new wave / art rock / neo-psychedelia / synth pop
RIYL – Annie Lennox, Siouxsie And The Banshees’ Kaleidoscope, early Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Conny Plank productions
Offbeat, ‘leftfield’ or plain weird early work from soon-to-be chart toppers are a phenomenon that never fails to draw me in. Beyond an already unique path in sound and genre, Eurythmics’ commercial-flop debut was a great example. 1981 had Annie Lennox and David Stewart in an odd spot between their upbeat power pop with Tourists and finding their niche as a minimal synth-pop duo. They had the icy keyboards down by now, but a backing band as well, playing an ambiguous new wave-jangle-neo psych hybrid.
In The Garden is a studio creation first and foremost, but it’s knack for ghostly surrealism isn’t too far from how Goldfrapp recorded their debut in a cottage. Picture Annie as a half-woman half-ghost haunting an old mansion or farmhouse in the English woods, and you have the right idea. She hasn’t sounded so haunted before or since. If the cover is any hint, she tones down her usual powerful belts and soars for chilly falsettos and sinister, abstract poems. They tend to echo off into the music in a way that would do wonders for a 4AD group; now I wish Annie sang in such a band. The lyrics follow suit:
‘I’m never gonna cry again / I’m never gonna die again’
’Dust is collecting / But she doesn’t notice / counting forever / she’s a calculator’
‘Another change of light / The underlying truth / request to pack it in / no solutions’
Combined with the uneasy, resonant wide-open space distinct to a krautrock giant like Conny Plank (“All The Young”), this is an album full of surprises. The result highlights many interesting parallels between krautrock and early new wave. You’ll hear foresty atmospheric touches, bizarre sound effects, and creeping post-punk twang among other curios Eurythmics left behind within a few years.
For all the weirdness (“Sing-Sing”, filled with samples chattering away and Annie singing in French) and sinister undertones (“Caveman Head” with it’s edgy goth rock tease, the horror-inspired b-side “Le Sinistre”), songs like “Belinda” approach a normal pop-rock sound. Part of me wishes they engaged more with those thrilling goth/experimental hints than these upbeat grooves as a result. Still, you can find some fulfillment for that on the bonus tracks “Le Sinistre”, “4/4 In Leather” and “Take Me To Your Heart”’s live version. As it stands, In The Garden is worthy curiosity for anyone drawn to the oddball early eighties.
RIYL – 80s China Crisis, Love And Money, Prefab Sprout, Gangway’s Sitting In The Garden
I love fall but I’m not ready for it. For one thing, it feels less fitting to post more of my findings in sophisti, a style screaming ‘cocktail party at the beach’. I meant to do more than my August mix, but that time flew as usual. Thus, a title like Autumn In The Neighbourhood enticed me.
I’m not sure if this is autumnal as much as windy and down-to-earth, but it’s close enough for me. I wish more sophisti had this imagery, I know that much. This being their ‘comeback’ album (2015!), China Crisis perform with more ease and nuance than ever. Decades later, they’ve kept that same elegance that defines sophisti-pop. The subtle keyboards, clean guitars and hints of brass are all here. Add a nostalgic, thoughtful mood and you have a great scene-setter. It’s the kind of British eighties(-styled) pop where you can just feel the busy city and morning breeze. It’s hard to name favorites but this comes from the impressive coherence more than anything else.
♥︎ – “Smile”, “Down Here on Earth”, “Joy And The Spark”, “Tell Tale Signs”
easy listening / sequencer & MIDI / synth pop / new age
RIYL – Donkey Kong, Super Mario and other Nintendo 64 music; vaporwave, Eyeliner
This ‘album’ gathers commissions K. Yamato stashed away for years. Only after seeing the new online interest for 90s game music did he share them. Some tracks glean from other media, but everything has a certain 90s-VGM flair here.
The early lower-bit jingles make a brief but fun cherry on top. The rest is a tour in digitized MIDI bursting with color. Mallets, synth pads, slick bass, bells and adorable flutes are on the menu. Versatile as expected, Yamoto shifts from 16-bit Outrun synth-pop to deluxe 90s chill-out. Somehow “Pleasant Specter Lever 6” merges a heaven-sent unicorn lullaby with summery disco.
Yamoto fills these bite-sized songs with sweet, romantic melodies, never letting them ramble. The “Spa Tape” tracks near this but their refreshing synth textures won me over. Spa music needs space to breathe after all.
CW is like playing Kirby for half an hour: a quick, simple pick-me-up with no pretension. Anyone curious about 90s VGM and/or the cuter side of synths should look here. No more Yamoto albums followed, but his Pleasant Specter EP from months before is your next step.
For more great video game music on the obscure side, see my top five
library music / progressive electronic
More like this – Curios From The Background Vol. 1, Alan Shearer’s “Isis For Osiris”, early Oneohtrix, Geoff Bastow’s Tomorrow’s World
While there’s some issues with consistency and a few too many reprises, this library oddity is definitely worth hearing if you’re interested in eighties analog synth music. I’ve wondered if this was one of the Bruton albums to influence Oneohtrix Point Never as it’s one of their closest in style (OPN referenced their cover art with Drawn And Quartered). Like his early albums, the synths of Kinetics/Vision are cold and warm all at once, forming lots of foggy/metallic arpeggios and a feeling of futuristic isolation.
Side 1 (Kinetics) begins on a cheerful note, with busy and scientific rhythms recalling a tech facility. The first six or seven tracks largely repeat the same melodies, all variations on the same tune. It gets redundant after a certain point, but later highlights like “Kinetic Strength” and “Kinetic Research” add welcome twists to this theme via thrilling slow-burn suspense and a complete mood shift before Bastow’s side ends. Here I picture a protagonist investigating the same facility late at night as they unveil it’s dark secrets.
The renowned Alan Hawkshaw’s B-side adds more variation and a deeper dive into “Kinetic Strength”’s shadowy sci-fi. With the intimidating “Vision 1″, I imagine a dystopian-ish eighties film scenario where they’ve locked up a building after a crime, leaving everyone on edge. “Crystal Vision” is the prettiest moment on the album with the sort of aquatic synth-bell gleam that became popular years beyond 1980. “Visionary” is all weightless and empty hums: non-threatening, but the paranoia lingers. In stark opposition to how the album began, “Dark Vision” ends it all with sinister droning.
If you’re curious to hear more from Bruton Music’s analog synth phase, I highly recommend this 22-minute compilation.
♥︎ – “Kinetic Strength”, “Kinetic Research”, “Crystal Vision”, “Vision 1″, “Visionary”
More like this – Bibio’s Green EP, Goldfrapp’s “Clowns“
I love a good electronic+folk mixture, and this is one of those precious examples of where it works in album form. Silver Wilkinson is an ideal spring-time album due to this, recalling fresh morning air, vegetation, grassy fields and other pleasant outdoor imagery very nicely. Bibio decorates the songs with a spacious reverb and emphasizes the most organic possible sounds. Nature FX, grainy sound quality and other details add to the effect. Like a lot of my favorite guitarists, he makes regular use of effects and layering to expand the instrument’s range. Some songs will come close, but it’s far from your usual twangy ‘chill-out guitar’ mush.
Several critics and fans deemed Silver Wilkinson unfocused with the way it shifts in sound at semi-random points. I do agree the flow could be better, but I felt it’s this variety that helps it work as an album. For instance, I like how it begins with these reflective guitar-based pieces, but if every song was like this, it could get stale. His understated knack for synths helps keep it interesting at very least, as in “Business Park” with it’s jagged techno drama or “Look At Orion”’s odd vortex of reverb and sampled voices. At some points he also blends the synths + guitars in a more subtle fashion, like “Dye The Water Green”’s instrumental fade-out.
As much as this album escalates, few songs lack that refreshing springy mood Bibio does best. With “Mirroring All”, I can almost feel that misty outdoor air through mere listening. I could say the same of Bibio’s own favorite “Dye The Water Green”, a haunting melody contrasted with some luxurious guitar shimmers. With the single “Curls” sounding a lot closer to this than his recent ambient/drone work, I have a good feeling about the incoming Ribbons album.
garage punk / punk rock
More like this – Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever To Tell + Self-titled EP + Machine EP; X-Ray Spex, Gossip’s “Fire With Fire“
I have a theory that Gossip were the Arkansan equal of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and this EP is the closest they got in sound. There’s the unique and dynamic female singer in Beth Ditto, their later pop era, their indie rock breakthrough phase, and this early, very Fever To Tell EP. This isn’t a negative comparison; I’m convinced we don’t have enough like YYY’s, so I welcome it. After all, it’s been tricky for me to find much else that truly shares Fever To Tell’s special brand of punk chaos, or at least without overdoing the edginess + noise. This made Arkansas Heat both a throwback and a breath of fresh air.
Through the whole EP the guitar and drums make a persistent racket as Beth Ditto yowls and quivers over them with exciting intensity. It’s the opposite of the more stylish approach in later projects like her excellent solo EP but true to her range as a singer, she pulls it off just as well.
Every song except the 10-minute “Take Back The Revolution” is over within 2 minutes, making it a fun and digestible listen. Even better is how they made it so catchy despite this brevity. “Revolution” drags a little too much, of course, but skip it about halfway through and it’s an addictive 14-minute burst of energy. I just wish they put out more like this in their early days.
The 1990 Coloursound original
The Selected Sound reissue, 1993
library music / progressive electronic
At this point I’m convinced this Czech composer was in a home stretch in the late 80s-early 90s. He could do no wrong.
One of my personal music missions is to hear just about every ‘aquatic’ library album I can manage, as it’s almost always a sign of quality. Therefore, I HAD to listen to Milan Pilar’s take on it. It turns out this album began as Digital Structures for the unusual Coloursound label, with no true song titles – “Digital Structure #3”, “#12”, and so on. This Selected Sound re-issue has a new title plus a true name for every song. In fact, it turns out I’d heard Digital Structures before, and got fooled into thinking this was different. Library labels are weird like that; something unfamiliar will turn out to be another, older album, even from another label!
Even so, I’m glad that I wound up hearing this one again. I picked up on a lot more great tracks this time. Plus, the re-titling helped me tell them apart. Even though SS branded this with space/water themes, it does veer into other moods/imagery at times, like the twinkling fantasy that was the trademark of his also-quality Nature Study. Knowing the album’s origin, this makes some sense.
I’ve written about similar albums before; O’Hearn’s Indigo, Above and About, etc. so many of those same traits apply here. It’s the same fascinating mix of varied moods and soaring synth textures – pads that wash over like shores, glittering arpeggios, warbles, flutters. He really brings out the best in digital synths. The sci-fi/water theme in particular adds some interesting moodier elements to Pilar’s familiar style. It’s the best direction he could’ve taken from his previous albums, and with every song being a mere 1.5 minutes, very digestible. Through their brief length, the songs flourish and establish their grip right on contact.
I especially recommend this if you love a good 80s synth film score. That tension, build and release of a good synth score is here and pulled off in expert fashion. The quality it retains over 43 tracks means this would be one of my favorite scores had an actual movie used it. But, as library music continues to remind me, it turns out some of the best film music doesn’t even wind up getting used.