Saturday, November 6, 2010

If You Don't Have It Yet, Get Actually WITH Further Listening!

The Good: An enduring pop album made even better through an extra disc filled with music!
The Bad: A bit repetitive in the content.
The Basics: A great value, if one can find it, the two-disc version of Actually has enough content to please anyone who likes pop-dance music!

When I started the painful process of culling my audio cassette collection and deciding what to buy as compact discs, I had very few albums that I figured I would want for the rest of my life in the medium which I had slowly been forced to accept. One of the few which was something of a no-brainer for me was Actually (click here for that review!). I had not known any of the music of the Pet Shop Boys when the album was originally released and my brother was a big fan (he would sing me their songs, expecting that I would suddenly recognize the songs, which in retrospect seems very funny to me). I was a bit cheesed, though when I bought Actually on c.d. because about a year after I did, I discovered the deluxe import version of Actually.

The two-disc version of Actually is actually a collector's dream. This version of Actually contains the original Actually as well as a disc of "Further Listening 1987 - 1988." Because I have already reviewed the original pop/techno/dance album, I shall only use this space to discuss the "Further Listening" disc. The reason for this is simple. Disc one is identical in every way to the original Actually. The only reason to buy this two-disc set is for the bonus album and the booklet with the extended liner notes on the original album and the b-side recordings found in this two-disc set. The two-disc treatment actually became common for Pet Shop Boys when they reissued their early albums on c.d.

With fourteen songs and over seventy-three minutes of music, the Actually: Further Listening 1987 - 1988 disc is a treasure trove of b-sides and remixes from the pop duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. The bonus tracks and b-sides on the bonus disc were generally written by the duo, save the cover song "Always On My Mind" which appears in three different versions on the "Further Listening" disc. Fans of Actually will be pleased by remixes of "I Want To Wake Up," "Heart" (two of them!), "One More Chance," "It's A Sin," "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" and "Rent" from the prime album. Most of the remixes include longer synth riffs and a greater sense of repetition. For example, the disco mix of "It's A Sin" has an extended opening of over two minutes before the singing starts!

In addition to figuring out just how the group wanted "Always On My Mind" - which would be released on their subsequent album - to sound, the band had songs which did not make the cut to appear on Actually. Those songs are now presented on "Further Listening 1987 - 1988" and those four songs - "You Know Where You Went Wrong," "A New Life," "I Want A Dog," and "Do I Have To?" were all written by Tennant and Lowe and they play the instruments and provide the programming for those songs as well. These four songs were also produced by the Pet Shop Boys. But they are the exceptions on the "Further Listening" disc; many of the remixes are the interpretations of the Actually songs in the hands of other producers.

That said, even the "Further Listening" disc is much of what one would expect of the Pet Shop Boys. The remix of "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" is very repetitive and includes more synths and drum loops before the meat of the song actually is realized. But songs like "I Want A Dog" are delightfully quirky pop music. While dog barks are used for percussion, the band sings "I want a dog, / A chihuahua / When I get back to my small flat / I want to hear somebody bark / Oh, (oh oh) you can get lonely / Don't want a cat, / Scratching its claws all over my / Habitat / Giving no love and getting fat" ("I Want A Dog"). The song is weird, somewhat funny, but also expresses a deeper human emotion in a way typical pop music does not, in this case how people deal with loneliness.

The Pet Shop Boys present their songs with surprisingly clear vocals. The men harmonize well on each and every song, though they also enhance their vocals with production elements. Tennant provides the lead vocals and he has a smooth, distinctive (if slightly nasal) voice which is a decent tenor voice. Tennant accents his vocals with reverb and other elements, but on things like the dub version of "Always On My Mind," he emotes perfectly, creating a poem that is sad, penitent and a real winner! Throughout, despite the production elements, Tennant's voice is clear and he makes his lyrics easily understood.

I suspect this is because he actually has something to say. While many pop-rock artists just sing about love and loss, the Pet Shop Boys manage to make songs that have more social messages and broader humanist themes. So, for example, with the lines "At night it hits me cold / There's so much more to life than I'll every know / I look around and I realize / It's time to make a move though you don't sympathize / Stars collect overhead / They look down over China and I might as well be dead / Cars pass on through the night / How do you get to heaven if you never try" ("A New Life"), the band tells a little musical storysong, which is certainly atypical for a pop-dance song.

And while there are a few slower songs, most of them are rich in production elements, driven by keyboards and synthesizers. Even "Rent (Seven-Inch Mix)" is heavily produced (I'd love to hear a very stark, acoustic version of that song!). But because the group is working at the cutting edge (at the time) of musical experimentation, they took some musical experiments which did not work at all. Chief among these is the "Extended Dance Mix" of "Always On My Mind" which guts the emotional intensity of the simple lyrics by adding heavy percussion and explosion sounds in the droll opening. That said, even that song uses samples well and the song follows the pattern the album has of being energetic. But instead of being noisy, each song is a legitimate musical composition with a melody, musical progressions and styles and most are very catchy.

This, though, can be annoying when the songs are irksome and the Pet Shop Boys do have a tendency toward repetition. So, on "You Know Where You Went Wrong," that title phrase is repeated at least twenty times (probably closer to fifty!) in the song which is just shy of six minutes. And for all of my times listening to "Further Listening," I still have not figured out what the slower, murkier "Do I Have To?" is about, but when I went a year without listening to the album, I could still conjure the tune in my head!

And that is the power of great, enduring music. Actually in its two-disc presentation revives a classic 1980s pop-dance album and offers all sorts of rare tracks that are hard to find which give the set added value and a richer sense of what could be done with the basic music created by the Pet Shop Boys. Anyone who likes dance music will find this is an amazing addition to their collection which has stood up for over twenty years and will no doubt still be enjoyable to listen to in another twenty!

The best track is "Always On My Mind (Dub Version), the low point is "Always On My Mind (Extended Dance Mix)."

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

8/10 (on its own), 10/10 as the complete Actually With Further Listening disc.

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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