I think it was clarified some time ago that I have very poor tastes in music. It's worth noting, therefore, that if camp disco/pop/Euro dance music isn't really your thing then you might want to look away now. If you're still with me, pull on those silver hotpants and prepare to enjoy an odyssey into the world of Alcazar.
Alcazar originates from Sweden, where they first hit the charts eleven years ago. The line-up still consists of the three original band members - Andreas Lundtstedt, Tess Merkel and Annika Kjaergaard. The line up increased to four members between 2002 and 2005, but has since reverted to the original three. In the UK, Alcatraz have had very little chart success, with only two top 20 chart singles (Crying at the Discotheque in 2001 and This is the World We Live In in 2004) but in their homeland, they're pretty big, with inevitable comparisons to those other Swedish pop icons Abba. They're regular competitors in the Sweden heats for the Eurovision song contest and whilst they haven't yet represented Sweden, they always go on to outsell anything that does actually go through to compete.
They've had three studio albums since 1999, with a singles collection in 2004. In the UK, only one of their studio albums attracted any chart action and across Europe various versions of the albums have been released, re-released and re-packaged such that it's highly unlikely that you'll find identical versions of the same album in country compared to another. Disco Defenders was released in 2009 but not in the UK, so any copies you get hold of are imported. The album was released as a double CD pack. CD one carries the tag 'NOW' and features thirteen new tracks, whereas CD two is called 'THEN' and is something of a greatest hits package, with thirteen of their best-known tunes. On paper, this is a great deal and a perfect collection to buy for newcomers and fans alike. It's quite expensive though, due to the fact that it's only available on import. There are various listings on Amazon and it doesn't look like you'd get much change from £30. The album isn't available to download at the iTunes store at all.
If you were to describe Alcazar's sound, the very short answer is 'so gay it hurts'. There's barely a shred of anything particularly serious here and it's Euro pop to the core. It's curious that in the UK tastes generally take music far more seriously than on the continent, which goes some way to explain why Alcazar have struggled to find any kind of commercial success over here. This isn't music that particularly takes itself seriously and encourages the listener to behave exactly the same way. That doesn't mean that it all sounds the same. There's actually a reasonable degree of versatility here, with different styles, sounds, beats and tempos and some of the material samples classic disco/funk tunes to great success. The problem is, however, the image problem. There's something quite childish/immature about the whole thing and Alcazar have arguably never grown up or moved on. That's fine, as far as it goes, but it does make them something of a niche taste and it is extremely 'uncool' to admit you like them. I mean, look at the cover of the CD. Say no more!
Andreas Lundstedt, the only male vocalist of the three, is essentially the lead vocalist, although the two girls are rather more than just backing singers. I've always like Lundtstedt's voice. It's neither powerful nor technically impressive, but it's completely suited to this kind of music and quite distinctive. I rather like the way he has a slight Swedish lilt, a little like Basshunter (a fellow Swede of equally negligible credibility). The pitch of Lundtstedt's voice is perfectly aligned to his two female counterparts and I quite like the fact that nobody dominates anybody else. For Disco Defenders, Swedish songwriters Anders Hansson and Danny Saucedo write most of the material, although one of the tracks on the album is written by the Pet Shop Boys (but more of that later). It's all pretty much up-tempo pop/dance music, largely with one foot in the 80s. There's more than a passing resemblance to some of the early Stock Aitken Waterman material, with thumping, unfaltering bass lines and synthesisers sitting alongside hysterical strings and those little tinkling sounds you only really get on Euro pop music. The songs are all about dancing, love, sex and having fun generally. There's nothing exactly profound here, which comes as no surprise, but that does make the whole thing refreshingly superficial. It is all a bit "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" after a while, but if you're in the right mood, it's great.
Disc One - NOW
So the new material is perfectly enjoyable. That probably sounds like a slightly reserved statement and that's because that's how this disc makes me feel. It's certainly not all 'classic' Alcazar and compares unfavourably to some of their better material (showcased on CD two). There's still a strong sense of fun and gay abandonment running through the disc but it does lack some of the mischief of their earlier material. It's not entirely repetitive though, in all fairness. They do at least try their hand at a few different things.
Harlem Nights, for example, is a sort of tribute to the sound of Harlem swing and it's a lot of fun. The trouble with this kind of thing, however, is that when Euro pop groups record 'tributes' to classic music styles, it tends to be a slightly disjointed effort that often misses the point. Lyrically, for example, Harlem Nights is excruciating. "Where the boys lit cigarettes with a sneer and the girls wore jasmine behind their ears" really only justifies a whuh? It's that kind of slightly embarrassing mixture of genres; essentially a pop record masquerading as something else. It's a mistake the Vengaboys used to make, when they did their faux-reggae sound that would have purists ripping their ears off.
The band tends not to do very predictable, safe cover versions and this disc is therefore something of a exception. Their version of Lipps Inc's Funkytown isn't far enough removed from the original to be memorable (although might bring a classic sound to a new, younger audience I suppose). Much of the rest of the material is perfectly ordinary. Lots of piano-driven vocals and camp dancing all round, which is nice enough but doesn't have the grab factor that some of their other material has exhibited. Indeed, tracks like We Keep on Rockin' and Jump Straight Into The Fire actually sound like a bit of a step back. Rather than maturing in sound, tracks like this seem to be regressing further into a more teen-based sound.
There are, however, two clear highlights on the first disc, one of which was released as a single in the UK in remixed format and one of which has never seen the light of day.
First up is Burning, which was remixed in the UK by Cahill but never charted over here. It's a glorious, shamelessly camp tribute to the 80s SAW sound. Extolling the virtues of what it's like to be in love, it comes replete with all those breathy breakdowns and sudden synthesised drumbeats and an ever-increasing vocal pitch. I LOVE this song, although I'm ashamed to admit that I did also have a pair of the red glasses that Lundstedt wears in the video. It even has camp dance moves. What's not to like?
The other highlight is more of a surprise, with a song called Baby, written for the Swedes by our own Pet Shop Boys. It's not exactly typical of the Pet Shop Boys' sound, given only that it's perhaps a little faster and cheesier at face value, but there's a very wistful, slightly sombre sound to the melody that is quickly recognisable as a Tennant/Lowe collaboration, especially when the bitter sweet vocals cut in. It seems like a glaring error not to release this as a single in the UK, where I think the Tennant/Lowe credentials would get this some airplay.
Disc Two - THEN
It has to be said that, generally, disc two lays disc one to shame, stuffed as it is with camp disco classics. It's here that you possibly get a better understanding of Alcazar's longevity and appeal as the sound here is broader and probably a little more credible than much of the material on the first disc.
The track listing here includes much of the material released on Dancefloor Deluxe, rather obviously really given that they're both singles collections. Regardless of the band's image, some of the material here is inspired.
This is The World We Live In takes the beat from Diana Ross's Upside Down, and layers on a brand new vocal which uses some of the lyrics and the melody from Land of Confusion by Genesis. Physical does something similar by adding a new vocal to a sample from the London Boys' I've Been Thinking About You, creating a very different kind of track altogether. Start The Fire is another very strong inclusion here, sampling the vocal from Billy Joel's We Didn't Start The Fire. All three tracks are similar in effect. These are examples of how cover versions should work. These aren't just bland re-workings of songs sung in the same style with a slightly modern beat. These are more like mash-ups. Fans of the originals will either love or hate the Alcazar versions but they do at least take music from one genre and turn it into another. All these songs boast some of the campest videos you'll ever see too.
Start The Fire - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5tc6eojOMg
This is the World We Live In - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4_-Ha-KsSY
Physical - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1Jb7v14t9I&feature=avmsc2
Special mention should also be made of Crying At The Discotheque another cover/fusion song, this time sampling a song from the late 1970s by Sheila B Devotion. This is probably the most credible track ever released by Alcazar, largely because it retains so much of the feel of the original song's groove. Where else would you find a song that boasts lyrics like 'the golden years, the silver tears, you wore a tie like Richard Gere'?
Don't You Want Me is perhaps a less daring cover version but still quite effective It holds all the drama of the Human League original, but probably laments Phil Oakley's vocals, which were unquestionably better.
It's not all cover versions though and the original material here is good too. I love the cheeky lyrics of Menage a Trois
Would you like to come to our ménage a trios?
There's room for one more body in our boudoir
Would you care to try a little un, deux, trois?
Everyone will get a chance to be a star.
Other highlights include the pompously over the top Shine On, the Spanish tinged Ritmo Del Amour, the confessional Not a Sinner Nor A Saint and finally the world anthem Someday. In fact, it's fair to say there are no weak links here - this is quality camp from start to finish.
You should buy this album. It's brilliant. I can't stand pretentious, credible music. Everybody should wear hot pants at least once in their life, literally or musically and this is the best place to start. It's true to say that the first disc isn't as good as the second, but overall this is a fantastic collection of upbeat camp dance music, shunned by only the most miserable people. Get in!
CD1 - NOW
1. We keep on rockin'
3. Stay the night
4. From Brazil with love
6. Harlem nights
8. Jump straight into the fire
9. My My Me and Mine
11. Put the top down
12. Thank you
13. Stay The Night (FL Club mix)
CD2 - THEN
1. This is the world we live in
2. Crying at the discoteque
3. Ménage à trois
4. Sexual guarantee
5. Don't you want me
6. Start the fire
7. Shine on
8. Not a sinner nor a saint
10. Ritmo del amor
12. Love life