Orbital Spin “Way Out →”

Orbital Middle of NowhereListen to this track by brotherly turntablists and pop culture mash-up men Phil and Paul Hartnoll, otherwise known as Orbital. It’s “Way Out →”, the epic lead track off of their 1999 album Middle of Nowhere.

Put all one-dimensional associations you may have of electronica, or worse “dance music” aside, and listen to the operatic glory of this track. Here, electronic samples and beats live quite happily along with warm, muted horns. This is music made for listeners, as well as dancers. In some ways, the Hartnolls were outside of the tecnhno scene, in that they never seemed to follow the trends. Trend-following is rife in techno. But, not so with Orbital and this track. Read more

Kishi Bashi Performs “Manchester”

Kishi Bashi
Photo: Brandee Nichols

Listen to this track by Seattle-born, New York-based singer, violinist, loop technician, Of Montreal string-arranger and touring member, and songwriter K Ishibashi, aka Kishi Bashi. It’s the sumptous-yet-spacious “Manchester”, an impressionistic and post-modern narrative about a narrative as taken from the EP Room For Dream.

The song is the opening track on the EP, an ever-expanding soundscape that is, at once, airy, organic, and with a touch of hopefulness balanced against melancholy. Musically, the song is an amalgam of pan-cultural textures, from sparse Far-East flavouring, to western classical aesthetics, and delivered in the similar kind of cinematic orchestral pop packaging as a Mercury Rev, or Flaming Lips.

After seeing Kishi Bashi perform as an opening act for Sondre Lerche (and then join Lerche’s ensemble as a backing musician on violin, guitar, and keyboards) at the Biltmore Theatre here in Vancouver, I had a chat with him via email about the business of cultural crossover, about the importance of location in the songwriting process, and about what Beethoven would have made of loop technology.

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Madonna Sings “Drowned World/Substitute For Love”

Listen to this track by self-professed Material Girl turned duchess of adult-oriented dance pop, Madonna. It’s the William Orbit-abetted track “Drowned World/Substitute For Love” as taken from 1998’s Ray of Light, as close as Madonna ever got to confessional singer-songwriter self-reflection, albeit in an ambient electronic dance milieu. Yet, this song is not without a sizeable portion of melodic gravity. Let those who dismiss her work as lightweight and uninteresting aural confectionary take note.

Madonna started off in the New York dance club subculture, and built herself up with the help of several people on the scene. Even from those early days, she seemingly possessed a savant-like skill for marketing in the video age. As a result, Madonna became what many would consider to be a cultural icon.

Along with that keen eye for the market, she understood well that the pop world is constantly shifting, changing, deking out even the most savvy of artists. As audiences age, and as musical trends morph over the decades, many artists have been left behind. When considering such a position, the smartest artists can read the writing on the wall even before it fully materializes. And they know who to turn to when it does.

By the end of the 90s, such a person to turn to for Madonna was British dance producer/artist William Orbit, who would help Madonna deliver a mid-career masterpiece, with both critical and commercial acclaim. But, even if it is very tempting to look at the resulting album Ray of Light solely as a tactic to stay in the charts, what a song like “Substitute For Love” reveals is that Madonna wanted to close the distance between herself and her audience in more ways than just record sales.

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Interview with Vancouver Electronica Artist-Producer Adriane Lake

Listen to this track, a slice of warm, ambient electronic goodness by Vancouver electronica artist and producer Adriane Lake. It’s “So Beautiful”, the lead track taken from Lake’s full length 2009 album Morning Glow. The track mixes intertwining vocal lines with subtle, popping beats, and washes of electronic ambience, in places evoking Kate Bush, Bjork, and ’90s drum ‘n’ bass. It has the quality of pop music while being unafraid to go off the path in places, too.

Before this project, Adriane Lake lent her vocal and instrumental talents to other projects, going under the name ‘Adri’ in many places. Lake has been an avid DIY producer of electronica for this solo project, but also as a re-mix artist for Fidgital and Landscape Body Machine, a keyboardist for an experimental rock trio, worked with a world music choir, and even scored music for video games.

I spoke to Adriane via email after a brief exchange on Twitter. We talked about warmth in electronic music, about the false dichotomy between acoustic and electronic, and about the idea of pop music’s possible futures. Read more

Cornelius Plays ‘Music’

Here’s a clip of Japanese musical mixologist and experimental pop musician Keigo Oyamada, known in hipster circles as Cornelius. It’s “Music”, as taken from his 2007 album Senuous, and pulling in ambient techno, jazz, and soul music into something entirely of its own genre.

There is a narrow field of pop music grandeur that lies between melodic warmth, and experimental texturing.  This is where, for the most part, Cornelius sets up shop.

Oyamada was inspired first by rock music, specifically centered around guitar playing, which is what he taught himself to do, starting out. But, in the same wave as the Pizzicato Five, Cornelius was born, the name inspired by The Planet of the Apes character as portrayed by Roddy MacDowell. What came out of these influences has been a throw-it-in-the-pot approach to techno music, with the hooks and overall appeal pop/rock music.
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The Orb Spin “Little Fluffy Clouds”

the_orb_-_adventures_beyond_the_ultraworldListen to this track by 90s ambient dub-centric comedown kids The Orb.  It’s their 1990 hit single “Little Fluffy Clouds”, eventually appearing on the full-length The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld LP, which was released the following year.  The song would be re-mixed and re-released a number of times during the decade, a fast favourite among the raver set.

The lead voice you’re hearing on this track is a head-cold afflicted Rickie Lee Jones, she of “Chuck E’s In Love” pop chart success, among other releases.  In the song, she describes the striking childhood visions of Arizona skies, festooned apparently with the aforementioned little fluffy clouds.

Her voice is hypnotic, soothing, perfect for a comedown theme.  And the samples that The Orb, and guest producer Youth from post-punk band Killing Joke have chosen create a sort of sonic pillow that make it a singularly comfortable listen, as as well as a great track to dance to. In short, this was the perfect single for the dance floors of the early 90s, particularly powerful as post-rave dawn approached.

Despite the chilled out groove, behind the scenes there was some drama where this track was concerned. It seems that Rickie Lee Jones wasn’t happy with her involuntary appearance on it.  So, she sought legal action against the band’s label, Big Life Records.   This was a bit of a comedown, of sorts.  But, so much for chilled out.

Eventually, of course, it was all settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.  And, ultimately this song was a success for the Orb for years after its initial release, scoring #10 on the UK charts in 1993 when it was re-released.  That’s a lot of mileage for an unassuming little number that caused such a stir to the owner of the lead voice on it.


Royksopp Spin Their Song “Eple”

Here’s a clip of Norwegian dance outfit Royksopp with my favourite track off of their 2001  Melody A.M. album.  There are some pieces of music which practically force you to move.  This is one of them.  You’ve been warned.


As mentioned previously, dance music and electronica has been unfairly burdened with the tag of disposable music.  It’s music designed for a specific purpose, with no real depth.  At least, this is the case in the minds of some.  But, like any genre, dance music is diverse, just as rock music is.  Some of it certainly is disposable.  But, not this track.

There’s something of the epic in this song.  It’s definitely widescreen.  Yet, it’s fun too, not imposing despite its size.  It has personality – kind of cheeky, a bit sexy too, but mostly it’s just celebratory. This is true of the whole album, which has a solid melodic element to it, as well as being highly danceable.

This tune reminds me of a certain group of friends I have in London, bopping their heads back and forth and giggling to this song as they were wont to do.  As much as I love this piece,  it makes me miss them.

For more about Royksopp, check out the Royksopp official website.


Zero 7 Play Their Song ‘Likufanele’

zero_7_-_simple_things_-_album_cover_frontListen to this song by British ambient soul-jazz duo Zero7 with a prime cut off of their 2001 debut album.  It’s “Likufanele”, and the album in question is one of my favourites of that year, Simple Things.

It’s been argued that this band created some momentum in a new form of easy listening.  I suppose that can be argued pretty well.   It’s true that Zero 7 can now be heard in places that you once found a lot of easy listening stalwarts.   Yet, if this is the case, then maybe easy listening just got more interesting.  Let’s take a look at this piece which seems to be mixing African choral music, with 60s Burt Bacharach orchestral pop, with 90s trip-hop.   As much as I hate the idea of ‘functional’ music, if you’re stuck in a dentist office waiting to be fitted for headgear, you could do worse than hearing this piece.

But, before you think I’m damning this tune with faint praise, I’d like to say that there is something about this song, and the whole album in fact which just resonates with people – even with music snobs like myself.  Here’s my theory.

There are people who go about their lives not noticing music playing.  When they’re at the supermarket, the coffee shop, the gym, the spa, wherever, if there’s music playing they don’t notice it unless it’s innocuous enough to cease to ‘function’  wherever  it happens to be playing.  Zero 7 works for them, creating a mood for them to ignore the music to.  Then, there’s people like myself.

Zero 7 are Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns, two former record studio tea boys with some ambition to make records of their own.  They had an initial career remixing the work of others, including Radiohead and Lambchop. In teaming up with vocalists Mozez and Sia Furler, their debut album was an immediate success.

I notice music everywhere.  Every place I go, I am distracted by it.  I can’t ignore it.  So, for me it has to be good, not just functional, not just aural wallpaper as I go about my daily life.  It can’t be boring, either.  Zero 7, and ‘Likufanele’ (translated from the Zulu, meaning ‘it suits you’…) work for me, too.  I love the enmeshing of the voices as they build-up, the warm sounds of the flugelhorn and the vibraphone, the sumptuous strings,  the jazzy 70s flute, the spacey synths, and the Fender Rhodes piano.  And I like the repeating chord structure, that seems to activate a memory of childhood which I can’t quite put my finger on.

Some types of music are easier to listen to than others. But, just because its ‘easy’ like this, it doesn’t mean it has to be uninteresting too.  I think it takes a certain amount of skill to be able to strike that type of balance.  And that is the key to Zero 7’s success.

For more information about Zero 7, check out the Zero 7 official web page.


The Chemical Brothers Spin ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’

Here’s a clip of British big beat champions the Chemical Brothers with their giant-sized rave-up ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, a central track off of their 1997 record Dig Your Own Hole.

Before hearing ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, electronica and dance music and I weren’t too close.  Most of the stuff I’d heard up until then was thin, lifeless backbeats deviod of any real sonic depth. It was meant to be  functional, not listened to.  It’s hard for me to say a lot of the time why I love or hate a certain piece of music or even entire genres, but nine times out of ten, if the music is designed to do something without having a life of its own outside of that thing, it sucks. Music is its own thing.  It doesn’t need to be for something other than itself.

But, when I heard ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ I was forced to reassess my preconceptions about what electronica and dance music actually is, and how to judge it as music in relation to my rockist point of view.

The piece is a collection of samples, yet the juice from the performance (Schooly D’s “Gucci Again”, among others) once removed is retained.  That central riff is a bass guitar played high up the neck, and the beats are borrowed from real drums.   The Chems left something of the warmth of a real performance in.   And where the raver kid doesn’t notice perhaps, the rockist like me does.  I think this is a part of what made them such a prominent force in dance music from the mid-90s onward.  They understand subtlety, and attention to detail.

And this may explain why someone like Noel Gallagher – a bigger rockist you’ll never find – worked with them on their subsequent single ‘Let Forever Be’.  They knew that sampling is as much a part of rock history as the blues is, and Noel Gallagher knew this from being a Beatles fan, the band that made the song to which the Chemical Brothers owe a debt – “Tomorrow Never Knows”created  it using tape loops.

‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ opened things up for me, and where I’m still a boring old rockist for the most part, this track and many like it from outfits like Underworld, Orbital, Royksopp, and others still have the ability to give my ear something to chew on while I’m shaking my butt embarrassingly around the room.

For more about the Chemical Brothers, check out the Chemical Brothers Website.


Beth Orton “Central Reservation” Ben Watt Re-Mix

Here’s a clip of Beth Orton’s ‘Central Reservation’, the title track to the 1999 album of the same name, and re-mixed here by Ben Watt, the album’s producer.  This song appeared in many forms, including re-mixes by Orton’s former collaborator William Orbit.

Two versions of the song appear on the album as well, one being the original track, and the other being an alternate take, with a decidedly Sowetomeets-disco lilt.  It’s the latter which you’re hearing here,  re-mixed by Ben Watt who is known as one half of Everything But the Girl (you guess which half…).

A gifted and respected musician and songwriter, Beth Orton has been known for her collaborations with artists ranging from Ryan Adams, the Chemical Brothers, Bert Janch, Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Marr, among others. She is a long-standing sufferer of Crohn's Disease, which she has managed to overcome although it flairs up when she becomes stressed. Yet, it doesn't seem to have stopped her from performing and recording.

Beth Orton straddles the stylistic lines in a lot of her work, gaining ground as a folky singer-songwriter with touches of world music while also seemingly at home in the world of electronica.  This could have something to do with her early work with William Orbit on his Strange Cargo III album which established her as an effective ambient vocal presence.  She’s adopted a similar tone for her own records, while also expanding her skills as a songwriter.

And the result is a great balance of the best of both worlds.  Her debut album Trailer Park, and the single “She Cries Your Name” rightly established her as a singular talent, and an up and coming singer-songwriter by the mid-90s, a particularly welcome musical presence as something of a soothing “comedown” for dawn-greeting ravers after evenings of glowsticks and E.

This track is one of the most striking things she’s ever done, with lots of erotic imagery that never crosses the line into the world of the crass.  The remix makes the song a bit more celebratory, and I actually prefer it to the original, as good as the original is.  And I love her voice – very understated, and unique in how down to earth it is, almost like a missing connection between the voices of Sinéad O’ Connor and Sandy Denny.   There is something very warm about Beth Orton’s voice that kind of draws you in.  It sounds like the voice of someone you know, a good and reliable friend.

For more music and information, check out Beth Orton’s MySpace page.

And for further insights, read this interview with Beth Orton from Britain’s The Independent.