Bent – The Everlasting Blink

Fifteen years ago this week, the brilliant Bent released their second proper album The Everlasting Blink, which took the charts by gentle nudge in early 2003. Since they’re definitely one of your favourite Nottingham-based chillout electronica acts, this seems a worthwhile anniversary to celebrate.

It had been a couple of years since the minor success of debut Programmed to Love, but relatively little seemed to have changed in Bent‘s world, and they were still able to craft beautiful, elegant chillout music, as the lovely opening track King Wisp ably demonstrates. But nothing is ever quite what it seems, as Mozart makes an appearance in this track.

Next is the adorable An Ordinary Day, full of analogue chirps and built around a vocal by Lena Martell, it’s really rather brilliant. This was, of course, the same year that Röyksopp‘s Melody AM broke the charts, and there are definitely certain commonalities between the two albums. This one did not, unfortunately, sell quite as well, but it’s every bit as accomplished.

Next is a Nana Mouskouri sample for the equally adorable Strictly Bongo, which carries the album gently onwards. But track four is the big surprise, and as I recall this was the reason I started listening to Bent in the first place. I was in a little independent record shop (remember them?) just browsing, and suddenly I heard the voice of one of my favourite singers, Jon Marsh of The Beloved. Knowing that they hadn’t released anything new for several years, I was intrigued. I asked the shop assistant what it was, and bought the album then and there.

The thing with Beautiful Otherness isn’t that it was Jon Marsh‘s first vocal performance for a number of years, though – it’s that it’s absolutely fantastic. The rippling piano, drifting lyrics, and generally perfect mood are what set this track apart. I never realised until researching this that Stephen Hague had a hand in it too, which of course helps. It deserved to be a huge hit single, but that was never to be.

After that, anything was going to be a bit anticlimactic, and sure enough, there isn’t really anything wrong with Moonbeams – it’s very pleasant, in fact, with its pedal steel guitar work – but it does suffer by not quite being Beautiful OthernessToo Long Without You gets closer, as it cleverly samples two different songs by Billie Jo Spears, and works very nicely indeed.

Exercise 3 is joyful and fun, if a little silly, and then we get the first of the two singles, Stay the Same, which was actually Bent‘s biggest hit, peaking at number 59 in July 2003, although unfortunately with a vastly inferior single version. It’s a beautiful song, drawing heavily on a David Essex song from 1974, but rather than sticking to his original slightly naff country delivery, it’s been stripped, re-timed, and turned into a great pop vocal. Clever stuff.

Magic Love was the second single, another beautiful track built around something much older, and then we get the gentle title track The Everlasting Blink, with a bit more pedal steel guitar on it. Then the last track is the short Thick Ear, closing the album sweetly and softly.

Except that isn’t the end – here, Bent bring us not one, not two, but three bonus tracks – 12 Bar Fire BluesWendy, and Day-Care Partyline, none of which were ever going to completely  change your world, but it’s nice to have them on here anyway to round things out.

The Everlasting Blink is a great second album, with a number of exquisite songs – but what happened next was better still – the follow-up, Aerials, which appeared the following year, is by far Bent‘s finest hour.

You can still find The Everlasting Blink at all major music retailers.

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Artist of the Week – The Beloved

Many moons ago, there was a radio show called Music for the Masses, which I presented on and off between 1999 and 2005. I’ve talked about it here plenty of times. One of the features was the Artist of the Week, and contained various errors, incorrect opinions, and the following information:

Jon Marsh originally formed a band called The Journey Through in 1984 with fellow Cambridge students Guy Gausden, Tim Havard, and Steve Waddington. After some demos, they evolved into The Beloved, and started making music not a million miles away from the style of Joy Division, early New Order, or even, occasionally, The Smiths.

After a number of minor singles, they released their debut album Where it Is, but following little success and disagreements with the record company, they left, dropped two members, and reappeared in 1988 with their first commercial release Loving Feeling.

It was at the end of 1989 that they saw their first major hit, with the release of The Sun Rising. Further singles from the first successful album Happiness were also hits, including Hello and Your Love Takes Me Higher. A remixed album Blissed Out also saw some success.

The third album Conscience followed in 1993, including the smash hit Sweet Harmony, and saw them starting to explore deeper dance territory with more house-based tracks and remixes. The fourth album in 1996 was in many ways a transitional piece, with the tracks starting to show great signs of depth.

Since then, they’ve done naff all… (that is genuinely what it says here!)

The Beloved – Blissed Out

What’s the secret of a good remix album? Sometimes they’re overblown or too unfaithful to the originals; sometimes they just feel a bit pointless. Either way, Blissed Out, the sequel to 1990’s breakthrough album Happiness by The Beloved (previously reviewed here), manages to get it completely right.

Most of the remixes here are by the artist themselves, under various pseudonyms, or are faithful enough to the originals to not feel like a total betrayal. It’s even been said by The Beloved‘s singer Jon Marsh that if a new album had appeared soon after, as had originally been planned, it probably would have sounded something like this.

Blissed Out kicks off with the gentle house stylings of the Happy Sexy mix of Up, Up and Away, remixed for a promo-only release in late 1990 by Danny Rampling. And this version is arguably even better than the original, so it’s a great way to open the album. It’s followed by the slightly odd – but also good – Honky Tonk version of their biggest hit Hello, remixed by Jon and Helena Marsh under the name Adam & Eve. Oddest of all, it briefly turns into The Sun Rising half way through, which is unexpected. But while this one clearly isn’t as good as the single version, it’s still a great version, taking it off in a very different direction without losing its soul.

Bill Coleman and Paul Robb‘s Something to Believe in version of Wake Up Soon is another one which is probably better than the original. Some of the samples verge on being a little over the top, but somehow it actually works very well.

I’m not altogether convinced this is so true of the Muffin Mix of single Time After Time, which goes from being a deeply atmospheric original to a slightly naff reggae-styled track. It’s far from bad, but frankly it isn’t great, with its rapping from… um… Leslie Lyrics, who apparently subsequently gave up music to become a sociology lecturer. On the other hand, if you aren’t tapping your foot along after a couple of minutes then you probably have no sense of fun.

The Special K Dub of relatively unremarkable instrumental b-side Pablo is a nice inclusion, although is definitely b-side material, and Norty Cotto and Doc Dougherty‘s 1990 Spago Mix of The Sun Rising is sadly not entirely up to the standard of the original. Their reaction to remixing a hugely evocative and moving track seems to have been mainly to play the original, unchanged and at a low volume level, alongside some incredibly loud house drums. It’s not similar enough to the original to carry the same mood, and nor is it different enough to be particularly interesting.

So it’s up to the new exclusive track It’s Alright Now to bring things back to order. The version on the album, the essential Back to Basics mix, is much more relaxed than the single mix, and is without a doubt one of the best tracks that The Beloved ever recorded. It’s got all the elements of their sound – the laid back music, the understated vocal, and the enormous uplifting crescendo in the middle. It’s absolutely brilliant.

The second half of the LP version closes with the long and very late night Calyx of Isis version of Your Love Takes Me Higher, which essentially includes nothing recognisable from the original version. It’s far from bad, particularly towards the end, when you start to feel as though it might go on forever, but there were plenty of good versions of this track which perhaps might have made it onto here in its place.

It’s difficult to know which version of this album to review – the cassette had twice as many tracks as the LP, and the CD falls somewhere in between. For the purposes of this review we’ll stick to the CD version, which therefore gives us another three tracks to enjoy.

First is Adam & Eve‘s take on Up, Up & Away, the Beautiful Balloon Mix. More house-based than the earlier version, it’s perhaps not quite as good, but neither is there anything wrong with it. This is followed by the brilliantly named What’s All This Then? version of Hello, which features a lot of missing lyrics, making it a slightly strange listen at times, but it’s a great version.

Finally, one of the best of the bunch, Danny Rampling‘s “Love Is…” mix of The Sun Rising. Despite seeming a little over-edited in places, there’s something quite iconic and enormous about it, right from the huge opening pad chords to the slightly house-infused main section. It would be interesting to hear how the lyrics might fit into this context, but even as it comes, it’s one of the best versions of this fantastic track.

So, all in all, despite the odd failing, Blissed Out is a masterclass in how to do a remix album right, and is therefore a worthy companion to the brilliant Happiness.

The original formats of Blissed Out seem to have long since fallen out of print, but you can still find an mp3 version with a few gaps in its tracklisting. See here at Amazon.

Beginner’s guide to Bent

Often forgotten, Bent released a string of exceptional albums, although it does seem to have tailed off a bit in recent years. Some of their output is a little bit weird; some of it downright bizarre, but it’s always fun, and a lot of it is incredibly beautiful.

Key moments

Bouncing around on the moon with Patrick Moore and an exceptional vocal performance from Zoë Johnston on Swollen. Most of their output failed to get the attention it deserved, such as the excellent Stay the Same (2003) or Comin’ Back (2004), but even so the vast majority of their output is magical.

Where to start

Bent have a very handy Best Of which covers all of their key moments, and you’ll also get a bonus disc of new tracks (or remixes, if you go for the online version).

What to buy

Their debut Programmed to Love (2000 or thereabouts) is essential, as is the third album Ariels (2004). After that roll back to the second album The Everlasting Blink (2003) – it drags a little in places but it does include Beautiful Otherness, a faultless collaboration with The Beloved‘s Jon Marsh.

Don’t bother with

Downloaded for Love (2001), the free download album. The From the Vaults collections (2013) are probably for completists only, despite the odd moment of genius (see below).

Hidden treasure

Volume 2 of their From the Vaults collection features another excellent collaboration with Jon Marsh called We Watch the Stars. Spin-off act Napoleon are worth trying too.

For stowaways

The Beloved – Happiness

For some reason I’m extremely fond of The Beloved. I suppose they were responsible for recording a lot of the tracks that I really remember from the 1990s, and when they were good, they really were very good.

So it is with Happiness (1990), officially their second album, although you could also consider it their first or third, depending on how you look at it. Having just made the jump to the mainstream with EastWest Records, they largely turned their back on the dark indie which they had spent the previous seven years recording, and moved towards a contemporary pop-dance style.

It opens very softly with the sound of an orchestra tuning, which becomes Hello. A “list track,” I don’t think it’s really about anything in particular, but it’s quite a fun list of people, and you’re inevitably going to chuckle a couple of times. The verse halfway through, in which Jon Marsh starts asking us about whether we’ve worked his riddle out yet, and the answer turns out to be that blue is blue and always will be, is a little perplexing though. But let the slightly odd lyrics wash over you, and it’s a great song.

The second track Your Love Takes Me Higher was also the first single from the album, and was later reissued too, although it was never a huge hit. Which is a shame, as it’s a great song, and it’s entirely different from any of the other singles, so at the very least it shows their versatility. Apart from being a very different style of song, it has much more of an industrial feel to it, with its large metallic pads in the background.

My personal favourite Time After Time is up next, and was also a minor single. It’s driven by a real bass, and has some other guitar work which seems to sit perfectly with the analogue pad sounds and moody vocal. Then Don’t You Worry is the one slightly low point in the first half of the album. It’s a pleasant enough slow track, but it isn’t quite up to the calibre of its neighbours.

For an act who were, at the time, transitioning from a very indie sound to a very dance-based one, it’s surprising how few full-on dance tracks there are on this album. Scarlet Beautiful is one of the closest. Brilliant and full of pumping energy, it probably would have been more successful as a single than most of the tracks which were released. But then, it might have also struggled for remixes, which were already one of The Beloved‘s trademarks by this stage.

The second half of the album kicks off with the inimitable The Sun Rising. Well, fairly inimitable anyway – the O Euchari sample which forms its backbone has also been used by a number of other artists over the years, and I believe this version got them into rather a lot of trouble when the single came out originally. But it’s a beautiful vocal sample, which helps to build a beautiful track, and Jon Marsh‘s lyrics and vocal are both truly exceptional here. The single didn’t do hugely well in the charts, but it’s a fondly remembered track, and rightly so.

This isn’t quite so true of the track which follows, I Love You More, which has a spectacularly uninspired lyric and also a completely different production team (as with Your Love Takes Me Higher and earlier single Loving Feeling it’s produced by Paul Staveley O’Duffy, of whose production techniques the band have since been more than a little critical) making it sound a little out of place at this stage on the album.

Wake Up Soon quickly picks things up and puts them back where they should be, kicking off with a funky bass line and building into a brilliant and slightly quirky pop song. Up, Up and Away is excellent too, combining a bouncy pop chorus with the sort of acid squelches that you’d expect to have heard on a dance floor at this time. For such an unassuming album, it really does contain a lot of surprises.

It also has some truly wonderful artwork, as did most of the singles, painted especially by Bob Linney – his distinctive style complements the music perfectly. The final track, Found is the closest to The Beloved‘s already mythical past, and their debut album Where it Is (1987), and is an excellent closer for the release.

As an epilogue, the next release would be their brilliant remix album Blissed Out (also 1990), but the next studio album wouldn’t follow until 1993. So they may not have been especially prolific, but what they did do, they did extremely well.

As with much of their back catalogue, the album Happiness isn’t always easy to track down, but you should be able to find it on iTunes if you’re stuck.