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Review: Pet Shop Boys, Electric

With Electric, the Pet Shop Boys have once again given themselves a lease on another era.

 

3.5

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Pet Shop Boys, Electric

“Return to form” is a common refrain in discussions about the Pet Shop Boys. Fans are wont to gripe whenever the British duo, best known for their ’80s dance hits, turn down the BPMs and get serious. Their post-9/11 album, Release, was remarkably heavy on guitar and piano and light on club bangers. It’s one of the most fascinating and thrilling things they’ve ever done—and it was instantly forgotten. Last year’s dreary, narcoleptic Elysium, the final album in their long partnership with Parlophone Records, found Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe contemplating mortality via chilled-out sub-bass sonic textures provided by Kanye West collaborator Andrew Dawson.

Arriving just 10 months later, Electric, as the name implies, rocks much harder. Stuart Price’s production announces itself from the outset as a love letter first and foremost to Eurodisco. After a one-minute intro, Tennant says, “Turn it on,” and the opening track, “Axis,” switches gears into a throttling Giorgio Moroder-style beat, complete with cracking thunder. As Moroder tributes go, it’s certainly more vital than Daft Punk’s pretentious “Giorgio by Moroder,” a generic homage accompanied by a standard-issue interview of the legendary composer talking about his life. Electric succeeds where Random Access Memories occasionally faltered, because it never simply recreates the past; it pushes it forward.

This is hardly surprising given the presence of Price, who’s simultaneously one of the most backward- and forward-looking producers working today. His love for all that’s retro and thumping is obvious, but so is his ability to transform it. Here he shoots through elements of dubstep and other contemporary electronic trends, but the jarring rhythm change in “Shouting in the Evening,” for example, is more than a gimmick. “What a feeling,” Tennant sings through a heavily processed vocal, as if he were a robot lamenting—or reliving—the ecstasy of a dance floor he no longer occupies. It’s a sentiment not too far from Daft Punk’s much more successful “Touch,” in which Paul Williams longs for a remembered feeling. Even in uptempo, mortality isn’t far from the mind.

From the beginning, the Pet Shop Boys’ mission has been to make pop music smart. Not smart in the sense of a hook lifted from some dusty disco 12-inch, but smart in a literary way. Tennant and Lowe proved in the ’80s that synth-pop could be ironic, detached, clever, hilarious, brave, political—all while being humane to its core. Electric works to those strengths. Tennant is in a strident, declarative mode reminiscent of the group’s stunning Fundamental; once again, he uses wordplay to renegotiate the meanings we traditionally attach to pop songs. His couplets have a force that needs to be untangled: “There you are pretending you’re lonely/I don’t believe you don’t know you could own me,” he sings on “Bolshy,” twisting a come-on, not to mention a double negative, into a comment on the Foucauldian power dynamics of sex and love.

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Equally enticing is the way the Pet Shop Boys, ever the appropriators, mix elements of culture high, low, and anywhere in between, and in all directions. “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” is about someone who gives up on love to go looking for “the soul of England” in some Karl Marx paperbacks, but as to be expected, the lyrics skirt satire: We find out that the character is really just biding time waiting for his lover to return. From the other side of the Atlantic and much more earnest, Bruce Springsteen’s “Last to Die” is reworked into a dance anthem. Some have found the cover surprising, but should it be? The pacifist message of the song—who will be the last ones killed when we realize we’ve waged an unjustified war?—is one that runs through both artists’ catalogues. The bigger surprise may be that the Boss’s working-class populism works so well with a drum loop.

There are other nods to the Boys’ much younger pop contemporaries. A sound effect of (presumably) a woman groaning on “Fluorescent” wouldn’t seem out of place on a Weeknd track. The subject matter, about a celebrity who ascends to stardom so skillfully that he or she can no longer carry on normal living, wouldn’t either. “Thursday,” an otherwise straightforward throwback to the simple melodies of Actually, is interrupted by a single verse from the English rapper Example. Lowe’s appreciation of hip-hop has never been in question, but the verse adds so much dynamism to the track that one wonders where the guest raps have been all along.

Lush and infectious as it is, Electric doesn’t quite hit the benchmark of the most accomplished Pet Shop Boys albums. One comes away from songs as meticulous as the house track “Inside a Dream” with the feeling that Tennant and Lowe, after the disappointment surrounding Elysium, approached this as repair work that needed doing. There’s not a single bad track, and yet there also aren’t the same quips or diversions or general stabs at fucking with listeners’ heads that one expects from a certified Pet Shop Boys masterpiece like Fundamental, which summed up centuries of human struggle, from Sodom and Gomorrah to the Iraq War, all while showing us a good time. The Pet Shop Boys are singular in pop for their ability to pull off that kind of ambition. Electric is a more modest undertaking.

Still, the Pet Shop Boys have once again given themselves a lease on another era, and Price was obviously the right choice to help them do so. Their new self-owned label, X2, is already delivering on the promise of the rebirth its name suggests. How committed they are to such an act remains to be seen. We don’t listen to the Pet Shop Boys for constant reinvention; reliability has its own rewards (ask any Leonard Cohen fan). But it’s in their surprises, the slight tweaks on their own premise, that they’ve found and will continue to find their greatest rewards. The dancing we can depend on.

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Label: X2 Release Date: July 16, 2013 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy Is Eclectic but Unmemorable

Neither the album’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs.

2.5

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Why You So Crazy

The music video for “Be Alright,” the lead single from the Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy, takes the viewer on an interactive 360-degree tour of the Odditorium, a city block-sized building in Portland that was purchased by the band in 2002 in order to serve as their headquarters and recording studio. On one level, it’s clever viral marketing, as the Odditorium is a commercial space, with booking information available online and a public-facing wine bar in the corner. But more importantly, it’s also a revealing glimpse at the cloistered conditions that have produced the last 15 years of the Dandys’s increasingly insular music.

Why You So Crazy unfolds in what is clearly meant to be a dizzying array of styles: from the 1930s Hollywood gloss of opening track “Fred N Ginger” (complete with an artificial 78 r.p.m. vinyl crackle), to the campfire gospel of “Sins Are Forgiven,” to the warped synth-pop of “To the Church.” Minute production details abound throughout: a stray melodica amid the tightly coiled electro of “Terraform”; a spectral, high-pitched piano line floating above the churning guitars of “Be Alright”; a general cacophony of Eno-esque electronic gurgles on the country pastiches “Highlife” and “Motor City Steel.” In short, the album sounds exactly like the product of a band with their own personal recording complex at their disposal and only the most nominal commercial pressures to fulfill.

Unfortunately, neither Why You So Crazy’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs. For all their stylistic diversity, most of the tracks here ride a single musical hook, like the metronomic bassline that opens “Thee Elegant Bum,” until they’ve reached an ostensibly acceptable length. It’s to the Dandys’s credit that their definition of acceptable song lengths no longer extends to the seven-, nine-, and 12-minute dirges that dominate 2005’s Odditorium, or Warlords of Mars, the album that not coincidentally put an end to their short-lived major label phase. But this is cold comfort when the four-and-a-half minutes of undulating synthesizer and droning guitar feedback that comprise “Next Thing I Know” seems to stretch into a small eternity.

Even frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor, not exactly a high-energy singer in the first place, seems to sleepwalk through much of the album—an impression enhanced when keyboardist Zia McCabe takes the lead for “Highlife.” Not only does McCabe’s Dolly Parton-ish chirp provide a welcome respite from Taylor-Taylor’s laconic drawl, but it makes for an instructive comparison with his blasé performance on the stylistically similar “Motor City Steel.” Neither song does much with the country genre besides wallow in its clichés, but while McCabe commits to her performance, Taylor-Taylor remains distant, exaggerating his pronunciation of Paris’s “Charlie DO-gal” airport as if he’s afraid of being taken too seriously. Similarly cloying is “Small Town Girls,” a paean to provincial womanizing that would feel trite had it been recorded when Taylor-Taylor was 21, let alone his current age of 51.

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Of course, aesthetic distance isn’t necessarily a sin. Just ask Bryan Ferry and Mick Jagger, to name two of the Dandys’s more obvious influences. Nor, for that matter, is self-indulgence without its artistic virtues. Jack White—another survivor of the early-2000s alt-rock scene with his own recording complex (two of them, in fact)—released an album last year that Slant’s own Jeremy Winograd described as “at times close to unlistenable,” but at least it provided the creative spark White seemed to be looking for. The Dandy Warhols, by contrast, just seem to be treading water: releasing an album because they can and, with 2019 marking their 25th anniversary as a band, because they think they should. And while there are no wrong reasons to make music, there may be no reason less compelling than obligation.

Release Date: January 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Cherry Glazerr’s Stuffed & Ready Rages Against a Hostile World

The L.A. trio’s third album is a cathartic expression of estrangement in a cruel world.

4

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Stuffed & Ready

Clementine Creevy has always had a playful streak. At 15, she recorded her first songs under the name ClemButt, and her current outfit, the Los Angeles trio Cherry Glazerr, gained notoriety for a spaced-out, miniature ode to grilled cheese on their 2013 EP Papa Cremp. With Stuffed & Ready, Creevy’s signature irreverence has been transposed into scathing exasperation. The album rages against a hostile, misogynistic world, and then directs its venom inward.

That rage becomes the operating principle of Stuffed & Ready, which is Cherry Glazerr’s most mature and complex album to date. The opening track, “Ohio,” is a barometer for the ensuing ferocity, as a brief, lo-fi prelude crumbles into propulsive guitar noise. The music video for lead single “Daddi,” in which a solitary orange humanoid navigates a turbulent sea of blue creatures, captures the sense of alienation, confusion, and self-abasement that permeates the album. “Who should I fuck, Daddy? Is it you?” Creevy sneers in her characteristic falsetto. Her lyrics often vacillate between affirmation and uncertainty, probing for empowerment in a world that consistently renders her existence invalid. On “Self Explained,” she confesses, “I don’t want people to know how much time I spend alone.”

Under the direction of Carlos de la Garza, who also produced 2017’s Apocalipstick, Stuffed & Ready is Cherry Glazerr’s most sonically sophisticated effort yet. Musically, “Stupid Fish” is a gripping mash-up of the Smiths and early Sleater-Kinney, with sulking distortion interspersed with melodic bursts of Johnny-Marr-inspired guitar play. “Juicy Socks,” perhaps the album’s one moment of breathing room, finds Creevy playfully quipping over a shimmering guitar and florid bassline, “I don’t want nobody hurt/But I made an exception with him/I’m so lucky I can breathe/When the others cannot swim.”

Stuffed & Ready’s fiery denouement, “Distressor,” oscillates from an arpeggiated guitar and rolling drumbeat to a headbanging refrain. “The only faces I can see/Are the faces I pushed away from me/So I can just be,” Creevy wails, repeating the word “be” like a mantra. The album isn’t always hopeful, but it isn’t hopeless either, as it consistently provides a cathartic release for Creevy’s fury.

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Label: Secretly Canadian Release Date: February 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated

Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.

3.5

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Guster, Look Alive

Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.

Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.

On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.

Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.

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For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.

Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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