Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Reputation (1990)

"In Private" This one divides neatly into two halves: the first five songs, with which Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were not involved, and the next five, which they wrote and produced. No disrespect to Dusty Springfield, who makes the most of everything she's given. The Pet Shop Boys songs are just better. Unlike the Minelli project, their half of this album feels like a real collaboration: strong points played to, sensibilities developed, give and take right there in the studio, chemistry, etc. There's nothing camp about this (album cover notwithstanding). "In Private" is remarkably stirring. "Nothing Has Been Proved" takes the PSB pose of cool disaffection and knocks it out of the park. The five of them go equally to both canons. (Listen to me. "Canons." Good grief.)

buy from CD Universe

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Results (1989)

"I Can't Say Goodnight" Like a lot of great songwriters in their prime or approaching it, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe bristled with so much energy and so many ideas in the late '80s that they could give material away. Give them credit for the wit to go to Liza Minnelli -- who, like her ma, has an athlete's voice built for barns of Broadway and an identity crisis with no bottom. If she ever gets deeper than an inch or two into her reading of these songs, there's not much evidence. But that's not so unusual for her then, and it certainly doesn't mean you won't find gems by the handful here. You have to wonder, if it's an issue at all, who is using whom with a song like "Twist in My Sobriety," which sardonically plumbs depths of spectacularly D-U-M boomer type narcissism. Minnelli plays it straight, no doubt her best bet. Still, Pet Shop Boys songs performed by Liza Minnelli with the Pet Shop Boys producing is all of itself high concept and reason enough for listening. Pet Shop Boys fans, I suspect, get the best of this deal. But, hey, ain't that celebrity?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Alternative (1995)

"Hey, Headmaster" And now deeper into the native habitat of the wild fan: some 30 so-called b-sides from the Pet Shop Boys. I actually spent a lot of time with this, enjoying it very much, parsing good from weak and kind of studying it like a book. For some reason related to my introspective behavior and the way I listened to music at the time, I made shorthand of my impressions by reducing it to track numbers when I wanted to use it as source material in a mix tape. So disc 1 choices would be 3, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 15; for disc 2, 2, 3, 6, 7 (the above referenced "Hey, Headmaster"), 11, and so forth. It may have been close, but I counted better than half of the songs as good. If that's damning with faint praise, then so be it.

buy from CD Universe

Friday, February 23, 2007

Very Relentless (1993)

"We Came From Outer Space" A lot of Pet Shop Boys followers consider this their best and I can't argue with that. The flagship Very disc was once anticipated as a rock album, which may or may not have been intended as the good joke that it is. Sure, the songs might be a bit more punched up, but there's no end of keyboards, sonic washes, thick beats, and layers of production here packed with drama ("Theatre"), laughs ("Dreaming of the Queen"), pique ("Young Offender"), vulnerability ("Liberation"), painful insight ("One and One Make Five"), almost unbearable poignance ("To Speak Is a Sin"), and unbridled dancefloor rave ups (the cover of the Village People's "Go West"). And that's not all. The welcome extra Relentless disc is shorter, but the songs are longer. Dreamy, beautiful, swooping, pounding, zipping, soaring. Busy, busy. Play it again.

buy from Amazon

Monday, February 19, 2007

Introspective (1988)

"Left to My Own Devices" At the time, even still, this offering seemed almost insultingly inadequate, certainly in terms of the gross numbers: six songs, three per (vinyl LP) side. Sure, it's dance music and all that, but six songs? Nevertheless, it contains my single favorite Pet Shop Boys song, "Left to My Own Devices," a mutter-chant that casually details the good life ("maybe later we'll do some shopping") with a chorus that roars into your head and stays there. In fact, everything here is basically first-rate: "Always on My Mind," the Willie Nelson cover; "I Want a Dog," with its droll, perfect first line ("I want a dog, a chihuahua"); and "It's Alright," which opens with a now seemingly prescient reference to Afghanistan and takes a surprisingly exalted view of "the music." Very nice stuff.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Actually (1987)

"Rent" Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant hold legitimate claim to status as international stars, but that does not often make much impression on my American countrymen, who by and large consider them a one-hit wonder. That hit being "West End Girls," which scored in 1986. Never mind that my Billboard book lists five more American hits, four of them top 10. But let's get down to business. In spite of its many fine points, in the end "West End Girls" is little more than intriguing, production-heavy novelty. The enduring strength of this pair has turned out to be wry, poignant, witty, memorable pop songs. Here, "Rent" is hilarious -- "And look at the two of us in sympathy With everything we see I never want anything, it's easy You buy whatever I need... I love you, oh, you pay my rent" -- but they play it so sweetly straight that the pathos can tear your heart out in spite of yourself. "It's a Sin" sets forward one of their most successful formulas, a superficially banal sentiment that nonetheless burrows and burrows and finally manages to find its way to the profoundest depths via melody, production, and an elusive knowingness. The duet with Dusty Springfield, "What Have I Done to Deserve This?," was the first place I turned when I learned of her death in 1999, and it was the right place to go.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pet Sounds outtakes (1966)

"Sloop John B (Highlights from Tracking Date)" After all these years, Brian Wilson is the only Wilson left. That was nobody's expectation -- he was more likely going to be the first one to go. Yet, oddly, a lot of these outtakes answer the question about why Brian turned out to be the survivor: Pure life force. My own sense of him has always been of the classic fucked-up rock star royalty, an introverted, passive figure, the kind of guy who rarely talks and then only mumbles or whispers. My bad. He may have been or still be that way with journalists and in front of cameras, but not in the studio, where his performance as producer is nothing less than riveting. He goes all unconscious at the board assembling the beautiful bits that comprise their pop masterpiece, barking orders, calling encouragement, tweaking sound effects, pulling, prodding, messing, discovering. Hearing the pieces all fall together, witnessing via sound a brilliant artist at work, is a wonder to behold.

More information in comments.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Girlfriend (1991)

"Nothing Lasts" Matthew Sweet started his career as a power-pop songsmith out of the mold of Tommy Keene, Mitch Easter, or the dB's. Cultivating ties with Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd, he suddenly evolved into a fiery master of noisy guitar bludgeon, all feedback and thick reverb. But the pop sensibilities wouldn't let go, which is probably why this, his signature album, remains his enduring touchstone. Half Neil Young guitar blast fetishist and half smoov Paul McCartney girlthrob, he's loser enough to not get the chick in the end but lotharian enough to have her at least for awhile, and not necessarily the one left in most pain in the end. It takes a certain degree of cockiness, after all, to put Tuesday Weld in her prime on the cover of your Girlfriend album. The sound is always raw. Now and then so are the emotions. If it seems to reside most in a kind of studied intellectual place, paradoxically that only reinforces the sturdy structure, which is solid as concrete.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Bells (1979)

"Families" What to make of this? "Disco Mystic" is stirring and hilarious. "Stupid Man" and particularly "Families" are real and surprisingly painful. Don Cherry sits in for the 99 bottles of beer on the wall-of-sound title song. I have never even been able to conceive a reason for, let alone the meaning of, that title. Bells? The bells? What bells? What in hell's bells? Don't tell me this has something to do with Dante. So relegate it as you will, and caveats like mushrooms everywhere in the forest. To me, this is a logical enough progression from Street Hassle into willfully experimental trappings as the price to pay for the privilege of an ongoing exploration of place -- that is, New York City. Because that's about all it's ever about much with Lou Reed. Heck, "City Lights" even attempts to connect across the Charlie Chaplin divides (never mind that city is Los Angeles). Lots of good moments among the intriguing failures.

More information in comments.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Street Hassle (1978)

"Street Hassle a) Waltz.." More or less this is where the Lou Reed we know as Lou Reed today finds his origins. (Well, maybe Coney Island Baby.) Wherein horrific yet often fanciful street crime is detailed, binaural recording of 2 guitars-bass-drums along with an emotive warble to his voice that shakes loose the profound feelings are discovered and embraced, "that guy who really sounds like Bruce Springsteen" turns out to actually be Bruce Springsteen, and nobody really gets "I Wanna Be Black," except you have to admit it's kind of funny. Overall, tuff. Very, very tuff.