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William Orbit
My Oracle Lives Uptown John Tatlock , June 1st, 2009 04:41

Around three-hundred and sixty years ago, Thomas Hobbes, despairing at the terrible toll of the English Civil War, bitterly declared that the natural lot of humanity, without the rule of an absolute and dominant sovereign, was to live a life that was "nasty, brutish, and short". And if becoming a pop star is an escape from the confines of the general social contract, you could argue that Hobbes was onto something. Yes, I know this is tenuous; bear with me.

All Saints, Finlay Quaye, Beth Orton and Belinda Carlisle all have two things in common: they’ve all had hits produced by William Orbit and none of them are terribly likely to trouble the charts again.

Orbit, on the other hand, seems to be living a pop life that is "nice, brilliant, and quite long, thanks", having pretty much lived in the top 40 without a break since the mid-80s. And that’s today’s lesson, kids: don’t be in a band, be a producer.

As one third of 80s synthpop outfit Torch Song, with Laurie Mayer and Rico Canning, Orbit scored his first dancefloor hit in 1983 with the proto-house 'Prepare To Energise', which sold poorly but seemed to reach all the right pairs of ears. Within a couple of years he was remixing uber-hip Prince protégés Wendy & Lisa (and later the man himself), left field psych-pop act The Three O’Clock, and producing a single for insufferable Harry Enfield alter-ego Loadsamoney. And he’s pursued the same blend of open-mindedness, workaholism, and a somewhat endearing complete lack of shame ever since.

Continuing to produce and remix for everyone from The Cure to Madonna to Robbie Williams to Blur through the 90s and to the present day, as well as squeezing out a new Torch Song LP roughly once a decade, Orbit has also found the time for a somewhat uneven, though no less prolific, solo career, making mostly instrumental albums that career wildly from the sublime (the Strange Cargo quartet of LPs) to the libidinous (the two LPs as Bassomatic) to the . . . well, shit, basically (Pieces in a Modern Style, a collection of hideous techno versions of classical works).

Obviously, this is a man who thoroughly enjoys making music, and if my day job was dealing with Madge’s demands, I’d probably be inclined to get fairly self-indulgent in my own time. The only trouble is, left to his own devices Orbit will merrily plough the same "lying in the grass as the sun rises at a festival" furrow until you pray for someone to tarmac it with him still lying there and then ride Harley Davidsons up and down the fresh black-top, bellowing 'Born To Be Wild'.

My Oracle Lives Uptown is, in all but name, Strange Cargo 5. But where those albums had a compellingly sinister undertow, Oracle largely sticks to the beatific, sun-drenched end of things, and is, sadly, all the poorer for it. Tracks such as 'Hydrajacked' and 'Spotlight Kid' are sweet but rather dated slices of what I’m deciding to call "I Refuse To Leave The 90s Sunrise House", the latter featuring a gratingly jolly piano loop sample that even arch cheesy bugger Fatboy Slim would baulk at these days. 'Neutron Star'’s hackneyed ooh-ooh vocal is only forgivable in that it’s utterly forgettable, and the likes of 'Golden Country' and 'Nimbus' plumb such depths of mellowed-out tedium — you can only assume that Jean Michel Jarre is furious to have his "I’m-on-Prozac-and-a-bit-bored" style bitten off so thoroughly. This is all deeply, disappointingly lazy stuff from a studio veteran like Orbit, who probably has Pro Tools plug-ins that can make this stuff for him while he’s on holiday.

However, the three tracks made with his old Torch Song collaborators — who have presumably known Orbit long enough to be able to say "It’s rubbish, William, let’s go back and do it properly" — are excellent. Lead single 'Purdy' pulls off the strange trick of being both laid back and twitchily urgent, with squelching synths broiling away beneath distant piano strikes. The title track is, funnily enough, guilty of all the same things as the rest of the LP — slightly dated beats, cornily angelic female vocals, and a melodic sweetness that could rot teeth — but shows what great things Orbit can do with that recipe when he gets his finger out.

Their other contribution as a trio, 'White Night', is downright creepy, and easily the best thing here. An incredibly minimal beat and lurching bassline topped with Mayer’s somnambulant vocal lamenting the moment "when all the stars say go", it’s as tensely chilling as the rest of the album is tediously chilled.

Overall, My Oracle Lives Uptown is pretty, but far from essential. You’d do the housework to it quite happily and some of it will no doubt end up on TV commercials; it’s one of those records. Perhaps the best reason for its existence is that it flags up the possibility that this decade’s Torch Song album — due later this year — will be a corker. But there’s little here that Orbit hasn’t already done better more times than you need to buy it.