[23 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
After William Orbit released four albums with the name Strange Cargo in the title (the fourth one had the subtitle of Hinterland), he released a compilation of highlights from the series simply called The Best of Strange Cargos. This seemed like a pretty good indication that the producer/electronic musician was putting a lid on that box for good. Then, out of nowhere, comes Strange Cargo 5. And when I say out of nowhere, I’m not being all that abstract about it. Release details about Strange Cargo 5 are hard to come by on the internet. I sent a message to Orbit’s management, hoping they could shed some light on the subject. I got a response from Orbit himself simply telling me that Strange Cargo 5 had no label or release date. “I just put it all on SoundCloud,” he wrote. He then waxed poetic: “These are labours of love. Obsessions even. No labels involved, free of shackles, a few drops in an ocean of music, to drift and diffuse in the currents. Or to vaporise, or to sink into the deep. Or even quench the thirst of a passing sea-being.”
In other words, Strange Cargo 5 is one of those rare releases made for art’s sake. It is designed to float through your speakers and/or earbuds completely free of expectations, be they commercial, critical, or personal (especially commercial since, as of this writing, you can download all of the tracks individually from SoundCloud). But you shouldn’t go into this thinking that Strange Cargo 5 is strictly an arty release and nothing else. It’s still as warm and engaging as electronic music can be these days, maybe even more so. Among Orbit’s many knacks, one of which is bringing out the best in Madonna, is nailing down the perfect timbre per each keyboard sound. With each layered track, the effect is optimal. William Orbit can inject soul and feelings into a series (or parallels) of machines. It’s as difficult to explain as it is to deny.
He continues to surround himself with a revolving door of the usual suspects, encouraging contributions from Rico Conning, Steve Sidelnyk, Beth Orton, and Pete Callard in co-writing and performance. Other guests include electronic duo Younger Brother and Sonia Slany, Jocelyn Pook, and Caroline Lavelle of the Elektra strings. He even samples some Vincenzo Bellini for good measure on “My Friend Morpheus”. But even with all of this additional help included, William Orbit’s musical identity shines through as brightly as it ever did on any given previous release. If you already have a favorite Strange Cargo, you had better make room for this one in your life.
The moods may get juggled, but the magnetic pull remains just the same. Opener “On Wings” is pure euphoric synth rush, but it’s soon followed by “Big Country”, which is uncharacteristically framed by a mid-tempo acoustic guitar. “Just a Night or Two” rides on what are presumably chunky power chords on an electric guitar and a densely strummed acoustic. Even the bass plays a conventional role, as if Orbit were leading a rock band. “I Paint What I See” takes the trip-hop route, thanks in no small part to Beth Orton’s moody spoken-word performance. After “NE1” plays the minimal card, you may wonder if Orbit will return the album to the dancefloor from which it began. Then—bam!—that’s when he does it with “Large Hadron Love Collider” and “Lode Star”.
Strange Cargo 5 also has its drop-everything-and-just-float moments. The most striking one is “Milky Way Station”. Not only is the arpeggiating figure hypnotic in its own right, but Orbit manages to play it in every key according to the western scale. After the motif plays for eight bars it moves up a fifth (or down a fourth, whichever the case may be), thereby making these shifts sound more natural.
With Strange Cargo 5 William Orbit may inadvertently turn himself into a musical jack-of-all-trades. The electronic elements are not the only strength on display, even if that is one of Orbit’s great talents. “Big Country”, “Just a Night or Two”, and the melancholy “Willow” depict a man who can think widely outside of the synth box with strings and guitars aplenty. And if we are going to bridge the organic and electronic music worlds, let’s make sure we have a guy like him helping to lead the way.