20 favourite albums (in no particular order): #10 Beth Orton: ‘Trailer Park’ (1996)

9 Jul

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My introduction to the music of Beth Orton sticks in my mind as it was quite random and quirky. I was stood in the local WH Smiths looking through some music magazine (that detail escapes me) and a female friend I knew from the local indie-rock club appeared next to me, saying ‘Hello’. She then spots a photo of Beth Orton in the magazine and tells me, “Oh, that’s Beth Orton. She’s great. She also looks like you, if you were a woman”.  Before I had chance to respond to this amusing and mildly audacious opinion, my friend said, “she’s great, you should give her a listen”. Gender swap considerations aside, I did, and nearly 20 years later I’m still listening.

Beth’s original mixture of folk and electronic is now a bit blasé, I suppose, in the sense that everybody else has done it since, but taken on its own merit this album still satisfies. At this point in her career Beth had already recorded a song written by her idol John Martyn (“I don’t wanna know about evil”), and Martyn’s influence looms large on Trailer Park, with the style never being completely folk, but blending into a beautiful ‘other’. The combination of acoustic guitars and beats leans more to the traditionally folky than the dance arena, despite the input of Andrew Weatherall and William Orbit. So Trailer Park is essentially a folk record, and its modern trappings don’t detract for a second from the fact that it’s a very British folk product; even the American desert landscapes in the videos can’t dilute that

The opening track “She cries your name” always evoked images of surf battered Scottish islands to me, and the slightly eerie sound staging used to put me in mind of a more electronic Wicker Man soundtrack. It’s a highlight of the album, and while Beth has always been lyrically vague, being able to project your own interpretation onto some of her songs has always been something of a pleasure.

The clichéd appraisal of Trailer Park was that it was the mid to late ‘90s clubbers album of choice when on a ‘come down’ after a night of raving. I’d say Trailer Park has more to offer than that, and remains an engrossing listen whatever your state of mind and body. Beth would follow this up with a more accomplished album (1999’s Central Reservation) and her talent has matured nicely over the two decades since. Still, Trailer Park still offers an aural comfort blanket of considered calm, and Beth’s sometimes fragile and haunting vocal gives the ambiguous lyrics some touching human quality. Trailer Park is an album that isn’t often shouted about, but one that I don’t think suits such bawdy advertising.  Go and give it a listen and you’ll be eagerly captured by its quiet charms.

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Beth Orton’s sixth studio album ‘Kidsticks’ was released on ANTI Records on the 27th May 2016.

20 favourite albums (in no particular order). #9: Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood: ‘Nancy and Lee’ (1968)

8 Jun

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I’m pretty sure I got introduced to this album when I borrowed a batch of a mate’s Nancy Sinatra albums around 1995. Well, I say my mate’s albums, but they were really his mum’s, who’d actually bought them in the ‘60s. I rated Nancy, if only for her collaboration with the great John Barry on the You Only Live Twice soundtrack. It was the side of ‘60s music that I adored as much as the twangy guitars and hippy antics. Full wall of sound orchestras and emotive soundscapes, but given a slightly surreal and psychedelic twist; it was easy listening, I suppose, but not quite what Andy Williams was doing. Additionally, Lee Hazlewood looked like my Dad, which makes Hazlewood’s appearance in numerous video clips all the more surreal and amusing to me.

Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra was an odd combination, but that was the point and why it worked so well. More recently Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan have shown us a similar dynamic over three albums (as did Nancy and Lee), but Nancy and Lee was the first and here it feels like a series of fresh and unique takes on the duet. Hazlewood was the gravel voiced, world weary cowboy character and Nancy was the sweet but sassy girl next door, and the contrast brought the songs alive in a slightly subversive way that just wouldn’t be there if they were traditionally matched up. The story goes that Frank Sinatra asked Hazlewood to rescue his daughter’s recording career, and pen and produce her some certain hits. With this being Frank Sinatra, perhaps he made Hazlewood an offer he couldn’t refuse; either way, Hazlewood rose to the challenge and ‘Boots’ was a universal number one, quickly followed by the likes of ‘How does that grab you darlin’?’ and the start of a winning collaboration. That Lee Hazlewood would eventually come from behind the mixing desk isn’t as inevitable as you might think, as the man had a nice career of his own, but I’m so glad he did. Lee and Nancy sound like they’re having so much fun here, that when it’s not being strange and surreal, it’s all out goofy and slightly ridiculous, with Nancy playing up to the stupid blonde stereotype (which at no point truly convinces me) and Lee ramping up his sardonic drifter act.

The album isn’t a faultless product though, and I can admit that, no matter how much I love it. Their version of “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling’ verges on the cringe worthy, and the fact that it opens the album does not bode well. But things improve and four tracks in we get the first Hazlewood original: ‘Summer Wine’. ‘Summer Wine’ is captivating, an oddly dangerous sounding and utterly sublime ballad. Once they stop goofing around these two metaphorically rip my heart out and throw it a few thousand feet in the air. It’s a brilliant tune, and it’s not the best here either. The two delights on side two of the original vinyl (‘Some Velvet Morning’ and ‘Ladybird’) are often cited as examples of psych-pop or dream-pop or something of that nature. Basically, they’re both slightly weird, by the standards of pop music in 1968, and probably now as well, and that edge (along with their epic wall-of-sound arrangements) makes them two essential listens. The ‘psych’ tag is misleading, as Nancy and Lee isn’t a psychedelic album as such, but then again, it is an album with psychedelic leanings. It’s just a few other things as well; it’s a strange little package if the truth be told, and that’s why I like it so much. Its easy listening made a bit hard. Like Nancy’s solo albums of the time, the orchestra and arrangements were by Billy Strange, who managed to elevate the music to a special, occasionally mystical, aural place of emotive class, somewhere between Phil Spector and a James Bond soundtrack. This is the more refined side of ‘60s pop, but with enough far out posturing to make you wonder what Lee had been putting in Nancy’s tea (and let’s be honest, it was probably that way round).

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20 favourite albums (in no particular order): #8 Blondie: Eat to the Beat (1979)

3 Jun

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When I was about five, my exposure to popular music was slight, but I was aware of Blondie, although I’m not clear if I actually knew them by name, it’s just that ‘Sunday Girl’ had filtered through to my consciousness and its melody was quite addictive.

Childhood nostalgia wouldn’t be enough to keep a band high in my affections though. I really discovered Blondie in my teens. The ‘gateway’ album always seemed to be Parallel Lines (which is a very good album), or the 1981 Best of Blondie. After that, their back catalogue was a fascinating, but short journey from punk wannabes and Ramones mates at CBGBs to MTV pop stars releasing increasingly sanitised and uninspired material (I love some tracks off 1982’s The Hunter, but it’s clear from some of it that the band were on their last legs and Chris Stein clearly wasn’t well). As overjoyed I as I was when they returned in the late ‘90s (quickly scoring a sixth UK number one single in 1999 with ‘Maria’), the band’s defining output was definitely from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. If you’d asked me a few years back I would have cited Plastic Letters as my favourite Blondie album, and if you were round my home you’d probably clock the framed copy of it on my wall, signed by Debbie Harry herself. You’d figure I might like it a bit. But revisiting the band’s fourth album time and time again speaks more about my affections than an album sleeve in a frame. Eat to the Beat is, I reckon, Blondie’s finest hour. Not even Parallel Lines quite comes close to giving me the joy I get from this, and as much as I’ll always have a soft spot for Plastic Letters, it now sounds a bit tinny and unadventurous next to Eat to the Beat, where the album lets loose their most vibrant and confident collection. Sure, Plastic Letters is perhaps the last album where Blondie really sound like a garage band, and that’s a thrilling sound, but by Eat to the Beat they had refined their talent into something else. It’s got ‘Atomic’ on it, for crying out loud, and I’m not even sure if that’s the best track. Yes, ‘Atomic’ not the best track. That good an album!

Blondie were, and are, a far better band than quite a few music fans would have you believe. One criticism I often hear, is that they weren’t really punk. Well, that depends on your definition of punk (and in attitude I’d argue they certainly fitted the bill), but give me a band that can remain true to its own self while successfully experimenting with different styles and crossing genres. Blondie are that band. Who gives a stuff if that’s punk or not? Whatever sound they were making by this point, I’m not sure the band warranted the swelled ranks it had by 1979 with Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison on guitar and bass, and I can grudgingly understand why the Plastic Letters line-up of Harry, Stein, Destri and Burke spearheaded the 1998 reformation. Still, judging from the music, perhaps the extra musicians gave both Parallel Lines and Eat to the Beat their notably ‘bigger’ sound; not quite in a Phil Spector sense, but you wouldn’t be far off the mark. By this point Parallel Lines producer Mike Chapman knew how to get the best out of this occasionally ramshackle band, with its eclectic list of influences. On Eat to the Beat we have what you could call commercial pop, but we also have punk, reggae and funk. Yet, it all sounds full of the passion and irreverent sense of fun that characterise Blondie at their best. A couple of years later and it would all get tired, but here was a pop machine operating at its peak. Everyone brings their ‘A game’ and there isn’t one duff track (so much so that the band even made a video for every track, whether it was released as a single or not). From Burke’s emotive drum intro to ‘Union City Blue’, through the Motown homage of ‘Slow Motion’ and the art-punk of ‘Victor’, this is a cracking album.

I still love Plastic Letters though (and it really does have the better cover. The cover of Eat to the Beat is alright, and I love the cross hatch design, but Frank Infante looks way out of place on that cover and three of the band members got relegated to the back. I felt duty bound to put both sides at the top of the blog). As for the Plastic Letters cover I love it so much I’m going to put it here. It’s New Wave cool personified:

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…but you know… it’s great for a lot of different reasons, but Eat to the Beat is the pop behemoth. It makes me happy in the moment and yearn for better days before and ahead, and isn’t that the best thing about good pop music?

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20 favourite albums (in no particular order):#7 Public Enemy: ‘It takes a nation of millions to hold us back’ (1988)

3 Jun

 

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Hip Hop was a hugely existing and subversive prospect in mid to late ’80s Britain. Like the Northern Soul scene in the ’70s, the way us Brits took to Hip Hop was perhaps different from the American youth that had helped create and support it in the first place. Like other cult music styles before it, we still became exposed to it despite the lack of any mainstream support. For a start, Hip Hop sounded new and of the moment, as there were generally no guitars, and the electric guitar was the same instrument The Beatles had and we all knew it’d be a while since Paul McCartney had been one. So, for me, a certain vintage of Hip Hop, with its rhythms, clever word rhyming and sampled loops, has a nostalgic appeal. It’s developed since then, and is arguably much more mainstream than it ever was 25 years ago. Like any teenager, I first preferred the catchier tunes that would briefly trouble the charts. I used to adore Whistle’s “Nothin’ serious (only buggin’) and Run DMC’s ‘My Adidas’.

Public Enemy, however, were a different proposition altogether. They felt like a more serious and considered band, and what’s more, they also had a message of sorts. As a white boy in North West England, I did feel oddly privileged to be hearing this message and also a bit unclear on what my part in it was, if any. Maybe it was just to listen. Public Enemy seemed to be speaking for disenfranchised black American youth, but they had all the punch and attitude of a great rock band, and I think that’s why some of us Brit kids took to them. The Beastie Boys debut album, Licence to Ill, was also a popular choice around this time, but its place in my estimations has diminished considerably since the late ‘80s. It’s a great raucous party record, full of attitude, but it’s less than the sum of its parts I think. Besides The Beastie Boys would easily better that with the likes of Paul’s Boutique and Ill Communication. Neither album features in my top twenty choices, but I’m putting that down to choosing albums I personally continue to go back to and I’m also trying to cover a few genres, and as such, A Nation of Millions is my Hip Hop choice.

What’s great about this album, for me, is how much is thrown into it. Instead of the result being a mess, it’s actually an aurally arresting mix. It’s an aggressive album at times, and I suppose it had to be, but it’s utterly captivating. Chuck D’s narratives are very much aligned with the empowerment of a minority, and that was a very punk rock idea, so that appealed to me in my teens. It would take far too long to list all the samples used in this album (‘Louder than a bomb’ even samples The Beastie Boys’ “(You gotta) fight for your right (to party)” so we got both bands for the price of one), but that’s another aspect of its attraction: it sounds like a hundred other things, but actually nothing quite like them at all. “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic” even samples Queen’s Flash Gordon theme, and that makes me smile every time; that alone is worth the listen. It was an exciting call to arms in a way that sounded like our generation’s music and not our Mum and Dad’s. Additionally, an album which nostalgically reminds me of school days (through rose tinted lenses of course) but also sounds better than it ever did back then, is obviously an album to have wisely come back to.

20 favourite albums (in no particular order) #6 Fleetwood Mac: ‘Rumours’ (1977)

30 May

 

An album that was written and recorded while the band’s relationships were going through hell, the reason a whole generation of Americans spell the word ‘romors’ as us British people do and was the epitome of the AOR punk was trying to blast away? Not the strongest place to start in trying to sell this particular album to you, I suppose, although you’d likely be intrigued. But I think Rumours, by Fleetwood Mac, has always had a bit of an image problem. But don’t let all that fool you; it’s an astoundingly good album.

I first heard Rumours in 1988, over a decade after it was released, and it sounded like an album out of time and at odds with the Fleetwood Mac I knew through Tango in the night.  Tango, the Mac’s highly successful 1987 album, was a polished and perhaps over produced comeback, copies of which were finding their way onto coffee tables across late ’80s Britain. I’d expected Rumours to be more of the same, and was met with a band sounding stripped of 1980s production styles, a fact which has left Tango sounding far more dated to 21st century ears. Still, despite my teenage hesitance, I could tell Rumours was a good album and I instantly recognised the opening of “The Chain” as the music from the BBC’s Formula 1 racing programmes. Of course, the album sold millions worldwide, and once held a record for the most weeks on the UK album chart (not sure if that still stands).  It certainly spent about 4 months at no.1 in the States. But it felt like music from another time and place in 1988, with the echoes of something deeper going on. The something deeper was the five people in Fleetwood Mac and their relationships (either with each other, or with outsiders), and I think that’s the clue to why this album still means something to me. There’s also a fairly memorable piece of cover art there as well, although what on earth Fleetwood and Nicks are actually doing in that photograph is open for debate.

Fleetwood Mac formed in the late ‘60s and found success as a blues rock band. Their biggest British single is still 1968’s instrumental “Albatross” (their only UK no.1 hit). Then of course, guitarist Peter Green went ‘round the bend a bit and set the precedent for all Mac guitarists. The most famous line up made their vinyl debut in 1975 after rhythm section and founders Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, with his now ex-wife Christine, hooked up with Californians Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Lindsay and Nicks were involved in a romantic relationship then of course (Oh…take it easy, boys…. Lindsay is a bloke). By then The Mac were an American (based) soft rock group that bore only a passing resemblance to Green’s Brit-blues combo. Yet for many, this is where the Fleetwood Mac soap opera started getting interesting, in a mire of trashed emotions and drug addiction with the plastic world of sunny California as a backdrop. The album can sound deceptively laid back and sunny, in that easy Californian way, but often the love songs are tainted with blacker moods; dual emotions.

It was all about love and hate, then.  The earlier Fleetwood Mac album must have been a breeze to make compared to the grief that went into making Rumours.  You could argue that if nobody in the band had had designs on each other, we wouldn’t have got such a great record. It wasn’t created in a melting pot of fidelity, that’s for sure. Stevie and Lindsey were separating for good, and Christine was musing on her past relationship with John. Meanwhile Mick Fleetwood was going through his own bitter separation. That album was the sound of divorce on wax, whilst on a diet of cocaine. Serious shitloads of coke, by all accounts.

So even in 1977, I suppose Rumours was an album out of time. It didn’t have anything to do with Disco or Punk- the two most prominent styles of the day.I suppose it sounded oddly dated back then, a bit more 1967 than ’77, with some songs displaying laid back harmonies and a deceptive veneer of Californian sunshine. But if the music had the half forgotten kiss of the summer of love, there was no love being lost between some of the band. Yet that added to their talent for this outing, rather than taking something away. One thing to keep in mind, you see, is what a good band Fleetwood Mac was and is (especially in this incarnation). Whatever chaos there was between them, in the studio this was a band working in beautiful harmony. There is a distinctly different approach to the three main songwriter’s contributions, with Buckingham, Nicks and McVie being allowed to fulfill their own expression. Nicks, for one, is the sound of the ambiguous wise mystic in contrast to McVie’s more lyrically accessible stories of love and lust. But even in those commercially sweet moments, McVie is singing about love gone wrong. “You make loving fun” is about her illicit affair, not about her husband. By the time you reach “The Chain”, you’ll be stunned such a disfunctional band could produce something so tight and potent, throbbing with driving intent. The Mac never truly rocked out in the usual sense, but they could still surprise you. “Gold dust woman” ends the album with a menacing and melancoly melody, arriving in its dying moments to the sound of wails, dark heartbeat drums and the end of love.

Rumours is a bitter sweet collection of confession, blame, regret and possible reconciliation. It’s the sound of love gone wrong, put there by a group of talented but damaged individuals.

“ Well, here you go again”, sings Nicks at the very beginning of the album, “you say you want your freedom”. But what price for freedom? Is there another way? These are questions many of us will hear in our own lives at some point, and sometimes it feels like we get it right, sometimes not. Either way, it’s oddly pleasing to hear what Fleetwood Mac made of it all. If you open your heart enough you run the risk of being hurt and often that can mean being hurt badly. You may also hurt other people. Rumours is all about that. Songs like “Songbird” and “Dreams” are so perfectly poignant, that they could easily bring on tears. Yet with “Don’t stop” there’s hope for the future and a promise for a brighter tomorrow, with the earnt reward of experience. Just like real life, if you want it. A great record then, and one that’ll mean something to anyone who’s fallen in and out of love.

Also, when a band can still record and tour together over thirty years later, and make good music, you know that there’s a bond that made Rumours special and that bond keeps people together, even after so much pain. It might take Buckingham and Nicks a lifetime to truly forgive and be true friends again, but in some ways Fleetwood Mac is their life work and it remains a bigger concern than their strife. For all they probably had to forgive themselves for, and any regrets that might linger, I don’t think they need to feel any regrets about Rumours.

 

An alternative version of this post first appeared on this site five years ago.

20 favourite albums (in no particular order). #5 David Bowie: ‘Station to Station’ (1976)

30 May

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It was tough to pick one Bowie album for my list, above all others, but this was the one. A version of this post originally appeared on here three years ago, when David was still with us, but the words still ring true.

David Bowie was, and I suppose still is, one of our greatest pop stars, from ‘60s Mod to ‘70s Glam Rock, to the enthusiastic embrace of new technologies and trends in the ’90s, through to the sophisticated pop/rock of the 2000s. However, I would argue that his single greatest album came when he was at his lowest ebb, disenchanted with fame, trapped by addictions and demons, and entering a fight to find creative relevance. These themes would colour his acclaimed late ‘70s albums, but the change began with his 1976 album. That album is Station to Station.

The sound of a steam train comes at you gradually, from one speaker to the other, suggesting something fearful and macabre like a visit to Auschwitz. Then as David Bowie’s voice arrives to sing through arguably the finest ten minute opener to any album, you know you are travelling first class- Station to Station. Of course, with this being Bowie, the lyrics refer not to rail travel but something far more cerebral and theological: Bowie’s belief in the Kaballah, the tree of life.

The mythology behind Station to Station is legendary. Recorded in LA in a blizzard of cocaine, part of Bowie’s memory still views it through the whiteout. As the man says, he knows it was recorded in LA, “Because I read about it”. Yet, despite this abuse, it’s a beautifully constructed and accomplished album, full of intelligence and verve. It also deals with a gaping loneliness of the soul, and a vacant emptiness, unfilled by the trappings of fame and fortune. It’s one of the few albums to deal with those issues in an almost extroverted way; none of the introspection of most damaged artists; this is Bowie talking from the very heart of the storm, not its quiet aftermath. Out of this angst came Bowie’s last great ‘character’: The Thin White Duke, the well attired, thin, callous and cold Aryan superman. It’s creation was also beset by bizarre stories, from alleged witchcraft, collecting of Nazi memorabilia and even an exorcism. Thankfully Bowie doesn’t remember a damn thing, so the myths can remain as true to us as we’d like them to be, and do wonders for the record’s dark melancholy beauty. Even the cover is strange (as was often the case for Bowie art); Bowie in a still from The Man who fell to Earth, in which he starred, playing an extra-terrestrial who looks human. His reality is not ours, he’s not from a place we’ve been, but he’s come to bring us his visions of the other.

Released the year after his fabricated excursion into soul music on Young Americans (“plastic soul” as Bowie described it), and sometime after his Glam-Rock years, Station to Station paved the way for the more experimental and personal music recorded with Brian Eno (the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger). Station to Station also manages to be the authentic soul album that Young Americans failed to be, by very virtue of its unashamed lack of restraint. Bowie’s version of “Wild is the Wind” is jaw droppingly wonderful, and one of his greatest  recorded vocal performances.

“It’s not the side effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love” sings Bowie, almost happily, as if he’s had the revelation that he can feel again, and so the title track hits its exuberant stride. Now, on most albums you’d expect that to be the very highlight, but this album just keeps on rewarding. “Golden Years” offers a version of Bowie’s brand of soul music, that pays homage to the past in a way “Young Americans” did, but with far more satisfying results. Even my least favourite track, “TVC-15” has much to offer, ending in Bowie’s almost hysterical and passionate exclamations. The album certainly keep you engaged. “Stay” is radical funk, “Word on a wing” is a tantalizing ballad; the album is a pop music masterwork. Also, with a band like the one he had at the time, including his long time guitarist Carlos Alamar, he couldn’t really go wrong in achieving his vision. They were up for anything, and more than capable….anything from soul ballads to Krautrock (Bowie even declares “the European canon is here”, pre-empting his Berlin phase).

At just six tracks (albeit long tracks), Station to Station has no filler; it’s all good. However, it’s admittedly not Bowie’s most accessible record. Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Scary Monsters and Let’s Dance are all far more palatable to the average music listener. But the ambition to be average was not on Bowie’s mind when he created this. The Thin White Duke may have been concerned with a melancholy, and even malevolent scouring of the soul, but he was never about being average.

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20 favourite albums (in no particular order): #4: Saint Etienne: ‘Foxbase Alpha’ (1991)

13 May

 

Foxbase Alpha

Too indie to appeal to the dance crowd and too dance to appeal to the indie crowd? Some cynical music fans might have once held that view of Saint Etienne, whose intriguing but slightly fey name (taken from the French football team) hinted that they weren’t the group likely to be crowding the dance floor of the local rave or packing out the local Academy. What Saint Etienne actually were, at a time when a lot of us perhaps least expected it (in the grunge and dance focused music world of the early ’90s), was a genuinely wonderful pop group. By ‘pop’, I mean catchy, commercial and lightweight, but also ‘pop’ in the sense that Richard Hamilton probably meant, when he defined the art movement in the late ‘50s. They were in love with the mass culture, but were also able to sift for those nuggets of emotive gold that define all our lives; and it’s that attention to the milieu of everyday life and the emotion of nostalgia helped lift Saint Etienne into a different league. They loved what they did and still do, but they could also make us feel something.

Some of my most unlikely friends became Saint Etienne fans. My love of ‘60s pop made me instantly ‘get’ some of the Etienne’s influences, but that doesn’t instantly explain one friend, who had no love of that or the contemporary dance scene which also spawned the band.  Saint Etienne had a way of appealing to different people for very different reasons. There was something about Saint Etienne that a lot of people found to their liking, no matter what their usual choice of listening.

Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs formed Saint Etienne in 1990, and originally they were going to have a new female vocalist for every new single. Someone pointed out that this might prove problematic if they ever took to the road, so they wisely enlisted Sarah Cracknell as the permanent vocalist (whose input was far more than just a pretty face). Her honeyed vocals became as much a hallmark of Saint Etienne’s music as the magpie like samples, nostalgic lyrics and house beats.

At the time of writing (2016) Saint Etienne have become a sophisticated, if somewhat predictable, purveyor of polished pop. They’re a ‘proper’ band now, with the core trio augmented to good effect in the live shows. Perhaps it would be true to say that they’ve now sacrificed any new innovation in favour of a steady refinement of their sound, but at the time of Foxbase Alpha they were a breath of fresh air into the stagnant room of the top 40 album chart. They would occasionally venture into more experimental territory, but it’s their Anglophile brand of cool which has often kept us older fans coming back. Listening to it now, Foxbase Alpha, their first album, isn’t exactly their most accomplished or polished. But therein lies its huge charm. Foxbase is undoubtedly a love letter to London, but not one that would be easy to visit, and believe me, I’ve spent 25 years trying. Like the fantasy London of The Avengers TV series, Saint Etienne’s London is a half recalled memory of retro styling and sunny days. They make me think of chaste kisses and yearning joy with just a touch of melancholy yearning; in Saint Etienne’s London,the fountains in Trafalgar are far bigger, the sky bluer, the sight and sounds sun drenched and vibrant and the myth of ‘60s swinging London is made real and improved.

Foxbase Alpha fuses early Trip-Hop, snatches of Northern Soul and broken up samples from films and old records, with the then current House music scene as an overall bonding agent. It’s a magpie like collection of shiny pop moments, but it doesn’t belt them out like some uncouth Kylie album, and in the jingly jangly guitars the band’s indie credentials are forever in evidence.  More than anything, Foxbase always makes me feel quietly elated and heart tuggingly sad, often in the same song. “Spring” and “Nothing can stop us” must rank among some of the finest pop of the ‘90s, but I can bet you most people on the street have never heard them. Therein lies Etienne’s continued appeal: they remain a wonderful cult, and all the cooler because of their niche appeal. The band would have hits (over the decade, the sublime sounds of  “Avenue”,  “You’re in a bad way”, “Like a Motorway”, “Pale Movie”, “She’s on the phone” and “Sylvie” all charted). Tiger Bay could possibly be their finest album, in terms of commercial and critical appraisal, although both 2005’s Sounds from Turnpike House and 2012’s Words and music by Saint Etienne were fine later effort. But my heart will always be with Foxbase Alpha, which I first heard when I was really young and wanted the world to be as The Et painted it in their aural snap shots. Listening to it now, it reminds me to remain young, in the only place that really counts; in my head.

As Jon Savage said in the original liner notes, stay busy, out of phase, and in love.

 

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