky samples aren’t entirely your thing. Which is probably true for most listeners picking this album up for the first time now – you were no doubt thrown off your stride somewhat by the first track, and you might have enjoyed its atmospherics too, but this steady piece provides a welcome distraction.

Then comes the jazzy title track, apparently also in remixed form, although I can’t imagine many could describe what’s different. Once you get beyond the great construction of vocal samples, it isn’t a particularly inspired track – thirty-five years later, it just sounds like the theme tune from a sports programme on television. At the time, though, it must have sounded quite unusual.

Blah Blah Café is next, still using samples to heavy effect, and still with a slightly odd, awkward feel, but this time the melody holds things together well. It’s pleasant, although towards the end, you might find yourself wishing it was a little shorter.

The album closes with Ethnicolor II, a similarly atmospheric piece to the opener, but lacking the need to punch you in the face with samples, this track doesn’t build into anything as huge.

Even now, thirty-five years on, Zoolook is a fascinating album. It’s not necessarily always a good album, though – the sample work is intriguing, and sometimes beautiful, and there are plenty of classic Jarre elements, but sometimes it’s also unpleasantly cheesy, and occasionally it’s actually pretty awful.

For all of that, though, Zoolook has its place in history, as one of the first sample-based albums, and it remains one of the most interesting. It’s well worth a listen, even if the words above don’t capture your imagination. Listen to the voices, and make your own mind up.

As with all of Jarre’s back catalogue, various reissues of Zoolook are available, with varying changes, errors and problems. Start your research here, and see where it takes you.

The Space Brothers – Shine

For a while, in the late 1990s, The Space Brothers seemed to epitomise dance music. They would appear, once or twice a year, with a one-off single that was just so catchy and memorable that you couldn’t stop yourself wondering who exactly these people were. Then, eventually, two decades ago this week, they finally appeared with their first and only album, Shine.

It opens with Your Place in the World, a sweet piece with trippy beats and heady vocals. This is not, however, a piece that would catch your imagination by itself in particular – you need to have a bit of a feel for what’s coming up already in order to understand its importance. It’s good – although some of the vocal effects are a little unsettling – and the vinyl noise particularly helps, but it wouldn’t grab you if you didn’t know what you had picked up.

The title track is different. This was the single that had launched their career just over two years earlier. The Space Brothers had already had their hands on some of the biggest Balearic summer hits at this point, and it’s apparent even just from the high portamento-driven pads that there’s something a bit different going on here. As it builds, you realise it has everything – the slightly (but not uncomfortably) acid-infused bass line, the clicking synth riff line, the huge drum builds, and, of course, that vocal.

The vocalist, for this and second hit Forgiven, is Miss Joanna Law, who was at this stage already a decade into her career. A year before Shine originally came out, she had appeared on Way Out West‘s seminal The Gift, and both there and here provided vocals that lifted the song far beyond itself. This is entirely brilliant, and provided their biggest hit, although it only just scraped the top twenty.

This is Love is next, with a surprise heavy sample from Jean-Michel Jarre‘s Oxygène (Part I). It’s encouraging to see that The Space Brothers have no shame in revealing their influences quite this openly, but it still comes as something of a surprise. It makes for a curiously understated track, with the sort of chanting that kept cropping up on dance tracks around this time.

By now, the tracks are mixing into each other thick and fast, so the huge effect-laden snares of fourth single Heaven Will Come should come as little surprise. Most of the other tracks on here star Kate Cameron on vocals, who appears to have starred on pretty much every trance hit around this time. This is one of the slower pieces, but probably one of the better ones on here.

After all of that, the guitar twirls and disco beats of I Still Love You come as something of a surprise. It builds into another bounding trance track, so whatever variety seemed to briefly be promised quickly disappears. This is not a particularly eclectic album, but it is one of the best and most coherent examples of Balearic trance to appear under a single artist’s name.

In amongst the other pieces, it’s The Light that particularly stands out. The lyrics may be a bit new age, but the vocal delivery is impressively commanding. For me, though, it’s the remix that blows me away – this album, probably appropriately, comes with a second disc, mixed by Paul Oakenfold, and featuring a remixed version of pretty much the whole album, and the trance remix of this laid back track somehow seems to work a lot better. On the main album, this is one of those pieces that builds and builds, with a lot of promise, but it never quite seems to know where it’s going.

But in spite of putting the wrong version on the main album, you can’t deny that The Space Brothers are masters of their craft. Forgiven, originally released as Forgiven (I Feel Your Love) in late 1997 (The Space Brothers seemed to be putting brackets on the end of all their singles for a while), you have to remind yourself that this would have been the difficult second single, following after Shine. It does share a lot of the same sounds, including the portamento, and even the same vocalist, but in many ways it’s a better song. Just maybe not the best choice for second single, unless you don’t mind pigeonholing yourself.

The Same Journey opens with another piece of Jean-Michel Jarre, the unsettling vocal sample from Zoolook. Having got that out of the way, it’s a spacious piece, with plenty of room for vocal acrobatics. Ultimately, it’s probably fair to say that it’s one of the less good tracks on here, but it’s not bad, by any stretch of the imagination. The bar is pretty high here.

Then it’s time for more portamento, with the third single, Legacy (Show Me Love). They set a solid formula on those first three hits, but ultimately I’m glad they deviated from it for most of the album. This is another great single track, though, and not a bad comeback after a longer break, or indeed a bad choice of single to preempt the album. It just does sound a bit as though you’ve heard it all before at this point.

After all that, closing track Beyond the Sun is anticlimactic, to say the least. Kate Cameron does her best, but she’s really only just repeating “remember” most of the time while another vocalist wails something unintelligible. This track would be filler on pretty much any album, and while it works reasonably well in context as a closing track, you can’t really see it ever fitting anywhere else.

Until that final track, though, Shine is an exceptional album – a now-timeless document of late 1990s Balearic trance, that while now somewhat dated, still stands up well. I don’t know where The Space Brothers are now, but I’d like to think they’re still sitting on a beach in Ibiza, and continuing to large it. Whatever that means.

Copies of Shine still seem to be floating around, here for example, but keep an eye out that you aren’t actually looking at the single of the same name, as there appears to be some confusion!

Chart for stowaways – 22 June 2019

Moving into June now, here’s an update from the singles chart:

  1. Pet Shop Boys – Agenda EP
  2. The Future Sound of London – Yage
  3. The Beloved – Your Love Takes Me Higher (Evil Mix) / Awoke
  4. Mark Ronson feat. Lykke Li – Late Night Feelings
  5. Marshmello feat. Chvrches – Here With Me
  6. Ladytron – Horrorscope
  7. Kraftwerk – Trans Europa Express
  8. Jean-Michel Jarre – Flying Totems
  9. David Bowie – Boys Keep Swinging
  10. Tiesto / Jonas Blue / Rita Ora – Ritual

Chart for stowaways – 18 May 2019

Continuing with last month’s catch-up from April, here are the albums from mid-May:

  1. Jean-Michel Jarre – Equinoxe Infinity
  2. Jean-Michel Jarre – Planet Jarre
  3. Ladytron – Ladytron
  4. Chemical Brothers – No Geography
  5. Dido – Still On My Mind
  6. Pet Shop Boys – Inner Sanctum
  7. John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Wedding Album
  8. Maps – Colours Reflect Time Loss
  9. Various Artists – Electrospective
  10. David Bowie – Pin Ups

Chart for stowaways – 13 April 2019

Time now for a much-belated check-in on the chart for stowaways! Here are the singles from mid-April:

  1. Pet Shop Boys – Agenda EP
  2. Ladytron – Horrorscope
  3. The Beloved – Sweet Harmony
  4. Marshmello feat. Chvrches – Here With Me
  5. Ladytron – The Animals
  6. The Beloved – It’s Alright Now
  7. Chemical Brothers – Free Yourself
  8. Jean-Michel Jarre – Flying Totems
  9. New Order – Ceremony
  10. The Beloved – Celebrate Your Life

Preview – Jean-Michel Jarre

Jean-Michel Jarre‘s singles in recent years have been intermittent at best, but he was responsible for one of this year’s Record Store Day releases, which will almost certainly have passed you by after you queued for hours and missed out on the one you wanted. Équinoxe Infinity Remixes was a limited edition 12″ and download, which included this, from Tale of Us:

Chart for stowaways – 9 March 2019

Here’s the latest album chart:

  1. Ladytron – Ladytron
  2. Jean-Michel Jarre – Equinoxe Infinity
  3. Jean-Michel Jarre – Planet Jarre
  4. The Future Sound of London – My Kingdom (Re-Imagined)
  5. The Radiophonic Workshop – Possum (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  6. The Prodigy – No Tourists
  7. Gary Numan – I Assassin
  8. Moby – Long Ambients 1: Calm. Sleep.
  9. The Radiophonic Workshop – Burials in Several Earths
  10. Inspiral Carpets – Devil Hopping