Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Exotic and Erotic by Sandy Marton

The italo-disco genre is unusual.  Not only did it eventually spread throughout Europe and evolve into what we today call "Eurodance", but even when it was somewhat localized, not all of the artists were really Italian (Taffy was from New York, for instance.  The lead-singer for Baltimora was Irish--although the rest of the band was Italian.  Fancy was German.  And Sandy Marton was Aleksandar Marton, born in Zagreb in what was then Yugoslavia and what is now Croatia.  Produced and marketed in northern Italy as part of the italo-disco fad, in 1984 Sandy Marton had a hit in several countries (#1 in Italy, but it also charted in Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria, and Switzerland.)  "People From Ibiza" is generally his only well-known song today.  His single output was compiled into a single album, released in 1986, but he never really had another hit like "People From Ibiza."  A few of his other songs charted (although not particularly highly) in Italy, and "Exotic and Erotic" charted in a few markets.  The lyrics tell a rather muddled story of a soldier who gets drunk and conned by a "honey trap" style exotic tropical girl in Singapore.

While the lyrics (as in most italo-disco songs) are muddled and barely intelligible to native English speakers, also as is typical of the genre, the song itself is infectious, cheery, and fun, as well as highly danceable.  No doubt meant to be little more the disposible 80s club music, Marton has--as has much of the italo-disco genre in general--picked up an enduring cult following in the years since, and I--well, heck, I guess I belong to the cult.  I think italo-disco is fun, and I still have a fair bit on my phone.  Sure, it's a bit on the breezy, disposible side compared to synthpop from the same time-frame, but in reality, the two genres share much more than they don't. 

I first heard "Exotic and Erotic" as part of a "megamix" called Lo Mejor de Gapul, which was a spanish language and probably bootleg compilation put together in 1987 or so.  Since this was the "seed" from which I discovered and eventually hunted down most of the italo-disco genre that I have, the tracks on that original megamix were the first ones I found.  In that sense, "Exotic and Erotic" holds an important place in my own journey to discover the entire genre.

Sandy Marton himself, though, is probably not really very important, even in the relatively small pond of italo-disco artists.  It's generous to call him more than a one-hit wonder.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Space Age Love Song by A Flock of Seagulls

A Flock of Seagulls are mostly now the butt of a series of jokes about being a one-hit wonder with really bizarre hair.  In reality, when their first eponymous album came out in 1982, it was rather highly regarded as a bit of a concept album--and the video for "I Ran (So Far Away)" was reportedly so ubiquitous on early MTV that they played it literally every ten minutes.  Of course, this kind of ubiquity can really sink a band, but in reality, they had more than one hit (although none as big as "I Ran" certainly.)  I picked up their Greatest Hits (on cassette tape) a few years after the fact, so without preconception, I actually didn't necessarily like "I Ran" the best of their songs--"(It's Not Me) Talking" and even moreso "Space Age Lovesong" were always my favorites.  In fact, I've seen some really good cover versions of "Space Age Love Song" from guys like Count to Infinity, and a "pseudo-cover" called "Dream of a Disco" by Marsheaux.

A Flock of Seagulls postdates the "classic" synthpop stage, but they also still exist in a period in which music which is retroactively called synthpop actually featured a fair number of non-synthesizer instruments.  In fact, they were a regular band with a regular guitar player, bass player and drum player, while the lead singer was also a keyboard player.  While many patently non-synthpop bands had pretty much the exact same line-up, A Flock of Seagulls were clearly New Wave and sound like synthpop, whereas someone like Journey, for instance, does not.  Possibly the guitar and bass players simply weren't talented enough to "showcase" their performances, so they faded more into the background, making the keyboard elements appear to stand out in comparison.

Then again, bands like New Order had pretty much this same line-up too (although in their case, it was the guitar player, not the keyboardist, who did the vocals.)  And Depeche Mode, who in 1980 and beyond for a few years, were an exclusively electronic band, now use an awful lot of guitars.  In reality, synthpop seems to be a somewhat nebulous category of music, wherein music that sounds just like synthpop (like some work by Cher or Madonna) is not called as such, whereas music that doesn't (a la recent Depeche Mode) still is.  Exactly how this came to be is not entirely clear to me, although it is clear (although I can't put my finger on exactly why) that A Flock of Seagulls sounds like the same kind of music as synthpop, even as it is heavily guitar-driven in most respects.  In any case, here's "Space Age Love Song."

Monday, March 25, 2013

Behind the Wheel by Depeche Mode

Last night I finished watching the documentary Depeche Mode: The Dark Progression which focuses, after maybe half an hour of set-up and historical context, on the four-album arc of Black Celebration through Songs of Faith and Devotion; about a decade straddling the mid-80s to the mid-90s, and clearly Depeche Mode's zenith in terms of commercial success and influence.

I got this--a little bit by surprise--by Netflix, and I had been simultaneously listening to a bunch of bootleg remixes by a guy named Naweed Wahla (you can hear most of them on youtube.)  At the same time a brand new album is due out tomorrow, I think, and they're kicking off a tour to support it (coming to North America in August, and starting with my hometown!)  The DVD was actually quite good, even though it was an "unauthorized" one--footage of interviews with producers, biographers, and other artists who toured with them were all included (Gareth Jones, David Bascombe, Jonathan Miller, Andy McClusky, Gary Numan, Thomas Dolby, and a few others.)  One thing Gareth Jones mentioned is that he thought the album Some Great Reward was transitional--from his perspective (and it was the middle of three that he produced) it was clearly in between Construction Time Again and Black Celebration in terms of what the band was doing technically with sampling and whatnot.  However, it occurs to me that every Depeche Mode album is transitional.  Depeche Mode's enduring popularity and importance is, at least partly, based on the fact that they don't retread the same ground over and over again.  They vary their approach subtly--enough to keep their fanbase usually--but they vary it nonetheless.  They're always evolving.

To be honest with y'all, my favorite DM is about the time that I discovered them; in the late 80s.  Although I was familiar with the song "People Are People" and actually liked it a lot, I didn't follow up from that to pay attention to who sang it, or get any more material of theirs.  In about 1988 or so, I ended up with a copy of Music for the Masses and I was reading Dracula for the first time at the same time--so while I read, I listened to DM.  That right there was a perfect match.  I quickly fell in love with the darker sound of Depeche Mode, and as I delved into their back catalog, I liked best the two albums that were closest to Masses in time.  Speak And Spell hardly counted; it might as well have been a different band altogether (and in many ways, it was.)  A Broken Frame had Martin Gore just barely starting to stretch his wings musically, while still trying to imitate (sometimes) the successful pattern of Vince Clark.  Construction Time Again had Gore doing much more of his own thing, but it still felt unrefined and in need of maturation to get to where it needed to be.  But with the triad of albums, Some Great Reward, Black Celebration and Music For the Masses, Depeche Mode had fully "flowered" as a dark sounding, musically mature group, with some real artistic chops, who's albums were much more than simply the sum of all the songs on them.  To be honest with you, I even got a bit pretentious about their artistic merits myself.  A failing to which I'm still not completely immune.

Depeche Mode had, up to that point, been quite productive, but after taking a relatively lengthy break, they came out with their most successful album to date in 1990, right in the middle of my senior year in high school (lead single "Personal Jesus" had been out in the late summer or fall, and "Enjoy the Silence" came out right near the beginning of the year, if I remember correctly.)  When the full album came out, I actually didn't like it much.  To me, the somewhat hoaky sounding "Pleasure, Little Treasure" had been the direction that the entire album followed.  It eventually grew on me--helped no doubt by the fact that "Enjoy the Silence" is probably their best song ever--as well as some really cool b-sides and later remixes--but it took literally years to do so, and I still don't like it as much as I do Masses.  The subsequent Songs of Faith and Devotion was more of what I didn't like about Violator--except fused with gospel and grunge and all kinds of other influences that I didn't like even more.  Then Alan Wilder left the band, and the era of "classic line-up" Depeche Mode came to an end.  The band continued, of course, but greatly diminished, as Alan Wilder's role as the technical innovator and only "true" musician in the band had to be filled by a rotating line-up of producers who lacked the consistency of vision and talent that Alan brought.

Although I don't like Construction Time Again on the front end or Violator and Songs of Faith And Devotion on the back end as much as I do the three albums sandwiched in between them, I do see the six albums that were made with the "classic line-up" of Alan Wilder, Martin Gore, Andrew Fletcher and Dave Gahan as the most iconic and emblematic of Depeche Mode's entire storied career, and I don't think that I'm alone in that view.  Because Depeche Mode stands so alone, and casts such a long shadow over everybody else in the entire electronic music biz even today, I didn't have a lot of Depeche Mode on my phone, so I actually hadn't listened to them much recently, and I was keenly feeling the void.  Deciding to put the classic line-up CDs in my car and go through them in successsion one after another, lingering as long on one album as I want, I've been feeling the love once again for my first and greatest love in electronic music once again.

Another curious aside; because of Depeche Mode's status, influence and popularity, as well as now long they've been around, and because technology nowadays makes this relatively easy, bootleg remixes on youtube (and elsewhere) are very common.  Here's one for one of my favorite songs from Masses, "Behind the Wheel."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Hear Me Calling by De/Vision

In the mid-90s, synthpop was forced deep underground, but the advent of the Internet meant that it could keep itself alive in the ICU for a time; until the internet actually completely fragmented the traditional music distribution channels and opened the market up for all kinds of niche tastes.  Nowadays, finding good electronic music of all kinds of varieties--synthpop, futurepop, EBM, electro, and many, many others is something we take for granted, but during much of the 90s, finding stuff on synthpop meant following the e-mail newsletter and discussion list of Todd Durant of A Different Drum.  In fact, much of my first introduction to the label bands, and other bands associated with the scene in those days, was from the samplers and collections put out by A Different Drum.  The Mix, Rinse and Spin series, which had two entries (the second was a double CD) introduced me to De/Vision, which got a lot of chatter as an "important" player in the scene during the 90s (and beyond, although after the 90s, I didn't feel it was as important to follow the scene, since it was growing too fast to keep up with.)  The first volume had a longer remix of "Try to Forget", one of the band's earliest hits (in a relative sense, of course--they released it during the height of the synthpop crash.  Too bad; they were already formed; if they'd managed to release it in 1988, when they first wrote it, we could be talking about it in the same breath as Camouflage's "The Great Commandment" as an example of German synthpop that was heavily influenced by Depeche Mode.)  The second volume had a number of songs, including three remixes of the song "Hear Me Calling", which remains one of my favorite De/Vision tracks today.

Eventually I got a lot of De/Vision material--most of it, except for many of the remixes, actually--but it took me a while.  Not that I didn't like all of those songs, but because I got Zehn, which billed itself as a "greatest hits" kind of CD up through the late 90s.  And frankly, if it was the greatest hits, then it scared me to listen to the non-hits.  Eventually, I also got Monosex, which was released the same year, and it's excellent.  After that, I started collecting De/Vision more carefully--like I said, I eventually ended up with the entire album collection (including Zehn and Remixed, which are obviously compilation albums.)  I just picked up their newest album, Rockets & Swords, which prompted me to create mp3 CDs of the entire collection (in order) so I could throw it in the car and listen to their body of work in order.  I couldn't fit everything I had on a single CD, and in fact, I couldn't fit it on two CDs without either splitting one of the albums in half, or omitting about half a dozen remixes.  I opted for the latter.

In the car this morning on the way in, I finished the first CD, which goes through the Two album, and popped in the second one, which starts off with Remixed.  Doing it this way brought to mind the fact that it really took De/Vision a while to get rolling with good material, and it's a big part of the reason Zehn didn't immediately impress me much--it's mostly made up of early material.

Their debut album, World Without End has a total of three good songs (which admittedly, are quite good) and the rest are pretty forgetable.  Unversed in Love is even worse--I think none of the tracks on it are as good as the three stand-outs from the prior album (although admittedly some are better than the remainder, at least.)  Then De/Vision released Antiquity which was a compilation of sorts of some songs that were hanging around but not put on either of the other two albums, presumably because they weren't even as good as the mediocre, forgettable tracks that made up the bulk of the releases to date.  So, it really isn't until the fourth release, Fairyland, that we get a De/Vision release that's genuinely good, with several good tracks, and with non-stand-out tracks that are still respectable.  Zehn gives us the three good tracks from the freshman effort (including some great remixes of them as well) and then a smattering of songs from either Fairyland, Unversed in Love, or unreleased tracks that must have been b-sides or something.

Then, finally, we get to Monosex which was the best De/Vision release to date by a long shot.  Frankly, I wonder if maybe it isn't still the best De/Vision album, although most of the albums since have also been quite good.  The possible exception here is Void, which followed Monosex.  I actually think it's not bad, but I remember all kinds of bitter, hyperbolic, and melodramatic responses from the fans who felt betrayed by it, calling it "not even a synthpop album; it's a rock album" as if that were some kind of pejorative (or as if that were some kind of true; neither of which is the case.)

Sadly, for the Remixed CD, producer José Alvarez-Brill, who despite his name is a German, mostly took material from the same period as Zehn.  I think what he did with it was better, but I still would have preferred to see remixes of newer material.  Some of that has since come out too.

Browsing through their collection on Amazon, you get a weird mix of readily available and then... not.  You can find almost everything, but a lot of it is collectible, imported CDs and sells at prohibitively high prices.  Other stuff is available for mp3 download.  Which seems to be which doesn't always make a lot of sense.  There's also a fair bit of collected stuff; you can end up with quite a few repeat tracks if you're a real completist.  I've even got a lot, and I'm not a completist.

I would recommend skipping entirely World Without End, Unversed in Love and Antiquity.  Almost anything that's any good on those CDs are already on Zehn, plus if you get the CD version of Zehn (instead of the mp3 version) you get awesome remixes of the three freshman songs.  If you do like remixes, make sure and get the Limited version of Remixed which comes with a second CD of remixes, some of which are better (or at least as good) as the ones on the first CD.  The 2006 Best Of also has a second CD of remixes, many of which are excellent.  Many of which, however, are rather older--if you've been hunting down remixes already (as I had, in limited amounts) you may not see much here that you don't already have.  De/Vision seem to be learning from George Lucas how to repackage and resell the exact same content all over again.

Their 2010 release Popgefahr, which is really good, had a 2011 Remix release, and it also comes in many varieties.  The US Mix, which is readily available as an mp3 download, and you can get everything else as the Popgefahr collection, which sells for a pretty cheap price, considering that it's four CDs.  Between the two, you can get no less that six versions of the Popgefahr album for a price that's about the same as two reasonably priced import CDs.  Not at all a bad deal, and the remixes are--surprisingly--mostly pretty consistently good (of course there are a few exceptions.  Aren't there always?)  

But that's remixes: after Fairyland in regular, non-compilation, non-remix releases, I think most of the rest of the following albums are worth picking up with the possible exception of Void, which may not quite be to everyone's taste.  The accusations of it not even being synthpop are absurd, but it is true that it has a somewhat different sound than, say, Two, or Devolution, or n00b or whatever.  Subkutan also seems to me to be a little bit of a mis-step; it's not actively bad, but it just doesn't seem to stand out much either.  But listening to all of their music back to back like I did also made another point fairly clear; there's a fair bit of filler with De/Vision too.  If I really wanted to, I could cut out at least 2/3s of their body of work and not really miss it too much--in fact, sticking with just the more standout tracks, from their long, long collection, you still end up with a massive collection of great songs that only a handful of other electronic artists could match (Depeche Mode?  Maybe Erasure, VNV Nation, Assemblage 23 and a few others too?)

Anyway, like I said, I'm not exactly a completist, but one particular remix sent me on a merry wild-goose chase for a long time, the EnTrusted to Mesh mix of "Hear Me Calling."  That was supposed to be a third single release from Monosex (after "We Fly... Tonight" and "Strange Affection") but for some reason it was commuted to just being a promo-release.  The Compilation by A Different Drum Mix, Rinse and Spin vol. 2 actually included every remix from the single except the EnTrusted to Mesh.

In any case, a quick search of Youtube turned up at least three uploads of the song, so here it is, for your enjoyment.