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Zambient One
ZTT Wyndham Wallace , June 14th, 2013 05:58

During their incipient 1980s heydays, ZTT Records were, one might argue, the label that turned flogging a dead horse into an art form. Churning out infinite mixes of their early, seminal – that word is carefully, if inevitably, chosen – hits with Frankie Goes To Hollywood, as well as Art Of Noise and Propaganda, their catalogue existed like a Möbius Loop, endlessly wrapping itself around itself. They even released a Grace Jones album, Slave To The Rhythm, which was little more than a 42 minute extended mix of one song. Producer and owner Trevor Horn and his associates' genius was that they could stretch this single track into an overblown, overpowering masterpiece. As with so much that they did in those early days, what might have been exploitative instead turned out exceptional.

Given the voluminous amount of material available, the arrival of another ZTT compilation is hardly unexpected. The arrival of this particular ZTT compilation, however, is. Billed as "the soundtrack to an imaginary road movie that heads off from Sarm Studios in West London on a torrential Friday night and arrives at the burning embers of Studios Mediterraneo in Ibiza just in time for sunrise on Sunday", Zambient One gathers together a selection of rare and unreleased material from ZTT's catalogue, then throws in similarly largely unfamiliar material from the Stiff Records archives. But though ZTT may have acquired the label in the mid 1980s, the two companies are hardly an obvious musical match. And Ibiza? That surely rings alarm bells: it was Frankie Goes To Hollywood's sojourn on the island that brought the band to its knees.

Nonetheless, on paper this still sounds intriguing: threading together more Balearic-inclined examples of the 808 State, Kirsty MacColl, FGTH, Propaganda and Art Of Noise catalogues puts an interesting spin on otherwise familiar sounds. Furthermore, the inclusion of other lesser-known acts such as Hoodlum Priest and Instinct, alongside curveballs from Jona Lewie and Tracey Ullman, suggests an unusual level of confidence in the concept.

Unusually, unlike other 'imaginary soundtracks', Zambient One refuses to offer a smooth passage, its journey instead sometimes bumpy and curiously mapped. A pleasantly sluggish 'Beating Hart' variation on Art of Noise's 'Moments In Love' opens proceedings, but jars a little with the sleazier sounds of Hoodlum Priest's 'Sex Spirit'. This in turn may be full of French spoken word vocals and lush synthetic strings – suggesting it represents some kind of seedy cross-channel ferry ride – but it's immediately followed by 808 State's 'Pacific State (Justin Strauss Mix)', whose electronic bird trills hint at more tropical climes (even if the song's title doesn't).

These are then followed by L.A.Z.Y., a collaboration between Adamski and vocalist Loretta Heywood (better known for her work on Bomb The Bass's sumptuous 'Winter In July') which sounds like Morcheeba in their early days. That's boldly interrupted by the arrival of Tracey Ullman, whose brassy attitude on 'I Know What Boys Like', originally by The Waitresses, anticipates the kind of saucy talk to which many an electroclash frontwoman would aspire two decades later. By now, in other words, we're digging out the road atlas, though not all these detours are successful: the 'Sex Mix Edition 2' of Frankie's 'Relax' is disappointingly perfunctory, while an overextended mix of 'Sleepwalking', an unreleased track by Instinct – who rose from the ashes of Pigbag – suffers from production so extravagant as to sound almost flatulent. (In fact, the band allegedly left the label due to disagreements about Horn's approach.)

Zambient One's greater achievement is to shine a welcome light on tracks that, even individually, are worth the enthusiasm with which curator Ian Peel has chosen to champion them. Hoodlum Priest have been due a revisit for some years – their debut album, from which 'Sex Spirit' is taken, was shelved soon after release for legal reasons – and it's hard to argue with much of either Art Of Noise's or 808 State's early work. David Morales' 'Def Mix' of Novecento's 'Day And Night' may offer nostalgia only for lovers of Italian House, but Kirsty MacColl's 'Walking Down Madison (6am Ambient Mix)' – whose original was, incidentally, co-written by Johnny Marr – is a revelation, its early 1990s hip pop beats eradicated to leave a peaceful, if lyrically unsettling meditation perfect for the Ibiza sunrise to which this journey is supposedly headed.

Heights Of Abrahams' cover of Fred Neil's 'Dolphin's is similarly ingenious, predicting the quietest of Yo La Tengo's work over recent years, while The Mint Juleps' smooth, soulful take on Neil Young's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' succeeds by virtue of its effervescent yet joyful atmosphere. In addition, there's a worthwhile instrumental take on Propaganda's majestic 'Dream Within A Dream' and a pleasant reminder – in the shape of his first hit, 1980's wry 'You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties' – that there was more to Jona Lewie than 'Stop The Cavalry'.

Typically beautifully packaged, if unusually light on the normal grandiose ZTT liner notes, Zambient One's intelligent selection of neglected tracks may in the end sound just as good on shuffle. But it also proves that, when it comes to ZTT, there's still no need to put a dead horse out to pasture.