Posted in Album Reviews

Pet Shop Boys – Hotspot (2020)

 

41Lym5RtegL._AC_UL480_QL65_ML3_Over the past couple of years, Pet Shop Boys have re-released all their albums up to 2013’s Electric. This website has been going back and reviewing all these releases with the last being 1990’s Behaviour last December.  In the midst of this, the new Hotspot album appeared online so we jumped in for a listen.

Several of the tracks have a harder hitting dance sound like first song “Will-o-the-wisp” that could have been released in the 90s or “I don’t wanna”, a dance track about not wanting to dance before the protagonist finally relents. Second single “Burning the heather” features Bernard Butler on acoustic guitar is a wistful track where Neil Tennant sings “the seasons are changing, time’s moving along” which is in stark contrast to the house-y dumb fun of third single “Monkey business” about 50 year olds out for a night on the town.

The best tracks here are the slower more atmospheric sounds that Chris Lowe creates on “Only the dark” where “only the dark can show you the stars” and second song “You Are The One”.  The album closes with another highlight that was a gift for friends many years ago about their “Wedding in Berlin” that uses parts of “The Wedding March”.  Pet Shop Boys have said that this is the last of a trilogy with Stuart Price producing.  It’s dance music for 50 and 60-year olds that shows that there is still plenty of life left in the duo. 

8/10

 

Posted in Album Reviews

Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold (2019)

The release of Sleater-Kinney’s ninth studio album in August 2019 was overshadowed by the sudden departure of longtime member Janet Weiss. Produced by St Vincent, The Center Won’t Hold saw Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker wanting to move the band in a different direction with less input from Weiss who decided to exit.

You can hear some of the St. Vincent influence on tracks such as “Bad Dance” which for the first few listens I heard as “Bat Dance”.  Upbeat and raucous with distorted vocals, the band shouts the chorus. First single “Hurry On Home” could be about politics or a relationship with lyrics that ask to “disconnect me from my bones so I can roam”.  At times it sounds a bit like Yeah Yeah Yeahs.  Second single “Can I Go On” has a distorted 50s sound with a bridge that ups the dance factor.  The chorus on penultimate song, “The Dog / The Body” is genuinely uplifting which is in sharp contrast to the title track that is slower and more vicious.

The best tracks here are the more straightforward ones like “Reach Out” that rides a great groove and the laid-back guitar sound of “Restless”. The album closes with spare piano and a moving vocal from Corin Tucker on “Broken”, a song that sounds lifted from an 80s RnB single. There are a few skippable moments and it is a curious decision to relegate a powerhouse drummer like Janet Weiss to the sidelines.  However, it would be hard to discount whatever musical plans Brownstein and Tucker have next.

7.5/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (Expanded Edition) (2015)

Released in November of 1968, Astral Weeks was Van Morrison’s second album and first classic.  Melding together jazz, rock, and folk the album is like entering into a different world.  The lyrics read like a stream of conscience or listening to someone try and describe their dreams to you.  There were no hits here, no “Brown Eyed Girl” so the first bits of listening for most are to the actual album. The expanded edition was released in 2015 and offers different versions of four of the album’s eight tracks.

Produced in New York by Lewis Merenstein, by most accounts Van Morrison would arrive to the studio and lock himself in the isolation booth with an acoustic guitar and let the talented jazz musicians play what they felt the song needed. Most followed Morrison’s singing along with Richard Davis’ bass. Several stories indicated that Morrison was aloof and never connected with the other musicians. Much to Morrison’s chagrin, strings were overdubbed afterwards and clearly not what the singer wanted however, the minimalist style throughout Astral Weeks make the strings welcome and never overwhelm the song.

The first song is the title track and gives an introduction of what the rest of the album will sound like.  Morrison sings “If I ventured in the slipstream/between the viaducts of your dream” over a bed of folk and jazz stylings. One of several mantras, “Beside You” repeats “You breathe in/you breathe out” over spare instrumentation, mostly just an acoustic guitar that recalls the Leonard Cohen debut.

“Sweet Thing” is one of the tracks that stands out for the memorable music instead of the great singing and lyrics.  “The Way Young Lovers Do” is the shortest track here, the upbeat swinging big band number sounds more like a performance vs the personal introspection that appears elsewhere. At nine minutes, “Ballerina” is the oldest song dating back Morrison’s time with the band Them. A vibraphone accompanies the loving and tender lyrics.  A shorter run time could have made this a potential single.

Two of the featured tracks both centre around Cyprus Avenue in a wealthy area of Belfast.  “Cyprus Avenue” lyrically revolves around a remembrance of a fourteen-year girl while a younger Morrison watches from the car and is too afraid to speak.  He then imagines the girl of his dreams with ribbons in her hair being driven in a carriage by white horses.  “Madame George” features excellent violin playing and another mantra in “and the loves to love to love to love” before a fine bit of hi hat drumming towards the end of the track. 

I first really started listening to this album in January of 2019 then picked it up again recently. There is a lot to unpack on this album as it is truly an album to step into and live in for ¾ of an hour.  I’ve always known Van Morrison as an older gentleman so it is fascinating to think that all of this was conceived when he was just 23 years old. Astral Weeks is an extraordinary album that will hopefully find new fans in every generation.

10/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka (2019)

Back in 2016, we put Michael Kiwanuka’s second album, Love & Hate in our top five albums of the year. As is typical with our listening, we caught onto an artist just as a lot of other people did as well. Soon, Kiwanuka’s track “Cold Little Heart” was used as the theme for HBO’s Big Little Lies and his star continued to grow. Released In November of 2019, the Kiwanuka album placed very high on many year-end charts.

This is the second Kiwanuka album produced by Danger Mouse with Inflo. First single and track, “You Ain’t The Problem” sets the tone with its cool, retro 70s soul sound. “Living In Denial” starts with a fuzzy guitar and horn sound while “Rolling” does a similar trick with an added funky chorus and catchy drum sound.  “Final Days” is another killer percussion track that sees Kiwanuka use his falsetto to great affect in the chorus.

With minimal backing, Kiwanuka sings “When it gets hard, I will roll those sleeves” on “Solid Ground” before the spiritual strings of “Light” appears.  If we had been able to listen to this album in December, odds are it would have been in our top 5 for 2019.  It’s a beautiful and often powerful record that easily hangs tough with many of the classic soul albums of the 70s.  Timeless stuff.

8.5/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Pet Shop Boys – Behaviour/Further Listening 1990-1991 (2018)

Pet Shop Boys fourth album Behaviour was released in October 1990 but I did not pick up the original release until the mid-90s.  By then BritPop was in full swing and it was all “lager lager lager”.  The mature electronic songs of betrayal that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe presented here seemed out of step with other pop music when I bought it the first time around.  Co-Produced by Harold Faltermeyer, this was the release I was most interested in for the Further Listening series to see what I missed the first time around.

The first disc presents the remastered version of the original album with most of the songs touching on love but from different angles.  “To Face The Truth” is an excellent album track with genuinely moving lyrics.  “You know it hurts me when you lie, sometimes it even makes me cry, cause I’m so in love with you”. “When we fall in love there’s confusion” is the excellent chorus in “This Must be the Place I waited Years to Leave”.  “The End of the World” downplays romantic quarrels over a crisp drum beat.

The songs that pulled from here for the Discography Complete Singles Collection released in 1991 are the best tracks and a step up from the Introspective album singles that precedes them.  “So Hard” is one of Pet Shop Boys hardest driving songs as two lovers fight over whether one has started smoking again. Mostly just percussion during the verses, the synths get expansive for a few seconds when Tennant sings “tell me why, don’t we try?”   “Jealousy” was one of the first tracks the duo wrote back in 1982 and features a devastating chorus as one person sits and waits up for his/her partner to come back home again.  The true centerpiece of the album is first song, “Being Boring”.  Barely scraping into the UK top 20 at the time, it has been a firm fan favourite ever since including for this writer who used in a poetry assignment in grade 11. Updating the nostalgia of The Beatles’ “In My Life” for the HIV epidemic era, the lyrics of “all the people that I was kissing, some are here and some are missing” are particularly heartbreaking.

As with other releases in the Further Listening re-releases the second disc is devoted to different mixes of the hits and corresponding B-sides.  For Behaviour, the second disc often outshines the original album by extending “Being Boring” to nearly 11 minutes and adding a new middle section to “So Hard”.  Sweeping strings and a Beatlesque trumpet announce the beginning of “Jealousy” before it goes into the more familiar track. Also included is the 1991 cover of U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You)” that amps up the tension by extending the beginning of the track. 

The Morrissey baiting “Miserablism” was to be put on the original album but wrongly held off as it would have been one of the better album tracks and act as a perfect foil after “So Hard”. “Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend” could have been a single and would have been a floor filler at clubs in the early 90s. Two versions of “DJ Culture” appear at the end as does the 12” version of “Was It Worth It” both of which made their debut on Discography. The latter fairs better but two versions of “DJ Culture” is not needed.  Better is the throbbing bassline in the Chris Lowe sung/talked “We All Feel Better In the Dark (Extended Mix)”.

Going back and reevaluating Behaviour to discover some very good album tracks is the great thing about these types of re-releases.  The Further Listening disc is the best one released thus far in the series and is at times a more engaging listen than the actual album.  The B-sides are superb and the extended versions mostly improve but never takeaway from the originals.  This was another fine release for Tennant/Lowe.

Behaviour – 8.5/10

Further Listening – 9/10