Sunday, October 31, 2010

Original Dance-Pop Is Very Pet Shop Boys!

The Good: Engaging synth tunes, Good lyrics, Decent vocals.
The Bad: A little repetitive.
The Basics: A surprisingly deep dance-pop alum, Very is still more average Pet Shop Boys than it is extraordinary music.

Sometimes, it helps for me to contemplate an album in-context. After all, it isn't always fair to evaluate new-to-me albums by how they sound now, with twenty years of music between when the album was first released and now. In the case of the Pet Shop Boys, their albums tend to suffer at my hands for two reasons. The first is that my first experience with them truly was a timeless album (Actually) and second, that so much dance-pop music actually sounds similar. After all, there are only so many things one can do with a synthesizer and a drum machine. That said, I find myself enjoying Very more with every repetition of the disc.

The reason for this is probably in the lyrics and the fact that Pet Shop Boys beat most of the world to the synthesizer-driven dance music. As I listen to "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind Of Thing," I hear the influences that brought us Lady Gaga. Seriously. The production elements and the basic beat patterns are similar and the Pet Shop Boys beat Lady Gaga there by over fifteen years. What tends to set the Pet Shop Boys apart from so much of what I usually find to be an insipid genre is the lyrics and the quality of the vocals, which have a distinctly less produced sound than the instrumental accompaniment, something which is very much uncommon in dance-pop music.

With only twelve tracks occupying 53:14 on a single c.d., Very is much the creative work of the Pet Shop Boys. All of the songs, save "Go West," were written by the Pet Shop Boys ("Go West" had additional lyrics provided by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe). Neil Tennant provides all of the lead vocals on the album and Chris Lowe plays the synthesizers on all of the songs. The only aspect of production the Pet Shop Boys were not directly involved in was producing the album, but given how far along the career of the Pet Shop Boys was when the album was released, it is hard to imagine they would work with anyone who did not yield the sound they wanted for their band.

Instrumentally, Very is very much an average Pet Shop Boys album. The songs are driven by synthesizer melodies that are catchy, melodic and easy to remember. There is an epic, sweeping quality to the crescendos and falls on songs like "The Theatre" and "Yesterday, When I Was Mad" is less a dance track than a ballad which effectively uses the synthesizer. The songs are frequently deceptive in their instrumental accompaniment in that they tend to possess an up-tempo beat, but have thematically darker tones in both the lyrics and the instrumentation. While the beat picks up to an urgent pace in "The Theatre," the chords Chris Lowe strikes are far lower and the result is an unsettling an epic quality to the score.

Very escapes its sometimes repetitive feel only in the climax of the album. On "Go West," the band breaks out of their traditional, somewhat narrow, synthesizer-driven sound and they burst forth melodically with a brass section that rivals the one used on "Don't Stop" by Fleetwood Mac! But for the most part, Very is exactly what one expects instrumentally when buying a Pet Shop Boys album.

Vocally, Very also is very familiar for those who like the Pet Shop Boys. The songs are led by Neil Tennant's vocals and on Very his voice is where it usually is, right in front of the instrumental accompaniment. Tennant has a very clear voice and he articulates everything so that his lyrics may be clearly understood and on Very he is very much within his safe range as a tenor with a soft, smooth voice. He does return to his more nasal deliveries on songs like "One And One Make Five" and he goes into his higher, almost falsetto range for "To Speak Is A Sin." Either way, he has a stunning voice that is natural and presented incredibly well to remind listeners that the synthesizers are not the only real instrument on the album!

What often knocks the Pet Shop Boys albums up in ratings with objective standards are the lyrics. The Pet Shop Boys frequently make songs with lyrics that set them apart and Very is no exception. Unlike many dance-pop artists, the Pet Shop Boys are unafraid of telling musical storysongs, which they do with songs like "Youthful Offender." There, they create a whole character with their lines "You may be broke now and you may be bored / Call you delinquent or leave you ignored / You'll get what you want / Drive to distraction and crash on the way / Watch your reaction and wait 'til you say / You'll get what you want / It hurts if you can't" ("Youthful Delinquent"). The song is danceable and interesting and it tells a whole story.

But what tends to be the forte of the band is the way they characterize real human emotions. They describe the clumsy feelings of rage well and how it effects relationships. When Tennant sings "You have a certain quality, which really is unique / Expressionless, such irony, although your voice is weak / It doesn't really matter 'cause the music is so loud / Of course it's all on tape, but no one will find out / You hated me too / But not as much as I hated you" ("Yesterday, When I Was Mad") it is hard for anyone who has been in a relationship to not relate!

Unfortunately, there is a bit of repetition which makes Very just a little less compelling than it ought to be. For example, the refrain "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind Of Thing" is repeated so much more frequently than any of the bridges or other lines in that song that it is easy to forget what the musical protagonist is actually doing!

Even so, Very is better than most any other dance-pop music I have heard of late and it makes for a very easy, very strong "recommend," even if objectively it is not the best album by the Pet Shop Boys or best album ever.

The best song is "The Theatre," the low point is the utterly unmemorable, "Liberation."

For other Pet Shop Boys works, please check out my reviews of:
How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously? (single)
Discography: The Complete Singles
Was It Worth It? (single)
Disco 2
Se A Vida E (single)
I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Any More (single)
New York City Boy (single)
Pop Art: The Hits
Disco 3
Disco 4


For other music reviews, please visit my index page!

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

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  1. Hi. Very is not my favorite Pet Shop Boys album either but like you I love the song called The Theatre and the clever lyrics of "Yesterday when I was mad".

    There are a lot of great dance songs here but there are some really bad ones too (Liberation, To speak is a sin, Young offender), so it keeps me from liking it too much.

    The problem with the Pet Shop Boys is that, sometimes their lyrics are great but the music, not so much and to me, music is what matters the most.

    I cannot love a song with great lyrics but with an awful music but on the contrary I can love a song where the lyrics are stupid but where the music is good.

    And sometimes, unfortunately I think Neil Tennant is too clever for his own good.

    1. Interesting take on it.

      Please keep in mind that Pet Shop Boys have not been my featured Artist Of The Month for almost three years now and I've listened to SO much music since!

      I love great lyrics, I love being able to hear them, and I want music and vocals that compliment the lines. A lot of Pet Shop Boys music gets very repetitive as I recall.

      Sad to say, I know what you mean about music with lousy lyrics but great music (damn you "Toxic!" :) ), but I'd replace your "love" with "like!"

      I like clever!

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment.

  2. It's funny you mentionned Britney's "Toxic", I wasn't thinking about this one, I was thinking about Kylie's "Can't get you out of my head", but the funny thing is, both are Cathy Dennis' penned songs.

    1. Funny, I used to hate "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" the same way I hate "Toxic!" :)