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Billy Mackenzie - Outernational [Original released on Circa (1992), re-release on Virgin (2006)]


ImageAfter the relative commercial failure of The Associates' Wild And Lonely, Circa nevertheless soldiered on with Billy Mackenzie as a solo artist. Billy became more and more interested in club culture and its music, so a decision to make that kind of music was easily made. Even though dance music tends to be quite monotonous and quite frankly boring, it only needs a good singer to get your attention. And Billy Mackenzie possessed a voice like that, which could have made Outernational an exceptional album. To say it's an album with pure floor fillers, however, would also do it grave injustice.


Billy would often refer to the music as having a "glacial beauty", and this is surely true of the title track (also the opening track of the album). Tom Doyle, who wrote the biography The Glamour Chase: the maverick life of Billy Mackenzie (Bloomsbury, ISBN 0-7475-4399-2), aptly described the rhythm of this particular track "evocative of both Kraftwerk and [David Bowie's] Station To Station". Billy's smouldering voice and high whoops do the rest. It's almost like sitting in the back of a car or touring car, enjoying the views of the mountains while chills run down your spine. In the artist's own words: a "total outer body experience... it means you can stay at home and be ‘Outernational'". But when the track is nearing its end, the music gives the track a slight twist, Billy following suit by almost whispering in your ear; a nice coda to easily one of the best tracks of the album.


Things become more up-tempo with "Feels Like The Richtergroove", a groover clearly in tune with early 90s type clubby house (like, say, "Show Me Love" by Robin S.), Billy going for a sassy, high R&B vocal. When you're in the (Richter)groove, it's hard to escape, yet the track gets a bit repetitive towards the end.


After a rather daft, deep voiced intro ("Trapped in a world of no time/ Shatters explode/ Yet this is no science fiction adventure/ This is the real life"), "Opal Krusch" lures you in easily, Billy singing "Precious stone... so precious". With references to diamonds (‘opal' in the title, ‘amethyst' in the lyrics), Billy's "glacial beauty" is very apt here.


"Colours Will Come" (dedicated to one Philip Jordan) was the second single to be released from this album. It's easy to say why: the chorus "From the desert bloom to the setting sun/ from the first deep breath of ‘I love you baby'" will surely make any romantic heart swoon. The melody and use of (tropical sounding) keyboards echoes one of Todd Terry's finest productions (under the Orange Lemon moniker), "Dreams Of Santa Anna". (Tellingly, another house legend, Larry Heard, remixed the song for the "Baby" 12" single.) In my opinion, it's one of the most gorgeous songs Billy ever submitted a vocal to, and one of the best singles he ever released.


Billy always had odd choices when it came to covering songs, but Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise" (the inspiration to "Gangsta's Paradise", which became a huge hit for Coolio and LV 3 years after Outernational was released) ranks among the top. The lyrics must have meant something to Billy, as he delivers them with aplomb. But its reggae leanings just fall out of place with the rest of the albums and that "glacial beauty" is quite absent here.


"Grooveature (to be continued)" is more of the sassy, clubby house, with lovely rhythm clicks and rather cliché lyrics ("move on up") and subtle lyrical hints to his inspiration: mentions of "electronic" and "Teutonic", hinting at Krautrockers such as Kraftwerk, Neu! and Palais Schaumburg. The latter's Moritz von Oswald was involved in the making of this album, as was Boris Blank of Swiss electro-pranksters Yello (with whom Billy collaborated on their One Second album from 1987). The police sirens complete the track, as if the club was raided at the end of the party.


"Sacrifice And Be Sacrificed" is a deep house track, Billy's voice once again swooping to higher registers when singing the title. Outernational becomes international when Billy sings "Berlin, Paris, New York, where are we?"


Although "Sacrifice And Be Sacrificed" could also be regarded as a ballad, "Baby" (a track Billy wrote with Boris Blank) definitely fits in that category. Although it was released as the first single of the album, it wasn't very representative of it. Then again, I can't blame any record executive for not releasing it as a single! It's one of Billy's finest ballads, almost 60s Scott Walker-esque in construction and execution, Billy begging a former lover just to see how much he has changed.


Interestingly, "What Made Me Turn On The Lights" is going for a vibe that's somewhere in between the three previous songs.


The albums ends with "In Windows All", a track that was originally to appear on The Associates' ‘lost' album The Glamour Chase (finally released in 2002 coupled with 1985's Perhaps album). It's a track that slowly builds and builds. A lyric like "You can be so proud and be stupid too/ In windows all they're blaming you" reminds me of Morrissey somehow. As usual with Billy's ballads, he breaks the meandering vibe with a vocal burst towards the end.


The Virgin re-issue ends the album with 3 extra (albeit previously released) songs. "Look What You've Done" was a B-side on the "Colours Will Come" CD-single (but whether that was also the "Marital Mix" I cannot say for sure). The track bounces along on pure Acid House bass line, Billy having fired up (no pun intended) by the "burn for you" lyric. The ‘US60659 mix' of "Colours Will Come" was released as a B-side of the "Baby" CD-single - it's insubstantial, but it's interesting and refreshing to hear that song in a totally different arrangement. The lovely ballad "Because You Love" was originally a bonus track of The Glamour Chase, but was also to be released on a promo-only CD of "Pastime Paradise".


All in all the album's a mixed bag (of styles, tempos as well as vibes) but does very well when you're driving down a very long road late at night on the highway or Autobahn. For Associates fans, this could have been (or for the ones who are discovering this album by the re-issue, could be) the final straw, as the Associates' early manic magic definitely has been smoothed out here... but fans of electronic music and/or Billy's voice will find much to love here.


Review by Robert van Gameren