Number Nine: Toro y Moi – Anything in Return (2013, of course)

Carpark Records ■ CAK77

Released January 16, 2013
Produced by Chaz Bundick
Engineered by Patrick Brown, Second Engineer Jorge Hernandez
Mixed by Patrick Brown and Chaz Bundick
Mastered by Joe Lambert

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Harm in Change
  2. Say That
  3. So Many Details
  1. Rose Quartz
  2. Touch
  3. Cola
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Studies
  2. High Living
  3. Grown Up Calls
  1. Cake
  2. Day One
  3. Never Matter
  4. How’s It Wrong

Toro y Moi came to me via the broadcast that is staff overhead selection at one of the music stores I frequent on longer trips–Lunchbox Records in Charlotte, NC. The album had been out for all of two months when I heard “Cake” playing there and decided to go with an instinct I’d previously experienced during my endless trips to CD Alley in Chapel Hill in years prior. I’d never heard of Toro y Moi, nothing new for me and my complete obliviousness to modern independent music, except as it filters in by chance or through the few friends who track it.

As it was the one I heard (a reasoning that also inspired the purchase of records like Tobacco’s Maniac Meat and Youth Lagoon’s The Year of Hibernation), it was the first one I purchased. Causers of This followed in April, and then it was the synchronicity of a work trip to Atlanta that led me to see Toro y Moi in concert in October last year. I picked up the rest of his albums, as well as a few odd singles and the 3×7″ box set of bedroom recordings that was released as well. Still, Anything in Return is the one I return to most often.
At that show, Chaz was the closest thing I’ve seen to a superstar. Classixx opened for him (new to me, and worth checking out, as their Hanging Gardens could easily slip into an expanded top list for last year), but when he came out, it was unlike anything I’m used to in small venues or even large ones. There’s a roar for bands, and everyone is often focused on vocalists, but the fact that Chaz does his albums “Prince-style” (in the impossible-to-read-in-the-LP notes, it mentions he performed the entire album alone) seemed to shift the tone, somehow. The crowd was larger, it was a different kind of music, a different kind of venue, but there was still something to it.
It’s a bit strange, to be honest–not undeserved, but almost out of keeping with his music. He was first identified with the aptly-named “chillwave”, one of those terms that seemed a flash-in-the-pan, but defiantly remains in use as many such things do, thanks to sheer bull-headedness. Unlike his earlier work, though, Anything is a lot more energetic. That said, the energy is of a subdued and extremely cool variety, in most slang senses of the world, and often even a bit of the metaphorical incarnation of the most “literal” use of the word.

“Harm in Change” starts things on a rattle of percussion that leaves the bass away from the record for a good bit, until the song completely splits open over Chaz’s increasingly passionate vocals, rising in pitch and tightening, as if drawing in the disparate parts of the backing track to break it all open, even if the bass is still minimal. The second single from the album (though it did not actually receive a 7″, it did get a video) pushes a fuzzy bass beat to the forefront, or it would, anyway, if not for the chopped vocal sample that swirls around Chaz’s laidback vocal. The video almost manages to encapsulate the curiosity of Toro y Moi as a musical project: Chaz dances randomly, awkwardly, but almost stationary, throughout a forest. It’s restrained for the most part, controlled, and all about an infectious beat that maybe you don’t quite want to openly show your appreciation of.

“So Many Details” is the one track that did get a 7″, introduced with a faltering beat, and a thumping bass versus hi-hat beat. It is like a wonderful collision of the marching band-bass boom of hip-hop beats, the cold, alien piercing sounds of a lot of electronic music, and little hints of the synthesizer-oriented niches that ride the wave of nostalgia to their appreciation. In that sense, it sets the stage most completely for the album as a whole:

“Rose Quartz” continues this feeling, with punctuated bass swinging its weight behind every other sound, feeling ridiculously sensual in its way. “Touch” is one of the interlude-like moments on the album, but developed enough (it’s a good 2:30) to still feel complete. It’s nearly instrumental, and sets the stage for the yet-more laidback “Cola”, which hangs itself on the hook of reverberated monotone synthesizer wobbles.

The end of side two ends up perfectly setting up the stronger, harder beat of “Studies”, which is softened just enough by the falsetto vocals that it turns what could be a dark rolling bassline into a dancey movement. Guitar noodling layers the whole thing over to slide it into an easy place like half-lidded eyes, though a pinched, nasal sort of string rears up in little snarls at the middle and end to keep those eyes from closing completely. “High Living”, on the other end, has a ridiculous langorous cruising sort of movement to it, and doesn’t feel any particular need to force you awake, as it is just musically carefree: it’s tight and bound to its beat, but the beat is so natural that that almost doesn’t matter. “Grown Up Calls” is something of an R&B interlude from the 90s, a scatter of sounds until shaker and bass glue it all together to turn it to a full-on groove.

I don’t think I can question the fact that “Cake” is my favourite track on the record: warm, sustained synth chords, a wiggling curlicue of a keyboard lick over them, and the kind of beat that pushes your head down and forward to follow it. Chaz’s verses are exceedingly great at seeming to define the beat rather than follow it. The ebb and flow of the backing track as it goes through the sparse verses and then the thrum of the chorus is just fantastic. I’ve been openly guilty of miserable physical expression of my appreciation of this one in a work environment, no less. It just hits all the right kind of notes–alas, not one of the times where I picked the single (and I had 3 chances to be right!), but that’s all right.

“Day One” shambles along like something off Tricky’s Maxinquaye, but with just a little bit less of the deliberate ramshackle-ness: it’s clear Chaz was aiming for something smooth. And so it smooths out, even around that clatter of percussion, bonding it with softer, smoother synthesized sounds and some of his more mid-range and comfortable vocals.

While “Cake” didn’t make it, “Never Matter” did–it got its own video of random people videotaped dancing to it on headphones, and you really can’t blame them. It’s a dance-y beat, sprays of synthesizer and the plain-old irresistible hook of “Push it along…” that carries with it a wilder key riff than most of the album. And when those slow, sustained chords ring out by themselves and climb up slowly after the back-and-forth juggle bridge only to fall back on that hook–yeeow! Good stuff. Makes you wanna dance even if you can’t (Hello! We have something in common!).

“How’s It Wrong” closes the album, and still gives me those amusing mental points of Donald Fagen soundscape. It’s not unreasonable–electronics-heavy, smooth, but the rhythms and Chaz’s vocal style shake away such cobwebs pretty quickly. The beat is too heavy for Fagen’s stuff, and the groove far too sensual and dance-y. The track itself doesn’t scream out “album-closer”, but the dissolution into warbling wateriness and distant bleepiness, cold but friendly, spins it all off into space quite nicely.

Oddly, 2013 made it harder for me to pick the higher end of the list, rather than the lower end. My top two were undeniable, but as it got up the list, it got harder to say–I finally settled on this record because it’s one thing to make an ass of myself home alone, and entirely another to do so (in this fashion, at least) in front of coworkers. That the show made me feel like I’d somehow managed to magically catch a rising star on the way up, too–get in now, while you still have a chance to figure his stuff out for yourself, before you’re inundated and can’t divorce it from endless appearances! Only a few of my friends recognize the name, but all nod approvingly when it happens–join them, and start here.

On a silly sidenote: the CD version (which I also own) has a version of the cover in black and white, which bears the wonderful invitation “Color me!”, but the vinyl sadly lacks this, despite containing the same version of the image. Indeed, it is the flip of the first inner sleeve, and was facing outward when I found the record (amusingly, in October, back at Lunchbox, a week from the show I’d go to, and completely oblivious to that fact at the time). Ah, well. Guess it’s better not to risk folks trying to colour with the LP still in the inner sleeve!

  • Up Next: Number Eight!

Thomas Dolby – The Flat Earth (1984)

 Capitol Records ■ ST-12309

Released February, 1984

Produced by Thomas Dolby
Engineered by Dan Lacksman
Mixed by Mike Shipley (“Hyperactive!” mixed by Alan Douglas)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Dissidents
  2. The Flat Earth
  3. Screen Kiss
  1. White City
  2. Mulu the Rain Forest
  3. I Scare Myself
  4. Hyperactive!

Oddly, I’d never really heard “She Blinded Me with Science”, nor have I (really) even now, though it was a big hit in the decade I’ve spent my life unabashedly enjoying the resulting pop music from. I bought this LP as well as the Blinded by Science 12″ EP/mini-album simply because I saw them for a low enough price. I’m honestly not sure at this point if they pre-dated or followed my father stuffing a copy of 1992’s Astronauts and Heretics on CD into my hand while visiting a used music store. It’s entirely possible they followed it–“I Love You Goodbye” is a stupendous song, on a really great album. I’d still only heard the clips of that biggest of singles though, on the commercials for 80s compilations, or on any show that was referencing it as indicative of the decade.

When I had the poll up (due to the absence of votes, I simply removed it), a single vote appeared and then disappeared, for the Blinded by Science mini-album, which I decided to sit down and listen to first. While I naturally couldn’t recognize the original, I strongly suspected the version of “She Blinded Me with Science” was a 12″ extended mix, and I later confirmed it was just that. Those things are difficult to pull off and it rarely happened with much success. The hooks are either beaten into the ground or so severely cropped or inverted as to become thoroughly un-catchy. This wasn’t much an exception, so I didn’t feel much like trying to write about not only a mini-album that was an attempt to capitalize on the now rather confused release history Dolby had built up (in his native U.K., The Golden Age of Wireless did not contain that enormous single, though the original U.S. did not either–it was initially released, instead, with tracks omitted and replaced with b-sides, in typical U.S. fashion for U.K. releases–though I still don’t much understand a lot of the reasons this was and is done) but one that contained one of those mixes.

So, instead, I took out The Flat Earth and decided to let a complete album (his second, left alone for its U.S. release) represent him here as I attempt to translate the disparate elements of my record collection to all souls brave enough to tromp through them.

While I truly cannot remember whether his later album or these two records entered my hands first, I can state unequivocally that I heard Astronauts and Heretics many times, and listened to neither of these more than a handful of times after purchasing them. While I wanted to hear more of this artist I’d heard good things about, the notion that this sample-heavy semi-novelty hit was what he was known for and no album names, singles, or anything else seemed to get mentioned, I didn’t have much of a hook to dive in any deeper, and guessed there was both a more “flamboyant” and a more brazenly pop bent to his earlier work that didn’t immediately encourage my explorations with any great urgency.

“Dissidents” quickly erased this notion–or at least tempered it. A semi-funky bassline from Soft Boys bassist Matthew Seligman and sharply ringing guitars from Kevin Armstrong back a pseudo-paranoid, bizarre and confused set of lyrics. Dolby’s voice is sliding and smooth in the verse, but as he sings “Hold it, wait a minute…” and backing singer Adele Bertei joins him, a tense edge and sharper, shorter syllables chop the song down rhythmically to match the interwoven sound of a mechanical typewriter. Twanging synth noises sound like coiled springs and keep the song wound itself, the computerized drums of Cliff Bridgen openly synthesized. It’s all weird angles and pointy bits, curious and interesting, and rather catchy (indeed, later a single!).

The title track begins the run of tracks Dolby wrote alone, which continues for almost the entirety of the album, stopped only for a single track. “The Flat Earth” was actually a solid bridge to the album that would come after follow up Aliens Ate My Buick–that second follower being Astronauts and Heretics. A number of tracks on the album marry texture and atmosphere to more clear pop song backings, and “The Flat Earth” really sets that tone. Anticipatory percussion, bass-y keys and scatters of synthetic noise propose the backdrop for the thick bass tones Seligman begins to build with Bridgen’s percussive tracks, Armstrong’s guitar coming out through a strangled single stroke, Dolby’s own keys (an acoustic piano) are free and light, though firm and clear by comparison to the others. It’s a full minute and a half of introduction before Bertei returns with the added voice of Lesley Fairbairn, singing “Hold me, baby, love me, darling, believe me, honey…” in loops behind Dolby’s passionate lead vocal, which clings less firmly to the rhythm of the track, spreading across it as the words and performance dictate instead. The song takes off down its own organic path, determined largely by the contrast between Seligman’s rubbery bassline and Dolby’s sadness-tinged piano, coming out something like a successful melding of soul ballad and dance track in a very strange way–perfectly realized by the way Dolby’s voice progresses down through the line “And maybe why for me the earth is flat…” which drops downward on the latter half, but plateaus and rescues the line from being maudlin. Honestly, this may easily be my favourite track on the album. The underlying vibraphone-style percussion rounds and smooths it all out in a wonderful way that expands the whole thing past even that bass-y nudge toward movement and the piano and vocal movement toward melancholy.

“Screen Kiss”, appropriate to its lyrical content, does not attempt to “rescue” itself from the tone “Flat Earth” seems to pull up from at the last moment. There’s a nostalgic sort of sense to it, but it all leads somewhat inexorably toward sadness, dreams and plans dashed and lost, but not at any great speed so much as slowly leeched away. Seligman hits those piercingly bright, high notes on bass that seem to elicit the sense of a film “jazz club”–the vocal kind, and the kind not overly familiar with jazz. Guitar and synths wax and wane over the track, all acting as a sort of smooth but internally marbled surface over which Dolby lays his ever-intense vocalization–never so much melodramatic as intent. The song fades on a fuzz of overlapping recordings of women speaking and a heartbeat, dissipating as it does so fade.

Having left the first side with a mere three tracks, the second opens with the dramatic burblings of “White City” which rapidly turn to the pounding rhythms and sharp tones indicative of much of the new wave’s more popular and familiar segments, layered with a sort of sci-fi synth line. An interesting fade carries off briefly before Dolby opens the verse, thick bottom end moving the song forward at a pace that feels fast after the first half, but is also noticeably deliberate. Seligman manages some great touches here and there, little fills from the bass. Dolby is less commanding of attention with his voice, the implied drug-fueled fantasy and personal isolation matched by that lockstep marching of coke-fueled energy the song conveys. Seligman’s former bandmate Robyn Hitchcock appears, though, and begins to ramble madly, though in his inimitable style, quietly rumbling along beneath the track, left as the only thing to accompany a sustained note from synthesized strings.

Unusual and unique for the album–if not in general–“Mulu the Rain Forest” elicits the tone it aims to immediately. A synthesized melody is backed by insects chirping and joined by hand-drumming and the kind of woodwinds so readily associated with rainforests (accurately or not). It’s lush though it is spare, carrying a sort of jungle-esque mugginess in its lethargy, thick with only quiet noises and the silent spaces somehow. It’s all atmosphere, a track added up from a clear lead vocal and backing music that never seems interested into building itself into a distinctly recognizable tune or melody, nor even establishing a clear rhythm–in the sense that ambient music does, I mean. It’s fascinating, and starts to dig itself in more thoroughly toward the end, when a synthesizer begins to contribute more concrete melodic lines to back the spasms of Seligman’s bass playing warps.

“I Scare Myself” is the lone exception on the album to Dolby’s writing credits–Armstrong and Seligman co-wrote the music to “Dissdents” with him, but the rest of the album was his. Dan Hicks’ song, though, is pure cover. Like “Dissidents” and closer “Hyperactive!” it did see a single release. Something like a Central or South American flavour (toward the salsa end of things) composes the backing track’s guitar flourishes and thrumming bass, a drumstick against a snare rim acting as much of the rhythmic accent. There’s a shot of tension running through Dolby’s piano that contradicts the clean and comfortable instruments around him. Appropriate, perhaps, in that he scares himself, I suppose! Armstrong also throws in a muted trumpet that crests the track as it builds into a more rapid pace and a more full composition that is left to fade off, never released from its underlying tensions.

I often confused myself reading the title of Dolby’s major single from the album (major in his homeland, anyway), “Hyperactive!” I often find myself thinking, instead, of Robert Palmer’s shockingly non-single track from 1985’s Riptide of the same name (sans punctuation), which has been a long time favourite anyway. This one, though, is built on a trombone lick from Peter Thoms, which drones out bemusedly behind Dolby’s duet with the returned Adele Bertei. It nudges back more toward the sensibilities of “Dissidents” than anything else, rhythmic and energetic after the relaxed tones of the tracks that come between (barring “White City”, anyway). It’s catchy and somewhat peculiar, paranoid and kinetic. It’s a strange sort of song, yet understable as a single. Bertei carries the song on to its outro describing the rather complete set of circumstances under which Dolby is “hyperactive”.

Finding that some of the album reminded me of the (admittedly later) Astronauts and Heretics and particularly the parts about it I enjoyed, as well as the discovery that the more uptempo songs were rather off-kilter was a pleasant surprise. I’m inclined to look further into the man’s work for certain, and will need to track down a more reasonably tracklisted version of his debut–one that doesn’t jam itself up with all those U.S. label modifications.

Dolby’s a fascinating character outside his music, as a sidebar–he’s involved in plenty of synthetic music creation, up to and including a rendering of Nokia’s cell ringtone, as well as the tech side and creations therein, even giving TED talks, sometimes. His name, of course, is not indicative of a connection to the audio company responsible for many audio standards, though it did result in some minor legal knots between them–it’s not even his real name, which is Robertson.

In any case, so long as you don’t have that immediate allergy some do to electronic-based pop music, this is a really great record, I’ve found. Interesting as a curious exception to a lot of standing rules of the sounds that surround it, rather than being just a strong example of them.

Depeche Mode – Some Great Reward (1984)

Sire Records ■ 9 25194-1

Released September 24, 1984

Produced by Daniel Miller, Depeche Mode, and Gareth Jones
Additional Engineering by Ben Ward, Stefi Marcus, Colin McMahon

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Something to Do
  2. Lie to Me
  3. People Are People
  4. It Doesn’t Matter
  5. Stories of Old
  1. Somebody
  2. Master and Servant
  3. If You Want
  4. Blasphemous Rumours

In high school, I was sent–as we could now do this–“Enjoy the Silence” in trade from someone I knew at the time (previously mentioned as responsible for the purchase of another album on my behalf), but, somewhat oddly, it had little resonance with me. This is odd, of course, because I’ve had a life-long love of synthesizers and 1980s musical styles–a sort of misaligned nostalgia, I guess you might say. It’s that much more odd when one considers how many covers of Mode songs are out there,¹ including plenty by bands I liked at the time. It gets that much more odd when one includes the fact of my rather bizarre–embarrassing, no doubt, if I were anyone but me–love of the Erasure song “Always”, established many years prior when I was all of ten or eleven years of age (I only bought I Say I Say I Say last year, despite spending every trip to a used record store in those days looking for it, simply because of that song).  If that means nothing to you: Depeche Mode’s original leader was Vince Clarke, who left after Speak and Spell to form, well, Erasure (okay, after a few other bands, but, still…)

Covers would of course flit by–particularly Rammstein’s version of “Stripped” (which omitted the last four words of the chorus’s titular refrain) and A Perfect Circle’s nearly unrecognizable version of “People Are People”. Bands I’ve loved for years–Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral was one of the first albums I ever relentlessly pursued–would mention them as an influence, and the name continued to filter down, but I didn’t recall a single song I’d ever heard, beyond the rather glossed over single listen to “Enjoy the Silence” as I was directed to it–heck, might’ve been one of the 24+ versions of the song that the Mode have released over the years, and not the original album or single mixes.

It was during one of my most adventurous musical phases that a fancy version of a DM album appeared in front of me and I decided to gamble on it all–1986’s Black Celebration, which was packaged with a short DVD documentary and DVD-A of both the album and a few associated tracks, most importantly including the rather unusual (for them) non-album single “Shake the Disease”. That was the song that finally clicked with me–and the album followed not far behind, and then so did the rest, and the remixes and b-sides, and all sorts of other madness, eventually leading to the more casual but deliberate purchase of Some Great Reward on vinyl, no more than a year and a half ago.

“Something to Do” makes it immediately apparent that this was an electronically driven band–all synths, drum machines, keys–and one oriented, as often happens with that make up, on beat and “danceability”. I’m not a dancer–not even in the “go out to a club” sense, so it may only be theoretical, but it’s definitely at least that. Strange sounds actually precede the track proper: weird burblings that turn to a nervy, deep beat. Dave Gahan’s voice is a smoother sound over it, though it has the slightest cracks of desperate tension in it. Martin Gore’s backing vocals are rapid and even more openly cracking–the song focused on boredom with sexual undertones, but a big hint of quiet desperation of a kind (“I can’t stand another drink/It’s surprising this town/Doesn’t sink[…]Your pretty little dress is oil stained/From working too hard/For too little”). There is a peculiar bridge of flattened horn sounds that, if they had been untouched, would’ve seemed quite incongruous, yet the flattening of their sound works them in perfectly to the rather frenetic opener.

The beginning of “Lie to Me” is a bit more refined, a mix of unusual sounds that form a melody and texture that is built on a distinct beat but works more toward the atmosphere than the beat. It’s a peculiar layering of airy hisses and repetitive keyboard lines. It’s typical Mode in many senses: vaguely dark, vaguely sexual, but reliably comfortable in themselves for this, while also avoiding any extreme movements in either direction to really push away those who would not be drawn to either (or both, especially in combination). Martin’s backing vocals are somewhat harmonized and lay in the song easily but without disappearing completely into the frame of it all. It’s largely his voice that drew me to the band via “Shake the Disease”. He has a very tremulous quaver in his rather high voice that just exudes a kind of sincere vulnerability, put to even greater effect as a lead on appropriate songs (one of which appears on this very album!).

Almost guaranteed the most famous song on the album (though actually one of three singles released from it), “People Are People” is one of the first Depeche Mode songs I ever knew, though I knew it in a severely altered cover form, as mentioned previously. While Martin is credited with writing it, he’s been known to make clear his disinterest in it at this point–allegedly suggesting it was a bit too “on point” for him, and devoid of ambiguity. It’s a mess of peculiar, metallic sounds–many the kind that would later be identified by much of the public with “industrial music” (though typically this was a reference to early industrial metal, like Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, rather than the more difficult and bizarre work of, say, Throbbing Gristle). Gahan’s vocal is frustrated and accusatory–appropriate in a song that’s based on what is indeed a very clear message: “People are people so why should it be/You and I should get along so awfully”. Gore’s voice, again, is the hook for my ears–be that odd or expected. His voice is, like many times it appears in their career, recorded in a fashion that gives it a few peculiar qualities; there’s a sort of closeness to his voice, and there’s a kind of clarity that is absent in Dave’s singing, though it’s not something that would fit with or make sense for his voice. It’s a deserving hit all the same, and may be a solid reference point for anyone who is a bit of a Depeche Mode neophyte (even moreso, that is, than  myself).

Gore has not often been inclined to write terribly happy songs and has admitted this himself–and, in truth, “It Doesn’t Matter” is tinged with darker edges, but it’s largely hopeful, thoughtful, peaceful and happy. He sings the lead on it, in fact singing it alone. The music is heavy on electronic sounds–the sort of dancing electronic chimes that have been used with early CGI² to represent the relaxed atmosphere of brightly coloured aquatic life. It’s a bit like bubbling, which is why I think it was used that way–but there’s this sort of flat horn that honks its way in at the end of some of Martin’s lines and is like an elbow nudged at the ribs to grab your attention, point it toward something–though I’m not sure what exactly. It’s as if to imply the semi-broken nature of Martin’s happy thoughts: he is thankful for someone who is not quite there, thoughts he finds embarrassing. It’s a sweet song, which is intentionally “marred” by that noise, it seems, to toughen the mushiest bits, perhaps.

In completely the opposite direction, we find “Stories of Old” and one of Dave’s most appealing vocals. Musically somewhat “mysterious” and sparse at open, it adds peculiar layers of keyboard, non-verbal backing vocals and synthetic horn stings. Gahan describes a positive desire, and the “stories of old” that describe abandoning the gains of single lives for love–and then immediately stamps out the idea of replicating them, suggesting neither he nor the person he sings to is or should be moving toward such a compromise. It’s most evident in the first lines, which reappear throughout, punctuated with the horn stings, and twisted into sharp and rhythmic endings by Dave’s own voice: “Take a look at unselected cases/You’ll find love has been–wrecked.”

Interestingly, they couched Gore’s most romantically dismissive song between “It Doesn’t Matter” on the one side, and “Somebody” on the other–while both are twisted at their ends to admissions of embarrassment and self-critical eye-rolling at their very notions, their sincerity isn’t questioned even then. “Somebody” is the most acoustic of tracks–Gore sings alone to piano (which, I have to add, he apparently played naked in the studio for that extra touch of vulnerability). While the prior two tracks suggested a relationship that hasn’t blossomed (and might never), and one that was being stopped from doing so, this one is about an ideal relationship–an honest and open description of selfish desires, but manifested in a rather appealingly symbiotic and even relationship. That thing I mentioned before about Gore’s voice being vulnerable? It makes it perfect–while he wrote eight of the nine songs on the album, he clearly does not sing them all, and this helps to both clarify why he sings the ones he does and emphasize that differing vocal quality. There’s a clever addition (it’s apparently an unstated fact that most “clever additions” to Depeche Mode songs are the fault of Alan Wilder, until, of course, he left the band) in the form of sampled street noise that hovers around the track–I forget if they layered it in in the studio or recorded it “live”, but it places Gore in a real context as he sings, until it slowly transforms into an overpowering heartbeat instead: as if to say, he expressed these thoughts from the midst of the rest of humanity, but it’s an intensely personal set of thoughts–at least, that’s what I hear, in my strange little way.

The second single from the album, “Master and Servant” is endearing and “cute” as a song can be when its subject matter is pretty explicitly BDSM (I suppose you might have guessed that from the title–else you likely have no idea what those letters are, I’ll guess). The strange vocals that open it sound as if they are sped up samples of vocal tracks that appear later in the song, but here alternate high and low: “It’s a lot/It’s a lot/It’s a lot/It’s a lot/It’s a lot…like life”. Faked whip sounds (apparently just Wilder hissing and spitting!) and metallic clangs bring the song into the same sonic arena as “Something to Do”, but with a darker edge–though a “darkness” and “edge” that remain thoroughly unthreatening. The boys sound very much as though they are somewhat new to the idea of dominance and submission, but manage to convey it reasonably well (he said, as a non-practitioner, but one who has known some), both avoiding any false sugar-coating and any fear-mongering. Gore even works in a lyric that associates it with the perversely (ahem) inverted dynamic of control through voluntary loss of control, and the contrast this has with the unavoidable submission of most lives to the demands of society (if not accurate, certainly a reasonable understanding of the appeal). I will say the single never made much sense to me–perhaps because it holds neither taboo nor personal appeal for me, or perhaps because the chorus has always struck me as just slightly awkward. Of course, the production work behind the track makes this something totally unimportant–just a strange choice for a single.

The only song not credited to Gore, Wilder’s “If You Want” is crawling and odd, if only in the context of Gore’s songs. It’s still thoroughly accessible and appealing, but its usage of keys is strangely buzzing and hazy. It’s something like a mix of darkened, foggy moors and semi-campy (though serious) mysterious tones. It gains a beat shortly, and works it into that atmosphere, shedding a lot of the peculiarities and fitting more completely in with all of the previous songs more readily. It’s actually one of the few tracks that might place music ahead of lyrics and vocals–maybe that’s something to do with Wilder’s influence, as he is known to have been far more invested in the production angles of the group’s sound, and is given credit for much of what made them most popular in their heyday. Or, perhaps it was just a choice for the track!

The last song on the album was also the third and final single for the album: “Blasphemous Rumours”. It’s significantly longer than any of the others (over six minutes) and runs through more serious changes–or at least a greater number of them–than any of the others. As it starts, the album version of the song is subdued keys and a light melody, enhanced by another “industrial” beat, then expanded with a synthetic bassline. Rolling metal clatter adds a splash of chaos. Gahan’s vocals are vaguely sardonic, speaking of a girl who attempts suicide, and the reactions of her mother when the attempt fails–if any of the other tracks on the album could be called dark, then this is pitch black. Of course, it’s black humour (or at least bitter cynicism), which the chorus makes clear: “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours/But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour/And when I die/I expect to find Him laughing…” It’s a strangely cheerful, catchy, poppy chorus, and it balances well with the darkness of the verses. If you don’t hear the words, it might sound an awful lot like a general 80s synthpop tune, perhaps one tacked onto closing credits of a movie from the same time frame. While lyrics are often not something that factors into my understanding of or appreciation of a song, it’s not an impossibility, and this is definitely an instance in which it does so quite readily–it’s clever, and it works very well.

This was only Depeche Mode’s third album, the first being the one previously mentioned as being written largely by the now-absent Vince Clarke, and the follow up A Broken Frame being considered a bit of a stumble as the remaining members found their feet. Some Great Reward functions very much as a progression along the way toward future monsters like Violator or Music for the Masses, as it still has the relative limitations of the band’s early work, while Gore has gained leaps and bounds at songwriting, and the sound of the band has become established; in many ways, this is sort of like the “real” beginning of the band (a sentiment I think the band itself has expressed, in fact). Depending on your taste, this might be the first or last place to start–Gahan and Gore both have strong voices that don’t date the material overmuch, but the electronic instrumentation definitely gives it a clear time of origin, and it does take a good listen to get past that, if it is the kind of thing you find offputting–and, in truth, that’s exactly the attitude I intend to spread: avoid leaping too quickly from that first impression, particularly if something is recommended. Someone has seen something interesting there–it may be worth a bit of a dig to find.

  • Next Up: Diabolical Masquerade – Death’s Design

¹There are two hundred and sixty-eight established covers of “Enjoy the Silence” alone. Polish death metal band Vader covered “I Feel You”–yes, the band whose leader produced Decapitated’s Winds of Creation. The Cure has covered “World in My Eyes”, and just to be ridiculous, their own song “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” was covered by Deftones, who covered Depeche Mode’s “To Have and to Hold” on the same tribute album The Cure’s cover appeared on. Heck, that album also contains the Smashing Pumpkins’ cover of “Never Let Me Down Again” (which later appeared on a soundtrack alongside Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland’s cover of “But Not Tonight”). Tangerine Dream (!) covered “Precious”. Rammstein covered “Stripped” (which was remixed enough times it might be mistaken for an actual Mode track). Jimmy Somerville of Bronski Beat covered “But Not Tonight”. Swedish melodeath co-forefathers (alongside At the Gates and Dark Tranquility) covered “Everything Counts”. Converge (!!) covered “Clean”. Honestly, there’s a whole website databasing these covers.

²I’m not going to claim the mental images I have will–or even could–make sense to other people, but it’s the immediate impression I get.

Day Twenty-Eight: Bronski Beat – The Age of Consent

Columbia Records ■ PC 37062

Released December, 1984
Produced by Mike Thorne

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Why?
  2. It Ain’t Necessarily So
  3. Screaming
  4. No More War
  5. Love and Money
  1. Smalltown Boy
  2. Heatwave
  3. Junk
  4. Need a Man Blues
  5. I Feel Love/Johnny Remember Me

I stumbled into this album for the oddest of reasons. I grew up hearing it on occasion, but was often exhausted by the consistent falsetto singing of Jimmy Somerville, as well as a feeling of a sort of camp that inherently bugged me–to be fair, this also bugged me about parts of Nick Lowe’s Party of One, which my brain has always told me I heard around the same time (along with a few other albums that are all blended in my head from when I was rather young). I can’t tell you exactly why all that is, but it did leave me to ignore the band quite a long time. It was through a link to a list of gay anthems on a forum somewhere that, the name ringing a bell and the context I gained the link from encouraging it, I went and looked up “Smalltown Boy”. I was immediately struck by how familiar I was with the song and wondered why it was I had avoided them so intently: clearly, this was exactly who I thought, as Somerville’s voice is not exactly one you’d mistake for any others. So, off I went to find the album. It was being reissued around that time (on CD, I mean) so I skipped a CD copy I ran into, then couldn’t find it again. While waiting for another to arrive (the reissue was by Edsel/Demon, which means it is highly unlikely to show up here in the States), I picked it up on LP instead when I found a copy.

The album was a hit, of course, mostly riding on the success of the same single I myself recalled so well. It was also the only album from Bronski Beat to feature Somerville on vocals, as he left the band not long after its release. The follow-up album (not counting the compilation/remix album Hundreds & Thousands), Truthdare Doubledare, instead featured vocalist John Jon (aka John Foster), though this lineup didn’t last much longer and also only released the single album.

The album opens with a song that became another single for the group, “Why?” Immediately, we’re faced with the sound that defines the most popular phase of Bronski Beat’s existence: the voice of Jimmy Somerville, not just a falsetto, but a very high and strong one. Completely a cappella, Jimmy sings “Tell me why? Tell me why?” and the sound of glass breaking brings in his bandmates, Steve Bronski (aka Steven Forrest) and Larry Steinbachek, both operating on purely electronic means. A pulsing beat (four-on-the-floor bass kicks and alternating snare hits) and a buzzing electronic melody, occasionally accented by the help of the Uptown Horns. Jimmy questions homophobic behaviour in response to his own natural expressions of love–the source of the song’s central question. “You and me together, fighting for our love” Jimmy eventually sings over a rapid synthetic bassline.

One of the pair of covers on the album follows, the Gershwin song “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy and Bess. A synthesized bass drops the song down to the clarinet solo from Arno Hecht of the Uptown Horns, and an organ-esque line fills the backing of a relaxed, smoky track. Scatting from Jimmy begins the vocals, as the swinging chorus starts the song. Jimmy gets to play with his voice a bit more in the song, often adding quite a few notes and syllables to just “so” when it ends the lines of the chorus. At the second verse, about Jonah and the whale, he is joined by the Pink Singers for a bit, emphasizing the theatrical origins of the song, though the choir practically overwhelms him. A bit of a solo from the keys is backed by both synthesized strings and real ones–the cellos of Beverly Lauridsen, Jesse Levy, and Mark Shuman. In the next verse, about Moses, the Pink Singers instead hum behind Jimmy, and then join in with him on the chorus, giving a lot of force to the central idea. Originally, the song is used as a hint about the state of racial stratification of society (as the song is copyrighted to 1935), but here is used for similar but different reasons: to hint that maybe, perhaps, “Things that you’re liable/To read in the Bible/It ain’t necessarily so…” with a pretty clear idea of what they are referring to.

Originally a poem and eventually their first song, “Screaming” opens with an echoed drum hit and then a very low-end, slow, dark beat. The origin of the lyrics as non-musical poetry is rather apparent: “My man love my first love/My closetness and pain/My closetness and pain/My lying my deceiving…” The low synthesized lines, very ominous and long-held, are accented by periodic interruptions of higher pitched piano-styled keys and periodic splatters of noisy clatter–echoing drums, and the rumble and rattle of less distinctly musical natures. The song begins to build together, filling what were spacious moments, until Jimmy’s voice rises as high as it goes, passionately expressing his pain and frustration with how he has been forced to live life and survive in a society that does not readily accept him.

While the album is known primarily for its gay themes (the original release contained an etching in the dead space of a phone number for support and information for the gay community in the UK, my own US release has the National Gay Task Force number printed on the inner sleeve, under the ages of consent for homosexual men for various countries–emphasizing the UK’s exceptionally high 21, as compared to almost every other country), Jimmy was not strictly limited to those in his lyrical choices. It’s not difficult to guess what “No More War” is about, and it’s also not too surprising that an inevitably sincere sentiment remains sweetly optimistic and vaguely naïve–at least, with respect to the idea of it occurring. Naturally, though, this isn’t a release from the darker, more somber backings that Steinbachek and Bronski put behind “Screaming”, as this is a distinctly mournful song: low on energy, but heavy with oppressive low-end sound. Jimmy again uses free moments to really stretch his falsetto out and express his feelings for the choices humanity makes–war over the hungry. Skittering noise filters in to the song over his voice and it closes without resolution, as is inescapable in context.

Continuing to explore other dark and more broad themes, “Love and Money” again avoids subtlety in its name and content. A bit more uptempo from the prior tracks, Steinbachek and Bronski work in a similarly bassy track, but one that has synthesized strings to add a brighter strain. Cris Cioe contributes an alto sax solo midway through, with congas from John Folarin hiding in the background. The song is less broken in its hurt than previously, more cynically despairing–absent of hope, resigned to the strength of money as motivator, and its ties to love and lust. Cioe has control of much of the track, even as he and Jimmy trade vocal acrobatics for saxophone heroics.

The up-down, up-down beat that opens “Smalltown Boy” is dark, but has a light, warm synthetic line behind it. But that signature melody, a sort of harp-like synthesizer finally establishes the real tone, sad, lost, and alone. Even as an uptempo drumbeat enters, paired with a higher pitched version of the original low melody, this tone isn’t lost as we’ve had it established so firmly, but it certainly leaves the track far more danceable (if you’re that way inclined). Jimmy sings no words, just ethereal sounds of cooled pain. The hook returns, now over the drumbeat, and is cut short for Jimmy to begin to the story: “You leave in the morning/With everything you own/In a little black case…” While still using his falsetto, he brings a palpable sadness to these lines, the kind that comes from turning sadly away from home that stays home, even if it was never comfortable or perfectly happy. Backed rather than overpowered for the chorus, “Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away…” there’s no sense of urgency, or of command or directive, just the sense that this is the conclusion to be drawn, the action to be taken–or rather, that was taken–when parents don’t understand, and abuse from the community makes the whole town impossible. A much brighter, rhythmic melody breaks the sadness for just a moment before the hook brings us back. Shortly after it does, Jimmy repeats the original verse and brings more loss and mourning to the final line. A sort of solo–synthesized–follows as the chorus repeats and fades.

One of the few truly cheerful songs on the album, “Heatwave” is more relaxed in subject matter–it’s about an oncoming heatwave, and that which is associated (including “Tattoos and muscles passion and sweat”). Thudding along as it comes in, there’s a great hook that is kind of like a more square, electronic, piccolo of some sort–synthesized of course, but nothing lost (only gained!) from that. There’s the sound of snapping (played on keyboard!) backing it, and it’s almost as if they are again covering another elder musical track, but it’s an original. Of course, the theatricality is returned by a second rhythmic choice to accompany the snapping: a constant sort of tappedy-tap is none other than just that–the tap shoes of Caroline O’Connor. It’s a clever trick that fits perfectly with the feel of the song. And the crescendo of Jimmy’s voice on the jumping rhythm of the song’s title is something to behold, especially in its smooth clarity. Another standout, even if little could touch “Smalltown Boy”.

Unsurprisingly, Jimmy returns to darker subject matter with “Junk”, which Steinbachek and Bronski open with a faux guitar line that strikes downward in an appealing, catchy sort of way, the rhythm pounded out in the midrange on comfortably electronic keys. Much more surprisingly, Somerville exits his falsetto for the verses of the song, and even the (excellent) chorus. Moments of nonverbal melody do place him back in it, but largely the song is in his normal voice. The rhythm of the chorus, though it can obscure the lyrics, is catchy as all heck: “Eat what you’re given/Eat what you get”, though the song remains relatively oriented toward the darker side of things, describing someone attempting to avoid the “junk” of life–seemingly melding drugs with the dross of popular culture, unwanted but inescapable, and desired anyway. Briefly sampled is a Kibbles ‘n’ Bits commercial, which got them less in trouble with the dog food company than it did the actor who recorded the bit. It emphasizes the relentless commercial nature of US culture in particular, and the junk littering segments of it.

Perhaps most obvious in intent, though more in line with popular kinds of songs (despite the singer’s sex and orientation), “Need a Man Blues” is another of the less generally depressing songs on the album. It’s more personal, in its relation to something that–somewhat paraxodically–most of us experiences: the desire to find love, and sometimes, to just find any love at all, and the intensity of that desire when none is present. The beat is one of the most attractive of the album, with the semi-shuffle of it making it closer to the kind of beat-dominant music from which some of their sound originated: the Hi-NRG modifications of disco, either genre often sounding more like a person singing over a piece of music than as part of it. The thick, fat synthesized bassline of much mid-80s synthpop even appears partway through, competing in volume against Jimmy’s more seemingly-improvisational vocal lines. The end of the rhythm loop in particular captures a sound that I’ve always quite liked: a sort of clapping sound, though, in truth, sounding nothing like hands–more like something inorganic being clapped together. It made a brief appearance, in fact, in my own (abysmal) flirtations with creating electronic music.

The closer for the album is its “epic” track: a cover of Donna Summer’s classic “I Feel Love” (co-written with synth-player and disco producer Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte), which pounds along in the style that became Hi-NRG (at first a derivative of disco, but eventually its own genre, less eccentrically named just “hi-energy” in places other than the US), thumping along in that style I mentioned for the last track: Jimmy and the Pink Singers sing more over the music than as part of it, as they hold notes and maintain a more subdued composure to their vocal than the insistent beat would suggest they might. Briefly interrupting it though it isn’t immediately apparent as “interruption”, is actually a bit derived from John Leyton and the Outlaws ’61 UK hit “Johnny Remember Me”, one of those many songs about dead lovers and remembering them, but one with a guitar that actually gives it country inflections. Curiously appearing here in the midst of a disco hit, reclaiming the song in spite of the (alleged, long denied) homphobic comments of the recently born-again Summers.

While their hit with John (“Hit That Perfect Beat”) is quite engaging and good, the heavy political elements of the Somerville-incarnation of Bronski Beat remain in popular (and my personal) opinion the height for the group. Even when not being explicitly political, comfortably and non-defensively expressing Jimmy’s (and, by proxy, to some extent, the group’s collective) romantic and sexual desires plopped homosexual-written-and-performed music right in everyone’s collective faces and made no apologies, excuses, or elaborate dodges about it. It was just there, right in a hit album. When Jimmy sang his “Need a Man Blues”, it wasn’t “look at me! I want a man!” it was just openly expressing that, well–he did. It was suggested that they felt that it was the equivalent of the way heterosexuality was “rammed down their throats”, so to speak, in the way that many whinge about the LGBT movement doing to this day–which gets into a lot of social discussion that isn’t the purview of this particular blog. My feelings, I think, are readily apparent, so I don’t move away from this as a shield to protect my (non-existent) readership and avoid social politics, so much as a recognition that this is about music–and I’ve addressed how this album is tied into things outside just music. No need to go too much further.

In any case, at the least, do not be foolish and miss out on “Smalltown Boy” (and, preferrably, also “Heatwave”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, “Why?”, and “Junk”, with an extra spot for “Screaming” if you want a more beat-esque, stream-of-consciousness-like expression of the sentiments that are most iconic in the album).

  • Next Up: Brother Ali – Mourning in America and Dreaming in Colour