After a long, long delay journal #11 is finally here. The following journal was written the evening of 24 December, but is posted today. I think this will be my last journal for this year, and maybe the final one I will write. See, by the things I’ve seen in the music world section I am interested in I have not found any new (or new to me) bands that capture my interest, or am unable to think up any old ones that do at this time which are fresh in a relative way, considering what is now trendy or common...and I don’t know when I will. So this journal could be my last, however that is not a definitive answer.
“I’ll be around anywhere, any place you want me....”
Indeed, she will be. :-) The above lyrics say everything one needs to know about this fabulous group that I love. Who are they, and what makes them a unique and incredible combo? The following paragraphs will explain.
First off an introduction to Dubstar, for those who don’t know them. They are an English band from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, who play indiepop dance music, and ballads done in the same style. Their main era is the 1990’s, their members are the very beautiful lead singer Sarah Blackwood (vocals) Steve Hillier ([electric] keyboards) and Chris Wilkie (guitar) having been on hiatus in the early to mid-00’s but recently reforming in 2010. Chris W. and Steve H. formed Dubstar in 1992, initially with Steve Hillier singing vocals. Their lead singer Sarah Blackwood joined Dubstar in 1993. According to their wiki entry: “Formerly known as The Joans, Dubstar were initially a two piece band, with Chris Wilkie playing guitar and Steve Hillier singing and playing keyboards. Gavin Lee joined The Joans in the Autumn of 1992 and played drums and latterly bass guitar before leaving to pursue a career at British Airways the following year. Performance artist and musician, Mark Greenwood also played bass in the The Joans for a number gigs in the summer of 1992. Sarah Blackwood was invited to join the band in August 1993 after her boyfriend accidentally left a cassette tape of her singing in Steve Hillier's flat in Jesmond, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Blackwood replaced Hillier on vocals in early 1994, though he remained a key member of the group.” So begins their story, and one could say that if not for her boyfriend’s mistake, Dubstar may never have made music together. Indeed, it was a lucky accident! Moreover, per their entry on Wikipedia.org, “Dubstar appointed Darlington based record producer and talent manager Graeme Robinson as their manager after Robinson had seen them play in a sparsely attended Newcastle club in March 1994. Robinson renamed the band and provided studio time and produced independent demos of seventeen songs which he brought to the attention of former Sounds journalist, Andy Ross, who promptly signed the band to his Camden based label, Food Records. Ross engaged the services of Pet Shop Boys and New Order producer Stephen Hague to co-produce a number of tracks with Robinson for their critically acclaimed debut album Disgraceful (1995), and commissioned an advertising campaign featuring Robert Steel's controversial "pencil case vulva" artwork.” Indeed, the album art caused a stir. The wiki continues: Disgraceful's cover underwent a revision after some time on general release. The original cover—pictured here—contained a furry blue pencil case with a balloon inside, creating a somewhat labia-like effect. This was later revised to the current, slightly less blatant bunny slipper design. Some[?] have contested this move as censorship which entirely misconstrues the tongue -in-cheek humour of the original.”
Despite all this, right from the get-go, Dubstar’s cover art for their first album Disgraceful (out in October 1995) catches the interest of indiepop and indie-dance fans. Their juxtaposition of dark and light elements within happy colourful scenes makes for a unique and interesting visual treat, and so with their first album art the visual looks were set for their following records. The music of Disgraceful itself is an even greater joy. What’s so special about it, the readers may ask? Let’s continue this analysis, shall we? :-)
First of all...listening to “Disgraceful” Dubstar’s first album, is a unique and beautiful experience. The Dubstar sound, combining autumnal-cool synth work (featuring a blanket of atmosphere) Mr. C. Wilkie’s jangly electric guitar playing, pulsating techno type rhythms and beat-box style drum patterns plus arguably the pièce de résistance, Sarah Blackwood’s heartfelt, angelic voice [evoking an old folk singer’s] singing the songs in her native Northern [English] accent....is unique. Her vocal style is of an old crooner type akin to English singers like Morrissey with the same [Arab-style] muezzin-like intonation. Their sound can can best be described as electroacoustic (with their own spin on it). Dubstar’s music on their albums evokes the musical techniques of English bands like New Musik from the ‘80’s and the ‘Indietronica‘ style of German groups such as The Notwist and Lali Puna from the ‘90’s, but less indie. So they are a musically versatile group whose songs involve varied combinations of moods and colors, and they don’t really sound like anyone else. The melodies stick with the listener and the pieces are memorable. The whole package is an aural delight! The songs on Disgraceful are like folk tunes, telling stories about Miss Blackwood’s life as a young woman at the time with airs of English kitchen-sink drama; set to techno and synthpop inspired music taken from musicians like the Pet Shop Boys, New Order and of course Saint Etienne (who they were compared to) additionally with a strong jangle pop sound running throughout------derived from the original UK indiepop era a decade earlier...which comprised pop groups such as The Smiths, the Sarah Records combos and a big portion of the C86 indie music movement. It is a very strong [first] record with intelligent lyrics and just about every song on it is excellent, with Sarah Blackwood’s touching voice and pensive melodies piercing through. (Not sure if Miss Blackwood writes the music, but I think she does). I love that album, and each listener will have different songs that they particularly enjoy, but in my case to name a few I really like there’s “The Day I See You Again” “Week In Week Out” and “Not Once, Not Ever”. The emotional colors and lyrics of “Disgraceful” are serious generally, but not in a way that seems austere or very downcast-----the way that bands like Coldplay create those colors as is common in recent times. Sarah Blackwood’s singing is gorgeous, and she takes the listener on a colourful ride from start to finish on Disgraceful. It’s something I surely appreciate! It was not only a hit with fans of this musical group like myself....at its time of release in July 1995 in the UK it charted well, scoring within the Top 20 of the UK Singles Chart in January 1996 with their single from Disgraceful, “Not So Manic Now” which was actually a cover version of the same song by English indie-folk group Brick Supply. “Stars” another single from the album (and Dubstar’s most well-known song) was the peak of Dubstar’s chart days, placing within the Top 10 of the UK charts that same year. Despite their UK smash hit [first] record, their début album was not released in the US. Of course, people with a serious appreciation of quality pop music of the kind I and others enjoy will like it much more than any chart material aficionado. Needless to say Dubstar charted back then in the Top Ten, which is now unusual for a group of their type; but it was a case of being at the appropriate place, at the appropriate time. Their original era as a musical ensemble coincided with the Britpop movement in England, which spread to Europe and many other countries at the same time-----and saw a style of music that in an earlier era may not otherwise reached mainstream fame become one of the defining forms of music of the ‘90‘s since the major labels had capitalized on a type of indiepop music to reach the masses with at the time...which is part of UK indiepop history. There are those who may argue that it was wrong for a group like them to chart, since doing so and being in the mainstream would damage their indiepop credibility. In retrospect it was not that good of a move in my opinion, for a few reasons. One, it drew the gates open to their creations for people who weren’t particularly interested in their work to be exposed to their music. And two, it made them be associated with the Britpop crowd which was mainstream pop rock and they weren’t really a part of that scene. But, the ‘90’s in the UK were different times in several ways from the current era-----so it happened. However, their intelligent artistic essence and beautiful persona colors live on for the people who really appreciate them which is wonderful. The fact they were mainstream does not make them any less integral or enjoyable...since they were never massively famous or commercially successful in a big way.
Around the time their singles from Disgraceful were published and charted, Dubstar released a few EP’s, such as “The Stars E.P.” from 1996 and the eight-track two CD single version of “Not So Manic Now” during the autumn of 1995. The most notable of these was “The Stars E.P.” which consisted of a few songs which are all beautiful. The song I like the best on “The Stars E.P.” is “Bow Wow Now” a beautiful jangly, yet synthpop tune about Miss Blackwood’s dog at the time and her friendship with her pet who apparently was dying, her dog is/was her best friend. Or, so I’ve read it’s about her dog somewhere but I am unable to recall where it was now. There’s also the song “Excuse Me Father” on the same E.P. which seems to be about a pregnant young girl going about her day, who faces the criticism and taunts of the people she knows and her neighbours also since apparently she was doing something she should not have, to say the least. I also enjoy that tune, as moody as it is.
Following those releases, Sarah B. and company were at work on a then-new Dubstar album. “Goodbye” the follow-up to Disgraceful, which arrived in September 1997. What a great album! “Goodbye” Dubstar’s second album, is in the same vein as their first musically speaking and lyric wise, only with more depth to the songwriting and maybe the music which makes it even more beautiful than their first perhaps, a treat for their fans and lovers of top-quality female pop. The colors of the music and the emotions were a little more demonstrably indiepop than their last outing previously, with intelligent lyrics as always which displayed a blade-sharp wit and penetrating insight; and the stories of Miss Blackwood’s life carried on. As with their first album it’s hard to decide on the tune off Goodbye that I like the most since they’re all very good, but to name a few that I particularly like there’s “My Start In Wallsend” a beautiful anthem about love, “Wearchest” bursting with strength and determination and the upbeat “Cathedral Park” which is alternately joyous and melancholy. It seems to be a song about a couple who apparently have a rocky relationship at the time and in the narrative the girlfriend or wife (Miss Blackwood presumably) takes a walk in the park when something goes wrong between them, and she feels a mixture of joy and sadness while there if I am correct. Her boyfriend (or husband) meanwhile spends some nights at a bar drinking his troubles away, but in the interim he feels lonely----and yet the last thing they want is to be together at the time since they enjoy their time apart, however the woman still thinks about their relationship in the meantime while away enjoying herself at the park.
Goodbye’s album art is distinctive, and two different covers were made for the UK and US editions. The UK edition was out, with ‘Dubstar’ written across the front with the album title both in big block letters, and featuring a bright yellow easy chair against a solid red background, with a navy blue rectangular throw pillow on the seat. The chair has pieces of an electric chair added to it such as a metallic bar at the chair foot attached to metallic ankle cuffs, a metal head strap and bowl-shaped headpiece with hand braces at the sides. A large long uncurled wire laid on the floor, stuck out from behind the bottom of the chair with a big electrical plug head attached to it. To say the least it was a creative idea, though sad and painful at the same time. It is a good visual summary of the type of songs on Goodbye which as the record cover illustration suggests are comfortable, yet electrifying in their emotional intensity. The US version of Goodbye had the same cover art, except the easy chair on it is an orange-red, the throw pillow on the chair’s seat is a bright deep red and the background is a solid dark blue. As mentioned before Dubstar’s visual aesthetic to their record covers was a mixture of contrasting elements, both happy and serious-coloured which look beautiful in an autumnal sort of way, if that makes sense. Apparently they were influenced by the prevailing direction of Britpop art at the time, with some influence from the US grunge movement...of course that’s probably just me saying that.
Dubstar’s third album, “Make It Better” arrived the 28th of August 2000 in the UK and worldwide. Musical tides had turned in the meantime while Chris W., Steve H. and Sarah B. were on break, while the Britpop era was wrapping itself up the scene had changed...the trend in the UK at the time for guitar pop was combos like Coldplay, Doves, Embrace, and Feeder to name a few which are essentially straightforward pop rock of the purely chart kind, conservative in their orientation as artists. This is in contrast to an outfit like Dubstar who are filled with lively and beautiful emotional colors and much more purely pop than what was trendy in guitar music back then. Nevertheless, it seems that to some extent they were affected by these trends and it confused them somewhat; I say that because Make It Better, while still electroacoustic pop of the type their followers have come to love was not as good as their previous album or the one before that, to my mind. The song’s rhythms on Make It Better are a mixture of synthpop and electrified rock which can be described as ‘Rocktronica’ a term used by some music journalists, in contrast to their previous work. I didn’t care much for this album apart from a few songs when I heard it. The sound of the [electric] guitar was much more chart music-like than before and the synth playing was not as prominent to my ears as on their earlier albums. However it is still a Dubstar record with its merits. Some songs on it however are more or less in the style fans recognise from before I suppose, despite their new sound on that one. Namely, I enjoy the tunes “The Self Same Thing”, “Another Word”, “When The World Knows Your Name,” and another song whose name I am unable to remember now I think. I also like the b-side “New Friends”. I may have to return to that record one day to see if my thoughts have changed about it.
Following Make It Better, a while afterward Dubstar disbanded in about 2002, when lead vocalist Sarah Blackwood joined UK indie-dance group Technique to replace singer Xan Tyler while touring with the synthpop ensemble Depeche Mode. Things went quiet for several years.
Their best-of album Stars: The Best Of Dubstar was out in 2004 on major label EMI Records. Shortly thereafter Kate Holmes (the other half of Technique) and Miss Blackwood decided to write music together and formed the Electroclash combo Client. There was a reformation of Dubstar sometime later. Per the Dubstar wiki: “Posts in 2008 on their official Myspace page stated that the recording of their fourth album was underway. However, in November 2008 they made a post to their Facebook group stating that Blackwood would not participate, and the future of the album was up in the air. Blackwood and Wilkie have worked together in the interim, as Blackwood's first solo album, 2008's Acoustic at the Club Bar & Dining, features Wilkie on guitar; the seven-track live recording was released exclusively online, and consists of acoustic versions of Dubstar and Client songs, plus covers of tracks by The Smiths and New Order.” So the joy of Dubstar’s music is underway again, and at this time they are recording a new album that comes out either this year or sometime next year. According to their wiki: “On 12 April 2010, the band released a cover version of "I'm in Love with a German Film Star" for an Amnesty International project. Interviewed by Andrew Collins on BBC 6 Music that afternoon, Blackwood confirmed that the band were back together and would be going into studio to record tracks for a new Dubstar album, although she would continue to also record with Client.” Following a break a new Dubstar single “Circle Turns” was released the 21 of April 2012, the first from them in many years. It is a beautiful song that sees them back to their original sound which is exciting. As of October 2013-present, Dubstar are still recording their upcoming album which as far as I know has not been released yet. It should be a marvellous piece of popcraft as ever, and I am looking forward to hearing their latest work.
In conclusion Dubstar are an incredible pop group with a fabulous, unique and artistic sound created by all involved, all given life by Sarah Blackwood’s lovely voice, her beauty, and most of all her sharp intelligence shown in the music and lyrics. The introductory lines from their tune “Anywhere” at the start of this journal serve as a hint to tell a newcomer to Dubstar that Miss Blackwood will be around whenever she or he wants her to be, at any place giving the listener beautiful music...and the guys will be there also. Their electrifying songs will never stop giving a high-voltage charge of emotion and the beauty that is alive within them, and other listeners who hear them might feel it too. And what’s more incredible than that?