A few months back, the announcement was made that Dubstar were at work on a fourth album, due for release this year. This came from Steve Hillier, brains of the outfit, who has, in the intervening years since Dubstar’s departure from the music scene, continued to maintain webpages connected with their music. Perhaps Hillier’s prevalent nostalgia is what has kickstarted the Dubstar motor once again, or perhaps they just couldn’t help themselves (real musicians never can); either way, things are afoot. i think that history – with all the old-fashioned benevolence of a grandmother – has been kind to Dubstar: they are encased within a memory that finds playful melodies and darkly acerbic lyrics conjoined, a paradox perfectly encapsulated in the person of singer Sarah Blackwood, her strongly northern dialect colliding with her angelic, unwavering soprano voice. Dubstar, in short, are like one of Grayson Perry‘s ceramics, discreetly placing disturbing imagery within a context that at first seems familiar and safe. It’s been interesting, then, to revisit all their old releases, many of which have been untouched on the CD shelves for far too long; ten singles (all long out of print), three albums, plus one or two other odds and ends, totalling a little over seven hours of music. Released over a five-year period, this is a fair achievement. But how does the music acquit itself now? What is Dubstar’s legacy?
i suspect many people’s abiding memory of Dubstar is their single ‘Stars’; i first heard this in 1995, on a late-night music programme (called ‘The Priory’ or something), and was struck at how fresh and different it seemed from everything else. It took two attempts for the public to appreciate this song; the first time, it barely broke the Top 40, but re-released in early 1996 it became a popular hit (and, ultimately, their best-selling single). The original release came with a selection of pretty feeble remixes, none of which enhances the song and all of which today sound horribly dated.
The same year, two further singles were released. ‘Anywhere’ gives an indication of things to come, the CD containing both remixes and also a new song. It was during the ’90s that it became fashionable to release singles in the form of two CDs, one of which contained remixes, the other different songs; after ‘Anywhere’, Dubstar’s singles were released in this way. ‘Anywhere’ itself is a competent song, with a great middle 8; it’s overshadowed by ‘Don’t Blame Me’, though, which is a fantastic mellow song, full of expression. The remixes here are more impressive: the ‘Parkside Edit’ is a glorious example of the 1990s sound, complete with aimless circling jazz piano, and the ‘Crunch Chill’ is a nice (if slightly monotonous) late-night dance mix.
And then came ‘Not So Manic Now’, which became well-known very quickly, in part due to its disturbing lyric content, detailing the attack of a pensioner (the lyrics were penned by a psychiatric nurse). Despite the success of ‘Stars’, it was this song that cemented Dubstar in the public consciousness, and no doubt contributed to the success of ‘Stars’ when it was re-released early in 1996. ‘Not So Manic Now’ is the archetypal Dubstar song, bringing together the familiar and disturbing that i mentioned above. The remixes are dubious; both Way Out West mixes have little to do with the song, but the ‘Mother’s Whole Dub’ is a more honest remix. CD2 contains new songs, including the gorgeous ‘Song No. 9’, melancholy and irregular, and ‘A Certain Sadness’, which has a beautiful ’70s retro flavour.
The re-released version of ‘Stars’ is audibly identical to the original; it was, however, released with a fresh slew of remixes. One of these, the ‘Motiv 8 Radio Mix’ is one of their best, and even warranted a video in its own right. Again, the ‘Way Out West Mix’ is appalling: egotistical, eccentric, demonstrating nothing but a paucity of talent. Of the extra songs, ‘Starfish’ is nicely strange, and ‘Excuse Me Father’ is brilliant—especially through headphones, as the production is marvellous; it’s a shame songs like this are deemed unsuitable for release as singles.
‘Elevator Song’, which came next, is a poor release; it doesn’t quite live down to the ‘lift music’ connotations of the title, but the reggae touches just sound wrong here. The remixes are all fairly lengthy but, once again, they’re a mostly naff selection. Both of the ‘d’Still’d’ mixes are insufferably bad, neither interesting to listen nor dance to; fortunately, the ‘Biff And Memphis Club Mix’, the longest of the three, is excellent, bestowing a dreamy quality on the song that actually seems far more appropriate than the angular textures of the original.
While ‘Elevator Song’ isn’t good, it doesn’t seem half as bad compared with both ‘Anyway’ and ‘A Northern Bride’; the latter is quite sweet and simple, if a little weak, but the former is a song-writing disaster, with extremely bad melodic/harmonic writing. ‘The View From Here’, then, is the standout track, but not merely because of its poor company; this is an early version of what would become one of Dubstar’s best songs (on the Goodbye album), but all the basic elements are already in place; this really should have been released as a single, as it’s a superb song.
These four singles are all included on Disgraceful, their first album, released in the autumn of 1995. It’s a rousing, successful release, the songs all sounding consistent with one another. ‘Week In, Week Out’ and the title track are both especially good, and ‘Just A Girl She Said’ is excellent, a true ’90s anthem with some great major/minor switches in the harmony. ‘The Day I See You Again’, though, is truly outstanding, an exquisitely beautiful song about former lovers meeting up after a lengthy time apart. The lyrics are really fine, capturing the ambivalence of the situation perfectly: “All this time I’ve waited knowing / Though I’ve changed, my heart’s still showing … things got better when you left / and though I’ve banned your name since then / I’ll call it with my dying breath / No-one else would have me / So I’ve made this day of all days / The day I see you again.”
Moving into 1997, Dubstar’s next single is arguably their finest, ‘No More Talk’. This is not simply because of the strength of this song (and it is a great song), but the quality of the additional songs on the disc. ‘Unchained Monologue’ is a witty but very poignant litany of the excuses and lies that permeate relationships (even the title is clever, a twist on The Righteous Brothers’ well-known love song ‘Unchained Melody’; furthermore, ‘unchained’ is a perfect description of what the lyrics are doing, ‘releasing’ the truth behind the words). This is followed by ‘La Boheme’, a brilliant, Spanish-inflected reminiscence laden with Sarah Blackwood’s usual, stalwart melancholy. And finally, ‘Goodbye’, simple verses contrasted with frenzied bossanova outbursts (there’s no chorus as such); the surprise coda is especially punchy. It’s a fantastic little EP, four of Dubstar’s best songs in one place.
The second disc offers reinterpretations of three of their previous songs, ‘Stars’, ‘Elevator Song’ and ‘Not Once, Not Ever’. Labelled “acoustic”, in fact they’re nothing of the sort; the songs have been somewhat stripped down, the music conveyed instead by synthetic strings; this considerably exposes Blackwood’s voice, demonstrating how impeccable her singing really is – she has the uncanny ability to be note-perfect every time. They’re all attractive, but the rendition of ‘Stars’ is simply beautiful; in any case, it has perhaps their most harmonically interesting material, with some lovely major/minor false relations. It’s a blessed relief to have these singles devoid of remixes; Dubstar are, above all, crafters of songs, and there’s often a sense of their material being forced into a pre-fab remix ‘mould’. But these are a marvellous pair of discs.
i’ve never been fond of ‘Cathedral Park’: the wurlitzer and brass sound tacky, cheerful in the worst sense. Therefore – despite what i just said – the remixes, for once, actually prove more interesting. The ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ mix is nice, and the ‘Jamie Myerson Breakout Mix’, despite having an over-long intro, also develops into a great dance version.
The songs are interesting. ‘Let Down’ is soft and folk-like, just voice (multi-tracked) and guitar, with a nicely elastic structure that feels controlled but allowed to meander. ‘This Is My Home’ is curious but effective, combining a slow melody over hectic, glitch-ridden beat constructions; this type of effect – using ‘concentric tempi’, slow and fast simultaneously – is one of my favourite devices of (more intelligent) pop, always fascinating to hear. Finally, ‘In My Defence’ sounds rather like it’s been structured upon a baroque-like ground bass, intense and brooding with nice shifting textures in between.
‘I Will Be Your Girlfriend’ is a sharp volte-face to the multitude of songs lamenting the heartache of relationships; the lyrics are downright nasty, concerned only with revenge, which Blackwood sings with utter relish: “I’m a person with a plan for you / I’m a person who will wreck your confidence … I will be your headache / I will be your wits’ end … I’m the knee in your groin / I’m the fly in your soup … Somehow I’ll complicate your life / And now you’ll have to tell your wife”. This unchecked vitriol is subsequently neutralised by the five – five! – remixes of the song, all of which, as usual, have little to do with the original song. Only the ‘Deadly Avengers Montana Mix’ has any interest, with the added advantage that it’s mercifully brief). It’s such a shame that this devilish song is in such miserable company.
The band’s second album, Goodbye, brings these three songs together with another 12 to create Dubstar’s longest release (some of the songs are very short, though). It’s also their most diverse release; unfortunately, the quality is inconsistent, and while they’re not exactly bad, some of the songs are decidedly flat and unmemorable (‘My Start In Wallsend’ is just awful). Nonetheless, ‘Inside’ and the tiny ‘Polestar’ are lovely gems, and ‘The View From Here’ – now polished and with even more momentum than its early incarnation on the ‘Elevator Song’ single – is magnificent.
At this point, in early 1998, things came to an apparent stop, and two years of silence passed before the release of anything new. The Dubstar that subsequently emerged seems a more confident and mature group, the songs more powerful for their slightly less impetuous slant on things. There’s no loss of fun, though, testified by their next single, ‘I (Friday Night)’. Slightly more guitar-oriented, it’s a catchy song, somewhat too slow to get up and dance to, but crying out to be loudly sung along with. However, despite being good, both of the accompanying songs are even better, as are – believe it or not – the remixes. On CD1, ‘I Lost A Friend’ features perhaps Dubstar’s best ever melodic writing, and ‘Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’ is all joy, a gorgeous morsel of relationship analysis tinged, for once, with happiness. It’s not surprising Steve Hillier wrote of these latter two songs, “Not wanting to sound overly proud, they are two of my favourite songs that I’ve written.”
To the remixes, and for once a Dubstar song lends itself well to this kind of treatment. DJ Jurgen’s mixes work entirely in sympathy with the song, using the melody as the focus (strange how it draws comparisons with Kraftwerk); the ‘Radio Edit’ is too compact to be successful, but the ‘Extended Version’ is fantastic both as a song and as a floor-filling dance mix.
Dubstar’s final single was ‘The Self Same Thing’, released in 2000 as a solitary disc with extra songs but – hurrah! – no remixes. ‘Redirected Mail’ features a brilliantly-chosen Gary Numan, sounding subdued and baritone. A less wise collaboration is ‘And When You Laugh’ with former Lightning Seeds frontman Ian Brodey, whose voice is decidedly second-rate. Unfortunately, quite apart from Brodey’s morose drawling, the song sounds like a Lightning Seeds pastiche, heavily redolent of muzak. However, all is more than forgiven with the final track, ‘Victoria’, an amazing piece of electronica, all dirty glitches, bass and beats. Nothing else in Dubstar’s output sounds like this, and it was a tantalising suggestion of new musical developments… but of course, no further singles were forthcoming.
Sharp-eyed readers will notice a steadily decreasing output of singles with respect to albums: four for Disgraceful, three for Goodbye and just these two for Make It Better, Dubstar’s third and (to date) final album; whether this suggests a band in decline is debatable, but in hindsight seems plausible. The songs on this album give the guitar more prominence, but even more than on Goodbye there’s far too much pedestrian material here, with a number of disinterested, unengaging tracks. As always, though, the best songs are really something. ‘Take It’ is especially rousing, full of momentum; ‘Mercury’, too, has a gentle rock ambiance, with Sarah Blackwood even sounding just a hint like Amy Lee at times. Perhaps their most witty song is ‘I’m Conscious Of Myself’, rattling off a list of concerns that skirt the line between low self-esteem and mid-life crisis; its moment of forced courage is outrageous: “Don’t you just love my arse?” Continuing the suggestion of Dubstar’s decline, it’s possible they knew this would be their last release – is there a hint in the final track title, ‘Swansong’? – but either way, Make It Better is not a successful farewell to their career.
So what is Dubstar’s legacy? It seems fair to say that, despite some sounds that are embarrassingly 1990s, the music does not sound particularly “of its time”. There’s a kind of timelessness pervading many of the songs, particularly the best ones from the albums which weren’t released as singles. In no small part this achievement is due to Sarah Blackwood’s voice: ostensibly dispassionate – never even a hint of vibrato! – and yet filled to bursting with raw emotion. Their preparedness to explore lyrics that descry the darkest of our experiences was brave, and their ability to convey the resultant feelings in a way that was accessible yet poignant is no mean feat. There are, as i’ve said, songs that fail to live up to the rest, but when the rest is so good, it’s churlish to be too negative about that.
Dubstar’s most fitting valediction is an unreleased song that Steve Hillier made available for download a year or two after the group dissolved. The title says it all, ‘The Last Song’, and with it’s stripped down performance (just guitar and vocals, plus some delicate, distant ambience), moving lyrics and fabulous harmonic twists, it’s perhaps the most beautifully heartfelt song they ever created, capturing as never before that sense of quietly defiant resignation – “bitter and strong” – that was ever at the heart of Dubstar.