After AllBillie Ray Martin has been very busy of late and finally the fruits of her musical labour are beginning to materialise. A forthcoming duet with Hercules and Love Affair resident Aerea Negrot and a new Jon Tiven-produced country and soul album are pencilled in for some time later this year as well as a re-release of her back catalogue including, perhaps, the mythical follow-up to 1990’s ‘Electribal Memories’. Preceding all of these though, is this intriguing and deeply satisfying cover version of an early seventies David Bowie album-track, “After All”.

A quintessential Billie Ray Martin track in many ways, this new single does hark back to a sound that can be equated to Martin’s old band Electribe 101. A constantly evolving and innovative artist, it is unusual to hear the star reference her own sound in this way and that’s not to say that this is in any way a nostalgic or indulgent recording; it is in fact one of her most vibrant and possessed for some time. Haunting and lusty vocals that are very high in the mix and sound as though they are being whispered directly into your ear, pitched backing vocals that sound likes crazed infants (and true to Bowie’s original in that respect) all set to a throbbing bass-line that was first established in the late eighties. It’s a little freaky and you can dance to it, a perfect combination and Martin has never sounded better – a truly virtuoso performer.

With remixes by Miijk Van Dijk and Caesar Gergess (Van Dijk gets my vote with its hyperactive disco cowbell), there is something to please everyone here. However the original can’t be beaten and this is much more than just a stop gap between other releases. One of the best things I’ve heard this year, Billie Ray Martin continues to shine.

As a special treat, here’s a link to the video as well:

Enjoy.

The Feast of the Broken HeartHercules and Love Affair have, on their third album, confirmed that their own intense love affair with dance music made during the various halcyon years of its many important manifestations is ongoing and as slavish and cult-like as ever. Whilst their 2008 debut album put Anthony of the Johnsons at its centre as the wounded but forever stoic and ultimate Disco Queen and its follow up, 2011’s “Blue Songs” flirted with stranger, European disco and electronic music of the late seventies and early eighties “The Feast of the Broken Heart” is an all-out, no exceptions and no-holds-barred house music rewrite. Trax Records, bitch house, dominant, soulful vocals and luxurious and uplifting melodies are the setting here and, unlike previous releases from the collective, the fever never resolves itself with a ballad. BPM are set at an almost constant 126 and it is relentless in its intention. The sadness and melancholia which is an intrinsic element of House and Disco music’s DNA has translated to Hercules and Love Affair’s music; it was always there from the beginning and it is what helps sets this band apart from other similar but less knowing and respectful acts. Importantly, the band don’t do irony or kitsch, they are interested only in the heart and blood of dance music-and having the most amazing night of your life, again and again.

Andy Butler represents dance music made mainly but not exclusively by openly gay and transgender artists. It feels synonymous with a post-aids New York but is considerably more wide-reaching than this, more than anything though it is resolutely and absolutely ‘queer’. Alternative and maintaining free and radical thinking and challenging the norms of today’s gay culture, the list of Butler’s vocal contributors has always supported this. The biggest name here is singer-songwriter du jour John Grant, an inspired and fascinating choice. Alongside him are established soul singer Krystle Warren, trans star Rouge Mary and Berlin based vocalist Gustaph. Grant’s contributions here are not a million miles from those featured on his ground-breaking and celebrated excursion in techno and electronic-folk album from last year, “Pale Green Ghosts”. As might be expected the arrangements here are more florid but detail is everything particularly with the incredible “I Try to Talk to You” which deals with an issue that also played a pivotal part in “Pale Green Ghosts”, that of Grant’s HIV status. Set against distinct hi-hats , churning beats, strings and synth ‘whoosh’ stabs which have been adopted by everyone from Lisa Lisa to the Pet Shop Boys (past and present) it almost, but not quite, tips into handbag house that prevailed briefly in the mid-nineties.  A dancing and tinkling, emotional piano refrain props up Grant’s mournful longing ‘I would give you anything to take away your pain’. 

‘Are you talking to me? My name isn’t girl. Nor is ‘hey look at me, c’mon baby, give us a twirl’….I’ve come too far from the girl I was taught to be for you to make a bitch out of me’; on “My Offence” Krystle Warren’s vocals are assertive and warm and very much at home on this self-empowerment statement, punctuated by a sharp disco whistle note; this is neither preachy nor sentimental, it’s the album’s highlight. “That’s Not Me” featuring Gustaph is a twitchy and tense minimal house workout and “5:43 To Freedom” harks back to the bitch tracks of early Junior Vasquez and Larry Tee --  ‘is that boy of a girl? A communist?  Probably a speed freak. Some sort of intellectual -- or a muscle-queen? Just a whore’.  “Do You Feel the Same?” builds on the bliss house of The Beloved and Electribe 101 and the “The Light” sees Krystle Warren’s vocals glisten and soothe over Basement Boys (Ultra Nate, Crystal Waters) keyboards, making good use of a determined answer-machine bleep and electric-guitar samples.  

Although not as experimental as previous releases which have played with language, tempos and sub-cultures of dance music, “The Feast of the Broken Heart” is Hercules and Love Affair’s most optimistic, euphoric and consistently engaging album to date. There is enough lyrical weight and personality to prevent this from becoming as one note as it could have been if left in the wrong hands, although this would still play gloriously as a continuous DJ set, which is no criticism. Dance artists have time and again failed when they have diverted from their own template, tried to incorporate styles that can’t yet master but Andy Butler doesn’t even attempt that here. A record to dance to then, from a start to finish non-stop movement and joy which is never dumb or repetitive. “The Feast of the Broken Heart” is a celebration of dance floor families, love and survival.

Last time around Little Boots lost out to La Roux and no one was expecting it. Little Boots was hyped to the point where it was inevitable that she would become, at least for a year, a Very Big Star indeed, but this didn’t materialise. Following her big, underground blog hit and debut track “Stuck On Repeat”, still many people’s favourite LB track, the first big, official song “New In Town” came with a misjudged video and after a quick appearance in the top ten, it was gone. RedOne, massive at the time because of his involvement with the newly hatched star Lady Gaga, was roped in to produce the next single “Remedy” (subsequently very popular at the Olympics I’ve been told) and again, another terrible video and another song that failed to dominate. An album, “Hands”, was eventually released to very mixed reviews (it’s actually a very solid debut) and then La Roux crept in and became the Very Big Star with a number 1 single, a number 2 album and USA success resulting in a Grammy. That was, somewhat terrifyingly, 4 years ago now and neither LB nor LR have followed up their debuts; until now that is.

“Nocturnes” is an album that had a considerable history before it was even released; massive rows with record companies, lack of creative control and scrapped sessions finally resulting in Victoria Hesketh aka Little Boots releasing the album herself. One of the reasons for this act of ultimate control was obviously to allow Little Boots to release the album that she has been trying to make for the last 4 years with no absolutely no restrictions or compromises and this is why it is so bewildering that the end product is most definitely and disappointingly a flawed one. Little Boots knows her dance music and with co-writes from members of Hercules and Love Affair and Simian Mobile Disco and the album being produced by Tim Goldsworthy of DFA, sonically this is a change from the first album where Phil Oakey was a guest vocalist and eighties electro synth pop was cited as the main influence.  There are overlaps of course but this sounds different. This is an album that wants to take its time and stretch out, languish; two tracks are over 6 mins long (and they are both mid tempos and down-hearted) but Boots is still writing 3 minute pop songs which can rattle around a bit in the overly extended time frames given to them here.

Three of the best songs on “Nocturnes” have been released before but the general tone this time is more serious. “Shake” is a straight-up chunky house track, the structure of the song, the repetition, it’s not a pop song and it holds up; you play this in a club and people dance. “Motorway” sounds like Saint Etienne (Hesketh and Sarah Cracknell also sharing similar sounding vocals) doing Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” (a good thing) and “Every Night I Say a Prayer” is old school vocal house with a lovely, dreamy piano riff. New tracks don’t do as well but “Confusion” has some lovely, intricate details and is a successful stab at disco (unlike the chicken in a basket, flabby Kylie album track, “Beat Beat”) and “Crescendo”, which is a real oddity, a pop ballad stretched out to 6 minutes that is lovely and sad for about 4 of those until it starts to morph into Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” and things become stretched to breaking point. The songs are here on the whole but the energy is oddly not, which is by far the biggest difference between this and her debut, and this is meant to be a dance album. Minutes go by where nothing happens and awkward synth lines or a lonely syndrum fill time where anther song could have taken their place; she must have written more than 10 in the last 4 years?

Little Boots reminds me of Cocknbullkid, another young, talented British singer-songwriter who has failed to engage with their target audience. Both are slightly self-conscious, intelligent women who can’t seem to fully inhabit the role required to be a successful pop star; arrogance and posturing is absent and it isn’t just this aspect that La Roux gets right.  She is admittedly outspoken but she also has an almost instant iconic appearance which she knowingly, smartly exploits. I doubt most people could identify Hesketh by picture only, music lover or Daily Mail reader. Boots’ strength is her song writing and “Nocturnes” will establish her place in the touring circuit as a dedicated artist that needs to create and I hope she finds a way to continue to do this without becoming the massive pop star that initially it looked like she would be.