Greatest Hits – Vol. 11

Time for another selection of reviews that you might have missed in the last year or two.

You can also see Vol. 10 here.

Robert Miles – 23am

I was actually slightly surprised at how affected I was by the death of Robert Miles earlier this year. After all, he was hardly a superstar like Roger Moore. But he did define an entire (admittedly small) genre of music, dream music, and for a year or so while it lasted, it was actually pretty good, and I suppose he must have had much more of an impact on my life than I realised at the time.

His second album, the confusingly named 23am, was released an astonishing two decades ago this week. It opens with Introducing, a soft pad-and-thunder piece that sounds like something from Chicane but with very silly nonsensical babble over the top, before launching into A New Flower.

It doesn’t take a genius to work the concept of this album is going to be, as the baby noises kick in in earnest, but once the gentle acoustic guitar kicks in, this is actually a pretty nice track. Children it is not, but then neither was most of the first album.

Miles was, at this stage, not at his most creative though – the later albums where he really tried to innovate and explore are much more interesting. Many tracks, and particularly Everyday Life, would not have sounded too out of place on debut album Dreamland if he hadn’t been going out of his way to rehash Children at that point. This track was apparently a single in Italy, but it had to be backed with a couple of mixes of Fable to make people notice even in his homeland.

This album wasn’t the greatest commercial success either – Italy and Germany got another single, a huge package of remixes of Full Moon, but most countries only got Freedom, which reached a respectable number 15 in the UK. The three singles from the first album and the album itself had all hit the top ten, whereas this album fell just outside the top forty.

Which is not to say there’s anything particularly wrong with Freedom – it’s a good song. It does sound a little bit like Children though. Nothing really grabs you for a while during this middle section of the album – Textures is dull, and Enjoy is a pleasant dance track, again very much in the dream music vein, but it does sound pretty dated now.

This is not, to be blunt, an amazing album. Flying Away is unremarkable, and Heatwave is only entertaining thanks to the novelty of jazz-drum & bass-fusion. Which makes it all the more astonishing when Maresias starts. Named, presumably, after the beach in northern Brazil which is pretty much the only thing that turns up when you search for the title. This is a beautiful track, with an actual saxophone lead, some trumpets, and a whole lot of gently trippy drums. This is quite exceptional, and a complete surprise – it’s probably the best track that Miles ever recorded, and yet here it is hidden away towards the end of an unnoteworthy album.

This was, of course, a particularly extreme case of “difficult second album” syndrome – Robert Miles was very capable, as he proved on several individual tracks and some of his later works. He certainly wasn’t wrong to pull 23am together so soon after Dreamland, but under the circumstances it was probably never going to amount to much.

Full Moon is pleasant – again, one of the more interesting tracks on here, with some fun deep tribal beats. If this had turned up earlier in the album, it might have helped a lot. But it feels a bit too late now – all that’s left after this is Leaving Behind…, which echoes the first track, and the album is over.

But while 23am may have been his finest work, and it certainly hasn’t dated well in the intervening two decades, I’m still sorry that Robert Miles is no longer with us. At least once on every album – with ChildrenMaresias, and Paths from his third release – he pulled something incredible out of the bag. So long live the man who defined dream music, Robert Miles.

You can still find 23am at all major retailers.

Erasure – Rain Plus

The non-charting single is a strange phenomenon that only really appeared in the mid-1990s. Remixes were growing in number, and in the US, the response was to make singles last longer and longer, while the UK put stringent limits on the number and duration of tracks that could be included.

Erasure had toyed with the concept a couple of years earlier, with the German and Czech-only single Rock Me Gently, released as a six-track chart-ineligible import in the UK for fans. With the Cowboy album, I suspect they realised that their days of chart domination were over – In My Arms appeared in the classically quiet first week of January, and then outside of Germany, Rain only ever appeared as the eleven-track collection that we’re listening to today – Rain Plus, which was released twenty years ago this week.

Rain is a peculiarly British song though, obsessing about the weather and the effect it might have on one’s demeanour. For the single, Al Stone remixed it and made it punchier, and it surely deserved to be a decent hit.

It would be difficult to believe that Erasure had any idea what they would get with BBE‘s remix of Cowboy‘s lead single In My Arms. Far from being full-on dance, it’s a soft, slightly cheesy pop version which honestly sounds just like anything else on the charts at the time – even the drums take heavy inspiration from Atomic Kitten.

This is an odd collection to say the least, and so the b-side is Erasure‘s attempt at the theme for Star Trek: First Contact. Inspired (that’s an understatement) by Robert Miles, it’s a brilliant piece of dreamy trance that sounds absolutely nothing like anything Erasure ever did before or since. This might be a bold statement, but I think it’s also one of their finest moments.

The tracks on this release do appear to have been sequenced at random, as the next track is a live version of Rain, amusingly picked at random by an audience member at a concert in San Francisco. We then travel to Oxford for two more live tracks, Sometimes and Love to Hate You. All pretty good, although you have to wonder exactly how and why these tracks were picked (most likely is that they were considering three CDs – one with the original version and a couple of other tracks, then a remix CD and a three-track live CD).

Then we’re into the remixes, starting with Jon of the Pleased Wimmin‘s take on the single, a pleasantly beatsy remake full of arpeggios and drum fills. Then John “OO” Fleming turns up with a slightly inexplicable but admittedly catchy vocal trance version of Sometimes, which seems to have been slightly uncomfortably sped up, but is still rather enjoyable.

Someone else taking inspiration from Robert Miles is Dekkard, whose Vocal mix of In My Arms brings a number of elements together. The completely off-beat loop of the vocal sample doesn’t really work, but in some ways this version has actually aged better than the previous ones. Commissioned for the US release of In My Arms earlier in the year, but then spurned in favour of some dreadful house mixes, it finally found its place on this slightly strange but enjoyable compilation single.

Erasure have never really done deep house, but I think the closest they come is with Blue Amazon‘s Twisted Circles remix of Rain, clocking in at just a touch under thirteen minutes in duration. It’s good, and takes influence from a lot of different places, but you have to wonder whether it got played much in clubs at the time. This lengthy excursion closes the single.

According to the track listing, anyway. There’s actually an instrumental version of First Contact hiding at the end, so you get to enjoy it all over again in its entirety, for no particularly obvious reason other than that it’s good.

Which is a reasonable summary of this single, actually. There’s no particular reason for it to exist, apart from a whole load of decent unreleased remixes and oddities lying around at the end of an album. So why not just throw them all together and call it a special “plus” single? I’m not sure I fully understand, but it’s a pretty good collection anyway – especially if you’re a completist.

The original Rain Plus single seems to have fallen out of print at some stage in the last two decades, but you should be able to find a second-hand copy if you poke around.

Chart for stowaways – 20 May 2017

Here’s the latest singles chart:

  1. Depeche Mode – Where’s the Revolution
  2. Pet Shop Boys – Undertow
  3. Goldfrapp – Anymore
  4. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Part 17)
  5. Depeche Mode – You Move
  6. Depeche Mode – Cover Me
  7. Robert Miles – Children
  8. New Order feat. Brandon Flowers – Superheated
  9. Depeche Mode – Going Backwards
  10. C Duncan – Wanted to Want It Too

Robert Miles

I’ve just got back from my holidays, so I’m sorry that I’m a little late commenting on this. While I was away, I was very sorry to read about the untimely passing of Robert Miles, as it turns out from cancer.

It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that his mega-hit Children and the album that spawned it, Dreamland (which we reviewed here just a few months ago and found to be surprisingly good) have both jumped back onto the charts. His later albums were good too, and we listened to Paths on one of the first the random jukeboxes a while back too.

But my favourite track of his was from his second album 23am, and was this beautiful piece, Maresias. Rest in peace.

Robert Miles – Dreamland

There’s a fair chance you no longer remember what “dream music” is supposed to be, because it happened a very long time ago, all sounds pretty much the same, and only ever really consisted of one artist anyway.

But when it came out, Robert Miles‘s debut album Dreamland was actually pretty good. It’s laid back, but also beatsy enough to get played in a club, and honestly it’s a whole lot better than most of the Euro nonsense that was turning up in the mid-1990s.

Opening track Children had already come out in much of Europe the preceding year, and there had already been some experiments with decidedly awful artwork, but it didn’t appear in the UK until early 1996, receiving repeated plays by Pete Tong without actually having a record company. In its full seven minute form, it’s really rather beautiful.

It blends gently into the near-identical Fable. This is the “message version” though, in which someone called Fiorella Quinn has been desperately drafted in to make it sound marginally different from the preceding track by generally freestyling, wailing, and saying “tell me a fable”.

So this is Robert Miles, for the first two albums at least: run a kick drum on every beat, at about 120 bpm. Put a short bass note on the off-beat. Throw in a ripply piano and/or guitar line, some soft pads, a few drum builds and breakdowns, and that’s pretty much all you need.

Once you have understood that this whole album is really just an extended version of Children, it’s a lot easier to enjoy it. Fantasya is more of the same, but it’s pretty nice. It doesn’t take long to run out of adjectives though – Landscape is… nice.

Fortunately, Robert Miles helps a little at this point by making In My Dreams marginally different. It’s still the same piano and pad sounds, but he’s made the bass part slightly trippy and thrown in some extra hi-hats just to keep you awake. It’s nice.

The inclusion of One and One on some versions makes a very big difference. Without this, the album would just be a bit “nice” by this stage, but this third single, originally not included on the album, is exceedingly good. OK, the backing sounds are much the same, but Maria Nayler turns up and delivers an extremely good vocal, and it actually has some interesting lyrics too, so Miles wasn’t entirely out of ideas (even if it wasn’t him who wrote them, which is perfectly possible).

There isn’t really much else to say. Princess of Light is nice. The instrumental version of Fable removes most of the silly wailing, making it just nice. In the Dawn is quite nice.

Just in case you had forgotten how nice Children was, we get the rather more chilled out “original version” at this point, which is nice. Finally, we get Red Zone, which is pretty nice too.

So that’s Dreamland: it’s formulaic in every way, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you want to spend an hour listening to nice music, you could do a whole lot worse.

The version of Dreamland that includes One and One half way through to break up the monotony of niceness is still available here.

Coming up in 2016

As now seems to be traditional, let’s start the new year by looking ahead at some of the highlights of the year to come!

January

The year always starts with a bit of looking both backwards and forwards, and this year we’ll include the charts of the year and gradually enter awards season.

February

Awards Week is now a traditional fixture of late February, as we cross-examine the BRITs, the Grammys, and our very own Stowaway Awards.

March

We’re hoping March will see the long-awaited return of the Vinyl Moments series!

April

The Orb‘s Adventures Beyond the Ultraland will be a quarter of a century old, and if we miss that date, we’ll officially be annoyed.

May

There are some fun anniversaries due from Depeche Mode and Hot Chip which need to be celebrated in May.

June

June 2016 will see the twentieth anniversary of Robert Miles‘s Dreamland, which might well be cause for a party. Or a review, at least.

July

July sees this blog celebrating its birthday, and this year we’ll be four! Time to start school or something.

August

In August, it will be fifteen years since both The Human League‘s Secrets and New Order‘s Get Ready hit the charts!

September

School starts for the blog, since it will probably get the summer off before it has to invest in crayons…

October

Sorry, September was particularly tenuous, wasn’t it? October isn’t great either.

November

2016 will see several huge anniversaries for Pet Shop Boys, as both Please and Disco hit their thirtieth year (the latter in November), Bilingual reaches its twentieth, and even Fundamental hits its tenth! This must be celebrated.

December

Assuming this blog makes it through another year, we’ll obviously have to do another pair of posts like yesterday’s and today’s, looking back at 2016 and ahead to 2017!