Marsheaux – E-bay Queen

Marsheaux are, for me, fascinatingly enigmatic. They’re a Greek female duo, who I really know nothing about. Their debut E-bay Queen was released fifteen years ago this week, and it’s really hard to know what to make of it. It encourages you, somehow, to just close your eyes and enjoy it at face value – and that can only ever be a good thing.

It opens with M.A.R.S.H.E.A.U.X., the beautifully squawky band manifesto. Apart from the eponymous initials, it’s a thumping electro instrumental, with some great acid noises that appear halfway through. You would not, I think, buy an album just for this, and with that in mind, it’s confusing that anybody bought this in the first place, because there weren’t any singles either, but it’s definitely good.

It isn’t until Flash Lights that things really start to make sense. We know now, of course, that this isn’t Marsheaux‘s finest work, but it’s still enough to hook you in as a listener, and even if the “follow the tits” instruction in the lyrics is somewhat crass, there’s still plenty to enjoy here.

And it keeps getting better – for the first time, Shake Me is a track that quickly shows itself to be brilliant. With its catchy chorus and rippling synth lines, this nods sweetly to the past without actually being retro, and yet it isn’t exactly contemporary either. This is music for uncomfortable and awkward misfits, the world over. Which, by the way, is very definitely a good thing.

So wouldn’t it be really clever if Marsheaux threw something contemporary and familiar in at this point, just to subvert the pattern the have built already? Something like, say, the Lightning Seeds‘s lovely Pure? So that’s what we get – a great song, given new life with a female vocal and gloriously “pure and simple” synth lines, if you’ll pardon the pun. It’s a fantastic rendition of the song, and really deserved to be a huge hit by itself. If only it had ever been released as a single.

Play Boy keeps the run of great tracks going. It’s slower, and perhaps also a little darker, insofar as darkness ever really shows up on this album. It’s hard to define in a way – this is really a pure pop album, but it’s also slightly challenging, subversive pop – something that only comes as an import from Greece. Who knew that Greece had a strong music scene with its own synthpop artists? And with budgets to release items with packaging as beautiful as this, too?

Computer Love is, of course, a bit of a nod to the track of the same name that Kraftwerk debuted in 1981. While there’s little direct homage in the lyrics or sounds, and I’ve never seen them talk about it particularly openly, a lot of the sounds on this album seem to take inspiration from the Düsseldorf quartet – the focus is on tight, clear sounds, not broad pads or sweet, mellow atmospheres. Yet despite that, there’s a certain soft charm.

Tonight is one of my less favourite tracks on here: somehow the synth line is a bit too manic; the hand claps a little too heavily distributed; and for the first time it feels as though you’ve heard this all already. This is a consistent album, certainly, but that comes at a price of some tracks being a little too similar to one another at times. Then, of course, Marsheaux subvert their own form by covering the vocals with some crazy and unusual effects, and you start to wonder whether anything really makes sense any more.

The Game quickly picks things up again, though, with a brilliantly odd blip that doesn’t quite ever seem to be hitting its beat. It’s a lovely song, and possibly for the first time uses softer pad sounds to change the mood somewhat. They aren’t prominent, by any means, but this is a great song. Then comes Analyse, somewhat less subversive but every bit as much fun.

Ola Girizhoun is next, the only track to be sung in Greek. That’s a bit of a shame, really – they’re singing in English in order to make themselves seem more accessible to global audiences, and that absolutely works in their favour, but not without anonymising one of the things that makes them special – they aren’t native English speakers, and hearing them singing in their own language is a treat. Which makes it all the more interesting that this is actually a Chris & Cosey song, where Marsheaux have added their own lyrics. Work that one out.

Hands on Me is a lively piece with resonating synth sounds, but honestly a bit less actual melody than some of the earlier tracks. Then we’re onto the final track already – another cover, this time of the eternal instrumental Popcorn. This was, apparently, a huge radio hit in Greece at the time, and it’s a worthy cover, somehow just managing to stay on the right side of being extremely cheesy. It’s great, but at the same time hard to take very seriously. Maybe that’s a good thing, though – while lovely, and occasionally a little subversive, this seems to have been a pretty serious album up to now.

Five or six albums on, Marsheaux remain enigmatic, always taking unexpected steps. E-bay Queen, with its odd name and entirely unpredictable packaging, is a great debut. It has its weaker moments, but nothing that you could actually call a flaw – which is a very impressive way to kick off your career. But will we ever see them gracing the charts? It seems unlikely, somehow.

Your best option for hearing E-bay Queen is to find the mp3 download.

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Kraftwerk – Aerodynamik

Kraftwerk singles are a rare enough treat, but it’s only in recent years (and by that, I mean perhaps the last two decades or so) that I think you would be able to safely regard them as a full single package. With Aerodynamik, I think you could argue that they reached their pinnacle.

Fans had been somewhat divided over album Tour de France Soundtracks (2003), but this single, now with a slightly tweaked title (on the album it’s Aéro Dynamik) and released fifteen years ago this week, was better received – although you would be pushed to notice this from its chart performance, as it peaked at just number 33 in the UK – although that far eclipsed its German performance, where it hit just number 80.

Key to the single is the new Kling Klang Dynamix version, Kraftwerk‘s own seven-minute remix with heavily reworked drums and percussive sounds. You would, of course, have to appreciate the original, but I suspect most people did, as it’s clearly one of the standout tracks on Tour de France Soundtracks. Having established that, even just an extended version would be great – but this is more than just expansive – it’s a comprehensive rework of the original, while still entirely in the same spirit – it’s absolutely brilliant. Before that, though, we had already had a taster with the Kling Klang Radio Mix, a four-minute edit of the Dynamix, which is exceptional too.

Another nice thing that happened with Kraftwerk was their embracing of remix culture from the early 1980s onwards – it almost feels out of character for them, given how purist they have become about their own music, but a small group of artists have been let loose on their catalogue, and they have created, pretty much without exception, wonderful versions. Hopefully one day, the Düsseldorf quartet will formalise these versions in a remix album – I’ll be at the front of the queue.

To prove my point, the brilliant Alex Gopher and Étienne de Crécy turn up for the third version on this single, the Dynamik Mix, adding some wonderful eccentricities – the drums are a bit more metallic, and are augmented by some nice woodblock usage, but the key to the mix is the enormous acid synth arpeggio that runs all the way through. At the risk of repeating myself, this is exceptional too. For Kraftwerk to have returned the preceding year after twelve years of silence with material this good is very impressive.

Closing the release sees longtime Kraftwerk remixer François Kevorkian turn up for his Aero Mix, a broader and more expansive take on the track. Like all of François’s Kraftwerk remixes, it’s a subtle reworking, almost a dub mix or a “part two” version at times, with relatively few new sounds, but it’s always good to have his take on a track. If I had to choose, I’d say that of these remixes I probably like this one the least, but there’s really nothing in it – his is a typically subtle reworking of some great material.

So if you buy any Kraftwerk singles, I can provide a list of which you should track down, but this one should be high on the list. It would be a full three years before the next single, which ironically saw Aerodynamik coming out again, this time as a double a-side with La Forme, remixed by Hot Chip, and in a bright green neon sleeve.

The CD version of Aerodynamik is hard to find now, but the digital release is widely available.

Erasure – Pop! Remixed

Ten years ago this week saw the release of Erasure‘s slightly odd remix album/EP Pop! Remixed. Packaged as CDMUTE405, the catalogue styling normally used by Mute Records for singles, it appears that it was originally intended to be released as a four-track EP, a version which did end up being released as a download version. The CD, though, was a ten track album, with an odd mixture of new and old mixes.

It opens with the entirely pointless 2009 Mix of the lovely Always. It is slightly different from the original, with a punchier bass and some improved squawks in the background, but the only difference that the casual listener will spot is the inexplicable omission of an “and” from the first chorus. It was there in the original, and you’ll never quite get used to its absence in this version. But grab yourself a decent pair of headphones, and there’s plenty to enjoy here in its place.

Komputer turn up as the first guest remixer to tackle Victim of Love. They were, obviously and unsurprisingly, big Erasure fans, and so they have changed relatively little here. It would have been a great mix, if it had been released in 1987, and honestly it’s fine for 2009 too – it’s just a little unambitious. Komputer are the people who, most recently, were to be found experimenting with post-Kraftwerk electronics, but there’s little sign of that here.

It’s nice to hear Freedom on here, as Erasure‘s Loveboat era tends to get forgotten somewhat – perhaps justifiably so. Mark Picchiotti has clearly had a lot of fun with this version, turning it into a flamenco mix, with some added guitar work. Part of the problem is the source material, to be honest – Freedom is fine as a song, but it isn’t great. The other part is that Picchiotti isn’t a flamenco guitarist – his forte is overlong, over-repetitive, dull house, and so inevitably this mix is a bit of a mess. Not an unpleasant mess, but it would have been much better to have kept it as a short novelty on the original single rather than a full mix on this compilation.

Drama!, long overlooked by Erasure themselves, gets an overdue remix from Andy Bell himself, aided by DJ Jason Creasey. It’s a bit more contemporary than any of the tracks we’ve heard up to this point, but there’s also little new here. At this point, you could be forgiven for wondering why Erasure bothered with this release at all, but it’s worth remembering that in 2009 they were still in the throes of the creative downturn that had first hit them with the aforementioned Loveboat at the start of the decade. Just three studio albums had appeared in that time (plus Andy Bell‘s first solo effort), and, despite some brighter moments, the quality was never quite up to the standard of the preceding decade.

One-off collaboration Avantara turn up next, for a banging but somewhat dull remix of A Little Respect. The song works well to a huge Euro beat, but there just isn’t a lot of variation between each section here – it sounds a bit like Euro-by-numbers. Then Swedish producers SoundFactory turn up to tweak Fingers and Thumbs (Cold Summer’s Day), and do a slightly better job, although again, there’s little to write home about.

Finally, a mix that actually hits the mark. Soil in the Synth‘s reworking of Ship of Fools is brilliantly glitchy without being challenging to listen to, and spacious in a 1980s way, without being too long. It’s quite brilliant – if there was a reason to buy this release, this surely must be it.

Erasure‘s fascination with Manhattan Clique during this era has always been a bit of a mystery to me – they’re fine, they definitely have good taste, and they know how to jazz up an eighties or nineties classic. They’re also a bit formulaic, to say the least – they occupy a similar space in the world of music as Richard X, except because he’s always doing soundclashes, at least his tracks don’t all sound the same. As “always”, Manhattan Clique‘s take on Always is fine, even if it does sound a little too much like a chipmunk remix at times – but it does sound exactly the same as all their other mixes. Which is fine, if you like that kind of thing.

Next, Electronic Periodic take on Chorus, with a few naff handclaps added in, for some reason. Oddly, the deeply analogue sound of Chorus makes it seem a little more contemporary than most of the tracks here, but the handclaps don’t really give the retro charm that was likely intended, and the weird gaps in the vocals don’t entirely work. Some of the extra sound effects do, though, so this is really a bit of a mixed bag – like this release as a whole.

Finally, closing this release out, Vince Clarke himself turns up to remix Stop! It’s an odd candidate to take on, and I can imagine he probably enjoyed the challenge of trying to turn it into something more contemporary and modern. It just about works – I’ve never been entirely convinced by this song, but if you like it and aren’t too protective about the original, I can imagine you would enjoy this remix. For me, it just about makes the grade. If nothing else, it has a good bouncy beat and bass line.

So Pop! Remixed doesn’t exactly come with the strongest recommendation, but it’s not bad either. Unlike their Club remix EP, which was finally commercially released around the same time, I wouldn’t go out of my way to find a copy, but it’s not something I would be rushing to get rid of

You can still find Pop! Remixed at all major retailers, at a bargain price.

Chart for stowaways – 10 November 2018

Here’s the latest album chart for stowaways:

  1. The Future Sound of London – My Kingdom (Re-Imagined)
  2. The Radiophonic Workshop – Burials in Several Earths
  3. The Radiophonic Workshop – Possum (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  4. The Prodigy – No Tourists
  5. Moby – Long Ambients 1: Calm. Sleep.
  6. Culture Club & Boy George – Life
  7. Dead Can Dance – Dionysus
  8. Primal Scream – Give Out But Don’t Give Up – Original
  9. Neneh Cherry – Broken Politics
  10. Kraftwerk – 3-D Der Katalog

Chart for stowaways – 27 October 2018

These are the week’s top albums:

  1. The Future Sound of London – My Kingdom (Re-Imagined)
  2. The Radiophonic Workshop – Burials in Several Earths
  3. The Radiophonic Workshop – Possum (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  4. John Carpenter – Halloween – OST
  5. Kraftwerk – 3-D Der Katalog
  6. Neneh Cherry – Broken Politics
  7. Primal Scream – Give Out But Don’t Give Up – Original
  8. The Beloved – Single File
  9. Readymade FC – Babilonia
  10. Orbital – Monsters Exist

Elektric Music – Esperanto

If you only ever track down one Kraftwerk spin-off project, there’s little doubt in my mind that Esperanto should be it. What it lacks in clarity of vision, it more than makes up for with catchy electronic pop music. Released under the Elektric Music banner, this was Karl Bartos‘s first release since leaving Kraftwerk three years earlier, a collaboration with Lothar Manteuffel of German new wave band Rheingold.

It opens with the glorious TV, an exceptional track that perfectly captures the mindless passive act of watching television from an era that sadly seems to be long gone (silent movies on television?) Some of the effects used on the samples are oddly ill-advised, in particular the delay on the Spanish presenter, but in general it captures all the timelessness of Kraftwerk when they were at their best. With the huge choral pad sounds, it owes a lot to Radioaktivität, which initially seems a little odd given how much less gravitas this track has, but of course a good chunk of that album was about radio waves, which is a much more direct connection.

This isn’t a perfect album, by any means, but if you’re looking for a less polished, slightly more organic sound than the Düsseldorf quartet, this is a good place to start. Showbusiness, for example, is a good, catchy, pop song. Not too surprising, really, as it includes a songwriting credit for OMD‘s Andy McCluskey.

McCluskey turns up again to deliver the vocal on Kissing the Machine, which is fitting really, because it sounds a lot like an Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark song, even though he didn’t help to write this one. It’s great, perhaps inevitably sounding a bit like an imitation of Kraftwerk, but they were a full decade away from releasing anything new, so why not?

Lifestyle was the third and final single, and is fantastic. When it came out as a single, it was filled with lengthy breakbeat excursions, and while the album version only hints at that, it’s still a lively track, full of weird and wonderful vocal samples. For the first time, you have to wonder slightly whether this is what non-mainstream futurist electronic music should have sounded like by the 1990s.

Crosstalk had been the first single, released the preceding year, and follows a similar template in a way – it’s a deeply electronic piece, built around a whole load of vocal samples. It’s a good, catchy piece, co-written with long-time Kraftwerk collaborator Emil Schult, and a worthy opening single.

It turns out that there are basically three tracks on this album, though – there’s TV, that stands out pretty much on its own, then are the two that sound a lot like OMD, and then everything else is beatsy stuff built around vocal samples. Nothing wrong with that, but it might not have entirely been what you signed up for at the start. Information is good, but it does sound a lot like the preceding couple of songs.

With a lot of big beats, it mixes into Esperanto, with its great acid bass sounds. It’s great, but it’s a strange title track, and as with most of the later pieces on this album, you can broadly group it into the “noisy with vocal samples” category. There’s a pretty funny – and I suspect unintentional – moment half way through where the low male vocal has been saying something unintelligible, and the female vocal turns up to seemingly admonish with “language!” and sounds suspiciously to me as though she’s telling him to stop swearing.

Overdrive is the last track, and of course is another of the noisy tracks. It feels in a way as though it might not be the most appropriate way to close the album, as it’s so different from the earlier moments on here, but at the same time, it’s not bad at all.

So Esperanto might be a slightly oddly structured album, but it’s doubtless Karl Bartos‘s finest work since Electric Café, and I honestly haven’t heard any other Kraftwerk side-projects that are anywhere near this good, so you really do have to work with what you’ve got. But that’s underselling it – this has the brilliant TV, a couple of great OMD collaborations, Lifestyle, and a pretty decent second half album too.

This album has sadly long-since fallen out of print, but you can still find second-hand copies all over the place, such as here.

Retro chart for stowaways – 11 October 2003

Fifteen years ago this week!

  1. Dave Gahan – I Need You
  2. Goldfrapp – Strict Machine
  3. Richard X feat. Kelis – Finest Dreams
  4. Kraftwerk – Tour de France 2003
  5. Madonna – Hollywood
  6. Kosheen – All in My Head
  7. Paul van Dyk – Nothing But You
  8. Delerium feat. Jaël – After All
  9. Ladytron – Blue Jeans
  10. Tomcraft – Loneliness