One thing I wanted to focus on this year was important anniversaries. This one, I hadn’t even particularly planned – in fact I only had to shift the post by a couple of weeks to hit it. For it was twenty years ago this week that William Orbit returned with his third Strange Cargo album.
After entering the world of music in the early eighties as a member of Torch Song, William Orbit‘s first solo album Orbit came out in early 1987, pleasant but curiously flavoured by 80s MOR. Later the same year, the first Strange Cargo album followed, full of ambient instrumentals, a genre in which Orbit seemed much more comfortable. Strange Cargo 2 came out in 1990, a little deeper than its predecessor, but slightly lacking the power that he would find for the third outing.
Strange Cargo III opens with the dulcet tones of Water from a Vine Leaf. You’ll have to pardon the cliché, but it’s true. Having carved out a soft, laid back style on the album’s two predecessors, Orbit achieved absolute perfection for the first time with this track, gently rippling with gentle synth sounds until nearly four minutes in, when folk singer Beth Orton finally turns up to narrate. Tracks as good as this turn up once every few years at best, and should really be enjoyed to the full.
In fact, it’s so good that you could easily forget about the rest of the album. The second track is the curiously atmospheric and dubby Into the Paradise. William Orbit‘s main trademarks – burbling analogue synth arpeggios and heavy reverb effects – make their appearances, and before you know it the track is over.
This is, perhaps, the theme of this album. It’s so laid back in many cases, that it’s difficult to keep up with the tracks and to separate them from each other. Time to Get Wize brings another dub-inspired track, this time with some acid noises and a particularly excellent vocal from Divine Bashim. Harry Flowers is gentler still, punctuated by some beautiful piano work halfway through. A Touch of the Night is, like many of the tracks on the album, a return to his Torch Song roots, working again with Rico Conning.
The eerie and unnerving minor chords of The Story of Light make for a stand-out track halfway through the album. “Let your love shine down on me,” comes the vocal, again channelling the works of Torch Song (although strictly speaking the excellent Shine on Me wouldn’t be released until 1995, so maybe I’m just talking nonsense here).
Strange Cargo III is definitely the most mature of the original Strange Cargo trilogy. The packaging had evolved from a curious photomontage on the original album to a horribly dated pixellated desert image on the second volume to finally a strangely sexual oriental carving on the third. The sound, widely influenced by film music, the growing ambient scene of the early 1990s, and the sounds of dub and acid, was a marked evolution of its predecessors. Generally, it is probably fair to say that this was the first of Orbit’s truly “classic” albums.
The second half kicks off with Gringatcho Demento, for the first time again channelling the North American desert scenes of Strange Cargo 2, but also heavily covered by swathes of dub electronics. A Hazy Shade of Random is perhaps the gentlest track yet, again with bubbling synth noises, piano chords, and occasional reverberating percussion, a pattern continued with Best Friend, Paranoia.
The Monkey King sees another Torch Song reunion, featuring as it does the vocals of Laurie Mayer, warbling quietly in the background as is her wont. And Deus Ex Machina, more laid back than anything yet, softly warbles and pulses, and also defies description somewhat.
The final track, Water Babies, is a necessarily long reprise of Water from a Vine Leaf, bringing the album back to the beginning so that you could easily just put the whole thing on repeat and listen for hours. Strange Cargo III is by far the best of the original three in the series (although I think the anonymously released Strange Cargo Hinterland, which followed in 1995, is better still). But if nothing else, this is the album that brings you Water from a Vine Leaf, and less memorable though the rest may be, that alone should be reason enough to own a copy.
Strange Cargo III can be found on Amazon.co.uk here.