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.

Retro chart for stowaways – 29 November 2014

For the first time ever, here’s a retro chart from the lifespan of this blog, never published before. Here are the albums from just three years ago this week:

  1. Röyksopp – The Inevitable End
  2. Erasure – The Violet Flame
  3. David Bowie – Nothing Has Changed
  4. Sparks – In Outer Space
  5. Goldfrapp – Tales of Us
  6. David Bowie – Reality
  7. New Order – Waiting for the Sirens’ Call
  8. Röyksopp & Robyn – Do It Again
  9. William Orbit – Strange Cargo 5
  10. The Human League – Dare


Retro chart for stowaways – 20 May 2006

While I’m still away on my holidays, here are the top 10 albums from eleven years ago:

  1. Massive Attack – Collected
  2. Goldfrapp – Supernature
  3. William Orbit – Hello Waveforms
  4. I Monster – Neveroddoreven
  5. Depeche Mode – Playing the Angel
  6. Madonna – Confessions on a Dance Floor
  7. Röyksopp – The Understanding
  8. Pet Shop Boys – PopArt
  9. Röyksopp – Röyksopp’s Night Out
  10. Sugababes – Taller in More Ways

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.

Peel Sessions – The Shamen, 12 February 1991

The Shamen‘s fourth and final John Peel session was recorded in February 1991 and broadcast several times that same year. The Shamen had long been featured on Peel’s radio shows, and he seems to have even stuck with them once they transitioned from psychedelic eighties “alternative rock” to the rave-pop-dance that they were so fond of in the early 1990s.

The session opens with a pretty good version of En-Tact‘s Hyperreal, already available in the shops for a year or so at this stage. It seems to have gained some slightly daft sound effects which weren’t there on the quite brilliant original version, and it’s notably lacking the input from William Orbit that made the US album and subsequent versions so good, but it’s still pretty strong.

Make it Mine had already been a single in 1990, and this version seems to have undergone a slightly ill-advised reworking, with a pointless middle section and a length rap from Mr. C. It’s interesting to see them exploring some slightly different directions, but they really don’t seem to know what they’re doing. The input of The Beatmasters that would characterise the next album seems long overdue.

Possible Worlds is a nice inclusion – definitely one of the best tracks from En-Tact, it offers them a chance for some musical exploration without going completely off the rails. There’s a bit more freestyle rapping (including rhyming “brain pattern” with “Saturn”), which is definitely unnecessary, but in general it’s pretty good. Just not quite as good as the original version.

Then comes In the Bag, which I think I’m saying was never released anywhere else. It’s a pretty nice ambient piece which is entirely lacking in melody, but it’s a strong inclusion nonetheless. In a way it’s pieces like this rather than the better known singles and album tracks that make it worth hearing these sessions.

You can read more about The Shamen‘s relationship with the John Peel show here. This session is available on The Shamen‘s 1993 compilation On Air, which is still widely available.