Music

Dave Gahan: Hourglass

Photo: Anton Corbijn

Hourglass isn't a perfect album by any means, but it's got enough really good stuff on it to make your overlook the not-so-good.


Dave Gahan

Hourglass

Label: Mute
US Release Date: 2007-10-23
UK Release Date: 2007-10-22
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Depeche Mode never really seem to get the respect they deserve. They've been around as long as U2 and have sold a sizeable amount of records, and are one of the few rock combos from any era who have managed to maintain a steady level of international acclaim and popularity through almost three full decades. Why aren't they in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

But that's neither here nor there for the matter at hand. For those of you who may have missed it, Depeche Mode are still a going concern. 2005's Playing the Angel may not have been Violator, but it was by all accounts a much more vigorous release than their previous, decrepit outing, 2001's Exciter (anything but!). After almost fading away into a long twilight of hostile recriminations (not to mention the small matter of Gahan dying of a heroin overdose back in the '90s, only to be resurrected by paramedics after two minutes), they managed to heal their wounds, mend their fences and come back as a strong, stable and cohesive unit.

But this isn't a review of a Depeche Mode CD. This is the second solo disc from front man Dave Gahan. The existence of the disc is a miracle, not necessarily because (as I mentioned) Gahan's continued existence is a kind of miracle, but because it wasn't until Depeche Mode had already been around for over two decades that Gahan set out to write any songs. The songwriting duties in Depeche Mode have traditionally devolved solely onto Martin Gore, or at least since Vince Clarke left the group back in 1981. Gahan didn't release a solo album until 2003, Paper Monsters. The album was good, but suffered from sounding exactly as you might expect someone's first album to sound like, given the circumstances. It was very much like Gore's songwriting work for Depeche Mode, with some confessional lyrics and a bit more of a rock edge than we expect from Depeche Mode.

But it was certainly good enough to restore Gahan's confidence, and by extension, reinvigorate Depeche Mode. He had proven himself to Gore, and contributed three songs to Playing the Angel. Notably, they sounded very much like Depeche Mode songs, enough so that they released one of them ("Suffer Well") as a single, which was subsequently nominated for a Grammy. (It lost to Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack", in the category of "Best Dance Recording".)

Which brings us to Hourglass, Gahan's second solo record. If there was perhaps a desire to go "soft" on Gahan's first album, considering the extraordinary circumstances behind it's release and Gahan's unlikely creative second-wind, there is no such compulsion for Hourglass. The album should be allowed to sink or swim on its own merits, with no shred of sentiment for the ongoing Depeche Mode soap opera influencing the critic's opinion. Thankfully, there's no need to pull my punches. This is a pretty good album.

Not, it should be noted, a great album, but Gahan's strength's are singularly well represented. One of the challenges for any singer is learning how to write songs that fit his talents. (It may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how many otherwise good singers forget this simple fact, not that I'm naming any names, Michael Stipe.) Hourglass is filled with songs that take advantage of Gahan's voice which is melancholy, languorous, slightly disaffected with a core of honest sentiment. There's a reason why Gahan is probably the archetypal synth-pop vocalist, and it's a good thing this album is considerably more synth-poppy than its predecessor. Not that Gahan can't sing straight rock & roll when he wants to, what else are "Personal Jesus", or "I Feel You" but classic rock & roll? But he sounds good singing synth-pop ballads. Also, Gahan's voice has been recorded with much more of an ear towards a soft, natural tone, as opposed to the harsh, metallic timbre of much of Depeche Mode's middle-era material. The approach works for the softer, more personal tracks.

"Saw Something" is an understated start to a relatively understated album. If you didn't know better you'd be hard pressed to tell it from one of Gore's ballads, which is not meant to diminish Gahan's ability, but to indicate that he is comfortable in this milieu and has nothing to lose by courting the comparison. The albums up-tempo numbers, "Kingdom", "Deeper and Deeper", are darker and more confrontational than might be expected. What they lack in pop hooks they make up for in attitude, which is a positive indicator that Gahan has not yet succumbed to Old Rocker's Disease (that would be the urge of every aging rock & roller to mistake advancing age for an invitation to quiet, often semi-acoustic "profundity").

"Miracles" is a highlight, putting Gahan's songwriting voice into a much more vulnerable first-person confessional mode than we are accustomed to seeing. The ambient electronic backdrop showcases his vocals to good effect. "Use You" fumbles with a rather bog-standard lyrical conceit ("We have each other, / You are my brother",really?), but the album recovers with a moody final third. "Endless" builds on a sprightly micro house beat to create an effective romantic plea. "A Little Lie" sounds a bit too much like an outtake off a late-'80s Bowie album, not necessarily a good thing, although the song recovers somewhat. But the album ends on an inarguable highpoint with the evocative, stripped "Down". This is a track that could slide easily alongside any of his group's better ballads which is no mean feat, considering this is the man who sang "Enjoy the Silence" and "In Your Room".

So, the miracle isn't that Dave Gahan has a robust solo career after all those years of playing second-banana, but that after only two solo albums he's evolved into a pretty decent songwriter, no qualifications necessary. Hourglass isn't a perfect album by any means, but it's got enough really good stuff on it to make your overlook the not-so-good. Not bad for a dead man.

6

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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