Pet Shop Boys
(This appear in Blurt in 2011)
By Steven Rosen
In the better-late-than-never department, a double-live Pet Shop Boys album first released in England in 2006 is getting a belated U.S. CD release. Departing from their heavy reliance on synthesized keyboards and drum machines, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe used the BBC Concert Orchestra, under Trevor Horn’s supervision, along with a real drummer, to present their songs at London’s Mermaid Theatre. (It was for BBC’s Radio 2.)
The Boys had already used orchestration on recordings, including then-new Fundamental whose material is notably featured here. They start off the concert with a version of the first song they recorded with orchestra, 1988’s “Left to My Own Devices.” They follow it with Tennant departing from his deadpan delivery to sing in his pleasant, high, near-falsetto voice on a lovely arrangement of “Rent” that Angelo Badalamenti did for Liza Minnelli on a Boys-produced album. (Tennant is scrupulous about crediting his arrangers.)
The duo’s romantically bittersweet compositions, lyrically sculpted and melodic even when Tennant primarily delivers them in a monologue, are perfectly suited for orchestra. They have an operatic grandeur that is sweeping and sumptuous, hinting of stormy melodrama but never bombastic or over-the-top (unless that’s what the Boys want for ironic impact).
Concrete features guest vocals on three tracks – Rufus Wainwright does “Casanova in Hell,” one of the Boys’ wryest lyrics ever; Robbie Williams sings “Jealousy,” and Frances Barber reprises the terrific version of “Friendly Fire” she recorded for Closer to Heaven, the musical the Boys wrote with Jonathan Harvey. There’s also an affecting Diane Warren composition from Fundamental, “Numb,” that’s remarkably free of the emotional overkill and banal sentimentality of her stuff for hit movies. The arrangement, with its slowly flooding strings and choir-like background singers, has a humbling, hushed solemnity fitting for the mature subject matter – seeking relief from life’s outrages.
Wikipedia says Warren first offered it to Aerosmith, who have hit with her weaker material like “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” They rejected it. That says a lot about their taste – as well as the Boys’. Aerosmith missed a big thing – a better song than they’ve recorded in years.
Pet Shop Boys don’t have the hits anymore that they used to score in the 1980s (who does?), but they have become a pop-music institution (at least in England) whose musical standards are fundamentally, consistently high and innovative.
Battleship Potemkin is a more specialized release. It is an electronics-and-strings score that the Boys wrote for Sergei Eisenstein’s classic silent movie about the Russian Revolution, recorded with the Dresdner Sinfoniker with orchestrations by Torsten Rasch. (One track called “After All,” with a compelling lyric about Russia’s ruinous involvement in World War I, is performed live on Concrete. It is overall a successful effort, maybe not quite able to totally stand alone as a recording without the film to watch, but closer than many such efforts.