Luke Haines has made some of the most beautiful British pop music to date, and at the same time, some of the most sinister. While Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker was sleeping with other people’s wives and Momus was getting perverted, Luke Haines was writing about murder, terrorism, and the dark places in everyone’s mind. And even though the lyrics were disquieting , there was always a strong thread of emotion and some very beautiful (and cool) sounding music to complement those themes.
With The Auteurs, Haines released four albums: “New Wave”, “Now I’m A Cowboy”, “After Murder Park”, and “How I Learned To Love The Bootboys”. Produced by Steve Albini (producer of Nirvana and the man behind Big Black), “After Murder Park” had songs that dealt with young brides killing themselves, child murders, and plane crashes. His side project “Baader Meinhof” was an excellent concept album about the German terrorist group from 70s. He also did the soundtrack for the film “Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry” and released a solo album titled “The Oliver Twist Manifesto”.
At the same time, he had another band called Black Box Recorder. With John Moore contributing to some of the music and Sarah Nixey on vocals, Black Box Recorder basically sounded like The Auteurs but with a sexy British female singer. While the songs had a more feminine, commercial feel, they were still deliciously dark.
After two successful albums (“The Facts Of Life” and “England Made Me”) released on Jet Set Records, Black Box Recorder return with a new album on a new label (One Little Indian Records). “Passionoia” is a sleek and sexy indie album, with some electronic beats and melodies, and a fair share of guitar work, too. It sounds very much like Luke Haines’ solo album “The Oliver Twist Manifesto”, if a woman were singing the songs. Even though John Moore shares the writing credit, it sounds like Luke Haines is the soul of the project.
While all of Luke Haines’ work has a pop feel to it, Black Box Recorder is, if anything, a little catchier. The sensuality and confidence in Sarah Nixey’s vocals is not only intoxicating but also very persuasive. “These Are The Things” is one of the two best tracks on the album. At first it may sound like a typical commercial indie song, but listeners should dig deeper. It has a driving, electronic-driven dance beat with a disco feel. Luke Haines’ backing vocals give the romantic hook his trademark sinister feel. Sarah Nixey basically lists things for the verses:
A pint of milk
A loaf of break
A magazine – on special offer
Check the weather forecast
Buy a new umbrella
Send a text message
Take a shower
Meet me in the park – in half an hour…
When the hook comes in, the song becomes a whirlwind of romance:
These are the things that keep us together
I love you
I want you
Must have you
I still love you
These are the things that keep us together…
It could be the most commercial song Luke Haines has ever written (with “Showgirl” coming in just behind.) The second best track on the ten track album is “British Racing Green”. The song sounds magical, as if it could be in a movie or a Broadway play. Not only does Nixey’s voice sound sexy, romantic and precious, the music is the perfect complement, with thick orchestral crescendos. It’s simply a beautiful song.
Another wonderful track is the LP’s final song “I Ran All The Way Home”. It’s the longest song on the LP (clocking in at 4 minutes and 27 seconds), “I Ran All The Way Home” is a gorgeous closing track that mixes sinister lyrics with poignant, romantic lyrics. The song changes completely as the tempo gets faster and the narrator wants detachment, but the orchestral melodies and live drums give the song a genuinely emotional feel.
Tongue-in-cheek humour and a sharp wit has always been a wonderful attribute of Luke Haines’ work, and with Black Box Recorder, this is explored more than in his other works. “The New Diana” is a slightly controversial song where Sarah Nixey basically sings, “I want to be the new Diana” and tells us about how she wants to be idolised and chased by paparazzi. While some might consider this to be in bad taste, Black Box Recorder are not poking fun at Diana’s death. The song is more about determination and achieving a certain social success as well as fame.
The second track, “GSOH Q.E.D.”, is a typical Black Box Recorder track with driving rhythm and wicked humour as Sarah Nixey recites personal ads for the verses. GSOH is a dating site term, which means Good Sense of Humour. Q.E.D. is an acronym for the Latin phrase “Quid Erat Demonstratum” which translates as “what I was trying to demonstrate or prove.” Although it’s a very clever song, many people may not get the concept at first.
“Andrew Ridgley” has that wonderful wit Luke Haines fans love. For those who do not know, Andrew Ridgley was in Wham! with George Michael and how can you not love a song where the first line is “I never liked George Michael much”. The beat is reminiscent of Pet Shop Boys music from the 80s and the hook is especially creative as Sarah Nixey sings:
I was brought up to the sound of the synthesizer
I lived to dance to the beat of electronic drums…
“Being Number One” is another dance track that also has the theme of determination and success. A piano melody starts the song off but the electronic beat and the faded guitar gives it a nice Brit-pop vibe.
Another interesting track is the LP opener, “The School Song” where kids chant the band’s name in the beginning (reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”). Sarah Nixey acts as school head mistress and talks during the verses. She has the power, confidence, and attitude of a dominatrix (I would have loved to have her as a teacher!) In the chorus, her voice changes to a very sweet, elegant tone while still maintaining the strong lyrics:
Welcome to the school of song
We’ll help you achieve perfection
Destroy your record collection
It’s for your own protections…
It is an excellent way to open the LP.
Like all of the albums by Luke Haines, there are a couple of songs that are wonderful but are somehow lacking something. “When Britain Refused To Sing” is good track but it does not have the same power as the other tracks, and there’s an odd section where Sarah Nixey raps when the music completely changes. “Girls Guide To The Modern Diva” is another witty song, but lacks Luke Haines’ trademark menace and, unfortunately, both tracks end up as filler.
Like Pulp, the music of Black Box Recorder is very cinematic, very sensuous, and very British. Passionoia’s cover has Sarah Nixey lying poolside wearing a bikini. She looks sexy as ever. The darker side of Luke Haines is evident on the cover, too, when we see a man floating dead in the water.
Sarah Nixey and Luke Haines work perfectly together, it would have been nice to have heard a duet of some kind. The backing vocals of Luke Haines are always welcomed but he’s only singing for a couple of tracks. John Moore gets half the writing credit, but the music and lyrics feel a hundred percent Luke Haines. The electronic beats and guitar are light but still have a strong rhythm and groove. They never rock out or sound brash like in “After Murder Park” by The Auteurs, and musically, “Passionoia” is very similar to “The Oliver Twist Manifesto”, Luke Haines’ solo effort.
A small problem with “Passionoia” (and every other Luke Haines related release) is that it is very short by today’s LP standards. With only ten songs, the longest of which is only four and half minutes in length, the album isn’t exactly a long player. The key to the success of this short LP is quality and not quantity. “Passionoia” has plenty of accessible, catchy pop songs and with the exception of two average songs, the LP is deliciously sexy and wicked.
Black Box Recorder
Genre: Indie, Pop, Electronic
Record Label: One Little Indian