Friday, November 5, 2010

The Pet Shop Boys Add Some Musical Diversity To Release, Giving It An Epic Sound!

The Good: Good vocals, Decent instrumental accompaniment, Some great lyrics
The Bad: Frontloaded, VERY short.
The Basics: A generally fine album, the Pet Shop Boys mix things up on Release by playing with their instrumentation, leaving the listener wanting more!

I hate that Release is so short. I honestly do. I write that right up front because the album by the Pet Shop Boys is actually one of the most listenable albums the band ever produced and because the songs actually resonate exceptionally well. After weeks of listening to the music of the Pet Shop Boys, it is refreshing to hear the band finally come out and be deliciously open on one of their songs (“The Night I Fell In Love”) and if only they used the medium better, I could much more enthusiastically recommend Release. As it is, after the first half, the only song that stands out on the latter half of the album – and more for the lyrics than the music – is “The Night I Fell In Love.”

But what makes Release still a much stronger “recommend” than the number rating is that what is present is so very good. The band opens up musically and the mellow sound on Release illustrates pretty extraordinary growth for the group and it is enough to make the naysayers who say the Pet Shop Boys are a niche act rethink their position. Fleshed out musically, with astonishingly good lyrics and the usual crisp, clear voice of vocalist Neil Tennant, Release is a winner and one only wishes there were more of it as a result!

With only ten tracks occupying a paltry 45 minutes, Release is a terribly underwhelming use of the c.d. medium. At least, though, what is present is good and it is distinctly the work of the band the Pet Shop Boys. The duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe wrote all ten songs, Tennant provides all of the lead vocals and Chris Lowe actually breaks out on “Home And Dry” with additional vocals of his own. Tennant even plays guitar and keyboards on the album, while Chris Lowe does his usual job of keyboards and drum programming. Minimal as it is, the fact that Release is co-produced by the Pet Shop Boys makes it undeniable that this is the sound the band wanted at the time.

And outside “The Samurai In Autumn,” which is a pretty obvious and basic dance track, Release has a very different sound for the album. Instead of being fast dance tracks, most of the songs are pop ballads which actually use a much greater range of instrumentation than the standard synth and drum machine songs the Pet Shop Boys are most known for. Instead, many of the songs resonate with guitarwork. Yes, songs like “Love Is A Catastrophe” have amazing guitar parts (even if the opening is derivative of a classic rock song that I can't quite put my finger on right now) and the guitars actually accompany or overwhelm the keyboards very well. On tracks like “Birthday Boy” where the guitars are present, the guitar actually overwhelms the drum machines and this brings a fresh sound that eliminates the stale predictability of the drum programming.

Vocally, Release is very much a typical Pet Shop Boys album. Stripped back to Tennant (and Lowe on track one) singing, in contrast to Nightlife’s rich accompanying vocals, the album has a more intimate quality (even when there is an epic quality to the instrumental accompaniment, as on “Love Is A Catastrophe”). Tennant has amazing range and he whisper sings “The Night I Fell In Love” in his near-falsetto while going lower for “Here.” Release does not have Tennant illustrating his full lung capacity, but the register range he exhibits is pretty impressive. And all the while his vocals are clear and produced to be well before the instrumental accompaniment.

As always, the Pet Shop Boys seem to sing clearly because they do have something to say. In the case of Release, they have the pretty standard poetics about love and relationships. The simple element of desire is poetically captured by Tennant and Lowe with lines like “Far away / Through night and day / You fly long haul tonight / Come to me /You know I'll be here / When you call tonight / Oh tonight / I miss you / Oh tonight / I wish you / Could be here with me / But I won't see you / 'Til you've made it back again / Home and dry” (“Home And Dry”). Even when the men of the band sing ridiculously simple lines, the poetics work and perfectly characterize the emotions they are trying to express, which is the essence of great music.

And yes, there is a very calm, very heartfelt gay love song on Release. The album has a musical storysong that Tennant earnestly characterizes. There is a charm to the relationship that is described in song thus: “I was backstage / Couldn't believe my luck was in / I saw him approach / Wearing a most approachable grin / When he said hello / I was surprised he spoke so politely / I said I'd liked his show / Well he just smiled / I guess it happens nightly / And so I fell in love / We went to his room he had a video camera I was so nervous I had to try hard not to stammer” (“The Night I Fell In Love”). Whether it is gay or straight, the storysong is rich with nervous realism and it works wonderfully as an atypical song on the album.

Even with repetition, some of the songs work and truly resonate. For example, the refrain “I get along, get along / Without you very well / I get along very well” works so well for “I Get Along” arguably because it is broken up with stanzas like “So I lost my patience at last /And it happened so fast / You belong in the past / I've been trying not to cry / When I'm in the public eye / Stuck here with the shame and taking / My share of the blame / While making / Sudden plans that don't include you” which make the repetition of the refrain bearable. Even so, there is a lot of repetition in that song, despite how wonderfully melodic it is.

Ultimately, the main gripe I have with Release is the one I came in with: it is overly short and with such creativity from such a well-established dance-pop duo, I wanted more! Those who like good pop ballads will likely come to the same conclusion.

The best track is “The Night I Fell In Love,” the low point is the far less distinct “Here.”

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 for an organized listing by clicking here!

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

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