Posted in Album Reviews

Pet Shop Boys – Introspective/Further Listening 1988-89 (2018)

In the mid-80s, Pet Shop Boys’ sophisticated blend of electronics and classic songwriting was leading to smash hits around the globe.  Following up their UK #2 album Actually, they released Introspective in October of 1988.  With radio playing the shorter single versions, the album flips the script by having the longer dance versions on the album including a medley of hit single “Always On My Mind” and a previously released B-sides in extended form.  Even with the unusual track listing, Introspective is the second biggest seller of PSB’s career.

The band’s first singles collection, Discography, is one of my all-time favourites but the tracks from Introspective rank as some of my least favourites. Presented here in extended form allows them to breathe a bit more.  “Domino Dancing”, their last top 20 hit in the US is the most improved by this approach.  The Latino horns mix with an extended percussion section before a piano appears to make the listener’s hips sway. “Left To My Own Devices” adds extra lyrics not included the single version but still contains the classic line “In the back of my head I heard distant feet/Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”.  The music fades out at 5:35 to feature a terrific piano beat.

Initially given to Patsy Kensit’s band, Eighth Wonder, the PSB version of “I’m Not Scared” is what they do extremely well; dramatic lyrics with a (harder) electronic beat.   “Always on My Mind/In My House” is more minimal and gives less focus on the strings than the single version. The second half amps up the house elements and repeats “always” throughout before the first track reappears in full glory.  “It’s Alright” starts out with a bit of gospel before the frivolous lyrics of wishing music to save the world comes through.

The best versions of these songs appear on the album so the Further Listening disc here is not as strong as the first disc.  The demo version of “Domino Dancing” floats by (in a good way) and two versions of its Spanish/Western influenced B-side “Don Juan” appear. The jaunty chorus of “What Keeps Man Alive” sounds plucked from a West End musical whereas “I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too)” and “One of The Crowd” (with its lyrics about fishing) are made for the dancefloor.  The disc ends with the beautiful and touching ballad “Your Funny Uncle” about the funeral of a friend who sadly passed away from Aids.  Such as it is with this period of Pet Shop Boys, even the lesser tracks are worthy and there are several diamonds scattered here.

Introspective – 9/10

Further Listening – 7.5/10

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Posted in Album Reviews

The Good, The Bad & The Queen – Merrie Land (2018)

Hard to believe it’s been 11 years since the first s/t album from The Good, The Bad & The Queen.  The Damon Albarn lead group includes Paul Simonon (The Clash), Simon Tong (The Verve) and the expert drumming of Tony Allen. With the cloud of Brexit hanging over England, Albarn sings what at times sounds like a stream of consciousness lyrics over a bed of improvised music. “Nineteen Seventeen” has no chorus and the lyrics of “The Great Fire” have a free association feel.  The title track is an anxious yet very wordy statement on England and its current politics.

Unlike most modern albums, the second half is more memorable.  “Drifters & Trawlers” is an anthem for weary workers the world over and “The Truce of Twilight” features rough and ready gang singing in the chorus.  Great bassline and horns, this sounds like a mature ska band banging out a classic tune. Albarn is at his best when softly and wistfully looking back on times that may or may never have ever existed.  “Ribbons” is one of his most beautiful songs in ages and closer “The Poison Tree” says goodbye with a dreamy organ lulling you to sleep. 

Produced by Tony Visconti, there is a dark and creepy aspect to the album.  Like a fairground closing down but you can still hear music playing from somewhere.  On Merrie Land; The Good, The Bad & The Queen chases down England’s ghosts that haunt the alleyways and cobblestone corners.  Not all of it works but there are moments that will haunt the listener’s mind long after the stereo has turned off but magically still plays.

7.5/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Bob Dylan – Bob Dylan (1962)

Even though I already had most of the classic 60s and 70s Bob Dylan discs, I couldn’t shake the “need” to own The Complete Album Collection Volume 1 from 2013.  I could not continue to ignore all the fawning reviews so about a year ago I plunked down the money for the entire Dylan box of 47 discs.  And this week marks my review journey into Dylan that will now take several years to complete. 

First up is the s/t album from 1962.  Debuts for many classic artists in the 60s were mostly covers and this is no exception.  The two songs most likely recognized by rock fans that appear here would be “House of the Risin’ Sun” later made famous by The Animals in 1964 and “Man of Constant Sorrow” popularized by early 2000s movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.  The upbeat “Freight Train Blues” features some nice harmonica playing and “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” is a folky love song. 

Dylan does a very good job of displaying conviction and emotion when singing “Fixin’ to Die’” written by Bukka White. At just 20 years old when he recorded it, Dylan pulls off the hard-hitting track about a dying man leaving his crying children behind. “In My Time of Dyin’” is a dirty blues track that reportedly Dylan had never sung out loud until this recording.  Bob Dylan features two Dylan originals.  The first is a semi-autobiographical track “Talkin’ New York” about arriving in the great city and rising through the folk ranks.  Possibly the only track from this album that would make it onto a Greatest Hits is his first notable original in “Song To Woody”.  A touching lyric in honour of his hero, Dylan gives a nod to the past while looking toward the future.

When reviewing albums like this from major artists, it is hard to separate the work from the legend.  Because of this I often think in terms of if the artist had just released this one album and a label re-released it today, what would I think of it.  In Dylan’s case, it would certainly be a lost classic.  Even though the debut is soon eclipsed by his other work, it still a thrilling ride through the mind of a talented and exuberant young artist. It is easy to see why he quickly rose through the folk scene and then kept moving far beyond it.

8/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow (2019)

Comeback kid indeed.  Sharon Van Etten is back with her first full length album since 2014’s Are We There. In talking with Uncut magazine, Van Etten noted that influences for this release include Portishead, Nick Cave, and Suicide.  This shows through in tracks such as “Memorial Day” and “Hands”.  Introspective lyrics with rough, dark and moody electronics. The former being more atmospheric and the latter being more distorted.

While the electronics add texture to a few of the tracks, it’s the more conventional songs that are the most memorable.  First single “Comeback Kid” is propulsive and a standout song from 2018.  “Seventeen” is a celebration of NYC and how its changes over the years.  “Stay” closes out the album with tender lyrics about Van Etten’s one-year old son.  While the electronics can at times sound too stark and rob Van Etten’s voice of some it’s warmth, her personality continues to shine throughout.

7.5/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Prince and the Revolution- Purple Rain Deluxe (2017)

On a recent trip to Mexico, I wanted to listen to just one or two albums during the time spent away from home. One of the main ones was Prince and the Revolution’s mega selling Purple Rain in the two-disc anniversary edition from 2017. While sitting on the resort’s balcony every morning and looking up at the palm trees, Prince seemed like the perfect choice as the area reminded me of popular 80s TV show Miami Vice.  Originally released in 1984, Prince’s sixth album and first with The Revolution is the third highest selling soundtrack of all time, has sold 25 million albums around the world and is on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry list.  It is one of the most popular albums of all time both critically and commercially.

Three of Prince’s most recognizable songs are here.  Chills still go up the spine with the declaration at the beginning of album opener, “Let’s Go Crazy”.  Young kids throughout the world were introduced to slinky, sexy, club R+B in “When Doves Cry”.  Somehow one of the funkiest, grooviest tracks of the 80s has no bass but just percussion, synths, guitar and Prince. These two #1 songs are the sound of mid 80s rock and put Prince at the forefront of music along with Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and Michael Jackson.

The third #1 from the album is the title track that clocks in at nearly nine minutes long.  The showstopping ballad is double the length of it’s four-minute single version but never feels overlong or heavy even though it is packed with emotions and a lengthy guitar solo. The violins sound faintly like “Nothing Compares 2U”, another Prince track that would be a smash for Sinead O’Connor in 1990.

The fourth single, “I Would Die 4 U” is a mid-tempo, minimal jam that sounds like a not too distant cousin to Madonna’s “Dress You Up” released that same year. Fifth single(!), “Take Me With U” is the poppiest track on the album.  A duet between Prince and Apolonia with added background vocals from Jill Jones makes this a full and rich vocal performance on top of a breezy melody.   “Computer Blue” is a slinky Minneapolis funk rocker and the much talked about “Darling Nikki” is the famous raunchy masturbation track… cutting out the lyrics, the verses are musically minimal with a great Prince vocal.  Purple Rain is a classic album that is worth all it’s praise and sales numbers.

The extra tracks on the second disc contain several highlights.  The repetitiveness of the eleven minute synth funk work out “Dance Electric” is hypnotic.  The second half of  “Our Destiney/Roadhouse Garden” sees the beat get turned up and morphs into the excellent “Roadhouse” side where Prince takes over the vocals.  Clocking in at under three minutes, “Velvet Kitty Cat” sounds like a demo made on a cheap casio keyboard but is one of the most immediate tracks here before moving on to one the more developed and lyrically interesting “Katrina’s Paper Dolls”.  

The disc ends with the instrumental piano feature “Father’s Song” that sounds similar to ambient tracks that Moby would make in the 90s. In a family household, not sure how many spins “Wonderful Ass” and especially the ten minute “We Can F***” will get.  Typically, we’re fine with two-disc version of deluxe editions to save a bit of dosh but with this one there is regret in not going with the not much more expensive expanded deluxe with a third disc of single versions + b-sides and live DVD.

Purple Rain – 10/10

Extra Disc – 8/10