Mazzy Star – So Tonight That I Might See (1993)
Mazzy Star are one of those bands that have a shadowy little corner of music history all to themselves. I imagine they’re still recruiting fans with their slow, sexy, scuzzed-up sound. They were never a popular band as such, but they were a serious cult band. And those bands just keep growing in status long after their official life is over. They were a little bit Velvet Underground, a little bit country, a little bit bluesy, a little bit folkie, a little bit gothic, a little bit psychedelic. But they blurred it all in to their own mix with songs of defeat and regret. They sounded loose and sad and listless and scarred. They sounded dreamily distant yet nakedly intimate. Out on the horizon, and under the bed-sheets. They sounded depressed but full of love. And it seemed perfectly fitting the singers name should be Hope. Because Hope Sandoval was the perfect siren for these songs—all she needed was a tambourine and a whisper, and you were hypnotised. And David Roback had the perfect plaintive guitar style. It was a seamless blend that chased away the light and revelled in the darkness that housed songs like: “Mary of Silence”, “Five String Serenade” and “Blue Light”. They enjoyed some success with the single “Fade Into You”, and it’s a great opener and sets the tone for the rest of the album—sleepy and stark and dusty and droney. And their shy influence is still recognisable in the music of Cat Power, Smog, Feist, Sparklehorse, and many other contemporary folkies, downtempo electronica and lo-fi indie rockers. Their albums are still great to listen to because their playing was timeless and seemed to exist outside the grunge parameters of the early 90s. They may have used feedback and distorted guitars, but in a totally different way to, say, Sonic Youth or Pearl Jam. And yet it was an album you frequently spotted in the collections of many grunge fans. Who would’ve thought that sunny California could produce a band that solemnly serenaded late night excursions into the jet-black void?
William Orbit – Hello Waveforms (2006)
I’m not a real big Madonna fan, and one of William Orbit’s big claims to fame is his involvement with her acclaimed 1998 album Ray of Light. And long before that, he was quietly producing a series of albums that were plotting icy courses through the techno-whiteout of minimal 80s ambient electronica. I’d never heard of him when I came across this album, but I liked the cover, so I gave it a listen. And I’m glad I did, because this album has become one of my favourites when I’m in the mood for some mood music. It reminded me of Air, in their Moon Safari era. From the first song, “Sea Green”, this album sets a tone of synthetic tranquillity and spacey ambience, which I’m a sucker for. And things just kept getting better with the delicate twinkling of “Humming Chorus” and the faux-theremin weave of “Surfin’”. By the time it got to “You Know Too Much About Flying Saucers” with its ticking starbursts of guitar and vibes trailing through a cosy cosmos, I was proclaiming this one of the best albums I’d heard in years (NB: I’m always doing that though). Then came “Spiral” with the first (and pretty much last) taste of vocals on the album. The vocals are supplied by Kenna and the Sugababes and they marry beautifully—never breaking the stride of the album. The lyrics are nothing special, but you don’t really listen to the words. When the chorus comes: ‘Nothing’s really sane but everything’s amazing’, things could be getting a bit new-agey, but when Kenna sings: ‘Oh, the ground beneath us trembles and we fall’, the melody is enough to lift you away from any silly notions like definitive meaning – who cares what they’re going on about, lets go visit Jupiter! The earthiness of hearing voices actually punctuates the album nicely in the middle, and you soon go back into orbit (I guess, literally) to enjoy the rest of the ride with the primarily instrumental “Who Owns the Octopus?”. And it’s nice to hear the odd voice (whether real or vocoder) throughout the remaining songs with “Oooh’s” and “Aaah’s” reminding you this is, and you are, still human after all.
Grace Jones – Nightclubbing (1981)
As a typical 80s kid, when I think of Grace Jones I think of the films A View to a Kill and Conan the Destroyer, and I remember thinking she was somewhere between sexy and scary. (Some 80s kids may even remember Vamp, but maybe not as many.) She was a striking presence on the screen, and she made a cool Bond villain and a cool sidekick to Arnie. But before her venture into film, she was making strides into the burgeoning disco scene in New York with albums like Portfolio (1977), Fame (1978) and Muse (1979). Despite a cult following among the gay community and the discophiles, the Jamaican model turned singer couldn’t really find a wider market for her brand of dance music. Her voice didn’t really suit straight disco. Then in 1980 she teamed up with (Island Records founder) Chris Blackwell and produced Warm Leatherette, which was a step in a new direction. Taking inspiration from New York’s new wave scene, and the flexibility of reggae, she channelled covers of songs by Roxy Music, Smokey Robinson, The Pretenders and Tom Petty with a sharp androgynous clamour that made people stop and take notice. This was weird, but kinda cool. And when she followed up with Nightclubbing, it finally showcased her strengths and skills as a vocalist and performer. This is a great record. “Walking in the Rain” comes creeping out of the silence, walking you down the dark wet streets of some desolate sci-fi burg, where people who look like Grace populate the local haunts and sell mysteries by the pound. I saw the clip of this song on Rage in the wee-hours one night, and I’ve been hooked on her music ever since. I couldn’t take my eyes or ears off her. The album is full of 80s synthesisers and robotic neo-disco beats, and its amazing how the phrasing of her deep voice sits on top and makes it all sound fresh and contemporary. The moment she sings a note – there is instant atmosphere. She leads you through these strange cyber-noir narratives like a private-dick reporting on her cases. It’s no wonder Roman Polanski used – her moody re-imagining of Ástor Piazzolla’s Argetinian classic – “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)” in the film Frantic, because it sounds like a cinematic thriller in itself. With the brave invention and impressive performances Grace Jones found a musical identity that was, and remains, completely original.
By Decoy Spoon