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A Commentary For The Contessa

This is the 2006 press release written by journalist Kurt Reighley. It gives the background to how Thorne’s Contessa’s Party CD came to be.

The Contessa’s Party, the second full-length CD from Thorne, marks the fullest fruition yet of a distinctive approach to making music – and records – nurtured by artist-producer Mike Thorne over the course of nearly 25 years. It is also, as the title implies, the soundtrack for one hell of a soirée, complete with a colorful cast of guests: Sarah Jane Morris, BETTY, Lene Lovich, Kit Hain, and The Uptown Horns.

Featuring eight tracks drawn out across 75 madcap minutes, The Contessa’s Party is an extension – no pun intended – of one of Thorne’s production trademarks. In the 1970’s, disco innovators like Giorgio Moroder and Tom Moulton developed new techniques to extended pop singles into 12-inch epics, adding extra bars and breaks to satiate club patrons who wished to spend more than just three minutes showing off their steps to the latest hits. Soon after, Thorne devised a new twist to approaching this dance floor-friendly format. 

“The way I used to make singles was to record the whole twelve-inch in one sweep, and then cut the seven-inch out of that, which was the opposite of how most people did it,” he explains. “There are a couple advantages to this process, some of them not so obvious. Such as: when you would define a long track, you wind up with acres and acres of bars with little or nothing going on. And, since nature abhors a vacuum, somebody would generally come up with an idea to fill it. Often, that new idea would be something which was so strong that it made it on to the seven-inch version, too.”

Did his radical approach take? The results speak for themselves. The first track Thorne orchestrated thusly, Soft Cell’s 1981 single Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go?, went #1 in seventeen countries, and set a US record for the longest stay by a single in the Billboard Hot 100. Subsequent Thorne productions including Uncertain Smile by The The, Don’t Leave Me This Way by the Communards, and I Feel Love by Bronski Beat and Marc Almond, to name but three that defined the sound of a generation, remain classics to this day.

Finally, almost 20 years after people first got on his case to make his own album, Thorne recorded his first full-length CD as an artist. Issued in 1999, Sprawl collected new interpretations of songs ranging from the Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant to a pair of unreleased Marianne Faithfull compositions (Sexual Terrorist and Self-Imposed Exile), salvaged from an aborted album on which the two had worked during a different, more difficult time. Now armed with a back catalog, Thorne set out to reinvent the extended club mix once more.

“When I started thinking about The Contessa’s Party, it seemed like a good idea to revive this creative process, where the music moves along at a fair lick, but is expanded, and varied upon, so that it can sustain interest for anywhere up to twelve minutes. Conversely, I wanted people to be able to dance to it as well.” The better to stimulate ears and feet simultaneously, Thorne juxtaposed original compositions with covers, presented via ambitious, elongated tracks. While the overall scale of the album mirrors that of a commercial DJ mix CD, the music throughout develops continuously and much faster, at the pace of a single, or even a work of classical music. (Succinct, radio-friendly edits of all eight tracks can be found on the complementary CD Great Steam Radio Hits From The Contessa’s Party.)

The party kicks off with Grandma’s Goodbye, which fashions a traditional, circular Yorkshire rhyme into a whirling chorus, sung by Sarah Jane Morris (famously the vocal foil to Jimmy Somerville in the Communards, as well as an acclaimed singer and actress in her own right). Fanfares of brass, driving Latin percussion, throbbing bass riffs, and cascading keyboards propel the eight selections, which range from new versions of songs originally cut by acts like the Pogues and Dr Hook & the Medicine show, to the classically-inspired Bach: Fantasia After a Toccata. Surprises abound, as in Can Catch, which, after several minutes of lively back-and-forth vocals by New York trio BETTY, suddenly switches gears into a jazz-funk instrumental breakdown.

Four years in the making, the new album marks Thorne’s debut as a songwriter. “My only criteria for writing original songs is they have to be in the same quality, the same class, as other songs that I’ve worked with.” Considering that his résumé includes heavy-hitters like Wire, John Cale, Blur, and Laurie Anderson, that might intimidate some, but Thorne found it helpful.  “Having worked with a lot of songs, you feel it in your water when something is good… and you also know when something isn’t measuring up.”

The Contessa’s Party reinforces Thorne’s long-running commitment to working with dynamic, one-of-a-kind singers, too, featuring vocal contributions from Lene Lovich, Sarah Jane Morris, BETTY, and Kit Hain. Even psychedelic rock legend Arthur Brown drops in to add a rap to an updated version of his 1968 chart-topper Fire. “The vocals are the center of everything in pop music,” says Thorne, “and I’ve had the good fortune to work with many world class singers: vocal artists. They don’t just make sing the melody, they project the very essence of a song.” In addition, the Uptown Horns, one of the greatest American brass sections of the last 20 years, augment and enliven the rhythmic and melodic content throughout.

On top of all this, Thorne had one more goal. “I wanted this to be the CD that, if someone threw a party – in America, in Europe, wherever – this would be the album they put on to get things going.” Cue up The Contessa’s Party and hear the results for yourself. But before you hit the Play button, make sure the icebox is well stocked with refreshments: You have a long night of dancing ahead.