Sparks – Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins

Twenty-five years ago is, as you might have realised in the last few months, roughly the time when I started listening to music in earnest. I was discovering electronic artists left, right, and centre, and loving pretty much all of them. Perhaps my oddest discovery of that time, though, was Sparks.

I’ve written before about their curious fame in the UK – by this stage, they had already been having hits for over two decades, but for me, they arrived from nowhere, in late 1994 or early 1995, with an intelligent, witty, silly, and also American form of Europop, with When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”. It snuck into the lower reaches of the Top 40 twice, getting nothing like its just desserts, but the mystique that they held for me was incredible.

Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins was an easy album to miss, if you didn’t realise who Sparks were, and I did – I don’t think I heard the album until two or three years later, and even when I did, I would have been utterly confused by opening track Gratuitous Sax. It’s an acapella piece, which really serves little purpose except to bookend the album and remind you of who Sparks used to be.

After that, the hits – or what should have been hits, anyway – come thick and fast. When Do I Get to Sing “My Way” still sounds catchy and majestic, with its huge synth lines and beautifully underplayed witty lyrics. Second single When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing) brings an uncomfortably fast, entirely daft lyric. Unlike the earlier single, this probably shouldn’t have been a chart topper, but it should at least have been all over the radio – “For me it’s all just fine / Because she’s a Frank Lloyd Wright design,” must be one of the finest pop lyrics ever written.

The eighties had not been kind to Sparks – they had followed up the huge No. 1 in Heaven with the better formed Terminal Jive, but despite trying pretty much ever year after that, nothing had really lived up to their earlier material. But after a six year career break (they had gone off for their first attempt to break the Hollywood movie industry), Sparks had returned with some of their best songs yet.

Some of the best titles, too – Frankly, Scarlett, I Don’t Give a Damn is brilliant from the get go. By 1994, analogue synthesisers were making a long-awaited comeback, and the haunting warmth in the background of this song is particularly striking. Couple that with more great lyrics, and you basically have all the ingredients you need.

It doesn’t let up, either – I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car has a sillier feel initially, as the title is chanted a few times over, but there’s a huge acid bass line (I desperately want to describe it as “burping like a bullfrog,” which was stated of another Sparks single National Crime Awareness Week when that came out, but for some reason that didn’t make it onto this album). One you realise that and start enjoying the verse, you’ll realise that this is yet another excellent track.

By Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil, which closes Side A of the ultra-rare vinyl edition, it’s starting to get a bit silly. The quality really ought to have let up a little by now, but it really hasn’t. The opening lyric “I’m the wife of Clinton / I don’t have a problem with all of this,” is, of course, timeless, and the chorus is a bit anticlimactic this time, but the verses are adorable.

Side B opens with third single Now That I Own the BBC, which I think might be my least favourite track on here apart from the bookends, but that really isn’t saying a lot. More clever, instantly quotable lyrics, more catchy melodies – just a slightly cheesy house piano part that perhaps makes Motiv8‘s single mix the better version of this (which should probably be a surprise, given how rude I’ve been about him in the past).

Sparks were, though, clearly masters of their trade by this stage. There was no sign of any of the mistakes they might have made on previous albums – they were letting themselves be gloriously silly, while also being entirely professional and slick. This was, I think, the start of their time of being seen as legendary, which would probably peak with Lil’ Beethoven a few years later.

If you weren’t familiar with Tsui Hark at this point, it won’t take you long to catch up – he’s a film director, he’s made several films, and he’s won several awards for his films. This is a typically hilarious laid back track which samples Hark, interviewed by Bill Kong, and listing his films. Perhaps because of their LA upbringing, the movie industry has always played a big role for Sparks, but this might be the album where it really comes to a fore. Tsui Hark is a silly track, yes, but it’s great fun too.

The thing is, though, Sparks‘ silliness is always carefully played, and so while The Ghost of Liberace may joke about blinding drivers with shiny suits, it’s also a tender love song at heart, with a rippling piano line. Then Let’s Go Surfing, a catchy West Coast sunseeker anthem that always felt a little confusing to the teenage me in grey middle England. Now, it just feels triumphant.

There’s just one track left, the other bookend piece, Senseless Violins. As with the opener, you probably have to have a decent understanding of Sparks to understand why it’s here, but at worse you’ll think it’s a daft way to close the album, so it doesn’t do too much harm.

So Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is Sparks‘ grand comeback, after what was then their longest career break to date. Somehow in the meantime, they had found a confidence and strength that really shines on this album. There’s really little to fault here – sixteen albums into their career, and it must, surely, be one of their best?

The remastered edition of Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is still widely available, and while I’m not really sure about what they did with the artwork, this is probably the easiest version to track down.

Saint Etienne – Continental

Continental isn’t a real album. Not in the sense that anyone thought of it as a studio album when it came out, anyway. Initially released two decades ago this week, but only in Japan, this follow-up to Tiger Bay (1994) compiles highlights from the singles, compilations, and other bits and bobs that appeared during the group’s first wilderness period. But then in 2009, it got a surprise inclusion in Saint Etienne‘s series of deluxe edition albums, so now we get to enjoy it as a real album after all.

It opens with the lovely Shad Thames, a bright and chirpy synth instrumental which hadn’t appeared anywhere prior to this point. If you only know them for their pure pop songs, it might come as a surprise to know that Saint Etienne have a great line in quirky instrumental, sample-based, and also long tracks. It’s a perfect opening track.

Burnt Out Car is next, a fantastic song, and in common with the timeless nature of this album, it did eventually appear as a single, but not until the end of 2009, when it heralded the London Conversations compilation. Here, it’s in its original form which first appeared in 1996 on the Casino Classics collection, mixed by Balearico.

Sometimes in Winter follows, another track that appeared in remixed form on Casino Classics, although this time we get Saint Etienne‘s original take. It’s a sweet slice of 1960s-style pop – the kind of thing the group have a justifiable reputation for being very good at. Then comes Winter Melody, kind of a continuation of the previous track, as it takes elements of Psychonauts‘ remix from the earlier release and stretches them a bit. A slightly odd inclusion, but also very much in line with the rest of this release.

One slightly trippy oddity leads into another, the short drum and bass-inspired Public Information Film, and then comes The Process, which was one of the b-sides of He’s on the Phone, presumably the track that necessitated this compilation in the first place. It’s also the track that comes next, and it’s a difficult one not to love. It’s a Motiv8 production, and his mixes do have a tendency to sound pretty much exactly the same as one another, but this one is pretty much as good as they ever got. You’ll find it very difficult not to sing along.

Side B opens with Stormtrooper in Drag, the cover version which originally appeared a few months earlier on the Gary Numan tribute compilation Random. It takes a lot of inspiration from He’s on the Phone too, with a pulsating mid-1990s synth line in the background and occasional rippling piano, and honestly once you accept that it’s a little bit dated now, it’s pretty great too.

Then things go unexpectedly glam with Star, the first of two tracks here on which singer Sarah Cracknell shares a writing credit with Ian Catt, so it’s probably safe to assume that this grew out of her solo album sessions and then maybe gained a bit of Saint Etienne production along the way. Good, but not really up to the standard of most of the other things on here.

The next pair of tracks consists on Down by the Sea and The Sea, which are pretty much two parts of the same song again. The latter appeared on Casino Classics with a lovely spacious, maritime-flavoured drum and bass remix from PFM, whereas the former is a full, although slightly avant garde, song. Together, they make up around ten minutes of music, a fifth of the entire release.

After several minutes of frantic drumming, we’re left with Lonesome, the second Ian Catt collaboration, and closing track Angel. It’s a slightly alarming change of pace, as Lonesome is largely acoustic pop, but it’s rather pleasant. Then Angel is the Broadcast remix which had appeared already on Casino Classics, which is nice, and very ethereal, but definitely not quite as good as Way Out West‘s version which appeared on the same release.

So Continental may or may not be a real album, and it’s definitely a slightly odd mix of tracks, but it’s also rather good, and is definitely worthy of its insertion into Saint Etienne‘s back catalogue.

The double-disc version of Continental gets a reissue of its own in just a few days, and comes with a bonus disc of early and alternative versions from the period. It will be available here.

Artist of the Week – Saint Etienne

You might recall that a few weeks ago I was re-running an old radio feature, the Artist of the Week, when as part of my radio show Music for the Masses, I would give a bit of history on an act. Let’s pick that up again with Saint Etienne. As always, apologies for any inaccuracies or omissions.

Saint Etienne are a group with a very unusual background. Before I mention anything else, I should perhaps make it clear: yes, they are named after the French football team, which probably makes them unique in one sense. However, their almost unrivalled technique of moulding modern beats to sixties melodies and beautiful songs makes them completely with parallel.

In the early 1990s, as acid house was in its wane, childhood friends Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs worked with a number of guest vocalists on several tracks which scraped the lower reaches of the charts. The best known of these is their cover of Neil Young‘s Only Love Can Break Your Heart, which just broke into the Top 40 in 1991. For the first album Foxbase Alpha, they tracked down a more permanent vocalist, who still remains with them to this day, Sarah Cracknell.

With their first two albums, they scored further minor hits and started to make a name for themselves, but they did not manage to break the top end of the UK charts until 1993’s sublime collaboration with The Charlatans‘ Tim Burgess I Was Born on Christmas Day. The subsequent third album Tiger Bay reached the Top 10 and yielded several substantial hits, including Pale Movie and Like a Motorway.

They followed this in 1995 with a compilation of the singles so far, which was heralded by their biggest single to date, the Motiv8-produced He’s on the Phone, before taking three years to rethink their strategy.

Unfortunately recent albums have failed to give them the success they no doubt deserve. 1998’s Good Humor brought us the fantastic singles Sylvie and The Bad Photographer; 2000’s Sound of Water barely broke the Top 40; and their most recent album Finisterre, released nearly two years ago, failed to make any substantial impact despite being one of their best albums to date.

However, that does not mark the end for Saint Etienne. They are currently in the studio polishing off their seventh full-length album, due for release early next year [in fact Tales from Turnpike House was released in summer 2005, roughly eighteen months after this was written], and just last week released another retrospective compilation for the American market, which included a couple of new tracks as well.

Astoundingly, they have now released nearly 200 tracks, hardly any of which will fail to grasp the listener with their strong imagery and beautiful songwriting.

Remixes

Remixes are one of those things that really divide people. Some hate them outright; some love each and every one of them. Others recognise them for what they are – a valid form of music, but one which suffers from mediocrity just like every other form.

In a previous post, I talked about the glory days of the 1990s, when a CD or 12″ single could contain up to forty minutes of non-stop music. Over your four permitted formats, you could comfortably fit more than 90 minutes of remixes. Factor in the import versions, and you could literally bore yourself to tears.

Except, who would ever want to listen to that many of versions of the same song? Even if you’re the biggest fan of the single, or even the greatest fan of remixes, the chances of you finding an hour and a half of non-stop enjoyment must be pretty slim.

There were those who broke the boundaries of the format, such as The Future Sound of London, with their forty minute mini-albums, and these rebels are certainly to be applauded. But for the most part, anyone who pushed the boundaries of the 90 minute single was unlikely to also be pushing the boundaries of the remix.

There were – and still are – many cases where a remixer would return three or four different versions of their own mix. Sometimes these would have fairly subtle differences, and other times they would be entirely pointless. Take Todd Terry, to name but one repeat offender, whose instrumentals, dubs, and accapella versions have littered many a bonus 12″ single. And much as I like his versions of Everything But The Girl‘s Missing and Wrong, he did get a little formulaic at times (Driving, for example, is a bit of a travesty).

So part of the problem has always been that the people doing the mixes tended to be picked by their popularity rather than their suitability or merit. Todd Terry is far from the worst offender, as he did at least deviate from his sound from time to time (unlike, say, Motiv8 to name but one). There must be plenty of examples of acts that spring to mind who turned up on single after single in the 1990s, and churned out the same drivel every  time.

Relatively few artists used their remix CD to do anything particularly interesting either – Depeche Mode were one of the common exceptions, regularly crossing into rock and electronica territory with their choices of remixers, but most acts just seemed intent on trying to get their latest single into the clubs, at pretty much any cost.

Things have improved over the last couple of decades, although that legacy does remain. Take Pet Shop Boys‘ recent singles, such as Vocal, where the CD consisted of nine remixes, and the discography lists no fewer than forty-two. Does anyone really need that many versions of the same song? No, of course they don’t.

None of which is to say that remixes don’t have any artistic merit – of course they do. But in the long run, how are the mass-produced mix singles of the mid-1990s any better than the sort of rubbish that Simon Cowell wants us all to waste our money on?

Saint Etienne – Casino Classics (Reissue)

Casino Classics had an odd genesis, as albums go – originally released as the limited edition bonus disc for Saint Etienne‘s 1995 singles collection Too Young to Die, it was then reissued a year later with a second disc of its own, and was a pretty comprehensive collection of the remixes of the first few years of their career.

Now it’s back, as a two-disc or four-disc special edition, with a bonus collection of download remixes too. Each with a completely different track listing from either of the original remixes, attempting to bring together the best mixes from the entirety of Saint Etienne‘s career to date. Let’s take a listen to the new two-disc version.

Unfortunately, things have got a bit confused. All the tracks have been shuffled around from the original release, but some of them have also gained bits from their previous neighbours. I’m not as familiar with these as I ought to be, but Andrew Weatherall‘s Mix of Two Halves version of Only Love Can Break Your Heart has stolen about fifteen seconds from somewhere; I think at the start. It’s still a good mix, fascinatingly almost entirely unlike the original in the style of a mix from the late nineties until the second half, when some slightly dubby pieces of the original start to turn up.

But even in two disc form, this is an enormous collection, so I need to cut myself short here, otherwise I won’t be able to mention The Chemical Brothers‘ quite fascinating version of Like a Motorway or The Aloof‘s take on Speedwell.

But honestly nothing on disc one really blows me away particularly. Highlights include Peter Heller‘s charming Midsummer Madness mix of Kiss and Make Up, Monkey Mafia‘s remix of Filthy, and Gordon King‘s lovely – if ultimately rather dated – take on Avenue. Aphex Twin‘s version of Who Do You Think You Are? still leaves me a little underwhelmed, even a couple of decades on.

Towards the end of disc one comes Underworld‘s sweet and mellow version of Cool Kids of Death, and then right at the end is Hug My Soul, remixed by Sure is Pure. Both have lost a little of their duration to other tracks, but together they close the disc in rather good fashion. But on the whole, this disc leaves me feeling that a bit of editing might be beneficial – there are three tracks approaching the ten minute mark and nothing under five, and while the musical merit of many of them shouldn’t be doubted, some do drag a little.

Disc two kicks off on fine – if even longer – form, with David Holmes‘s thirteen minute dark acid version of Like a Motorway. Then comes a blast from the past, in every sense, with Motiv8‘s extended version of He’s on the Phone. Ultimately I’m no fan of Motiv8 – in fact I think his habit in the mid-90s of churning out the same mix again and again for everybody who was anybody was more than a little irritating. But there was a reason why his formula was successful – it was actually pretty good – and I think He’s on the Phone is probably the best of his series of identikit mixes.

We then get PFM‘s frantic drum and bass version of The Sea, followed by a couple of dull mixes of Angel and Sylvie, before Paul van Dyk‘s great version of How We Used to Live. Then finally, as things always should with Saint Etienne, they take a turn for the brilliant with Hybrid‘s remix of the brilliant Boy is Crying. It may be seventeen tracks into the album, but it does feel a little as though everything was leading to this.

Having persevered through two hours of overlong and often dated fare, all the good stuff seems to be clumped up at the end – you get Two Lone Swordsmen‘s brilliant version of Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi), and then Mark Brown‘s truly exceptional extended single version of Burnt Out Car. The closing track sees Richard X extending his own Method of Modern Love and making it a little less good than the single version, but it’s still pretty special, and really not a bad way of closing the album.

If you go for the four disc version, disc three is distinctly patchy, while disc four features some incredibly good moments, but you’ll be pretty exhausted by the time you make it there. There’s also a bonus disc’s worth of downloads too, which include a couple of forgotten gems, so it is a good collection all round.

Casino Classics is an odd remaster though, and it is a little patchy in places, so I maybe wouldn’t advise first time Saint Etienne listeners to bother with it. As a collection of remixes from one of the most important pop acts of the last couple of decades though, it’s pretty good.

The version of Casino Classics we’ve just listened to is this one, but if it’s still available and your pocket is feeling a little heavy, you could just go with the four disc version, which boasts twice as much music and some lovely DVD sized packaging. Don’t forget the bonus download disc either!

The Human League – Stay with Me Tonight

Ever since reviewing the single before this a few months back, I’ve been promising myself that I’d get onto Stay with Me Tonight as soon as possible. Apart from being one of my favourite full singles, it really is worth contrasting these two releases and remembering that although the 1990s weren’t especially kind to The Human League, they really were on top form.

Stay with Me Tonight is a bit of an oddity in many ways. Recorded as the one new track for 1995’s reissued Greatest Hits following the success of Octopus earlier in the year, it was released as a one-off non-album track in early 1996. Following on from the more successful previous single, a reissue of Don’t You Want Me with a whole package of lousy remixes, it just snuck into the bottom end of the top 40 and as with much of The Human League‘s output from the mid 80s onwards, was largely forgotten by the world at large.

But the lead track is classic Human League, particularly for this era. Apart from being one of their strongest lyrics of this period, it’s also one of their catchiest tracks, and is covered with lush synthesiser arpeggios and swells. It’s totally brilliant, and if you disagree you’re wrong (you don’t disagree).

There are then two pairs of remixes; the first by Space Kittens. Their Vocal Mix turns the track into an even more lush mid-late 90s trance track, which is totally bristling with energy. It’s got a little bit of Motiv8 about it (I mean that in a good way – he was huge during this period) and a lot of the original track as well.

Next up is the Future Dub, also by Space Kittens. This one is a 9-minute odyssey through the original track, which as with all dub mixes takes slightly more liberties with the original. This version adds some almost Japanese sounds, mixed with a female chant of “the future,” and “won’t you stay,” and builds into an extremely good version.

The final pair of mixes (let’s call them Side Two, although strictly speaking the 12″ single took things in a different order) are both by Biff & Memphis, a pseudonym used by Richard Stannard and Matt Rowe in the mid 1990s when they were producing massive, lush, long drawn-out remixes for pretty much anyone who was anyone. Soon after, they would be masterminding the sound of the Spice Girls and much too busy for this kind of thing.

Their first remix of Stay with Me Tonight is characteristically beautiful, full of rippling arpeggios, driving drum builds, and massive synth squeals. There’s not a lot of vocal to be heard except for the odd “stay with me tonight,” but this was an age where reinventing the song to produce something equally special was entirely OK, and that’s what happened with this mix.

Finally, Biff & Memphis‘s Dub Mix, somewhat darker and more atmospheric than its predecessor, which further builds on some of the background elements of the mix – there are more synth howls and drum builds, and flanged backing. As with its predecessors, I’m not sure I can really see this being played too widely in “the clubs,” which was perhaps the problem, but it’s very good nonetheless.

Stay with Me Tonight is a great little package, containing a fantastic single and four brilliant remixes – a real masterclass for how to put together a simple, effective release. If only the record buying public of 1996 had agreed.

You can read my thoughts on the dreadful previous single Don’t You Want Me 1995 hereStay with Me Tonight is deleted, but can be found on the 1995 (black sleeve) version of their Greatest Hits or on the original CD if you track it down.