William Orbit – Strange Cargo

Back in 1987, William Orbit was little known as a name – he would have been primarily recognised as a member of the underground alternative trio Torch Song, but having opened the year with his debut Orbit, by the end of the year he was already onto his second solo album Strange Cargo.

It opens with the glorious Via Caliente. Orbit’s trademark sound has always involved combining complementary melodies at different tempos, and acoustic guitar is a great medium for that. It’s something he has explored more than once on the Strange Cargo series. Clocking in at barely two and a half minutes, Via Caliente is definitely short, but it’s also gloriously evocative and mature.

It is also, unfortunately, far and away, the best thing on here. Let’s be clear about this – the first Strange Cargo album is far from bad, and it does exactly what it sets out to do, but it is just a little bit cheesy at times. Maybe it’s immature or dated, or maybe Orbit just hadn’t quite worked out what he was trying to do yet, but, for all the good tracks on here, there’s nothing quite up to the standard of the opening track.

Case in point: Fire and Mercy, which starts out with what would come to be the familiar Strange Cargo sound: slightly otherworldly, with deep and weird synthetic noises. Before long, though, it’s punctuated by late-eighties digital FM synthesis and naff sounding countermelodies. Just a few years later, it probably would have been great, but in 1987, it just sounds a bit misguided.

The tracks fly by quickly, though – Jump Jet is a very lively diversion, and then Silent Signals is a gentler piece, this time lacking most of the cheesy synth sounds, but also unusually lacking in any kinds of obvious hooks. The Secret Garden, though, is a soft, nursery rhyme-like piece that takes us meandering through the last four minutes or so of the first side of the LP.

The second side opens with the atmospheric and sweet Out of the Ice, which still has some slightly pained late eighties moments, but is generally very good. Scorpion is a short and punchy piece, followed by Riding to Rio, a catchy acoustic guitar-driven piece, which is probably as close as we come to the dizzy heights of Via Caliente during the rest of the album.

Strange Cargo, as we now know, got a sequel three years later. In fact, it ended up with four, the most recent of which appeared just five years ago. The sound that typifies the series is that weird, otherworldly atmosphere that I described earlier, and even Jimmy’s Jag has a bit of this at the start. It’s definitely part of the same series of albums, and it’s a worthy starting point, but perhaps just not quite at its pinnacle yet.

But by now, we’re nearly at the end of this first volume – The Mighty Limpopo meanders along sweetly, and then the gently rhythmic Theme Dream arrives to close the album out. Comparisons to other volumes in the series aside, this is still a good album, with a very unique style, and well worth hearing.

The first Strange Cargo album is still widely available.

Stowaway Heroes – William Orbit

For a while, William Orbit just seemed to be everywhere. Comfortably among the most influential producers worldwide, he was working with MadonnaAll SaintsPet Shop Boys, and many more.

His career started out with the trio Torch Song, who saw heavy underground success in the mid-1980s. In 1993, they reappeared with a final album Toward the Unknown Region, which included the brilliant Shine on Me:

He famously launched Beth Orton‘s career with this, the sublime Water from a Vine Leaf:

But this was the moment where he really became a household name – in 1995, he recorded Pieces in a Modern Style, which was briefly released and then quickly pulled due to copyright issues. Five years later, it reappeared, heralded by this brilliant Ferry Corsten remix of Samuel Barber‘s Adagio for Strings:

So let’s give respect where it’s due, to the brilliant stowaway hero William Orbit.

Artist of the Week – William Orbit

Time now for another of our archive Artist of the Week features, dating back to early 2005. Some of these do contain errors, and probably contain some plagiarism too. Apologies in advance…

This week’s Artist of the Week was born William Wainwright, and would ultimately go on to become one of the most important musicians in the world of electronic ambient and dance music.

He began his musical career in the early 1980s in the new wave group Torch Song, and while recording with the band started to learn studio techniques, and by the end of the eighties was making a name for himself by remixing and producing the likes of Kraftwerk, The Human League, Erasure, and Madonna.

His first solo album Orbit was released in 1987, but it was with the Strange Cargo project that he started to make a name for himself. The first part of the four-album epic also came out in 1987, and was followed by parts two and three at three-year intervals. It was with these that he kick-started the career of folk singer Beth Orton, who first featured on 1993’s minor hit single Water from a Vine Leaf. The fourth album in the set, Strange Cargo Hinterland, followed in 1995, and features some of his best material to date.

It was at this time he first recorded his legendary Pieces in a Modern Style album, featuring inventive new interpretations of classical pieces, but it initially attracted very strong protests from some of the composers involved, so he re-entered the world of production, apparently never to be seen again.

However, it was with his production work that he truly made a name for himself, being responsible for some of All Saints‘ later material, as well as Ray of Light, one of Madonna‘s best albums to date, and also Blur‘s acclaimed album 13. On the back of this, he returned to the studio to re-record Pieces in a Modern Style, which swiftly made its name as a modern classic thanks to remixes by Ferry Corsten and ATB.

As rumours of a new album continue, he continues to work with the likes of Pink and Eagle-Eye Cherry on production work, and we await his return with baited breath.

Laurie Mayer – Black Lining

To tell the truth, I don’t know a lot about Laurie Mayer. She seems to turn up as one of the creative forces behind a lot of William Orbit‘s projects, right back to the Torch Song albums of the 1980s. After about two decades of hiding in the background, 2006 saw her release her first (and, to date, only) solo album Black Lining. It came out mere months after Orbit’s Hello Waveforms, and has some intriguingly common roots, but is also something quite unique.

Black Lining, with its sublime wood-nymph (or whatever that’s supposed to be) artwork opens with the softly jazz-piano inspired Flung. Describing it is difficult, and even that sentence slightly does it a disservice – as we all know, bad jazz can be overwrought, messy and irritating, whereas this is chilled-out and sublime. But there’s something about the rhythmic style of this piece that does remind you a little of the genre.

Low Floating Territory is one of the lovelier pieces on here, drifting gently for nearly seven minutes, and carrying you along with it like a leaf on the breeze. Sometimes music can influence the listener very deeply, and look what this CD just made me write. This is very special indeed, but it may compromise your editorial judgement somewhat.

After a while, the pieces start to drift past so gently that you stop noticing. The sweet choral harmonies of Breathe, You Theomorph, and then the reverberant synth lines of title track Black Lining. The more experimental Thundercloud still doesn’t really storm its way across the sky, but it does seem to hover threateningly.

Then comes one of the more fascinating moments, Jagged Rain, later released as the one single from this album. It comes across as a slowed-down and more mellow version of Surfin, from Hello Waveforms – but without any writer credits on this release, it’s impossible to know for sure whether it happened that way round or whether this one in fact came first.

The main part of the album draws gently towards its close with the troubled Never Will I Leave You, and finally the subdued string piece Leviticus. Just eight lovely pieces of music – probably about all that’s needed here. Except that’s not quite it – there are also two “variations”: Low Floating Variation and Flung Variation. Both are sleepier renditions of the earlier tracks, bringing out different aspects and hiding others.

Across the entire hour or so of music, Black Lining is seductively soft, dreamy, and sweet. It may not – with the possible exception of the title track – have the catchy pop hits you might normally look for, but it’s well worth having on the shelf for times when you need something a little quieter.

The original CD release, with its exceptional artwork, is unfortunately no longer available, and the 2012 remaster which is still available has a vastly second-rate replacement. But it’s probably not about that – you can find the remaster here.

William Orbit – My Oracle Lives Uptown

If you like your music subdued and beautiful, a new William Orbit album is always a particular treat, although they seem to be few and far between. This week in 2009, his most recent album My Oracle Lives Uptown was unleashed, initially as a download and then later as a CD with extra tracks.

After the near perfection of Hello Waveforms (2006), his first non-Strange Cargo album in nearly two decades, My Oracle Lives Uptown followed three years later, but unlike its predecessor suffers in places from padding and filler.

Orbit does have a particular signature sound, and this is apparent with Radioharp, full of billowing synth pads and almost breath-like melodies. It’s unremarkable in a way, but also sets the mood perfectly, leading into the brilliant second single Purdy.

What I think makes Purdy so special is its quite inventive warped piano sound. Aside from that, it’s a dark dance track which builds into something which might not have sounded entirely out of place in the early 1990s.

The best track on the album – perhaps one of the best of Orbit’s entire career actually – is Optical Illusions. You could still argue that there’s a little bit of formula involved – certainly it isn’t a million miles away in sound from 1993’s exceptional Water from a Vine Leaf with its spoken vocals and gentle electronics. Either way, it’s still utterly brilliant – when the wibbly wobbly synth thing first turns up a minute and a half in, you can’t stop your hairs from standing up on end. The remixes (available separately on the single) are utterly brilliant too. It’s only spoilt very slightly by an extremely abrupt ending on the album version.

Fast Bubble Universe is a return to William Orbit‘s more common laid back style, with a healthy dose of 1990s dance influence. Then White Night is a real surprise – apart from being another exceptional piece, it actually first appeared on Torch Song‘s long lost 1986 album Ecstasy. Since Orbit was one of the members of that group, this is in fact a cover of one of his own tracks. Now with much more contemporary backing and a slightly more processed vocal, it feels crisp, modern, and a whole lot less 80s.

The middle section of the album – Hydrajacked, title track My Oracle Lives Uptown, Spotlight Kid, and Neutron Star – is largely unexciting. Sometimes in a good way, as the extremely gentle, mellow music washes over you, and sometimes the tracks just aren’t quite as good as those at the beginning. There are echoes of the Strange Cargo project, particularly its first outing from 1987. There are a lot more billowing synth noises and the odd xylophone-like sound, and all in all it never stops being pleasant.

In general, the rest of the album is a lot more subdued though, after the energy of the first few tracks. There’s a cluster of more remarkable pieces with the vocal Treetop Club, the particularly pleasant Drift So Far, and the ultra-laid back Golden Country. Then finally, Brand New Bong, Little Skipper, Reverie of the Tapir and City Lights Reflection bring the album to a close with its final phase – diddly bongo sounds, gentle semi-acoustic moments, more wibbly wobbly sounds, and just generally a whole lot more everyday William Orbit.

In a way, My Oracle Lives Uptown feels like a bit of a career retrospective for Orbit, and a quarter of a century after he first turned up with Torch Song, that’s entirely forgiveable. It does generally lack the sheer overwhelming brilliance of some of his other works, but it also has the trio of Purdy, Optical Illusions, and White Night, which more than make up for any failings it may have. And a new William Orbit album is always something to be treasured.

You can find My Oracle Lives Uptown on CD at Amazon, or as a studio master download from Linn Records.

William Orbit – Strange Cargo III

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 ParadiseWilliam 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 BashimHarry 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.