Music

The Blue Nile: A Walk Across the Rooftops / Hats

Heart and soul and synthesizers.


The Blue Nile

A Walk Across the Rooftops

Label: EMI
US Release date: 2013-01-22
UK Release Date: 2012-11-19
Label website
Amazon
iTunes

The Blue Nile

Hats

Label: EMI
UK Release Date: 2012-11-19
US Release Date: 2013-01-22
Label website
Amazon
iTunes

The first two Blue Nile albums have a similar haunting quality that shows no sign of becoming dated. For those of us who lived there at the time, they are also a welcome reminder that there was more to 1980s Britain than very bad haircuts and the brutally awful Thatcher government.

In the early 1980s I was burned out on listening to music, tired of the predictable format of gigs, and had sold all my records except for Slates by The Fall, The Alchemist by Home, and a box of assorted glam-rock, reggae, and pop 45s. I stopped listening to music altogether, even avoiding pubs with a jukebox unless it was half an hour until closing and there was no choice. After several months I turned the radio on one night and John Peel was playing his usual amazing high-quality variety. After a few minutes The Blue Nile's "Tinseltown in The Rain" came on and amidst the bubbling synths, funky rhythm and vivid lyrics I felt as excited as if I had been transported into the orgiastic scenes at the end of Leonard Cohen's novel Beautiful Losers.

Their album A Walk Across the Rooftops proved to be perfect for someone almost seeking to relearn the art of listening to music; perhaps because it seemed to have been made by people who were in the early stages of learning how to make miraculous music from simple building blocks. This was a necessity as none of the members were trained musicians, but the resulting album of very simple, carefully constructed compositions proved far greater than the sum of its parts. The backing to many of the songs is sparse and arguably monochrome, but the foil to this is Paul Buchanan's singing: restrained at times, yet unbridled and naked in terms of showing emotion and pain. The title track, as well as "Rags to Riches" and "Automobile Noise" perfectly contrasts that voice with a bleak, rhythmic, synthesized backdrop. "Easter Parade" has even less in it yet was picked by some as the standout track. The pleading sway of "Stay" and the balmy hum of "Heatwave" are welcome lighter pieces before the record ends back in the dazzling weariness and solemnity of "Automobile Noise".

The album was originally released by an electronics company, Linn, who formed a record company for that very purpose, and to highlight the audio quality of their equipment. It was not much of a hit, but gradually critical acclaim began to build: I'm sure I heard Phil Collins on BBC radio pick "Easter Parade" as one of his eight Desert Island discs. By the time Hats came out, in 1989, a bigger audience had slowly come into being meaning it was hugely anticipated, raved about in reviews, and it did not disappoint.

I recall reviews of Hats at the time saying that The Blue Nile had taken five years to follow up their great debut and had then done so with an album which sounded exactly like the first one! This was a good way of saying that quality control had been maintained but in fact Hats sounded richer, fuller, more layered and produced than its predecessor. To some extent that fullness can be depicted as a switch from monochrome to color - as long as we accept that the only colors which may be used are various shades of blue and black. I think there is less variety in Hats but only in the sense that, say, Astral Weeks sounds similar from one track to the next. The familiar themes of isolation, the quest for love, and the accepting and transcending of surroundings are again depicted within familiar aspects of an urban landscape such as cars, trains, lights, streets and so on.

Even the frustrations, perhaps of romance or maybe of wider permanent self-acceptance and illustrated by the lyric “Stop/Go/Stop/Go” suggest automobile traffic as much as human pedestrians. Hats sold better in the UK than A Walk... and in the US A&M records used a toll-free number in an ad to give away free copies (although presumably home-taping was still killing music). No production values could hope to distract from Buchanan's voice, though, the anguish and sadness being impossible to conceal or disguise. The album has some excellent uptempo moments such as "Headlights on The Parade" when all the yearning seems to reach a joyful crescendo of sorts, but it must be said that anyone who wants a record which provides a pretty unrelenting opportunity to really wallow in gorgeous, sublime, melancholy should dive into this one. Things arguably get a bit out of balance on "Let's Go Out Tonight" where the sluggish pace and mournfulness seem to contradict the title - and no one in their right mind would wish to go out with Buchanan in that state. He sounds morose to the point of being incapable of even getting his round in.

For all the crafted grandeur of their second album it should be said that by the end of Hats salvation appears in the form of an "ordinary girl" rather like the bird-like creature in Joyce's Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man. Someone who can "make the world alright" no superwoman or exotic creature needing to be pursued or attained, by gum.

These expanded remastered reissues include remixes, live takes, and unreleased songs on separate second discs. I am so familiar with every note on both of the original albums that the additional tracks seem superfluous, just plain wrong; or at the very least an understandably mixed bag. The group's earliest piece "I Love This Life" written in 1981 is included and a couple of b-sides "Regret" and "The Wires Are Down" from singles are included but completists will wonder why "Saddle The Horses" (the b-side of "Stay") is missing. Other non-album tracks such as "The Second Act" are interesting but one in particular "Christmas" is appalling and demonstrates just how easy it would have been for The Blue Nile to have got things badly wrong, bland, over-the-top, or as tacky as Christian Rock. Indeed, on the strength of third album Peace At Last (the title track of which is pretty magnificent in it’s own gospel-tinged way) I have avoided the fourth album High and Buchanan's solo album. I prefer to remember the superb achievement by a group of non-traditional musicians in a virtual cottage-industry setting - creating a record with the visceral thrust and enduring charm of A Walk Across The Rooftops and then managing the impossible task of following it with album just as full of heart and soul.

Some wag on youtube has matched The Blue Nile to images from Blade Runner and also from the art of Edward Hopper - both studies in urban isolation and existential loneliness. The group used synthesizers for these two albums and it is easy to forget a time when these were viewed as showing android/machine/human boundaries and values or as a prediction of a future music without guitars or musical expertise. Judge for yourself where the musical future has gone in the past two decades but on the basis of these records The Blue Nile can never be accused of lacking either feeling or expertise.

9

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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