Balearic Mike`s Musical Diets / Week 30: William Orbit

Words & selections by Balearic Mike.

There was a really interesting interview with William Orbit in The Guardian a few weeks ago, which inspired me to dig out a load of his records to listen to again. Let’s start with the really cool one that everyone likes because it was on that DJ Harvey mix, Sarcastic Study Masters Volume 2…

William Orbit – Strange Cargo – IRS Records 1987

Balearic Mike Strange Cargo

Mr Orbit had been making interesting records for years before I had encountered anything by him, but in summer 1989, I saw his name on the credits of 3 of my favourite records, which piqued my interest somewhat. Those 3 were: Les Negresses Vertes – Zobi La Mouche (Remix Rosbif), S’Express – Mantra For A State Of Mind (Parts 1 And 2) (Elevation Mix), and Prince – The Future (Remix) / Electric Chair (Remix). Then the following summer he had an enormous UK club and chart hit as Bassomatic with Fascinating Rhythm (it won’t surprise people who know me that I love this record). But it was only after starting work in Manchester’s Vinyl Exchange that I got onto the first two Strange Cargo LPs. 

Strange Cargo is like some oddball soundtrack to a cult `80s European film that doesn’t exist. At moments it reminds me of Stuart Copeland`s excellent Rumble Fish score, or the soundtrack work of Eric Serra. Opening track, Via Caliente, and side two’s Riding To Rio (the one on the Harvey mix) are the two standout tracks, and my favourites, and the most obviously ‘Balearic’. The rest is an often odd mix of up-tempo, electric guitar laden electro beats, cold, minimal electronica, and soothing ambient tracks. A beautiful first step on William`s way to pop domination!

This is the one for me where he’s nailed it.

William Orbit feat. Beth Orton – Water From A Vine Leaf – Guerrilla Records / Tribal America 1993 /94

Balearic Mike Water From A Vine Leaf

Balearic Mike Water From A Vine Leaf 2

William Orbit had been making weird and interesting, and quite excellent records for years, under a multitude of guises at this point. The first two Strange Cargo LPs are brilliant, but it’s on Strange Cargo III that I think he arrives at what I like to think of as the William Orbit sound, and it’s really quite special. Sadly, it was also the first of this wonderful series of records that wasn’t released as a vinyl LP (Rob, can Be With Records rectify this please?), but he did soften the blow somewhat by preceding it with this absolute gem of a single – continuing a collaborative partnership with Beth Orton which began on the Spill track, I Don’t Want to Know About Evil, released on Guerrilla the previous year. Sadly, the Spill LP never made it to fruition, morphing instead into Beth’s debut solo LP, Superpinkymandy – which was given an almost mythically limited Japan-only release. This track, Water From A Vine Leaf, however, became an instant Balearic classic in the summer of ’93. The standout on the UK 12” was the superb Underwater Mix Pt.1 by Underworld – a near 12-minute epic, all chugging beats, squiggly synth lines and melodic piano riffs. And of course, Beth`s wonderful voice.

Then a huge chunk of time goes past (my memory tells me it was almost a year, but that can’t be right, can it?) and the US 12” appears on Tribal America, with the quite different, but deeply wonderful Underwater Mix Pt.2 , again by Underworld. It’s sparser, spacey, and quite different to Pt.1. You also get the added bonus of a great little Radio Edit, which has an excellent vocal: instrumental ratio. I’m pretty sure it was summer 1994, as I recall playing this at Café Mambo on my first visit to Ibiza. In between these two 12”s, the brilliant Strange Cargo 3 album appeared, but only on CD. I bought it and got a friend to tape it, as I didn’t own a CD player. 

This is the LP which probably means that Madonna is about to phone you for a gig. 

Strange Cargo – Hinterland – N-Gram Records 1995

Balearic Mike Hinterland

If Strange Cargo 3 is the album where William Orbit finally distills the essence of the sound he’s got in this head, then on the next one he totally perfects it – and what perfection. The opening salvo of lead single, Million Town, then She Cries Your Name, and Montok Point, is simply stunning. Million Town totally encapsulates everything I love about W.O.`s music – the chugging break-beat, squelching, twisting analogue synth-lines, and that hauntingly beautiful piano melody. It’s no wonder that this must be one of the most synched pieces of music on UK TV. She Cries Your Name is still possibly the best record that either William Orbit or Beth Orton has ever made, and Montok Point`s driving, propulsive rhythms make it plain that this is not just a ‘chill out’ LP.

The whole album is a masterpiece. Beth Orton joins in again on Kiss Of The Bee, while El Ninjo is another high point. This is simply very beautiful music. William’s also recorded an entire LP of music with Caroline Lavelle, who also plays cello on this SC3, and the Torch Song album, so on a bit of a roll is our William.

The final part of my William Orbit odyssey is the LP where he became a household name – at least a household name in households with an inordinate number of records in them …

Madonna – Ray Of Light – Maverick 1998

Balearic Mike Ray Of Light

I should start with a full disclosure – I bloody love Madonna, so this combination of artist and producer is a match made in heaven for me. At the time though, you could say this was a big gamble for her. William wasn’t really working in the same musical universe as Madge at that point, and yet the two collaborate to make what for me is far and away one of her greatest LPs, and one of the best pop LPs ever, full stop.

Eight years on from what must be considered her commercial and critical zenith, in1990, with Vogue and the Blonde Ambition Tour, Madonna had experienced some career ‘ups and downs” shall we say. Erotica was her first LP since her debut not to go to number 1 in the US, and although Bedtime Stories and the Evita soundtrack were both successful, events such as her photo book, Sex, had meant that controversy and negative press had been a constant throughout. In the subsequent years Madonna had her first child, and began an interest in Kabbalah. As she approached 40 her voice was sounding better than it ever had, and this Ray Of Light rings, resonates, like a woman who is really truly happy and confident. Lead single Frozen was a tantalizing glimpse of what was coming, with its beautiful video directed by Chris Cunningham. All ethereal vocals and synth washes, North African and Middle Eastern musical motifs, and a skittering breakbeat – like drum & Bass on smack.

When the album landed, the opening song, Drowned World / Substitute For Love, let us know that this was pop music unlike any that had been made before. It’s one of her finest – starting with haunting synths and gorgeous, almos, accapella vocals, while gradually building into a symphonic tribute to the last decade of house, techno, and electronic music experimentation. This LP is pure musical joy. A wonderful co-production.

For more from Balearic Mike you can find him on both Facebook and Instagram – @balearicmike. Mike also has a Mixcloud page packed with magnificent, magical, music.

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