Review: “Steam” by East 17 (CD, 1994)

Today’s Pop Rescue from a fate uncertain is the 1994 second album Steam by British boy band, East 17. Will this album raise your temperature, or will it just be a stinky mess. Read on…

East 17 - Steam (1994) album cover
East 17 – Steam (1994) album.

This 10 track CD opens with the titular track and second single Steam, which bursts in with some big chord stabs and growling guitar and whistles. Tony Mortimer is soon on the mic rapping us towards the chorus with slutty lyrics like ‘let the lake of love flow‘ and ‘outside it’s raining but inside it’s wet‘ right at the end. It’s pretty catchy though, and the repeated ‘Steam’ line and the whistles help to keep it memorable and sewn together. It gave them a #7 UK hit.

Next is Hold My Body Tight with Brian Harvey taking the lead here. It’s a slower more heartfelt pop song, which you could probably have imagined New Kids On The Block releasing a few years earlier. Still, the track’s shuffling snares, bass, and the synths help to lead us along effortlessly, and Brian’s vocals are well suited to this track. The track gave them a #12 UK hit when released as the album’s fifth and final single.

That’s followed by Let It All Go, which really does sound like a departure for the band, with vocals thrown out exceptionally fast over what sounds like a simplified 2 Unlimited backing track. The track is too fast to really be memorable or singalong, and for a moment or two it has a go at jungle in this ‘original rude boy sound‘. Unfortunately it does now feel really quite dated, but I’d have loved to see that performed live.

Percussion and gurgling synths lead us into Set Me Free. They’re soon joined by chanting of the song’s title over guitar chords, before Brian returns to the mic. The angst in this track reminds me a little of the kind of tracks you might find on their debut album, but it flits between heartfelt lyrics from Brian before the repeated shouting of the chorus. The bass is nice though, as is Tony’s rap around the 3 min mark.

The huge Christmas number one and third single, Stay Another Day is next, despite it not being a Christmas song. Here, East 17 are swarmed by strings, almost as much as they are white duffle coats in the video. This is a magnificent song, and really shows off the songwriting and vocal harmonies. A masterpiece and rightly number one.

Lead single Around The World is next, with a wonderful plodding beat and bass, scattered with warm vocal harmonies and tinkling chimes and piano notes. This is a really nice mid-tempo song – nice and simple, and another great showcase of Harvey’s vocals. The lyrics perhaps echo tour schedules, giving a nod to their UK fan loyalty. The single gave them a #3 hit in the UK.

The almost sermon-like opening of Let It Rain by Tony Mortimer ushers in the epic nature of this pacy hit single. I remember seeing a performance of it on TV where they danced with umbrellas. The track’s energy really is infectious, and seems to hark back to debut album hits House Of Love and Alright, mixed in with a bit of the synth-leads you’d find in 2 Unlimited at the time. Total banger, but sadly only reached #10 in the UK when released as single number four.

Be There is next, opening almost seamlessly from the previous song with pianos. This is another mid-tempo song, but it takes a while until it seems to come together in time for the chorus. At times, Brian (on the mic again), seems oblivious of the meandering melody with a ‘oh‘ signalling a change in tone, or another cock-up. Tony throws in another flawless rap, but it jars again with Brian’s vocals. This song feels a bit clumsy.

That leads on to M. F. Power which I can only conclude as being a song about their energy provider. Hard beats, meandering synths, and drifting pianos waft in whilst the boys shout the chorus and rap about love. They never seem to be able to say what the M and F stand for. That listeners, is up to you.

The album closes with the cheekily titled Generation XTC (yes, generation ecstasy). Here, Harvey gets some nice wafting simple vocals to deliver as a synth pad and a nice gentle dance-pop 90’s beat chugs away underneath. The growling guitars and dramatic synth stabs are in the mix here, alongside some female backing ‘ooh ooh‘. Musically it’s quite nice, but lyrically it’s more ecstasy than voice of a generation.

East 17’s lead single ‘Around The World’, 1994.

Verdict

Over all, this album is a bit of a mixed bag, some mediocre fillers amongst really strong singles.

The presence of Stay Another Day is a bit stylistically out of kilter with the songs before it, but it signals the beginning of a trilogy of great big strong East 17 songs on the album – Around The World and Let It Rain. Title track Steam gets close to this too.

Sadly, the album has somewhat dated in style, with the stabby synths banging out simple but catchy melodies that practically anything can be sung or shouted over. These were hugely popular in the early-mid 1990s thanks to the success of 2 Unlimited and Maxx, and so explains why this album fared so well when new. Now though, it feels a bit clunky and weak.

The weakest songs here are probably symptomatic of this 90’s style, with Let It All Go and Generation XTC, and the slightly disjointed oddness of Be There, it just drags the album’s score down a little away from the brilliance of the rightfully hit singles.

There’s plenty of echoes of early East 17 here, the sounds that made them successful originally, and so this rating feels like it’s more to do with the dating of style, than the quality of the songs over all.

Outside it may be raining, but inside it’s tepid.

Rated 3 stars! It's a nice album.
  • POP RESCUE 2023 RATING: 3 / 5
  • 1994 UK ALBUM CHART PEAK: #3, certified 2x Platinum by the BPI.
  • POP RESCUE COST: 49p from a Discogs.com seller.

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