Billy MacKenzie: Satellite Life Recordings 1994-1996 – UK – 3xCD 
Disc 1: Winter Academy
1. Sing That Song Again
2. Winter Academy
3. Wild Is The Wind
4. Blue It Is
5. The Soul That Sighs
6. Mother Earth
7. And This She Knows
8. When The World Was Young
9. Tallahatchie Pass
10. Baltimore [alt.]
11. Nocturne VII
12. Beyond The Sun
13. Return To Love
Disc 2: Consenting Holograms
1. 3 Gypsies In A Restaurant
2. Falling Out With The Future
3. Put This Right
6. 14th Century Nightlife
7. Consenting Holograms Have More Fun
8. Fear Is My Bride [alt.]
9. Here Comes The Rain Again
11. Mysterious Lover
12. Return To Love 2
13. Give Me Time [remix]
Disc 3: Liberty Lounge
1. Tomorrow People
2. The Mountains That You Climb
3. McArthur’s Son
4. Liberty Lounge
5. Sour Jewel
6. 14 Mirrors
7. Give Me Time
8. At The Edge Of The World
9. Satellite Life
10. 14 Mirrors 2
12. Your Own Fire
13. Van Hamburg
TRACK SOURCE LEGEND
|10 songs||10 songs||1 song||2 songs||1 song||1 song||15 songs|
Just a few years ago, I thought to myself that the last “new” Billy MacKenzie track dating from the fertile end period of his life had been the “Return To Love” alternate 7″ released in 2010. The last six or seven years have seen two disc sets of the early to mid period Associates material, but Billy MacKenzie’s music dating from the final three years of his life seemed to have been served by a trio of posthumous albums [two with Steve Aungle and one with Paul Haig], a pair of compilations further anthologizing this period, and a pair of singles. But to fans who had been paying attention to sources like Steve Aungle’s blog, there seemed to be yet more material unaccounted for. When would it reach our ears?
Meanwhile, the posthumous releases seemed to go out of print in the blink of an eye. There was much push and pull behind the scenes by MacKenzie’s estate, as well as by the musicians he recorded the material with. Billy was writing and recording material in the last period of his life that were earmarked for at least three different names/stylistic conceits acting as an umbrella for it all.
- Winter Academy – piano led ballads
- Outerpol – dance-oriented electronica
- Case – glam inspired pop-rock
It was MacKenzie’s peripatetic muse which had scuttled his late period reunion with Alan Rankine, his old Associates partner, in 1993. Having been once bitten and twice shy, Rankine would not commit to becoming Associates again unless MacKenzie would give it his all. No “extracurricular activity” permitted. In the end, he could not sign off on such a limitation. He had too many different songs to write and to that end, he preferred not to. Billy walked away from the commercial lure of Associates in order to pursue a body of work which we now have in this delightful package.
“Satellite Life” was the curation of this work by Steve Aungle, the man who co-wrote the material here. The earlier posthumous releases adopted a mix-and-match aesthetic which saw them as stand-alone compilations drawing from a diverse period. Mr. Aungle has now sequenced and separated the songs into three distinct discs which have a greater sonic integrity compared to what have heard earlier. Nude Records may have seen the Winter Academy material as being commercially astute, but they still hedged their bets with jarring inclusions of upbeat electronica that broke the spell they should have been trying for. Now is the time when we can listen to these three CDs to make for a grand gesture that served MacKenzie and his late legacy to the fullest.
DISC 1: Winter Academy
Disc one, or “Winter Academy,” began with the elegiac classicism of “Sing That Song Again” that set the tone for the baseline of this disc. The spotlight was on Billy MacKenzie’s voice, with Aungle playing piano and Kenny Brady adding violin to the mix. This was timeless music that could have been written and recorded at any time during the last quarter century. And it served to remind us that Billy was a singer’s singer. He was capable of caressing a song with more delicacy than any other vocalist I could name. Confident and accomplished in his androgyny beyond all others.
The titular “Winter Academy” introduced Josef K’s Malcolm Ross on acoustic guitar, into the music to keep the songs unfolding in different ways, in spite of their “piano ballad” origins. The song had appropriately frosty and reticent verses, while the chorus managed to soar on lyrical quotes from the stylistically definitive influence of “Breakfast,” from the “Perhaps” album of 1985. The real string section supporting here was aided Billy’s vocal in having the song take flight.
Then came the coup de grace of “Wild Is the Wind.” It was not an original song, being a cover of the Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington chestnut sung by everyone from Nina Simone to Mr. Bowie. But once we’ve heard Billy wrap his tonsils around it we can well and truly say that he now owned it. As we’ve waxed rhapsodic about this one before, rarely does one hear such a definitive treatment of a classic.
Another guitar and piano song followed. Often was the time in the last month when “Blue It Is” would capture my mental Walkman for long hours at a time. The way Billy caressed the song with his delicate vibrato that would win me over every time. It’s not every singer who can employ vibrato without alienating me, but MacKenzie was certainly so slouch there.
Following these four songs, Aungle threw the listener a curve ball by upping the ante just when we least expected it. “The Soul That Sighs,” featured a much fuller arrangement of synths and guitar to create an eerie dreamlike vibe with sampled bongo percussion in outer space with dubbed out sighs and gently psychedelic wah wah guitar. Listening to this one was almost like hearing a lotus blossom blooming.
Billy had always looked to Sparks for inspiration and was there truly another vocalist on the globe who could offer a falsetto that dared to compete with that of Russell Mael’s on the original? Here was where piano, violin and voice attained a purity of form to justify the result, with Aungle’s piano getting the final word here.
“And This She Knows” was a spare, diginifed ballad with Billy’s occasionally double tracked vocals sharing the spotlight with Malcolm Ross’ gently distorted guitar providing a moody chiaroscuro for the nearly weightless song. The grace with which he sang this one was truly breathtaking. It was just down to Billy and Mr. Aungle’s piano as gossamer webs of MacKenzie’s voice built a crystal castle in which to retreat. The coda where voice and piano rose higher and higher was just lovely.
We were eight songs into this disc, with all of them familiar, yet energized by their new sequencing. Then we heard the first new song in this release thus far. “Tallahatchie Pass” was an astonishing new wrinkle for Billy singing what could only be described as a country music number. Moreover, his phrasing on the number was also something new; like Mae West singing Jazz and unlike anything else I’d heard from him before. The song was all acoustic guitars from Anth Brown with sweet string patches and a theremin-like ascending synth hook that added just the right touch of left field 1975 mojo to it all. What I wouldn’t give for a whole album in this rich vein!
Fans who bought the “Wild Is The Wind” limited edition CD single back in 2001, have already heard his stunning take of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” as its B-side, but the mix here was quite different. This was a track recorded with Dennis Wheatley [Atlas] who played all of the keyboards here, with the deep space probe, synth loops in the intro driving deep into the dark heart of despair. The somber cello patches drove the glacial tempo to nearly twice the length of the more typical versions of this song, and we’re all the richer for its spectral grandeur. Unlike the earlier version, there were no beats at all in this string-heavy version. This was yet another famous Nina Simone cover that Billy walked away with.
After that rich peak, the album settled back into a pair of piano led songs with “Nocturne VII” also adding a string section to frame the choir of Billys that climax the song with a heavenly uplift. “Beyond The Sun” was a crystalline ballad, delicately sung by MacKenzie, and the title track to his posthumous album of 1997. The interplay between the stately piano and the hollow, distorted synths that manifested halfway through the song added a queerness to its melodrama.
The suite that was disc one climaxed with a transitional note as “Return To Love” had the same gentle tempo as all of these songs, yet Billy’s breathy vocals and the piano glissandos of the intro managed to frame a dreamlike scenario of romance on the dancefloor. All of the songs on this disc had lacked actual rhythms, apart from the bongos on “The Soul That Sighs.” This time there was synth bass and an actual shuffle beat, which for once, didn’t deliver boredom to these ears. Instead, this final song was a sumptuous truffle of whipped cream disco to luxuriate in. Capped, as ever, with that heavenly voice.
Next: …Holographic Equalizer