Yazoo – Upstairs at Eric’s

After his shock departure from Depeche Mode just a matter of months earlier, the young Vince Clarke wasted no time by partnering with the incredible vocalist Alison Moyet to form Yazoo (or Yaz, if you were in the US). Their debut release Upstairs at Eric’s first appeared an incredible thirty-five years ago this week.

It opens with the glorious single Don’t Go. Could anything really be better than this? Where Depeche Mode‘s debut Speak and Spell was naïve and at times a bit silly, this has all the confidence of a group that might have been around for decades. They hadn’t – Clarke and Moyet were still barely in their twenties.

This isn’t a perfect album, by any means – Too Pieces, for example, is nice but doesn’t quite sound fully formed. But at worst, everything on here is pleasant – and a lot of the time, as with Bad Connection, it’s actually pretty good. Taking heavy influence from the soul and Motown tracks of the preceding decade or so, there’s a lot to enjoy about it.

Curiously, the longest track on here is the experimental instrumental I Before E Except After C. Understandably omitted from the early CD versions (it was replaced with a couple of non-album tracks), it’s a bit of an oddity. As a minimum, it does include the famous Alison Moyet laugh that would be sampled by the Spice Girls a decade and a half later. You can appreciate this a lot more if you try to remember just how young sampling technology was at this point.

Midnight is the first of four Moyet-penned tracks, and does show a very different songwriting style. It’s a brilliant combination, actually – maybe Clarke found it difficult initially to work his synthesiser sounds around someone else’s song, but he seems to have taken to it extremely well.

Side A closes with the brilliantly experimental In My Room, which could easily have been a catchy pop song, but is instead haunting and eerie, punctuated by Vince’s sampled vocals and essentially only one or two instrumental sounds at any given time.

Then Side B opens with the fantastic debut single Only You, a song which Clarke had famously offered to Depeche Mode as a leaving present. It goes without saying that this is a fantastic song, far and away the best thing on here, although it’s difficult to imagine what it might have sounded like on A Broken Frame.

Goodbye 70’s is a rather brilliant period piece, in which Moyet tells us she’s tired of fighting in their fashion war. Ironic, to say the least, given the many best-forgotten looks that the 1980s would give us. Great song though.

Tuesday is a fantastic template for modern pop music, but Winter Kills might actually be the best thing on here. There’s so little to it – much of it is just a rippling piano, a single soaring synth line, and a bit of low percussion, of course alongside Moyet’s evocative vocal – but somehow it’s delivered quite beautifully.

The first album closes with Bring Your Love Down (Didn’t I), which might lack the strength of its predecessor, but it’s still pretty catchy. There’s a lot to enjoy on this album, and at its worst it’s at least an interesting listen. A lot may have happened in the thirty-five years that have followed, but it’s still a great debut release.

You can find the 2008 remastered version of Upstairs at Eric’s at all major retailers.

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Erasure – Cowboy

When you hear talk about an Erasure album being twenty years old, it’s easy to assume it’s one of the early ones that’s being discussed. But this week we celebrate the coming of age of Cowboy.

The late 1990s weren’t entirely kind to Erasure. Before Britpop came along, they still held enough sway to reach the number one spot with their 1994 comeback album I Say I Say I Say, and the following year’s eponymous album also charted respectfully (at that time, even a number 14 album in November would have easily sold enough to have reached the top 200 of the year).

A little over a year later came Cowboy, released in the traditionally quieter first quarter of the year, and thanks to some creative scheduling it scraped into the top ten and delivered a couple of respectable placings for its singles.

This is an album characterised by three or four minute pop music. It starts with Rain, a perfect four-minute song which really does put most mid-90s pop to shame. This was also released as the third single, although the German release failed to chart, and the UK release followed in the steps of the previous year’s Rock Me Gently by appearing only in chart ineligible versions. It definitely deserved to be a hit.

For perhaps the first time for nearly a decade, this album saw Erasure concentrating on what made them great – short, snappy, catchy pop songs. Worlds on Fire is followed by Reach Out, before we get to the understated but beautiful first single In My Arms.

It’s a strange one, in a way – think of what else was on the chart at this time, and you realise just how good this was, but it also doesn’t quite have the drive that you might expect of a lead single. Not for the first time, I think Erasure got their strategy slightly wrong – maybe if the first two singles had been switched around, things could have gone even better for them?

The second single comes next, the extravagantly titled Don’t Say Your Love is Killing Me. It’s difficult to think of exactly which of their previous hits they’re channelling here, but somehow this sounds entirely the way you would expect Erasure to sound. Which is fine – that seems to have been exactly what they were trying to do with this album.

Think of this, perhaps, as a last cry for acceptance. Followed by the “guitar album” Loveboat, then the cover version album Other People’s Songs, it would be close to a decade before they produced anything anywhere near this good again – even two decades before they resumed their previously consistent form.

Which is difficult to swallow around the middle of this album, as Precious and Treasure are both brilliant – the latter bringing shades of their 1991 album Chorus. In retrospect, this was even a fairly contemporary album – Vince Clarke may have still been delighting in sequencing his backing tracks on an antique BBC computer, but as we saw earlier, there were plenty of similar but less competently produced songs on the charts.

There’s nothing particularly downtempo on here, but Boy is one of the gentlest songs, and also turned out to be the fourth single from this album when the acoustic version was released a decade later.

There is a bit of room for Clarke to do a bit of silly synth work, so that’s how How Can I Say kicks off, building into another fun song before the brilliantly flamboyant Save Me Darling. There’s really nothing bad on here, and at barely forty minutes it’s nice and compact too.

Closing the album is the stunning Love Affair. It’s also somewhat understated – in the hands of another producer, this could easily have been an enormous, anthemic piece. Erasure gave it 808 cowbell sounds. But why not? It sounds amazing, and as always, Andy Bell‘s vocal performance really brings it to life.

It’s easy to feel a degree of sadness now when listening to this, knowing just how long it would take them to do something this good again. But it’s also an extremely good little album – and what more can you ever really ask for?

The original release of Cowboy is still widely available, and it’s also now available in a nice heavyweight vinyl edition too.

Erasure – The Circus

Having failed to make much of an impact with debut album Wonderland (1986), Erasure returned thirty years ago with their second full-length release. This time, it was heralded by two enormous hit singles – Sometimes had appeared out of nowhere the preceding autumn, making number 2 in the UK chart, and then It Doesn’t Have to Be came out just before the album and gave them their second top twenty hit.

It is that second hit that opens the album, in brilliantly uptempo form. It’s funny now to think of a time when Erasure weren’t well known, and with that in mind it’s impressive that It Doesn’t Have to Be performed as well as it did on the charts. What on earth is that middle section all about? (According to Wikipedia it’s a reference to Apartheid, which is of course fantastic, but I can’t honestly believe many people realised that at the time.)

The cheesier moments of the debut album still exist, and Hideaway deftly walks the line between that sound and being a fantastic pop song. It feels as though a 2017 re-recording of this song would do it a lot of favours, but it does show a lot of potential on here.

Don’t Dance and to a lesser extent If I Could both tread similar paths, sounding good but still very immature. It’s almost as though Wonderland was just a collection of demos, and this was their first proper album, but even that ignores the fact that Vince Clarke was already a very well-established musician. It’s very strange to say the least.

There’s definitely a bit of an agenda here, as Sexuality demonstrates – it comes across as a fairly innocent pop song charged with a lot of desire. But it’s the pure pop moments that hit their mark the best, as third single and second side opener Victim of Love demonstrates.

Unusually for Erasure, most of the hits are loaded on Side B here – second track Leave Me to Bleed wasn’t a single, but it definitely should have been – it’s probably one of the best songs on the album, and unlike some of the earlier tracks it doesn’t suffer too much from its production.

Sometimes is next, and is obviously exceptional. Oddly, having worked through the rest of the album, it’s easy to find yourself pulling holes in the production of this track too, but on its own this is flawless, and easily one of the best songs that Erasure ever recorded.

Fourth single and title track The Circus is the penultimate song, a curiously dark but happy piece, full of little circus acrobatics. It’s beautiful and haunting, and sadly overlooked as another of the best songs of their early career, although the single version is definitely tighter.

Right at the end comes Spiralling, which is definitely an appropriate closing track, but doesn’t quite have the atmosphere it seems to want, particularly when the circus-inspired Safety in Numbers turns up to close the album. Nice, but I think that’s about as far as you would want to go with this one.

If nothing else, The Circus shows a lot of promise which would be quickly realised on subsequent album The Innocents (1988) and wouldn’t really let up for another couple of decades. But you can also enjoy some great early songs from one of the most important duos in pop, so definitely it shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.

If you can find copies of the 2011 special edition of The Circus, which should still be available here, that’s the version to get.

White Town – Women in Technology

I’ve often wondered what most people made of White Town‘s 1997 album Women in Technology. Released in haste after the sudden success of Your Woman, it almost made the charts but sold respectably. This week, it celebrates the twentieth anniversary of its brief fling with fame, which seems a good time to give it another listen.

It opens with second single Undressed, a good opener, as it showcases White Town‘s lo-fi charms with a particularly good song. If you came to this expecting twelve clones of Your Woman, you probably would have been disappointed, although contemporary reviews for the album were actually fairly complimentary, and this single did make the lower ends of the chart, meaning White Town don’t (doesn’t?) quite go down in history as a one-hit wonder.

Next is the more uptempo Thursday at The Blue Note, and while it does come a little closer to cloning Your Woman, by now you probably should have got that idea out of your mind. It’s a great indie party track, the highlight of which surely has to be the Derby-accented lady who speaks the title towards the end.

There’s an impressive variety of styles at play here, with the acoustic sound of A Week Next June coming next, and then the moment that you could probably be forgiven for waiting for, the number one hit single Your Woman.

It still blows my mind slightly whenever this turns up on the radio – in context, on the album, it makes some degree of sense as a song – you can accept that Women in Technology is an album for misfits, and that a man telling someone he could never be their woman is OK. Randomly heard on the radio in amongst early 1990s rock (as it often is), you might be left a little confused. The computer pips in the middle section are, of course, the finest moment of the song.

An updated version of debut eponymous single White Town follows, before some warped electronics introduce The Shape of Love. One of the more interesting things done on the album sleeve was to scatter the songs around a discreet image of a lady’s body. The Shape of Love is somewhere just above the left knee. The song is actually largely acoustic and fairly simple, with the grimy electronics just creating background atmosphere.

Wanted comes next, a grimy production which uses a female vocal sample as part of the rhythm track, and featuring a great lead vocal from Ann Pearson. This was at one point planned as the second single, but for some reason never appeared, which is a shame, because Vince Clarke‘s remix on the promo CD is great (actually I think it’s probably fair to say that it’s better than the original, although it definitely wouldn’t have worked as an album track). There’s also a very rare promo 12″ which includes remixes by various other synth legends, and is probably worth buying if you’re ever lucky enough to find a copy.

For every more forgettable moment on here (The Function of the Orgasm is fine, but nobody was going to buy this album purely for this), there’s another great track – Going Nowhere Somehow could have easily been another hit single if White Town had been destined for stardom. Theme for an Early Evening American Sitcom is a slightly daft instrumental, but The Death of My Desire is another indie/rock crossover for misfits.

That’s very much the theme of this album – it was clearly never intended to be the biggest seller ever, but there’s plenty to enjoy if you like honest, home produced but professional sounding music. And ultimately what more can anyone ask for? Women in Technology closes much the same way it opened, with a sweet song with enormous drumming, Once I Flew, then a matter of months later White Town and the record company parted company, and everyone got on with their lives again. But for a brief, fleeting moment, this was an album that offered a lot to it audience, and I suspect those who haven’t heard it might still find something to enjoy.

You can find Women in Technology at all major retailers.

Stowaway Awards 2017

Finally! We kick Awards Season off in earnest with the Important Announcement of the winners of the 2017 Stowaways.

Best Track

Winner: Jean-Michel Jarre with Pet Shop Boys, for Brick England.

Best Album

These were the nominees:

  • The Avalanches – Wildflower
  • David Bowie – Blackstar
  • Clarke Hartnoll – 2Square
  • C Duncan – The Midnight Sun
  • I Monster – Bright Sparks
  • Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise
  • Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 3
  • Pet Shop Boys – Super
  • Shit Robot – What Follows
  • Yello – Toy

Winner: Jean-Michel Jarre, who had a particularly good year and stood a better chance of winning than most, with Oxygène 3.

Best Reissue / Compilation

The nominees:

  • Air – Twentyears
  • Cicero – Future Boy
  • The Human League – Anthology – A Very British Synthesizer Group
  • New Order – Complete Music
  • Dusty Springfield – Reputation

Winner: The Human League

Best Artist

Winner: Jean-Michel Jarre

Best Live Act

Winner: Pet Shop Boys

Best Ambient Track

Nominated were:

  • Air – Adis Abebah
  • Delerium – Ghost Requiem
  • Enigma – Sadeness (Part II)
  • I Monster – Alan R Pearlman and the ARPiological exploration of the cosmos
  • Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Part 17)

Winner: Delerium, for Ghost Requiem

Best Dance Act / Remixer

Potential winners included:

  • The Avalanches
  • Clarke Hartnoll
  • Stuart Price
  • Röyksopp
  • Shit Robot

Winner: Shit Robot

Best Newcomer

Winner: C Duncan

Innovation Award

Winner: Jean-Michel Jarre

Outstanding Contribution

Could have been any of the following:

  • David Bowie
  • Vince Clarke
  • Delerium
  • Enigma
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Winner: Delerium

That’s an unprecedented four out of ten for Jean-Michel Jarre. All being well, we’ll do the BRIT and Grammy Awards over the next couple of weeks.

Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine

I don’t know, you wait eight years for a new Jean-Michel Jarre album, and then three turn up at once. Sorry, I know that’s an obvious thing to say, but it is amusingly apposite. The fun but definitely questionable Téo & Téa (2007) left a slightly iffy taste in a lot of people’s mouths, and apart from the re-recorded and questionably legal version of Oxygène that followed the same year, there was then an extended silence until 2015.

What he was doing, it turns out, was working with every other electronic musician under the sun to create a two volume album, Electronica. The first opens with the sweet title track The Time Machine, with Boys Noize, and then comes one of the opening singles, Glory, with M83. So far, so pleasant.

Both of these albums have been criticised for being a bit disjointed, which, while not entirely unfair, seems a bit of an odd thing to say – of course they are, they’re effectively compilations of collaborations. But the sequence is generally logical, and there isn’t really anything particularly bad on here, so it’s hard to be too critical.

Fellow French musicians Air turn up next, for Close Your Eyes. Some tracks seem to have a lot more of Jarre, and others have a lot more of his collaborators on them, and in general, this one ends up sounding like Air might if they employed Jarre as a producer. That is to say, pretty good.

The first time you can really call something here “brilliant” is on the two parts of Automatic, both collaborations with Vince Clarke. For Clarke, this sounds a lot like his recent solo and collaborative electronic projects, but Jarre’s influence is clearly audible here too, particularly in Part 2, and both halves of the track really are excellent.

The increasingly great Little Boots turns up next, pretty much the only musician other than Jarre to make the laser harp part of their live show, and their collaboration is If..! (yes, two dots). While it’s certainly true that Jarre did something on this one, it’s difficult to know exactly what, but it’s a great song nonetheless.

They keep coming – Immortals, with Fuck Buttons, is an excellent meeting of minds, and while Suns Have Gone with Moby may not be the high point of either artist’s career, you have to be glad that it happened.

It is undeniably an odd list of collaborators though – which is not to say that Gesaffelstein shouldn’t be here – after all, why not? Few might put him in their top thirty living artists of all time list, but the resulting track Conquistador is pretty good. This isn’t so true of Travelator (Part 2) (there doesn’t appear to be a part 1), with Pete Townshend, which I’m not convinced does the legacy of either great musician any particular favours.

That isn’t true of what is apparently Edgar Froese‘s last recorded work, Zero Gravity, which after so many decades finally brings us the joint credit of Jean-Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream, and it’s ever bit as excellent as it should be. It’s also nice to see Jarre revisiting his earlier musical partner Laurie Anderson for the decidedly odd Rely on Me.

Where these two albums both go a little astray for me is with the number of tracks – they’re varied, but after thirteen pieces of music and with no end in sight, you’re always going to be a little weary. Towards the end of the first volume, we get a fun trance excursion with  Armin van BuurenStardust, followed by the weirdly dubby Watching You, with 3D from Massive Attack.

Right at the end, John Carpenter turns up for the appropriately creepy A Question of Blood, and finally pianist Lang Lang accompanies an atmospheric piece on album closer The Train & The River. It’s a long, varied, and complex album, but in general it stands well on its own, and if you consider yourself a fan of any sort of electronic music, you should probably be a fan of this.

You can find part 1 of the Electronica project at all major retailers.

Stowaway Awards 2017 – Nominations

Now for the moment that you have, of course, all been waiting for: the announcement of the nominees for the 2017 Stowaway Awards. As always in recent years, there will be exactly ten awards, one of which (Best Track) you know already from the countdown a couple of weeks ago. Here are five more key nominations!

Best Album

  • The Avalanches – Wildflower
  • David Bowie – Blackstar
  • Clarke Hartnoll – 2Square
  • C Duncan – The Midnight Sun
  • I Monster – Bright Sparks
  • Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise
  • Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 3
  • Pet Shop Boys – Super
  • Shit Robot – What Follows
  • Yello – Toy

Best Reissue / Compilation

  • Air – Twentyears
  • Cicero – Future Boy
  • The Human League – Anthology – A Very British Synthesizer Group
  • New Order – Complete Music
  • Dusty Springfield – Reputation

Best Ambient Track

  • Air – Adis Abebah
  • Delerium – Ghost Requiem
  • Enigma – Sadeness (Part II)
  • I Monster – Alan R Pearlman and the ARPiological exploration of the cosmos
  • Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Part 17)

Best Dance Act / Remixer

  • The Avalanches
  • Clarke Hartnoll
  • Stuart Price
  • Röyksopp
  • Shit Robot

Outstanding Contribution

  • David Bowie
  • Vince Clarke
  • Delerium
  • Enigma
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark