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Pet Shop Boys

 

Synthpop! Whee!

Note: this page REALLY sucks; sorry about that. Just read the "rating" part, and that's all you need.

lineup: Chris Lowe (synthesizer silent man); Neil Tennant (blatantly gay lead singer)

review index: Please / Actually / Introspective / Behavior / Discography / Very / Alternative / Bilingual / Nightlife / Release

missing albums: the two Disco albums.

apex: Very
nadir: Release
overlooked: Introspective


Please - 1986

Rating: ***1/2
Best songs: Two Divided By Zero, Love Comes Quickly, West End Girls, Opportunities
Worst songs: Later Tonight, Violence

 

With a debut album like this, no wonder they were one-hit wonders in the US!

Nah, not really. Actually, or should I say, please note that this is actually a really good synthpop album, especially considering its success came in the feared and detested year of 1986. The first half of it, in fact, is some of the best staunchly-80s (three of the songs deal with money and/or sex, and one other is about the suburbs!) synthpop I've ever heard. I won't mention individual tracks, as they're all good!

The second side doesn't fare as well, though, with time taken up by the incredibly dull and generic "Violence" and "Later Tonight", and the rather indistinguished "Tonight is Forever". Nevertheless, "I Want a Lover" and "Why Don't We Live Together" are respectable uptempo cuts. Pretty good.


Actually - 1987

Rating: **1/2
Best songs: It's a Sin, What Have I Done to Deserve This, Rent, Heart
Worst songs: One More Chance, Hit Music, It Couldn't Happen Here

 

Okay, so production-wise, this is a whole lot better than the debut: the sound is a whole lot less like generic mid-80s synthpop. But the songs, man, the songs! Aside from the four singles ("Heart", "What Have I Done to Deserve This", "It's a Sin", aaaand "Rent"), which are all awesome, there's not a whole lot to sink your lobes into here. The album opens with an amorphous glob of a song called "One More Chance", then there's some cheesy generic stuff like "Shopping", borefests like "It Couldn't Happen Here" and "Hit Music", and so on. Of course, the four hits are wonderful, but that's about it. You might as well just get Discography, at least that one has the cover of "Where the Streets Have No Name".


Introspective - 1988

Rating: ***1/2
Best songs: Left to My Own Devices, I Want a Dog, Domino Dancing, It's Alright
Worst songs: Always On My Mind/In My House

 

Hey! This ain't too bad! You crazy kids, you think it's so terrible because the songs are really long dance mixes. Okay, so the really long dance mix of "Always On My Mind" really sucks, but the rest aren't that bad at all. "Left to My Own Devices" includes a neat bombastic intro, and surprisingly, "I Want a Dog" doesn't suck -- with a title like that, well...you know. In fact, it has some very jankly piano work. The rest is rather nice as well (particularly the latin-y "Domino Dancing"). You can still just skip to Discography, but obsessive people like me can pick this up without fear.


Behavior - 1990

Rating: ***1/2
Best songs: Being Boring, How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?, So Hard
Worst songs: My October Symphony

 

This one's often pegged as the unfallible piece de resistance of the Boys' career, but I don't really agree with that. Okay, so there's some really awesome songs (particularly the opener "Being Boring"), but sometimes the album tends to coast too much on the downtempo atmospheric stuff (particularly on "My October Symphony" -- bleah!). Still, worth buying if (like me) you find it cheap.

Sorry, this review is really short. To counteract that, here's a picture of some kittens:


Discography - 1991

Rating: ****1/2
Best songs: too many to mention
Worst songs: DJ Culture

 

Quite simply the one PSB album to have, if you really must choose just one. This album pretty much invalidates the need for any of the first three discs, and all the songs chosen from the first four albums are great. Plus you get a few new tunes: a cover of "Where the Streets Have No Name", "Was it Worth It?", and "DJ Culture", the latter of which is the only not that good song on here.


Very - 1993

Rating: ****1/2
Best songs: I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing, A Different Point of View, One and One Make Five, Can You Forgive Her?
Worst songs: Dreaming of the Queen, The Theatre

 

If you want an actual Pet Shop Boys album (other than Discography), get this. After the incredibly downbeat Behavior, they decided to go in the opposite direction: peppy up-tempo house-inflected dance music! It is, you might say, incredibly fun and catchy. Only when they go for the Behavior slow ambient thing do they screw up (as in "Dreaming of the Queen", and to a lesser extent, "To Speak is a Sin").

On a tangent, what's with the really long song titles? "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing"? How about "I Wouldn't Like to Meet Mr. Jankly in a Dark Alley, Because He'd Accuse Me of Being Gay (Extended Phallus Dance Mix)"?

Since one overused joke deserves another: worst jankly reference ever!

Anyway, um, this album... good. Jankly stuff... not so good. Another short review, I know. I won't give you any kitties this time, though, because that'd just be total overuse of a gag.

Yeah, right, like I'm worried about that.


Alternative - 1995

Rating: ***
Best songs: TOO MANY!!!
Worst songs: DOUBLE ALBUM!!!

 

Christ, but there's a lot of songs on here. Two CDs of b-sides, alternate mixes, and whatnot, and each disc is over an hour long! So, this means that the quality of these tracks will be very mixed. In other words, for every little-known gem like "In the Night", "A Man Could Get Arrested", or "Bet She's Not Your Girlfriend" (covered by Disclaimer!!!), there's some annoying mucking about like "The Sound of the Atom Splitting" or the irritating German opera tune "What Keeps Mankind Alive?". Still, now that they've reissued the original albums with bonus tracks, smart shoppers like yourself should be able to find this cheap on eBay (I paid like three bucks for it!!!).


Bilingual - 1996

Rating: ***
Best songs: Metamorphosis, Discoteca, Up Against It
Worst songs: Electricity, Before, It Always Comes as a Surprise

 

For those of you playing along at home, the Boys aren't overly consistent with their albums. They make some really kickass singles (witness Discography, which, if you haven't gotten it yet, GET IT!!), but really, their albums are often hit-or-miss (witness Actually). The problem with this one is that, coming after the catchy-as-hell dance-fest Very, it just drags on and on. By the time I get to "Se a Vida é", I say to myself, "Jesús! This thing is only half-way over?!".

Anyways, the first half only has a couple real highlights: "Metamorphosis" is as fun as anything on Very, and "Discoteca" trundles along nicely in a percussion-laden manner (though I could do without the "Single" part). What of the rest? "Electricity" is just repetative awfulness, and "Se a Vida é" is sing-songy but not that great.

Then there's half two. Some of it's percussion-heavy (Brazilian, I think), but this uncultured moron prefers the more "normal" tracks like "A Red Letter Day" and "Up Against It". "The Survivors" is nicely atmospheric in a Behavior way. I won't mention the rest, for fear of reprisal by legions of bloodthirsty PSB fans.

So yeah. It's not that bad, it's just a letdown from the previous record.


Nightlife - 1999

Rating: **1/2
Best songs: Radiophonic, Closer to Heaven, For Your Own Good, I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Get It Anymore
Worst songs: In Denial, Boy Strange, Happiness is an Option, You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk

 

Three years? It took three years to make this? Geez, I do believe les garçons du magasin de bêtes are running out of steam. Okay, so it's not really that bad, especially since Bilingual was pretty disappointing it its own, but geez, could you get any more mediocre?

Problem one: production. Whereas Bilingual had that mushy, percussion-heavy production, Nightlife returns to the house-inflected tone of Very. Unfortunately, in doing so, they forget to inject interesting, quirky things into the mix, so the end result is generic house music. The few deviations include some orchestral arrangements and a bit of guitar.

Problem two: lyrics. Neil used to be clever, he really did. Not any more, though; check out a sample of the abysmal lyrics to "New York City Boy" (otherwise a decent tune): "hear a song, that's the bomb / if you don't like that mix it's gone eighty-six". C'mon, Neil. "The bomb"? Has anyone actually used that phrase since 1997? I won't even get into the horrific duet with Kylie Minogue of all people. (You know, the "can't get you out of my head" girl.)

Problem three: music. Uh, could we have more dull, repetative tunes, please? Sometimes accented with generic dance divas? Yes! There's "Happiness is an Option", and "The Only One"!

Thankfully, however, they did manage to include enough good tunes to warrant a decent rating: the opening trio of tunes are all cool with me, and "Radiophonic" is the successor to "Metamorphosis" from Bi. The closing "Footsteps" is also okay, and "Vampires" is kinda neat.

Problem four: image. What's with the Robert Smith knockoff look in the liner notes? We all know he's too old for that, and you are too, okay? Despite this, the liner notes are printed on the most glossy paper I've ever seen. It makes Spin magazine look like a paper bag.

So, as you can see, mediocrity has set in. I guess they peaked in the early-90s.


Release - 2002

Rating: **
Best songs: Home and Dry, I Get Along, London
Worst songs: E-mail, Love Is a Catastrophe, You Choose, Here

 

Argh! Why?! Apparently they wanted to make this one more of a "rock" album, so they hired Johnny Marr to play guitar on it. Unfortunately, the electronic-friendly arrangements are one of the best part of these guys' songs. Having this turned into a bunch of dumpy virtually-adult contemporary ballads is not what I would call "rocking out". Plus they use the Techno Vocoder of Doom on two songs -- and they don't even space them out!

Okay. Both the TVoD songs are highlights of side one (if not the entire album), actually -- "Home and Dry" and "London" thankfully retain some electronic elements (the TVoD as well as mechanical synth arpeggios and drum machine, respectively). "I Get Along" is a nice anthem, as well, and "Birthday Boy" would be okay if it wasn't a soul-sucking 6 1/2 minutes long. What is this, Calling All Stations?

Oh, you better believe things go downhill from there. "E-mail" is a trivial tribute to our wireless communications system, and the immortal line "send me an e-mail that says 'I love you'" wouldn't bother me if it wasn't set to the most generic melody ever written. "The Samurai In Autumn" features about the only uptempo beat on the album, which makes it even more tragic because they failed to write a SONG over it. "Love Is a Catastrophe"? No, this track is a catastrophe! "Here"? No, I'm getting away from this crap! "You Choose"? Yeah, I choose to TURN THIS CRAP OFF!

Ah, that felt good. Haven't done that in a while, have I? Oh, I forgot to mention "The Night I Fell In Love". It's no great shakes musically, but the hilarious Eminem-inspired lyrics endear themselves to me. In general, this is incredibly disappointing. Half of Nightlife may have sucked to hell and back, but at least there were some really good songs tucked in there too. This time it's just... Blah.


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