Friday, 23 September 2011

Cathy Dennis 'Waterloo Sunset'

Chart Peak: 11

YouTube [warning: contains John Barrowman]

Cathy hit big in the early 1990s with tunes such as 'Just Another Dream', 'Too Many Walls' and the Top 5 smash 'Touch Me'... She returned to the UK Top 20 in 1997 with this cover of the Ray Davies classic 'Waterloo Sunset'.

It's not on YouTube, but the original video for this single actually featured a cameo appearance from Ray Davies, so presumably he had no objections to this version. I recall reading at the time that they'd met up at a songwriting retreat or something, and presumably Dennis got her money's worth from that as she has of course become a hugely successful songwriter.

Here we find her at the tail end of her career as a pop star, when she'd made an unexpected swerve into sixties-styled pop, with original material as well as covers. Presumably this was to at least some extent a reaction to Britpop, but commercially it didn't pan out brilliantly for her even here (and needless to say, it made no impact at all in the US, where she'd been more successful than I expected before this). This is, in all fairness, a perfectly respectable version of the song but it lacks some of the depth of the original, not really conveying the mixed emotions of the Kinks version. I'm open-minded enough not to hate it but I can't really see the point.

Also appearing on: Now 16 [D Mob introducing Cathy Dennis], 20
Available on: Am I The Kind Of Girl ?

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Space 'Dark Clouds'

Chart Peak: 14


'Dark Clouds' was the 4th hit single in a row for Liverpool's Space... It is the latest in a string of successes following 'Female Of The Species', 'You And Me Vs The World' and 'Neighbourhood'.

Second Merseyside act in a row (and Mansun were from Chester, which isn't all that far away), and another single that I remembered not minding at the time. I suspect that's more because it seemed to tone down the self-conscious quirkiness of their previous hits than because it was an especially appealing song; to be frank it sounds pretty useless now and I can understand why it's almost entirely forgotten. I also recall that one of the B-sides was a song called 'Influenza' which I'd previously had on a free cassette from Select Magazine (this feels like it must have been about a hundred years ago, doesn't it?) and had genuinely liked. I'm somewhat reluctant to go back to it now, but the album I've linked to below contains both tracks should you with to disagree.

Also appearing on: Now 34, 35, 39, 41
Available on: Invasion of the Spiders

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Cast 'Free Me'

Chart Peak: 7


Due for release on 24th March '97, 'Free Me' is the stonking new single from the top Mersey combo they call Cast... It is likely to storm into the chart in a fairly big way, like.

So I was all set to start this post by talking about how forgotten this song and band were and then what do I hear on Steve Wright's Non-Stop Oldies the day I start to write this post? Well, actually it was the follow-up to this, 'Guiding Star' but still, it was a bit of a surprise.

At the time, though, Cast were very much on a roll and the first single from their second album cruised easily into the Top 10. I recall quite liking it a the time, although I noticed the very similar middle eight to David Bowie's 'Little Wonder' from earlier in the year. I probably hadn't heard it for a good five years when I bought my copy of Now 36. Sadly it proved to be the track that disappointed me most: not that it's a bad song, but it's not an outstanding one either, and even though all the same people were involved it seems to lack the surefooted production of the singles from their first album. Probably just as well I never bought Mother Nature Calls, then.

Also appearing on: Now 32, 33, 34, 35, 37, 38, 43
Available on: True 90s (3 CD Set)

Monday, 19 September 2011

Mansun 'Wide Open Space'

Chart Peak: 15


Mansun are Paul, Chad, Stove and Andie... They have hit the singles chart with titles such as 'Take It Easy Chicken', 'Stripper Vicar' and this track, the pulsating Top15 hit 'Wide Open Space'.

It might have seemed more logical to use the bigger and more recent hit 'She Makes My Nose Bleed', but posterity has rather vindicated this selection. Though far from their biggest chart hit in the UK, 'Wide Open Space' is perhaps their most-remembered song nowadays - it's also the closest they came to a hit in the US, although that's still not very close to be fair.

Not unlike James, there was always something rather self-admiring about Mansun, and their obsession with gimmickry and in-references. Nonetheless, I have to hand it to Paul Draper, who wrote produced and sang this (apparently he claims to have played all the instruments as well): this is a brilliant piece of record-making, cleverly arranged for multiple guitars, pianos and Mellotron. Importantly there's enough variation in the arrangement to hold your attention without it distracting from the melody. The words were apparently an afterthought, which is a good excuse for me not to try and make sense of them - but don't think I didn't notice you slipping the word "bugger" into the backing vocals, Draper! Tut tut. It's not the rudest word ever on a Now! album but that's another story.

My one complaint is that the edit featured here (and on other compilation albums) has a rather inadequate fade (presumably because somebody was afraid of running into the next track) rather than the full close of the original single and video.

Also appearing on: Now 40
Available on: Attack Of The Grey Lantern (Collectors Edition)

Saturday, 17 September 2011

James 'She's A Star'

Chart Peak: 9

James have been making melodious, lyrical and intimate music since way back in the early 1980s... 'She's A Star' saw them back in the UK Top 10 with a bang in early '97.
I'm not entirely sure what's supposed to be so "intimate" about this song, and if anything I'd call it rather the opposite - it has a stately quality that makes it seem a bit like they're trying to write a classic song self-consciously, as it were. And the result is that like a lot of James records it leaves me rather cold. There are parts of it I can admire: it's catchy, there's a nice slide guitar part and the little bit of wordplay where Tim Booth sings "She knows where to hide in the dark/She's nowhere to hide in the dark" is sort of cute. But is set against a backdrop that's fundamentally chugging and Booth's vocal mannerisms tend to irritate rather than charm me.

But like the sleevenote says, this did get them a massive radio hit and their third Top 10 appearance, starting something of a revival in the band's fortunes for the next few years. I just don't really get it.

Also appearing on: Now 20, 21, 26, 37, 41, 43
Available on: Whiplash

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Blur 'Beetlebum'

Chart Peak: 1 (1 week)

'Beetlebum' marked a winning return to the chart for Blur when it entered at No. 1 in late January '97... The quartet are now into their 7th year of hit-making. 
I was slightly surprised to get as far as seven tracks into the second disc of an album from this era before I got to a single that I had a photographable physical copy of. For the record, I did buy 'Breathe' as a download, though obviously not at the time. No way I was going to miss out on the long-awaited comeback single from my then-favourite band, even though I'm not sure I'd heard it beforehand: in fact, I even went against my usual principles and bought one of the CD singles as well as the 7", although when I later conferred with my brother it turned out we'd both got the same CD. Darn.

You might have deduced from the above intro, and the fact that this song was widely perceived at the time as an attempt to jettison the kind of fans who'd
cheer when they get to the chorus on Top Of The Pops, that this was heading in the direction of me being disappointed. But no, not a bit of it. I loved this record from the moment I heard the intro. For all that it superficially seems to be the opposite of their other Number One, 'Country House', it's actually a very cleverly structured track: yes, the mood it achieves is very different but it does that through a much more subtle arrangement than is first apparent: listen out for the piano in the chorus and the synthesised trumpet in the verses.

Even the difference in tone seems to me at least partly a matter of choice. It's widely held - and no longer denied by Damon Albarn - that 'Beetlebum' is a song about heroin use, probably inspired by people very close to him indeed. So it's dark territory of course but then again a lot of their earlier songs had darker sides too, they just weren't played up as much. And even this track has a melodic base to it that makes it easier on the ear than if they'd worked as far into the free-jazz direction as they'd threatened to. That didn't stop it being one of the least successful Number One singles ever, but it should have.

Also appearing on: 28, 29, 32, 33, 34, 37, 42, 43
Available on: Blur

Monday, 12 September 2011

Sheryl Crow 'Everyday Is A Winding Road'

Chart Peak: 12


Sheryl won Best International Female award at the Brits recently and performed this rousing worldwide hit on the show... 'Everyday Is A Winding Road' was a No. 12 smash in late '96.

Apologies for the break in transmission back there. I wasn't feeling well and I try to avoid writing up anything I actually like when I'm out of sorts because I fear not doing it justice.

Anyway, whilst she may not have been a very close fit with my britpop-dominated early record collection, I was very keen on the first two Sheryl Crow albums at the time, particularly her self-produced second set; perhaps shamefully, I worked out that buying it doubled the number of albums I owned with female producers. In all honesty, she pretty much lost my interest after that point and I don't drag these two out much either, but this track has remained a favourite. Listening with a critical ear now, I admit that the lyric comes over as a little self-conscious, and perhaps over-reacts to her pop-star image; there's an element of "ooh look, I mentioned nicotine because I'm sooo edgy", but this remains a fine-sounding record full of looped percussion and "duelling" harmoniums (harmonia?) to create a genuinely interesting sound picture. You can almost hear the dust. Neil Finn's only-really-noticeable-when-you-know-they're-there backing vocals probably weren't wholly necessary, but nice of him to chip in anyway. It turns out to be his last Now appearance to date as well. 

Also appearing on: Now 35, 37, 39, 41, 52
Available on: The Very Best Of Sheryl Crow

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Monaco 'What Do You Want From Me?'

Chart Peak: 11


'What Do You Want From Me?' is Monaco's debut single... They are the legendary former Joy Division/ New Order bassist Peter Hook and singer David Potts and they make a right good racket too!
Of course, both Hook and Potts had also been members of the less-celebrated Revenge, and if we want to be picky about this, New Order officially still existed in 1997, although they were effectively silent in the second half of the decade. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the success of Monaco (admittedly this is one of two Top 40 hits, but that's two more than Revenge ever had) was due to this lack of new New Order material at the time.

Certainly - and unsurprisingly - the instrumental of this track does sound very like the parent act, especially but not only because of Peter Hooks' typical high-lying bass part, but the finished article is slightly different. Hook's lead vocal on the verses suggests why he wasn't the lead singer in New Order, whilst Potts' sha-la-la backing vocals give it something of a flavour of the janglier side of Britpop, laid on top of the post-punk-dance foundation. It probably shouldn't work but for most of the running time of this song it does. It's not flawless; the drum programming is less imaginative than on some of the tracks earlier in this disc and they seem to have been undecided about whether to use a piano solo, a guitar solo or a synth-string solo. But this is a good enjoyable track that deserves to be remembered more than it is.

Available on: True 90s (3 CD Set)