Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fundamental Is Obvious, Not Indispensable, Pet Shop Boys.

The Good: Good, danceable tunes, Wonderful lyrics.
The Bad: Short, Nothing sounds different from what we've heard before.
The Basics: Stiflingly average, Fundamental is an average album that sounds like very average Pet Shop Boys.

With my Artist Of The Month reviews, it is rare that I get in enough albums to truly make me feel like I have gotten the full experience for the artist. However, this July, when the Pet Shop Boys were my Artist Of The Month, I nearly ran out of albums by the Pet Shop Boys to review, so I feel like I may have gotten almost the entire "Pet Shop Boys musical experience." The albums that I have not heard seem to have been fairly well-represented on the few anthology albums for the band that exist and as I trundle through the final albums, it is hard for me to get excited about what I am hearing. By that, all I mean is that there is very little that is standing out as so new and different that I feel I must own the new (to me) albums I am listening to. With Fundamental, my appreciation of the work is almost entirely all academic, rated as high on the intellectual merits as opposed to the emotive.

For a dance-pop album, that is pretty much the death knell of the work. Still, I weakly recommend Fundamental for three reasons: 1. The lyrics are good, 2. The music isn't bad and 3. A cointoss told me to. All in all, this is a hardly extraordinary album and fans of the Pet Shop Boys will find this to be far more familiar than audacious.

With only twelve tracks occupying 48:39, Fundamental is hardly the most ambitious work by the Pet Shop Boys. The duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe is less overtly creative on Fundamental as well, as they farm out the song "Numb" to Diane Warren. While they wrote the other eleven songs on the album, they were not involved in the production of the album. Instead, Fundamental has the lead vocals performed by Tennant and the keyboards and drum programming provided by Chris Lowe. Still, considering they use their producer for additional instrument programming on the album, it seems like the Pet Shop Boys were generally happy with their sound and concept for the album.

Instrumentally, that concept is nothing new. The songs are almost all dance-pop songs with pop ballads that increase the orchestral accompaniment and there is nothing we haven't heard before. "Minimal" sounds like a typical stripped down Pet Shop Boys orchestral piece, while "I'm With Stupid" sounds like the usual dance-club hit that the Pet Shop Boys are best known for. These are largely keyboard driven tracks where the purpose of the instrumental accompaniment is to get listeners on their feet dancing.

Vocally, Neil Tennant is stiflingly average as well. Sure, he does exceptional falsetto work on the pop-driven "The Sodom And Gomorrah Show," but that is well within his range and the style of the band by this point. It is in no way audacious. He whispers low, he whispers high, he belts out lines all through the registers and he holds notes fairly long when he has to, like on "Luna Park." But more than anything, he sings in the tenor range and he sings clearly, emotively and in a way that illustrates that the emphasis for the Pet Shop Boys is in the message.

On Fundamental, the emphasis is on relationships and weirdness, as far as the lyrics go. "The Sodom And Gomorrah Show" is a dance-pop storysong which explores the sensationalism of sin, which is not an infrequent topic for the Pet Shop Boys. Instead, they fearlessly delve into the musical murk of exploring how the Other is exploited for money. And they do it well on that song, much like they have on past works.

They also sing about interpersonal relationships and the Pet Shop Boys are the masters of poetically capturing awkwardness. So, when the men sing "I walked into the room / Imagine my surprise / You were sitting close to him / Staring in each other's eyes / Each of you looked up / But no one said a word / I felt I should apologize / For what I hadn't heard / A silence filled the room / Awkward as an elephant / In the crowded court of your love / I was now a supplicant" ("I Made My Excuses And Left "), the listener feels remarkably uncomfortable. Anyone who has been trapped in an awkward situation will know the precise feeling the song sings of. Even with predictable rhymes, the Pet Shop Boys can make a storysong truly resonate.

As well, some of the songs on Fundamental are just delightfully weird. The album ends with "Integral," which makes it sound like the whole of existence is a laboratory experiment. With a mechanized voice, Neil Tennant delivers the lines "One world / One reason / Unchanging / One season / If you've done nothing wrong / You've got nothing to fear / If you've something to hide / You shouldn't even be here / You've had your chance / Now we've got the mandate / If you've changed your mind / I'm afraid it's too late / We're concerned / You're a threat / You're not integral / To the project" ("Integral") and he sounds like a demented scientist pronouncing judgment. While one might make the argument that the song has a subversive message, it has the flavor of just being a quirky pop song and sometimes the Pet Shop Boys do create a song for just the purpose of being different.

Even when the Pet Shop Boys farm it out, they manage to get songs that sound like their own works. Even though "Numb" is a cover written for the band, it sounds like a Pet Shop Boys song. The poetics of "Don't wanna hear the news / What's going on / What's coming through / I don't wanna know . . . Just wanna hide away / Make my my escape / I want the world / To leave me alone" ("Numb") read very much like lyrics written by Tennant and Lowe. It is presented very naturally.

In the end, Fundamental is a very average Pet Shop Boys album where the listener gets new lyrics in songs that sound and feel like they were culled from other Pet Shop Boys albums. This is not bad, but it does make the listener feel a little cheated and my "recommend" of this album is very weak. Listeners will do better with some of the band's other works.

The best track is "Casanova In Hell," the low point is the unmemorable "God Willing."

For other works by the Pet Shop Boys, please check out my reviews of:
How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously? (single)
Discography: The Complete Singles
New York City Boy (single)
Pop Art: The Hits


For other music reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. Hi !

    You're so right about this one. Fundamental is hardly essential in their discography.

    They called back Trevor Horn as a producer because he has made wonders for them in the past with tracks like "Left to my own devices" and "It's Alright". But having a good producer is not everything, especially if you don't have good songs to support him a little bit.

    And here, sadly, when you take out the singles "I'm with stupid" the great "Minimal" and the fantastic "Integral", there is not much left here. Inspiration wasn't there much for them, that year.

    But the craziest thing is that they chose not to include 2 other great songs of that period : "The resurrectionnist" (b-side of the single I'm with Stupid) and "Fugitive" (on the 2nd cd of the deluxe edition of the album only) just because these tracks didn’t match the feel of the rest of the album according to the producer. They were really bonkers this time ! Fugitive is probably the best song the pet shop boys have ever recorded since 1990 and it's not in any of their albums now. Great !

    Besides this album is a little bit too political for my taste. I'm with stupid is about Tony Blair’s relationship with George W. Bush and Integral criticizes the English Labour Party’s Identity Cards Act.

    The only good surprise on this album is to me the opening track Psychological whichs reminds me a lot of the sounds used by Depeche Mode in World in my eyes (from their cult album Violator : that the pet shop boys said they were deeply jealous of).

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I like political music, but it does date the work in an unfortunate way. So, as much as I love the Barenaked Ladies song "Fun And Games," Dar Williams's song "Empire" has much more enduring qualities . . . because it is far less specific in its political grievances.

      Thanks for reading!