Music is my lifeblood and as a writer about its culture, I need it―all the time. Whether scanning aisles in new or used music shops or spying on Amazon, I’m always buying and listening to new music. This format will allow me to capture what music I’ve bought each month and detail it for you, the readers. The three records highlighted will hopefully catch your attention and you’ll follow the purchase links included. Enjoy.
Album: Make It Better (2000, EMI)
Personnel: Sarah Blackwood (vocals); Steve Hillier (keyboardist); Chris Wilkie (guitars)
Production Duties: Dubstar, Mike “Spike” Drake
Vibe: Rising out of the fertile grounds of mid-1990’s British pop, Dubstar played like fellow Britons Saint Etienne with a touch of Garbage on Disgraceful (1995). When their third―and thus far final―long player Make It Better (2000) appeared, it was the lost link between the aforementioned Garbage’s Version 2.0 (1998) and beautifulgarbage (2001). It is easy to see why as Make It Better blended their elegant ennui with bottom heavy guitar grooves (“Take It,” “Stay,” “I’m Conscious of Myself”).
The edge worked well for Dubstar, but being the poppy trio they were they shone best in that arena―see lead single “I (Friday Night)”. Its country-lite licks worked well within its mock Tamla-Motown frame. Sarah Blackwood’s voice, in fine, siren form, was efficacious in capturing the listener.
Make It Better repackaged that disenchanted, but engaged Dubstar presence for the millennium. The (slight) up-to-date sheen placed on the overall album gave it a tastefully aware sense of a new decade dawning―thankfully it didn’t play like an eager set trying to be contemporary for the sake. Unfortunately, the record fell on disinterested ears and scored a minor hit with the previously discussed “I (Friday Night)”. Dubstar has since reformed and work is (seemingly) underway to follow-up this gem. If Make It Better is to signal the trio’s curtain call, they couldn’t go out on a more stylish note than they do here.
Watch / Listen: “I (Friday Night)”
Album: Islands (1984, EMI)
Personnel: Steve Askew (guitar); Nick Beggs (lead vocals / bass / percussion / chapman stick); Stuart Croxford Neale (synthesizer / background vocals); Jez Strode (drums / percussion)
Production Duties: Kajagoogoo, Colin Thurston
Vibe: “Too Shy” was the immortal hit that defined this British New Romantic outfit, but the story was never as simple as that tune. The mentioned hit and its parent LP White Feathers (1983) were co-helmed by Duran Duran founder Nick Rhodes and their producer Colin Thurston. Many attributed the album’s success to Rhodes and Thurston’s involvement, but Kajagoogoo were very present as a band on that project. By the time Islands appeared in 1984, lead vocalist Limahl had been ousted and went on to record his own solo entry Don’t Suppose (1984).
Islands evinced that the now four-piece Kajagoogoo were more than up to the task of handling their own affairs. Nick Beggs stepped up to lead singer duties; flitting between flash and restraint, his voice (and playing) matched his bandmates renewed passion.
Moving into a sophisti-pop vein, a movement that gained more traction globally during the mid-to-late 1980’s, Islands balanced rock fervor with jazz chops. Whether acidic and groovy on “Big Apple” or imparting hypnotic melancholia on the titular song, Kajagoogoo had found their voice in their post-Limahl tumult. The album culminated with an ambitious instrumental, “The Loop,” that would have fit perfectly on Sade’s Diamond Life (1984).
Islands began strong with the U.K. Top 10 hit “Big Apple”; later singles failed to make wider impact. Their U.S. traction was lost when Islands received no release there. Eager to shed preconceptions, the group (unwisely?) rechristened themselves as “Kaja” and birthed an amended EP for Islands entitled Extra Play (1984). No dice. Their last record, the funkier Crazy People’s Right to Speak (1985), met a similar fate. Despite being written off as one-hit wonders, Kajagoogoo’s Islands is a fantastic snapshot of British pop at an interesting interval with this band at their peak.
Watch / Listen: “Turn Your Back on Me”
Album: Atlas (2003, Nettwerk America / Sonic 360)
Personnel: Giberto Cerezo (vocals / guitars); Carlos Chairez (guitars); Omar Gongora (drums); Ulises Lozano (keyboards / programmer); Cesar Pliego (bass)
Production Duties: Kinky, Thom Russo
Vibe: Kinky (2002), the debut album, was an indie-hit; its mix of electronic pop, rock and Latin music was instantly addictive. Yet the album felt staid, as if the Mexican band was keeping their best tricks in the bag. The following year, their second album Atlas released the Kinky beast that would define all their later recordings. Atlas opened on a frenetic fusion high with “Presidente” before seguing into “The Headphonist”―that off-kilter jam featured co-lead vocals with Cake singer John McCrea.
The remainder of Atlas surfed between a miscellany of percussion―natural and artificial―electronic twitches and (surprisingly) quieter moments (“Not Afraid,” “Semillas de Menta”). Atlas often gets admonished as Kinky’s most “alternative” outing, but (again) it set-off the chain reaction for the against the grain curve that personified later recordings: Reina (2006), Barracuda (2008) , Sueño de la Maquina (2011).
Kinky seemed to lean heavily on its electronic crutch, but Atlas tossed out the formula and went balls to the wall with its tunes. One of their most satisfying releases, Atlas shouldn’t be pegged erroneously due to its fearlessness to sonically wander.
Watch / Listen: “Presidente”