A GUEST POSTING by KHAYEM
This ICA has been percolating for some time. I’m prejudiced: I’m predisposed to like anything by Vanessa Contenay-Quiñones, with a few notable exceptions (as you will find). The final kick up the arse to shape this into an actual ICA was Jonny The Friendly Lawyer’s excellent Sideshows ICA (#266). Although not strictly meeting the criteria of that ICA, Vanessa Contenay-Quiñones has had an interesting career, taking in collaborations with Frazier Chorus, A Guy Called Gerald, The Smashing Pumpkins, Scott Walker, Brian Higgins (Xenomania), Lou Reed, Skeewiff and, inevitably, Andrew Weatherall. To pinch a theme from the Bagging Area website, for me this also falls into the category of Songs Lord Sabre Taught Us.
So, we’re back in 1993, I’m obsessed with all things Andrew Weatherall and as a result I’m buying any old shit solely on the basis that it contains a Weatherall/Sabres of Paradise remix. Sometimes, that remix is the sole saving grace of said purchase, but occasionally it opened me up to an artist that I might otherwise have passed over. So it was with Vanessa Contenay-Quiñones and her then-non de plume Espiritu.
“Conquistador” was the song that initially drew me, via the trio of Sabres of Paradise remixes spread across the 12” & CD singles. I was intrigued enough by the standard single versions and B-sides that I went back to the debut single “Francisca” and stayed with the subsequent singles “Los Americanos”, “Bonita Mañana” and beyond. None of them particularly troubled the UK charts, but it appealed to me as music you could dance to, a bit poppy, with a South American mix of joy and melancholy.
Espiritu is another one of those acts that nearly but didn’t quite make it big: 3 Top 50 UK singles in their first phase; their biggest UK hit (# 14) actually a remix of a cover version where they were relegated to “featuring” artist status; an aborted debut album that eventually saw release in Japan; record label problems (ironically, both with Heavenly); another Top 40 UK hit in 2000, thanks to the film “The Beach” and a guest spot with Dario G. A shift in the 21st century to French language songs, inspired by yé-yé, Serge Gainsbourg and indie pop seems to have paid dividends and, for me, Vanessa Contenay-Quiñones provided one of the 2020’s lockdown highlights with the album Voodoo Girl.
This was another tough one to compile: I could easily stretch to another couple of ICAs and I’ve left off several personal favourites. Although I settled on this final track listing fairly quickly, like my previous ICAs, I’ve played this lots in the past few weeks to ‘road test’ the songs. A mark of approval is my teen daughter not asking me to “turn this rubbish off” on the school run, so I reckon it’s as ready as it will ever be. Prepare for 40 minutes of multi-lingual sunshine, with just a hint of autumn chill.
1) Conquistador (7″ Radio Edit) by Espiritu (single, 1993)
Where it all started for me. Although promoted as a duo of Chris Taplin (ex-Frasier Chorus) and Vanessa Quiñones (as she was known then), Espiritu was essentially a solo vehicle for the latter. The Sabres Of Paradise mixes are superb, but this original version was enough to blossom into an ongoing interest in her work. Terry Christian posted a performance of this song on Channel 4’s The Word on You Tube and Vanessa commented that it was her first ever live performance on TV. I like to think I staggered home and caught this ‘live’ at the time, but the reality is that I was probably out clubbing, off my shed and missed the whole thing. Either way, it’s a spirited performance and from the outset, Vanessa was clearly a driving musical force.
2) Always Something There To Remind Me (Album Version) by Espiritu (‘Always…’ Japan-only album, 1995)
I’ll address the elephant in the room and acknowledge that this was the aforementioned UK hit (#14), albeit as Tin Tin Out ft. Espiritu. And I hated it. The original version did emerge in 1994/95 as a European single but was quickly withdrawn, though it was a #1 hit in Japan. The Tin Tin Out remix featured on the single, but re-appeared in the UK later that year as “Tin Tin Out featuring Espiritu”. Vanessa at least got a cameo appearance in the promo video.
Personally, this is the best version, which was due to appear on the debut album titled Manifesto. The album was shelved when Sony’s distribution deal with Heavenly ended, but was subsequently released in Japan (only) in 1995, re-titled “Always…” in light of the single’s success there. This was the first of a string of cover versions, taking in “I Love You, Porgy” on the subsequent ‘official’ debut Espiritu album, through to the pre-millennial version of Carly Simon’s “Why?” (also withdrawn) and the ill-advised 21st century club version of The Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” with a dialled-in guest spot from Lou Reed. Thankfully, Vanessa used an alias (Vanessa St. James) for the latter and it was generally ignored by the record-buying public. Don’t bother looking for it.
3) Bande A Papa (Album Version) by Vanessa Contenay-Quiñones (‘Voodoo Girl’ album, 2020)
And so to Vanessa Contenay-Quiñones latest album, released in March 2020 just as large parts of the world were entering lockdown. For me, an antidote to the prevailing awfulness of the time, this song retained the characteristic mix of pop sensibility and melancholy. Described on the Universal Production Music website as “Stylish, 70’s French language pop with uplifting mellotron-styled strings, relaxed acoustic guitars and soft female vocals singing”, in fairness it’s a pretty fair description. I like the fact that the intro and opening verses suggest a more sombre song than it subsequently develops into.
4) Odyssee (Album Version) by Vanessa Contenay-Quiñones (‘Allez Pop!’ album, 2008)
aka the Serge Gainsbourg pastiche. There is a slight overlap with the Vanessa & The O’s sound, the band which bridged Espiritu and her solo work, but is perfectly suited for the Allez Pop! album. Despite being indebted to its influences, this a compelling song in its own right and screaming to be included in a soundtrack. Or it has already, and I’m just a damn lazy researcher. Great video, too. It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that I achieved a ‘D’ for my French O-Level at school and I generally have no idea what most of the lyrics mean.
5) You Don’t Get Me (album version) by Espiritu (single / ‘Another Life’ album, 1997)
Espiritu’s low-key return, back with Heavenly (home of the early singles) albeit as a subsidiary of Deconstruction. This fell between the stools of dance pop music and (not quite) drum ’n’ bass (enough) to really hit the singles market. A real shame as, despite swapping the South American influences for d’n’b, this has aged remarkably well. Chris Taplin was still on board for the songwriting at this point, but this feels very much a Vanessa Quiñones solo effort. To cement the d’n’b direction, the original version was co-produced by Mike ‘PFM’ Bolton, with a remix by Aphrodite and Mickey Finn. Of it’s time but none the worse for that and a highlight of the self-titled album that emerged the same year.
6) No Crèo Mas (Demo) by Espiritu (B-side, ‘Conquistador’, 1993 ‘Man Don’t Cry’, 1997)
Roughly translating as “I don’t believe you anymore”, this B-side version was labelled as a demo when released a second time as a B-Side to “Man Don’t Cry” in 1997 (itself one of several withdrawn Espiritu singles). No Crèo Mas was also included on the Japan-only debut album but as with most of the other previously released singles, in heavily remixed form, in this case by Nellee Hooper. If nothing else, the album proves that Vanessa got the versions right the first time, the pulsing bassline and synth waves drowning the flamenco acoustic guitar of the original demo. Inevitably, I’ve opted the for the demo here. On a side note, this song also reminds me of a long winter living in a freezing cold bedsit in Derby, with ice on the inside of the windows, a fold-out sofa bed that felt like it was stuffed with gravel, and a neglected but sturdy plant housed in a birdcage that the previous tenant had left behind. Probably not the environment Vanessa was thinking of when she wrote the song.
7) Bonita Mañana (7″ Version) by Espiritu (single, 1994)
Hey, we all need a “Beautiful Morning” after that lovely memory, right? There are some lovely lyrical sketches in here: “We close our eyes and our eyes conceal” and “The sisters of the sun are dancing, softly singing with their summer dresses on” and an insistent rhythm and sample that sounds a little like a Latin answer to the call of House of Pain’s “Jump Around”. There are some truly horrible and dated remixes by Johnny Vicious spread across the single formats, but Gang Starr tapped into the vibe and there’s a lengthy Sabres Of Paradise remix which takes the song into a whole dimension and remains one of my favourite Weatherall excursions.
8) Bon Bon Bon (Album Version) by Vanessa Contenay-Quiñones (‘Allez Pop!’ album, 2008)
This is arguably Vanessa’s most well-known song internationally, having appeared in the 2010 film “Killers” starring Ashton Kutcher & Katherine Heigl (no, me neither) and a Victoria’s Secret online campaign. 1960’s influenced French pop and yé-yé music has proved to be a rich vein of inspiration for Vanessa and Allez Pop! was the first of a trio of similarly themed albums, followed by Made in France (2014) and Voodoo Girl (2020).
9) Brouhaha (Album Version) by Vanessa & The O’s (‘Plus Rien’ Sweden-only single, 2003 / ’La Ballade D’O’, 2005)
Vanessa & The O’s started as a collaboration with Swedish musical collaborators Andreas Mattsson and Niclas Frisk, and subsequently James Iha, co-founder of The Smashing Pumpkins. Around the same time, Vanessa recorded the aforementioned rework of The Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” with Lou Reed, as well as providing guest vocals on Scott Walker’s “The Drift”. Vanessa & The O’s base was again 60’s inspired, but with more of a nod to the Velvets. Brouhaha is a French word that roughly translates as “noisy chattering”, which this song captures well. I love the word and should use it more!
10) Baby I Wanna Live (Album Version) by Espiritu (single / ‘Another Life’ album, 1997)
This was the only possible ending to this ICA, although it was originally released as the lead-off single for the ‘official’ debut album and Espiritu’s drum ’n’ bass inspired new direction. Beginning with a piano and strings intro, followed by a pulsing bass note and synths, the frenetic beats kick in after the first verse. However, it’s the surf guitar riff that kicks in at 2:15 that really nails the song. The single included some great remixes from DJ Pulse, Monkey Mafia (Jon Carter) and Richard Fearless but once more failed to bother the UK charts.
BONUS Espiritu Remix 5-track EP
I’ve mentioned the Espiritu remixes so much, it feels wrong not to include some of them, especially as many take the songs in an entirely new direction. Again, it was very hard to only pick 5 so I have left off the d’n’b excursions by Urban Takeover and PFM, some banging club mixes from Mother and Luvdup, Gang Starr’s bouncing groove and (simply because I don’t have it) a remix by Trevor Jackson/Underdog. The vinyl rips will be of variable quality but I hope you get the feel.
A1) Bonita Mañana (Sabres Of Paradise Remix) (CD single, 1994)
Weatherall, Kooner and Burns deliver a monster of a remix, full vocals front loaded in the opening minutes and then building into a pulsing, chiming club beast typical of the Sabresonic-period music.
A2) Conquistador (Sabres Of Paradise Mix No. 3) (12” single, 1993)
All three Sabres mixes are unique and mine a particular musical vein. This is the longest, an energetic, repetitive race to the dance floor. For no particular reason, I find myself freestyling the lyrics to Soft Cell B-Side “Facility Girls” over the top of this version, though I attempted a mash-up a few years ago and failed spectacularly.
B1) Baby I Wanna Live (Richard Fearless Mix) (CD single, 1997)
At the time, I liked Death In Vegas more than Fearless’ solo remix efforts, but this was an exception. Bearing little resemblance to the source material, after a lengthy intro, this is another driving, groovy club thing, with a vocal sample drifting in and fading out throughout.
B2) Man Don’t Cry (Modwheel Mix (Love You And Leave You) By Tom Middleton) (promo 12”, 1997)
…which is kind of what Tom Middleton does on his mix too, albeit with his trademark washes and beats that he honed to greater effect with Cosmos. This appeared on a promo 12” of a single that was subsequently withdrawn, so this is possibly one of the harder to find Tom Middleton remixes, but it doesn’t disappoint.
B3) Francisca (Junior Style House Dub) (Remix By Terry Farley & Pete Heller) (CD single, 1992)
I initially got this on 12” and it’s my favourite version of the song, and arguably one of the best remixes that Farley and Heller have done, full stop. Built around the original’s trumpet motif and Vanessa’s skat singing, this is irresistibly groovy. I have included this on mixtapes and compilations for numerous friends, both as an opening and closing track. Absolutely brilliant.