I preferred their early stuff… Pet Shop Boys

For many people, Pet Shop Boys are epitomized by their first hit and UK number one, ‘West End Girls’. It certainly had a huge impact and set the scene for their ‘imperial phase’, which ran for a good 8 years of hits until their most successful and only UK number one album, ‘Very’. Their final (to date) huge hit single was the unashamedly camp disco cover of The Village People’s ‘Go West’, which got to number two in the UK chart in 1993. Listen to the radio now, and you’d think they hadn’t released anything since, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! As well as 9 ‘traditional’ albums, they have also written musical theatre, film soundtracks, and even ballets.

‘Before’ was the opening single from their fifth album ‘Bilingual’ and the Danny Tenaglia production melds the Latin rhythms that suffuse the album with classic house. Almost the definitive ‘sad banger’.

The genesis of Pet Shop Boys seventh studio album, ‘Nightlife’, was working with Jonathan Harvey on the stage musical which eventually became ‘Closer To Heaven’. The lead single ‘I Don’t Know What You Want, but I Can’t Give It Any More’ is, like ‘Before’, another sad banger produced by a major house DJ/producer (in this case David Morales). As with ‘Bilingual’ the rest of the album never quite lived up to the promise of the single (for me at least), but it is as classic a piece of 90s pop/house as you will find.

2002’s ‘Release’ is a largely forgettable affair. While ‘Home & Dry’ has a certain charm, the majority of the album’s guitar and piano driven arrangements just don’t really work. It does, however, include the devastatingly raw ballad ‘Love Is a Catastrophe’.

2006’s ‘Fundamental’ reunited the band with Trevor Horn, producer of ‘Introspective’. While this was perfectly serviceable, it felt rather like a band going through the motions (especially on the Diane Warren song ‘Numb’, even giving it a political spin couldn’t get away from the generic blandness). The decision to work with Xenomania for 2009’s ‘Yes’ proved to be rejuvenating, and spawned the two-year Pandemonium world tour. ‘The Way It Used To Be’ is a melancholy examination of a relationship on the rocks. It really should have been a single.

In 2012 the band released their final album for Parlophone, the frankly underwhelming ‘Elysium’. I had pretty much written them off at this point, but the announcement that they had been working with Stuart Price (who had done stellar work with artists as diverse as Scissor Sisters, The Killers and Madonna) on the album ‘Electric’ in early 2013 made me change my mind. The closing track of the album, ‘Vocal’, is a celebration of 90s dance music and club culture and a lament for when artists were ‘lonely and strange’.

The collaboration with Stuart Price proved to be a creative one, and ‘Electric’ was followed by ‘Super’ (2016) and ‘Hotspot’ (2020) to form a loose trilogy of albums. While the subsequent albums aren’t as fully formed statements of intent as ‘Electric’, they both showcase a band not content to rest on their laurels or wallow in past glories. ‘Will o’the wisp’ is the sound of a band growing old as disgracefully as the titular character. Long may they continue!

I preferred their early stuff… Erasure

First in a series, picking out the gems of 80s bands’ post-Imperial Phase catalogue.

Erasure are one of those bands that were incredibly popular for a number of years, but critically under-rated. Their first album, Wonderland, failed to make much impact, despite Andy Bell’s Alison Moyet meets Jimmy Somerville vocals and Vince Clarke’s ever reliable songwriting. That all changed with the release of ‘Sometimes’ in late 1986, which started a string of mostly top 10 hits that ran through until their sole number 1, 1992’s ‘Abba-esque’ EP1, and their first hits collection ‘Pop! The First 20 Hits’.

The mid-90s were a transitional phase, the album ‘I Say I Say I Say’ was their last (to date) number one in the UK album charts, and subsequent releases struggled to have much impact on the charts or radio playlists.

Despite being less commercially successful, Erasure have released 13 albums of new material since 1995, as well as 5 singles collections and a career spanning box set of singles, Andy and Vince’s favourites, remixes, live versions and other rarities. They have not been resting on their laurels!

With the potted history done, let’s have a dive into the music of Erasure’s ‘lost’ era. I’m not going to get too much into ‘deep cuts’, but highlight a few of the singles and album tracks that are every bit as good as their well known hits. There are a few albums that don’t make the cut, such as the frankly appalling ‘Other People’s Songs’, and the rather try-hard ‘Tomorrow’s World’ – which hides too much of Andy’s voice in the now ubiquitous autotune.

Fingers & Thumbs (Cold Summer’s Day) – Erasure – 1995

1995’s self-titled album is a bit of a fan favourite, but it does mark the start of their fall from mainstream success. Produced by Thomas Fehlmann (of The Orb) and long time collaborator Gareth Jones, it is a move away from the three-minute pop songs for which they were known, and makes extensive use of Clarke’s collection of pre-MIDI synths. Most of the tracks are over 5 minutes long! ‘Fingers & Thumbs (Cold Summer’s Day)’ was the second single and contains one of my favourite Erasure choruses, with a wonderful bit of imagery in the line ‘a shattered heart in love’s debris’.

Freedom – Loveboat – 2000

Loveboat was Erasure’s least successful album since Wonderland, caused them to be dropped by their US label, and is generally unloved by fans (fan reviews are mainly critical of Flood’s low-fi guitar heavy production rather than the songwriting). This lead single is a cracking song and I think it is unfairly overlooked. For a deeper cut seek out the Strumapella Mix which focuses on Andy’s vocal and shows just how good he is.

Breathe – Nightbird – 2005

Nightbird was released shortly after Andy’s public disclosure that he was HIV+ and there’s a melancholy introspection that suffuses the album. While this single reached their highest chart position since 1994 the album didn’t break into the top 20.

Gaudete – Snow Globe – 2013

Synth-pop meets a 16th Century carol. Erasure had done Christmas songs before, including ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ on one of the releases of the ‘Crackers International’ EP, so a full length festive album was inevitable at some point. There’s a glacial quality to the arrangement, which is redolent of frosty nights and the distant sounds of church bells. If you want your jaw to drop to the floor, try the a cappella mix where Andy multitracks himself into a whole choir or the Dave Audé extended club mix (you can almost smell the poppers!).

Dead of Night – The Violet Flame – 2014

The Richard X produced The Violet Flame is such a strong album, it is difficult to pick one song. This opening track is very much a statement of intent.

Day-Glo (Based on a True Story) – 2022

Bringing us bang up to date is their latest release. Day-Glo (Based on a True Story). This was produced during the COVID-19 lockdowns using material from the sessions of their 2020 album The Neon. The material was remixed and rearranged by Clarke and the tracks sent to Andy for vocals. Additional production was by Gareth Jones. The result is a collection of sonic experimentation, normally reserved for remixes or B-sides, proving that after nearly 40 years together they still have new things to say.

Musings on The Mercuries

Back in the 90s when The Mercury Music Prize started (named after its first sponsor – a company that no longer exists!) I’d look at the list and the majority of them would already be in my collection. This year there was only one on the list that I could say I knew (Anna Calvi’s excellent Hunter). I suspect quite a lot of this is due to my being an old fart, and not just because I’m still bitter that Blackstar didn’t win, but it strikes me that in the last few years the prize has become a very London-centric music-media love-in. It’s been five years since an artist outside of London won and I don’t think there has been a genuinely surprising winner for much longer than that. The shortlist often shows a lack of genre diversity (the token modern classical artist seems to have completely vanished and folk or pop rarely get a look in – at least Jazz is still represented (which would be a major oversight given its insurgence in recent years)) and while there was a refreshing number of explicitly polictical acts this year it still feels very safe, unexciting and, to be honest, a bit stale. If they can make it to the 30th award maybe they ought to call it a day there…

Long time, no post

I’ve just moved to a new host and when I imported all the old blog posts it struck me that it has been four years since I last posted! I’m really not very good at keeping up blogs *sigh*

Anyway – I’ll try and update a bit more regularly! Maybe I’ll liveblog Top of the Pops or something!

April 2013 Purchases

Oh dear me I’ve got *so* behind here… Jan-March I’ll have to write off as a lost cause…

So – before we get into June here are April’s purchases!

Ed Harcourt – Back Into The Woods
Ed Harcourt is definitely on the Rufus Wainwright singer-songwriter axis. Back Into The Woods is very stripped back low-key affair, rather an about face after the lush arrangements of Lustre. There’s certainly an intimacy to the record, which works best with the simple piano arrangements, but it teeters on the brink of aural wallpaper. Pleasant enough, but doesn’t demand your attention.

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – English Electric
The sound of the 80s has never been more popular, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the originals re-appearing to prove they can still have something to offer. OMD always struck me as one of the second-league of 80s electronic bands and while McClusky and co do have a way with a tune, they never really struck gold in the way bands like The Human League did. Sonically the here and now fuses perfectly with the 80s synths but I can’t help thinking that the actual song-writing is just re-treading past glories.

The Phoenix Foundation – Fandango
While The Phoenix Foundation are well established in their native New Zealand they only started to be known in the UK with the release of 2011’s wonderful Buffalo. Fandango is a fairly sprawling affair, most of the tracks clock in at over 5 minutes, with a languorous feel. It doesn’t, however, feel over-long or in desperate need of editing which is no mean feat for an album that finishes with a 20 minute track!

Serafina Steer – The Moths Are Real
I picked up this album after hearing a session she did for Lauren Laverne on 6 Music (you may have noticed this is a common thread). With Serafina being a harp player it would be easy to package her into a similar box as Florence Welch or Joanna Newsom. While comparison with the latter has a certain justification there is a definite influence from dance music (most obvious on Disco Compilation) that, along with the kitchen sink lyrics, gives a twist to the delicate folk sounds that dominate and saves it from veering into twee-ness.

Karl Bartos – Off The Record
Imagine Kraftwerk in a gay club circa 1988 and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this album sounds like! Camp in that way that only a very earnest German could be!

Neon Neon – Praxis Makes Perfect
It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Stainless Style had been a one off – a wonderful Delorean influenced 80s throwback from Gruff Rhys and Bryan Hollon. Fortunately for us it wasn’t and this full-on concept album (a biopic about Italian leftist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli) is great stuff. While there is nothing quite as shimmeringly-wonderful as ‘I Lust You’ and the biographical element is probably only evident to those in the know Praxis Makes Perfect is a more cohesive affair than its predecessor with a definite Italio tinge running through it.

The Knife – Shaking The Habitual
Quite a difficult listen this one – especially given that I’m more familiar with The Knife of Deeper Cuts – but I’ve no doubt it is worth persevering with…

December 2012 & January 2013 Purchases

The cold winter months are fairly slim pickings for new releases, so it’s been a fairly quiet couple of months on the new purchases front…

Various Artists – Cool Christmas
I remember playing this album a lot one of the Christmases I worked in Our Price and I always think I ought to buy it and then not get around to it! A couple of tracks aside this is as much more offbeat collection of Christmas songs so it makes a nice change from the endless Slade…

Cerys Matthews – Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Cerys picks a selection of traditional Christmas songs and delivers then with such enthusiasm and folksy aplomb that you can’t help but be charmed by it.

Kirsty MacColl – Electric Landlady
December is the anniversary of Kirsty’s untimely death – so it is always a good time to remind yourself just how great and under appreciated an artist she was. Electric Landlady is an album I never got around to buying at the time so I was very pleased to see the deluxe reissue available on emusic. Don’t be fooled by the title track (which I wasn’t keen on at the time but I’ve grown to love), this is no bandwagon jumping – the songs and her voice are as strong as ever.

Kirsty MacColl – Kite
This was one of the first CDs I bought – mainly on the strength of Freeworld (which still sounds fresh and, sadly, relevant today) – and it finds her a the top of her game. The flakiness of men is still a favourite topic, but there is also strong sense of social commentary running through it. The bonus tracks on the reissue are a collection of alternative versions, b sides and remixes that are a nice addition.

Martin Rossiter – The Defenestration of St Martin
A very low key return from the Gene frontman.

Rachel Zeffira – The Deserters
Another discovery via Lauren Laverne’s 6 Music show. Multi-instrumentalist Zeffira has produced a wonderful collection of songs with a startling array of textures. Vocally I’m reminded of Julee Cruise, which is no bad thing… One of my albums of 2012.

Saint Etienne – More Words and Music by…
The US deluxe edition of Saint Etienne’s brilliant comeback album is in many ways better than the UK version (which came with a second disc of hit n miss remixes). More Words, which the band made available in limited quantities on their website when they returned from their US tour, has a nice set of B-sides and covers and is in its own way just as good as the main release.

Dutch Uncles – Out of Touch In The Wild
Dutch Uncles were one of my finds of last year – loved their Electric Counterpoint sampling debut and the follow up is just as good. This psychedelic art-rock reminds me of Talking Heads which can only be a good thing.

New Order – Lost Sirens
I have a complicated relationship with New Order. They are probably my favourite band but they haven’t made an album I’ve really enjoyed since Republic. As such I wasn’t expecting much of this collection of tracks that didn’t make the cut for the messy and uneven Waiting For The Sirens’ Call but it’s actually a pretty good mini album. It’s a shame that there is so much bad blood between the current members and Peter Hook, this shows there was still life in them before they imploded…

The Timelords – Doctorin’ The TARDIS
Hated this at the time, but I’m reconciled with it now and it is a perfect example of how The Rules worked. Not sure The Rules work any more in this age of manufactured, pre-packaged, X-Factor wannabes but I’d like to think they do…

Del & Xavier – Tickle
Even in mixtape form Del Marquis manages to produce something with more of the quirky Scissor Sisters personality than Magic Hour. Great stuff – I look forward to the album!

November 2012 Purchases

December flew by – so I’m rather late again!

Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man
Natasha Khan’s third album is starkly beautiful. Gone are the lush exotic arrangements of Two Suns, replaced with glacial synths reflecting the melancholy mood. A perfect autumn/winter album that shimmers like pale sun on a frosty day.

Björk – Bastards
The Biophillia project rolls on, an app, an album, a live residency and now the inevitable re-mix album. Some of these mixes bring the songs of Biophillia into focus, others add even more layers of complexity. A mixed bag – equal parts baffling and beguiling…

College – A Real Hero EP
I don’t actually remember buying this – must have been an odd amount of eMusic credit left and I’d favourited them some time ago (presumably after hearing on 6 Music). The title track is a lovely piece of swoony electronic pop, the rest are slightly throwaway instrumentals.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Frankie Said…
Do we really need yet another Frankie Goes To Hollywood compilation? Not sure, but this is a nice collection of single and 12″ versions – many of which haven’t had a CD release before. Not essential – but an interesting release if, like me, you’re a fan of 80s 12″ singles.

Space – Magic Fly
Not the loveable 90s indie-pop scallies – this is the original late-70s French electronic Space. I first heard the title track on Top of the Pops 1977 and when I noticed it was on eMusic I thought it was worth the credits. You can trace a line from this to current French acts like Daft Punk and Sebastian Tellier. Surprisingly fresh sounding given that it is 35 years old.

Sufjan Stevens – Silver & Gold
Sufjan’s second collection of Christmas EPs is a little less trad than ‘Songs For Christmas’, but there is much to like. Cost a fortune in eMusic credits – but there’s not much else to spend them on at this time of year!

Lindstrøm – Smalhans
I’m mainly familiar with Lindstrom from his remixes (he did a great mix of Jetstream by Doves) but this collection of original tunes is great. Dance music that sounds good at home can be tricky to pull off – but this gets it just right.

T-Rex – The Slider
Bolan was the master of the perfect single but the albums are rather hit and miss. This, along with Electric Warrior, is mostly hit. Metal Guru and Telegram Sam are, of course, the high points but the whole album shows just how great Glam could be…

My music – the melody that keeps coming back…

I’ve recently invested in an iPad mini and I’ve been having fun with the music making tools that are available on iOS. When playing around with a sequencing/sampling/synth app called Nano Studio I found myself returning to a melody that started life as the middle movement of a string quartet I wrote at University. The string quartet movement itself is quite a sombre affair (there are shades of Barber’s Adagio for Strings in there) and the recording I made of it had added poignancy as the first violin had recently lost her father. In the year following University I was back in Oxford sharing a house with my friend Chris from Uni (he’d got a job (that we’d both applied for) at a local studio technology company) and one of his colleagues. During this time Chris and I worked on a few musical projects together and one of them is this re-imagined version of the string quartet theme. One of the biggest records of that summer had been Children by Robert Miles and the sound of that record is definitely part of genetic makeup of this track. We actually recorded this at the demo studio of the company Chris worked for – I can’t remember if we lugged my PC in (I think it would have been running Windows 3.1 with the Cakewalk sequencer software) or if we MIDI dumped everything to a floppy based MIDI recorder I had. Either way we multi-tracked the parts onto tape so we had more flexibility with the studio’s setup of effects, compressors and EQ. Sadly I never got a proper ‘master’ on DAT – this was copied from cassette – but listening to it now I’m surprised at how well it stands up. It does sound unmistakably mid-90s, but the arrangement is great and the key change (which was the cause of much debate) still makes me smile.

Sadly I lost touch with Chris (and indeed all the folk I knew at Uni) after I moved out of the house share and bought my first flat. Last time I looked him up he was still working for the same company, based out in China, so he seems to be doing OK. One thing that looking back on this track does remind me is that I work best in collaboration. This track is 15 years old now and is probably the high point of quite a creative time…

My songs – Intercontinental

This track started life when I was learning to use the new software that I had bought for work – Cubase VST. It has a very Massive Attacky vibe and I am very pleased with it. So pleased in fact that I asked Antti Lehtola (one of the many people who I have come to know through newsgroups) to write lyrics for it. When he tragically died I asked Joy Green to write the lyrics for me as a tribute to him. Chris Naden offered to sing it for me and I we were all very pleased with the end result. Apologies to Joy if the lyrics are incorrect – I couldn’t find my original references – so had to transcribe the lyrics from recordings.

Lyrics
My love I know you’re beautiful
Though I’ve never seen your face
Its there in every line you write
A touch of truth, a touch of grace

And though we’re hours and miles apart
And we cannot even touch
I can feel you in my heart tonight
And I want you oh so much

They like to call it fantasy
I guess its hard to understand
How a love so deep
Can grown without the touch of lips or hand
But you and I know different
Love comes in different kinds
And what we have is a meeting of our souls, our hearts and minds

I feel like you are next to me
Feel your fingers on my skin
I can hear you in my mind my love
Breathing out as I breathe in

I smell the jasmine on your hair
Taste the sweetness in your kiss
And I wonder if reality could truly be more real than this

And your beauty is a light to me
Shining through the darkest night
The words we share are all it takes
To make the world feel good and right

And even if we should never meet
Never kiss and never hold
I will keep you in my heart my love
until the sun burns dark and cold

Music by Stewart Tolhurst
Words by Joy Green
Stewart Tolhurst: Synthesisers and programming
Chris Naden: Singing
Contains a sample of ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ by Radiohead