Elysium

Elysium is Pet Shop Boys most recent studio album, released in September this year. The album was a first for Pet Shop Boys because it was recorded in Los Angeles at the start of 2012 with producer Andrew Dawson, who’s production work typically is with hip-hop artists like Kanye West and the like. Initially, I was a little bit wary for the quality of the album because I was one of the biggest critics of the lead single Winner. I have to say though that Winner, along with Hold On are the only two real sore points of the album for me, the rest of the tracks range from the good to the gorgeous, in my opinion at least.

One big contributing factor to the album’s strong quality is undoubtedly the next to perfect production on the album from Andrew Dawson. Initially I was a little bit dubious because of his hip-hop background (only because I listen to it very rarely as a genre) but his production on the album is so beautiful. The album has this really beautiful and serene atmosphere which I think becomes even more prevalent once you listen to the second CD of instrumentals. In terms of melody, particularly strong tracks for me are Invisible and Leaving. Having said that, even Hold On and Winner still have lovely melodies, particularly the latter. I’m actually going to go out on a limb here: I think the choice of producer has been their most inspired since choosing to work with Harold Faltymer on Behaviour. It makes the second CD of instrumentals an absolute joy to listen to in their own right. It doesn’t feel like a tacked on bonus disc for the sake of it; the instrumentals are so strong in their own right I can see myself playing it just as often as I play the main album.

In terms of theme for the album, I guess it sort of invokes Behaviour in a way, but even then the two albums are so stylistically different that it dilutes any real comparisons you could make I guess. One prevalent theme on the album is death, but in no way does it make Elysium a heavy listen. I think a prime example of the way they’ve approached the death theme on the album is the finale track, Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin which they’ve described as a “eulogy set to disco music”. It sums the track up perfectly and its a classic example of Pet Shop Boys juxtaposition: the melody of that particular song is uplifting but the lyrics are a bit more somber in tone. Another theme on the album see’s them reevaluate their career which is only natural considering they celebrated their 30th anniversary last year. After all, the music industry has changed almost beyond recognition during their tenure.

Another thing I really love about Elysium is that it’s one of their most varied albums I think they’ve ever done. Their albums always have a variety of styles on them, but Elysium just seems that bit more varied I think. Prior to the album’s release they said that it took inspiration from every album they have ever done more or less. I was a bit apprehensive about that initially as that has the potential to sound really messy: I mean how could a Very-era style track sit alongside a track that sounds like it could have been on Release? Amazingly, it works and you can definitely hear past elements of their work on the album. Breathing Space sounds like it could have been from Release, and Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin doesn’t sound a million miles away from something you’d get on Bilingual and there’s a few more instances like that for good measure. Most importantly though, the album never feels like a mere re-hash of past glories. It’s very typical of their sound in places but it always manages to be forward-thinking. And to their absolute credit, all these varied sounds come together to make a very cohesive album. Really, I don’t think many artists could cover such a variety of sounds on an album and not make it feel a bit dis-jointed, but its always been one of Pet Shop Boys major strengths for me. Elysium is just a particularly strong example of that I think!

From the official video for Invisible

All in all I think Elysium is a very strong album really. It more than demonstrates that they’ve yet to run out of ideas. They’ve executed a brilliant balance of mixing together more classic sounding Pet Shop Boys songs (like Leaving) with songs that are more unusual in style (Hold On; Everything Means Something for example). Those who are stuck in some kind of 1980’s time warp and expect them to simply churn out albums like Please and Actually for their whole careers will no doubt find much to criticize here as Elysium has an incredibly fresh and modern sound. For everyone else though, I think there’s enough variety on Elysium to ensure that hopefully most people will find at least one track they’ll enjoy. For me, I’ve been listening to the album on a regular basis since I bought it on release day. Where do I rank it against their other albums? Its too early to tell, but if in a year from now I’m still enjoying the album as much as I am at the moment then I think it’ll be closer to the top of my list rather than the bottom. If their performance at the Olympics Closing Ceremony this year was a sort of celebration that they’ve lasted thirty years in the business; then I think Elysium more than demonstrates why they’ve achieved that feat. It’s proof that after thirty years, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe remain two of the most innovative and creative minds in pop music today.

Advertisements

Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures

Unknown Pleasures is the first album released by seminal post-punk group Joy Division. Sadly it was to be the only album Joy Division would release during frontman Ian Curtis’ lifetime, as sophomore album Closer would be released in the wake of his suicide in 1980 as a posthumous album. Unknown Pleasures is regarded as one of the best British albums of all time and with very good reason, I’d put this in the top ten albums I have ever heard by anyone. It’s a musical opus really.

Unknown Pleasures though had utterly no impact on the charts when it was initially released, which did surprise me I have to admit given it’s classic status as an album now. Amazingly, the highest position Unknown Pleasures obtained on the UK Albums Chart was a very lowly #71, and even then this was in 1980 following the release of Closer. Despite it’s lack of chart success this has always been a critically acclaimed album though.

Of course, whilst the band are all excellent here you can’t fail to ignore someone else key to making this album work as well as it does: the late Martin Hannet. Martin Hannet produced the record in such a way that gives it a transcendental nature. Simply put, the album has a timeless quality that ensures it still sounds as strong as it did when initially released. They did this by recording each instrument separately on tracks which gives it that cavernous and consequently eerie atmosphere. Whilst in the studio, their aim was to simply not recreate the feel of Joy Divisions live shows and by doing so I think that’s how they’ve made Unknown Pleasures an album with real longevity. As much as I love Joy Division’s live sound, there is an ambient and spacious feel to the album that really makes the listener resonate with Ian’s voice. Honestly, the only production mishap for me was burying the guitar deep in the mix in She’s Lost Control. I actually prefer the live version on Something Goes because the studio version of She’s Lost Control just sounds a little bit too watered down for my liking. That minor criticism aside though, this honestly is one of the best production jobs on an album I’ve ever heard.

Consequently the production on the album leads me onto another reason why I love this album so much. It has an amazing atmosphere that really envelopes the listener into the soundscape of the record. Honestly, I think only those albums of the highest musical caliber can entice you in in such a way. It’s eerie and unsettling in places, and its not just down to hindsight in knowing the sad fate for the band. I tried to listen to Shadowplay a number of years ago and even without knowing anything about the band it still gave me chills. It’s a listening experience really unlike any other I have heard. From the opening chords of Disorder to the final seconds of I Remember Nothing you really do feel like you are someplace else with the album. Even the first lyrics sung on the album “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand” make you feel like you are going on a journey. The album is sequenced in such a way too, on the LP version side A is called Outside, and contains the first five tracks from Disorder to New Dawn Fades. Subsequently Side B is called Inside and contains the following five tracks, from She’s Lost Control to I Remember Nothing. It’s appropriate in a way I think, as the second half of the album is even more of a soundscape than the first, particularly the final three tracks. It’s maybe the single most cohesive album I have ever heard. Every track has its place on the album and every track brings something to the record. There’s honestly not a track here I class as filler at all.

All in all I think this is one of the most consistently brilliant albums I have ever heard. Some of the more commonly known tracks include She’s Lost Control and Shadowplay but honestly, those would be two tracks on the album that I find myself playing less frequently. Songs like Candidate are among some of the best that Joy Division would record in their sadly all too brief career, and Unknown Pleasures has one of the greatest pair of opening and closing tracks (Disorder and I Remember Nothing) that you’ll ever hear. I will concede that the album has a cathartic tone that may be off-putting, but if you persevere you will be rewarded with some of the most beautiful production work – and music in general-¬† you will ever hear on record. A mesmerizing album that only gets better the more you listen to it. I’ll go so far to say that not only is it one of the best albums ever, it may just be the best debut album I’ve ever heard. By any artist.

Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You) 12 Dance Mix"

I have to admit, this is fast becoming one of my favorite 12″ mixes! If I’m honest, Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You) was a song that took some time to grow on me. I think it can be attributed to the fact that I really like U2’s original version and Pet Shop Boys version has such a ridiculously over the top arrangement. I know that’s the whole point of their version; to exploit it’s potential as a more dance based song but I did struggle to get into it for quite some time. I love the 7″ version now but I may prefer this 12″ mix just a tad more. What I love about this mix is that it sounds somewhat softer whilst still retaining all of the song’s danceable qualities which was the main point of the reinterpretation in the first place. The 12″ dance mix of the song was mixed by David Morales. I tend to find myself enjoying a lot of the remixes he’s done, not just for Pet Shop Boys but other artists; and he has remixed other Pet Shop Boys songs such as So Hard and the second A-side single that Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You) was released with, How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously? too. He’s done a number of remixes for Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You) actually, but the 12″ dance mix is by far my favorite. One of the key changes he’s made is that the original relies more on analogue sounding synths whereas the 12″ dance mix has house sounding piano chords. I’m sure it’s more than obvious by now how much I love dance tracks built around piano chords so it should come as no surprise that I love this mix. It’s every bit as danceable as the 7″ single version but for me, its done in a more subtle way so that in the long term, I’ll probably end up playing this mix more than the single version. Neil’s vocals also sound better here I think but really I think it’s just because the arrangement in the 7″ version is so over the top that it overpowers his vocals. David Morales didn’t change the vocals or anything, unless I’ve missed something quite subtly different I didn’t actually realize just how good his vocals are in this track until I heard this mix if I’m honest! This mix isn’t the easiest to obtain, it’s only available in UK on the Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You)/How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously? Remixed single (which was released on both CD and 12″ as far as I know). It’s more easily found on American releases because Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You) wasn’t part of a double A-side single there (nor was it in France or Canada) so its on the maxi CD single there and so on. It’s a pity this track isn’t more wildly available as its one of my favourite Pet Shop Boys remixes!

Michael Jackson – I’m So Blue

So in the last month or so Bad 25 has been released, which aims to be a fitting tribute to one of Michael Jackson’s most revered albums. I’ll admit that Bad isn’t one of my favourite albums actually, but the Bad 25 package does seem terrific value. I’ve yet to actually get my copy but thanks to Spotify I have managed to hear the tracks on it (bar the live ones, I’m saving that for when I’m able to watch the DVD) and I have to say that the unreleased tracks really suprised me actually. Of the unreleased tracks, Free and I’m So Blue are my favorites. Actually, I think I’m So Blue is fast becoming one of my favourite Michael Jackson tracks! The lyrics of the song are rather simplistic, basically the narrator of the song’s lover has left them for another man, and their coping mechnaism for this break-up is more or less to sing. The lyrics of the song are rather sad I think but what really makes the song more moving is Michael’s vocal delivery. I absolutely love the little “dah dah dah’s” that provides the song’s main hook. For me at least, they sound like they come from a narrator who is obviously hurting following the end of their relationship. Although I do get an underlying sense of optimism from them as they obviously take such comfort from singing, (if that doesn’t sound daft). The lyrics don’t have the depth that makes songs like Man In The Mirror classic tracks, but they’re not the main reason why I love this song. What I love about the song is that it has a much more organic sound that was disappointedly lacking in Bad. Whilst its still a very good album it’s too polished and glossy in sound for me. I think I’m So Blue would have made a refreshing change from the highly polished nature of the other tracks on the record. Without sounding too harsh, I think the song has actually aged better than more or less every track that was on Bad. It could be just me, but I actually think I’m So Blue sounds like it could have fitted relatively well on Thriller if I’m being honest. Listening to this makes me wonder if there’s any other tracks of a similar ilk (and knowing how frequently Michael recorded, its very likely there is) that have been simply left in the vaults for all these years. Really, it makes the posthumous Michael album seem like even more of a joke than it already was. A great song that I’m pleased has been brought to light!

Blur – Bang

Widely touted as their worst song, Bang was Blur’s third single from their debut album Leisure. It was a song that didn’t take long to do at all, fifteen minutes was the grand total according to Blur bassist Alex James. Being written in such a quick time you can’t really expect an artistic masterpiece hardly, although I still quite like the song really. It’s very straightforward though and lacks the creative element (much like their whole debut album really) that would make subsequent albums from Blur ones of high caliber. If I’m honest, its your typical early 90’s indie fodder. Lyrically the song has a very simple message. It seems to be about someone who seems to be just coasting along (“bang goes another day; where and when I could not say”) without much of a care in the world. They’re happy to just do what is the norm “Everybody’s doing it so I’ll do it too”. Then comes the chorus – and whilst it doesn’t exactly give the song depth (its far too typical of its era for that really) – it does redeem it lyrically somewhat. Basically, the narrator shows a deep down vulnerability, whilst they don’t rely on anyone in particularly they’re willing to admit “a little love would make things better.”. Despite its jangly guitar pop sound (including that shuffle esque rhythm which every guitar pop band seemed to be doing at the time); I think the lyrics are quite sad really. I personally get the image of this rather tragic figure aimlessly living their life without any real sense of direction. Despite this the lyrics really are a far cry from Damon Albarn’s best work. Honestly, I find it hard to believe listening to this song that Damon Albarn would go on to be one of (if not the) most creative minds that British music has produced in the last 20 years or so. Even the band agree, the song has been utterly disowned by them and Damon has even gone on record saying its crap. Whilst I think its a nice little song it does feel like its being performed by a group that have yet to reach their musical peak in all honesty. Having said that I do love the music video, its probably one of my favorite videos Blur have done (It’s drummer Dave Rowntree’s favorite actually) and it does enhance the song. A pleasant enough song although its very rightly not looked on as their finest moment. Not quite the disaster the band make it out, but it also doesn’t justify their talents at all.

Bounce (Demo)

Bounce is probably my favourite Pet Shop Boys demo! This was recorded in 1987, around the time that Domino Dancing was also being written. Originally, Introspective was actually going to titled Bounce and, at a time, the song of the same name was being considered for inclusion on the forthcoming album. Why it was eventually dropped I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s a real shame this song was discarded and left to lie dormant in the vaults as it were. I think it would actually¬† One thing that I especially love about this track is how it sounds more or less the polar opposite to what you’d expect a song with the title Bounce to sound like. Initially, I expected the song to be a glossy/punchy piece of synthpop but it’s really not. I made my initial preconceptions purely on the title alone, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. It actually makes the song one of the most interesting ones to write about. The tempo of Bounce is set at a mid-tempo speed and implores two really interesting musical techniques. First of all, the percussion line in the song is simply a drum machine playing every sound in it’s library one by one whilst keeping in time with the beat. If that sounds positively hellish fear not: it’s actually done in a rather subtle way. What a relief otherwise the song would be an absolute mess melodically speaking! The second technique (if you could call it that) in the song is what makes it that little bit special. Neil singing the word “bounce” is sampled and made to sound rather jittery/stuttery, no doubt to give a feeling of actual bounciness. Also lyrically, its not what you would expect either. Lyrically the song is about a rather tense relationship that has the potential to end in absolute disaster, as the line “will you be the one I look back on from a prison cell with regret?” shows. The narrator isn’t ready to give up hope on the relationship though. Despite not giving up, the underlying sense of danger in the relationship reminds me of another Introspective era demo: So Sorry, I Said which also depicted a rather bleak relationship. In any case it’s a shame this wasn’t on Introspective as I think it would have fitted in with the other songs on the album quite well. For some reason I can envisage this being the closing track on Introspective as it’s shorter length would have been a refreshing change from the rest of the tracks rather long lengths. In the Introspective Further Listening booklet they say that the song was never recorded properly, personally I think the demo has a rather polished sound as it is. In any case its never been officially released although with Pet Shop Boys knack for recording songs years after initial conception, who knows? Two versions of it have leaked, a 7″ mix and an instrumental. A great little demo that deserves more attention!

Happy Mondays – Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches

Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches is Happy Mondays third studio album, released in 1990. The album for me epitomizes the late 80’s/early 90’s “Madchester” scene much more so than the other leaders of the era, The Stone Roses who always had a much more retro sound compared to the Happy Mondays more contemporary style. The album is their most successful, as well as their most critically acclaimed and its not hard to see why: it would personally be in my top ten most favorite records of all time!

With Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder finally got to work with the producer that he was vouching for: Paul Oakenfold, no doubt thanks to the success of his “Think About The Future” mix of Wrote For Luck. Their singles would be typically remixed by DJ’s anyway so really a more dance oriented album was a pretty natural move I think. In any case, the sound on Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches was the sound that Shaun had always hoped the band would go for. Happy Mondays were always a band that lent towards the dance end of the music spectrum but with Pill N Thrills and Bellyaches they finally embraced their dance influences. By doing so, they created their defining album and many people agree. The album reached #4 in the UK charts which was a colossal leap from previous album Bummed, which only reached #59.

The album also spawned their two biggest hits: Step On and Kinky Afro. To say that these are the best songs though would do the other tracks a massive disservice. If anything Step On and Kinky Afro are two of my least favorite tracks on the album. The album tracks on Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches more than match (they surpass in my opinion) the singles released from the set. The only song that I’m not overly keen on is Grandma’s Funeral but I like or love every other song. With the other Happy Mondays albums, as much as I like them all they do always have a few songs I’d regard as filler. With Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches though there is a special cohesion here: every song adds to the album really and it really is Happy Mondays at their peak.

Another thing I must pay special attention to is Shaun Ryder’s lyrics on the record. Shaun Ryder has always been a really good lyricist in a twisted and manic sort of way. Its his lyrics coupled with Happy Mondays hard hitting dance rhythms that give them a certain edge I think. On Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches his lyrics are particularly strong. Kinky Afro has got some of the most twisted and consequently funny lyrics I have heard and the same can be said for God’s Cop. Really, the whole band are at their peak here. No aspect of the band has ever sounded stronger than on Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches in my view.

All in all, if British indie music is the 90’s is your thing then this is an absolutely essential listen. All of the songs are memorable and the band are at the peak of powers in every respect from the music to the lyrics, right down to the choice of producer. Currently the band are in the studio recording their first studio album to feature the original line up since their fourth record, 1992’s Yes Please. Whilst you can never rule anything out really, its hard to imagine they’ll ever top this record. It’s that good!¬†

Favorite Tracks:
  • Dennis and Lois
  • Bob’s Yer Uncle
  • God’s Cop

Joy Division – Live At The Paradiso (Bootleg)

I’m sure those of you who know in depth about the many bootlegs of Joy Division concerts will know about this. I just thought I’d post the link to it for others who may not be aware of it as it really as a treasure! This isn’t a review of the bootleg, I’m just promoting it really. This is from their gig at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, which took place on January 11th, 1980. It’s the complete show This is by far and away the best quality Joy Division bootleg I’ve ever heard, so much better than the sound quality at the Preston set. I’d even go so far as to say it’s probably got the best sound quality of any bootleg I’ve heard from any artist, period! A real treat to hear, given Ian would sadly pass away in a matter of months. Highly recommended if you have an interest in Joy Division!

South Bank Show

So I’ve just managed to (finally) watch the Pet Shop Boys edition of The South Bank Show. The South Bank show was basically an arts programme that originally ran between 1978 and 2010 although it has came back in recent months. Anyhow, Pet Shop Boys featured on the show in the early 90s. Wikipedia states it was in 1990 although that has to be a mistake. I’m sure it was from 1992 because the album artwork for DJ Culture (which was released in that year) is shown and they reference the Performance tour being a year ago. In any case this is a really interesting documentary. I personally love watching old documentaries on artists, its like they capture a little snapshot of how they were feeling at a particular time if that makes sense? I personally found the documentary particularly enlightening on two particular subjects: firstly how Pet Shop Boys present themselves and how/why they’re different to other pop artists around at that time. The documentary also features contributions from various people they have worked with over the years such as Liza Minnelli and the late Eric Watson. Eric Watson’s contributions were particularly illuminating, not because of his passing earlier in the year but because I’ve never actually seen any video footage of him talking about working with Pet Sop Boys before. The video in this post is indeed the full documentary. It is a fascinating documentary that is well worth watching!

One In A Million

This is one of my favorite Pet Shop Boys songs, and one that is somewhat of an overlooked gem! This is an album track from Very, its probably my favorite track from that album if I’m honest. The song is actually the result of mixing up bits of various songs they had written. The original chords for One In A Million were actually written all the way back in 1984, back when they had signed with their first manager. The verse was different though. Fast forward to 1992 were Pet Shop Boys were recording for what would become their Very album. There was a song they were having difficulty completing called It’s Up To You (no doubt what inspired the “It’s up to me” line). Chris merely suggest that they dig out the old One In A Million song as that could be sung over the top of It’s Up To You, thus creating the One In A Million on Very. Interestingly, this song may have ended up not being recorded by Pet Shop Boys at all in fact. They were considering offering it to British boyband Take That, who were incredibly popular at the time. Take That would end up being supported by Pet Shop Boys on their Progress tour, and one of their members, Robbie Williams would work with Pet Shop Boys a number of times (I have to credit his work with them being one of my earliest introductions to Pet Shop Boys actually). Neil has stated he thinks that Robbie Williams voice would suit this song better than Gary Barlow (who sings most of the lead vocals on Take That songs). In all honestly, as much as I really like Take That I can’t imagine them singing this song at all. Which is strange, because I don’t think One In A Million is a million miles away from the style of music they did on their debut album, Take That & Party. What stopped them giving the song away to Take That was Chris, who was adamant they didn’t do it. Lyrically, the song is autobiographical by Neil’s own admission and manages to be both very romantic but also very sad. The relationship in the song is nearing the end, one person wants to leave and the narrator is telling them to stay. Havinf said that, the narrator makes it clear their lover can just leave them, but also they may never have a happier relationship. Personally, I get a sense that the narrator feels that their lover will indeed leave them: whilst they are convinced they are the man in the million that will change their minds they are still just that: one man. In any case I think this is one of the most underrated Pet Shop Boys songs. This definitely could have been a hit single I think if it was released! As it stands, it’s been brushed under the carpet somewhat. It was only ever performed on the Discovery tour (triumphantly as a mash up with Culture Beat’s Mr Vain albeit) and it’s probably my highlight of the tour. Great song that’s criminally overlooked!