Pet Shop Boys have spent the new millennium by largely avoiding being Pet Shop Boys. The span between 2000 and now has seen the release of four new proper Pet Shop Boys studio albums, and out of those three only 2006‘s Fundamental has felt like one. 2002’s underrated Release was a reversal of the typical rock bands going electronic -trope with a synth pop duo going more ‘organic’ and (pop/)rock, 2009’s Xenomania-produced Yes sounded like a Xenomania album that minorly featured Pet Shop Boys, and last year’s Elysium was the low point of the duo’s entire studio album run, with its tired and often confused songs having very little of the usual Tennant/Lowe wit or craft. The increasingly long gaps between albums have been filled with soundtracks and other miscallenous projects where our heroes have escaped their usual roles as synth pop artisans. It’s not been a bad run of albums at all, but it’s been a confused one – the Boys searching for their role in the new millennium and trying their hands at many things, often to the point of disguising themselves in the process.
Electric continues this year’s curious trend of albums quick follow-ups to last year’s albums (see also: Sigur Rós, Pariisin Kevät, PMMP…) and much has been made about its decidedly different tone to its predecessor. Where Elysium was all calm tones and soft sounds, Electric is a nine-track high energy club stomper. While I’ve never been one who believes that Pet Shop Boys have always been a dance act by heart, there’s a sense of belonging on Electric: it sounds like the most self-excited, inspired and downright PSB-esque thing in many years. Part of it is because of how utterly self-referential it is an album: love letters to Russia (“Bolshy”), heavily reworked covers (“Last to Die”, originally by Bruce Springsteen), Chris Lowe vocal cameos (several tracks) and building blocks taken out of orchestral works (“Love Is a Bourgeois Construct”) are all very positively familiar PSB trademarks. “Thursday” even sounds like a long-lost early 80s Pet Shop Boys track reworked to the modern age, complete with the almost naïvely simple yet effective melodies and Tennant’s hushed speak-singing.
But Electric isn’t a nostalgia trip or succeeding in past glories. It’s a brand new Pet Shop Boys album with an overall sound of its own and its strengths rely solely on its songs. Each song sounds like a victory run and a creative rebirth, with both Tennant and Lowe sounding more in touch with their own strengths than they did in the past few albums in total. With “Axis”, “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” and “Vocal” they’ve also managed to score three of their most incredible songs in recent memory. “Axis” is a furious italo-influenced pseudo-instrumental rollercoaster that’s so impressive it deserves its place in the glorious PSB singles canon despite its lacking vocal parts. “Bourgeois” is a song only Pet Shop Boys could make: a sophisticated dance pop tour de force built around a piece of classical music, highly lyrical and witty in its words and bursting with ingenius hooks. “Vocal” takes the now-generic sounds of the 2010’s dance fad and makes them sound fresh again as the duo use them to create an anthem that’s simultaneously a love letter to dance music as well as a strikingly melancholy or wistful visit to precious memories and the moments that make them. There’s nary a miss in the tracklist and even the more outlandish experiments have their firm place: “Shouting in the Evening” in particular sounding exactly like the sort of song that was born to be dismissed with its mental musical maneuvers and effects-heavy vocal clips, but there’s a particular kind of excellence to its frentic madness that nicely separates it from the rest.
I have a deep loathing for the phrase “return to form” but if there’s a place for it, it’s cases like Electric. This is Pet Shop Boys returning to rely on their strengths: it’s filled with brilliant hooks and clever craftsmanship, is proud of its own sophistication and wit and isn’t hiding away from itself. “This is my kind of music”, Tennant states on “Vocal”, and he sounds like he means it.
Due to time constraints, other things occupying my idle moments and general non-ability to get things done in time, there have been plenty of albums released this year that I’ve bought, listened to and wanted to ramble about. Unfortunately for various reasons I’ve not been able to do that, or at least to the extent I want to go into things. Thus, a roundtable of notable 2013 releases and some short opinions on them.
In this month’s feature on artists’ sole successful albums (in the writer’s mind), we tackle on something big and cheesy but ever so brilliant. It’s time to step away gentle indie melancholy and beautiful atmospheres, and hit the rock and roll highway with Meat Loaf.
I love over-the-top music.
This may get a little bit lost among all the talk about how I love subtle details, moody atmospheres and other buzzwords I endlessly repeat but I have a big thing for music that chucks in every single kitchen sink in a ten mile radius and isn’t afraid to sound GIGANTIC. I love bombast and I love grandeur, and I especially love them when the artist is unashamedly over the top about it. Sure, there’s extremely cheap ways of making things sound big (generic string orchestras, repetetive cymbal crashing) and they can get cringy; however, when you really know what you’re doing, going massive can be sheer artistic brilliance.
Jim Steinman is a master of over the top music. He knows how to wield instrumental virtuosos, he knows how to make massive productions sound incredibly detailed and artistic and he’s got a lyrical pen to match it – his lyrics are just as over the top, just as ingenius and just as long as his songs, often blossoming into massive rhyming essays of wild imagery and rock and roll spirit. He is a model example of a person who knows what they’re doing when they’re handling countless instruments together. He is also the man behind “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and as such, deserves a medal for that alone. There is only one problem: he’s not a performer. Steinman isn’t a bad singer, but he’s not a strong one either. He gets lost under his own productions when he tries to front them. It’s one of the reasons why he’s more often been a songwriter for hire rather than a frontman. But while his release history is full of him finding suitably strong vocalists to make his visions come alive, there’s one man that’s always been his greatest companion in this matter. One man with both voice and charisma so large that he’s more than a match to Steinman’s insanely large songs.
That man is Marvin Lee Aday, or Meat Loaf – one of the greatest voices in rock and roll. In saying that, he’s hardly a notable artist in his own right: he’s spent his decades-long career largely defined by his collaborators and an anything-will-do attitude, as long as that anything is big rock songs. The result is a frighteningly patchy mess of a career of a few brilliant moments and hordes of bad imitations and clones of said moments. But give him the right material and his quite frankly stunning voice gets to soar. And if it’s big rock songs he wants to sing, Steinman is the greatest possible match for him – it’s become more or less canon that Aday’s career highlights are the ones where he and Steinman worked together, while time has largely forgotten about the rest. The first Bat Out of Hell album has always received the general accolades but while good, I’ve always found its lacklusters 70s production to not do justice to the songs. The sequel, released a couple of decades later, on the other hand…
Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell is both men’s shared masterpiece. It is an album about rock and roll, where electric guitars are gods and misguided youth find purpose and faith in their life through crashing drums and loud sound, and where rock and roll dreams come through. It’s cheesy as all hell, frequently, but it doesn’t care; instead, Steinman just keeps applying one more kitchen sink after another to make his long-winded rock operas even grander and grander. Loaf grabs onto every single one of his words and sings them out like gospel, never letting all the choirs and orchestras and massive rock bands and loud guitars drown his voice out. Every song feels like an Event, something that means more than life itself. If the idealised concept of rock and roll was a religion, these would be its hymns. Each more rocking song is an anthem, each aggressive number a call to arms, each ballad a tearjerking torchsong. Like any song that wants to embody some kind of ideal, the ones here are instantly engaging and each and every one contains at least one, often more, moment so powerful that it makes you marvel at the at the craft behind it.
I have a special place in my heart for Bat Out of Hell II because it’s a breathtaking album, in many ways. Steinman’s incredible knack for a hook and a melody is mixed with excitingly humongous yet lovingly crafted and detail-packed arrangements that are genuinely joyful to dig into and Loaf’s vocals are almost empowering in their sheer strength. It’s also almost nearly an all-killer/no-filler album – the instrumental interlude “Back into Hell” is superfluous and largely pointless and while it’s short, it still contributes to the somewhat fittingly gigantic 70-minute length of the album. On surface it’s an album full of cheesy rock operas but there’s intelligence, passion and soul behind each song. It may be over the top, but it sounds like its creators mean every word from the bottom of their hearts and they pull it off in such a fashion that you too want to become a believer.
Life is a Lemon (And I Want My Money Back)
I have a soft spot for bands with long careers and histories: it’s obviously nothing that makes or breaks an artist for me, but I’ve always loved digging into long discographies where each album seems like a chapter of an ever-evolving story about a group of people and their life and times, expressed in musical styles, moods and songs. A lot of bands have sizeable discographies, but only some end up semi-accidentally crafting them into rich historical catalogues. The thing is, would we know we’re listening to one of these artists when they’re still starting up? Discography legacies only really happen once the artist has established themselves to have lasted time long enough to build a catalogue: early on, they’d simply feel like a normal band with their own tropes. Is artistic growth and change as noticeable when we’re actually living in the period it’s happening rather than when we dive into it a decade later?
I started thinking about this when listening to Editors‘ new, fourth album The Weight of Your Love. I started thinking about this because The Weight of Your Love feels like a turning point for Editors: the moment where the way you view a band changes. Editors have always worn their influences loud and proudly on their sleeves and as such they’ve always felt like a band that you like despite themselves, that their songwriting is good enough to separate them from the rest but who have never felt particularly special or exciting because they’re walking on such unoriginal, well-trodden paths. The Back Room and An End Has a Start are both posterboy examples of the mid-00s post-punk revival craze, and while 2009‘s In This Light and on This Evening saw the band change their gears heavily, it sounded exactly like you’d imagine when you think of a rock band changing their guitars into synths (it even came along with the standard “we got bored of guitars” speeches). But a lot of bands begin with familiar influences in tow.
The Weight of Your Love isn’t the most original piece of music and it does occasionally have its clear reference points – the band have pointed out US alt/indie rock as their main influences for this album and it hangs around in the background, but it only manifests obviously on the lead single “A Ton of Love”. However, despite of that The Weight of Your Love sounds like the moment where Editors finally find their own voice and are ready to build their own legacy. The band’s rebirth after original guitarist Chris Urbanowicz left and was replaced by guitarist Justin Lockey and keyboard player Elliott Williams has resulted in them finding a new way to carry themselves onwards. They’re more adventurous, with the downright jolly “Formaldehyde” and the acoustic ballad shuffle “The Phone Book” sound like nothing they have done before. The songcraft on display is less predictable and more exciting. Vocalist Tom Smith himself sounds far more confident as a frontman, finally breaking free from the mould that caused people to lazily label him as another Ian Curtis imitator by refining his own mannerisms (and his lyrics have taken a huge jump onwards). Editors have had a place in my record shelf for a while now, but The Weight of Your Love for the first time makes me feel invested in the band – they are their own band now and far more than just their compiled influences.
The Weight of Your Love isn’t an album so amazing I’d be able to rave about it forever, and in particular it sogs a little in its middle: in particular “Honesty” is pleasant but not highly memorable and the solely orchestra-performed “Nothing” sounds a bit too overblown for its own good (the acoustic version on the special edition bonus disc, carried entirely by piano and an acoustic guitar, is actually far better). Its best parts, however, stand comfortably among the band’s previous top highlight moments and the improvements and rejuvenation all around the sound and performance turn The Weight of Your Love into a tight and consistently good listen – perhaps even surprisingly so, when thinking about the band’s past albums. It may not be the album of the year, but it’s the album that takes Editors in their own league and transforms them into a band you want to care about. In 2022 when someone is browsing through the Editors catalogue, this’ll be seen as the turning point for them.
Who could have ever thought back in the late 90s when The Crash first appeared in the scene with their almost twee, sugar-sweet sentimental mock-Britpop hits that the lead figure Teemu Brunila would become what he is today? Over the years with The Crash he mastered his craft – how to write the perfect pop melody, how to create a quirky lyric both ingenius and eccentric in nature that displays old subjects in new ways, and how to master the delivery of his highly recognisable syrup-sunken voice. When The Crash bowed down and its members seemingly disappeared without a trace, Brunila took what he had learned and used it to reign the Finnish radiowaves from the shadows as a songwriter-for-hire responsible for so many hits of such different types that you could have never assumed they were from the same person. And now, he’s the frontwoman of a Gorillaz-esque ‘virtual band’ where he takes on the role of a Betty Boop -style sex kitten who’s equal parts heartbreak and lust, swinging around his mighty falsetto like a weapon. Who could have thought?
Oh, and the other two members are a painfully cool fox and a blue disco mink. This alone makes Studio Killers an incredible act.
The number one thing with Studio Killers’ eponymous debut is that it’s not a project defined by a fun novelty gimmick and the actual material only bears a song or two worth of material. No matter the roles its creators play, this is a very serious project that’s been the focus of many work hours borne out of love for what they’re doing. There’s not a single throwaway element to it and within the quirky, fun songs are some genuinely engaging and even emotional moments that at first seem out of place coming from a ‘group’ like this. There is a great big heart beating within the neon light body of Studio Killers, a soul that makes it fun pop music that makes you want to give a damn about it
That’s where the number two thing about the album comes into play: Studio Killers’ debut (my god I hope it’s a debut rather than simply one random release) is actually one of the year’s best releases so far. Combine its creators’ skill for a killer hook with clever, detailed state-of-the-art production and give Brunila a playground to fully have fun with his lyrics and voice, and you get the wild, fun concoction that the album is. It tackles familiar pop music tropes, twists them to fit in its own world view and delivers an impressively joyful and genuinely inspired bundle of music. There’s more thought involved in one of these songs than countless others of their peers: tracks like “Ode to the Bouncer”, “Eros and Apollo” and “Jenny” nail down everything that is great about pop music and represent it with a brand new coat of paint to boot, while e.g. “Funky at Heart” takes the modern Guetta-esque anthem choruses and makes them sound relevant once more. The more introspective moments actually sound impactful and emotional, much thanks to Brunila’s lyrical pen that can sum up some very serious, evocative thoughts with a couple of lines even in a brightly coloured cartoon album: “Who Is in Your Heart Now” and “When We Were Lovers” are in fact some of the highlights of the album, rather than the token filler tracks like most attempts at serious moments in pop albums. Only “In Tokyo” seems a bit more throwaway than the others thanks to its clichéd subject matter and somewhat less inspired songwriting, but even it makes up for its flaws with its brilliant productional touches.
Much like Gorillaz gave Damon Albarn a playground to let loose in an entirely new environment, Studio Killers does the same for everyone involved. Brunila most obviously, considering he’s the most central part of it (not to mention the only one who’s recognisable from the sound alone), but also for Goldie Foxx and Dyna Mink (or their producer alter egos, but quite frankly it’s already a bit annoying I can’t disassociate Brunila from this so I’d rather just keep the rest 2/3 of the band as who they are meant to be). It sounds like an escapism album, a zone where they’re free to endulge in any whim they want and create anything in their hearts’ desires. Because of that, it’s an album that radiates joy, freedom and fun – immaculately joyous and utterly irresistable from the first listen. It’s already the album of this summer and if it keeps its strength up as time goes on, we could be talking about one of the year’s top releases.
And it has a fox in the lineup.
Ode to the Bouncer
Everyone’s going about how this is Sigur Rós‘ return to the dark, dissonant waters they sailed on ( ). There’s a lot of talk about how gloomy and industrial Kveikur is, how it’s all harsh, loud noises and muscular rhythms. A complete bizarro universe version of last year’s wonderful Valtari that floated peacefully in dreamy ambience. That’s what the lead single “Brennisteinn” certainly is – over its eight minutes it roars, stomps, thunders and hulks over to a fearsome, frightening degree. It’s a literal monster of a song, born in darkness and out for blood.
“Gobbledigook” did something similar on 2008’s flawed but still somewhat underrated Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. Its playful noise was a sign that Sigur Rós was thinking outside its borders, discovering their inner pop band that actually quite loved joy and catchy choruses over ten-minute post-rock anthems every now and then. The rest of the album, however, was largely dressed up in traditional Sigur Rós colours – a few moments of exciting new direction aside, it sounded like Sigur Rós performing Sigur Rós songs. Kveikur is far closer to Með suð than it is ( ), from the somewhat misleading first single to its general sound. At parts, it sounds like Með suð grew some balls. Sure, the rhythm section has made a triumphant comeback and particularly the drummer Orri Páll Dýrason has a greater presence than ever. But outside “Brennisteinn” and the title track, there’s little dark to Kveikur and certainly nothing reminiscent of ( )‘s freeform build-ups. Rather, it’s a group of Sigur Rós rock songs with an atypically prominent rhythm section. Songs that actually sound quite joyous rather than gloomy.
If it’s a return to anything, Kveikur is a return to Sigur Rós as a band unit. All the added bells and whistles in the songs, alongside everything else about their perfectionistic sense of production and songcrafting, have made Sigur Rós sound like a studio unit ever since ( ), a group that builds their songs piece by piece in the studio rather than by acting together as one unit of musicians playing together. Kveikur is the proof in waiting that they are indeed a band, and an incredibly tightly-knit one. Underneath all the cluttering rhythm sections and walls of sound that Kveikur presents are three musicians playing together in the same room for the first time since forever. Maybe that’s why there’s such joy to the album, no matter how po-faced it wants to present itself (look at the cover and the cryptic liner art, for one) – there’s fun in playing as a band and that radiates from Kveikur.
The inevitable comparisons to its counterpart Valtari run as thus (disregarding the obvious, intentional diversion in sound). One, Valtari works better as an album, but Kveikur contains the better individual songs. It’s by no means a disjointed record, but Valtari’s greatest feat was in crafting a genuinely enchanting mood throughout its tracklist that made you believe once again that this band is something otherwordly. However, the emphasis on atmosphere über alles didn’t make the album’s individual moments stand as strong. Kveikur, on the other hand, takes a whole different approach and presents a group of instantly recognisable songs which often reach something special very quickly and very obviously. “Brennisteinn”‘s fury and “Kveikur”‘s chaos meet “Ísjaki”‘s Sigur-Rós-takes-on-The-National indie rock vibes and “Stormur”‘s grandly soaring anthem antics. The one thing common for both albums is the lacklustre finale: Valtari‘s “Fjögur Píanó” and Kveikur‘s “Var” are both ambient, piano-driven pieces that never really amount to much else than fairly forgettable outros, a long way from the general quality of their respective albums.
But where Valtari rejuvenated the magic of Sigur Rós, Kveikur rejuvenates them as a band. It’s not the dark monster people make it out to be: it’s a rhythmically exciting and often charismatically soaring resurgence of Sigur Rós as a dynamic unit. It sounds both like a brand new direction for them as well as a collection of the band’s guises throughout their history. It’s not as mindblowing as you could have expected and it’s not as arresting as its calmer brother from last year, but it’s a strong suite of very good songs that often tap into something brilliant. It breathes a lot of new life into an old dog and at its best moments overtakes the listener. As Sigur Rós are wont to do.
In the sixth part of our venture for artists who only ever struck gold once, our writer pins the cliché hipster badge on his chest and thumps about how everything was better back in the days of a debut album and how nothing has been as good since.
I used to have such love for Laura Marling.
Well, I still do to an extent. Her voice is wonderful and enchanting, still as magical as it was the first time I heard it in a Mystery Jets song – she stole my heart in an instant. She has incredible amounts of charisma and she’s often a very charming lyricist. When Alas I Cannot Swim first appeared in 2008 she seemed like a star, a newcomer who would have a bright future ahead of her. Rather, it’s all gone very greyscale. Much like the wildly colourful cover of Alas I Cannot Swim has switched to increasingly minimalist and dark covers, her music has become more and more stripped down and serious as she has matured as an artist. She is now a Serious Folk Artist and gains critical applaud wherever she goes and while I’m happy for her, there’s a great big part of me who yearns back to the days when she was still a naïve, young indie folk artist full of spirit.